When I commenced the Arizona Trail (AZT) at the Mexican border, I knew I was in for a rugged experience but little did I know just how different it would be from my initial expectations. A few years ago I hiked through the Mojave Desert in southern California as part of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). As difficult as that was at times, there were numerous springs, water caches, and opportunities to find shelter from the sun. Water is a major issue on the AZT; as a result, I regularly carry five liters of water through the dry stretches that can last up to twenty miles. The Arizona Trail is truly reserved for experienced hikers but I am up for an good ol’ fashioned challenge!
Flying into Tucson, one immediately notices from above the brown and frankly raw Arizonan landscape. The land is gorgeous but unforgiving. The hiker yields to the forces of sun and super hot arid temperatures.
Once I deplaned at the airport, I was picked up by this really nice fellow named Harry in his F-150. He took me to Fry’s (kind of like Safeway) in Sierra Vista where I was able to buy three days of food for my first stretch to Patagonia, AZ. Harry then took me up to Montezuma Pass near the border wall. The southernmost mile was closed due to border wall construction. There was a strong and professional border presence in the area and, as a consequence, I felt very safe. The black border wall seemed well-constructed and was clearly demarcated.
From the Montezuma Pass trailhead at 6,569 feet, I had a major climb to the Miller Peak trail junction at 9,090 feet—2,500 feet in 4.5 miles. Who knew there were mountains like this in southern Arizona? Actually the locals call them “sky islands,” a term which I find alluring.
My first water source was a rusting cast-iron bathtub with a trickling spring pipe. This was both bizarre and humorous but reliable as I filtered five liters to be safe. One of my Smart Water bottles, wrapped with medical Leukotape, is my “reserve tank”—a liter of water to be used only in emergency. The remaining desert terrain serpentined through mostly cattle ranches with cows and more cows. I have been perfecting a technique to move these big boys who stubbornly block the trail. Let’s just say it involves waving trecking poles and speaking to the animal in a deep, commanding voice!
The manzanitas are eye-catching and provided some much-needed relief from the Arizona sun. “Siesta hiking” is commonplace, making most of the miles in the mornings and evenings. The plant life is remarkable but one is advised to adhere to the “look-but-don’t-touch” rule since just about everything in Arizona pokes, stings, or bites! Thus far, I’ve had only positive wildlife encounters—white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, lizards, and birds of prey. Remarkably, no snakes have been seen; however, they likely have seen me!
In the first 51 miles of this Arizonan footpath, I have only met two other hikers. One had turned around due to terrain difficulty and lack of water. The other, named Musk (trail name), was a southbounder (SOBO) who provided me important information pertaining to upcoming climbs and water caches. Musk also hinted at the best places to find grub in Patagonia—advice worth listening to for sure.
Prior to departing on this hike, the prayer was made (considering the inherent dangers of this treacherous journey) that I would carefully place each and every step. Isn’t this a motif of life? Every single decision we make, no matter how small, has consequences that need to be considered.
Well, I made it to the quaint little stagecoach town of Patagonia. Upon arriving, I began doing hiker chores (i.e. laundry to wash smelly clothes, post office to send home unnecessary gear, and market to shop for four days of trail food). I took a steamy shower and then sank my teeth into a beefy Arizona burger at the adjoining restaurant of the Stage Coach Inn where I am a guest.
The last few days have been utterly exhausting! My calves and quads are on fire. The good news is that I get to rest up in a king-sized bed and watch random cable shows for the next twelve hours before hitting the trail once again. Plus there’s an underground pool in the hotel courtyard to try and beat the heat.
51.2 miles down, 737.5 to go.
‘Til next trail town…