Something definitely changed today. My body feels like it’s starting to adapt to life on the trail.
I woke up to a surprisingly pleasant morning. I had expected that at the elevation of the Grass Shack Campground that it’d be a bit chillier, but the air was pleasant and the area felt perfectly cozy. This kept from getting as early of a start as I would have liked, but I wasn’t far behind my usual schedule.
Heading up the trail I was punished for my tardiness. It got hot, and it got hot quick. The air was still and I began to dehydrate quicker than I thought I would. Rocky stairs in the trail climbed higher and higher as ridges above teased thicker, fuller forests.
Soon the stairs morphed into switchbacks, one after the other, rising higher and higher toward the summit of Mica Mountain. The vegetation grew thicker and more lush as the trail lead back into a quiet and secluded forest. The air started to get slightly cooler as I took one switchback to another until finally, after cresting one last turn, I was immediately in a ponderosa pine forest.
The soothing scent of pine complemented a cooler, calmer, slower-paced feeling that seemed to have a much more inviting feel than lower elevations. The tall pines seemed to offer a sanctuary for weary and tired muscles. The ground brush had also thinned out considerably in this completely different ecosystem just a short distance away from its counterpart. I felt reassured, similar to the way I feel in lots of other forests.
Along the way up to Manning Camp there was a healthy creek pouring over a rocky cliff. Though obstructed from sight, it was still nice to hear. The trail crossed over the creek before making one last push up to Manning Camp, where just before the camp a large grove of young ponderosa pines was emerging from the ground.
I finally reached Manning Camp and took a long break under the inviting trees. I went and purified some water from behind the camp where a spectacular waterfall was streaming over rocks into a colorful pool. I went back up, ate lunch, and began to listen to the sounds of the forest. The breeze through the treetops, the birds chirping from all directions, the waterfall below, a smoldering log left in the fire pit, a woodpecker somewhere nearby, the imaginary voices nature tricks you into hearing. I began searching for some furry friends that might be taking a nap high in the trees, a black bear, for example. I then realized that if I’ve learned one thing from the trail so far, it’s that I absolutely love the desert, but I’m at home in the mountains.
The trail climbed another 500 feet before its descent down the north side of the mountain. There were more meadows higher up, allowing for a bit more visibility. Even a bit of snow still held on to slopes in some places. Then the trail began going down, and it did so at a rapid rate. Not too far down though, it wound past an overlook of amazing natural value.
The overlook itself, and all the land below it, may very well be one Arizona’s most underrated and underappreciated views. The natural treasure offered full 180 degree panoramic views stretching out for dozens, maybe even hundreds of miles of open desert lands, broken up by immense sky islands, dwarfed by the incomprehensible distances unfolding far below. Any development within sight of this view would be a loss to anyone who visits this spot in the future. And with Arizona Trail traffic on the rise, it would affect a great number of people for years to come. This very view was one of the primary reasons I wanted to start the trail from the beginning again.
Leaving the overlook, the trail descended steeply down countless switchbacks, always offering new and different perspectives of the vast desert below. I also noticed quite a bit of bear scat from the previous season. Prior to this, I was always skeptical of bears in Arizona, fearing they’d been hunted nearly to extinction. It seems however, a healthy population still thrives in the Rincon Mountains.
It was around this time that I began to feel as though my hiking poles were interfering with my comfort and my hiking ability. I put them away as a test and immediately felt a stronger sense of freedom and agility in my legs. My pace quickened. My excitement rose. It was like my body was finally ready to be rid of the crutches and thus experience the trail with total freedom.
Nearing the base of the mountain, I ran into a group of four backpackers, eager to get to Manning Camp. It was about 3:45pm and they had, at best, several hours of hiking ahead of them. I tried to let them down easy, but only the last person in the group seemed to realize just how far out they were.
Down at the bottom, I refilled my water at Tanque Verde Wash while also doing a bit of laundry. It was here another thru-hiker named Second Lunch caught up with me. He had run into the same backpackers about 30 minutes later saying they all looked very out of breath. No Manning Camp for them it sounded like. We began talking about all kinds of things and seemed to have a number of beliefs and desires in common. We continued hiking at a quick pace deep in discussion about all the things wrong with society, and all the reasons to be optimistic. I insisted he read the Monkey Wrench Gang, and he insisted I read the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Deep in our discussion, we made great time and made it all the way to Redington Road where we ate dinner and setup camp.
Though I had never tried it before, it just seemed like a great spot to try cowboy camping.