The night was cold, long, and it felt like we were so far away from humanity. For some reason, it reminded me of sleeping in the Paria Canyon. You stare up into deep stars, the night sky a sliver between rock walls. Nighthawk calls continued until the touch of dawn.
We awoke and I felt urgency. Urgency to get through the Mazzies to Pine. In my head, I thought, “If I can get there, my knee will be good, and I can finish the trail…If I get there, the heat will lessen, and water will be plentiful…If I can get there, shade will be more abundant….” The urgency was also born of a weather report suggesting a very large storm and rain system approaching tonight or tomorrow. We wanted to cross the Verde River (a federally designated Wild and Scenic River) and find some good shelter before a veritable deluge hit. Therefore, we had miles to make today.
We climbed out of the Triplex into the frigid air. Again, ice caked where condensation had formed. I felt well pleased because the Destin and Preparation H were doing INCREDIBLE things down there. My butthole and cheeks were simply on the up. I had settled into a rhythm with using my derriere creams: (1) sleep with no underwear to air the area. Wipe with baby wipes before bed to remove salt crystals from sweat. (2) Apply Preparation H before bed to keep the itch away while I sleep. (3) Add Destin before and during hiking to prevent the cheek chafe.
The day began with Mazatzal Peak rising all day until we stood across from its 8,000 ft. prominence. The trail switchbacked up an opposing peak on a narrow edge. Scrub oak grew low and bushy and packed right up next to the trail. We felt exposed to the Sun again, but after the trail curved the mountainside, we entered an unburned ponderosa pine forest with a sprinkling of junipers. The evidence of the wildfire impact was just dramatic across the whole range. We’d dip into an unscathed pine forest only to abruptly exit into a hillside of grass/scrub oak/manzanita all knee high with splintered ponderosa skeletons lodged about.
Near 7,000 ft. high again, the botany began to change. Agave and firs intermingled in the high places. The trail scooped out of a turn and we both stopped to gaze at an unbroken expanse into the heart of the Tonto National Forest north of Phoenix. The valley down below contained horseshoe lake and a white building, a spec really, on a distant parallel range proved to be the Humboldt Observatory out at Seven Springs. Looking south, we could just pick a few distant glints of houses from Cave Creek. I was pumped when I looked north and saw the caked-in-snow rise of the San Francisco Peaks small but clearly seen. The wall of the Mogollon Rim cut perpendicularly in the north. Wow. In this one view, we could see it all; from Phoenix to Flagstaff.
Just as we started to move again, an older couple rounded the corner. In their 60s, they were finishing this last section of the Arizona Trail. With it would come completion of the whole route. We congratulated them and felt a sort of awe wondering what it would feel like if/when we reached the end. The trail wound through a burned forest of black stumps and splinters with chunky red granite forming the ground. It curved over the top, provided us views into the east, and then came down the side of another mountain at a saddle to a spring. At this point it was nearly noon and we had done nearly 12 miles. Feeling comfortable with the pace being made in this steep terrain, we took a break. I was good on water, and so was Janna, so we decided to keep going after a snack.
The views, unbroken by trees (burnt by the fire), revealed hulks of red granite ranges stretching into the distance. The AZT joined the Mazatzal Divide (a trail bisecting the range) and undulated up and down over miles of incredibly rocky trail. Janna and I settled into conservations about school, student behavior, trends in education, and the like. We realized during early afternoon that we were now back on the section we had hiked before when we visited the ice waterfall a few winters ago. It felt good to be someplace we had touched, a sort of confirming progress.
Moving into another long expanse of manzanita-choked trail, the terrain below us disintegrated into the most insane rock. Shards, babyheads, river stones, chunky granite rounds. Like god punched the mountainside and strew the ankle-bending bits along this section. I was happy with the max soles of my Hokas as the bottom of my feet would have been destroyed. We walked quickly but carefully through the miles of possible broken ankles. Then, someone hollered to us from behind. Surprised to see anyone else, we turned and met Katya. She immediately recognized us (given our sun hats) and said that she was one of the hikers we had seen on Day 1, all the way back in the Huachucas. She had seen us take the alternate down low when she went high into the snow - again reaffirming our decision as good risk management. She said it was terrible up there. Apparently, she had been covering something like 20-30 miles a day but got an injury outside of Superior that forced her off the trail for a week or two. During that time, we had caught and passed her location. And now, despite the month passing since we all left from the Mexico/US border, we happened to intersect again.
Janna gave Katya some olives that she was sick us; Katya ate them up for the palate change. She jumped ahead of us but we caught up when we both stopped at the same spring off trail to collect some water. Janna had gone down first and somehow I got lost descending the mountainside and walked through a ton of catclaw that ripped my legs apart. Find the stream flowing over a raw granite outcrop, I dipped by bottles only to bring up small leaches all over. I took some time to scrape them all off before walking downstream and finding Janna and Katya talking. Somehow, there was a clear trail there that I had missed. Janna and I told her we were aiming to make it to “The Park” tonight, a rare flat valley area a few miles ahead. It was supposed to have a small stream nearby and a thicket of wind-protected pine good for camping, and good for weathering the storm should it blow in.
We pushed on ahead into early evening. The sun drifted behind some cirrus clouds, which seemed to drop the temperatures suddenly. The trail broke out into a pimplefest of fist-sized rocks and climbed upwards 1,000 feet. Yearning for smooth dirt track, the Mazatzal Divide suddenly summited out on a ledge with an awesome view into crimped peaks and ranges stretching out far. We switchbacked down the trail studded with agaves in the granite. It curved the width of a mountain flank and suddenly, there The Park was. A few acres of healthy pine in a small valley below. With evening in full force, we hit the bottom, crossed a small stream, walked up a large meadow and entered the woods. We hiked off trail a ways and found an absolutely perfect area to camp for the night. Good trees with no big branches overhead, flat, and with a thick bed of soft pine needles to camp on. After setting up camp, I hiked back down to the trickle of a stream to fill water and ran into Katya. I told her our location for camping and invited her to join us. I filled up my water in the dropping temperature and walked back up. The three of us ate dinner in the dark as Katya told us some stories about thru-hiking the PCT. We stayed up well-past dark and climbed into our shelters as the wind began picking up in earnest.