What I Learned from The Arizona Trail

January 5, 2016

Huachuca Mountains

The dust has long since settled and I’m now well beyond many of the priorities and responsibilities that forced me to end my thru-hike of the Arizona Trail early. It now just seems like a clichéd distant memory, though I still remember enough of it to know that I’m very anxious to get back there to give it a more legitimate attempt, and of course, finish it. The main reason I believe the memories already seem so distant is because I spent much of the trail stressed out, and a good portion of it wondering why I wasn’t happier while in the process of making a dream come true. The realization of this is what ultimately led to my bittersweet decision to leave the trail and head back home.

Did I learn anything from it though? Absolutely.

First, when nearly every force in the Universe is telling both you and your partner not to go, it’s probably not a good idea to go. Here in Jackson, I had found myself getting commissioned for two different video projects, a new career path I was eager to take in my life. I had to turn them both down, however, because the timing would conflict with the trail. Together with Wyoming Stargazing, I had just helped launch a Save Our Night Skies campaign to raise public awareness about the importance of night skies and the dangers of light pollution. Shortly after launching it, I dumped it all on a friend who was already slammed with his share of the campaign and two other full-time jobs. The Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance was eager for me to participate in their Conservation Leadership Institute since it was directly related to successfully accomplishing the goals of the Save Our Night Skies Campaign. I had to turn that down as well. Also, just paying for the rent to go on the trail was going to take a huge bite out of the savings for the trail. It took more than a huge bite.

On the way down, we went through three different blizzards, slowing our speed to 25mph each time. In the second one, driving late at night in southern Utah trying to make up for lost time, we were on Highway 89 with hardly anyone else on the road. While descending a hill, I lost control of the car and we wound up sliding into a 180 degree spin in the middle of the highway as I watched the edge of the road slowly creep closer. Fortunately we came to a stop, but had we been going any faster, we may not have been so fortunate, especially since the car was also trying to tip over during the slide.

Once in Phoenix, it was a frantic and stressful pace buying supplies, sorting them, figuring out how much food for each segment, and boxing it all together. We were up till 2am trying to get our first few mail drops boxed the day before we were leaving for the hike. We were essentially trying to cram a week’s worth of preparation into one day. We were also hugely dependent on the friends in Arizona, imposing heavily on them for favors, rides, and places to stay.

On the trail, we slowly began to relax, but not before diffusing conflicts, two frigidly windy nights, an injury that forced my partner off the trail early, and dropping my favorite lens on the ground, scratching the glass. Here’s a tip: that’s not how it’s supposed to work. It should feel good to leave. There should be plenty of time to plan and prepare. The first days on the trail should be euphoric.

In hindsight, it’s probably important to take such factors into account before getting too far into an adventure like that. However it was, in fact, a lesson I needed to learn. All those unfortunate incidents now have me feeling more prepared than ever to actually do this hike, and to do it right. Already, everything is feeling much more practical this time around. Good ideas are even flowing about how to get back there. I recently spoke with Matthew Nelson, the creator of the trail itself and executive director of the Arizona Trail Association. Together, we collaborated on ideas for how to use my photography to help preserve the trail from potential private interests that could force alterations to the trail and devastate the landscape it currently passes through. I’ll be launching a fundraising campaign soon to help pay the way there, which they will also help promote. Any remaining profit beyond what’s needed for travel and trail expenses will be donated back to the association.

I also learned something else: I’m still scared of rattlesnakes. Grizzly bears? Yes please! Rattlesnakes? Please no! I heard the rattle three different times last year and each time felt overwhelming relief when I saw them slithering away. Maybe El Nino will have them hibernating longer than usual this time.

Posted: January 5, 2016
Categorized: AZT15
Tagged: , , , , ,