Day 32: LF Ranch to Pine

East Verde River and Riparian Trees

It was Pine or bust. I needed to go 25 miles since I didn’t have enough food to camp for another night. On top of that, it’d be mostly uphill onto large open mesas. And then there were the thunderstorms that were predicted for the day. To be safe, I was hoping to be up and over Hardscrabble Mesa before hearing any thunder, roughly 15 miles up the trail, and literally up the trail. This was shaping up to be a very rough day, one that would take some great pacing to pull off.

I was up as soon as I saw light peeking through the bunk house at the LF Ranch. I ate a quick breakfast, drank plenty of water, refilled about three liters to hopefully get me 15 miles to a spring, and bid farewell to Maryann and Sean at the ranch. Bruce wouldn’t be far behind, but he was planning on being out another night before Pine.

I was back on the trail just before 6:30am. I followed it around the perimeter of the ranch (since I’m a purist) and then to the Verde River just behind it. I successfully crossed the river without getting my feet wet, but clouds beginning to break up the sunshine were anxious to add some moisture to the air and my clothes.

And then came the climbing. Though not terribly long by AZT standards, it was still steep and composed of loose rocks, slowing me down to a much slower pace than I was hoping. With a decent breakfast and plenty of hydration in me though, I was able to push on without stopping too much.

Finally the climb ended at the top of a large grassy mesa with spotty juniper trees. With there only being a very gradual uphill climb now, I was able to pick back up a rapid pace and make great time across the relatively flat terrain.

As I approached the base of Whiterock Mesa, the junipers began to thicken, as well as the clouds. With plenty of water, I passed up the next water source and began up another climb to ascend to the top of the next mesa. This was a much shorter climb and quite a bit easier, so it didn’t take very long at all.

Ready to accelerate once again, I was instead greeted by another thru-hiker, something always worth stopping for. He was older than me and had gotten the trail name One Gallon back on the Appalachian Trail in 1982, long before it became the social party it is today. I assumed his name had something to do with a gallon of water, but he told me it actually involved him hiking the AT, and accepting and winning a challenge to eat a half-gallon of ice cream. He asked, Why not a full gallon? So he ate an entire gallon of ice cream after, and even kept it down. I enjoyed conversing with him, but I could hear him getting out of breath trying to keep up with me, the same way I did when I met Don’t Panic weeks ago. He got a break though when we wound up completely losing the trail. He found it again, but it turned out we just looped around and then backtracked a short distance. We eventually found the way forward and were heading back in the proper direction. We still pounded out a few miles in a short time when we caught up with E Bunny and Sweep. I was happy to see them again, but I was also antsy to keep moving. The clouds had only gotten thicker and it was still several miles to Hardscrabble Mesa. We all had a quick chat, then One Gallon and I continued up.

Mazatzal Mountains from Whiterock Mesa

We weren’t far up the trail at all when some rain began to fall. We stopped under a large juniper tree and secured our gear to stay dry. I had less work to do here, so once ready, this was where we parted ways. I started back up on trail which soon turned into another steep and rocky staircase. Volcanic rock was thrown all over the ascending trail, once again slowing me down. I began to get concerned, wondering if I was making quick enough time through the morning to accomplish my goals: one of getting to Pine before dark, the other of getting up and over Hardscrabble Mesa before thunder.

Though the ascent had leveled off, I still wasn’t able to go as quick as I’d like. This was mainly because the trail vanished. Instead, rock cairns were my guide through juniper trees and open meadows. Some were obvious, some slightly hidden. Overall I still kept a pretty good pace going when I wasn’t standing around looking for the next cairn.

I soon intersected with a dirt road which I thought would help me go quicker. Instead, this wound up slowing me down to a crawl. Though the road itself wasn’t in bad shape (provided you’re on foot and not in a car), the moisture in the air and the periodic rain showers had turned the dirt on the road into a sticky and gooey clay, building up on the bottom of my shoes with each step and adding a significant amount of weight to my feet. I was forced to stop every couple of dozen yards to scrape off the bottoms. It was slippery, slow, and annoyingly debilitating. As if that wasn’t enough, I was soon in a much heavier rain storm. This wasn’t a passing shower like I’ve had thus far, this was a strong steady downpour that showed no signs of letting up.

I was at least on top of Hardscrabble Mesa by this point, but I was going much slower than I wanted. The mud was making every attempt to keep me from reaching Pine that day, and succeeding. The rain was also making the dirt roads I was walking along much slipperier, making my steps clumsy at best.

Rain Showers over Mazatzal Mountains

I was concerned about my camera in the rain which I had tucked under my layers against my chest, so I found a dry spot under a large tree and stashed it away in my pack where it’d be dryer. As I was putting it away, a nearby crack of thunder echoed over the landscape. Fortunately, I was hiking below a string of power lines at this point. Oh wait, that’s not a good thing at all. I hoped that that was just a stray crash of thunder. I was pretty much in the last place I wanted to be hearing that sound. Either way, it was one goal down that I didn’t accomplish: to be off Hardscrabble Mesa before any sign of thunder.

I needed to make better time. Thunder was in the area and with the mud clinging to my shoes with every step, it felt like I wasn’t getting anywhere. I finally just accepted that the mud was obnoxious, but that I wouldn’t let it hold me back so much. I let the mud build up and just pushed forward with the extra weight. It was either that or continue to stop and grumpily scrape off my feet every minute. Sure it’d be rough, but I’d at least be making better time. From here my spirits lifted, and though still slow, I was finally making better progress. The best part was that I was feeling much better, allowing me to enjoy my soaked hike through the parasitic mud. I even spotted a herd of elk just a short distance beyond. It was tough going, but I was at least beginning to enjoy the adventure again.

Then came the marker I had been hoping for all day. I finally intersected with Forest Road 251! This brought me away from the power lines and began a decent into a forest. The rain even cleared up for a bit, though it would continue an unpredictable off again on again pattern. My feet and legs were hurting from the strain of the day (and the mud), but I was still able to maintain a good pace down into the forest, realizing that the worst part was actually over. I was coming down off the mesa and still hadn’t heard any more thunder since the one crash, and now Pine was only six or seven miles away. I started thinking that I might actually pull this off. Thoughts of massive quantities of food from THAT Brewery began flooding my mind along with a heater, somewhere, anywhere. I was on the last of my food, so I’d have to get there one way or another, but with so many of the challenges out of the way, it was now feeling doable.

Pine and Oak Forest in Rain

I was soon back onto proper hiking trails instead of cairns in rock fields and dirt roads. Having taken it back out, I began to notice my camera getting wet once again through the layers. I stopped once again to put it away and checked my progress, noticing I was actually making good time and could definitely be in Pine before dark, possibly even by 6pm. With more showers starting and stopping, I just put my head down and took it one step at a time. I passed through one small canyon after another, all forested in rich juniper, oak, ponderosa pine, manzanita, and so much more. The Mogollon Rim had never felt so close. Then houses appeared in the distance. A ranch came into view by the trail. Then the highway was right there. Pine was just a mile up the highway, and in Pine was THAT Brewery, a must stop destination along the trail.

I started my highway walking trying to get a ride so i wouldn’t have to wait the mile I needed to hike back, but I was doubtful that there was anybody that would be OK picking me up completely soaked. Fortunately, it was only a mile. I crested a small hill, and there was the brewpub. I walked in and immediately inquired about a cabin, disappointed to learn that they were out of cabins for rent. A slight hiccup, but that didn’t stop me from sitting down for a beer and some soft pretzels, and a salad, and a massive burger, and tots, and an ice cream sundae, and two more beers courtesy of some extremely friendly people at the bar that loved hearing about the AZT. The vibe, the food, the staff, the beer, all of it was the perfect way to top off my 25 mile day. Finding a place to stay wasn’t so easy though. On top of that, I was really hoping to get to my car in Phoenix to get some warmer layers, something I should have mailed myself with food.

Pine doesn’t have much for lodging. There’s the cabins at the brewery, a few more down the road I couldn’t get a hold of, then the Beeline B&B. The Beeline is typically out of price range for most thru-hikers, so Strawberry also has a few minimal options, but it’s not much better there and it’s an extra three miles away from the trail. Three extra miles I wasn’t about to hike after dark when I was cold and still drinched. With nowhere else to go, I was forced to spend more than I wanted on a room at the Beeline. Of course, since I was there I took advantage of a bathtub that I could actually fit in, then began to thaw out from the cold dampness I never did shake. It may have been more than I wanted to spend, but it was definitely much more comfortable than dealing with mild hypothermia in the rain while camping with a bunch of cold wet clothes. I’ll be sleeping good tonight.

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