Monday, April 22, 2019

RIB Part 1: Mexico to Flagstaff

Note: This post is the first update from a Mexico-Canada hike through Arizona, Utah, and Idaho. I'm calling it the "Route In-Between" (RIB). For additional background on the RIB, please click here. The first section of the RIB follows the Arizona Trail (AZT), a federally-designated National Scenic Trail that runs from the Mexican border to the Utah border.

Sky Islands: The story of the first 200 miles were the magnificent "sky islands" that the AZT passes through. I've written about sky islands before, but just to recap: Sky islands are isolated mountain ranges in the Southwest that jut thousands of feet skyward above the surrounding desert floor. The sky islands are cooler and wetter than the surrounding environs, and are home to many interesting plants and animals found nowhere else on earth.

The Arizona Trail passes over several sky island ranges - in particular, the Huachucas, Santa Ritas, Rincones, and Santa Catalinas. On many an occasion, I began my day surrounded by desert scrub, cholla, and saguaros, and ended the day in forests of stately ponderosas. One day, I took shelter from the broiling sun in a tiny culvert under I-10, and the next night shivered through a chilly night at 8,000 feet on a high mountain ridgetop. The contrasts were simply unbelievable.

With the massive changes in elevation came, well, massive changes in elevation. The walking across the desert floor was relatively easy, for the most part. But the climbs were very, very long. I did a pair of five-thousand foot climbs in three days - and between the two climbs, a five-thousand foot descent. The trail was relatively well-graded, but a vertical mile is still a vertical mile.

A Spectacular Bloom: The story of the next 200 miles was the flora and fauna. After descending from the Santa Catalinas, the trail stayed lower. There were still mountains, of course, but they didn't reach nearly the heights that the sky islands in the first section had. In this section, I reached the lowest point of the AZT, the Gila River (~1,800 feet).

The 2018-2019 winter was one of the wettest on record. I've been able to rely on water sources this year that, in other years, would be hit-or-miss or completely dry. I've never carried more than three liters of water. Near the Santa Catalinas, I stopped to chat with a mountain biker who's lived in the area for her entire life. She mentioned that she had never seen a nearby creek flowing more than a tiny trickle. When I reached the creek crossing, it was so wide and deep that I had to take a flying leap to avoid getting my shoes wet.

A healthy water year led to a once-in-a-generation wildflower bloom. The cactus blossomed, their translucent pink/purple flowers shimmering improbably. Yellow/orange poppies dotted the landscape. Indian paintbrush made a brief cameo. And hosts of other flowers showed off their innumerable hues. I tried to get photos, but none fully captured the in-your-face beauty.

The wet year has also naturally led to a boom in the populations of insects and other animals. Of particular interest were the rattlesnakes. They were everywhere in the lower elevations. I saw at least one rattler a day in the lower elevations. On one sunny morning, I saw four in the course of an hour. Rattlers are generally polite - sounding the alarm to avoid confrontation. Still, it's a little unnerving when a bush mere feet away starts buzzing.

As I descended to Roosevelt Lake one day, I spotted a rare and reclusive creature - a Gila monster! Gila monsters are the only venomous lizards in the United States - and they're huge - but pose little danger to humans because they're so timid and sluggish. Still, as he lumbered off the right side of the trail, I gave him a wide berth, stepping off the trail several feet to my left.

Just as I was passing him though, bzzzzzzt! A rattler. The Gila monster was still in front of me, and the rattler behind me. The snake poked his head out of a bush, tongue flicking the air, sniffing out the situation. All three of us stared at each other for a few minutes, trying to figure out how to end this Mexican standoff. At some point, though, I decided as the only non-venomous guest at the party, I should probably split first. So I swung even wider left and left the two reptiles to resolve their differences.

More Mountains and the Plateau: The latest 200 miles were a bit of a mixed bag. I started out with what's probably the toughest section of the AZT, through the Superstitions, Four Peaks, and Mazatzal Crest areas. This section featured a lot of ups and downs. To top it off, I came down with a cold - my first ever on a long distance hike. Those long climbs certainly challenged my crud-filled lungs. But again, the views from atop these ranges proved spectacular, and it's really hard to complain too much when surrounded by that much beauty. 

After that challenging stretch, the trail's character changed dramatically. I climbed up onto the Mogollon Rim, the southern edge of the Colorado Plateau. The Plateau here is between 7000 and 8000 feet in elevation, and almost perfectly flat. It's some of the easiest trail I've ever walked, yet surprisingly beautiful. I expect quite a few flat miles between here and the Utah border - with the exception of the Grand Canyon, of course.

Just Plain Fun: I've now done about 75% of the Arizona Trail, and I think it's fair to start drawing some conclusions. In many ways, the AZT has been perfect - almost a little too perfect sometimes. The scenery has been spectacular throughout. The trail is well-built and maintained by a small army of hardy volunteers. It's not just thru-hikers out here - I've met scores of mountain bikers, equestrians, day hikers, and weekenders. Many locals are section-hiking the trail over the course of several years. And if you ever want to meet some inspiring, go-get-em retirees, the AZT is the place to be.

The Arizona Trail Association is well-run and relatively well-funded. Folks in trail towns are generally know what the AZT is, and are used to and helpful to hikers. Hitchhiking is not a problem on this trail. And a couple of truly wonderful trail angels in Kearny and Pine offered me a place to stay.

This sign would not exist on the CDT. But if it did, it would simply read, "Good luck, suckers!"
Moreover, I've found the core of the hiking community - the hikers themselves - quite nice. It's a fairly even mix between first-timers and veterans of other long trails. I've even run into a few friends from the CDT - a real treat! I'm trying to savor the opportunities I have to experience cool trail towns and hang out with hikers - because I know that once I cross the border into Utah and begin the next phase of my adventure, I'll be truly and fully on my own. 

What's Next: As a general rule, I try not to peek too far ahead on a long hike, preferring to focus on today, this week, or this hundred miles. I can't help, though, looking ahead to what awaits in Utah. Mostly, it's a lot of snow. Southern and central Utah had a record-shattering winter this year. Some areas I plan to hike through are still blanketed in twice as much snow as normal. So in addition to pioneering a new route, I have to do it in the worst snow conditions on record. Frankly, I'm not sure whether it's possible to complete my route this year. But we're about to find out. 

That blue is bad news. Courtesy NWCC 

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