AZT Day 18: reversing the sun

April 25, 2019

Miles hiked: 15.3

AZT mile: 345.3 Roosevelt Lake

Morning always feels like a process of quiet discovery. I began walking before the sun came up and enjoyed the coolness of the first few miles. In the morning you notice things differently because you are still waking up, mind and body, all the senses are not fully functioning. Thus, I walk slowly and let my blood begin to circulate up to my brain, my heart pumping my blood, flowing like rivers into my muscles. I breathe in the freshness, I tune in to the birdsongs as they sing a glorious welcome to a new day. I am lured like a magnet to a particular Juniper tree and go spend a few minutes basking in her energy. I love this life, I think, as I star up into her branches at the unfolding pale sky.

Cruising through a wide saddle, I anticipated the long descent that was ahead of me, a rapid drop of about 1,000 feet over roughly a mile and a half. I began down the steep non-switchbacking trail and tried to resist slipping on the loose rocks by planting my trekking poles firmly.

As I dipped in elevation I began to experience a reverse sunrise. Have you ever experienced a sunrise in reverse? As I dropped down, the sun dipped behind the crest of the hill just like it ds at sunset, it’s blazing morning rays disappearinng, offering me the relief of shade where the coolness of night still lingered. Wow, this is so refreshing. I love this!

Once I hit the bottom, I crossed a dry creek drainage and the trail immediately began to climb back up just as steeply as it had descended. I thought I would try to beat the sun and hike to the top completely in the shade, getting it over with quickly. I guzzled some more of my tepid coffee, which I carry in a small juice container in my external pocket, and pressed on.

I fell into a rhythm that only comes with climbing uphill and found it to be pleasant as my body found herself. Two thirds of the way up I was already sweating and needed to layer down to my t-shirt and ditch the compression socks. I plopped my pack down with a thud and ripped off my long sleeve. Jeez it’s so hot already, I think, then looking at my watch, it’s only 7:00am.

I sat down to remove my compression socks, and while on the ground, I found myself staring at some Queen Anne’s Lace. I haven’t noticed these flowers on the trail before. Have I just not been paying attention? Maybe I need to spend more time simply and sitting and staring.

I reached for my phone to take a photo of them, and just as I made that motion, the light changed. I turned my head to face behind me and there it was again, the sun, cresting the ridge, it was here to stay, resistance was futile. The sunlight moved quickly and soon struck the flowers, creating a lovely glow on their sleek shape. I sat there enjoying watching the actual shifting of light, as if on hyperlapse but in realtime. Then, in a swift motion, swigging more coffee and standing back up, I rallied myself.

Time to hike.

At the top of the ridge the views unfolded before my eyes and showed me just how much wild open space I am surruonded by. I felt relief from not needing to climb anymore, and there was a slight breeze to refresh my heated body. Oh that sure feels nice.

I decided it was a good place to check for cell reception and was happy to discover I got some 4G. I was able to check my email and see that I received confirmation of the job interview tomorrow and attached was the job description. This was something I was waiting for and happy to now have. I downloaded and read it over. Now I could think about it while I walked, which felt productve and efficient to me.

Of course the next few miles were a blur after that, as my mind was pre-occupied by thoughts of this potential job. Spinning around a lot of “what’ if” scenarios and ultimately telling myself to simply hold the space and be an observer in the workings of whatever the Universe has in store for me next. It will all be okay. I promise, she seems to say…

After a couple more miles along the ridgeline, I wound up stopping on a rough hillside, taking a seat right on the trail in some rare shade. It was time to eat my second breakfast, a granola bar with almond butter. I pulled out my maps and stared at the way the red line of trail crossed the contour lines, trying to imagine what features lie ahead. I mixed some electolytes and guzzled that down before realizing I was actually running sort of low on water.

I normally don’t drink much water in the morning, but it turns out I could have really used more water on this particular morning. I checked Guthook to see when and where the next water source should be. Ugh, 7 more miles to go. Dang it. I am down to less than 1 liter and it’s getting hot and I already feel thirsty, a sign that I am already dehydrated. Nothing I can do but ration the water I have and keep moving forward.

Pressing on a few more miles, I reached a dry cow trough and took another 5 minute break in the shade. It was a nice spot, and if there had been water in the trough, it would be a great place to take a lunch or even to camp. The excellent views of the mountains in the distance and the valleys below were enough to make you want to stop. From there the trail linked up with some dirt roads and began the long descent down to Roosevelt Lake.

Knowing I was going to have some dirt road miles ahead, I anticipated picking up the pace. But I was dead wrong. As it turns out the dirt road was steep, very rocky, and it often climbed uphill before dropping down again. One of those classic “this downhill sure has a lot of uphill in it” type of situations.

This went on for a while until finally I came across a cattle pond that had not been notated on Guthook with a water icon, but some hikers had mentioned it in some other comments. I need water, I thought, I really need water. But this tank looks horrific.

I approached the tank, glanced through the barbed wire fenceline, confirming a murky, brown, stagnant pool of liquid. There was absolutely nothing attractive or refreshing about this water. What a test! How badly do I need water? The Universe seemed to be asking me.

Looking at it’s way of sitting stagnant in the sun, I knew it just had to be hot. There were lots of bugs, and I would bet 100 bucks there would be a ton of cow shit all around it. As thirsty as I was, I just couldn’t bear to stop for any of that, nevermind actually consume whatever that water was. I will just wait, I thought. I hope this is not a bad decision.

Soon, the dirt road gave way to a single track trail that alternated between rocky washes and rocky single track. Keyword: Rocky. The trail was marked by cairns and it became somewhat of an obstacle course to stay on track. It then led through some thick overgrown brush areas that also had quite a lot of debris and blow downs, thickets of vegetation, and plentiful rocks. Did I mention the plentiful rocks? Efficient, purposeful walking was clearly not the name of the game today. I had hoped that the final section coming into Roosevelt Lake, with all the dirt roads, were going to fly by. Well, I was wrong again. So Wrong. Ha!

By this point I calculated I was averaging two miles per hour. Shit, I am going to be late. I hate being late when you have someone waiting for you. Not to mention cold drinks and food that I would definitely be having. I imagined how amazing it would taste and feel, but these items sat, suspended in time.

It is all about delayed gratification. This thought starts to dominate my headspace. So much of thru-hiking is about perfecting the art of delayed gratification. As I gingerly found my way forward, time seemed to both slow down and yet the minutes were flying by, making my arrival later and later. How does this time warping happen? I tried to focus on just being present and convince myself that there is merit in all of this torture. I am becoming a better person from this right?

This feeling of merit did not last. I don’t know if it was the heat, the dehydration or the terrain, or all three. But I began to feel quite annoyed with the trail and with myself for not being able to hike faster.

I have churned many thoughts while on this journey regarding why this trail has been more challenging than I expected, and you know that ego has a hard time admitting that it could simply be due to my own shortfalls, yet I would dig and dig in an attempt to identify an external source for my struggles. Every time I try to put pen to paper and list the reasons, I feel like I come up empty handed. Everything I list seems on paper to just be a part of thru-hiking. Nothing particularly challenging, really. So why does this hike seem harder?

Sometimes, I think what makes the AZT hard are the things that define its uniqueness specifically. The sun is very intense and temperatures will soar. Heat is for real folks. The trail is honestly a lot of rock, I had been warned of this, but dismissed it. Its rocky in Arizona. Because its true desert, there is a nearly always a constant lack of water. Also due to the desert vegetation, there is nearly constant exposure, rarely does there exist a pocket of shade. Plus, there are hands down a shit ton of rattlesnakes. And that is an actual unit of measurement.

On top of all these factors, I began this hike by placing myself in a position of personal challenge, by deciding I was out to tackle a personal best. Now, that doesn’t just mean miles, but miles were a part of that goal. It was clear from the beginning when my knee got injured on day 3, that mileage was going to pose a challenge. Still, I have been trying to maintain a high-ish average.

I remember on my first PCT thru-hike, I would often say “you can make thru-hiking as difficult or as easy as you want to”. Pushing for big miles was a common reason why other people suffered more on that trail. By contrast, I suffered much less with my low mileage, and I never hesitated to zero, or two, or three. It took me 197 days to thru hike the PCT that year. I got to spend 6.5 months of freedom on the trail.

But my sufferings took a different form. I had become injured and had hiked for more than 1,200 miles in intense daily pain. The answer to this problem was to slow down and to manage my injuries. In subsequnt years, I have proven to myself that I can heal, that I can overcome, and now, I suppose I am still trying to prove my trail worth by pushing my limits in a new way. And, I suppose to a certain extent, that is what we all do out here, just in different ways.

Every trail takes something different from you. I decided on this trail that I was going to start and finish solo, and while I was aware that I would undoubtedly make friends along the way, that my comittment was to myself. Being alone for most of this hike has also been difficult. I will admit that on several occasions out here I have felt lonely.

Desert hiking is truly abrasive. I have written all of this off, however, given the context of my life at this time. The trail may not be embracing me with warm fuzzies, but I am in the practice of embracing the “definite uncertainty” of the times. Even if the trail isn’t all rainbows and unicorns, so what? There is no place I would rather be, and that is why I continue to go. Because I can. This is still what I want and love most.

Lost in all of these thoughts my mind begins to swirl like a dizzy carnival ride in this increasing heat as I continue forcing my way through now overgrown vegetation. I am not comfortable doing this at all, still hyper concerned about rattlesnakes, trying to scan the ground where I can’t see what I am stepping into, fearing the worst.

I step over deadfall and larger rocks that have shadows where snakes and evil may lurk. My discomfort begins to increase with the temps and navigation gets confusing and finding the trail begins to be a challenge. Where is the damn water? What if it’s all dried up? My morale is swiftly declining and I begin to think the trail is f’ed up today.

I try to believe that there will be water and formulate a plan to eat chips when I get to it. Then, like a dream, I turn a corner at a bend in the trail and the sight that unfolds in front of me looks like Eden. Greenery! That means water!

I wind up walking across a mucky trickle of water where strange green mossy type plants grow and there are throngs of bees, mosquitoes and other bug life. I leap across and hope that there will be a better pool to collect from down the way, and I follow the little trickle. I find a small spot in the shade that is not so muddy, and I collect water with my little scoop.

I sit right down in the mud and don’t care because it is cool and wet, and it feels good on my ass and I need to sit and relax for a moment. Bees and mosqitoes swarm as I filter a liter of water and down it immediately, alternating with spoonfulls of tortilla chips robotically shoveled into my mouth and I chew and swallow, chug water, repeat. After several minutes of this behaviour I feel astronmically better.

Pushing on, the trail remains an obstacle course and the garden of eden disappears, giving way to hillsides of Saguaro. We have dropped in elevation, I am certain the temperature is around 95 F plus, and I am now only three miles from ending this slog for the day.

I poke along, having given up on making it on time, when suddenly appears a large trough that I never expected to see. I do not even question it’s existence, and I swiftly climb up to it, reaching over the top, and dip my bandana into it and douse my head.

This. Feels. Incredible.

The cessation of suffering! How did I not know about this water trough? I could have gone swimming in it it was so large. You just never know in the desert. Never know.

Soon, I am treated with views of the Marina and the gorgeous body of water that is Roosevelt Lake. I am so relieved to see how close I am, and try to speed up. I was walking on a dirt road again now, yet it was still steep, rocky and so much of this “downhill” road was actually going uphill and faced away from the Marina. Again, I am thinking the trail is f’ed up today. It didn’t take long to get irritable again. It’s the heat. It’s everything. All I can think about are things that would cool me down, ice cream, icy cold beverages and air conditioning.

Finally, finally, I make it to the cut off to the Marina, AZT mile 345.3. I take a photo there, feeling a little forelorn, knowing that this could be the end of my hike. I could not dwell long on this sentiment however, given my present needs. Forward.

I split off onto a lovely paved path called the Cemetary Trail that led to the trailhead down below. I text my Mom and let her know that I am 10 minutes away, suddenly feeling so excited to see her. I walk out to the trailhead parking lot, and to my surprise, there she is, parked neatly in the shade, reading her book.

“Oh my goodness, you are right here!” I exclaim with relief. She jumps out of the car and greets me with her energetic embrace, and I apologize for my sweat and funk. I go straight to the cooler she brought and grab an amazingly ice cold La Croix, pshhhhht it opens and I guzzle and guzzle. We take a selfie together and decide to head to the Marina parking lot and eat in the shade.

My Mom graciously met me here so that I could get off trail for my job interview. I am so lucky to have such supportive parents, both my parents are the best trail angels and I am so incredibly blessed.

I know in the moments of literally stepping off trail this time, that this could be the end of this hike. This thought has gravity. It is heavy and does not pair well with the heat.

I know I can’t dwell on this and feel sad, I have to keep moving, keep my chin up. I think about Katy Did and what advice she had given me. “You can’t loose”. And so for now, I have to shift gears into a different mindset and put my personal best foot forward in a totally different way than being on the trail. This was definitely not what I expected the trail to deliver. Life is still full of Definite Uncertainty, but I suppose the trail teaches us to get used to that each and every time.