Sunday, April 17, 2011

Arizona Trail - Sunflower to Pine (Passages 22-26)

After a day off in Payson, I spent three days (and a bit of a fourth) on the trail hiking the passages from Sunflower to Pine. I did these in "reverse" (north to south), both to let the snow melt and because it was much easier to get a ride from Payson to Pine. Photos are here. By my incredibly imprecise reckoning, I've hiked about 450 miles of the Arizona Trail, and have about 300 to go. Will I come back to hike them? Yes. When? I have no idea!

The Mazatzal Wilderness was incredible - it's really rugged, rarely visited, and much of the range was burned in a 2004 fire. It was exactly what I consider the best purpose of this type of long-distance backpacking - it's an area I knew nothing about, would probably never visit again, but incredible, difficult, and edifying. I found the distances of burned snags dreamlike, ethereal. Even more moving is that there are so many ranges/wildernesses dotting southern/central Arizona to explore.

As I hiked between my last few camps on the trail, it hit me what a special trip this was. I only had two weeks off due to a fluke - my work start date had been pushed back. When's the next time I'll have two weeks to backpack? Years? It made me appreciate even the brushy/gully chaparral hiking of the Saddle Mountain passage. As the sun set, I hustled down to Highway 87 and the "campground" marked on my map - alas, the campground is now a wrecking yard, and I camped in a rough pasture too close to the highway.

In the morning, I hiked back up towards where I lost the trail in the snow on Bull Mountain. I don't think I made it all the way up there - I'll have to catch those 3-4 miles on a day hike someday (?).

And then Catherine and Will-J arrived to pick me up, and the real fun began:

We camped outside of Globe, near Pioneer Pass, and then at the Oak Flat Campground near Superior. And THEN, we stayed at a fantastic hotel in Phoenix with pools galore - Will-J had a blast splashing around for hours. Unfortunately, he wore himself out and fell asleep too early to enjoy the pools at night - he was like someone at a buffet who fills up too quickly and misses the crab legs. It was a bit weird for me to see so many people trying to get sunburns at the pool after generally trying to avoid sun-exposure for two weeks - I covered up practically completely, both against the sun and all the prickly plants out there.

It's wonderful to see him out in the desert - the terrain and life captivates him, as it does Catherine and me.

Another highlight was the Casa Grande National Monument:

I'll write more about this place when I have time - in short, I have been informally researching the early days of public lands management for a class I may be teaching. Casa Grande was withdrawn from the public lands in 1892, which makes it the first historical site so recognized - predating the Antiquities Act of 1906 and other laws facilitating such withdrawals. It makes sense - an obviously unique structure/set of structures amid a farming area with people scratching on the walls/taking pottery/etc. I'm curious to what extent recognition of Casa Grande led to the development of the current federal regulatory regime of similar sites.

A few more things about the trip:

-Cows. North of Catalina Highway, I was pleasantly surprised to see generally less cow impact - in the Colina Hills and Reddington Pass passages, in particular, basically anything that wasn't a rock or a cactus was a cow-pie. It took the cow-impact level from 99% down to maybe 65%.

-Where is everyone? March and April are prime time for hiking the Arizona Trail, yet I still have yet to see a backpacker on the trail. When we passed back through Superior (I wanted to get some images of the buildings like this:)

we met an actual AZT thru-hiker (Paul). His assessment was similar to mine - it's really rugged trail - rocky, and hard on the feet. And it changes constantly - you might get a few miles of buttery smooth trail, then a nasty OHV track, and then maybe no trail at all through a wash, then maybe a road-walk, etc. But aside from the OHV-ers, there aren't many folks out there this time of year - from the Mazatzals I could see the lights of Phoenix, but I seemed to have the range to myself.

-Arizona Trail Association. They are doing a lot of work with very little. My sense is they aren't getting help from the feds, and volunteers are just getting out to brush the trail as they can. On my last morning, I watched some cowboys drive cattle right up the passage 21 trail - kicking rocks, breaking down the trail, etc. Then there'll be a big fire eventually and more snags to clear - it's a huge task to maintain such a long trail.

-Gear. Besides my notes on the Kindle, I don't have much to add. I'm still using the same basic stuff as I got a few years ago to section-hike the Colorado Trail.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Arizona Trail 2

The last time I spend time on the Arizona Trail, my journey ended with a huge snowstorm - so this year I also expected snow. It came, but not until after five of the hottest days I've ever backpacked, and then three nice days. I wasn't in a mood to write - I had been writing intensely at work for some time, and plus this time I brought my Kindle (more on that below). I brought a few new books, but I settled on reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb's The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable . I've found this quite good so far - I was expecting more of an "investment book," and/or more of an unpacking of his Black swan theory. Instead, it is his book of philosophy - specifically on empirical skepticism. Montainge was also an empirical skeptic, and his Essays is my favorite book. As Taleb aspires to a collection of thoughts and opinions on the plane of Montaigne, I naturally gravitate to Taleb's book.

Most importantly, The Black Swan is an actual complicated book - I wouldn't just be able to say, "Oh, that book is about X, and I agree/disagree." Many of the books I've been reading are just about X - I can surf quickly through and find the X idea, then maybe whatever I enjoy learning about X idea, and then I'm done. This book demands more attention - which is good when you're backpacking around in the Sonoran Desert.

So here are some other thoughts/events/other from the trail:

-For about five days, it was really hot. Molino Basin trailhead on the Catalina Highway is right outside of Tucson, and I kept thinking, "Surely, the trail must be up a little higher. And cooler. Right?" Nope - it was 87 degrees and just warming up. I carry a ten liter water bag, and then with bottles I have three liters more - so realistically about three gallons. I called the water bag "the blob." Every time I found water, I'd feed the blob, and suddenly my pack would be about twenty pounds heavier. But it was so hot I was going through two gallons a day. Of course some of this has to do with me being from Colorado and not used to the heat.

Trail story: The hottest part of the trip was after crossing the Gila River. There's a long undulating section of trail heading west, and I was walking right into the afternoon sun. It was in the mid-90's. When I stopped for the evening, I found that I had the chills and had to lay down for awhile - I realized that I had minor heat exhaustion. I used to get it working in restaurants - I worked at a place in Davis where the kitchen would routinely get above 110 degrees in the summer. Back then, it seemed that lots of cold beer would do the trick, but in my old age I just rested. But my left arm hurt. And it still hurt in the morning. What a weird thing - why would heat exhaustion make my arm hurt? I looked at my arm, and pulled an inch-and-a-half cactus spine out of my deltoid. Ah - that felt much better. Welcome to the desert.

-The main reason I love doing these hikes is to see random out-of-the-way beautiful spots that few people know about and that I'll never see again. On this trip, there was the West Fork of Sabino Canyon (beautiful cascading pools), Wilderness of Rocks, a high-point bulge in the Tortilla Mountains, White Canyon, and Reavis Ranch (although this one is a popular backpacking destination). What I haven't really enjoyed in the past are the interfaces with "regular" America. Yes, I walk out of the woods and the family gives me the hard stare as if I was a green man from Mars. My reaction to this has changed over time - youthful defiance, early-adult guilt (I should be doing something more productive!), and now middle-aged acceptance.

It's the hiking poles - people just don't get it. They're always staring at the hiking poles. I get at least one "hey, there's no snow - why do you have ski poles?" comment per trip Seriously, if you're from Tucson or Phoenix, and you haven't seen or heard of hiking sticks or poles, you need to get out more. Yup, I've got hiking poles, and I just hiked through this entire mountain range - what did you do this week?

-My visit to the pools in Sabino Canyon was truncated by two neu-hippies making out in one of the pools. Wait, didn't this just happen last summer? Actually, the folks on Mt. Bancroft were doing more than just kissing. But in both instances, the couples reacted grumpily, covering up, voicing their displeasure, etc. Hey, it's a public space you know - you take your chances. In France they'd just kiss harder.

-There's fun culture-shock, too. The trail passes by the Roosevelt Lake Marina, and there's a store that people use to resupply. I'm hiking northbound through some really rugged country - Two Bar Ridge of the Superstition Wilderness may be the worst trail of the whole AZT - and you come to a loooooong dock on a lake:

I'm dusty. I'm hot. And I walk out there, and people are on boats from New Jersey with cute nautical names, very much living the nautical life. There's a nautical-themed little bar, and a store selling mainly boat stuff. What a clash!

-Yes I carried a Kindle, and it worked really well. I know a real lightweight backpacker would scoff at this, but I've enjoyed reading it at night, and the charge seems to be doing just fine. I got a cheap Kindle-specific dry bag for it - no problem. In fact, the Kindle really seems designed for travel. It's not good for really studying books, but rather just for light reading. Don't we need a reader with maybe three hinged "pages" where you can always look at the page before and after the one you're reading, plus a button where you can "flip" quickly back through pages? I see that as the next step.

-The Forest Service put disclaimer signs all around the Santa Catalina trailheads:

I also saw this one on state lands:

I don't know the utility of these since the Forest Service has governmental immunity anyway. But it does illustrate the perception of "controlled" areas near trailheads and "real" or "uncontrolled" "nature" in the "backcountry" or "wilderness." All charged terms, denoting a place where actual nature occurs. And occur it does. I saw three Gila Monsters in about fifteen minutes. Here's one:

-I've been preparing to teach a class in public lands with Catherine, with my overriding theme being that there's nothing really inherent or set about the way we manage these lands. And along these lines I was amazed to see all the completely treeless lands constituting the Tonto National Forest. My theory is these were withdrawn as part of a huge presidential designation before people in Washington even knew/cared about what was out there.

-Here's my big snow story, or how I became a minor legend to some teenage campers. I had known about the big coming storm on Sunday for at least five days, and so I expected to have to beat it out of the mountains. I hurried up and hiked the Four Peaks Section on Saturday, so I would have a clear line of exit, hopefully down to Highway 87 on Sunday. Sunday morning looked like this:

I hiked most of the way down to the highway, but the snow was piling up too fast and I had to backtrack and make a route out of Forest Service roads. I started pitying myself hiking around in the snow, but then I came upon a guy sitting in his truck, and when I asked him for a ride, he said, "YOU LOOK FINE - I'M NOT DRIVING OUT OF HERE IN THIS SNOW," and slammed his door. Soon I came up to a minor rescue operation in progress. There were at least four vehicles involved - some kids from Phoenix had driven their cars into the woods for the weekend, and one was stuck on essentially a cliff, and the other two were just stuck. The fourth car belonged to someone else, with those people not around. So there they were, all wet and cold, and this random guy comes hiking out of the snow with some weird little backpack. Cold? No, not really. In fact, I lugged all this cold-weather crap through the record heat because I knew it would snow at some point. They were confused because my gloves had gotten wet and dyed my hands black - one of them thought I had massive frostbite. The police were nice and gave me a ride to Payson, where I'm taking the day off.

-I still carry a first-gen Apple Shuffle (it still charges off AAA batteries before Apple "fixed" that ability) on these trips, and I just randomly fill it - let the chips fall where they may. As a result I end up pondering some music I haven't heard in awhile. For example:

Part of why I love Bob Dylan is that the studio musicians on his earlier recordings didn't really know what was going on. And instead of fighting them, Dylan just went with it and made it part of the irony. The drummer in "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again" - what exactly is he doing? They must have asked him for a "rock beat," and yeah he's heard of rock music and a rock beat; yeah - it's like the Monkees - and so there's this ham-handed machine gun beat the whole time. And Dylan going on about Shakespeare's pointed shoes, etc., and the drumming is just part of the weird carnival show. But Van Morrison, he fought those guys. They were always trying to add stupid "latin" beats and horns on his tracks, and fighting it just made him a grumpy man. Why can't the Red Hot Chile Peppers change singers every few years like Van Halen? There was a lot of The Police on the Shuffle, which makes me think of The Samples. The Samples were a grassroots Boulder band, with a similar use of white-reggae as The Police. They were huge - I remember seeing Dave Matthews opening for them. But it never really stuck - they put out all these okay albums, but instead Big Head Todd (far inferior) is selling out Red Rocks. And wasn't Sting going solo a big deal at the time, but now seems like the only logical thing for him to do? Is REM the biggest example of the band version of an overpaid NBA player with a guaranteed contract? Do record execs go to seminars that use REM as an example of what not to do? So that each new REM album now is hailed with "REM has a new album, and surprisingly, it doesn't suck!" And why did we like REM anyway? I absolutely loving them in high school and now I don't know why. So there are all these amazing old school rappers out there - why can't we put them together into touring super-groups? Who wouldn't pay to see Curtis Blow and Grandmaster Flash and whoever else touring with whatever awesome DJ? Likewise, why can't we put the old Zulu Nation - like, all of it - together for a massive 2012 tour? Didn't The Smiths break up at just the right time? Like at the exact moment that Morrissey's bad-boy act was about to get old? And what's Johhny Marr's best post-Smith's project? The The? Electronic? Modest Mouse? I think I'd take The The.

-I'm still doing 25-mile days like when I was younger, and as my wonderful wife would say, "That and a dollar still might not get you a cup of coffee." I'll never head off to do really big trips again (and even if I could, I doubt I'd enjoy hiking more than a few weeks), but I'm looking forward to having tours like this with her when Will-J goes off to summer-camp or whatever - as well as going with him if he wants. It's fun. Again, it's a good way to see things you wouldn't see otherwise, at a walking pace.

-And wilderness. The real reason to get out there is to experience Arizona's wilderness areas. A part of me quiets right down when I see a sign like this:

Arizona Trail - Catalina Highway to Sunflower (Passages 11-21)

I escaped to Arizona to hike on the Arizona trail for some days. So far, I made it a little over 200 miles, and am doing a "zero" day (in the long-distance hiker's lingo) in Payson. My photos so far are here.

I'll write more about the trip later.