Morning arrived quickly to the tune of 4 am. Janna’s teammate Tony, from her school, was graciously picking us up at 5 am, dropping us back at the Picketpost Mountain Trailhead where we had stopped several days before, before he turned around and made it to school to teach all day. At 6 am, we rolled into the parking lot, just as the cusp of the sun hit the horizon. We were also eager to get going to avoid getting cooked in the low country. A second older couple stood in the parking, also getting ready to embark. They were definitely seniors and the look of their gear indicated high experience. We talked to them briefly before they took off. Faster than us, we wouldn’t see them again until the end of the day.
I felt exhausted and slightly off-camber, as if I’d been gone from the trail for months. The morning was warming already and I felt like I had to regrow my trail legs. The Arizona Trail went through a culvert beneath the 60, and moved across this vast basin area with the Superstitions and rugged peaks of the Tonto National Forest rising before us. Brittlebush blooms carpeted the desert floor beneath the spires of saguaros. We moved quickly, hitting a wash with a solid flow of unexpected water that we topped off our supplies with. The trail began to parallel the flowing wash for several miles, banking next to wall of red rock. The small rises around us grew into peaks, us gaining elevation as we followed the flow uphill. The whole time, a thick spread of grasses grew right up to the trail, obscuring the path in front of us at times - I had never seen anything like it in the desert before. There were even some parts where the grass was so thick that a passing equestrian had smashed the stalks across the trail.
Carefully I walked in front of Janna, slowly placing my feet where I couldn’t see them into the thick mat below. Every step submerged my legs up to my knees, and I knocked hard with my trekking poles the crisscrossed grass folded in front of my next foot placement. Then, boom! A rattlesnake head darted out next to my pole while it sent its tail shaking. The buzz filled the air and I led us through the brush around it. This dance of rattlesnake buzz, sightings, and wading through deep grass continued for several hours. It was mentally taxing. I spent more time staring straight down than at the views around me. My ears strained for noise. My eyes scanned for the shape of snake heads. Brush of trekking pole tip, BUZZZZZ, rattlesnake coiled, us cautiously moving around it. The dance of precision and care.
A few miles later, the grasses receded and we walked along a spent wash. We hit a cattle tank with a float valve outside of a nearly abandoned corral in early morning. We sat in the shade of a building which obviously had been used recently for target practice. We pressed on. Around 1 pm and well into the mid-upper 90s F, we reached Mud Spring, which had a singular large cypress providing shade. We dropped packs and crouched in the shade. Small midges from spring flew about, dying in the heat and desperate for water. They dive-bombed my tear ducts so I threw some head netting one and took a long 2 hour siesta.
Around 3 pm, we decided to get a move on as we still had a 3,000 ft. ascent up Montana Mountain before we would arrive near where we hoped to camp that night. Now, the trail wove in and out of the wash as we moved steadily uphill. Saguaros began to fade away with the gain in elevation. We passed the ruins of an old ranch and its crumbling walls. The AZT began to weave away from the wash and starting switchbacking up the south flank of Montana Mountain. Suddenly, a rapid botany change occurred as low desert plants were all replaced with a stunning green grassland. These grasses were 3 - 5 ft. tall, vibrant, and made me feel like I was walking through a savannah in the rainy season. I could barely see the trail weaving through the swaying stems. Some were even as tall as me! The trail wove back and forth and the entire canyon we had walked up fell away below us as we took our first extended glances at the distant ranges from this height.
Picketpost Mountain and the entire Gila Canyon range stood at some distance to our south. The grasses wove back and forth until, near the top, and drenched with sweat, we began stumbling through chaparral at 5,000 ft. in elevation. The AZT peaked out at a saddle where we could now look over the other side. There it was! Phoenix in its metropolitan sprawl far out to the west with Mesa homes in view. The Superstition Ridgeline prominently separated city from wilderness. Large cut valleys filled with pines and junipers lay below. A group of 3 thru-hikers just heading out on the Grand Enchantment Trail met us (the GET has a western terminus in Phoenix with the eastern terminus in Albuquerque). They reported seeing a black bear nearby, not surprising as they are relatively common in these desert mountains.
Now the AZT traced a ridgeline along the easternmost portion of the Superstition Wilderness. The AZT dumped us onto a dirt forest road outside the wilderness zone where we road walked with awesome views on either side. Violet flowers grew in clumps beneath agave plants. Manzanita, juniper, and pine began to fill up around us. After the significant climbing of the day, both Janna and I had pain in our plantar fasciitis. The dirt road was pleasant and gentle in grade. It slowly entered a pine forest with beautiful creeks and washes filled with water. And then, we were at Roger’s Trough trailhead. We headed over to some good camping but found the area taken by that senior couple. Everything else was slanted or rocky. We settled on camping in the parking lot in the dust. A creek flowed several hundred feet away that gave us a resupply of water. We felt beat by today. It was beautiful but harsh. However, we were up in elevation in the cooler temps now. We only had two other descents to the low Sonoran desert between us and the Mogollon Rim high country - two more times for heat as spring advanced towards summer. After a dinner of pizza tortillas (tortillas, pepperoni, and cheese), we climbed in for the night.