While zeroing in Pine, several of us were having a great social hangout at Sidewinder’s where E Bunny and Sweep both mentioned the merits of slowing down and not being in such a rush to finish the trail, something I’ve always preached about hiking in general. And yet, on the AZT, I’ve found it difficult to take my own advice. Something always seems to keep me moving farther and faster than I’d want in a day, such as not finding a suitable campsite till later than I’d like, or having to rush much quicker than I’d like due to not enough food. So when I reached an ideal campsite today before I’d normally make camp, I had a hard time fighting the urge to keep moving on.
It was chilly this morning, and being at the bottom of a canyon didn’t help. Once packed up I had on my puffy jacket which I was now very happy to have on the trail. I began by climbing through an old forest that had also been burned, so only little pockets of firs and pines had survived. There was also no time wasted in climbing up onto the Mogollon Rim once and for all. Water was everywhere and the quiet of the forest and the cool air counteracted the occasionally steep climb up. That is until it got extremely steep.
From just down the trail, I looked up and the trail’s steepness and thought, "Surely that can’t be the trail." But it was. A rough route made of both sand and sandstone ascended what appeared to be straight up the back of the canyon. It was a very slow and not so steady pace. Every now and then I would rest and look back the other way to see the lands to the south sprawled out below, becoming more and more distant with each rest.
And then I was standing on the literal edge of the Colorado Plateau. That was it. The hardest parts of the trail were now behind me, except for some other canyon farther north. I stopped and took in where I was. A rich forest of ponderosa pines mixed with other evergreens. The air noticeably cooler. A contained sense of accomplishment rushing over me. My only complaint was that there was no view to look out over to see all the terrain I had hiked through to get here like I had found when camping with friends many years ago. The disappointment from that couldn’t compare with the feeling and the emotion of having finally crested the rim though. After thinking about it for weeks, then seeing it teasing me in more recent days, I had finally reached another significant milestone along the Arizona Trail.
I followed the trail along healthy creeks and streams, the walking now living up to its reputation already for being easier, though not quite. I was in a shallow canyon that I now needed to get out of. The climb itself really wasn’t that bad at all, but I felt a bit more out of breath than usual and began to wonder if I had become acclimated to a generally lower elevation. That would certainly account for it. Fortunately, it wasn’t long and I was back on even ground for a while again.
I came to a fork in the trail miles later, and unbeknownst to me, walked right by a cairn marking the trail. Twice. I continued down the wrong dirt road for an entire mile before I stopped to check on my progress. My main indicator was that the trail had gone from being very well signed to not signed at all. Had my first thought been something more useful than, "They sure got lazy signing this section," I might have caught my mistake sooner. Instead, it took an entire mile before I did, which meant I had to backtrack another mile.
Back on the proper trail, signs and cairns marked the way consistently and frequently, but I didn’t get too far before stopping for lunch. Once I was about ready to move on, an older couple came down the trail and began chatting. The husband was dressed in camouflage gear as he told stories of his experiences with the trail, pausing to drink from an old metal canteen. His wife was quiet, mostly just staring at him. They were both out day-hiking the Arizona Trail and only had a few sections left to complete. We had a good little chat, then continued on our separate ways.
After a long stretch of road walking, the trail dropped into a large canyon with plentiful water at the bottom. I took a break to rehydrate here and get more water, then began the strenuous climb up the other side, which actually went up higher than the previous side. Once up, forests coating slightly lower elevations created waves of green below. And then the easy walking officially began.
I didn’t get too far though. After just a few miles, I came upon a very large meadow and immediately began to wonder what kinds of wildlife would use it either that evening or in the morning. Was it worth it just to call it a day early at 4:30pm and find out? It was still 43 miles to my next mail drop, which, if the reputation for the trail holds true up here, shouldn’t be hard to accomplish.
As I followed the trail across the meadow, two mule deer does went the other way about 75 yards east of me. Now I was really intrigued. I walked to the other side after they had left, then eyed some potential campsites. I went back and forth, and ultimately decided to hike for another hour. After only 100 yards or so, I turned around and went back and setup camp. After all, 17 miles isn’t a bad day at all.
I was reminded of what E Bunny and Sweep had said. Maybe this was a lesson I needed to remind myself. I got everything put away and sorted in my tent, and then I remembered I didn’t go 17 trail miles. I only went about 15 since two of those were off trail. Then I remembered something else. It was Wednesday. I had to be in Mormon Lake by Friday afternoon to get my next mail drop, 43 miles away. Oh well. With camp already setup, I wasn’t about to take it all down and go running down the trail another couple of miles. There was nothing left to do but just enjoy the possibilities of this campsite and see how the next two days play out.