I thought I was ready for today, but the weather once again threw me a major curveball that would require some pretty amazing trail magic to overcome.
I knew today would be rough. The forecast had called for a lot of rain pretty much all day, so when I woke up to snow showers, I wasn’t terribly surprised. I assumed it would eventually warm to rain and I’d have a sloppy but productive day heading back north along the trail.
I was mentally prepared though, so when I got my wet gear packed up during a snow shower, I hit the trail feeling good. After all, the forest looked amazing in white. There was no wind so the snowflakes easily piled onto every open branch and pine needle. It was a calm, peaceful forest that made me glad I hadn’t skipped around on the trail when the option was there.
Though I stopped for a number of shots in the lazily falling snow, I was still warm from moving down the trail. And probably the three layers I had on. It was in this area that I ran into the Hayduke hiker that I had seen the previous day while waiting for a ride. His trail would lead him down to the Colorado River from the East Rim, something he was hoping to achieve before the weather got too messy. I assured him he would probably be fine and we headed down our respective trails.
The snow took a break from falling in mid-morning, but picked back up just a bit later. I was expecting it to turn to rain, but reminded myself that it was still early. It was here that I saw two more Hayduke hikers on the other side of the meadow I was hiking past, though they were closer to the highway. I wondered why they weren’t just on the trail since thus far, it hadn’t been more than just an inch or so and fairly tolerable. I got my answer in less than a quarter of a mile, and then everything changed.
Though I hadn’t crossed any significant changes in the landscape, and though the snow hadn’t begun falling any harder, the snow on the ground was now at least an inch deeper. In addition to that, there were no other footprints on the trail anymore. I was evidently now sharing the trail with only rabbits, squirrels, deer, and turkeys as I began climbing an unexpectedly steep hill. At the top, the thick forest gave way to a large burned area. Young aspen trees were coming back strong in between thick pointy spears of remaining ponderosa pine tree trunks pointing upward. Closer to the ground were many thorny plants and grasses.
As I entered into the burned area, it was like someone immediately switched on the blizzard machine. Winds began howling and snow was flying sideways across the barren landscape. It was now accumulating even more, slowing down the great progress I had started the day with. This wasn’t right. The forecast said I’d be getting rain to melt the snow, not more snow to add to the snow.
In and out of hills over several miles, the blizzard eventually subsided, but the accumulated snow wasn’t going anywhere. There was now three or four inches on the ground and I was now seeing why I was the only one on the trail instead of the highway running parallel. At the same time, I began to notice the trail following a very repetitive pattern: wrap around a large hill, then make a slight descent into a small side canyon, then climb a bit to do it all over again over the course of about half a mile or so. This went on for hill after hill, mile after mile, all the while the snow never getting any thinner. It was draining my energy and slowing me down immensely. On top of that the repetitive nature of the trail was beginning to mess with my sanity a bit. In nicer weather, I wouldn’t have had a problem at all breezing through this section. Yet I was going one mile per hour in three or four inches of snow. I just wanted to see something in the landscape change to give me some sign of hope that the trail would ease up. After never getting it after each tease of a bend, it was pushing me toward my tipping point. Another bend, and I was in the exact same situation. I had had it. If the next bend didn’t show me something new, I was headed straight to the highway. I made the slow trudge through the side canyon, sloshing through snow, then began the excruciating climb up the small and gradual hill, and eagerly looked for something new. More of the same. That was it. I couldn’t handle it anymore. I bushwhacked straight to the highway, which fortunately wasn’t very far at all.
At last, I put my feet on solid ground and actually noticed that it felt odd. Having been working so hard through thick snow, the feeling of being back on a hard surface where the snow wasn’t accumulating felt like I’d need to adjust for a second. Once I got my footing, I shot ahead on the highway, happily making great time once again. I was a bit burdened that I wouldn’t be on the actual trail, but staying out there would have simply been miserable. This was the next best option, and at least I was doing it on my own two feet this time. Plus I’d have the opportunity to rejoin the trail again before it veered to the east several miles ahead.
In all the extra work I hadn’t realized that I had actually made myself a bit dehydrated. The next water wasn’t for another five miles ahead, besides of course all the snow on the ground everywhere around me. Just a few minutes later though, a friendly hunter pulled up next to me and asked if I was doing OK. Though I said yes, I also asked if he had any water handy. He handed me a bottle of water which I immediately drank as he drove away and now felt much better and resumed a quick and re-energized pace down the road.
I cranked through the road miles and soon realized that I had just passed the spot where the trail veers away in mid-afternoon. There wasn’t any less snow on the ground, so I kept moving forward, though by now my feet were letting me know they weren’t very happy. They’d been cooped up in wet shoes and socks all day and not only haven’t been let out to breathe, but also haven’t had any weight taken off of them since there was nowhere dry to sit and rest. I was making good time, so I kept ahead, now realizing that I was getting much closer to Jacob Lake again. But at a half-mile out, they rebelled. I sat down on the side of the closed highway and took them out of the still wet shoes and socks. It was sweet relief! I sat there for a few minutes resting and letting them air out before moving on again, food heavy on my mind.
I had barely gone a few feet when a small pickup truck stopped and asked if I was hiking the Arizona Trail. I told him yes and we got to talking and he had said he’d done some sections here and there. Though I was hungry, I enjoyed chatting with him for about 10 minutes. Finally he told me his name. His real name was Jeff, but his trail name was JustJeff. Instinctively I shouted that I knew him. In fact, we had met last year when I had attempted the AZT then. He was on his way up Mica Mountain and I was on my way down. It all came back to both of us and we had a really great laugh over it. He was on his way to the North Rim for summer work, where he had also worked last summer, but hadn’t found out when we crossed paths back then.
Enjoying another moment of serendipity, I headed to the Jacob Lake Inn where I knew I could get some very reasonably priced good food. Along the way I was eyeing potential spots that might make camping more comfortable.
At the inn, I headed straight for the diner and ordered a good dinner. I asked about the cheapest room they had, but it was already more than what we payed just the other day. They were now in summer pricing, much to my dismay. Once I finished dinner where I also had a nice conversation with a couple of hunters, I sat by the fireplace and thawed out a bit more, hoping another weary hiker or biker would walk in and want to split a room.
While waiting, trying not to fall asleep, I began chatting with a tour guide who had just taken a friendly couple to The Wave. We all got to chatting and were having a great conversation, and the next thing I knew, the man had not only payed for half of a room for me, but had also gotten me the winter rate! He said photographer friends need to look out for each other. It was amazing trail magic right when I needed it.
They moved on, at which point I began chatting with another photographer, his wife, and their daughter. Then he said that had he known I hadn’t had a room yet, that he would have done the same. I was definitely in the right place that night. We continued to talk and I really enjoyed their company and conversation enough to put off heading straight to my room. After all, when you go most days without seeing more than one other person, good conversation is hard to pass up. Exhaustion has a way of catching up with everyone though, and they could see it. I got my things together, headed up to my room, started drying out all my wet gear, then crawled into bed.