I leave Flagstaff after a nearo and a zero. It feels like a lot of town time, and I’m ready for the quiet woods by the time I grab one final coffee and head out. The trail winds through the suburbs, and trail runners and bikers dodge around me as I walk. I’m more than a little jealous: with such a great trail system in their backyard, there doesn’t seem to be much reason for Flagstaff residents to spend any time in town. Everyone is respectful, giving me plenty of space.
The trail climbs quickly up towards Snow Bowl on the side of Mount Humphreys. By lunch, I’m annoyed at the busy trail. Bikers refuse to yield, leading to me constantly stepping off of the trail. A man and woman on a tandem bike almost hit me, failing to even notice me on the quiet trail. It worsens as the trail steepens, with mountain bikers with full face helmets bombing past me on narrow trail. Finally, I crest the mountain shoulder, and the trail mellows, winding through aspen groves and meadows. The bikers disappear as the sun dips, and I have my quiet trail back to myself again. I camp high, over ten thousand feet.
The trail is kind of meh today. I quickly leave the aspens and snowy sides of Humphreys behind, dropping back towards the grassland. There’s forty miles of limited shade, and then I’ll be back in the pines all the way to the border, with the exception of a quick dip down into the Grand Canyon. I’m bored. Making miles just for the sake of making miles doesn’t interest me: I want to explore vast landscapes, with interesting wildlife and plants. Not this endless flat, too dry for anything to live, too exposed for much to grow. It seems like the only thing to do is to push through as fast as I can. Instead, I find myself lingering in shade patches, trying to find motivation.
Then, after lunch, I hear a noise behind me. “Hey, I know you!” I say. It’s Shadow, a friend from the PCT. He’s doing a quick AZT section to get his trail legs before jumping on the Hayduke. He’d caught a ride up to Snow Bowl, skipping my frustrating mountain biker experience, which means our campsite goals for the day align.
We’re on a road for a while, and we walk side by side, catching up. We’d met a few times on the PCT, but never hiked together properly, and I haven’t talked to him in six years. That doesn’t matter. There’s an ease that comes with a shared goal and a shared obsession. I find it easier to get along with thru-hikers that I barely know than people in town that I’ve spent years with. We agree to hike together as far as the canyon north rim, where Shadow will jump on the Hayduke. It will be the furthest I’ve hiked with anyone on trail since Shake’nBake left.
The trail is more of the same in the morning. Shadow and I hike together in the way that thru-hikers do when they don’t actually hike together. He’s tall, and I can’t keep up with his long legs, no matter how hard I try. Instead, I watch him recede into the distance, then hike alone for an hour or two. Then, I find him taking a break under a tree. I join him for a little, then head out. The pattern repeats: just enough company to spice up the dull trail, just enough space that I can still enjoy my solitude.
The trail is hot and boring, but we still manage a marathon. We camp near a tank with muddy water the color of chocolate. We try to stay away from the water as far as possible. At dusk, wild horses come. We can hear them whinney, and the percussive beats of their hooves. They leave, and the elk arrive. They grunt and bugle, galloping through the muddy tank, splashing and churning the water. I’m not sure I’ll sleep. So much wildlife surely means a bear or mountain lion is nearby. But somehow I drift off.
It’s 25 miles to Tusayan in the morning. Tusayan is a tourist town a stone’s throw from Grand Canyon National Park. I have no desire to stay there, but I’m desperate for town food. The plan is simple: hike fast, eat food, get out again. Shadow says he’ll see me there. He hiked the AZT last year, so he has no need to stick to the actual trail, and there’s a few short cuts he can take.
I head out on my own, but quickly find a friend. A coyote runs down the trail in front of me. He darts around corners, but I quickly catch back up in time to see a bushy tail whipping into the trees. He finally outpaces me, and I’m alone again with the pines. I climb a fire tower for my first view of the Canyon, pines falling away to meet striated red rock. Helicopters buzz overhead, more annoying than mosquitos. I think about my river trip seven years ago, and the lonely peace I found at the bottom of the canyon. It’s a different world up here- even miles from the nearest road, the thrum of tourism intrudes.
I hike fast enough to reach town by three. I’m shaking when I arrive at McDonalds, from lack of food and water and overexertion as much as the heat. 25 miles that quickly is at the very edge of what my body can do. I inhale a burger and fries like it’s air, and drink soda until the sugar makes me anxious. Shadow shows up, and we agree to get second dinner on the way out of town. We linger in McDonalds until my phone charges, then hit a touristy steak restaurant. Finally full, I clutch my stomach as we hike another mile to our campsite for the night.
I’m tired in the morning, well aware that I pushed my limits the day before. Luckily, it’s only five miles to the permit office inside the national park. We make it an hour before it opens, and join the crowd of tourists hoping to camp at the bottom of the canyon. It doesn’t take long after they open for us to be called. There’s a special AZT spot at Bright Angel campsite, so we don’t face a wait of days like the tourists around us. However, it’s already after nine, and the day is heating up. It can be thirty degrees warmer at the river than at the rim, and record heat is forecast. We decide it will be safer to head down in the morning, when we can get an early start, rather than push through 110f heat today. My permit sorted, Shadow starts on his complicated Hayduke permits. Time stretches on, and my stomach rumbles. The ranger helping Shadow takes pity on me and hands me a ziplock of peanut butter M&Ms. It’s only the second time in my hiking career that a ranger has given me candy, but it cheers me right up.
When Shadow finally has all of his permits, we walk into the even more touristy part of the Grand Canyon village. We find a breakfast buffet and mound food on our plates, then head to the grocery store to resupply. It’s a fantastic little store, with better selection than many of the tiny towns I’ve hiked through. It’s crowded with tourists though, and I feel my skin crawl with anxiety. We detour to a lookout point, tracing distant paths that run like white veins through red rock. There’s south Kaibab, which we’ll hike tomorrow, then north Kaibab rising to the rim. We can even spot a roof far below: Phantom Ranch, where you can buy lemonade and postcards that mules will carry out of the canyon.