Day 13 – The alarm went off at 05:30 and reality quickly set in at Chalet Village. My comfortable life was about to end once again as I quickly packed everything into my rucksack, scoffed the rest of my cookie-dough ice cream for breakfast and headed outside to get a lift back to the trailhead.
Marney dropped Turtle back where he’d come off – 7 miles behind Larry, Marcella and myself. As we hiked the 1.5 mile road towards the start of the desert section we started talking. The conversation soon turned to politics and Donald Trump – a focal point in the USA at the moment, unsure of my friends political views I recalled a bit of wisdom that said something like, “never discuss politics or religion around the dinner table” so tried to change the topic.
“What do your parents do?”, Marcella asked
Gosh-darn it… “My father is a preacher” I had to reply, I could have lied and made-up something but Larry and Marcella deserved the truth. There followed a bit of an awkward conversation where they explained that they loved Jesus and wondered why I didn’t. I think they knew I wan’t going to be converted that day and we parted amicably at the start of the 90-mile desert crossing.
This 90-mile section had being playing on my mind, up until now natural water was available – it might have been nasty, ridden with cow dung, algae and snakes – but it was water! Here, we’d have NO natural water for 15+ miles in the desert. As a runner, 15 miles sounds like 3-4 hours maximum – hiking with a full pack and carrying 7-8 litres of water plus food for 4-5 days made that distance a 10-12 hour hike.
But the scenery, oh wow! Immediately I knew this was why I came to Arizona… The desert opened-up to big skies, the cacti species kept me amused especially the “teddybear cholla” variety which seemed to have the ability to leap from the trail and attach itself to you. At one point I got to a gate, looked at my leg and found a huge chunk of cactus attached to my shin. The fish-hook barbs made extracting it a painful experience – thankfully there was no-one within 50 miles to hear me scream.
The first water was at 19-miles at a place called “Beehive Wells” and consisted of a dirty metal tank with a dead bird floating in it. It also had thousands of bees swarming around the water. My new water filtration system got a good test but – honestly, under normal circumstances you wouldn’t go within 100-feet of these water sources!
I arrived at the overnight water cache – a metal box filled with gallon water bottles supplied by Trail Angels and fellow through-hikers early in the evening, set up camp and fell asleep quickly.
Day 14 started as usual at about 05:00 with a brilliant red sunrise. It was going to be another 25-ish mile jaunt through the blazing-hot Arizona desert in the “Tortilla Mountains”, somehow I guessed that the word “Mountain” was probably more relevant here than “Tortilla” – I didn’t expect to see a few Mexican restaurants along the way, Doritos were off the menu.
I’d heard that at my planned camping spot there was a pizza company who would deliver to the trailhead! They’d also bring cold beverages to you… This was my goal for the day, it was going to be a long hike – but the potential of pizza and beer at the end drove me forwards.
It got very warm towards noon as I found the only water supply on this section and guess what – it was an even nastier source, a little bathtub, caked in green algae and swarming with bees again! Honestly – where do these bees come from in the middle of the Arizona desert? But it was appreciated and I filled-up with another 4-5 litres.
Looking forward to beer and pizza, my last task of the day was to summit something called “Big Hill” on the map. Now – one thing I’ve learnt is that the Yanks name stuff like-it-is and yes, this was a BIG HIL. Coming off the hill my phone picked-up coverage and I licked my lips dialing the number stored.
Beeep, Beeep, Beeep – wrong number! I tried again with the same result. I had internet access and looked-up the number, it was correct. It seems like my backup mobile doesn’t work on the USA networks! D’Oh – I was crushed – beer and pizza was off the menu tonight.
Eventually I found the next water cache and carried on for a mile-or-so before setting-up camp underneath some Saguaro cacti and an amazing clear, star-filled sky. Instant noodles and water might not have been as good as pizza and beer, but I’d ticked-off another one of my bucket-list items.
Day 15 started very early, about 04:00 as I knew this section was going to be long, dry and hot. Headlight-on I started and stopped for breakfast and coffee next to some railroad tracks at about 06:00 to watch the sunrise.
The trail headed alongside the Gila, (“Heela”) river, rising up-and-down in the canyons as the day got hotter and hotter. At around midday my thermometer was registering about 110F and I was having to stop every 10-15 minutes to find shade and rest. I’d taken 2 gallons of water into this section and was becoming paranoid about the lack of water. I knew there was water somewhere around 16-miles into this section, but in the heat things could get desperate very quickly. It occurred to me that I hadn’t seen anyone for over 2 days and I was very much on my own, miles from anyone in the wilderness, a long way from home…. gulp…
Eventually I found the water, the Gila River! Oh boy, it was a sandy oasis with the river running past. I stripped off, totally naked and jumped into the river, then rinsed all my smelly clothes and dried-off in the sun. At this point you have to remember I hadn’t seen anything remotely human for nearly 3 days and was very, very dirty and smelly.
After composing myself I filtered another 2 gallons of water and at about 15:00 set-off on what looked like an epic 6,000′ climb up yet another mountain. On the way up I encountered my first human contact in 3 days, 2 mountain bikers screaming down singletrack that would make any runner think twice. Hardcore… “Be Safe” they shouted back to me, “You too” I screamed back – nutters…
The climb went on, and on… I watched the sunset near the top, sitting on a rock and toasting the Arizona desert with a handful of trail mix and a some water. The scenery was epic, but after 15 hours of hiking I’ll admit I was ready for a rest. At around 8pm I arrived at my planned destination, quickly set up camp and passed out under the stars.
Day 16 – only 11 miles to the Picketpost trailhead and then 6 miles for resupply into a little town called Superior. I was nearly out of food and looking forward to getting to town – hot showers, cold beers and real food weren’t far away. I hadn’t booked into the only motel in town – I was hoping they’d have vacancies, after all – how many people could want to stay there?
The hike to the trailhead was pretty boring and I got there around 11am, desperate to get to town I decided to go against all my British principles and try to hitch on US60… I stuck-out my thumb and started walking towards town. After about 20 minutes a beat-up Subaru pulled-in just ahead of me, who was this crazy person? Were they a serial killer, to be honest I didn’t care! As I approached the car, I could see the driver throwing stuff into the back off the passenger seat – looking into the rear I saw a copy of “The Arizona Trail”guide book!
Chris, (feminine) was en-route from Phoenix to pick-up her daughter who was hiking the AZT and suffering an injury. I couldn’t believe my luck, we chatted about the trail on the short drive, she dropped me off at the motel and gave me her cell number. Another bucket-list item done – hitchhiking!
However, the motel was full… Dejected I went to a nearby restaurant and had a consolation burger. It was 160 miles to the next resupply point so I went and bought A LOT of food, (8-9 days worth) and a 8-pack of beer and headed back down the highway to the trail. I couldn’t stop in town – so there was only one place for me and that was back on the AZT.
I didn’t get a lift so walked the 6 miles back to the trail, carrying all that extra water, food and beer, (probably 10-11kg) and set up camp just out of earshot of the highway. It turned out to be my favorite campsite of the entire trip – warm, clear skies with a campfire and a couple of beers. Little did I know what tomorrow would bring…