At 12:30pm on Monday 21st March I take a deep breath at the monument just beyond the barbed-wire separating the USA from Mexico, struggle to put on my backpack which weighs around 25kg and head uphill towards Utah which is over 800 miles away. It sounded like a good idea many, many months ago…
The Arizona Trail, (AZT) is a hiking/biking/horse trail traversing the state of Arizona. Somehow I’d stumbled across this while looking into the thru-hike scene, I’ve been to the South West USA several times in recent years and love the Wild West culture, I admit I had some ambitions/bucket list stuff to resolve on this trip including:
- Sleep under the stars next to a cowboy, (Sagauro) cactus
- As above, with a camp fire
- See a rattlesnake on the trail
- Meet a real-life cowboy
- Cook on a camp fire
- Swim naked in a creek
I’d already done the Monument Valley 50 which sorted out a lot of the Wild West / cowboy ambitions, but now it was time to really get into the wilderness and find out just what sort of a man I was. I’l admit that I was pretty scared on that first day, I was heading into bandit territory on the Mexico border, tales of immigration, kidnapping, drug trafficking, murder and corruption were ringing in my ears as I started.
My first bit of “trail magic” was provided by Hertz who gave me a ride to the AZT where I was to begin my hike, this was a 20-mile trip up a dirt road to 6,000′ in the mountains. I then had to hike 2-miles to the Mexico border to start… Which is about where we came in.
The AZT throws you in at the deep-end it’s a 3,000′ climb to 9,000′ over 6 miles at the start. I’m puffing-and-panting all the way to the top and meet a couple of chaps at the top who are just hiking a few days on the AZT. On the descent there’s still snow on the trail and tricky traverses on snow-covered trails aren’t easy. I hit the first water point at 8 miles “bathtub springs” at around 15:00 and meet Serena and some other thru-hikers resting.
Water is the biggest challenge on the AZT, it’s Arizona and the desert! Temperatures of 100F+ with no natural water for 30-40 miles and this is my first encounter of water availability, it’s one of the better sources! I filter 2 liters with my Sawyer Mini system and head out to get a few more miles in before sunset.
Everything is a first at the moment, the first water, first night, first camp, first fire etc… I find an amazing campsite for the first day and setup my new tent from REI. It’s a triumphant first day, only 14 miles but I’m here, out in the wilderness, under the stars with a camp fire… A couple of ticks on that bucket list sorted.
Day 2 dawns, and I pack-up and head out again… I don’t recall anything special happening today, it’s mainly about getting used to being on the trail and hiking all day, I set up camp at around 17:30 on a hillside.
Day 3 includes the first resupply point in a little town called Patagonia. I get into town at about 13:30 and head to the General Store to buy food. The owner and a local cowboy advise me to head to the “Wagon Wheel” saloon for food which is just down the road. So I head down there and order the biggest burger they have, a couple of girls eating in the bar say hello on the way out. After finishing-off my burger I head out of Patagonia and make it 4-5 miles before setting up the tent again.
Now, you’d think the desert was hot? Well – it is, but at night it’s cold – very cold. My sleeping bag was rated at about 42F and temperatures were well under freezing, (32F) I was suffering every night in the cold and wearing everything I carried – gloves, arm warmers, thermals, beanie etc! Heat I can deal with, but the cold really saps my strength….
Day 4 started with a big climb and I passed the girls I saw at the saloon in Patagonia early in the morning and said hello. I was heading for a place called “Kentucky Camp” about 25 miles away, towards the end of the day my nose started bleeding and then when I got to the camp site I found I’d lost my North Face puffa jacket. It was so cold that this was an essential item. I was so depressed and miserable that if I could have come home I would have. But – I was hours from civilization, so left a note in the trail register asking if the people behind me had found my puffa and went to bed.
The next morning I headed back to the trail register and met the caretaker at the site who told me two girls had my jacket! It was only 06:30 so he made me coffee in his mobile home and we chatted for a while about the AZT and stuff… Then I went and met Nicole and Jessica, (Wildflower & Yogabird) who gave me back my jacket. It was a defining point for me – everything completely changed – the kindness and generosity of these people lifted my spirits and I was back at 100%
The rest of the day was a fairly easy hike to an amazing campsite by some water which I really enjoyed. There was a group of hikers just ahead of me but I left them alone and camped by myself. The only really memorable moment was when I was filtering some water from a nasty source and a snake popped out to say hello – let’s just say there might have been some swearing!
The next morning, (Day 6) I met Sean – a solo hiker who was just packing-up as I passed him. Today the goal was to get to “Colossal Cave” the first resupply point and we had a quick chat about strategies to get there. Sean was going to go via the highway but I thought I’d take the slightly longer AZT trail there so bid him farewell.
This was the first time I’d had mobile, (cell) reception for 5 days so placed an order with REI for new shoes, sleeping-bag liner and a water filter to be delivered to me in Oracle – 100 miles North. As I was making the call, the group of hikers I’d seen at the previous night’s campsite passed me. It turns out they are ultra-runners and we have some nutual friends!
I got to Colossal Cave, (120 Miles) in the afternoon to see Sean, sitting with an 18-pack of beer… He invited me to join him – which I did after a brief walk to get some food at the visitor center. After coming back he very generously shared a few beers with me and we drank and talked until it went dark.
I won’t tell Sean’s story – that’s personal to him, but he was the first person I’d really talked to on the trail. It was great to open-up about all the stuff I’d seen and experienced and I’m sure we both appreciated the evening.
Next-up: Mountains and the temperature