Today was the day I had decided to leave the trail. It just felt like the right decision. Being on the trail felt too forced and I simply wasn’t enjoying it due to the stress. I arranged a ride to meet me at the next passage end, the Molino Basin Campground, just inside the Santa Catalina Mountains. There, I would get back in my car, and return home to Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
As promised, I was picked up as planned and headed to the top of the Santa Catalina Mountains to the quiet community of Summerhaven where my next mail drop was waiting. I picked it up, and headed back down the twenty-plus mile road to the outskirts of Tucson. It was all a little surreal, a reminder I was given before leaving the mountains.
While passing the Molino Basin Campground one last time, I saw two thru-hikers continuing their trek. I knew I had made the right decision, but I watched those two trudge on through a misty rain and still felt like I was missing out on an important piece of my life. I felt incomplete, but correct in my judgement. It wasn’t the right time, but I wanted to come back and finish the trail.
That was one year prior, nearly to the day. A simple passage’s end for every other thru-hiker was one of the biggest milestones along the 800 miles for me. The Santa Catalina Mountains have a way of weeding out northbound thru-hikers.
I crested Molino Pass that morning after an easier than I remember climb up from the hills where Happy Meal and I had camped the night before. I looked down at the highway passing just east of the campground. A car here and there lazily swerved up and down the twisty road, the occasional motorcycle in between. I saw the exact spot I had seen the other two hikers on the trail a year before in the distance below. It looked easy enough to get to, but first, I was in need of water.
I started down the scraggly path a few hundred vertical feet to the campground feeling good, feeling no reason to have a repeat of my twisted fate from a year before.
I strolled into the campground without incident and began looking for water. Aside from a small pool that was trickling off into the campground road, there was nothing. Knowing more water was ahead by the end of the day, I drank a liter, then filled up just a couple of liters as best I could from the trickle. The occasional camper would drive by, bewildered confusion in their stares. Older campers would clearly be trying to figure out what I was doing, the younger ones cynically laughing as they drove past. On normal occasions that might bother me, but in knowing where I had left off last year, I knew I had already hiked 165 continuous miles and was only ready for more. So they could laugh all they wanted. I actually didn’t care for a change.
As I finished purifying water, I got up and ran into the camp host who had just returned from an errand. It was then that I found out that he keeps a stockpile of good water specifically for AZT thru-hikers. Oh well. I had a good chat with him, and then before I even got out of the campground, I ran into Happy Meal coming from the other way. This concerned me, as now my only goal was to leave the campground, so seeing someone so experienced coming the other direction had me a bit worried.
"You know you’re going the wrong way?" I checked with him.
"There’s no water up ahead and I need some."
"Check with the camp host. He has plenty apparently."
"I might just hitch a ride into Tucson."
"I’m pretty sure the camp host can just give you some."
"No I want a night on the town. I’ll play up my situation and find someone to take pity on me and get a bunch of free shit out of it." He seemed a little too happy to play up the whole I’m-a-hungry-thru-hiker thing for my tastes. I was also on a remote 800 mile nature trail to be in nature, not to get back into a city. He was determined though, and so I bid him good luck, and moved on once and for all.
And there I was, past the Molino Basin Campground. I was now officially farther than a point that had haunted me for an entire year. Everything was feeling good and I was moving forward. Before I knew it, I was even at the Gordon Hirobayashi Campground, a few miles ahead. The weather was pleasant and I was happily making good time.
After a brief encounter with a delightfully friendly family, I continued ahead, slightly unimpressed with the scenery. From on top of Molino Pass before the first campground, the area looked so rugged and dramatic. From where I was, it was just a trail in a shallow canyon. No peaks in sight, no large canyons, no views of the foreboding evergreen-capped peaks high above. Just your basic desert outing. Eager for something new, I pushed on toward what appeared to be another small pass.
In an instant, a foreshadowing of the Grand Canyon dropped down in front of me. Below was an incomprehensible labyrinth of deep canyons, capped with rocky peaks and jaw-droppingly steep cliffs. The difference was thousands of feet from top to bottom, and as I stared into the rocky abyss, I tried to wrap my head around how such an enormous network of deep chasms could exist tucked away in the depths of a sky island. It was enormous. The only downside was that it was a cloudless blue sky in the middle of the day, the absolute worst possible lighting situation for trying to capture something so incredibly dramatic.
I could have camped at the top of the pass to wait for better lighting, and a night sky at that, but my food was running low and Summerhaven was at least another full day off. Into the abyss it was, lighting be damned.
The trail began its descent, and continued at such a rapid and lengthy pace that I began to realize that I was about to have one hell of a climb up ahead of me. From the top of the pass, it was thousands of vertical feet still to Summerhaven, and here I was dropping what seemed like the opposite of that. And still I continued to descend, deep into the deserted depths of undesired distances.
Mile after mile continued downward until the trail finally bottomed out at Sycamore Reservoir, "bottomed out" being a relative term for now, as was "reservoir." Though I found plenty of sycamores and a subtle change in environment, I found no reservoir, and continued ahead, beginning to look for an ideal campsite since the sun was now embarking on its daily descent downward.
The sun wasn’t the only thing heading down though. So was the trail. Again. I followed it, reminding the trail itself that it was supposed to be going up to Summerhaven at some point.
I’m picky when it comes to campsites. While many people are happy being tucked away in trees for camp, I prefer views. I like seeing the night sky. I like seeing distant (or nearby) mountains. In addition to a lack of rocks, this is what I look for when trying to find a place to rest for the night.
By this point, I had passed plenty of acceptable campsites to most people, but not what I was looking for. On the trail, one of my biggest fears is plopping down for the night at somewhere less than ideal, then waking up the next morning only to find the perfect campsite that fits my desires just a mile farther. (Of course if that’s one of my biggest fears I’m either doing something right or incredibly naive.) The sun was getting low though, and it was getting to be about time to call it a day. Fortunately, a series of campsites opened up right next to a small creek. Not the most scenic of views, but it would do nicely.
I put my tent down in an open sand patch, and I was immediately greeted by a hornet that insisted that I move on. It was the first hornet I had seen on the trail this year, and seemed just as angry as one that I had encountered the previous year.
In my first attempt on the AZT, I camped at Grass Shack Campground in Saguaro National Park then too. With my permit paid for, I walked up to the campsite, and found a large group there comprised of mostly teenage girls and two or three adults with them. I chatted with one of the latter and he explained they were out on a high school trip, and that they’d accommodate and open up one of the campsites they had spilled into for me since I had also paid for a permit to be there. Not being familiar with the layout, I followed a makeshift trail onto the top of a small rise behind the campground. There was a perfect open spot for my tent between some blossoming manzanita bushes, so I promptly setup my tent there.
I crawled in and ate my dinner as the sun set outside. During my meal, I heard the incessant buzzing of a large fly circling my tent. I paid it no mind and smirked knowing that my trusty mesh would keep me safe from pesky angry flies. It had left by the time I finished my dinner, at which point I went outside to capture some last light of the day with my camera.
I headed back up to my tent where I was greeted not by a large fly, but a very angry hornet. I moved over to veer toward my tent, it stayed in front of me. I moved back. It stayed in front of me. Then it made a move. It charged directly at my face. I jumped back. It charged again. I jumped back some more, then started on a dash back toward the main campsite, the angry insect in hot pursuit. I stopped just short of the larger group, separated by a small line of trees. The hornet fortunately hadn’t pursued that far, but I needed to get to my tent, if only at this point to move it away from what apparently was the close proximity of a hornet’s nest.
I stood there trying to decide if I should ask for help from the camp group, or if I should go back and just deal with it. Then I realized they wouldn’t really be able to do much more than I could do. I also realized that I shouldn’t really put them in any danger. And then I realized that I had now been standing behind some trees bordering a campsite full of high school girls for nearly a full minute and that my situation could be easily misconstrued. Decision made.
I went back to my campsite (before anyone noticed) and made quick dashes to retrieve my belongings to bring them a bit closer to the main campground. One at a time, I rushed and retrieved my gear until I had my camp moved, unbeknownst to any angry hornets.
So you can imagine now that when a hornet tells me ‘no’, I’ll listen. Back in the bottom of the Santa Catalina Mountains, I picked up my tent, and moved it to another similar site nearby without hesitation. I had a peaceful sunset, slept well, and was out again the next morning, about to experience a game-changing injury.