We left Payson in a minivan owned by one of two local shuttlers and careened down highway 87, clutching our seats while the driver let every car in his path know that they were driving poorly. Nice guy tho. He dropped us back at the trailhead where we'd filled up at an algae-laden horse trough a few days before and there we were...back on the trail. We walked under the highway through a couple dark tunnels and appeared back in the unburned hillside with ever-more Manzanita bushes dotting the sides of the route, climbing a bit and dropping down into a campsite adjacent to an old dark mine that I would have explored had it not been for our camp-mate who seemed to have a story worth telling. He was a solo kid (we call everyone kids) just leaving college and training on the AZT for the Pacific Crest Trail. "Well, then..." We offered. "Why not saddle up to our kitchen and we'll tell you what we remember." Something like that. He was glad to know we'd done the trail and we talked different perspectives for about an hour. In the end he asked for "any advice we could offer a first-timer." It would sound cliche but the phrase "Hike your own hike" makes sense. "Don't compete with other hikers out of the gate. That's how all the youngsters get injuries by Warner Springs." "Don't let others define your hike for you. It could be a once-in-a-lifetime experience and you'll want to remember it the best way possible." "No, there aren't bears and cougars waiting to attack you in the bushes. Yes, they know you're there but they aren't interested in you for dinner." Things like that. I tried to remember my own Day One trepidations but there isn't much you can say other than "Start walking, keep walking." It felt good to impart whatever we had and make someone feel good about just going for it. I love watching eyes light up. You know exactly how they feel. We called it a night and woke up long after he'd broken camp. It's our way. We're not early risers. We're not late risers. We wake with the sun. We're not fast nor slow. We just walk steadily for twenty or so miles and find decent places to have dinner and pitch a tent. We passed a couple hunters that day all decked out in camouflage and GPS devices mounted directly on shoulder harnesses. We've had some great conversations with them here and there and it's not like we're always such a different demographic, it's just that we're built for speed and distance and we have to follow windows of time to resupply for months at a time whereas they're out there looking for deer or elk and generally carrying a lot more heavy gear for shorter distances. We've always had cordial interactions, often with interesting questions from both sides but this day is a fast march over hills that have finally leveled out just enough to tell us that we're officially out of the Superstition/Four Peaks type of grades. It's 'hi' and 'bye' to most people and we've got a different objective in our sights now: The Mogollon Rim. It signified something. The AZT is desert, yes-plenty barren landscapes covered in blowing dust and cacti waiting to attach to your shoes. Miles of rusting barbed wire. 50-mile vistas that disappear out of sight over hazy blue mountain ranges, but you've got to climb them and they aren't easy by any stretch of the imagination. There's 101 ways to walk 20 miles and it can go from little more than a light-hearted jaunt with nonstop conversation throughout the day to back-breaking 1 mph drags filled with all manner of wooden and rocky debris. The Mogollon Rim signified the general end of all that. Once you're up there it's flat compared to the rest of the trail. Sure, you'll skirt around the flanks of Mt Humphreys and you'll have a solid amount of work to do in the Grand Canyon for a day but the only thing we were concerned with were rumors about snow and mud from the recent storms that we'd seen from a distance around the Four Peaks Wilderness. We'd try to get good data from Hopper who was a few days ahead and giving occasional updates to Guthook but we probably wouldn't know much until Pine. So we walked and as the days wore on we realized the really tough hiking was behind us. We still wrangled up a few steep climbs and descents, especially when we headed down to the East Verde River, but there were always miles and moments of respite and awe, especially as we were able to see both Humphreys and Four Peaks from one saddle somewhere in the middle of nowhere. The distance must have been well over 140 crow miles between and I honestly couldn't have fathomed it before I saw it. That night we dropped straight down the river and climbed about about a quarter mile to a warm spring that bubbled out of nowhere in the side of a hill and ran down into a grassy meadow through a few campsites. It was heaven on earth. It was also something we hadn't seen the likes of in 400 miles. We'd gotten accustomed to sharing water with cattle and loading up from rusty spigots and brown rivers but I think this was a special little spot. My dreams were becoming more visceral with the quietude and falling asleep to the the sound of the wind. That night was no different and I woke up feeling invigorated with a new humility for our undertaking; not just on the trail but in the broad picture of life itself. Back in the Superstitions we'd met a mountain biker who said it takes a certain constitution to find joy in the kind of distances we covered. I agreed, but I didn't know what constitution that really was. I've had profoundly deep conversations with thru-hikers and some of them end with little more than "Yeah, I just like doing it. I dunno." Ditto. So we pushed our way toward Pine for another couple days until we were at a little park signing into the hiker's log-book and setting up under a tree. I had it in my mind that we should watch an old episode of McGyver because we finally had cell service and it sounded fun, but after lying down and doing the journal, as usual I had nothing left and we both fell asleep to the sound of something akin to a werewolf going mad in the distance. In the morning we were both excited for the Early Bird Cafe just a half-mile down the street on the side of town. I don't mind road walks for the simple reason that they remind me of some kind of long-gone Peter Jenkins narrative that stretches over hills and random houses with random dogs barking amongst random abandoned auto projects. Then, when we rounded a corner in the cafe we saw none other than The Noodleheads from day three and briefly Patagonia and I stood in disbelief as Angel Hair stood up and let out an expression of complete glee, running over to Hanne for a great hug. It's unreal what happens on thru-hikes. We hadn't seen them for over 300 miles and almost a month and then it was a foursome squished into a booth ordering more coffee and massive plates of things that sound like "The Hungry Man" or "The Lumberjack". They'd found a little room up in Strawberry just a few miles up the road and offered to let us crash on their floor which was awesome. Now, the AZT is becoming more well-known as all things do but compared to the Big Three and their hundreds of thousands of annual hikers, it doesn't have much of an infrastructure in place outside of the sweet iron custom-made gates that swing with robust rusty creaks as you pass from one boundary to the next. We happily took them up on the offer and relaxed and took showers. We hit it off right away as I suspected we would. When you've got an immediate rapore with people you just start sharing and we learned a lot about each other over that night. They'd retired early and thrown the capital in some mutuals that had allowed them endless adventures over the past few decades. I was intrigued to say the least. You meet so many people with different outlooks, philosophies, and angles that work for them and they had fantastic approach to their own lives and how they spent their time and money. It comes down to what you value this lifetime. I'd say I've always had the wanderlust but meeting people of the same ilk, especially after your first thru-hike (back in the real world) can seem fruitless and exhausting at times. The oddest thing happened too: When we all sat down at the pub for dinner I told them the story about how John Denver played three times in a row the moment after I got the new of my mother's passing in Chester, Ca on the PCT. Just moments later, John Denver played twice in a row on a station that didn't seem close to his genre. Those things happen. You raise an eyebrow and give each other looks. It wouldn't the be the last time. I can't fit into words how the synchronicities line up on a thru-hike. They just do. Chance occurrences of astronomical probabilities line up on cue somehow, whether it's meeting the right people or coming across water when you need it most i.e. a couple days later we had nothing on the last stretch from Upper Lake Mary to the Flagstaff Urban Trail junction but we happened across a woman at Marshall Lake who was vanlifing while her husband was out east on the Appalachian Trail. She had plenty of water and we filled up with much thanks. For all the snow in the past week that plenty people had trudged through, we were now faced with dusty trail and occasional mud but water was drying up fast. We'd have to strategize and scan the next stretch for possible places to drop our own caches while we had the car for a few days. From Pine onward, we tended to catch up with the Noodleheads around noon and hike with them for the rest of the evening until camp. We'd find a spot, meet somewhere between our tents and talk all things life and living until the first stars faintly appeared. It was was getting colder on the plateau but nothing unmanageable. In the morning as always, we made our cowboy coffee, broke down the tent, stuffed various things in various sacks, and headed out into the brisk morning. It was all Ponderosa Pine now. Ponderosa and occasional stretches of sticky mud and patches of snow here and there. We'd crossed paths with Samson again at Mormon Lake but he was a ghost on the trail who started at 3:30 am and walked after dark some days. You just never knew when you'd see him again. We learned more about his nationally-televised skydiving accident that put him in the hospital for two months and slowed him down a little, but Samson was rugged. He'd done the other long trails too. He was about 60 years old, had a thick Missouri accent, and arms the size of tree trunks. We knew he had more stories. He said "they weren't all good", but he had a big southern gentlemanly aura that made you listen. He could have narrated great documentaries. Maybe he did. All we knew is that he was somewhere just behind or just ahead every day since Roosevelt Lake. And then we were walking through Northern Arizona University's campus, trying to find the fastest route to Mike & Ronda's breakfast diner on Route 66 which turned out to be everything we'd dreamed. We parted ways with the Noodleheads and walked north to our front door below Buffalo Park. The whole day felt surreal. Your own shower, toilet, stove, and soft bed. We sat outside, a little stunned...just taking it all in. It felt good to walk into our little home in the pines for a custom zero. Saturday we'd have another feast and Swiss fondue for everyone before heading back into the forest. It's been six weeks and 560+ miles of desert, mountain, snow, rain, sunburns, cactus, cows, rattlesnakes, javelina, coyotes, elk, deer, all punctuated by the occasional shower, to-go pizza, ride-hitch, and the odd occurrence. We wondered one night what the value of hiking endlessly was, as opposed to living "real lives". "All I know is that when we sat in that Uber after Green Valley, answering 101 questions about thru-hiking and the way our driver's eyes lit up, how he told us how he was going to get his nephew off the couch and do some real camping trips-that was cool. Honestly, I don't know if I fundamentally change anything back in society, but I know that when we're doing what truly inspires and challenges us and we make it accessible, we inspire one or two people and one or two is enough."


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