When Dad departed South Pass (hiking southbound on the CDT), I didn’t have much of a plan for what to do with myself before we met up in 3 days. I knew I’d need to get some groceries and gas, and that the nearest station was in Lander. After that, I decided I’d aim for a campground in the nearby national forest. When I discovered upon arrival that the campground was adjacent to a trailhead, I opted to stay a second night. On my “day off” in between, I hiked up to the first of the Stough Creek Lakes at an elevation of 10,500 feet, about 14 miles round trip. Much to my surprise, on the second night, Dad’s inReach location put him only 9 miles away from our 1st meetup. Given his 25 minute-per-mile pace and early starts (he usually gets going around 5am) that put his arrival at 8:45 the following morning! The problem was that I was at least 2 hours away, and was hoping to stop at a grocery store en route. So I also had an early start. I wasn’t sure whether he’d be in the mood for breakfast, as opposed to the cheeseburgers I’d previously promised, so I picked up the ingredients for both. After reaching our appointed lat/long at 8am, I hiked up a nearby hill that gave me a view of the CDT receding into the distance. Just like clockwork, Dad materialized out of the chaparral at 8:35am and we walked together down the trail to the Jeep. He wanted a shower, but in my haste to arrive on time, I hadn’t filled it. So we pilfered water from a nearby livestock reservoir, and he was able to clean himself up. Though his “hiker hunger” had not yet kicked in, I managed to feed him both breakfast sandwiches for lunch and cheeseburgers for dinner.
“Was your Dad going to hike the CDT this year, if not for the pandemic?”
This is what Stephanie asked me, innocently enough, after dinner on June 10th. Whatever prompted her question is lost to everything that came after, but this is where the story begins for me.
I wasn’t sure. But it made me wonder whether his having a hiking partner might be a motivator. I was near the end of my monthslong landscaping projects, and this seemed like a good alternative to finding a job.
So I texted him the idea and he seemed intrigued. But the following night we spoke on the phone and he decided that the risk of contracting the coronavirus (at his age) was just too great. So no hike. At the time I was secretly relieved because when I first proposed the idea, I hadn’t fully wrapped my head around the reality of leaving Stephanie for months at a time, of forsaking the comfort of our backyard gardens and nightly barbecues and dips in the pool.
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.
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).
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.
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.
When I wrote that “we’re heading to Tahoe for the bulk of February, fulfilling a dream we’ve both had to be ‘snowbound’” there was no way I could have known that we’d be there during one of the snowiest Februaries on record, and thus, literally snowbound. And when blizzard after blizzard strategically hit right before each weekend, almost no one could come up from the Bay Area (including some friends who made a valiant effort to visit). We felt as though we had Lake Tahoe entirely to ourselves.
With the snow falling so heavily, there were some days that we didn’t even risk going out, so the jigsaw puzzle we brought, a 3000-piece Ravensburger, was our chief entertainment—aside from refilling the pellet stove and watching the snow accumulate. It was particularly therapeutic for Stephanie, who anxiously awaited a positive response from the grad schools she’d applied to. Her tension was released (and our future was decided) when she received word that she’d been offered a spot at her top choice, Fresno State.
I was sick the week of Thanksgiving, so we didn’t leave for Death Valley until Friday. Stephanie was instrumental in making sure we got out at all. Tradition! Though I helped with some of the food planning (yogurt, granola, dried fruits, and honey for breakfast; pre-cooked rice and veggies with curry simmer sauce for dinner), she packed our clothing and camping gear and did all of the driving that day.