“Little did I know what tomorrow would bring” was the cliffhanger left at the end of the previous post! Apologies for the delay in writing the final episode, it’s been a busy 3 weeks.
We pick up the story after Day 16 where I was turned away from the motel in the little town of Superior, hiked back to the AZT and camped back on the trail.
Day 17 – after a brilliant night under the stars I woke up early, disturbed by the highway noise and something that had been getting worse for a few days. My toes, especially on the left foot were dead – it wasn’t a painful condition, but very uncomfortable, a bit like if you’ve ever spent too long out in the cold and lose the feelings in your hands. I was sure it was circulatory problem and, having had similar issues with my hands after Fellsman in 2012 was concerned about lasting issues. The nerve damage I suffered on that event took around 6 months to heal and I still have issues today with the cold in my fingers.
It was 160+ miles of rough desert before I got to anything remotely near humanity from here – best case, that would be 8-9 days of hiking. Even so, that stop was remote and it was another few days to Flagstaff. I took a long, hard look at myself and decided that I just wasn’t happy continuing at risk and packed-up and went back to the highway, it was around 50 miles to Phoenix on HWY60, I didn’t want to hitch but I could walk to somewhere safe in a couple of days, the alternative was to carry-on and hope things would be OK. I’m normally pretty relaxed and reckless about this sort of stuff but I’d learnt that Arizona takes no prisoners – if I became incapacitated I’d last 24-36 hours out in the desert before it was Game Over, I suspected the people behind me were further away than that. This wasn’t a game show, Bear Grylls wasn’t going to jump out of a helicopter with a film crew and and if I shouted “I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here” only the rattlesnakes would hear me. I’d left my SPOT GPS tracker at home, my cell phone didn’t work even when there was a signal, the final straw was that I’d smashed my tablet that I was using to store the GPS tracks to download to my Garmin watch, no maps, no GPS tracks – all my lifelines had been used.
So I started walking West on HWY60 and after a few minutes looking at the endless highway decided to stick out my left thumb. After about an hour a black mustang convertible beeped behind me and a local from Superior, (I forget his name) picked me up. Getting into the passenger seat, a MASSIVE black dog jumped on me, licking me all over – I’d been out in the desert for 4 days and was caked with sweat so this dog was loving it.
“Ziggy! Get off” my driver shouted his dog, grabbing a squirty bottle of water and pointing it at his dog.
It didn’t seem to help though, my driver was cool – a young chap who was, in his words just crusin’, he’d been in-and-out of jail and was proud to show me his .45 and talk guns, Trump and God! All I wanted was to get to a car hire place and so, once we got into the Phoenix suburbs he looked-up a Hertz agency and dropped me off at the nearest depot.
“Hi, how ‘ya doing, how can I help” the pretty, young girl asked as I fell into the Hertz lounge in East Mesa AZ smelling and looking like you’d imagine after 4 days hiking in the desert, even after Ziggy’s attempt to lick me clean. I wasn’t sure how long I’d need a car for, or where I was going to return it to. Basic, survival instinct kicked-in and I just asked for a car for a week, to be returned in Las Vegas. This was expensive, but no problem for Hertz and this bemused local. We chatted for a while about my adventure – her eyes widening as I told stories of rattlesnakes, hitch-hiking and miles of wilderness and desert.
Now I had a car and drove back to the highway towards Phoenix, priority #1 was to get my feet looked at. I saw a sign saying “Hospital” on the HWY60 and took the exit not knowing what to expect on arrival – there’s no NHS out in the USA, but I had excellent medical insurance. On arrival at the US equivalent of A&E I explained my condition to the staff and showed my insurance details – apparently this wasn’t a problem and I was quickly ushered to see a doctor.
The unlucky physician peeled off my socks, (I was still unwashed after 4 days in the desert) and diagnosed that my Injinji “Toe Socks” had been reducing the circulation to my feet, After 16 days, and the additional stress caused by a 40-50 pound pack I’d suffered nerve damage which would take a while to heal.
“A while?” I asked hopefully – “How long will that be – when can I get back onto the trail?”
The doctor just laughed at me… He said I could return sometime in the next 3 months, but that I could probably say goodbye to my toes shortly after.
The decision had been made for me – that was the end of the AZT. I bought a cheap USA mobile phone and checked into a hotel in Phoenix for a couple of days while I worked out what I was going to do next. The person I saw in the mirror shocked me, sunburnt, haggard and gaunt – I’d lost a lot of weight over the last couple of weeks, across the road was a Carl’s Jr Drive-Thru, before I even jumped in the shower I went there, ordered two 1/2lb combo meals and a quart of ice cream.
After recovering a little, and as I now had a US mobile phone number I sent messages to all my friends asking if I could help out. All of them got back in touch and I now had a new mission as a Trail Angel for my fellow hikers.
Wildflower and Yogabird had met Sean and were due to arrive at my fateful Pizza stop at noon the next day. I offered to drive there and give them a ride into town and back. Even though I’d only crossed paths briefly with these people the reunion was a little emotional and we had a few hours chatting and comparing notes in the little town of Kearney. Sean stayed in-town overnight and I dropped the girls back where I picked them up. Last heard, the girls were still on the AZT and doing well
Larry, Marcella and Max plus his mate were staying at the Copper Canyon Inn where I was booked into for the evening. We went to dinner together and had a lot of fun chatting. Larry and Marcella had decided to end their hike at Superior and were trying to get back to Phoenix without luck, as I had a car I offered to give them a ride the next day for which they were incredibly grateful!
And what of me, well – after dropping Larry and Marcella off at their hire car agency in Pheonix I headed North through Arizona, I stopped at the little town of Pine which would have been my next resupply stop after 160 miles for a burger and beer at my planned hostel. The weather turned really nasty and there were thunderstorms, snow, hail and
rain! I was pretty glad I wasn’t out in this weather to be honest. After that I made my way to Las Vegas via the wild west town of Holbrook – dubbed, “The town too tough for women and children” and Flagstaff which seemed to be full of drifters and kids in hoodies on skateboards.
I stayed in downtown Vegas and dropped off the hire car but didn’t really enjoy my couple of days there, I have lots of history with Sin City over the last 15 years but think we’re done now. After a couple of days I was glad to escape and flew to San Francisco to tick-off another item on my USA Bucket List.
The California Zephyr is a train route run by Amtrak which runs non-stop from San Francisco to Chicago across the USA. It travels 2438 miles in around 52 hours and goes through the high country of the Sierra Nevada, Lake Taho, The Rockies, Denver before dropping to the plains of the Idaho and Ohio. It’s widely recognised as being one of the best, most scenic train journeys in the world and was always on my list for this trip.
The train left San Francisco right-on schedule at 09:10 on Friday morning, I was really impressed – my cabin was big and comfortable with a full, pull-down bed. There were showers, complimentary coffee, water and juice – our car had it’s own conductor who made sure we were all looked after. I then found out that my $580 fare was 1st class and also included all meals in the dining car! Bargain.
The dining cars on Amtrak aren’t like the ones on British Rail, it’s a sit-down, full service of proper food, (steak / pasta / burgers etc…) no microwaved rubbish here, oh no! They also have a communal seating policy, this means that – if you’re in a party of 3 or less you’ll be sat with strangers. As I was on my own, I was always I dined with new people which provided new and different conversation.
The journey really was everything I’d hoped it would be, the Sierras and Rockies were very, very cool – there was a snowstorm in the Rockies but the California Zephyr ploughed through massive drifts and blizzards, (take note British Rail) I met lots of new and interesting people on the train and saw bits of the USA that I’d not have seen otherwise. It was brilliant value at $580 for 2 days/nights with all food and the sleeper cabin. I’d recommend it as an experience.
Finally I got to Chicago and spent 4 days there before I was due to fly to New York for my journey back to the UK. I don’t like big cities and found it noisy, busy and full of scammers, grifters and hustlers, I did however get out for a couple of runs and used the time to explore some of the classic landmarks in the city but – I was glad to escape and head to New York to start the long journey home.
Eventually, after 5 weeks and 3 days of travelling I arrived home in Cardiff, exhausted and with a nasty chest infection that appeared as I arrived at Gatwick. Now, 5 days later the jetlag has gone and I’m left with a tickly, annoying cough.
I’ve done a lot of thinking over the last 3 weeks about my experience on the AZT and having to come off the trail after 300 miles. I really, really enjoyed my time on the AZT, yes, it was hard – but there were times each and every day where I can remember being totally happy and content. Wild camping under the stars, watching the sunrise and sunset, the deserts and wildlife and the total isolation are things that stick with me. I’ll miss the people I met on the trail too, everyone I met was helpful, friendly and selfless which is infectious. I’ve mused that I was simultaneously at my most isolated and most social, even though I could not see another person for 2-3 days at a time, when I finally met someone there was an immediate bond.
But, and here’s the kicker – I like moving fast and light… My pack, with water and food was probably upwards of 25kg/55lb. And I’m a runner, not a hiker! Most people seemed to be doing 12-15 miles/day whereas I was doing almost double that, my mentality is that if it’s light I might as well be moving forward towards. On a trail like the AZT, with so few water and supply points I wanted to minimize the amount of food and water I had to carry so tried to move fast between these points. After 16 days, (including 2 rest days), averaging 20-25 miles/day over rough, mountainous terrain this broke me. The toes on my left foot are better but still a little numb, I’m pretty sure that I made the correct decision and stopped before I did any real damage to the nerves.
I’ve said before, “Never Say Never” – I’d like to do some more multi-day hiking, there’s A LOT of stuff I’d change next time which I’d like to try. In the UK and Europe we have many, shorter trails that are possibilities and can be completed in 10-14 days and I may turn my eyes towards them during the summer. But, for now – it’s time to get back to some running.