I suppose this blog has been a long time coming. I’m sitting in front of the old brick hearth while an August monsoon (one of many welcome storms) pelts the skybox above. Its been like this all week…and much of the week prior. Some people say they can’t remember the last time we’ve had this much moisture in Flagstaff. Driving along the rim behind Mormon Lake or down into the Verde Valley, it’s difficult to imagine how barren and exposed the landscape was just a few months prior. Sunflowers dance along the highway, in front yards, between cracks in the sidewalk-letting us know they’d always been there quietly waiting for a season like this. The yards in the neighborhood are overflowing with wildflowers, grass, and other happy plants while those less manicured are small tanged jungles (often a combination of both). Our little place, the place we’ve called home for the past year, has been a project from day one. I remember taking such joy in the woodshop, sneaking around the block and carrying away loads of perfectly straight ‘trash wood’ from other remodels and ripping them one after the other until I had hundreds of sections of perfect, if not a bit dry wood. Our cabinets, bed frame, dinner table, along with a dozen or so other stands and seats were born out of this nonstop desire to be productive after spending so much time in Zurich feeling ‘pent up’, editing, writing, designing things with no general fruition save the skillsets acquired and lessons learned.
Its been over three and a half months since we completed the Arizona trail. All the photos, friendships, encounters, trials, and wisdom gained out there. It’s all priceless but I often struggle to put it into words. I let things settle down and percolate after May. We both hopped right back into our jobs and went with the flow. There had been such a huge shift in energy from the PCT to Zurich and finally back to Arizona that a lot of my countenance was built around hanging onto the reigns and trusting. We chose our adventures but that often meant leaning into discomfort. I remember the interview I gave when I bounded back to the sleepy southwest with my augmented Swiss approach. It was my first interview and I got the job and was given a raise in the middle of a global pandemic, but my perspective on their expectations was so warped from having such a non-stop compulsory “going” for the past two years. What can you do. I’m learning to laugh at myself through all these changes.
Walking the AZT just felt right, so we gathered all those pennies once again with same tremors of trepidation mixed with the same tremors of excitement and made our way down to Coronado National Monument and stayed on a very accommodating woman’s property (who ran a thrift store in Bisbee) via hipcamp.com and the next morning we were trudging up Miller Peak, gasping for breath, bowing low under the relentless wind, falling in snow fields, and wondering what we’d gotten ourselves into. My word for the AZT is “Brutiful”. If you’ve done any of the other Big Three, you still haven’t come across something as rugged, or with as many questionable routes and water sources as the AZT.
The first few hundred miles (if you’re your an early-March NOBO) are stark, unforgiving, covered in cows and their offerings, and the water troughs and tanks are actually for them, not you. So, you filter a lot and might filter twice on occasion and that’s basically the way it goes from Mexico to Utah. This is all interspersed with insane grades that take you up and over mountains like Mica, Miller, Lemon, Four Peaks, Superstitions, etc. And yes, it does get hot. I can’t say we got an actual break until we hit the rim and took a few days off in Flagstaff (since the trail goes past our neighborhood).
The best part of the AZT was letting a lot of that accumulated ‘go-go-go’ energy dissipate. We met the Noodleheads, a couple who had worked for Intel and retired early a decade ago. They were living off the interest of mutual funds, had no particular plans other than being awesome 24/7 which included traveling the world, learning Spanish and Spanish guitar (because why not), triple-crowning for fun, and living in the their little RV with a solar panel when they weren’t adventuring. It was great to see how people choose to live. Over the past two thrus, pretty much everything I know about what your supposed to do has been uprooted and amended through conversations with novel humans from all over the world and every kind of background and persuasion, and they aren’t all tree-hugging hermits who hate society (and some are) but I actually count many of them among the hyper-sane. Many folks have simply taken stock of their tenure on earth said “I think I’ll do it this way.” It doesn’t always work out. It isn’t always what they thought it would be. Upward of sixty percent of people that even set foot at a PCT terminus with the intent to complete a thru-hike come to this conclusion. I’d count my self among them. It’s nothing like you imagine. It doesn’t matter how many videos narrated by bearded trail gurus you watch. I remember explaining this to a man who was on the trail just around Tucson. His intent was to lose about forty pounds and he was a bit dismayed at the daily struggle he was currently having. He said he’d watched every trail video out there and I remembered stirring my Ramen, completely exhausted, and saying “A million and one videos aren’t going to come close to a single full day out here.” He said “You got that right.” It’s just the plain truth of it, but I still plan on an AZT short doc just like the PCT for posterity. The memories are always there…
And so we went out there and walked and yeah, basically until you reach the manzanita groves south of Payson, it’s a pretty gnarly experience, but there you are with the same engagement day after day. The same pouring sweat, the same freezing nights, the same startled looks when you wake up with a foot of snow around your tent and no visible trail. It’s the little stories with people that you might know for a day or a lifetime. You have no idea who you’ll end up jiving with or for how long. There’s Samson, China Rock, Conan, Hopper, Donatelo, Batman, Alaskan Panther, etc. All the characters that show up for the chance to be Out There again.
When the Noodleheads pulled off at Tusayan due to foot injuries we were sad but we understood. We’d been hiking with them since Strawberry and had them over for a real Swiss Fondue when we got into Flagstaff. After the trail we’d gone over to Crested Butte to meet them again at their little spot in the woods and had a nice walk over the grassy mountains. I remember being in a funk. Maybe it was indigestion. Maybe it was that same feeling I had after the PCT: Wanting a warm bed with decent sleep and wanting the trail at the same time.
I’d come back to work like the same creature that waltzed out of the woods back in the spring of 2020, just floating along on a cloud of memories, entirely unconcerned with the reality of work and just went about my business with a whistle and couple head phones. It didn’t feel like work and I didn’t analyze that feeling too much. A few months later it still doesn’t feel like work but I guess appreciate it from my own particular angle. I just happen to enjoy fixing things.
I’m glad we did the AZT. I’m glad we set ourselves about the task of re-imagining what 2020 could be and how we would have to upgrade a great deal of our gear. In the end, all my choices worked out. I still don’t know how I feel about gaitors but the pack was solid, the Asics Kahanas were awesome (again) and, despite the more challenging terrain, I didn’t have near the level of daily exhaustion that I had on the PCT. Hanne felt more or less the same. She decided to change packs in Kearny and we’d already set up a rendezvous with our neighbor and one-man trail support wizard Craig so she had it sent to REI and he picked it up and delivered it along with a midday smorgasbord of food.
I’m glad we did it because after we got back to Flagstaff things just chilled in a way they hadn’t in three years. I’d say since we set foot around the spires in Campo and walked thousands of miles together, undertaking and finishing things we’d scarcely comprehended before, there hadn’t been much official down-time. It was a new world right out of the gate that we both had to learn to navigate and we landed nicely.
I’ve tried half a dozen times to write a ‘summation’ blog about this trail and the truth is that right now, I can’t. I have another backpack full of memories but there are new adventures on the horizon as usual. We do our thing. We evolve. We try to write good stories. I’m so glad the AZT was one of them and I recommend the trail to anyone looking for two of the most epic months they can imagine