The real star of the show in Superior is Daisy the kitten. White and orange, she’s a playful little thing who darts around my feet while I do laundry and charge my electronics. I leave her behind to walk to a restaurant, where I order a pulled pork sandwich with both fries and salad. The waiter brings me a massive mound of food. Half an hour later, it’s all gone. In addition to not sleeping well, I’ve barely been able to eat due to the heat. Maybe I’ll be able to make it to Utah if I can at least eat and sleep in town.
Uncomfortably full, I return to MJ’s place and curl up in bed. Once I feel a little better, I return to playing with Daisy. I’m the only hiker here, and I’m very aware that I saw no one on the last section. I love solo hiking, but it’s hard not to be concerned that I’m now too late to finish before the trail gets too hot. Everyone else is so much further up the trail.
MJ makes dinner, and I find that I’m hungry again. While we eat, she gets a call from Freya, a hiker Shake’nBake gave a ride to almost two weeks ago. She’s been far behind me, but she’s hitching here. I’m happy to have the company.
In the morning, other hikers trickle in until there’s five of us. Maybe I’m not too late to finish. I feel drunk with social interaction, desperate to make the most of it before I’m alone again. I pass the day eating and chatting, and when the sun dips towards the horizon, MJ drives me back to the trail.
I hike a mile, then come up to a field of cows. They are angry about something, bellowing at me when I approach the gate. I only have half an hour of daylight left, so I decide discretion is the better part of valor and retreat to camp a few hundred meters away. The mooing doesn’t stop me from sleeping, but around 2am, a coyote howls what sounds like inches from my head, and doesn’t stop.
I get up before the sun, my head fuzzy from lack of sleep. The cows are drowsy in the morning too, and they let me pass without issue. I climb up and up, through a canyon that twists and turns, bursting with Sacred Datura, a white trumpet of a flower powerful enough to make you hallucinate. I’m careful to avoid touching them.
The trail degrades as I climb, half obliterated by cow prints. Feather trees, soft in name but spiky in nature, block the trail, and I have to push through them, snagging my pack and clothes. Then, high on the hillside across a gully, I see a clear, perfect trail, switchbacking across the open hillside. Crap. A quick glance at my phone confirms: I’m not on trail. I try to figure out a way across the gully, but it’s steep and slippery, sides eroding into loose rock. I have no choice but to backtrack, losing a few hundred feet of elevation gain in the process.
Finally back on the right trail, I climb quickly. The hill crests into pine forest. The trail drops, then climbs again through a burn. For some reason the climbs come easy today, the fearsome elevation gain of the Superstition Mountains softened by muscles fueled by town food. I stop just past the ruins of an old farm, where apple trees gone wild blossom over my little campsite.
If the trail gave me a break the day before on climbs, today it frustrates me. The tread is rough and rocky. My feet hurt less after my zero, but the tricky terrain slows me down. The trail drops steeply to the bottom of a valley, before immediately climbing back out the other side. I can tell from the elevation profile that I’m going to hate it. I’m not wrong.
I haven’t fallen all trail, but almost immediately I’m on my butt. The trail is steep, switchbacks forgotten. The dirt is dusty and loose underfoot, sliding like scree and puffing up in dark clouds around my ankles. Fire is the culprit again, and the trees that once shaded the trail are charred skeletons. I fall again, and want to scream with frustration. After what feels like an eternity, I reach the valley floor, then climb back up to the same elevation I was at before this whole pointless V shaped dip. The trail winds around a peak, before falling thousands of feet to Roosevelt Lake. I can see the lake glittering far below. It still seems like a long way off.
I drop through a narrow canyon, towards a spring. My bottles are almost empty again: I’m always thirsty now, no matter how much I drink. I round a corner and see a cow butt swaying down the trail in front of me. “Hey cow!” I call. It doesn’t look back, just continues walking slowly. I fall in a little behind, hoping it hurries. Ahead, another cow walks, equally slow.
As I walk, I realize I’ve misjudged. Those aren’t udders swinging underneath the beasts. They aren’t cows. They’re bulls. I back up quickly, giving them more space. They must be heading to the spring too: I’ll just have to let them take their time.
The bulls stop at the spring, slurping messily. The trail is narrow here, and I wait until I think they’re distracted enough, then sneak past. A rivulet of water runs further down the trail and I fill my bottle, trying not to think about the amount of cow slobber I’m about to drink.
The rest of the journey to the lake is uneventful. There’s a marina here, with a convenience store and bar. There’s also a shed with solar power and a charging station set up for hikers. I plug in my phone, then go order a pizza. By the time I get back Freya is there with another hiker. They’re planning on hitching ahead to Pine, the next town, but they’ll stay here with me tonight. We cowboy camp on a patch of astroturf next to the shed, pulling our sleeping bags up against the headlights from the nearby road.
I head out in the morning, alone again. I don’t mind it though. On the CDT, I found the long stretches without other people challenging, especially when the environment was stressful. But the AZT is much more mellow. I’m rarely scared, and the only danger is the heat. Once I step away from the road, with all of its noise, I feel a weight lift from my heart. Sometimes, alone is good.
The climb from the lake is brutal: long, steep and exposed. I hike as fast as I can, barely stopping to catch my breath. I need to get as high as I can before the day heats up. There’s no shade for the first ten miles, so I don’t bother stopping for breaks. Finally, I find a stunted pinyon pine, with just enough shade for lunch. The climb continues, steep and unrelenting, and once again, the trail degrades as I pass through a burn. My achilles aches and cramps and burns. There’s no relief: no flat section to give it a break. It’s a race between my body and the climb.
I reach the top as the heat of the day begins to break. The trail is still rough, contouring around the burnt hillside at steep side angles. There’s only a few places to camp, and most are wind scoured and exposed. Finally, I find a sheltered manzanita grove. Bees buzz around me, drunk on nectar. There’s a view of the lake, shining in the last light of the day.
The trail is rough for a few miles in the morning, before it spits me out for a long dirt roadwalk. The road isn’t much better than the trail in a few places, and I find myself on the ground again, gravel embedded in the palms of my hands and dirt on the seat of my pants. I pick myself up, and continue, trying to be more careful. I drop down and down. The heat makes me hallucinate a little. There’s voices on the wind. They can’t be real though: I can see the trail ahead and there’s no one. Maybe I’ve been alone too much lately.
I drop down to a stream, pooling between boulders. There, resting in the shade are Hummingbird and Music Man. I guess I wasn’t hallucinating after all. They’re going into town tomorrow, but planning on camping by Sycamore Creek, my goal for today. I reach the creek before Hummingbird, who tells me Music Man stopped a little ways back. We set up close together, as defense from the cows that moo at us from across the river. I move a rock and find a scorpion, pallid and pale, underneath. “Those are the really toxic ones,” Hummingbird tells me. “Be careful.” She hands me her trowel and I scoop it up, before carefully placing it by some rocks a safe distance away.
The cows leave us alone during the night, and the scorpion stays away. I say goodbye to Hummingbird in the morning. There’s a long climb, and I want to get started before it’s hot. I watch the plants change as I climb, in love with the variety. The cacti give way to grass, which changes to Manzanitas heavy with flowers. Then, my pines, towering and cool, casting delicious shade. I follow a creek under their dappled light, and a rattlesnake hisses at me from far off trail. I sneak past, deliriously happy to be in the trees.
I camp high, in the lee of twisted juniper trees. For the first time in a long time, I sleep well. When I wake up, I’m ravenous. Maybe I’m turning a corner. It’s only taken 400 miles.
400 miles. I miss any sign for it, too busy watching my feet on the rough trail, and pass the halfway point without even realizing it. Halfway done. And just 50 miles from Pine, where higher elevation blunts the heat of the desert. I’ve been promised the trail gets easier too: soft needles cushioning the rocky trail, and flat plateaus replacing steep climbs. I’ll be done before I know it.
It can’t come soon enough. The trail today is lava rocks: grapefruit sized scoops that twist and turn underneath my feet, ripping my shoes and tearing at my injured achilles. I rise up to fall again, a rollercoaster of elevation gain and loss. I’m tired, despite sleeping well, but determined to push on to set up well for Pine. There’s nowhere to stay in the tiny town, so I’ll have to get in and out in a day, and I want enough time to eat lots of food and charge my electronics.
My desire to make miles evaporates in an instant when I round a corner and see a figure, stretching on her foam mat. Her name is Sarah, another hiker that Shake’nBake met when he was trail angeling for me. I ask if she minds if I camp with her: she’s almost as excited for the company as I am.
I don’t sleep again. I toss and turn, watching the stars cartwheel across the sky. Finally, first light brushes the horizon and I’m up and hiking. It’s another V shaped descent and climb today, down and then away from the East Verde River. The trail drops steeply, although I manage to keep my feet. I make it to the river by 11. It’s one of the biggest water sources on trail, one that I feel comfortable washing in without contaminating someone else’s drinking water. I strip, then step in. It’s icy cold. I rinse away days of salt and dirt, then step out to dry in the sun.
I’d be happy to spend all day on the river banks, but I have a long climb in front of me and the day is only getting hotter. The descent starts steep, then plateaus out, before climbing again in a series of long, massive steps. By the time I reach the first plateau, the cold river far below is a distant memory. My heart beats too loud in my ears and my head swims in the heat. I gag once, twice, then stop in a shade patch until the nausea subsides. It’s too hot to be hiking, but I’m too stubborn to stop. I leapfrog from shade patch to shade patch, climbing on rocky trail. I stop as the sun kisses the horizon, exhausted and still overheated.
The climb is easier in the cool air of the morning, though the trail is still rough and rocky. I watch the landscape change as I climb, the mountains of the last few days giving way to ridges and plateaus. The trail levels, and winds softly through the pines. I scare a massive animal, which frightens me just as much as it turns, leaping through the trees. My first elk of the trail.
The pines here feel different. I’ve hiked through them before, but only on mountain peaks. Now, they’re here to stay. Everything is greener, shaded, and carpeted in needles. The trail suddenly feels friendlier, softer, more welcoming. I’m leaving the harsh realities of the desert behind.