Thursday, September 8, 2011

Arizona Trail - Pine to Flagstaff (weather window hiking)

I got away for a few days over Labor Day to hike the Arizona Trail from Pine to Flagstaff. Photos are here. It was a fortuitous trip - I had an opportunity to break from work for a few days, and Arizona was experiencing record heat. Although along the Mogollon Rim it was in the mid-90's, rain was light/infrequent and lows were in the mid-60's. Now, a week later, Flagstaff is having heavy rain and lows in the 40's. A lot of the "trail" (really two-track) is red clay that turns into a terrible soup when wet - I've struggled/slipped/trudged along through this in the past as it clings inches-deep to my shoes. So it was a hot and dry, but peaceful and fortuitous, trip.

I'll lead with two "trail stories." Trail stories are like any other kind of tall tales - the teller finds them important/interesting/hilarious, while the recipient listens patiently and/or tries to avoid the situation altogether. This is even more so for backpacking because it's a slow and obscure activity - nobody makes a "Nobody Cares that You Long-Distance Backpack" sticker only because nobody would ever think anyone would have an ego about long-distance backpacking (or really even knows what it is).

So, with that edifying introduction, story one:

-I rode a comfortable and efficient van to Payson - with the incremental demise of Greyhound, these services are becoming the de-facto non-car infrastructure of rural America. One of the other passengers asked me, "Aren't you worried about bears?" I of course replied that I wasn't. After a few minutes in Payson, Dennis of Payson Taxi (no web site), took me the rest of the way to the Pine AZT trailhead, and I was on my way.

Four miles into the Highline Trail section of the AZT, I approached the first spring. I heard something moving around in the scrub oak, and figured another cow had gotten through a fence and into the spring. But it didn't really sound like a cow, and I instinctively started backing away, "hey-bear"-ing and banging my hiking poles together. Sure enough, seconds later a small black object (that sure looked like a bear cub) shot across the forest floor and up a tree. And immediately afterwards a (definite, unmistakable) mama black bear rushed out of the woods behind it.

She saw me, saw the racket I was making, saw that I wasn't cutting off her approach to the cub, and started backing up. She bumped into a stump, fell over, jumped up, spun around to see what knocked her down, got scared that she had taken her eyes off me, and then ran off into the woods.

So there's my AZT bear story.

Story two:

A few miles north of Highway 87, I was running out of sunlight and saw a fine campsite. In fact, there was a carved stone monument marking the spot:

Good luck - I was fortunate to find such a nice camp. At about midnight, a car drove up within maybe eight feet and two guys got out. I asked them what they were doing, and learned that this was their traditional Labor Day camp for decades - didn't I see the "Los Pinos" monument? His nephew carved that rock. The rest of the group was arriving the next day - they were there to start the setup.

For a few minutes we debated our relative rights to the site. We concluded it was toss-up. Certainly the iron-clad rule of personal-space-loving western American dispersed camping is first-in time, first-in-right. In other countries, you end up camping right on top of each other, but right or wrong (I'll say right), not here in the USA. But of course I should have known that this was a meaningful spot to someone, and that certainly such a meaningful spot might be occupied by the folks who find it meaningful over the Labor Day holiday.

In the end, we solved our differences like good westerners - we accommodated/ignored each other and waited for the problem to pass. The two guys unloaded their stuff and went to sleep. I got up before dawn, tried to be quiet, and headed on my way. Here's one of the guys sleeping in his car in the morning:

In sum, a surprising experience - I've slept out for over a thousand nights, and I've never had anyone suggest that they might kick me out of my campsite.

-There you go - two trail stories. Other notes on this section of the Arizona Trail:

-I wasn't looking forward to this section, and admittedly it wasn't my favorite backpack. There's far too much road-walking, and a fair amount of what I call "Arizona Death Cobble," and what horse folk call "Potato Rock." More on that later. However, it was a peaceful, if quite hot hike. It's the type of connector-type trail (long section connecting famous/scenic locations - in this case the Mogollon Rim country and the San Francisco Peaks) that inspired me to stop doing long trails nonstop a long time ago.

-The Highline Trail area is really a highlight. The Highline Trail is a National Recreation Trail (not to be confused with a National Scenic Trail, which is what the Arizona Trail is) (and also not to be confused (?) with the Highline National Recreation Trail in Idaho) that follows along below the Mogollon Rim for about fifty miles. It's a diverse area with bubbling creeks, diverse plant communities, and packed with wildlife (in addition to an excited mama bear). I saw deer, coyote, foxes, several herds of elk, deer, coyote, etc., along the way.

Yes, the trail has a lot of the aforesaid Death Cobble/Potato Rock, and at a few points the trail nearly disappears. I thought, "Hey - fifty miles, rugged trail, beautiful country - this would make a great 50 mile race!" Indeed, someone beat me to it (by about 25 years). Genius! I was hiking the route of the Zane Grey 50 race, a classic with fast times by the likes of Dave Mackey, Anton Krupicka, Karl Meltzer, and other outrageous runners.

Aside: I really love these old articles on early Zane Grey 50 finishers, in particular a young Kirk Apt making the course record in 1992.

And blackberries:

-From the Rim to Highway 87, there is a good stretch of trail and low grazing impact. It's a lot of nice tall grass, un-incised drainage banks, good campsites, etc. There are also two quite luxurious developed Forest Service campgrounds, complete with water. Here's an example well-groomed campsite:

But hey, I'm not paying $8 to camp (and plus I had miles to make) - I made it all the way to Los Pinos. Definitely worth it (?).

-In this stretch, I met an interesting guy who had volunteered with the AZT since the late-90's, and had helped build much of the trail in Pinal County. He had decided to section-hike the rest of the trail and was out and about for a few days. As such, he was the first AZT backpacker I've actually seen on-trail. More importantly, I was also the first backpacker he had seen on- trail (!).

Which raises the question, are there really that few people out there hiking the trail, or am I demonstrating why people don't understand statistics/Gambler's Fallacy? Again, I think it's the former, and of course leads back to my ax to grind re: Death Cobble/Potato Rock. And again, more on that later.

-North of Highway 87, there's some looong road walk and heavy, heavy cattle impact. Water sources are limited to a few stock tanks and, beautiful Ponderosa forest aside, it's some country to "get done." Here's your water source:


-I wandered down into Mormon Lake in the middle of a giant rodeo - I sat on a bench outside the Mormon Lake Lodge restaurant/"steak house" and a cowboy was literally hustled/pushed out the door like in an old Western. He dusted himself off and walked away. I'm sad that I missed the demo derby:

But that late-model Caddy didn't have a chance unless they pushed in the back end. I can say I've enjoyed every demo derby I've been to except for an indoor derby in Anaconda, Montana - the carbon monoxide was so bad I was sick for days afterwards.

-Like the “Los Pinos” site, I arrived at the Marshall Lake dispersed camping area at sundown. I plunked down near a middle-aged pop-up trailer with some toys sprinkled around in front. I figured small kids meant that at least they’d go to sleep relatively early. It turned out to be a friendly Phoenix family with good kids and a husband quite interested in getting back to doing more backpacking/traveling. They fed me hot dogs by the campfire while the husband asked me leading questions. Example:

“So, Will, does your WIFE worry about you when you’re out on the trail?”
“No, husband, she doesn’t – and most of the time I’m in cell range anyway.”
At this point, husband would look at wife, wife would look at husband, she would roll her eyes, and he would ask the next question.

-Okay, getting down to the Death Cobble/Potato Rock. Gambler’s Fallacy aside, it really seems there are very few people out there back/horse-packing the AZT. Why? Oh, lots of reasons, right? It’s the newest National Scenic Trail, not well known/famous/infamous, not known as “finished” as much as such a long trail could ever be complete, has a quite small weather window for thru-hiking or completing longish sections, there are very few folks who do this sort of thing, etc.

And I posit that there’s another reason – namely that, well, the many places…but certainly not all…and not for lack of incredible dedication of volunteers and thousands of hours of work…and really I’m not criticizing because there very well could be no trail at all………..well, the trail sort of sucks. It can be rocky. Really rocky. Rockier than anything I’ve ever seen, anywhere. Here’s a not-extreme/very typical Death Cobble section:

It looks fine, right? Just an old Jeep track being used as a trail. Certainly you aren’t going to get lost here – no way. And certainly this doesn’t need maintenance – it’s not overgrown and should be fine for years. But here’s a close-up:

It’s just rocks. Rocks that you kick around, teeter-totter over, slip on, and generally hate. Horse folks call this Potato Rock, and it can really hurt hooves, leaving them vulnerable to infection and other problems. There’s a lot of this trail along the AZT – miles and miles of it.

Other (long) sections of the trail look like this:

And this:

With both prone to turning into the aforementioned terrible soup when wet - in other words in the spring when folks would be trying for a thru-hike. This may sound persnickety, and perhaps it is, but this isn’t “trail” – it’s road. And the Happy Jack passage (the Arizona Trail Association calls segments/sections “passages”) is over twenty miles of road.

And again, I’m not (really) criticizing. Lots of the trail looks like this:

Also, I’m not out there working on the trail, and I’m committed to finishing the AZT (even though the remaining sections include a lot more road walking). But I think this is one reason why there aren’t more people out there.

-While the AZT trail quality may be lacking, trail marking is now good. The Association has installed literally hundreds of carsonite posts along the way like this:

At this point the trail is easy to follow. Whether the posts last is another matter – these things make tempting targets/souvenirs. Tree blazing may have been a better, but no longer a feasible/permissible, option.

-A good escape, and fun. As usual, when I’ll get back to do more trail I have no idea – certainly not until next year.

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