The plan was 79 miles in 5 days. Solo backpacking on some of the most remote passages of the Arizona National Scenic Trail. Mazatzal Divide, Saddle Mountain, Pine Mountain, and Four Peaks Wilderness. I was banking on averaging 16 miles per day to make this distance happen in the time allotted. I figured that was ambitious for my current fitness level, but not totally off the wall. Still very doable.
In my planning stages I was excited. Stoked to get a chance to knock out four passages of my goal to complete the AZT section by section. I read the passage descriptions, downloaded and printed the topo maps, and started collecting my gear. Transport from my endpoint back to my car was arranged, a new headlamp was purchased.
The night before I was set to leave home and post up at my starting point I suddenly was overwhelmed with panic. Was this a big mistake? Could I even do this? It hadn’t occurred to me until this exact moment that this was the longest, farthest and most remote solo trip I’ve ever attempted. I had to sit with that a minute. 1. How had it not occurred to me before that this was such an extensive project? 2. How have I been adventuring this long and not done anything this long alone until now? The answers to both were intertwined. The thing is, my husband and I have been together nearly a decade. One of the reasons I married him was that he was my favorite adventure partner. For whatever parts of the last 10 years I haven’t been pregnant or recovering from becoming a mom, longer adventures had been with him. Because, of course they have been. We enjoyed that time together and there was no compelling reason to do it any other way. Prior to that, my adventuring had been more focused on mountain biking than anything else. Backpacking only really happening when a friend suggested a project.
It was somewhat comforting to realize that my lack of longer distance solo adventure had been simply incidental. It’s not that I have been incapable or too inexperienced until now, I just haven’t had a compelling reason to. Now that we are parents, longer adventures almost have to be solo. This was why it hadn’t occurred to me that this was the first time I was attempting such a big endeavor alone. Because it wasn’t like I was setting out to do some new, more advanced thing on purpose. I was just setting out to do something I would have done before with my partner. It's just, he couldn’t come this time.
Even reasoning this through however, I was still suddenly sweaty palmed about it. The first passage I was to tackle is one notorious for difficult navigation. I had good maps and compass (and know how to use them), but I would have no GPS back up. (My phone has decided to give up all GPS related functioning for some unknown reason and Verizon has yet to sort it out for me.) It was silly really. I plan and lead expeditions with teenagers for a living. I literally never get this nervous while leading other people’s children through the wilderness. Why does alone feel scarier? I’m not sure. But it felt very committing. No one else to consult with. No one to check my ego with. All decisions 100% on me, for right or wrong. I was equal parts worried and franky pretty embarrassed for feeling this way. I became so nervous I even began to tell myself the story that I would miss my Little Bear too much. Maybe he’s still too little for me to go away for this long. (Nevermind that I do trips longer than this for work several time a year.) Thankfully my husband was having none of that. I would go, dammit, and I would like it.
After setting my water caches at various trailheads, I settled in at the City Creek Trailhead outside of Payson, Arizona to spend the night before starting out the next morning. It was in locating this trailhead that my adventure hit its first glitch. In planning my mileage I had not noticed that the trailhead I was beginning at did not actually intersect with the Arizona Trail. In fact, I would have a six mile, straight up hill slog to begin my hike that I had not planned on. In all fairness, the trailhead description was the only place this info was listed and why would I have read the trailhead descriptions until I needed to go to the trailheads anyway? Still, missing this detail made me second guess my entire planning. What else had I missed? Had I been too cavalier in my planning? Assumed too much? What other surprises might be in store for me? The self doubt redoubled its efforts. Oh well...I guess this means a longer daily average would be needed. Now aiming for 17.5-18 miles a day average. The 15.5-16 I originally planned already felt big for my current fitness level, this increase might just put the whole thing out of reach. But, I was still eager, still game.
That night brought another snafu. I. Was. Freezing. Like shivering in my bag all night freezing. My ten year old down sleeping bag, it turns out, has lost enough fluff to be only good for full summer-only duty. The only reason I got any sleep at all was that my huge thigh length down jacket (which I affectionately call my “sleeping bag coat”) was in the car. I put that on my upper body, wrapped my legs in my fleece, then put the whole works inside my dying bag and was able to stop shivering long enough to catch some zzzz.
As morning crept in, with my tent surprisingly wet inside from my breath, I sipped my instant coffee contemplating the best thing to do next. I’m in a bit of a canyon, so sunlight to dry this tent won’t be here for a while. My bag is insufficient. I knew I would spend at least two of my next four nights at higher elevation than this. Driving into Payson to buy a sleeping bag was not a realistic option. Even if it had a gear shop (which it doesn’t) that detour alone would cost me too much time. And the only place to really buy a sleeping bag in Payson is Wal-mart, which would yield me something bigger and heavier, but not any warmer than what I already had. Risking hypothermia on a remote mountain range was also not an option. I would have to carry the sleeping bag coat along too. Great. More bulk. More weight. So I packed up everything but the tent and then hiked my tent up to the side of a the canyon to find a patch of sunlight and dry it out while I ate some dry breakfast.
Already so many issues and I hadn’t even started hiking yet!? Yeesh!
But away I went finally, walking away from my car with 46 pounds on my back. I launched with WAY too much water. Way. I had 7 liters I hauled up to the ridge. This, in retrospect sounds extreme. But this is not an area of the world know for its abundant surface water. Quite the contrary. Stories of helicopters plucking lost, dehydrated hikers out of this exact section of wilderness are not difficult to find. I was sure as hell not going to be a news story. I could see the headlines now “Professional Outdoor Educator Needs Rescue After Getting Dehydrated In The Desert.” No siree! Not Me! My 7 liters was, it turns out, not necessary. I was hiking into one of the wettest springs in recent memory. Oh well. Hindsite 20/20.
Compared to the 60lb packs I learned to carry in the 1990’s when I first learned to backpack, 46lbs wa practically featherweight. But compared to my fitness level after battling chronic illness for the last few years it was a lot. Nevertheless, I made it, after 3.5 hours, to the actually Arizona Trail! Horray!! It was one part victory and two parts frustration that it was now basically lunchtime and I was only just now arriving at the place I had anticipating starting. Good Grief Charlie Brown. What next?
Feet. That was what was next. My feet were already a mess. Blisters, Blisters, everywhere and they ached so bad the pain shot up into my hips, searing, taking my breath away.
I ate. Bandaged my feet. Texted my husband and my BFF. Carried on. My roughly 1.5 MPH pace for the hike up to the trail had me even more bummed and even more doubtful.
On I went. Self deprecating thoughts swirling in my head the whole time. I’ve done enough of this kind of thing to know that the absolute worst thing you can do is have a bad attitude. The. Worst. Yet, my badittude was persistent. Ugh...get off me grumpy lady!
After a while I finally got the constant barrage of negative self talk to slow down. Not quit but at least I could just focus on walking for a while. The day was cool and overcast. Then, in a moment, the snow began. It was beautiful. Refreshing. A brief moment of peace that cooled my agitated heart. I hiked on.
About 2:00 I had my first of many encounters with other hikers. Hiking from north to south meant I was more likely to see lots of other through and section hikers since south to north is the most popular direction. Around the corner came a grey haired woman hiking alone. We paused to chat. She told me her plans and asked about mine. When I answered that yes, I was hiking solo, she became excited to the point of nearly squealing. She exclaimed, “Oh! I just LOVE seeing other women out solo! Isn’t it a wonderful way to travel!?” Indeed! She acted like I was the only other solo female she had seen like...ever. She had been the first other hiker I had seen today and she was female and alone. Could it really be that rare? (I would later learn just how rare the solo female backpacker actually is. She was the only one I encountered the whole trip. But this is a topic for another post, another day.) In any case, that interaction gave me the boost I needed to get my head out of my backside for a bit and feel more cheerful for a while.
As the day went on my pace did not improve. In fact, it slowed. A lot. There were times I was moving at about .5 mile per hour. I was feeling really down on myself. Angry to be attempting this on so little fitness, and even angrier that what I thought was challenging but doable was turning out to be just not doable in the time I had given myself. The trail was rubbly. Soooo rubbly. A never ending ribbon of sharp rocks poking my sore feet and trying to roll out from under me. Sprained ankles and injured knees taunting me with every step. But despite the challenging terrain, I still blamed myself. I couldn’t believe I was moving so slowly! What the heck was wrong with me!? Ugh!!
By 6 PM I was utterly spent. I could feel myself getting frantic because my exhaustion was leading to a lot of serious second guessing of my navigation. I thought I was maybe only a mile from a campsite listed on the map. But I was so unsure of my pacing, I wasn’t totally certain about that. And even if I was that close, how long would that take me? 2 hours!? I couldn’t. I just couldn’t. I found a place with water nearby and a slight bench in the trees just barely flatish enough to hack out a spot to plop my tent (huge immovable rock in my back not withstanding). Food was consumed. I contemplated the reality that a change of plans was imminent, without being completely sure what that would look like. But having made it about 12 miles on day one and feeling like a mess, there was no way this trip was going to finish as planned
I passed out before the sun fully faded from the sky. Rock at my back be damned.
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