788.7 miles in 53 days

Stephanie and I didn’t come to the Arizona Trail with any predetermined ideas about “zero days”, but the weather was so miserable during our first four days (snow-covered trails, gale-force wind, freezing rain, drizzle, clayey mud) that we took a zero during our resupply in Patagonia, AZ just to let the weather pass. But from that point on, we almost always planned a zero to resupply, and if at all possible, preceded it with a morale-boosting half-day of hiking (or “nero”) on the way into town.

Dinner in Patagonia, AZ after 4 hellish days and 51 miles of backpacking the Arizona National Scenic Trail, NOBO
Two thru-hikers in desperate need of a zero

Over the course of the hike I ended up resupplying 8 times (all but 2 of which were during nero-plus-zeros), which effectively punctuated the trail into 9 discrete sections. I ran into a few day-hikers and backpackers along the way who found the scale of hiking the AZT “in one go” almost incomprehensible. I always reassured them that “thru-hiking is just a series of backpacking trips, glued together with zero days.” I didn’t feel like I was doing anything that special—I just had the “luxury” of going on 9 backpacking trips, back-to-back. While I was hiking, I started to visualize the following infographic to convey how the trail felt for me less like a linear journey, and more like a collection of related but distinct adventures (in no small part due to the evolving role Stephanie played in each).

Infographic of my 2019 thru-hike of the Arizona National Scenic Trail

Of the 53 days I was on trail (from March 9 through April 30, 2019), I slept in a hotel for 13 nights (after neros, zeros, and the last day). Which meant that for 40 days, survival depended on finding a patch of flat, clear, dry, spacious, and wind-shielded ground to pitch my tent. Even though these were sites chosen for their essential utility, I felt compelled to capture each scene—often picturesque only in the contrast of the alien-looking Plexamid against Arizona’s diverse landscape. More than the miles I racked up (788.7, per the Guthook Guides AZT app, though most round the trail to 800), I viewed these nightly rituals as the true measure of my progress.

All 40 campsites from my 2019 thru-hike of the Arizona national Scenic Trail
A visual TL;DR

Remarkably, even though more than 7 months have elapsed since we set off, each of these photos, some with only the slimmest of context, transports me right back to the trail, and to the day that led to that moment in time. What follows are my recollections, stories triggered by 40 photos of my campsites along the Arizona Trail.

Day 1, Mile 8.1

Day 1 on the Arizona Trail
We had to hike a number of miles to reach the border with Mexico, before officially beginning the trail and retracing our steps. The elevation change was intense, and towards the end of the day the trail was covered with snow. We accidentally set the first tent too close to a water source, so we had to tear it down, and try to find a better spot. We were exhausted. We hiked further up the trail, but it only became more windy and precarious, so we returned to an earlier marginal spot. The tents were new, and we were not well-practiced in setting them up effectively, so I secured the stakes with rocks. All night a cold wind whipped through the tents with hurricane force, causing the walls to flap loudly, but at least they stayed put. We didn’t get much sleep.

Day 2, Mile 20.1

Day 2 on the Arizona Trail
The day was warmer, almost hot at times. Maybe we’d turned a corner? We tried to stop a little earlier (around 4pm or so) so we had more time to make camp and figure out how to better pitch the tents. We ended up in an area of open grazing land, which required clearing the ground of several dry cow patties. But we had more than enough space to set up the tents facing each other. It was a major improvement over the previous day. However our “AZT initiation” wouldn’t have been complete without a little rain that woke me in the middle of the night, even with earplugs. The tents were loud, but kept us dry.

Day 3, Mile 37.3

Day 3 on the Arizona Trail
We knew the weather was going to turn sometime on the third night, so Stephanie pushed us late in the day to make a few extra miles—anything so we could get to Patagonia sooner on day 4. It should be noted that choosing a suitable campsite is excruciating when you’re exhausted and the only alternative is hiking further as darkness approaches. The ominous storm clouds added to our urgency, so we settled on high but very sharp and rocky ground, which required some work to clear. The rain began to fall just as we got everything tied down and it continued through the night, punctuated by bouts of thunder and gusts of wind reminiscent of our first night.

Day 4, Mile 51.1

It was so cold when we woke that snow was falling amidst the rain. Stephanie had a puddle in her tent. We still had a full day of hiking to get through before we reached Patagonia. It drizzled on and off. As soon as we got cellphone service Stephanie called the only hotel in town and got the last room. I shudder to think of the outcome had no rooms been available.

Day 5, Zero Day

We took a zero day in Patagonia to let the weather pass.

Day 6, Mile 60.9

Day 6 on the Arizona Trail
After our breakdown and recovery in Patagonia, we hit the trail with clear skies and renewed vigor. Found a good campsite near water.

Day 7, Mile 75.9

Day 7 on the Arizona Trail
We made the mistake of pushing on after deeming a campsite not good enough, and then found ourselves on a stretch of trail endlessly surrounded by steep slopes or waist-high brush. We persevered until we crossed a dirt road where we finally found a patch of clear, flat ground.

Day 8, Mile 90.1

Day 8 on the Arizona Trail
This is one of those rare undifferentiated shots that didn’t trigger any memories until I looked at the satellite map of the site. We heard gunshots from a nearby “range” until well after sunset, and again at first light the next morning. Not the sort of thing that put us at ease.

Day 9, Mile 105.2

Day 9 on the Arizona Trail
We nicknamed this site “the cactus garden” (though it’s difficult to fully appreciate in this photo) because we were surrounded by cacti on all sides, for miles. It was actually a challenge to find enough space for both tents. The setting was a nice end to an otherwise hard day—Stephanie had come to the conclusion that she needed to take a break from the trail (mostly due to knee pain, but also mental exhaustion). The next day we planned to resupply in Vail. From there we decided that I would return to the trail solo, crossing a series of two imposing peaks, while Stephanie made her way to Tucson to meet up with some friends who were there on vacation. If all went according to plan, we’d meet up a few days later in Oracle where she’d rejoin me, and I hoped, the trail.

Day 10, Mile 125.0

Day 10 on the Arizona Trail
It seemed as though three days elapsed in the span of what we originally planned as a short nero. The first day consisted of hiking 7.5 miles to the Gabe Zimmerman trailhead (memorializing one of the victims from the 2011 Tucson shooting). We hoped to “hitch” a ride into Vail to resupply, and miraculously, we crossed paths with a trail angel checking on the AZT water cache, and she offered to bring us into town. The second day unfolded at the enormous Vail Safeway, where I did my resupply shopping with ruthless efficiency, aided by Stephanie, whose mood was almost beatific with the knowledge that she was getting off the trail. Then we stuffed our faces with food from the grocery store buffet while I crushed chips and packed food into ziploc bags. I also sketched out an ambitious plan to hike a series of 20-mile days to meet back up with Stephanie in Oracle on Day 14. (Keep in mind, up to that point we’d only been hiking 10–15-mile days, and I was about to go over two mountains.) I struck up a conversation about the AZT with two older gentlemen sitting next to us, and in an act of surprising generosity, one of the men offered to drop me (in all my “hiker trash” glory) back off at the trailhead. So I left Stephanie at the Safeway (she later ended up getting another ride from our first angel, 25 miles to downtown Tucson!) and found myself back at the trailhead around 2pm. And thus began my third day. I felt a surge of energy, and ended up hiking as much that afternoon as we had been hiking in a single day.

Day 11, Mile 146.2

Day 11 on the Arizona Trail
Selfie as evidence that I survived. I hiked a staggering 24 miles, starting just outside of Saguaro National Park, going over Mt. Mica, complete with snow at the top, and then dropping back down the mountain and exiting the park, where it was once again fair game to camp anywhere along the trail corridor.

Day 12, Mile 169.8

Day 12 on the Arizona Trail
This was one of those hard days with constant ups and downs. When I reached an “overused” area of campsites toward the end of the day, I decided to push on for something more secluded, crossing the rapids of Sabino Creek by rock hopping with some landings that ended with harrowing boulder bear hugs. On the other side there was no place to camp, and there was no way I was heading back, so I kept moving, and the trail kept winding through uncampable terrain, and the light kept getting lower, and I started to freak out because I was so exhausted. Eventually I invented a campsite in this rough grassy patch, aided by the glow of the fading sunset.

Day 13, Mile 188.6

Day 13 on the Arizona Trail
The day started with another risky and time-consuming stream crossing, but really everything about the trail that morning was killing my pace. Not yet at the summit of the second mountain I had to get over, I reached an overlook where I could see the outskirts of Tucson and decided to check whether I had any signal. I did! So I called Stephanie, and when she picked up, I choked up, overwhelmed by a deep surge of emotion and beat down by the terrain. I could barely get out a word at first. But hearing her voice picked me up, and I motored on, eventually reaching Summerhaven, the resort town on top of Mt. Lemmon. I stopped at the Christmas Cookie Cabin and rewarded myself with a single slice of their homemade pizza—which would count as two large slices anywhere else. I was so distracted by this brief interlude of civilization that I left town without stocking up on water, only to discover that there was no longer any water to filter on trail. There were also no campsites. Eventually I found a patch of ground with just enough room for my tent—complete with steep drop offs on either side. After pitching it, I hiked back up the trail a few hundred feet and collected some snow to melt to get me through the night and the next morning. I experienced one of the most incredible sunsets from my tent, just a narrow band of intense orange light below the thick cloud cover.

Day 14, Mile 198.2

The hike down to Oracle consisted of a steep rubble-filled trail that battered my feet. Stephanie found someone at the hotel to drive her out to the trailhead to pick me up and then drop us off at the amazing Oracle Patio Cafe. Best breakfast ever!

Day 15, Zero Day

We needed a zero just to catch each other up on everything that had happened since Vail. Plus the hotel had a hot tub, so…

Day 16, Mile 213.6

Day 16 on the Arizona Trail
I had my hiking partner back! The trail was still hard and getting hotter, but we started to experience some of the year’s rumored “desert superbloom”—wild flowers in every direction, as far as the eye could see—thanks to an unseasonably wet winter.

Day 17, Mile 230.0

Day 17 on the Arizona Trail
We crossed paths with a group of triple crown thru-hikers doing 30-mile days, eventually sharing some shade during a lunch break against a large stock tank. They asked about our thru-hiking history, and I mentioned hiking a section of the PCT with my Dad in 2014. One of them, going by the trail name “Hyrobics”, got visibly excited and asked what my Dad’s trail name was. It turned out that not only had she thru-hiked the PCT that year, but she remembered bumping into my Dad, aka “Tartan”, in Sisters, OR right around the time my brother met up with him.

Day 18, Mile 247.4

Day 18 on the Arizona Trail
A long stretch of the trail was concurrent with a demotivating dirt road that followed alongside some high-voltage power lines for miles. My back started to feel “tweaked” towards the end of the day, so much so that we chose our campsite pretty much at the point I dropped my pack because I couldn’t go any further. I liked the little cactus garden right behind my tent.

Day 19, Mile 263.3

Day 19 on the Arizona Trail
Though you cannot tell given how I framed this shot, just off to the left is a trailhead parking lot. This proximity to civilization actually made us feel more nervous than camping in the middle of nowhere. Sure enough just after we got into our tents and started changing out of our hiking clothes, a car drove into the parking lot, circled a few times, and then parked as close to our tents as possible. We were already alert, but now we were on edge. Our tents were positioned for privacy and modesty, so we couldn’t really see the car after it parked. The car door opened and a voice asked “Hey do you guys need anything?” I was operating as though camping so close to a trailhead might be verboten, so I responded obliquely, “We’re just Arizona Trail hikers,” in case this person thought we might be some less desirable form of vagrant. She responded, “Yeah, I figured that, I was just wondering if you guys needed anything?” At this point I was thoroughly confused, but at least the tension had been diffused, so I asked “Umm, what do you have?” She replied, “Oh lots of stuff, do you need any food?” We really didn’t, so wracking my brain, all I could come up with was, “Do you have any sodas or chips?” She responded, “I’m not sure, let me check.” It was a hilarious exchange, during which both Stephanie and I were in various states of undress, hurriedly trying to pull on clothes. Eventually I got out and met the woman behind the voice. She was living out of her camper van and traveling the country mountain biking. She didn’t have any chips, but she did give us two soda cans, one a lime-flavored sparkling water, the other a caffeine-free Pepsi. On a whim I combined the two into a “trail cocktail”, so Stephanie and I could split the refreshing concoction. Cold bubbly anything on a hot evening in the middle of a thru-hike is intoxicating. It was the first, and probably the best “trail magic” we experienced, and also the point at which the awesomeness of caffeine-free cola entered our consciousness.

Day 20, Mile 279.3

Day 20 on the Arizona Trail
During a leisurely lunch break along the Gila River, which included a bathing and laundry session, we bumped into a hiker named “Stretch” from Sonoma County who we’d befriend after crossing paths between Superior and Pine. But generally, we hiked alone, and frequently a day would pass without seeing another human being. The Guthook Guides app for the AZT didn’t identify any non-developed campsites, but we discovered that one or two hikers ahead of us were using the app’s comments to list the milemarker of promising spots. This became important, because usually at the end of the day, when our decision-making ability was fried, if I suggested to Stephanie that we “just go a little bit further” to find a spot, she’d look at me with searing contempt. On the other hand, if I told her that “Good Man Gramps” says in the comments that “there’s space for 2-3 tents at mile 279.3”, she’d happily mosey further up the trail. This was one of those nights. We had to head up a steep incline at the end of the day about a mile further than we wanted, but sure enough, when we reached the advertised tenth of a mile, we found a spot overlooking the river valley we’d just hiked through, surrounded by silhouettes of the mesas and buttes people envision when they think “Arizona”.

Day 21, Mile 296.4

Day 21 on the Arizona Trail
We decided to stop a mere 4 miles before the trailhead at Superior because we were tired, it was getting late, and even if we had made it all the way, we still would have needed to hitch a ride to bring us the 5 or so miles into town.

Day 22, Mile 300.5

Shortest nero of the whole thru-hike. We ended up getting in touch with a trail angel who picked us up at the trailhead and brought us into town. We made a beeline to the nearest restaurant for sodas and burgers.

Day 23, Zero Day

The hotel we ended up reserving in Superior did not live up to the town’s name. We were eager to leave and return to the comparable luxury of our tents.

Day 24, Mile 316.1

Day 24 on the Arizona Trail
I almost stepped on a rattlesnake coiled on the trail. I screamed. It seemed nonplussed, didn’t even have the courtesy to rattle, and eventually slithered away. At the very end of the day, we had a crazy incline, like 2000 feet in a mile or something, through thick brush, with the threat of rattlesnakes on our minds. Once again, we were confident that we’d find a campable spot just over the ridge thanks to a comment in Guthook. After the sun set, we were talking to each other between our tents about how crazy it would have been for Stretch (who had told us when we passed him after leaving Superior that he planned to hike further we were aiming for) to attempt that climb in the fading sunlight. No more than 15 minutes later, we hear the sound of a hiker coming over the ridge in the dark. It was Stretch, who was elated to have found us and also to have finally reached a flat spot where he could set up his tent. It was the first night on the trail where anyone had camped in our vicinity.

Day 25, Mile 333.6

Day 25 on the Arizona Trail
Towards the end of an already brutal day, nearing a campsite promised in the comments of the app, we found ourselves on a ribbon of trail on the side of a mountain with the wind just whipping across us. Walking was difficult. The wind cut right through Stephanie, and she broke down, sobbing for the last mile or so. I felt horrible. This was also one of the few times where the campsite we were seeking was located more towards the end of the tenth of a mile than the beginning. But the view, once we were settled, was probably one of the best we’d experienced thus far.

Day 26, Mile 345.3

Day 26 on the Arizona Trail
We had a somewhat shorter day to make it to the Lake Roosevelt Marina to resupply. Unfortunately the trail leading to the marina for the last several miles was built for ATVs and side-by-sides, making it excessively steep and rocky for those on foot. We felt like we could fall at any moment. The focus required was draining, and after the wind sapped Stephanie’s spirit the night before, she was running on fumes. I’d be hard-pressed to remember any time (on- or off-trail) when I’d seen her angrier, mostly at the AZT, but also at me for not seeming to be as affected. She was so pissed off that I had to create some distance between us—which was quite the anomaly, as we usually hiked within spitting distance of each other. Finally we finished the hike, we got to the marina, Stephanie started to calm down, and we discovered that the marina had a bar. And oh my god, once Stephanie had a margarita in her hand (and I an IPA) our mood swung from the lowest low to the highest high. When we asked if they had any food, and they said, “We only have hotdogs and hamburgers, buuut you have to cook them yourselves—there are gas grills just outside that you can use,” we literally freaked. We get to grill our own hotdogs, and they provide all the fixin’s?! Yes please! On top of that, Stretch, who we knew was a handful of miles behind us, needed to get to the marina that day in order to pick up a critical resupply package. Once again, we thought it unlikely that he’d make it given the terrain, and once again, he surprised us. When his haggard-looking frame entered the bar that evening, I leaped off my barstool to embrace him, and the other bar patrons—who we’d been regaling with AZT stories all afternoon—erupted with cheers and applause. Oh, did we celebrate that night.

Day 27, Mile 357.1

Day 27 on the Arizona Trail
Maybe I “celebrated” a little too much the previous night. We got a very slow start that morning. Unlike other resupplies, we didn’t give ourselves a zero day because we weren’t staying at a hotel (no sense in doing nothing if we didn’t have a bed and a shower). The next section was the longest we’d attempt, both in miles and days, so our packs were laden with food for seven days. Of course the trail immediately started off with a prolonged climb, so for all these reasons, we didn’t make as many miles as we’d hoped.

Day 28, Mile 376.2

Day 28 on the Arizona Trail
We experienced a hiker’s tailwind thanks to a stretch of the trail that was concurrent with a series of gently graded dirt roads. Stephanie hiked more in a single day than she ever had before, on this trail or any other: 19 miles! That said, she also came to the conclusion that when we reached Pine for our next resupply, she’d be getting off the AZT for good. She planned to grab our Jeep in Las Vegas and then come back to support me from Flagstaff to the end. Even though it seemed like she was just starting to find her groove, for her it was imperative to leave the trail on a high note, wanting more, rather than hating it.

Day 29, Mile 393.6

Day 29 on the Arizona Trail
We got very good at setting up our tents, but occasionally if one thing was off, it seemed like every little adjustment would only make things worse. This was one of those nights for both of us. Really cool red soil though. Found a scorpion hiding under a rock.

Day 30, Mile 411.5

Day 30 on the Arizona Trail
We passed the halfway point(s) of the trail (it’s either 394.35, 395, or 400, depending on who you ask). I think we had hiked for a solid 48 hours without seeing a single person, until we reached an area near a natural spring where we planned to camp for the night. It was surreal to hear voices in the distance as we approached. There we stumbled upon a group of 4 or 5 trail stewards and 2 weekend backpackers who’d already set up for the night.

Day 31, Mile 429.9

Day 31 on the Arizona Trail
We crossed paths with a hiker named “Chipcrusher” who we’d not run into before, and who we’d intersect with frequently all the way to the Grand Canyon.

Day 32, Mile 448.8

Day 32 on the Arizona Trail
Of course the day leading up to our last night together couldn’t have been a walk in the park, right? In fact, it was probably one of the most technical and infuriating stretches of trail we had hiked, and the remarkable thing is that Stephanie chewed right through it, maintaining an insanely consistent pace across what was essentially a rock obstacle course. Maybe she was buoyed by the fact that the following day was her last, but I think she had just grown stronger, both in body and mind. When asked months later what she had learned from the hike, she answered, “I didn’t realize how adaptable I was.” Of all the attributes that we’d factor into selecting a campsite, one of which we hadn’t really been prioritizing was finding shelter from the wind. Unfortunately, we settled on the first flat and non-rock-strewn ground we came across, which ended up turning into a cold wind tunnel that night. Though we were by then experts at pitching our tents securely, no amount of tautness could mitigate the buffeting of a constant wind. It was a dreadful night that I wanted to just end more than I wanted to get to sleep.

Day 33, Mile 461.1

We arrvied in Pine, stopping at That Brewery on the way into town for their Arizona Trail Ale and burgers, the promise of which had been motivating us for more than 100 miles.

Day 34, Zero Day

In addition to resupplying at the local grocery store, I received a package of Mountain House dehydrated meals and other goodies from my Dad, a very welcome break from the instant ramen I’d been consuming for dinner since Patagonia.

Day 35, Mile 482.9

Day 35 on the Arizona Trail
Once again, I was on my own. Stephanie had a Rube-Goldbergian plan for getting from Pine to my sister’s in Las Vegas, so she could pick up our Jeep and come meet me when I reached Flagstaff. We joked that it would have been easier (and less stressful) for her to just walk to Flagstaff! But I’ll admit, I was glad she skipped this particular day on the trail. The threat of rain hovered over me all morning, eventually drizzling/snowing a little mid-day. Then at the end of the day I made a final push to get over some elevation, and the skies opened up with a cross between snow and hail. It was crazy. There was less than an inch of accumulation, but it didn’t take much to obscure the trail. That night I was probably colder than I had been at any other point on the trail.

Day 36, Mile 505.9

Day 36 on the Arizona Trail
The cold woke me before my alarm, so I got a very early start, which was good because it meant I’d warm up sooner. I had trouble packing my tent because there was a layer of ice both inside and outside. The elevation change the day before represented a total ecosystem change. I had left the desert behind and entered the forest. Thankfully the previous day’s snow had all but melted by the end of the day.

Day 37, Mile 528.1

Day 37 on the Arizona Trail
I spent the day walking through the forest. Much of the trail was concurrent with Forest Service roads, some of which had been washed out during the wet winter, leaving behind long stretches of unpleasant, ankle-twisting rubble fields.

Day 38, Mile 546.8

Day 38 on the Arizona Trail
In the morning, I took a rare detour off-trail about a mile down to Mormon Lake Resort for novelty’s sake—and also for the promise of bonus calories. I hadn’t realized when I planned this stretch in Pine that they had a general store, so I might have been able to carry less food during this section, but that didn’t stop me from devouring two microwavable sausage biscuits and a rather large cola. They also had spotty wifi that allowed me to update Stephanie on my progress. Later that night I had full cell service from my tent (possibly because I was near Flagstaff). I was able to call Stephanie, which was great, but also hard, because instead of enjoying the peace and solitude of the trail, I just felt lonely. I was ready to get back to her, but I still had two days to go.

Day 39, Mile 568.6

Day 39 on the Arizona Trail
Heavy rain was forecast for the early afternoon, so I tried to get as close to Flagstaff as early in the day as I could. It was also very cold. Generally, I’m able to generate enough heat to stay warm while I hike, but no matter how hard I pushed, the wind still chilled me. I found a lone Coca-Cola left beside the trail at 9am. Now That’s What I Call Trail Magic! I did close to 22 miles before 3pm. There was still no rain, so I pitched my tent, and just cozied up inside. I felt like I had been gifted a half day off. Once again I had full cell signal, so I was able to coordinate with Stephanie and do some internet chores from the comfort of my sleeping bag. So luxurious. Of course it didn’t end up raining until like 5 or 6, but I didn’t care.

Day 40, Mile 576.7

I had an easy 8 miles to hike. It was a little cold and wet but not too bad. Stephanie picked me up right off of the interstate frontage road, having driven all the way from Las Vegas that morning. (I had opted to take the longer trail around Flagstaff, rather than the alternate trail that goes through the city—hence the highway pickup.)

Day 41, Zero Day

We had mused about the possibility of Stephanie randomly intersecting with me in the Jeep between Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon, but during our zero day in Flagstaff, we realized we could structure the upcoming section so that she could intersect with me every night, and then we could camp together. I’d still be fully self-sufficient (no slackpacking, partly for pride, mostly for safety), while she played the role of car camping trail angel, handing out sodas and candy to hikers, and resupplying water caches at various trailheads along the way.

Day 42, Mile 597.6

Day 42 on the Arizona Trail
Stephanie dropped me off on the interstate where she’d scooped me up two days before, and I began hiking towards our first meeting point. I spent a good chunk of the day on an annoying detour because a section of the trail north of Flagstaff was closed due to “helicopter logging”—which I actually witnessed from afar! Late in the day I crossed paths with “Jerry and Marcel”, a hiking pair we’d first met at the Lake Roosevelt Marina, and I promised them trail magic just ahead. Sure enough, we found Stephanie installed in her hammock, ready to ply us with soda.

Day 43, Mile 615.7

Day 43 on the Arizona Trail
Hit some heavy snow on the flank of the San Francisco Peaks that was so deep I actually lost the trail a few times. I ended up hiking with a day hiker for several hours, something that almost never happens. Chatting about the AZT definitely made the time pass, and I was happy to answer questions about my gear and experience, but at the same time, I wasn’t stopping to appreciate the trail or take pictures (which was a bit of a shame, as we were passing through a beautiful Aspen forest). I even neglected to pee or pay attention to my water levels. So I was pretty happy when we reached Stephanie—my finish line for the day, with the promise of a very satisfying soda.

Day 44, Mile 633.6

Day 44 on the Arizona Trail
Stephanie didn’t want to spend all of her time in the car, so we planned to meet up around mid-morning at a Jeep-accessible trailhead (I’d hike there, she’d drive) and then she’d park the car, and we’d hike together further up the trail until I made the rest my miles for the day. The next morning she’d hike back to the car, and drive ahead to meet me at the next spot. Everything went according to plan, and it was great to have her back as my hiking partner, but a lot of the trail was on boring dirt roads that seemed to go on forever. And it was windy—our favorite. Eventually it stopped being fun, and I knew every painful mile we walked together she’d have to retrace the next day, so we stopped a few miles short, because I knew I could more easily make them up the next day. Having learned our lesson, we pitched our tents close to some trees as a wind break.

Day 45, Mile 656.8

Day 45 on the Arizona Trail
I continued along the trail while Stephanie hiked back to the car to meet me at our next appointed campsite. It was a long day, which felt longer when I reached a potential water source (a cattle tank) that I was unable to collect any water from. Unfortunately the next water source was miles ahead, so it was one of the few times that I really had to ration my water intake for a good part of the day.

Day 46, Mile 680.1

Day 46 on the Arizona Trail
Another long day. I was feeling pretty beat the last few miles. My feet were aching. But Stephanie surprised me by hiking up the trail a mile or two to bring me a gas station burrito and a soda. I’m not sure if it was the bonus burrito or the company or both, but the pain dissipated, and we hiked a little further than we’d planned. Stephanie had parked the Jeep at a hotel in Tusayan before hiking up the trail with all her gear, so that we’d share the experience of arriving at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon on foot the next day.

Day 47, Mile 690.6

To be honest, the 10-mile stretch of trail leading to the rim was pretty boring, a lot of it was paved, but that said, nothing compares to the sudden reveal of the Grand Canyon. We hiked all the way to the South Kaibab trailhead, ate our trail lunch at the rim watching tourists take precarious selfies, and then headed to a lodge for a proper nero lunch: burgers and beer! While there, we ran into “Port” and “Starboard”, a couple who’d crossed paths with Stephanie and benefited from the sodas she’d been leaving at various water caches since Flagstaff.

Day 48, Zero Day

In the weeks before our arrival at the Grand Canyon, we became aware that a 41-mile section of trail, from the North Rim to just before Jacob Lake, was covered in several feet of snow, and thus impassable. Almost all the hikers who’d come before me had opted to bypass the trail and hike along AZ-67 instead, which had only recently been plowed. I found this news deeply disappointing, as I very much wanted to hike the whole trail. Stephanie and I had largely come to the conclusion that hiking the trail through the snow was not going to be feasible. This left me with a few unappealing options: bail at the South Rim, bail at the North Rim and head back to the South Rim (though a rim-to-rim-to-rim was not something I was looking to repeat), or commit to the two-day road walk. Part of the challenge was that there was an absence of concrete information about trail conditions north of the North Rim because almost no one had attempted it. Even though I had already promised Stephanie that I’d walk the road, I did ask her to grab my snowshoes in Las Vegas. She also put out a call on Facebook for information on trail conditions and got a response from none other than Jeff Garmire, aka “Legend”, who had set a fastest known time on the AZT a few days earlier. He responded:

I went through on the trail and I know at least one other person has. It’s melting fast so maybe knock off another 10%. There was snow from the north rim to the park entrance (~10 miles) but also a few bare patches. From the entrance the snow was pretty constant for a good 20 miles but if you were flexible there are place of dry ground near where you get a view of the east rim. I suspect from mile 745 or so to the terminus the snow should be nearly gone or very patchy. In summation you can definitely do it. Just grab water when you see snow melt because most of the runoff is running under the snow and hard to access.

And so, on the day before I was set to hike across the Grand Canyon, the pendulum had swung in completely the other direction. I was going to attempt to hike the actual trail north of the North Rim through the snow—possibly being only the third person to do it so far that year.

Day 49, Mile 712.4

Day 49 on the Arizona Trail
We returned to the South Kaibab trailhead at sunrise, where we bumped into Chipcrusher, who ended up hiking with us into the canyon. Stephanie had debated whether she wanted to hike all the way to the Colorado River and then return, or just go part way down. She opted for the latter, cutting over to the Bright Angel Trail via the Tonto Trail. Then she planned to drive around the canyon to Jacob Lake, where she’d meet back up with me in a few days. After we parted, I pretty much trail ran the rest of the way down, reaching the river in record time. I left Chipcrusher behind at Phantom Ranch (after two very satisfying lemonades) in order to begin the long hike out of the canyon. I felt strong, but I was still haunted by the memory of hiking the North Kaibab trail for 4 hours in the dark with my brother. Even with the advantage of daylight, the climb out is interminable. Reaching the North Kaibab trailhead at 6pm felt like I had broken a curse. I continued to the campground, which was completely deserted, as the North Rim had not yet opened for the season.

Day 50, Mile 731.5

Day 50 on the Arizona Trail
At first it seemed as though the snowshoes I’d hauled across the canyon might not end up being necessary. The patchy snow was firm, and I seemed to be walking on dirt more than snow, so I took them off and was able to cover a few miles in sneakers. And then I hit the heavy snow. From that point on, for pretty much the rest of the day, I snowshoed through valleys still blanketed with 4-6 feet of snow. I lost the trail occasionally. I faceplanted a few times. And I had to get through two narrow valleys where meltwater blocked by the snow had created invisible “lakes” beneath the surface. At one point I probed a slushy area next to where I was standing, and my hiking pole plunged in all the way to the grip. My heart sank. I scrambled up the overgrown hillside and awkwardly attempted to bushwhack in snowshoes through dense brush and trees at a sharp angle. The million dollar campsite I scored at the East Rim overlook was well-deserved recompense for the day I’d endured.

Day 51, Mile 756.1

Day 51 on the Arizona Trail
I no longer needed snowshoes, but there were still countless banks of snow to traverse. Luckily for me, someone traveling southbound had recently postholed their way through, so I was able to retrace their footsteps. At one point I thought I’d finally left the snow behind, but oh no, there was a section of very long, slushy snowfields crossing the trail, one after another, over and over. When I reached the trailhead where folks who’d walked the road would rejoin the trail, I was surprised to discover a very familiar looking Jeep! I had planned to meet Stephanie the next morning to resupply, but she was able to reach me sooner by taking Forest Service roads (because AZ-67 was still closed to traffic). It was hands down the best surprise of the hike! I was able to offload my snowshoes and drink a soda and attempt to convey how difficult and insane the last 3 days had been. She warned me that there was rain in the forecast that night, but after what I had already been through, I wasn’t going to be deterred by a little precipitation. I still had daylight, so I continued up the trail for a few more miles while she headed to the Jacob Lake Inn. Though the day had been one of the hardest, it was also the furthest I’d hiked on the AZT: 24.6 miles.

Day 52, Mile 778.7

Day 52 on the Arizona Trail
It didn’t rain during the night, but it did rain a little in the morning, the first real rain I’d hiked through since day 4, on our way to Patagonia. And then it cleared up until just after lunch, when it started to rain a little and then a lot. It was pretty miserable, but it did finally let up before I made camp for the night. The last night. My last night on the trail.

Day 53, Mile 788.7

Justin at the northern terminus of the Arizona trail after hiking for 53 days
I had left myself a short, 10-mile “stroll”, mostly downhill, to reach the northern terminus of the Arizona Trail. Along the way I cried a few tears of exhaustion, sad and happy that it was over. The previous 4 days had been the hardest of the entire trail, which seemed appropriate—I felt like I’d earned my AZT stripes. But I was also ready to hang up my hiking poles for a while. Stephanie was waiting for me at the end, and though she desperately wanted to revel in my accomplishment, I could tell she was hanging on by a thread. Turns out she’d had a pretty traumatic experience the night before (as described in her “Helping a Bikepacker” Instagram posts: Part I and Part II) which left her deeply shaken. So we didn’t waste any time hanging out or basking in glory. The hike was over, and we headed to Kanab, UT to begin the slow process of recovery.

3 Comments

Dad

“and when she picked up, I choked up” – I too am much more emotional on trail, why is that?

Dad

P.S. I love your picture with the two water bottles on your front straps. Who does that remind me of… I wonder. Ha!

P.P.S. Your comment field has “Email (optional)”, but it forces me to provide it, so it’s not really optional.

I’m not sure the physiology, but there’s definitely something about extreme exertion/endurance that brings emotions right to the surface.

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