Deserts & Rocks & Bears, Oh My!

I love the way the desert smells.

I love the scent of various pines, sweetened by the breeze, and the crack of dry earth beneath my shoes.

Olfactory memories, unbidden, seeped in with the dry forest air–summers spent in central Colorado with cousins, chewing on rock candy and scrambling across alpine ridges; the several months I lived in southeast Utah, the Moab Rim rising like a massive saffron bowl, enclosing the town in slick red rock.

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View of the Mogollon Rim while we took a lunch break.

I’d never been to Arizona before this week, but had always associated it with endless dull desert and Jan Brewer groupies. Though the state proudly boasts both of my stereotypes and more, I found the landscape far more rich than for what I’d given it credit.

After arriving in Phoenix from the dank Seattle skies heavy with rain, Jess and I made our way north to the Tonto National Forest. The land was open and clear, but teeming with flora and fauna alien to me–forests of Saguaro rose eerily on hillsides, massive and ancient and silent. Acacia extended its fingers along the roads, quail and rattlesnakes and iguana alike taking respite in its meager shade.

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On Sunday morning, Jess’ folks dropped us at the Highline 31 Trail Head in Pine, AZ with well wishes and promises to pick us up on the other end. With fifty-four miles of trail before us, we started our climb. The terrain was unforgiving, inhospitable, and intensely beautiful. The Mogollon Rim rose above us, cinnamon cliffs jutting into the sky.

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The first day, large pines towered towered over the trail. The woods were sparse here, and high grasses grew tall against the exaggerated tree bark. As the trip continued, however, we entered a burn area affected by the Dude Fire of 1990. The largest fire in the state up until that point, it encompassed forty-four square miles, claimed the lives of six people, and destroyed over sixty structures. The landscape bears a stark scar, and the trail wandered through miles of low brush, loose red rock, and the charred bodies of Pinon Pines. The sun beat ruthlessly on our necks and shade was scarce in the hot midday.

Burnt forest land.

Burnt forest land.

The Highline Trail runs along with the Arizona Trail (AZT, a long distance trail, 800 miles from Mexico to Utah) for nearly twenty miles before breaking off to continue along the Rim. Trail conditions markedly deteriorated after departing the more popular AZT, and we lost the trail several times in wide meadows, burnt scrubland, and grazing properties.

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The new countryside brought with it novel plants and animals–we regularly scared up small lizards and horny toads from the rocks surrounding the trail; coyotes howled and barked several canyons away as we crawled into our tent, now fully clothed in wool and down to combat the night chill. Two evenings of the four we encountered bears in our camp. The first night Jess sighted one up the hill from our camp. And being the good choristers that we are, immediately began singing yodel tunes, ballads, and opera (we weren’t in a place to be musically discerning). Though it was likely long gone, we continued to speak in exaggerated tones for the rest of the night and took cautiously to our sleeping bags.

The second incident occurred on the third evening, in the wee hours of the morning. The bear sniffed and snorted around our camp, passing right by our tent before mounting a ridge and climbing away. Our palms were sweaty, heart rates jacked. We didn’t fall back asleep that night. Only upon returning to civilization did we learn that the Tonto National Forest is one of the most bear-populous areas in the country, averaging one bear per square mile. Figures.

The last two days found us back among the trees, and crossing streams with more regularity, though many flowed through grazing lands and required extensive filtering and/or chemical purification.

Our final morning was an easy three mile hike out to the trailhead, where Jess’ parents met us with hard cider, cold beer, and a ride to the closest burrito purveyor (after a shower, of course).

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The rest of the week was spent cleaning and parsing through gear in the small town of Quatrzsite in southwestern Arizona where Jess’ folks graciously hosted us in their low desert home. The area was foreign to me. Filled with sparse low brush, the flat earth extends for miles before rising out of nothing into harsh brown mountains, turned blue and purple in the sunset. The population is largely made up of snowbirds from the northern states, and perennial vagabonds moving from one spot to another. RV parks and mobile homes sprawl out from the main stretch of town which consists of a few gas stations, a small grocery store, and myriad stalls and shops of sundry items run out of the back of trailers.

I was hoping for this hike to act as a pack shakedown, but I didn’t end up ditching many items. I’ve discarded any and all luxury items (pencils, sketchbook) and repeats (merino wool undergarments, some first aid items, a larger cook pot), but have discovered that it’s really two of my big three items that contribute the most weight: sleeping bag and tent. I’m not in a place financially to replace either of them, and they’re both in excellent condition, but perhaps the ultralight tarp shelter is a possible future investment.

As I’ve been quite focused on this trip, I haven’t spent much time thinking about the PCT this week, beyond being grateful for a little desert hiking before I embark on the 700 mile desert section in Southern California. This hike taught me that I need less water in the desert than I thought (though the temperature here is substantially cooler than some PCT sections), that hiking up steep hills of loose rock will always suck, but I can do it, and that strawberry Starburst are definitely superior to all other flavors.

Today I leave Arizona for a week in the Bay Area to visit a couple friends, complete a couple final gear switches/replacements, and wander around the city before embarking down to San Diego, and ultimately to Campo, CA and the PCT’s southern terminus

A friend from Seattle began his PCT thru-hike on April 1st, and I’ve been following his blog and social media, hungry for pictures and information and opinions. My nerves have spiked up again, sitting here at my gate in the Phoenix airport. I’m not feeling anxious about anything in particular, but rather just a constant hum of unease wrought by excitement and apprehension.

One week and counting.

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Committed.

After a surprisingly fruitful telephone conversation with a Delta Airlines representative this morning, I purchased a plane ticket. Well, two plane tickets, really.

Since June, I’ve put a lot of trail planning at the end of a long list of other issues, daily responsibilities, and thoughts in need of attention. I bought most of the gear I’ll need (or think I’ll need, I should say), did some cursory research, and spent the rest of my weekends scaling peaks of the Central Cascades for more experience, leaving the specifics for later.

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Snow Lake in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, WA

Last week my plans were hurried along by Jess, a friend and fellow outdoor enthusiast. She plans to visit her folks in central Arizona next March, and invited me to join her for a backpacking trip along a 50 mile portion of the Arizona Trail (another National Scenic Trail that zigzags through the desert from Mexico to Utah).

I had a vague strategy to leave for the trail mid-April, but hadn’t put much thought into precise dates. Previous thru-hikers generally recommend starting at some point in April, depending on that year’s snow fall and your own hiking speed. With my lack of planning thrown into sharp relief, I had to actually make a choice. The first concrete I’m-actually-going-to-do-this decision.

Of course I’m going to go to Arizona. How could I pass that up? I spent a couple months in southeast Utah last year and was completely captivated by the natural rock sculptures, the crackly dry trails, and the wildlife that was so alien to me.

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Along Potash Road; Moab, UT

So this morning I walked up to Herkimer Roasters near my house and got a giant cup of coffee, and traipsed back home through the cold to start planning. Really planning.

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Drafting table.

After a good hour perusing various airline websites, staring at maps of Arizona & California, sipping at my coffee, and vacillating over different travel routes, I pulled out my credit card and entered the information.

No longer tentative, I’ll be quitting my job, leaving my apartment, and finding the garage or basement of a kindly friend to store a couple boxes at the end of March and flying to Phoenix on the 27th.

Timing on the Pacific Crest Trail is a little more finicky than the Appalachian. Hikers suggest starting out in April to beat the triple digit temperatures of Southern California’s desert summers… but also recommend not pushing past Kennedy Meadows, CA before June 15. Here, the PCT rises from the desert into the Sierra Nevada. If I leave too early, I’ll get caught in the deep snowpack of the High Sierra… but if I leave too late, I’ll face the autumn snow storms in Washington when I reach the Northern Cascades.

Leaving April 5th after my hike in Arizona is still a little early to start the trail, so I’ve decided to fly into Oakland, CA. I’ve only spent several days in the Bay Area and felt like it wasn’t nearly enough. I’ll do some couch surfing, stay in a hostel or two, rent a car and check out the famed Highway 1 along the coast before meandering down the San Diego via Amtrak or the Greyhound, and eventually Campo to start my hike, closer to the middle of the month.

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Exciting. Frightening. Foolish, maybe. Adventurous.

No backing out now.