Today was a day of wildlife. With the first crack of light edging the horizon, Janna and I exited our shelter to get a move on. We had no water since around noon yesterday and we wouldn’t have one for several miles still. The morning was cool and overcast. The AZT was lined with miles of yuccas in bloom, providing sweet nectar to Mexican long-nosed bats in the night. After a four mile start to the day, through scrubland and low desert, we hit up some double track that began rolling towards a few distant power line towers.
The AZT Water Guide and Guthook mentioned something called a “wildlife tank” near here. It’s apparently a cement rectangular pit with descending steps that’s filled by a rainwater harvesting system; installed by the AZ Fish and Game, wildlife tanks provide a reliable water source during hot and dry months. For AZTers, its role is the same: water in these hot, low, and waterless sections. We approached a hill to our right, but no tank was in site. Using the GPS coordinates provided, we wandered off trail and up the Sonoran scrub for a quarter mile before a rusty metal-tubed fence appeared. Hopping the fence, we collected what looked to be disgusting water from the surface. But a quick submerge of our bottles brought up clear water with a few insect swimmers.
Continuing on, the day began to heat up as we crossed through sandy washes and rounded through low thornscrub. Rounding a sharp corner, I heard a massive hiss, stopped in my tracks, and at my feet, fully inflated and swelled, was a massive Gila Monster. Unlike the one from yesterday that took off the moment we approached, this two-foot reptile stood its ground. It raised its head, gaped its mouth, and hissed again. We shuffled around it, watching it rotate to keep its open-mouth directed at us. Now across the path, the Gila Monster seemed to settle. It began moving around, flicking its forked tongue, and investigating a bush. Fearless, it didn’t budge. Instead, it became disinterested. Pictures taken, we continued on, rounded a bend, and were hit with the stench of rotting flesh. To the right of the Arizona Trail, a desiccated and massively decayed cow carcass lay.
We passed by the carcass, went through a few AZT official gates, and suddenly, it was as if rattlesnakes came out en masse. Wary, we heard their rattling next to the trail what felt like once a mile. By the end of the day, the wariness would subside into a relative annoyance. Some western diamondbacks would be fully stretched across the trail (at least 5 by my count today) and we would have to hike off-trail to get a wide berth to pass by. Sometimes, when the route was steeply walled by rock, we would have to wait for the rattlesnake to move on after 10 - 15 minutes. Venomous reptiles aside, the blooms were in equal glory today. A few miles later, in this swell of serpents, we crossed a rancher fence and found, amazingly, a good several gallons of water left by trail angels. We each took heavy swigs of clean water before smashing up the bottles and placing them in our packs.
The AZT entered a canyon and skirted to the right of a wash. Mexican gold poppies grew in small bunches among the sand of the wash. The heat began to cook in earnest, sweat dripping, rolling down my back. Now, fully in the wash, it was a struggle to walk in the unstable sand. We were distracted by our steps until a roar came piercing up the canyon. We looked ahead for the source of the noise as it got closer and closer. Two military fighter jets came flying overhead, their engine noise roaring in a delayed response; they were using the canyons and peaks in the area for flight maneuver training. The jets gone, we started a long slog up a triangular hill with a base extending from the wash. Heat going strong, brittlebush stalks leafed in the pale green of the desert thickly covered the hillside. And then, we were on top.
A ridgeline extended back into the rocky outcrops of the hills to our south. To our north, a massive swag of supervolcanic ancient hearts, sturdy with granite and rhyolite, beckoned with canyons and cols. We walked along a ridgeline for several hours. The heart of the mountain laid bare by a massive open pit mine drew my eyes all day. In the distance, dust from the tailing would make a faint blur in the distant ranges while shelves of mine terraces led into the earth. Again, a loud noise caught us off guard. I turned to my left, half-expecting to see another fighter jet. My eyes widened as I stared at a massive cloud of like 500 Africanized honey bees, a dark cloud of buzzing and swiftness tracing the same ridgeline we were walking. I FUCKING TOOK OFF. Janna sprinted ahead of me, keeping to the AZT as it darted off the ridge and began switchbacking down the side of a cliff slab. I bolted towards that junction, the swarm several yards away from me now. I turned and watched the bees move downward, then twist away from us, descending into a valley. Shocked at how close they got, Janna and I stopped to catch our breath, especially in the drilling heat - easily mid 90s.
As the day rolled on, rattlesnakes continued to rattle frequently from the sides of the trail. Coming down that large mountain/hill, we stopped for breaks under any shade provided by small palo verde or the occasional mesquite. Water was being carefully managed. Salt crusted my clothing, my face, everything. The sweat and heat volleyed back and forth. The sun slanted with later afternoon, making the flowers look even more prominent. The MPB (miles per bloom) made me light on my feet; I couldn’t take enough photos. Around 5 pm or so, we entered a series of rolling hills. Each roll descended more than the one before, bringing us closer and closer to the lowest elevation on the entire AZT. We walked through a slanted valley of saguaros. Immediately, I saw one that was the tallest I had ever seen (the picture below). I stood next to it, a mere 6 feet tall - the saguaro probably 50 feet tall.
As evening approached, we finally hit a paved road that would lead to Kearny. We stood at a bridge in the still-bright light of evening and crossed into the outskirts of town. Walking over the bridge revealed the first look at the mighty Gila River. Born in the mountains of New Mexico and engorged by tributaries, it rolls through the Gila River Canyon here in central Arizona. Its waters were silty brown but its banks were filled with lush riparian vegetation, soft green in the evening light. We headed up the road to a maintenance facility. Outside of it, a spigot, complete with old plastic chairs and a universal water sign, provided our first cold and sure water since early that morning. We filled up 5 L, looking to enjoy an evening of long and frequent rehydration. Plus, the creek spewing into the Gila River nearby was rumored to be contaminated with heavy metals from the local mines.
We walked back to the bridge and started up a small paved road leading out of town. The evening, now well past 6 pm, finally began to cool. At a trailhead for the AZT and the entrance to the Gila River Canyon, was a parking lot. Next to the parking lot was a huge grassy area where we walked back behind some mesquite to put up our tent for the night. Within minutes of finishing the setup, a pair of cars pulled into the parking lot. Out hopped an entire crew of thru-hikers and a dog. They all came over to greet us, including the locals from Kearny who had dropped the hikers off. Everyone encouraged us to catch a ride into town to grab some legendary pizza, but we were set, relaxed, and enjoying the beauty of the evening. All the hikers eventually went off to setup camp, except for a thru-hiker named Numbers. He sat with us in the dark, eating an entire pizza he purchased in town, graciously sharing a slice or two. In his 40s, Numbers had thru-hiked the PCT and AT, with the PCT being his favorite. A former computer programmer in a more prodigious life making tons of money, he gave it all up when he found it empty. He had since turned to backpacking as a salve for his longing. Currently, he was working on creating a competitor app for Guthook. He was carefully gathering GPS coordinates for the length of the AZT, as well as a library of photos to attach to waypoints. Conversation lasted until the stars brilliantly shown in the deep dark desert night sky. We all turned in and slept the cool of darkness away.
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