Nov. 27th, 2022
4:29am. It’s chilly. It’s that desert chill in the air with a slight breeze caressing my head. I slept a light sleep with frequent waking. It’s not that I was cold but I was aware of the cold all around me. I dreamed a lot. I woke a lot. But I was ultimately warm. Now, I need to motivate to get outside and pee. I don’t even want to know how much my body hurts, I can feel certain places that ached through the night even with ibuprofen. I make coffee with the vestibule open and can see a faint blueish glow on the horizon. I am looking forward to being with the sunrise.
I start walking at 5:01am into the thick black of pre-dawn. In only a couple minutes I come upon first a BCT trail marker, then a fence with a gate. I see a windmill and an old rusted tank, much like the one at Russian Well, but there is no indicator on my map that this well is here. It feels mysterious to see these solid structures suddenly appear out of the black like an apparition.
My slowly waking brain wonders if I am dreaming. I then place my hands on the fence to verify the apparitions are real. Seems so. I work on the gate latch with my cold hands and pass through to the other side. Above me the stars are twinkling, the moon has set, it is quite dark so I am very thankful for my headlamp. On my map it looks like I hiked through the Drinking Snake segment last night and camped right near the junction with the Antelope Creek segment. Shortly, I connect with a dirt track I recognize is probably the track that leads me to my first water cache.
It’s amazing what you can recognize in the dark and coming from the opposite direction. Somehow I see the exact Juniper Tree where I stashed water a week ago. At the time the sun was setting up here and it was getting windy. I made a mental note that I could sleep here if needed to but the ground wasn’t entirely flat and if it were a windy evening it could be a poor night’s sleep. When I arrive it is only 5:45am, I’ve gone 2 miles and I agree with my own decision to have camped where I did. I reach into the thick Juniper trying not to catch my jacket on the craggy dead branches to fish out my water. I glance at my little spread sheet to check how many miles to the next water.
It’s good I checked, as this is the longest segment at 16.5 miles, all the way to Gloriana. Perhaps that can be my mid day lunch break. I think that would be perfect as it would put me at roughly 19 miles for the day. Perfect half way point. I guzzle as much water as I can at this early hour and grab a snack to fuel me for this upcoming segment, stuffing things in my pockets for easy access. I top my bottles off, one Liter in each side pocket, and place the half full water container back in the Tree, knowing I will come back to get it next week. Thank you Juniper for keeping my water safe.
I am poised on a plateau of sorts on this dirt track and have the feeling of the entire world splayed out around me. Sitting up at 3,887ft this is the high point for today, as the trail only goes down from here. At around 6:30am it is almost light enough out to turn off my headlamp. I can just barely see the ridgeline of the Bradshaws to the West and they disappear from sight as I descend off the dirt track, taking a sharp right turn onto a single track. The trail here contours down into a sweet peaceful canyon. I drop in at a good clip feeling like I am floating along.
Sunrise comes an hour later, bursting it’s radiant beams over the Eastern horizon at 7:30am. I am elated for this moment, welcoming the warmth and the light, the blessing and promise of a new day. A day to walk in beauty. Welcoming this warmth is the total opposite feeling from back when I hiked the Arizona Trail in 2019. Then, sunrise meant imminent intolerable heat. Today’s sunrise is more like a re-assurance. Everything is still happening as it should.
By now I have dropped 800ft and find myself walking in a basin on gravelly tread. I have not layered down yet as the cold air of the night is still settled into this low spot. According to my CalTopo map this area is called Government Spring Wash and soon I will come upon the old Hidden Treasure Mine. The hills around me are turning golden green with the kiss of the sunlight and soon I reach another dirt road that I was not expecting to see. This is a full on well traveled road with signage. This must be the old mine site, as there is another old rusted tank here next to the road. According to my BCT map this is Bumble Bee Road, which connects up to Crown King Road to the Northwest. The BCT crosses this road and continues on a single track here.
Shortly I walk past some RV’s who seem to have a more permanent spot out here, or so it looks that way. Dogs are barking in response to my passing by and I think of people sitting in their RV drinking hot coffee watching the desert wake up. My imagination turns to the thought of trail magic and memories of trails past. So many great memories! Today, if I were to be invited in for hot coffee, I would surely decline in the interest of time. But it was a nice thought. And nobody invites me in anyway, I am just getting barked at by their dogs and I’m perfectly happy to remain incognito.
The trail lifts me up above Bumble Bee Road and bends around to the South. The next 3.4 miles is called the Hidden Treasure Segment, paralleling the road. Views of Highway 17 way in the distance pop up on the horizon and I can see teeny tiny shiny objects moving along, but I can’t hear them. What I can hear are gunshots. I see several rigs along the dirt road below me where people set up camps and practice target shooting. It’s like the Wild Wild West out here! I’m not surprised to hear and see this, as I knew it would be a part of the experience out here, but it does feel just a little bit disruptive to my otherwise peaceful morning.
At 10:00am I take a peek at my Strava and see I’ve gone 13.3 mi. I am really feeling the need for some calories and I feel thirsty like I need electrolytes. I decide to take my pack off and dig into my food bag, having a seat in the dirt for a brief break. I open my spread sheet and feel a bit dismayed after a few calculations. I am averaging exactly 2.9 mph, I’ve been walking for five hours but my moving time is 4hr 34 min. In my original plan I was hoping to hit 15 miles by 10:00am, so clearly I lost some time somewhere in there. I’ve got a long way to go and feel like I am already a little behind. We’ll see if I can make up for it somewhere.
This is where in the FKT world one’s skills at maximum efficiency and what people call relentless forward motion come into play heavily. It may seem absurd to the average hiker, but this is where I’ve lost time already: Stopping for water refills, taking photos, stopping now to mix electrolytes, stopping to look at the map or look at my spread sheet. These are all little time losses. If I were only being more efficient, I would actually be right on track. Pacing, however, is something I’ve gotten really good at, efficiency, not so much. Something to work on right? It’s like a little game. A fun little challenge. In a trail race like an Ultra, you can easily loose time by stopping too long at aid stations, this is very similar. Since I’ve already lost a little time, I try to think how I can make up for it. I try to do a little jogging, but my body is not having it after what I did yesterday.
With these thoughts swirling around in my brain, I get moving as soon as I can. The trail meanders above the dirt road and eventually I loose the sounds of gunshots ricocheting through the hillsides, returning to a sense of peace and quiet. I can’t seem to jog though I am able to keep a solid pace and feel much better after having a snack and sucking down a bunch of electrolytes. Shortly the trail dips into a lovely section of Saguaros which makes me feel really happy. The Saguaros are a big part of why I wanted to hike this trail. I’m entering Saguaroland!
By 12:15pm I am getting close to the Gloriana Trailhead where the BCT crosses paved Bumble Bee Road. There are several cars passing by on the road and the gunshots are back. I find my irritation with the gunshots growing and know if I want to have any semblance of a peaceful lunch break I am going to have to keep walking far enough to get away from them. I had been curious to discover how the trail approaches the crossing of Bumble Bee Road yet my excitement fizzeles out when I reach the trailhead and see about 15 trucks and cars there. It is a busy place! I have to remind myself that it’s a holiday weekend to boot, so what should I have expected?
The parking lot feels like the ghetto of the BCT. There is evidence of heavy use and the trail sign here is faded and cracked, looking very un-loved in comparison to most of the other BCT signs at trailheads. Gloriana Trailhead needs some TLC! Even though my water cache is here I can’t fathom stopping for my break and being able to enjoy it with all this commotion and gunshots ringing in my ears. As I refill my water, three dudes on bikes pass by on the single track. I overhear one of them saying “man, I hope those gunshots aren’t pointed at us” and his buddy replies with “yeah, I know, it’s just a chance you take when you ride the BCT.” I’m not sure if this makes me feel better or not.
1:00pm. Mile 20. I’m sitting in partial shade on a cool rock just to the side of the trail. Shoes are off, hooray! Eating crackers and cheese, very satisfying to eat something that’s not a bar. I make instant tepid coffee and pour a packet of Untapped Pure Vermont Maple Syrup into it. I’ve never done this before, as usually I get the Untapped with the coffee already mixed in, this one is only the syrup which I hadn’t realized, so I improvised. I tell ya, it is amazing! Great discovery here!
My back is very crampy and painful in a spot I had landed on a week ago when I slipped on some loose rocks in the Grand Canyon, snapping my trekking pole right in half. Bam! It was done and over so quickly, I just got up and continued down the Hance Trail. Since then, however, my back has felt funny, and I even went to the Chiropractor just four days ago. I’m not sure if that adjustment held up, as I am in so much pain now. So much so, that I just took an Ibuprofen. Wasn’t planning on having to do that, but since it’s such a short hike, I know it will do more good than harm.
Truth be told, my whole body is really in pain from all the running/jogging I did yeterday. My hamstrings are screaming at me. It’s just like they say in a marathon or Ultra, don’t go out too fast. That’s exactly what I did as I was so stoked to finally be out on this great adventure. Lesson learned! Right now I’m at the half way point in my day if I’m going to make 40 miles. Now that I think about it, I am possibly also at the half way point on the BCT right here but it’s hard to know for sure. In 20 minutes, I will be 24 hrs into my FKT attempt so I ought to be at the half way point in miles if I am to make it in 48 hours. Still have no idea if I can. But still willing to keep a move on and try my best!
I am up and moving after a 45 minute much needed break and wow, I can’t tell you how much better I feel. I’m sure it was the combo of everything. In light of the mental chatter about efficiency and where I’d lost time this morning, taking this break just now, getting in the food and the coffee with maple syrup, taking off my shoes and taking the ibuprofen was all well worth that time because wow did it all work! It’s now like my pain and cramping have melted away and I am able to keep a nice steady 3mph pace that I can sustain for a long while. I feel so much more motivated mentally, I’m starting to think optimistically again about my finish goal. Not that that is the whole reason I am out here, it’s not, but since I am close to being able to do it, I sort of want it even more, and that feels fun.
As I trot along the trail now feeling so much more optimistic and in so much less pain, the Joy starts to rise up from within, reminding me of the reason I am out here. To Enjoy! The song I’m on Fire keeps playing in my head in rhythm with my steps. I’ve recently downloaded a version of that song by Town Mountain which is an up tempo bluegrassy version with a little bit of banjo and fiddle that makes it really fun. I now have that rhythm to set my cadence and I just love singing along to it in my head…. At night I wake up with the sheets soaking wet and a freight train running through the middle of my head and you…you cool my desire….Oh Oh Oh…I’m on Fire….
After the Gloriana TH the segment of trail South is called the Arrastre Creek Segment. The trail parallels Maggie Mine Road for a spell then drops to cross Arrastre Creek itself. I don’t see any water in the creek, though it looks as if it would have water in other seasons like Spring. The area is dotted with giant Saguaros, Teddy Bear Cholla and Mesquite. The vegetation is so lovely and down in the creek bed it is still and quiet. Would be a nice place to stay a while, but that’s not in the cards for me today.
After digging my feet into the deep sandy creek bed, the trail sends me uphill in earnest, then crosses a ridge before dropping me down a long beautiful canyon on what seems to be an old overgown dirt track. This narrow canyon is filled with gorgeous vegetation as well and the canyon walls are constructed of colorful textured rocks that seem to speak of time. I tune into the sweet energy of the canyon and quite enjoy this section as it meanders downhill again and with all the combination of good feels and beauty around me, I am in the zone.
The afternoon is quite beautiful and I feel pretty good the whole time so I just keep on truckin. When I reach my next water cache near Soap Creek I am pleased to find it intact. So far so good on all my water, that’s always a relief. Even still, I am trying to carry just a little extra at all times in case one of them is not there or damaged etc. This one did have some evidence of chewing on the plastic handle, so clearly some rodents were curious but no damage was done. I don’t need that much water and honestly could have skipped this one, but I top off with a liter for good measure and keep on moving. It is almost 4:00pm now and I am at mile 26.5 and I still feel pretty good. My next water cache will be at the Rock Springs area, which is at the trail junction to the Black Canyon City Trailhead.
The segment South of here is called K-Mine and follows on a ridgy contour for a few miles above the neighborhoods that make up Black Canyon City not far at all from Hwy 17. I remember being up here when I had cached my water and wondered, like I usually do, what will it be like when I pass through here? What time will it be? How will I be feeling? What will I see and what is the trail like South from here?
As I walk through this segment, there is a constant presence of vehicular traffic noise and I can see all the buildings below me and imagine people in their homes doing normal things like preparing dinner and watching TV. I am in such a different world out here and there is nowhere I’d rather be. In fact, I am feeling good enough to start jogging here as a good portion of this segment is on a dirt road. I am pushing along at a comfortable clip when suddenly I see a large sign that reads Black Canyon Trail in red letters, indicating I need to take a hard left turn down another dirt road. Such a helpful sign, thank you!
So I now go flying downhill feeling fanciful and free when I suddenly hear a very loud snorting sound that stops me in my tracks. My eyes scan the vegetation for any movement and soon I hear the stomping of hooves. Well what do you know, it’s a little band of wild burrows! I start talking to them and try to make a video but they are skittish and take off into the brush, disappearing from sight.
It’s right about here there is an official detour on the BCT with a bunch of carbonite markers pointing me off the dirt track and back onto single track down into a lovely canyon that drops toward the Agua Fria River. I tell you, I have never been on a trail that is so well marked! I drop into pace again here, this time not jogging but walking at a solid 3mph and feeling really in my groove when I hear another sudden jostling in the brush. I stop again to scout the area and see a pack of wild javelinas scattering. I hear the familiar sounds of their little snorts and this fills my heart. Javelinas! It’s been a while!
It’s now 5:15pm and I check my mileage progress learning I have just cracked 30 miles. In my mind that means I have 10 more miles to reach my goal and I wanted to stop at 8:00pm, giving me two hours of night hiking. I know up ahead after I cross the River there is a climb because I did it as a trail run a while back. So, now I am trying to wrap my head around the fact that the final miles of my day today are also going to be not only in the dark, but uphill. I am telling myself I’ve got this!
It’s crazy how early the day comes to a close. As I drop into the Aqua Fria River bottom I feel wrapped into the beauty of this area. The dusky beams of sunlight are gently leaving this little valley which is thick with all manner of desert vegetation. Off in the distance I hear a few gunshots rippling across the canyon walls that fade away as I get closer to the River. When I bottom out I suddenly realize everything looks familiar. I had never put the pieces together but now that I’m here I recognize it. I had gone for another trail run to the River here yet from the other direction, and this River crossing was my turn around spot. The memory comes flooding back and makes me smile. It’s always so fun to connect places, linking together little fragments of a memory.
I cross the River on some rocks, thankful I don’t have to get my feet wet this late in the day. Once on the other side I reach some tangled vegetation along with downed trees from heavy water flow. I’m thinking how helpful it is that I’ve been here before as there are no trail markers at all. It’s ironic since the entire trail has been so flawlessly marked yet when you would really need them, they are non existant. Must have been washed away by the flooding. I am able to bush whack through and crawl under a couple downed trees in the direction I remember going prior and that pops me out to another rocky wash.
Here, I am able to pick up a faint trail and I quickly find a link up to the singletrack. Now the trail climbs up the ridge. I know I have a little uphill here so I tuck my chin down and start cranking up the slope. The sun is down for the night and the daylight is fading quickly. I really want to get to my water cache before dark and I really really want to cross the other segment of the River with some light if posssible. It’s been a while since I’ve been over there too. I recall that area being super confusing and the trail had been washed out there as well. It was a mess with a ton of dead wood smothering the banks of the River.
When I finally reach the water cache at Rock Springs it is just about dark and I need my headlamp. I feel like my blood sugar might be dipping or something as I am so apprehensive about that second River crossing thinking I most certainly am going to have to get my feet wet and then clamber over all that dead wood and look for the trail in the dark and waste time. My mind spins. I don’t want to waste time taking off my shoes to ford it. Yet, I don’t want to get my shoes all wet and then night hike. My feet will be cold like forever. And, trying to find that trail in the dark on the other side already feels frustrating.
My thoughts are way too apprehensive right now and I know that’s a sign I need calories. I think momentarily about stopping right here for the night, but then I know I will be hiking in the wee hours of the dark morning anyway, so what’s the difference? It is way to early to stop anyway, and, if I stop here at only 32 miles for the day, I am automaically giving up on my 48 hour goal. I am not ready to do that. I have to continue.
In an effort to change my headspace, I go ahead and eat half an Rx bar, guzzle a bunch of water and gear up mentally for all the things I do not want to do. When I leave the water cache it’s officially dark and my headlamp beams cast across the trail that now winds down to the River. I hit several switchbacks and as the night settles in I witness the crescent moon lifting into the sky against a backdrop of purple and orange on the ridgeline of the surrounding mountains. The Saguaros take on a different character now in the dark, their silhouettes framing my visual field in a quintessential desert dream. I have to embrace all that this is. This is why I am here. These moments. This beauty.
And wouldn’t you know but when I reach the flat River bottom, there is a packed down trail through the sand with a few dozen rocks leading me straight to the water where I will cross. I see the moon glowing up ahead as if both are showing me the way. As I approach the River I am ready for anything and am totally surprised (and stoked) to find it is a mere rock hop! Sweet! I do not have to get my feet wet, whoo hoooo!
On the other side of the water the trail continues straight up the sandy slope. I shine the beam of my headlamp all around me, looking for the path. Well, looks like the good ol’ trail crew remedied that messy situation I was so concerned about. Everything has been cleaned up and the trail is super obvious now. I can’t tell you how relieved I am for this. Thank you BCT Coaltion!
I shoot straight up the rocky incline before bending around a nice contour that pushes me through a lovely section of towering Saguaros. In the night their allure is even greater and with the glowing moon to accent their svelte shapes it is a night hiking dream. My body feels amazingly good as I begin to climb in earnest, I supppose that little snack I had earlier helped a lot.
I am again actually enjoying myself out here, the section here feels quite peaceful and I feel like I am moving further into a more wild area especially as I gain altitude. I am climbing and weaving around ridges next to an abyss that reminds me of the Grand Canyon. It’s just me and this big open space and the sounds of night. I fall into a meditative rhythm tuning into the crickets and night bugs whom are all creating quite the chorus. Far in the distance I can make out the low drone of the highway though I feel like that world is so far away. It feels really nice to disappear into this world.
What breaks my meditation is the sudden glare of two eyeballs ahead of me, reflecting off my headlamp beam. I stop in my tracks for a moment, is it a cat? My mind flashes with this thought, yet no sooner do I think it, the animal turns sideways, showing me it’s black and white fur. Not a cat. I’m not sure if I’m disappointed or relieved. This animal and I have apparently piqued each other’s curiousity though, and as I keep moving, it seems to dive into the vegetation for protection and then turn back to look at me. I see it’s eyes flashing again, and it’s long brushy tail again. I round a switcback all the while keeping track of where it is. I want to get another good look at it. I’m thinking it’s not a skunk as it has a body and tail much more like a cat or fox. Whatever it is, I may never know, but the encounter feels magical and only adds to the joy of night hiking. Like a little reward for sticking to my plan and pushing forth.
All day long I kept saying I would hike until 8:00pm hoping to get 40 miles in today. As I crest the ridge that completes most of this climb, I look at my maps and see the trail is about to drop back into another creek bottom before a second climb. It’s 7:30pm now and Strava shows I’ve gone 36 miles. I know if I want to make 40 miles I am going to hike much later, which knowing myself, means I will be less likely to get up and start early tomorrow.
I briefly entertain the thought of waking up at 3:00am tomorrow to justify stopping early tonight. It seems more appealing to get up and hike in the dark of morning knowing the sun will rise, rather than hiking late into the night without any light at the end of the tunnel. Thus I start to scout around on the ridge and very soon find a truly perfect flat and somewhat protected spot. I know the air will be so much warmer up here compared to once I drop into the creek bed in a couple miles, so I figure it’s better to stop here. I tell you, from a physical standpoint, I could keep going, and that’s encouraging. But mentally I’m ready to stop. The thought of dinner really beckons and I know being horizontal for a while is surely a good idea.
I pitch my tent with the vestibule door open and light up my cat food can alcohol stove. Dinner tonight is lentil pasta with spaghetti sauce and a plethora of vegetables. It tastes amazing yet I can’t seem to finish it. I portioned this home made meal for a hiker who’s been climbing over High Sierra passes day after day. My hunger just isn’t there. Try as I may to get the calories in, I just can’t. I don’t want to overstuff mysef either, so into the zip lock baggie go the leftovers. I will happily eat this for lunch tomorrow, it will be great. Once I am all settled into bed, I set my alarm for 4:00am again, not 3:00am. I know I need the rest. Me and sleep deprivation are never going to make friends. That is truly my kryptonite. If I don’t get enough sleep now, I will be seriously dragging through my work week and that’s not okay since I am a caretaker of others. It is really important to me that I fully show up for them, and myself for that matter.
Anyway, I hope the 5:00am start will be early enough to get me to the finish at a decent hour. Since I was able to do a little jogging earlier today I am counting on being able to do more jogging tomorrow. And if I don’t make it at the 1:45pm “cut-off” (the 48 hour mark) it’s no big deal. It’s now more about connecting with my Mom and Todd picking me up at a decent hour tomorrow so they don’t have to drive home in the dark. So that is a big motivational factor for me and will likely give me the right head space to try to push. It is definitely a nice feeling knowing someone is going to be there for me at the end, even if they don’t know what I am trying to accomplish. I didn’t tell anyone what I am doing as far as the FKT thing is concerned. Anyway, I have to try to get some sleep. Today was a good day, I am happy.
The Black Canyon National Recreation Trail exists on Ancestral Lands of Akimel O’odham (Upper Pima), Hohokam & Yavapai Apache. To learn more visit Native-Land.ca
Planning and Resources: Black Canyon National Recreation Trail Coalition: visit www.BCTAZ.org or email them at BCTAZ@gmail.com, they have a fantastic website, and now an official waterproof, tearproof beautiful trail map. Digital maps are available at AVENZAMAPS.COM/MAPS/482815 and there is a GPX track from the FKT website which you can download to whatever mapping app you prefer to use. Also, Aravaipa Running holds a Black Canyon Trail Ultra event every year in the early Spring, if you are interested in running a 60K or 100K on this trail as a racing event, visit their page here. They will hold the 2023 event on February 18th & 19th. It is a qualifying race for Western States 100. Just sayin’.