Education and Politics on the Arizona Trail

Mica Mountain Above Grassland Desert

Chapter 9

After overadmiring the overwhelming view, I headed back down on my way again. I had been taking full advantage of my trusty hiking poles the entire way, fearful that my legs couldn’t handle the weight of myself and my food and gear. But on my way down, the poles felt like they were just getting in the way, constantly snagging in the brush along the trail. I stopped, stashed them away in an easily accessible part of my pack, just in case, and took my chances onward. To my surprise, it was easier! I was making even better time now, moving at a more natural pace, flowing with the trail and my natural movement. I was unencumbered and practically jogging down the trail happily with the extra 30 pounds or so on my back, which by now, was hardly noticeable.

I raced down to the bottom of the mountain where Tanque Verde Wash flowed refreshingly through the trail. Realizing I hadn’t had a shower in over a week back in Patagonia, and in taking advantage of my solitude, I decided it was time to clean up and do a little laundry to the best of my abilities.

I stripped down to the basics and dipped myself into the refreshingly cool flowing water while washing all my clothes separately. Once I felt sufficiently rinsed off, and once my basics had more or less dried off, I began to put my pants back on, leaving a few extra things out to dry while I took a break and enjoyed a snack while I filtered more water. It was during this time that I was finally joined by another Arizona Trail hiker, or thru-hiker as they’re called.

He introduced himself as Happy Meal, because at some point along any thru-hiking experience, you get a trail name. Ideally, someone else gives it to you and it’s a fun and quirky enough way to describe you that it sticks. I asked the obligatory, "How’d you get that name?"

"The obvious way," he responded.

With this being my first experience doing laundry and bathing on the trail, I explained what I was up to, to which he quickly countered, "No worries, man! We’re all out here doing the same thing so need to explain."

He was shorter than me with about ten fewer years on him, but with a comforting familiarity that I couldn’t quite place. Maybe it was because he reminded me of someone I know, maybe because in a parallel universe he could have been me years prior as, in this universe, I was only just beginning to discover the outdoors at his age.

I noticed his pack looked awfully small for a thru-hiker, so I asked him what his base weight was (base weight being the weight of all your gear, minus the clothes you’re wearing and food and water). For example, without a stove and not including my camera gear, my base weight was at a pretty good 13 pounds.

"Seven pounds."

"How?" I gasped.

High Desert Grassland Hills

His sleeping bag was only a pound, whereas mine was a lightweight dream at just over two pounds. Where my pack itself was 3.5lbs, his was less because he was carrying less. He had also cut off many different extras to save more weight. His tent weighed nothing because he wasn’t carrying one. He was cowboy camping the whole trail, which meant no shelter. Instead, he was carrying a simple tarp to sleep on and a foam pad for support. Ah yes, a foam pad. Probably a really good idea to have. Thanks to his minimal weight, he also explained how he was able to get away with carrying only two liters of water, compared to my max of four.

His logic was simple and made a good bit of sense. If you’re carrying less than ten pounds, you can maintain a much quicker pace because you’re carrying much less weight. With a much quicker pace, you can get to your next water source faster and with less stress on your body. This felt like a faraway luxury for me with my ten extra pounds of camera gear. I knew then I wouldn’t be able to move as quick as him, nor would I be able to hike the trail using his knowledge and practices. Besides, the idea of creepy crawlies greeting me in the morning from inside my sleeping bag still creeped me out.

He pushed his knowledge one step further though, the last piece I was a bit more reluctant to accept as wisdom. In terms of water, he explained, fill up at a particular water source, chugging as much as you can. Then fill up just one liter of water to take with you, and rush to the next source.

It made sense, and with his base weight could potentially work. At the same time though, you’re also hiking through one of the driest parts of the continent on warm days. I took that one with a grain of salt, (which ironically helps you stay hydrated).

I finished up my chores as he finished up his water and small break, and he went ahead of me. I put together the last of my things and loaded my pack back up and followed his trail.

I caught up with him a short distance ahead where he was talking on the phone, because if you have a signal, why not?

After a bit of leapfrogging, we were hiking together and engaged in the draining topic of politics, but injected with an unusual ingredient of optimism. His ideals, like his gear, were simple – everyone should just let everyone live and let live, as long as everyone votes for his candidate of choice. For this reason, he was involved in knocking on doors and telling everyone to vote for his preferred candidate. Live and let live.

I was enjoying his company regardless of a bit of unintended confusion and following after him, we were both making good time. Of course after an hour or so of hiking with him, I noticed the sun was getting low and I hadn’t taken any photos since we had begun down the trail together. I was oddly torn.

Just a week ago I would have easily just encouraged him to go ahead so I could be alone to get photos without distraction. Yet I was engaged in a rare conversation and actually enjoying it, even if I found his values slightly off. I wanted to keep chatting, but I reminded myself that the Arizona Trail Association was also hoping for shots all along the way, as was I. With the light getting better and better, I told him I needed to get some shots. He completely understood, and jumped out ahead once again. I was relieved too since his quick pace was way too much for me to sustain for much longer.

I slowed my pace and began to document, to the best of my abilities, the warming light on the rolling desert hills sandwiched by two colossal sky islands. It was as if the two giants were once joined, and then gradually split apart, leaving a disturbed and tumultuous landscape in between, the weathered rolling hills a faint reminder of the giants’ connection.

We were nearly exactly at the midpoint between them when I caught up with him again, once again on the phone. Apparently a friend of his was having trouble getting on the trail and was going to try to get on from Tucson, where they might potentially meet.

We reached Redington Road, the end of Passage 9 and the beginning of Passage 10 of 43, where we found an ideal place to camp in the fading daylight. By ideal, I mean not overly rocky and just off of a side dirt road. The car that drove by once we had our camps set up reminded us of this.

Stars Over Mica Mountain

I was obviously in the company of an experienced thru-hiker, so when he mentioned how it would be the perfect place and weather for cowboy camping, I decided to give it a shot. Lying down directly underneath the stars definitely had a more comforting appeal to it, even though it’s typically only separated by a thin mesh. It was pleasant. There was a near full moon that night, so the Rincon Mountains, now marking the eastern horizon, and where I just was earlier in the day, were brightly lit and easily identifiable below the brightest stars of the night sky, albeit drastically blurred since I’m ridiculously near-sighted and had my glasses off.

As was standard practice on the trail, I fell asleep quickly, as did Happy Meal.

We woke up with sunrise, and with less gear to maintain, he was off. I took my time enjoying my simple breakfast and got everything packed up. I was a good 30 minutes behind him, so I figured he was off and I wouldn’t see him again. Besides, I would enjoy the solitude that day. For personal reasons, it would be a huge turning point in the trail.