Leaving Flagstaff was easy. We'd done the slack-pack from Aspen Corner back down to the house though Buffalo Park and had our trail support drop us back there early the next day. We brought a few liters for the Noodleheads who were going to be coming through at the same time and we yodeled through the pines at each other until they appeared. This would be the last stretch on the Arizona Trail, taking us over the higher desert plains of Babbit Ranch and back into the forest just south of the Grand Canyon where we'd wait another couple days to match our back-country permit at Cottonwood Camp.
It was easy because leaving town is always easy in the midst of a thru-hike. You fill up on calories, enjoy that one drink or two, maybe there's even a shower or clean clothes or a night inside a climate-controlled structure. You update things and call home and edit a few pictures. It's just little things to kill time. The problem is that by the end of your journey, you're usually sleeping better in the tent with the sound of the wind and morning birds and a warm beam of sunlight making its way through the camp site.
So we said goodbye to Flagstaff the next morning and headed out for a good stretch through a few piles of snow and a few downed trees until we were at the far north end of the Mt Humphreys. The next day we'd go further into the plain where the wind was blowing around 40 mph, sending great walls of dusts past us while we took various dirt roads further north. Another day of that same general trajectory put us back in the forest where we watched wild horses and their foals ambling through the grasses and side-trails. The trees grew enormous compared to the ones further south. This was ancient Ponderosa standing like sentinels with clear, wide circles beneath them and no other plants taking root among them. We'd filled up at a large livestock tank that afternoon and saw another hiker "Ping" from northern New Mexico who passed us again in the morning. Then it was onto Tusayan where we knew the Noodleheads were still waiting. Rigi had taken a used pair of Altras from a friend in Flagstaff and had sent word from ahead that his feet were killing him; blisters all over the front pads. They were actually thinking of throwing in the towel with less than 100 miles to go. I figured we'd just waltz in and give them a good pep talk but we had to get there first. It was rolling meadows of yellow grass between green pines. A beautiful contrast as we walked, singing different songs, playing "guess that tune" for four straight hours until we came upon their tent hiding just just above the Tusayan RV site. We texted and met at the closest restaurant and sat down and they gave us the down-low: "This is it. We've already texted our niece back in Flagstaff and she'll be coming to pick us up tomorrow." So there really wasn't much I could say. My first inclination would have been to hang out, heal up, and overnight some shoes but they'd already seen the canyon multiple times. It would be the first thru-hike they'd ever bailed on but they had nothing to prove. It was a matter of staying in the flow and right now that meant getting back down to Rigi's mom's in Phoenix and picking up "Birdy", their home on wheels, and seeing where the wind took them.
We hung out as long as we could, gave big hugs and made the short walk into the park where we stayed at the 'walk-in hiker spot' at Mather Campground as a few people came and went and set up tents and walked back and forth between the market and coffee shops for food and wifi. It was a few new faces here and there with the same sort of compulsive stat-sharing that thru-hikers are prone to. A man from Key West was riding through on his bicycle from Phoenix to Glacier National Park and gave us some interesting info on mounting racks to carbon frames. I think my favorite quote of his was "People always ask me if I'm afraid of and bears and cougars an everything when I go on these adventures and I'm always thinking "Man, the only thing I'm afraid of is winding up like you!" What does it mean? Glued in place in front of a television, in perpetual debt, freaking out every time the next 'thing' happens alongside everyone else? I felt some empathy there and we already knew there would be another adjustment period on the other side. Fortunately we also knew about 'Hiker Rehab' which included a more gradual re-integration than the post-PCT world offered. That would have been the one thing I would have done differently after the first thru. Lessons learned, but we still had plenty of adventure ahead of us i.e. it was too early to go down that train of thought.
Two mornings later we were at the South Kaibab trailhead, filling up water, waiting for the maintenance man to finish cleaning the bathrooms, saying good morning to other hikers as they came off the buses with loads of pristine gear and spare enthusiasm. I wondered if it would just be another day on the trail. We'd been through South Kaibab back in October, bending off at Tonto and coming out Bright Angel. This was only 15 or so miles through Phantom Ranch and back up a bit to Cottonwood, but it felt good. The energy was solid and we made our way down at a decent pace, remarking how much better shape we were in after all the miles behind us. The canyon always does a little number on some part of the body, but it might not be felt until a day or so later; usually somewhere in the calves or knees. It was still stunning. It never ceases to be. We crossed the black bridge and made our way up to Phantom and sat in the shade for a minute drinking coffee from the little walk-up window while people came and went. It'd be seven more miles to Cottonwood Camp and we wanted to make the side-trip to Ribbon Falls which was stunning when we got there. This stream of water flying over a little keyhole onto a mossy exposed stalagmite of sorts. We walked behind it and grabbed all the negative ions we could and listened to the croaking frogs and refilled a liter before heading back out to the trail. What a day. Everything stretched out through time before your eyes; layer upon layer of sediments, millions of years angled and crushed and bent vertically and sideways (and that was the young stuff; nothing as old as the Vishnu schist lining the lower walls of the Colorado)
Cottonwood was great. Nice little secluded spots surrounded by armies of squirrels and birds, long-acclimated to human presence, waiting for one or two crumbs to come tumbling down off your lap. We refilled again at the creek that ran all the way down our side-canyon and wondered what might be at the north rim in terms of snow. It didn't sound treacherous by all accounts so far. "I guess we'll find out..." One of our most common phrases I'm sure.
In the morning we left a little later than usual but we had no plans after the rim. We wanted to see what everything looked like before making our move. The morning was for climbing so we set out at a steady pace, refilled once more at a little spigot in the final canyon and climbed up into the high red cliffs where the trail was carved out the walls just wide enough for a fully-laden mule to saunter through. Trail runners bounded past or barked instructions or waved good morning. It was a slow grind but the exposure wasn't bad at all. At one great turnabout in the cliffs we passed Sundancer, a kid from Durango-enjoying a snack in the shade overlooking the sheer dimensions of it all. He had his own vibe. We noticed him back at Mather generally keeping to himself, immersed in a book, clearly getting his own experience from the trail. It was refreshing to see. I stopped and asked "Are you ready for all this to be finished yet?" He gave it a little thought..."I don't know. It's hard to say right now." I understood. "Yeah, a little of both I guess...man this is amazing." And I walked on. Hanne was just behind and caught up before the final switchbacks and we stopped here and there snapping pictures and marveling at the whole thing. I'm not even sure going to the rim for a selfie qualifies as 'being to the Grand Canyon'. That's like hanging a surfboard in your garage next to a calendar from Maui and saying how much you dig the Pacific. This place is unreal, immense, unforgiving, with its own eco-strata and climate. It feels like you've come upon another realm once you're deep inside and all you can do is walk humbly and conservatively through its chambers.
We came through more pines to the northern trailhead and sat there with a few other hikers and runners. "You just walked the Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim." I smiled at Hanne. She felt it too. A lifelong dream; and to do it as part of the AZT felt satisfying all over.
"How far do you wanna go now?" I asked.
"I don't know...I guess it's pretty flat from here. We can just start walking until we don't feel like it anymore."
"Sounds like a plan."
So we took off and wound up somewhere around the park entrance just past a lookout tower, totally exhausted and beaten by the cold wind. The snow was mostly melted which was a big plus, but now the old trees and the ones burnt at their bases from a recent fire were snapping above their roots left and right. We call them "widow makers" and it made the walk a little edgy. When I saw one fall about 60 meters away it came down fast. It's not like you might have seen from a timber operation. When the right gust of wind hits one, there's a big crunching sound and it slams down on the forest floor. It got so bad that when we saw the main road again we hopped on for a few miles. You could still hear them echoing through the forest here and there and there were dozens upon dozens recently shattered across the trail, so it felt like the right decision. We camped in the first spot that was out of direct wind and away from any old trees. Sundancer passed a few minutes later and said he was headed for the park boundary less than a quarter mile ahead. We set up dinner under the vestibule and sat under our bags just glad to be off the feet.
In the morning we got a cell signal for half a second and learned there was another small storm coming in for a few hours so we decided to make some tracks. The trail coursed over wide greying grasslands with patches of snow on their flanks. The wind came and went in great gusts throughout the day. Once again, it was landscapes that we hadn't seen before, ever-changing as we pushed toward the border. At a water source called Crane Lake (Where a white crane was sitting in the shallow end of) it started to come down. It was already late into the day and we knew there were tent sites on the other side just up in the trees, but the temperature dropped ten degrees, the sky went dark, my wool glove got wet during the refill and my hand went numb. Everything became a tactical operation like the north face of Mt Lemon when we knew we were going to get hit. Trying to find a spot where it wouldn't get the brunt of the storm. A decent strong tree without any dead ones standing around. Everything under the vestibule. Drying things off as best as possible. Rain covers. Rain jackets. Hiding with a cup of Ramen watching the little flakes bounce off the tent, and then within a hour it stopped and a spot of sky appeared just blue enough to cheer us up. We got in our bags with all the layers on and were drifting asleep when another great "CRRRRackBOOM" shot across the trail.
"What should we do?"
"How can we really know where we're safe in all this?"
"I don't know...but at least we're right next to this huge log that will stop a direct hit."
"That sounds better on paper..."
"I know but we've got a spot far enough away from anything except that one huge dead tree over there..."
"Yeah I was looking at it but it's not bending at all in the wind. I think we're good."
"Let's just try to sleep."
"Just think about the breakfast at Jacob Lake."
And in the morning all was good. The snow had melted and the trail was dry and the big old tree was still standing and we made our way through the forest toward Jacob Lake, knowing little more about the place other than it had a decent restaurant that a few people on Guthook seemed fond of. It was a lot of forest roads and we had decide on which one to take for the 2 mile detour. Ideally, we wouldn't have stopped there but the Noodleheads had donated their last bounce box to us and it would have been a shame to let it go to waste. Plus, they ate a little differently than us so maybe we'd have some nice surprises when we got there.
We only passed a few other hikers that day headed south on the Hayduke Trail but as usual, it was us and the birds and the wind and the sound of footsteps.
When we got into Jacob Lake we retrieved the bounce box and stashed our bags and saddled up around the the dining area which was a great rectangle of seat around a bar. Hiker hunger is such a strange phenomenon but I don't argue with it. I just order what my body tells me. It seems to have worked so far although we all agree that the worst stomach aches and bowel movements come after town, not from the 101 random over-processed things you pull out of packages at gas stations. Everything about a trail is "When in Rome". When-On-Trail. Most of us wouldn't dream of eating the same way if we could help it, but the only viable alternative is sending every single meal ahead of time to pre-determined locations, which sounds doable at first and quickly turns into a waste-ridden logistics nightmare after a couple weeks. You do what you have to do out here. That includes drinking from the same murky larvae-infested pools as elk, deer, cows, lizards, coyotes, bears, etc on occasion. But hot dang! That dinner at Jacob Lake was a good one!
We thanked everyone as a group of touring cyclists was sitting down and we traded a few stories. They picked up our packs to see how heavy they were. "Yeah not bad!" "We're both around 20 pounds base weight. Not too heavy, not too light." And then it was off to a closed campground where we stealth-camped again under a great round metal roof in a common area that seemed strong enough to stop tree trunks.
We were two days away from the Utah border now. None of it dawns on you until the very end because you've got to navigate everything just like the previous six weeks until that border monument. Most 20-mile days still take plenty of energy whether it's flat or mountainous. If you're in the mountains you just get into camp later. You feel it in different parts of your body. If it's flat, your paces quickens a little but the repetitive motion leads to other fun things like blisters and chaffing and songs or thoughts that drone on for hours at a time, punctuated only by pee-breaks and lunch.
We left our cement safe-space and walked back to the restaurant for breakfast before we headed out. The cyclists showed up again too and we all sat in the exact same spots as the evening before, laughing about the little things. One of the guys was a bike tour-guide who gave us good beta on routes through Canada and Alaska. The bike touring thing kept popping up so we were listening more and more. It seemed like something on the horizon. Maybe something to balance out all the walking-just to go at a difference pace. They showed us their bikes and various setups and hacks and we waved goodbye and walked into the forest and we saw them through the trees them coasting down highway 89 a few minutes later.
So this was it. Two more days. Up on the Navajo Trail. Merging with the Great Western Trail. Still somewhere around the Hayduke Trail. "Every time we do one of these we learn about ten other trails!"
It was another road walk for most of the day because of a long fire detour. Man, was it bleak. Miles of forest with all the trees still standing; just black as night. Lifeless. Dust and ash clinging to shoes, packs, socks, skin. I suppose there's something to be said for stark beauty but it wasn't here. Whenever we walk through major burned areas it's a bit of a downer, regardless of whether it was natural or caused by some idiot. The truth is, a great many of these forest fires start for reasons you wouldn't expect. It's not commonly the drunk yokel who laughs as he flicks his Marlboro over a guard-rail. Most people in these towns know all-too-well that these blazes can easily make it to their doorstep. It's car fires (Payson). It's abandoned camp fires or gunshots and no one really knows for sure (Mt Lemon). It's lightning (Superstitions) But generally there's a human element in a high percentage of these and it's always depressing to see how fast a thoughtless act can annihilate places that have taken centuries to reach homeostasis. You wouldn't believe how much blackened landscape we've walked through in the past three years. Entire days spent shuffling through ash, trying to set the back against something that isn't going to leave a black charcoal stain for lunch, and all your sweat turning into a sort of paste at the end of the day. Fun stuff.
Eventually we saw a band of green Junipers again which signaled something else: We were dropping in elevation. We were nearing the border.
We detoured to a stock tank and and refilled and pitched the tent on more time under an old tree. I surveyed the land. Broken shards everywhere. I knew I'd run into an arrowhead sooner or later. The night was calm save for the strong gusts of wind that danced through the branches above our heads. Pines like to snap. Juniper likes to dance.
I was still unable to process the end the trail. Still unable to imagine ourselves back at home. Soft beds. Buttons that turn things on. I felt like I'd learned so much on this one...I felt grateful and I had mixed feelings about whether or not I was ready for it to come to an abrupt halt. We'd have to take it slow. Just wind down. No great declarations, no 'making the rounds' or dumping gigabytes of pictures into editing software. I wanted it to be different this time. Whereas the PCT had been such a collage of first-times, emotional dynamics, love and loss, and everything in between, I felt like the AZT was our own little experience. It was a rugged, dry, humbling sort of trail that you had to want to finish. It didn't offer alpine landscapes and free blackberries at every turn. The trail towns were often stark little outposts with little in the way of 'hiker-friendly' amenities. You just had to figure it out, make due, and keep walking.
In the morning we looked at each other and smiled and shook our heads and did just that. The Juniper thinned out into yet another scorched area but Utah was in sight. Layers of orange sandstone appeared in the distance. We made the final rocky descent, ambled through a little day-use area on a soft little manicured trail and came upon the Northern Terminus Monument, standing directly in front of a brown Subaru in the parking lot.
"Huh. That's not what I pictured at all."
"Yeah well, none of this was."