Zero Day Unknowns

Twilight over the Oracle Ridge Chapter 12

Zero days are a common practice among thru-hikers. Meaning, zero miles covered, they’re days when thru-hikers just want to rest weary feet, reconnect with new and old friends, share stories, replace supplies, do laundry, heal an injury, get more food, or any other chores or tasks or relaxation techniques that need tending to. They’re typically taken on the trail, but with this being my first real thru-hike, I knew I would have a system or two I’d want to tweak about a third of the way in. A quarter would do too. I also didn’t ship out food anywhere past Summerhaven since I didn’t want to potentially not send enough. Thus far, I was happy with my food supply, though I could have definitely used a few extra snacks.

Regardless, I coordinated with my friend Jacob in Phoenix, who had already been a huge asset in helping me get on the trail to begin with, to pick me up at the end of Passage 13 – the town of Oracle. We agreed to meet at the Tiger Mine Trailhead, start of one of the most notorious passages in terms of desolation and loneliness. Water was also an issue, of course. But that was for some other day. First, a zero day.

Jacob met me about a half-mile before our agreed meeting spot, because the mile before that was a dirt road up to our meeting spot. He offered me a ride, but I was dead-set on hiking every mile of the trail and not taking rides along the actual trail itself. So at 3mph, he cruised next to me in his van, asking me all kinds of questions about the trail thus far. I first told him how dehydrated I was since the last water source was bone dry. Fortunately, there was a water cache just before we met, but in knowing I was going to meet up with him, I left what was available for other thru-hikers. In hearing how thirsty I was, he offered me a Gatorade. I couldn’t pass it up, and after chugging it in record time, he told me to take another. I couldn’t pass that up either.

Then he asked if I was ready for a zero day. I thought about this, and I replied, no. I was really only taking one because that was how I had planned it out from the beginning, but if I had my choice, I’d just keep going.

I woke up that morning at the base of the Oracle Ridge loving where I was. Injured? Yes, but it was feeling noticeably better (probably also thanks to the mostly downhill day). Even the day before was euphoric. Enormous distances spread out over the classic Sonoran Desert floor. Rugged and rocky ranges rose up out of the desert in all angles and shapes. The Rincon Mountains to the east were fading into the horizon with time. Sunset lit up the deserts and outskirts of Tucson in liquid gold. An hour later the sky was a faint rainbow of warm and cool colors above lights emanating from a town that half-heartedly tries to follow its lighting ordinance. Stars began appearing overhead. Crickets chirped. Bats left erratic silhouettes against the red glow of a desert dusk. The moon rose well after sunset, lighting up the top of the Santa Catalina Mountains in a warm yellow. It wasn’t just an evening I didn’t want to end, it was also an evening I don’t want to stop describing.

Lower Oracle Ridge

Sunrise only perpetuated that feeling. I was giddy. I was coming out of the mountains but I wanted to see what today’s adventures would offer. What secret treasures hid at the north end of this sky island? What would happen today? The adventure aspect of thru-hiking the Arizona Trail was setting in and I was embracing it with every fiber of my being.

So when Jacob asked if I was ready for a zero day, ‘no’ was the nice way to put it. Alas, I had chores I needed to do. I needed more food. I needed to mail it out. I needed to swap out some electronics. I needed to leave behind some camera batteries since I really only needed two. I needed a tripod since I found my Gorillapod to be virtually useless in the desert. I needed to patch my pad since it was still leaking. I needed a shower. Calories. Beer. Clean clothes. Civilized luxuries.

We arrived at the Tiger Mine Trailhead, me on my feet, he in his van. He parked and got out to scope out the terrain and to stretch. It is after all, well over an hour to get there from Phoenix.

After a brief respite, we were on our way, but not before heading into the small town of Vail (Arizona, not Colorado) to figure out where my now cumbersome and unimportant bounce box had gone. We eventually tracked it down to a post office, and after rescuing it, were heading back to Phoenix.

My zero day was spent running errands and doing chores. I needed to buy food for the next 400 miles of trail, divide it up into portions for each post office or sendable package along the way, and get it all mailed out in one day. I barely made it before 5pm.

I put my normal portion that I had been consuming in, but also added a few extra granola bars and other snacks, foolishly thinking, that should do the trick.

I was still enjoying the stoveless meals, so I continued with that. I got more sausages from a local German meat company, more toaster pastries for breakfast, nut butters, chocolate nut butters, nuts, bars, crackers, cookies, rice cakes, and pretty much anything else on the shelves that could be eaten easily without needing refrigeration or heating.

Mesquite Trees and Boulders

Since I was binging on amazing meals in Phoenix, I took the blandest options onto the trail with me at first. I’d save the sweetest and most delicious treats and meals for farther down the trail as I was approaching Flagstaff, my next planned zero day for resupplies, several hundred miles farther down the trail.

We visited a brewpub that night and I got the sleep, food, and beer that I needed before heading out early that next morning.

Certain sections of the trail had a mysteriousness to them. An enigmatic curiosity that both excited and frightened me. The next passage was the Black Hills (Arizona, not South Dakota). They had a reputation combined with the following passage for being sparsely occupied, having little reliable water, having landscapes that are void of photos and information, and are known for being hot on pleasant days. In addition, I had accumulated just enough stress in preparations again in Phoenix so that my giddiness had worn off. I was excited to get back on the trail, but I had no idea what to expect. The unknown was ahead of me in an infamous stretch of remote hiking. Some other day was now.