Day 7, (Sunday 27th March) was to be a rest and resupply day at the Colossal Cave campsite. Even so, when camping you tend to rise and fall along with the sun – I was up at around 06:30 for coffee and breakfast with Sean.
It was Easter Sunday and Sean was getting picked up by his cousin sometime in the morning, my plan was to scrounge a lift into the little town of Vail 5 miles away with him. However, as the morning wore-on his cousin still had not arrived. We’d been chatting to two ladies who were hiking sections of the AZT earlier – they had a car and I noticed them packing up so, putting on my most pathetic Englishman look, I approached them and managed to persuade them to give me a lift into Vail.
Vail, AZ – population 920, (today 921) has a Walgreens and a gas station which are open on Easter Sunday, by AZT standards – this is pretty good and beats snake-infested water holes and cow dung. I need food and supplies to last me 5-6 days, and I’m also out of stove fuel. The Walgreens has no fuel, and neither does the gas station. As I’m wandering Walgreens, Wildflower & Yogabird arrive, (having been picked up by Sean and his cousin) also looking for stove fuel and supplies. We decide that there’s no hope of finding stove fuel so it’s going to be cold food until we get to Oracle at 200 miles. I stock-up with what seems like a lot of cookies, tortillas, peanut butter, trail mix etc. Outside I leave the girls and start walking the 5 miles back to camp – they opt to hitch and tell me they’ll pick me up if they get a ride.
About 800 yards from my campsite a pickup slows down beside me with the girls in and a lady giving them a ride, typical…! They’re not staying at the campsite but carrying-on for a while as it’s still early so I bid them farewell, retire back to the campsite and start sorting out my food and gear for the next section.
Day 8 and I’m back on trail at 07:00 which begins with a 9-mile hike to the start of the Saguaro National Park – named after the classic Saguaro cactus which is protected, only exists in certain areas and had started to appear on the trail. This was one of the reasons I’d decided to hike the AZT so I was looking forward to it. The one little issue was that the National Park is about a 17-mile through-hike, and you’re not allowed to camp in it without a permit – which I hadn’t applied for, if found without one the park rangers would, as one Sean told me – “fine the hell out of you”. It also starts with a 6,000′ climb straight up the Rincon mountain range to nearly 9,000′ elevation!
I got to the National Park boundary at about 10:30 and started the climb, the scenery was awesome. Walking alongside the Saguaro cacti was as good as I imagined. At around 15:00 I made it to the first water stop at a place called “Grass Shack Camp” where who should I meet but Wildflower, Yogabird and a new hiker buddy called Scott, aka Turtle. Aware that I still had a long way to go, I quickly refilled with water and pressed-on up the mountain. By the time I reached Manning Camp at 8,000′ it was nearly freezing and getting dark, I finally made it out of the National Park at around 21:00, found a place to camp on a rocky ridge and had a disturbed night as the wind picked up and buffeted my tent!
Day 9 was very, very windy and pretty uninspiring until the end of the day when the wind dropped, the clouds cleared just as I discovered a brilliant camping spot next to a creek. Ready made with a fire pit and log to sit on.
I also saw my first rattlesnake on Day 9 on the trail, it surprised me slithering slowly and majestically across the trail just in front of me. Surprisingly, the sound they make is more of a buzz then a rattle. I also encountered a Gila Monster, (pronounced “Heela”) which stood in the middle of the trail refusing to budge – I gave it the benefit of the doubt and skirted around this weird, hard-as-nails, purple lizard!
Day 10 started with another massive climb up to Mt. Lemon. Early-on I met another AZT hiker who was still asleep but who I’d meet again later, (Hotrod). Shortly after I dropped my smartphone and smashed the screen, I had a backup “old-school” phone which did basic stuff or so I thought… It took photos OK, but when I inserted my SIM card I couldn’t get it to connect to the USA networks. Now I was on my own!
After the big climb to high elevation the trail entered an amazing place called “The Wilderness of Rock” which was filled with huge boulders precariously perched on top of each other. It looked like it wasn’t possible that these formations were natural! The trail also became very hard to follow in places and my GPS track was all over the place, after several wrong turns I decided to follow the little cairns made by hikers which worked out well.
Cold, tired and hungry I arrived at the little town of Summerhaven which had the first shop for 3 days, I was going to be stopping at a town called Oracle the next day so just bought some essentials, (cheese and beer) and started out of town looking to drop a few thousand feet as the temperature was already below freezing at 17:00
As I was leaving town a young lad, (Max) ran up to me asking if I was hiking the AZT, I assured him I was but needed to get to lower elevation to camp. I’d be seeing him again later in my adventures too!
I made it about 3 miles to a place called Dan’s Saddle before setting-up camp, eating my cheese, drinking the beer and wrapping-up for a cold night.
Day 11 started at 03:00 when I couldn’t sleep because it was so cold, my thermometer was at around 20F, I decided I needed to pack-up, wrap-up and get hiking to keep warm. My tent was frozen solid with condensation as I packed it up… Once I got moving things were OK though and I stopped on the ridge at around 05:30 for coffee and breakfast while watching the sunrise over the mountains.
Today was all about getting to Oracle for resupply, on the descent off the mountain I stumbled across another two AZT hikers, Larry and Marcella who gave me the details for a motel called “Chalet Village” where they were staying for a couple of days. I didn’t know where I was going to stay, but apparently the owner, (Marney) was very hiker-friendly, there were restaurants, laundry facilities and showers. I didn’t need telling twice.
Oracle was a 5-mile road-walk from the trailhead, I stopped-off at the public library to check the internet before going to Chalet Village which was deserted when I got there but after a few minutes a pickup arrived and a friendly-looking lady jumped out.
“You must be Marney?” I said, adding “I’m Guy – Larry told me about this place, I need a room for a couple of days”
Chalet Village was amazing, unique, cosy little A-Frame units. There were laundry facilities and hiker boxes where you could leave unwanted gear and maybe find something useful that someone else didn’t need. I ditched a load of gear, did all my laundry, headed down to the Dollar store to resupply and buy beer for the night. Marney gave me a lift to the Post Office where I picked up a package from REI with new shoes, a sleeping-bag liner and a better water filtration system, on the way back we picked up Larry and Marcella and I chatted to them for a while before retiring with a 6-pack of beer and quart of cookie-dough ice cream.
Day 12 and I was up again at 06:30 even though it was a rest day! There was a Mexican restaurant down the road so I went there for breakfast. It was AMAZING and I was obviously “not from around here” among the tanned, gun-toting, cowboys who were obviously locals. They were friendly enough though.
Marney offered to shuttle me to the start/finish of the next section which was a 7-mile stretch, but a bit of a pain and it also meant I could run that section without a pack. On the way there we picked up Turtle from the trailhead and then, on the way back who did she have in the pickup but Hotrod! I spent the afternoon repacking all my gear and then had a few beers with the lads.
Oracle, and Chalet Village had been a brilliant oasis but it was back on trail tomorrow to start a notorious 100-mile section through the desert to a place called Superior. My alarm was set for sunrise at 05:30 the following morning, Marney was giving myself, Larry, Marcella and Turtle a lift back to where we came off the AZT.