Today, the flower blooms just continued to sweep and rival everything today. As a thru-hiker we would later meet would say: “My hike is measured in MPB….miles per blooms.”
After a great night’s sleep, Janna and I woke up in the wash to the slow morning pull of breakfast. Kitska and Rosey were already up, sitting in their bivies dressed in down jackets and eating food in the cold of morning. I wandered up the wash for a while before finding a nice and deep location for digging a cathole for my morning ritualistic poop. I took my time, enjoying the warming sun on my open body. After carefully soaping up and cleaning all said areas, I applied some balm to my chafed butt cheeks. I was feeling pleased with how my body was holding up. We were now doing 20+ miles a day; my feet were solid with the new Hokas (my only wish being that they had toe boxes similar to Altras), the arches of my feet were strong, the anxiety of my knee had receded as my strength and confidence grew, I had secured longer boxer briefs (Saxx Quest 2.0 Long Legs - how had I never used tall boxer briefs before??) in Tucson which cupped my parts solidly, and the weather only provided greater feelings of success for the low Sonoran crossing. Personal needs abated, I headed back to camp to find Rosey and Kitska had moved on out, although both left they cell phone numbers with Janna as we hoped to meetup again. I climbed back up the ladder of the rusted water tank to fill our bottles one more time from the trickling pipe at the top.
Heading back down Bloodsucker Wash, we paused to eye a dead rattlesnake lying desiccated in the sand. As we climbed up a hill out of the wash, Antelope Peak (the picture below) rose in the distance. Antelope Peak is a prominent, though not large, ridge that rises from the desert in this area. Its silhouette stands out for the relatively vast low rolling foothills and expansive washes that make up this portion of the open desert. But the AZT steadily hikes towards it, skirting up and around its base. It was here, two years earlier, that I had been dropped at the start of the Oracle Rumble Ultra, and I longly wanted to return, to feel the passage of time by standing in a place only a second time. Today would be that day.
Janna and I moved fast as the morning waned. The Arizona Trail was relatively flat and very smooth singletrack, meaning we could cover more miles more quickly. This speed led us to believe that we could cut a planned day out of this section by covering more miles than intended. The challenge was on and the weather perfect again - mid 70s F with a breeze. The trail wound in and out of washes. Hillsides the entire day were covered in gold poppies, yellow small blooms, white daisies, pink starbursts of petals, and just incredibly dense and vibrantly purple swaths of desert lupine. The desert floor was yellow in all directions.
Beehive Tank was our first water source of the day. Down abandoned doubletrack past a cutaway cliff shrouded in lupine, we entered an old wooden corral and walked up to the red rust cattle tank. I knew immediately why it was named Beehive Tank: literally hundreds of bees, some definitely Africanized, swarmed its surface and edges, attempting to land on the delicate nicks in the metal siding in order to pause and take a drink. The water was urine neon green and its surface was coated with a think blanket of dead bees, moths, and flies amongst other decay (take a look at the pics below). But water is water and I hadn’t carried much, planning on the water here. I slowly stretched my arms over and out into the pool of green, slowly lowering my bottle to not spook the many bees on the inside rim. I submerged my bottle, only to realize the O-ring from my water filter was hanging off the top opening of the bottle. No sooner had I realized this than I watched it pop out in the water and sink into the deep green.
“Shit!” I said out loud realizing I needed it to perform a watertight seal between my water filter and bottle. My Sawyer Squeeze filter wasn’t the most essential. 99% of the time I just use Aquamira drops. However, when faced with cowshit pools and this green bug stew, I liked being able to clear the physical particulates of poop and insect bodies by using a filter first. A bummer, but I’d get by.
As we got closer to Antelope Peak, we walked through a dense cholla stand proceeded by large tussocks of grass. As I passed by the grass, a sudden movement near my ankle caught my eye and I leapt to the left instinctively as a massive western diamondback rattlesnake struck at me, its mouth open right were my foot was, before it retracted into the characteristic S and rattled VERY loudly. My heart pumping, I looked at it. It was perhaps the largest western diamondback I had ever seen, easily with a midsection as thick as my forearm and well over six feet in length. Its rattle was massive with earned age. I was pumped and tried to take a video of it, but Janna kept yelling at me to get further back (and I promise I was a proper distance away). She would disagree here at my distance, but agreed that the size was enormous.
We continued down the trail, eyes and ears alert for more rattlesnakes that I very much hoped I would see (for real, I love reptiles). I looked up the AZT as it meandered up a slight incline, and there(!) in the center of the trail was a massive Gila Monster!!! I froze, carefully walked up the trail towards it. It spied us from 20 feet away and took off up the trail. I walked, doing a slow chase of hikers heading northbound, and a Gila Monster moving northbound on the trail. My pictures were terrible though, and nothing worthy to show. The Gila Monster eventually scooted off the trail and at under a creosote under a jumble of branches, eyeing us. I was really excited to see this one as I have only ever seen a Gila Monster once before. Considering that something like 98% of their lives are spent subterranean, any opportunity to see one is a great one. Protected in Arizona from collectors, Gila Monsters can grow up to 2+ feet in length and weigh over 5 pounds. Their striking orange and black mosaic bodies are famous along with being one of the few lizards in the world with a venomous bite. Their larger cousins, the Mexican Beaded Lizard, come only as far north as 70 miles below the Arizona Border. The Gila Monster is a truly iconic Arizona species, a species I appreciate.
We made our way up and around Antelope Peak to a trailhead parking lots. And just like that, I was where I had been aiming to return. Turning slightly east, we followed the AZT to the Freeman Trailhead where we ran into Rosey and Kitska sitting in the shade of a small seated shelter, both kicking back water, beer, and soda. A MASSIVE water cache was here at the hiker box - something like 40 gallons. A combination of trail angel gifts, stock gallons for AZT 300 and 750 mountain bike racers coming through next week, and water drops left by hikers made up the lot. As well, some trail angel had left cookies, candy, soda, and warm beer cans in the hiker box - free calories to enjoy. But first, Janna and I walked out into the desert and using our GPS coordinates, dug up the water we had buried here back in February.
Several weeks before, Darren had taken Janna and I out to do some water drops in the desert. We identified this stretch as a probable concern for water supply and distance, and buried about 2 gallons each. Although a hiker box presented itself, we had heard accounts and witnessed firsthand bottles where a planned water drops (with clearly labeled names, requests for people not to drink it, and ETAs) were half, nearly, or completely emptied by individuals without permission - often AZTers who didn’t plan ahead and thought taking “just a little” of someone else’s water was acceptable. We even ran into hikers who talked about taking the water drops of others, rationalizing it (they were in no way in danger but just uncomfortable) and/or then bragging about not having to carry water weight. We even talked to hikers who proudly relied on trail angels alone to supply all their water needs. That to me is a major concern. Take responsibility. Plan ahead and prepare - it’s not only a Leave No Trace principle, it’s the right thing to do when in the desert. This was all coupled by the fact that the leftover plastic bottles and jugs were either emptied and abandoned, or left for someone else to pick up. Most annoying would be when AZTers would take almost all the water but leave some on the bottom to relieve their minds of the responsibility to have to pack that trash out. After noticing a bunch of 95%-empty-bottles with a swig at the bottom, Janna and I committed to drinking the leftover swigs, crushing the plastic jugs/bottles, and packing as many empty bottles into our packs as possible to dump in the nearest trash can when we ran into one. After hearing warnings from others about leaving water in hiking boxes, we decided to bury ours and retrieve it now. We dug up our gallons in perfect conditions, sat back and drank a ton, and chased all of it with some sodas and candy. Kitska and Rosey moved on shortly after our arrival.
After some rest in the shade of that little benched area, Janna and I topped off all our water, signed the Trail Register, and moved out into the sunny desert. The AZT here suddenly cut straight to the horizon. Miles and miles of straight and clear trail that touched nowhere. We walked among the grasses and prickly pears, saw and passed under a series of overhead power lines, and went back and forth between single and doubletrack. As evening crept closer, we passed by a rare jumble of granite out here and I saw a cardboard piece that said “Magic” with an arrow pointing to it. I nearly fell over my feet. Who the heck would put that out here? I followed a spur trail from the AZT back into the rocks. Low and behold, there was a metal storage container, military style, chained to a bolder. I opened it to reveal water, some crackers, and a long note from a someone that lives nearby. The person said that this was their secret beautiful spot out in the desert and encouraged AZTers to take was food/water they needed and pointed out a few pottery shards nearby from historical inhabitants of the region. It was magic indeed.
Back on trail and evening quickly advancing, Janna and I crossed a series of washes before hiking off trail into some desert hills. We found a nice flat mound of earth relatively barren of plant life. We setup camp and ate dinner slowly, enjoying the late warmth in the evening, not yet cold enough to dawn our puffy jackets. Reds and purples slurred the sky as night came on, full and enveloping. The lack of geology around us meant that the full hemisphere of the sky was unbroken in every direction, incredible for viewing the stars. I sat out enjoying the view as cold eventually seeped down from on high, chasing us into the Triplex.