How the Arizona Trail Weeds Out Thru-Hikers

Santa Catalina and Rincon Mountians

Chapter 11

Through some of the most spectacular desert scenery I had ever seen, I pushed on, continuing my downward trek to my surprise.

I reached Hutch’s Pool shortly after the trail began a gradual climb upward. Hutch’s Pool was the last reliable water before an intimidating and lengthy climb roughly 5,000 vertical feet up to Summerhaven. The climb could be compared to another similar climb on the trail farther north – climbing out of the Grand Canyon, from the Colorado River to the North Rim, though I hadn’t experienced either first hand yet.

I didn’t see an easy place to access the actual pool, so I found some cozy looking boulders just a few meters downstream. I plopped my bag onto a large boulder and unzipped the top, at which point the cheap generic battery charger that didn’t work, that I for some unknown reason still had with me, jumped out of my bag and into the creek. Since I’m not one to litter in a creek in a designated wilderness area, especially electronics, I jumped after it from one boulder to another as it threatened to veer into the center of the relatively large creek. I made one final leap onto the last boulder I could and snagged it out of the water. I had saved the day! I leapt back onto my first boulder back toward my bag, and completely lost my footing, causing me to slip into the creek. I didn’t go all the way in though. This was thanks to my knee taking the brunt of the fall. I went back to my bag and felt my knee pounding. While getting a snack and some water, I iced it as best as I could – in the creek that was only partially snow-melt, the other sources of it from springs. The plus side was that it was getting coldness on it. The downside was that it wasn’t getting elevated. It was throbbing though as I filtered more water and tried to distract myself with food.

I finished eating and performing trail chores (getting water, drinking water, packing up), and evaluated the extent of my injury. It hurt. I tried to walk on it. It hurt more. I went with the assumption that it was badly bruised. After all, I was Wilderness First Aid trained…a few years prior. I could walk, it just hurt. I was reminded once again, the Santa Catalina Mountains have a way of weeding out northbound thru-hikers.

It was only one day after my momentous milestone, and now the entire trail was once again in jeopardy. So then I evaluated where I was and what my options were. I was in the middle of nowhere. My options: call 911 and get helicoptered out over a potential bruise; or push on and see what happens when I get to civilization. I didn’t want a repeat of the previous year’s departure. The Arizona Trail Association was counting on me to finish. I was counting on me to finish. I didn’t want another excuse to abandon the trail once again. One way or another, I would at least make it to the next civilization. The latter it was!

West Fork of Sabino Canyon

The good side was that I could deal with it on level ground. The bad side was that the trail only went up from here. Where I had brushed off my hiking poles just days before, they had now become my most precious tool. I was able to distribute some weight off of my legs and onto the poles. Not much, but it helped. And so I started a several thousand foot hike upward on an injured knee, thanks to my poles.

To say it was slow going would be generous. My pace slowed dramatically. I was in too much pain to not only avoid capturing photos, but to even admire the views.

I must’ve only made it about a mile before I stopped under some oak trees to rest. I found a spot where I could lie down and even found a way to elevate my knee a bit. I rested there, listening, breathing, avoiding the pain in my knee, avoiding the consequences of a stupid misstep. Avoiding my thoughts going to a worst-case scenario. I listened to the breeze rustling through the leaves on the dry desert oak trees. I opened my eyes and stared up at the blue sky. I waited. I waited for help. I waited for relief. I waited for a sign. I waited for about 20 minutes, then got up.

I picked myself up, put my pack back on, and started on the trail once again. Oddly enough, I felt better. The pain had diminished a bit. It turns out elevating a bruised knee actually works! No wonder it’s such a standard practice. I felt good again. My knee still hurt, but not as much. So that settled it. I’d try another mile or so, then elevate it again.

I had a renewed energy back on the trail. I could limp, and I’d go slower, but I’d get somewhere damnit. The trail was brutal and relentless in its climb, but I found enough happiness to take a few shots along the way. Then the trail got steep. Really steep.

The trail was now just shy of being so steep that I’d need to scramble with my hands. If I were healthier, I would have loved it. Injured, however, it was easily the hardest part of the trail.

I came to a large boulder that shaded the trail where it almost flattened out. It was as welcoming as any giant shaded part of the trail for another rest. I found a small rock on the other side of the trail from the boulder to rest my head and used my backpack to elevate my knee. It was surprisingly comfortable and I could feel relief flow back into my knee as I was sprawled out in the middle of the trail. It was here that my sense of humor kicked back in.

I swore that if anyone at all came up the trail, my immediate response would be, in a hoarse troll voice, "What is your name?" This would of course be followed by, "What is your quest?"

I suppose the fact that scenes from Monty Python and the Holy Grail were popping into my head could be both a good and bad sign.

And so I waited. I waited for my reluctant victim that I would force into a Monty Python skit recreation. I waited for anyone. Even a day hiker. But no one came.

I ate some food to prolong my wait. It was early afternoon and I noticed I could possibly make it to Summerhaven by the evening, hunger being a major motivating factor. My food was low. I needed food, and I needed a comfortable place to stay, so I decided to finish off the last of my food and make it to Summerhaven that evening.

And still no one came. Disappointed, I got back up and made my final push for the small mountain community, still several miles away, but doable by 8pm or so.

The climb was exhausting and brutal, made all the more so from my knee. It continued its near vertical ascent at a relentless rate. My pace was slow and I was questioning whether or not it was a wise decision to eat the last of my food. I was putting so much weight on my hiking poles I needed to readjust them after they had sunk back into shorter lengths.

Afternoon Light on Granite Boulders

And then it was over. The climbing stopped and the trail leveled out. Moments later I was among frozen giants in the form of rounded square and rectangular shaped boulders. Enormous pillars of granite rising out of a ponderosa pine tree forest. Many of these pillars were grouped together to make what appeared to be natural temples. Not hollow, but temples of solid granite so that no one could enter. I could only appreciate the beauty from the outside, then move on.

On the other side of the trail, I noticed something scurrying in the tree. Way too big to be a squirrel. It looked more cat-like. And that’s when I realized I was looking at an ocelot! I later found out it wasn’t an ocelot at all, but rather a coatimundi. Why did I think it was an ocelot? Because a) I wanted to see one, and b) I had never heard the word coatimundi. So, problem solved.

I grabbed the few pictures I could and headed into the labyrinth of granite temples.

A mile or so in, I found a small discrepancy on the map that I was using and the trail I was following. I doubled back to check on it and there in the trail walking toward me was Tyler!

"How’d you get behind me?" I asked, surprised to see he had somehow fallen behind.

"I took a couple of days off with my wife in Tucson."

That would do it. Then I wondered if Happy Meal left the trail since he hadn’t caught back up with me, but didn’t bring it up with him. We caught back up and I told him what had happened with my knee and how I needed to get to Summerhaven before dark. It was now about five or six miles away and with it being close to 4pm at the time, I figured I could average 2mph and make it there by 8pm.

"It’s closed," Tyler informed me.

"What’s closed?"

"The town. Or at least it’s about to be."

"How is the whole town closed at 4pm?"

"It’s just a day escape for Tucsonians and Phoenicians. Nothing’s opened past 4 or 5pm."

"What about places to stay?"

"There are none."

"Well shit. I’m out of food. I was counting on something being open tonight."

"I tell you what. Let’s find a place to camp and I’ll give you one of my extra meals and we’ll make it there in the morning."

"You have extra meals to spare?"

"Assuming we make it to Summerhaven in the morning I will."

I thanked him over and over again and wondered what my fate would have been had he never come along. Then I realized he was probably only about 20 minutes behind me when I was wanting to do my Monty Python scene. Oh well. At least I had dinner now.

Camping in the Wilderness of Rocks

We found a nice spot with a great boulder to build a fire next to for Tyler to cook on. Aside from the two stops in civilization thus far, it was the first hot meal I had had on the trail. Not only that, he had a bit of everclear with him that he diluted with water, "to bring it down to Vodka." He mixed in some Kool-Aid and had an instant winding-down-from-the-trail drink ready to go. And just to be a proper trail angel, he had one for me too.

We caught up about our experiences thus far, and he wondered what became of Walter. I filled him in that I had actually seen him in the Santa Rita Mountains where he had gotten ahead of me.

"How did he do that?"

That was my same question when I saw him.

He had gotten to the base of Miller Peak way back in the Huachuca Mountains on our first day. He had run out of Gatorade and water, and was camped in a nook just big enough for him to fit. It was a windy night and he had even managed to get his tarp setup. That is until the wind took it off just moments later and blew it into Mexico. Just after that, he heard his mattress pad pop. He had no choice but to spend the night on rocks trying to keep warm in his sleeping bag.

He woke up the next morning, and rather than proceeding to Bathtub Spring just a mile or two beyond where he was, he turned back and took a side trail back down toward Sierra Vista. Only he didn’t make it that day.

At the end of the day, with no water, he made it to the base of the mountains and camped out again. Upon waking up, he walked three miles to the road, then another eight miles back to the town of Sierra Vista where he was severely dehydrated.

He went straight to a McDonald’s and spent about an hour trying to drink one small orange juice. Once he did that, he pounded three more.
His next stop was a Chinese food buffet where he gorged himself as much as he could before getting a motel for the night.

He woke up the next morning, and took a shuttle to Patagonia, where he started the trail, ahead of both of us, probably just by a few hours. When I ran into him, it was about 1pm and he had camp setup with laundry hanging in the trees. He wasn’t moving because there was water and he wasn’t sure where there’d be more.

"So was he purifying water or not?" Tyler demanded, light-heartedly trying to figure out our seemingly ill-prepared friend.

"I didn’t ask, but I wish I had."

We were both concerned for him, but figured we’d run into him again up the trail, assuming he’d just shuttle himself from point to point, hitting various highlights of the trail.

We had a good laugh over it when Tyler also excitedly asked if I had seen the jaguar tracks. I told him I had seen some large cat tracks, but couldn’t be sure if they were jaguar tracks.

"Well I took a picture of them and sent them off to a friend who’s an expert in local fauna tracks. He said it was definitely a jaguar," Tyler eagerly explained.

"Where were they?"

"Right at the beginning of the trailhead when the dirt road ends. Right there in the sand."

"Just after the parking lot?" I asked.

"Exactly!"

"I saw them too! I even got a picture of them on my phone."

I started browsing through the few photos I had taken on my phone, then selected the shot of the prints, and got a horrifying message: Invalid photo.

"What?!"

"What’s wrong?"

I was frantically scrolling through every photo, pulling up every photo, but for some reason the one piece of evidence I had of the jaguar wasn’t pulling up. My phone had decided to corrupt that one image, that one piece of sharing a trail with the continent’s largest cat, of all the photos it could have.

"My phone’s not pulling up the photo I took of the tracks!" I frustratingly exclaimed.

"Why didn’t you use that big camera?"

I cringed a little. "Great question."

In the end, it was bittersweet. I was happy I was able to confirm that they were in fact jaguar tracks, but heartbroken my only piece of evidence of them failed. We finished up dinner and after a bit of moonlit photography in the Wilderness of Rocks, I crawled into my tent, and went to bed with my knee elevated on my pack.

Sunrise on Granite Outcroppings

We woke up the next morning to a beautiful sunrise high up in the Santa Catalina Mountains. Yellows and oranges struck the sides of the giant granite beasts, creating a light show that was scattered in and out of the forest. A few high lingering clouds joined in, adding an extra layer of color and depth to the high mountain morning.

Tyler immediately fed me breakfast to which I was again, ever grateful.

We were both packed up at about the same time, but knowing he’d have a quicker pace, he went ahead to Summerhaven, then decided to run some errands and meet me at the restaurant when I got there.

Though my knee was feeling better, it was still in plenty of pain. I knew it would only be a few hours of hiking though, and then I could figure out what to do in town.

Pain aside, the hike was absolutely gorgeous. I was back into the warm care of the ponderosa pines and the giant boulders rose throughout the forest to provide shelter should it be needed. Ironically, they also act as lightning rods.

Nevertheless, the air was cooler, I was making good pace with a limp, and I was feeling good. I even began to see the occasional day-hiker originating from Summerhaven.

Beyond the Wilderness of Rocks, the trail entered a dense forest, complete with a quiet and serene creek below the trail. An elderly party passed going the other way, friendly, but unsure about my appearance. More people were on the trail. Commotion echoed in the distance. I had just come upon a parking lot.

It was now only a mile to Summerhaven. I eagerly limped up the road toward town. A driveway to a rarely used house extended to the left. Then another. Soon there were enough to call it a neighborhood. And then a business.

Summerhaven. My haven. My haven from pain. My haven from indecision. My haven from hunger. I continued straight to the restaurant where Tyler had also just arrived, and immediately ordered a spinach salad and meatloaf, two things I would normally just gloss over, but today sounded extraordinary. My body was craving nutrients and I had a craving for vegetables like I had never felt before.

During our meal, Tyler had said he had just met two other thru-hikers who might also need a break. One was a guy named Pine Marten, the other a lady named, Cardinal.

After chatting with Tyler about it, I decided to spend the night in Summerhaven, giving myself a nero day (a day where you hike nearly zero miles), and meet up with the other two. This would allow me to meet others sharing my adventure and also give me time to rest my injury and not put any more stress onto it.

Pine Marten came in as Tyler was on his way out, informing me that Cardinal went ahead. Pine Marten looked troubled. He looked like he was frustrated and beaten, but I was too caught up in my own trail drama to immediately inquire.

Old Growth in Marshall Gulch

We spent the day poking around Summerhaven, charging devices, getting to know each other, trying all two of the dining options. He had done the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) the year before, but was having trouble getting on the AZT. It turns out that this is exactly who Happy Meal was talking to on the phone a few days before.

The day dragged on as we rested and relaxed, his expression never letting up from its borderline melancholy. Not even a giant cookie did the trick.
With nowhere to stay in town, we backtracked down the trail about a half-mile to a day-use picnic ground to use that as our campsite. (Sorry, National Forest Service.) He began to open up more about what he was experiencing that night, probably in part thanks to the cheap wine we got at the small grocery store.

In completing the PCT, he figured the AZT would be no problem. He vastly overestimated the available water, and terribly underestimated the amount of elevation change. As a result, the luxuries he had brought with him were weighing him down. In addition, he couldn’t finish even short stretches. Problems would arise. He’d have to leave the trail and get back on dozens of miles beyond. He had a hard time following the route, making multiple wrong turns. He was tired. I could tell that just from his voice that day.

We decided he’d hike to Oracle with me, then reevaluate everything from there.

He went off to his tent, and as I was making myself comfortable in mine, I heard steps. Not human steps. Were we going to be the first people to see a bear on the AZT? Was it a cougar? It was definitely cougar country. My imagination started running wild. It was close. Things began moving outside. Something was being shuffled with. The suspense was too much to take. I had to peek, if only for our safety. I put on my headlamp. I slowly unzipped my tent to create a small hole to peek out of. I shined the light toward the sound.

"Hey Pine Marten," I loudly whispered.

"Yeah?"

"There’s a skunk digging in your pack."

Pine Marten had left half a pizza in his pack. Fortunately, it was just a skunk raiding it. We got up, fixed the situation, and threw out the pizza. After settling back in, I eventually fell to sleep, my imagination still working overtime.

We woke up the next morning, went into town, discovered everything was still closed, and then waited for the town to start to wake up. First would be the post office. I’d get my mail drop and then grab a big breakfast at the restaurant, and then move on.

A long hour of waiting passed, and the post office was open. After opening my mail drop, I noticed that I had prepared for a long trip over the next 20 miles to Oracle, and had packed more than enough food. Eager to hit the trail, I ate one of the breakfasts. Pine Marten also decided to skip the restaurant, and got a head start. I got my things together and was back on the trail shortly after him.

The (almost) day off made a world of difference. There was still pain in my knee, but it drastically subsided. I was feeling good. I could handle this. I wasn’t leaving the trail, at least not from this. I would finish this thing one way or another. I also knew that if my knee healed that much in one day of rest, it would continue to heal during the course of the trail. I was back on!

The trail veered off of a road from Summerhaven and headed over to a part of the Santa Catalina Mountains called the Oracle Ridge. It was just after this junction that I saw Pine Marten standing on the trail. I waved, but he didn’t wave back. I got closer and saw Cardinal with him.

I walked up and gave an enthusiastic "Hi!", but then saw the situation. Cardinal was in tears. The trail had broken her down and she was way past giving it any more chances.

She was trying to keep an aggressive pace and was hoping to finish as one of the fastest women to complete the trail. Missteps and wrong turns were bringing her in one wrong direction after another though. She was losing time with each step in the wrong direction and proportionally adding that much more stress to her journey. Halfway down the ridge was her last straw. She had missed a turn, then spent the night miles off of the actual trail. Rather than figure out where she was, she came back up to have her husband pick her up in Summerhaven. Her haven from the trail.

I understood. I was there last year. It seemed like the Santa Catalina Mountains have a way of weeding out northbound thru-hikers.

We tried to calm her down but there was no use. She was in a frustrated panic. Pine Marten was sharing her sentiment. I was looking for a window to excuse myself and continue on my merry way, clearly seeing that at least one of them wasn’t going anywhere. It finally came.

I told them goodbye, and in a brief moment of sincerity, as best as I could offer, I said to Cardinal, "I hope to see you on the trail again someday."

She broke from her breakdown, smiled through tears and said, "You never know."

I nodded to Pine Marten expecting that he’d be following shortly. Miles later, I realized that was also his ticket off the trail. I was moving on, and two more would not be completing the trail that year. For all I knew, Happy Meal had dropped off as well. I was sure Tyler was far out ahead though, with me not far behind, despite my injury.

Yucca and Agave Along Arizona Trail

But my injury was healing. The Santa Catalina Mountains have a way of weeding out northbound thru-hikers, but this year I wouldn’t be one of them. At the bottom of the mountains and heading north, I hit another milestone. There, just off the side of the trail, was the same rocky illustration that marked mile 100. This one, naturally, said 200. I was a quarter through the trail, past one of my biggest obstacles, and managing to cope well with another that I never saw coming.

I will finish this trail, I thought. It’s going too well not to.