The Stress of Starting a Thru-Hike

Desert Grasslands Hiking Trail

Chapter 2

Our first obstacle came before we even reached the trail. I had buddied up with two other thru-hikers through an online forum. Most Arizona Trail (AZT) thru-hikers will, at some point, get pointed to the website to meet other thru-hikers and collect valuable information. Such was my case since I needed help. I met two other people there and had agreed to share a ride with them to reach the trailhead from Phoenix. But this was something we had yet to do even though that was our expected destination.

Our shuttle driver from Sierra Vista in southern Arizona informed us, only as we were ending our trip with him, that that wasn’t possible due to their permits. Instead, the large, happy, friendly driver dropped us off at the Visitor Center of Coronado National Memorial, which left us with an extra 1.5 mile hike to the actual Arizona Trail, and 1300 vertical feet still to gain.

Tyler was a very happily married man with a daughter and loving wife. He had talked about the trail for years and years and thanks to the support of this loving wife, was finally ready to give it a shot.

Walter was an older man from the Toronto, Canada area, also happily married but coming across to Tyler and I as not having done an appropriate amount of research. Rather than carrying enough water to reach the first reliable water source, he instead loaded up his backpack with about twelve Gatorades. Keep in mind, successful thru-hikers will go to every measure to eliminate any unneeded ounce. In my research, I found that carrying four liters of water should be enough to get from one water source to another. It seemed as if Walter wanted to carry enough Gatorade to go from one town to the next. This first stretch was considered relatively short at 50 miles. Needless to say, we were a bit concerned about his twelve Gatorade bottles and no water at all. "To each his own" we thought, and after a friendly conversation with an elderly ranger named Doris Day, we were off. Tyler and I hit the trail to the trail ready for action. Walter, on the other hand, began to feel the weight of his Gatorades multiplying with his first few steps, ditching two Gatorades before leaving the Visitor Center. Doris Day shouted back that we had left them. Walter told her to keep them. She looked legitimately perplexed.

I was off at a good pace, but not as quick as Tyler’s. Walter on the other hand was trailing the both of us and only falling farther behind. I was actually a little worried about him and was tempted to wait, but that could prove to be catastrophic to my own trip. I was forced to go against my instincts and trust that he was capable of taking care of himself, regardless of his commitment to the trail. Instead I turned my attention to the unusual scenery of southern Arizona’s sky islands.

Joe's Canyon Trail

Climbing up the Joe’s Canyon Trail toward the actual Arizona Trail opens up an arid world of unfathomable distances stretching out into northern Mexico. At the southern base of the Huachuca Mountains, about a mile into the Joe’s Canyon Trail, a distinct line can be seen from the eastern horizon to the western horizon, as if someone carefully stretched a long black cord across a topographical map of the region. This is the Mexico-United States border, two very different countries with very opposing populations. Stretching out to the north and south, the landscapes are the exact same, leaving the wildlife of the area very confused as a fence cuts off the migratory paths for many animals, as well as nearby water for the thirsty creatures. It appears as a long scar creating an unnaturally straight line across an erratic desert landscape. Sky islands shoot out of the ground like the inverse of cracks in a street, all capped with snow from a recent storm which almost obscures the border, nearly letting someone see the landscape as one unified whole. But not quite.

The Joe’s Canyon Trail meets the Yaqui Ridge Trail, aka, the Arizona Trail, about a half-mile from the actual trailhead at Montezuma Pass. For the foolish purists who insist on hiking every step of the trail, you’re actually required to backtrack two miles from Montezuma Pass back to the Mexico border before coming back up the same route to bring you right back to the trailhead. Being a foolish purist, I turned toward the border and began down the southern foothills of the Huachuca Mountains sky island, reaching the Mexico border after 1.5 miles downhill.

From the border, the official Mile 0 of the Arizona Trail, a 3,000 foot elevation gain awaits. Not so much a "Welcome to the trail!," but more of a "Let’s see what you’ve got – we’ve got hikers to weed out." kind of greeting. And so I began. Mile 1 on the longest and by far the most adventurous journey of my life. Could I make it? Was I properly prepared? Was my cornucopia of electronics and camera gear actually going to work for another two months without issue?

Hiking Trail Below Pinyon Pines

I consider myself a photographer. A pretty good one at that, not something easy to say since I’m also my own worst critic. So when I officially made the decision just a couple of months prior to hike the Arizona Trail, I knew I would have to bring camera gear. But how much? What could I live without? I felt like I needed all of it, but I knew that wasn’t realistic, nor was buying a new lightweight setup. I knew I needed a telephoto lens, but the only telephoto I had was a behemoth 4.5 pound 100-400mm lens – not a good option for thru-hiking. In the end I decided to meet up with my friend, Eric, to help me sort out my mess. I was inclined to trust his opinion mainly because he solo-hiked across Antarctica. That qualifies in my book.

He had some great advice that I eagerly listened to and devoured. Don’t bring a telephoto lens. Leave the tripod behind for a gorillapod. Don’t bring light gloves, just tuck your hands into your sleeves. Bring a good fleece instead of a jacket. And all sorts of other wonderful advice to shed pounds that I either promptly ignored or changed along the way.

I bought a lightweight, but quality telephoto lens. The gorillapod frustrated me beyond belief so I wound up getting my tripod back after hiking about a third of the trail. My hands got completely fried because they couldn’t fit up the sleeves of my shirt, so I used an extra pair of socks as makeshift gloves. They were thick wool though so my hands probably sweated more than the rest of my body for the first few days. They also made using my camera a bit tricky since I wanted to keep my hands protected. This made using my camera feel like I was something of a Muppet. These were later replaced with simpler cotton socks that I cut a hole in to poke my fingers through. The fleece actually turned out to be a good idea. And admittedly, he did help me shed about 20 pounds of gear that I didn’t need.

The camera gear wasn’t just for my own fun. I had spoken with the executive director of the Arizona Trail Association about donating my photos to them so they could better preserve the trail from development and private interests.

Arizona has a special place in my heart. I moved out to the Phoenix area after graduating college to discover a new love in nature, while also discovering I hate big cities. It was during this time that I first heard about the Arizona Trail, and held onto the desire to hike it one day, and ten years later, that time was finally happening.

A short distance beyond the trailhead at Montezuma Pass, I caught up with Walter. Though he skipped backtracking to the border, he was out of breath and had a look on his face like he had been been betrayed by Mother Nature, and yet still smiling and laughing. He had that kind of personality that you just enjoyed being around regardless of how dire the situation. Tyler was far ahead, much to Walter’s dismay, who was hoping to roll some boulders in front of him to slow him down out of playful envy.

Snow in Sky Islands

Walter appeared dehydrated, so I asked him if he had been drinking water, and he said he had just chugged two liters. Rule #1 in the desert is to eat salts with your water so your body can absorb the water better, something anyone who’s done a basic amount of research about desert hiking would have found. When I asked him if he ate some salts with those two liters, he asked simply, "Why?" Granted, those two liters were probably Gatorade, so he should have been ok, but I still cringed and tried not to show it.

He insisted he was fine, and I went ahead, but concerned about him.

The first few days on a thru-hike are stressful. The weeks leading up to a thru-hike are stressful. All the preparation and responsibilities and questions storm over your mind like a constant haboob of activity. The scrambling around and rearranging and organizing builds and builds so much that by the time you’ve hit the trail you’re still in stress mode. At least that was my experience.

I had to drive through three states, buy more food than I’ve ever bought in my life, make sure it was all food that would last packaged up, ration out every meal and every snack for every day for the first third of the trail, box it up, address it, ship it all, organize my ride to the trailhead (or close to it in this case), figure out what was coming with me, test all my gear, continue training for the week I was working on all of this, buy last minute gear additions, figure out my budget, figure out what I could budget, double-check that I packed everything I’d need. It was exciting, but the stress was consuming. Once on the trail, that habit of stress doesn’t disappear. Wherever you go, there you are. Though all of that was now behind me, the feeling of stress had come with me.

I was now stressed about Walter. I was now stressed about whether or not I had the right gear. I was now stressed about using a new water filter and whether not it would keep me safe from giardia. I was stressed about packing the right amount of food. I was stressed about the food waiting for me at mail drops and whether it would actually be there waiting for me. I was stressed about the pressure I was under to produce good images for the Arizona Trail Association in what would be mostly a nature photographer’s least favorite light to work with: midday and sunny. Most of all though, I was stressed about my electronics setup.

I had narrowed down a nice little solar panel to keep everything running. I needed to keep my cell phone charged, my headlamp, AA rechargeable batteries for the GPS unit, and camera batteries. I had expected a cheap third party battery charger to work, but testing it the day before hitting the trail caused it to fail. Better then than on the trail I suppose. The solar panel company was a huge help and shipped a new charger to me down the trail. Getting everything there though with enough battery life would be the trick. This of course only added to the stress of wondering how everything was going to work. I didn’t know how long a camera battery would last on the trail. I didn’t know how long the GPS unit would last on one charged battery. Do I leave the GPS unit on the whole day? Do I turn it off when I’m not using it? Will I be able to keep my camera batteries charged? Would my cell phone stay charged the whole time?

Snow in Sky Islands

These were the things I pondered as I tucked myself in on my first night around 9,000 feet above sea level in near freezing winds, my tent set up in one of the few patches where the snow had melted away. Nestled in my sleeping bag, I felt cozy and warm. Outside though, winds howled and rattled my tent. I wondered if any border crossers would be brave enough or desperate enough to try to poke around my camp. I wondered if my body could hold up.

The exhaustion of the day soon caught up with me and I shut my eyes. At least until the wind and cold would wake me back up during the night.

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