Both of us were anxious to get moving this morning because we needed to meet Kristin who was bringing a load of fresh fruit and food. We got up early and found that, even up above, a deep cold had descended from the surrounding mountains, leaving us in a sheen of morning ice. We packed up our crispy bags, now soaked with collected condensation and hit the trail. We shivered in the subfreezing temps, even this late in spring in the desert. Eventually, the AZT came up on a rise and provided a long view of leafless cottonwoods lining the entire path of Sycamore Creek, now in the distance.
We allowed the Sun to hit us. Sunflower, more a spot on a map then a real stop at all, was a short side-hike from the AZT. Sunflower sits along State Route 87 (The Beeline Highway) and has a tow truck business and a collection of houses. No services. We’ve never stopped there on drives to Rim Country. But there is a pullout just past Sunflower that leads down a lane to a dead-end where the AZT picks up at trail. Now warmed, we made our way to that pullout parking area to meet Kristin.
Janna and I arrived at the parking area earlier than the planned meeting of 9 am. We took the time to empty all our gear to air out and dry out in the quickly warming sun. With our pack contents disgorged, a car pulled in and out popped Kristin and Sandra (both teachers from Janna’s school). They brought us our mail to look through, tons of fresh/easy water, MY FUCKING BUTT CREAMS (Prep. H + Desitin + Baby Wipes - I thanked them a million times and apologized for so personal a purchase), our resupply of food to get us to Pine, and a WHOLE TON OF FOOD we had requested, including:
• McDonald’s Sausage Biscuits (I ate 2 - the first McDonalds in years)
• 2 packages of iced cookies and 1 fresh batch of chocolate chip cookies
• Tortilla Chips + Salsa
• A bag of fresh oranges
• A whole thing of bananas
• Sourpatch Kids
Over the next 1.5 hours, we literally ate it all. I don’t know how, but I literally consumed thousands of calories and an unbelievable volume of consumables. It was so much I thought I was going to vomit. It was wonderful.
We all sat around laughing, asking each other questions about the typical world and the extraordinary world (as Murilo from NOLS would call them), and ate food endlessly. It was like I could feel the surge of calories being fed to my leg muscles through an IV or something. The recovery effect was huge for my energy, morale, and physical state. We dropped off trash, sent back that which we didn’t want/need anymore, and took a few more cookies for the trail ahead. Now, it was 10:30 and Janna and I need to go because tough terrain lay ahead. They said goodbye and drove away as we hiked back down to Sycamore Creek, crossed it, rejoined the AZT by a country home, passed under the highway via a culvert, and stared at the first peaks of the Mazatzal Mountains.
The Mazatzals, or Mazzies (or Mad-as-Hells), are singularly notorious for being the most overgrown, hardest to navigate, very remote, rugged, and hardest section of the entire AZT. The mountains there have experienced multiple burns, the land is almost never flat, the trail is VERY rocky, and frequent manzanita covers the trail requiring scraping and bushwhacking. The range hit its highest point at nearly 8,000 feet at Mazatzal Peak. It was an intimidating section in our minds, but also one we were looking forward to. A couple of years ago we did a winter hike up Barnhardt Trail from Highway 87 to a frozen waterfall. It made our appetites grin to see more. As well, I knew this to be the last of low/hot country. Once we reached the end in Pine, we would enter Arizona’s high country.
Grass grew alongside the trail gorgeous and green. The smattering of houses around Sunflower fell away as the trail because overgrown with grass. It was front easily discernible to one needing close attention. We began picking our path by looking for the telltale sing of footsteps in vegetation. Then, it rolled out into muddy and rocky doubletrack. Peaks and unconformities rose in the distance and hillsides bled red rock. We passed by a muddy cattle hole while humidity shot up. The AZT crested a grassy knoll and a herd of wild horses stood before us. They brazenly refused to step aside of the trail and somewhat bristled at our approach, so we gave them a wide berth.
We passed the horses, the AZT joined and left a dirt track, it crossed a flowing creek, and turned abruptly up the canyon bearing the creek. With that, we firmly hiked up the foothills of the Mazatzals. The heat cooked up as the day progressed. All that food we ate was fuel running through me. Janna and I moved with speed and strength. A weathered sign welcomed us to the Mazatzal Wilderness. From there, the Mazzies revealed their steep and vertical structure. The trail would skirt up the sides of streams, gaining elevation steadily higher and higher. Unlike other mountain ranges encountered on the AZT which featured large climbs and rounded roofs with broad valleys and meadows, I would describe the Mazzies as sharply rising and falling slabs of mountain that meet in narrow “V” valleys. The walls of opposing flanks are begin and end sharply with elevation - there is no flat, no valley bottom. They are straight rockwall to creekbed to rockwall.
This new topography made the Arizona Trail shoot straight up and down climbs. In addition, a massive fire that passed through here over a decade ago had removed much of the large ponderosa pines that would have provided cover from the Sun. The trail itself seemed made of straight-up flaked rock shards. As the day went on, the trail seemed to only get steeper, forcing me to descend sideways in some areas. Here and there, pockets of untouched pine behemoths beckoned shelter in narrow valleys. The trail would leave the manzanita chaparral to plunge into the evergreens. Many gorgeous campsites with supple streams drifted nearby. A few abandoned mine shafts sat trailside. For all of its sharp and rocky harshness, it was exhilarating to be in this legendary range. It also seemed little used, but promised many side backpacking trips from a maze of trails splitting from the AZT.
At one point, the AZT climbed a ridge and then cut along a contour line, staying even and steady. We took the opportunity to peer at the distant peaks. It was truly a place of solitude.
As late afternoon approached, we officially hit the halfway point of the entire trail, spelled out in rock shards on the shattered ground: 400 Miles, ½ Way. That felt like an accomplishment –> having hike ½ the trail. But dusk in the narrow-valleys made the night only come on faster. The sun drifted behind a tall ridge and shadows cast coldness as chilled air sank. We picked up the pace, sweating profusely from the frequent up and downs. Literally walking up washes in places. I wanted to make sure we had a place to camp out of the wind as it was rushing down the valleys in places. About a quarter mile before Thicket Spring, we found a flatish spot, literally just big enough to pitch our Triplex trailside. The topographic maps and Guthook comments revealed little to no camping off trail as everything was vertical walls. Tonight, we would camp with the trail forming an edge with our shelter walls.
We tried to clear the ground of the sharpest of rock shards before setting up. As cold descended, we climbed into the Triplex, feeling truly isolated out in this range. The calls of lesser nighthawks on a high cliff filled the night. Darkness was solitude.