When I first moved to Phoenix late in 2004, I was still very new to photography. I was also very new to the southwest. I was eager to explore the area, but in seeing everything with completely fresh eyes, I wasn’t making much progress beyond the city limits. That was when I connected with another photography enthusiast who offered to take me up into the mountains north of town for a photography outing. Having no real idea what that meant, I took him up on his offer and was immediately hooked on the extraordinary scenery just to the north of Phoenix. We ended up at a remote (dammed) lake below incredible mountains shooting up from the other side. A clearing winter storm was showing off all the new snow it had left in the higher elevations. I was amazed that it could actually snow that close to Phoenix! I took a photo, and though not a fantastic photo, it was still one of the first decent photos I took after moving out west. Unfortunately, I still haven’t been back to revisit that spot since.
I had a slow start this morning. Rain was in the forecast, so I repacked my pack to be ready for changing weather, and I also had to filter lots of new water to last me 10 miles. Once on the move, the elevation rose quickly, showing just how much weather had moved in the previous night. It was partly cloudy for a change, which helped keep the temperature relatively cool. As has been trademark with the Mazatzals, dramatic rugged mountains spread out in every direction.
Switchbacks began increasing up the elevation a bit more when I rounded the corner of one in particular and saw a rare black rattlesnake sleeping on the trail right in front of me. I was fortunate enough to have seen him first. I tossed a couple of rocks in his direction and slowly, he reluctantly began to move off trail. When it appeared safe enough, I made my move up the trail past him, hearing only a subtle rattle as I walked by.
To one side of the increasingly majestic vistas, the Four Peaks towered in front of the now distant Superstition Mountains. In the other direction was the promise of easier hiking on top of the Mogollon Rim, the southwestern border of the Colorado Plateau, marked by a high horizontal line against otherwise endless mountain peaks between.
The clouds built up to cover the entire sky as I entered into a forest. The air was much cooler now as I stopped to rest my feet now that the trail had leveled out. I followed the trail around a large canyon, rounded a bend, and there, through the trees was the same view I had seen over a decade ago, but I was looking at it from the other side now. It was surreal to see an area, a specific view, one that I’ve come to know more from a photo, now flooding back with familiarity. It felt like I was peeking into a previous lifetime of mine, the memory of being down there seeming so long ago, long enough to say that I was a completely different person at the time. A new chapter had just started in my life back then that led to some extraordinary experiences. And now here I was, feeling like I was in the middle of another new chapter while closing out the chapter that that one had started. It had all come full circle.
I continued on, searching for more views of the landscape below. A few came and went, but then lunch began to dominate my thoughts, which I wound up having overlooking a large canyon below as virga threatened throughout much of the afternoon.
Feeling refreshed, I pressed on and reached the junction to Bear Spring where I finally caught up with Gizmo again. She wasn’t fond of the water, so she offered me two liters, which I gladly accepted. I mentioned my story about coming full circle, at which point she decided to do a quick interview for her popular podcast, Sounds of the Trail. It was more of a fun little chat and went well, but she was eager to knock out a lot more miles, so she rushed out ahead.
I rested my feet for a bit longer before heading on. Once I did, I found a phenomenal overlook high above more of the Mazatzals reaching farther into the north. The mountains seemed to go on forever, refusing to meet any distant horizon. Both sharp peaks and smooth peaks, wide open canyons and jagged narrow canyons, all formed a landscape below that rivaled anything yet seen along the trail. Tucked away in the heart of these expansive mountains, the overlook is reserved only for those who are willing to brave its wildness.
A few drops hit my face and that was my cue to resecure my rain gear and get moving. Hydrated and full of energy, I made great time pounding out mile after mile, trying to reach a campsite before the rain began to pour. Fortunately it was all a well maintained trail through this area, so it was easy to keep a rapid pace.
I began to near the Chilson Campsite and noticed some other people were there already. Normally, I’d be annoyed about other people, but the isolation on the AZT had me excited to see who I’d be meeting shortly. I was greeted by a friendly and welcoming group of five guys, who had mostly Guns ‘n’ Roses and Faith No More playing from a cell phone, bringing me back to my high school days. They were all similarly aged with the exception of Larry who was a retired school teacher, and the father-in-law of Jerry (if I remember my connections/names right).
I setup my tent, hoping to beat the rain, took out my dinner, and joined them back at their campfire. We got to chatting right away and we all enjoyed a lot of fun conversation that lasted throughout the evening thanks to rain that never showed up. They even fed me mashed potatoes, roasted peppers, beer, steak, and dessert just for being on the AZT. There’s really no describing just how good those first bites tasted after not having a good meal since Superior. It felt incredible to be replenishing calories much sooner than expected and each bite was a deliciously nourishing burst of flavor I hadn’t tasted in weeks.
I enjoyed their company much later than I’d normally be up, but it was a really nice change of pace and made for a fun breakup to my normal routine.
Prior to today, the Mazatzals still felt inaccessible and enigmatic. I’m grateful that the trail passes through them so that I’ve been able to get to know them better. They still feel remarkably wild, and not just because of all the overgrowth. They feel far removed from civilization, these massive rocky geologic classrooms, often appearing unrelenting and unbordered. They’re truly one of the greatest ranges in Arizona.