Backpacking is hard on the body.
We woke up and got moving before Katya, bidding her a goodbye and promise to meetup in Pine in a few days. We hiked up from the valley through a juniper-pinion pine forest. The trail became rocky shardy again filled with stone chunks. The hue of the land began to change, began to become more iron-based red. The junipers fell away as the Arizona Trail zig-zagged across multiple rolling hills. The Mogollon Wall was incredibly visible in the distance. That wall that separated us from the high country. On a descending ridge, Janna managed to get just enough reception to call ahead to reserve us a cabin in Pine. We mutually agreed we wanted to take a 0 in Pine. Lodging with a hot shower was strongly desired. With that sliver of bars, she was able to confirm us their last cabin in town.
A roof secured, we walked on, pumping out more miles. Small white flowers began blooming trailside in red dirt. The surrounding rock facades increasingly reminded me of northern Arizona - striated with pale whites and sanguines, the true forms of red rock country. The AZT led down to a wash where we climbed over old fallen burned timber and jumped around large boulders. Low growing oak and manzanita continued to crowd up against the trail in places. Water was plentiful so we took what we wanted, when we wanted.
We moved in and out of chunky rock-strewn trail before it came through a vegetative thickness. Campsites abounded, but the gently sloping land up here’s only shelter was the body sized shrubs and isolated deadfall. Glad we didn’t camp here last night, we pushed, gaining elevation upwards now. We kept our eyes on the sky. The morning had a mix of blue and white, but a more permanent cloud cover seemed to be moving in now. Thick, draping clouds hung on the highest peaks behind us. The storm didn’t hit last night, but a cold front had definitely arrived. The sky suggested a mid-afternoon storm.
As we moved along, we began to notice a new array of flowers popping up all over the places: multiple cactus flowers, Mexican gold poppies, fireweed, jojoba blooms, and mallows. The profusion made me extremely grateful to be hiking the AZT in such a wet year - beauty born of water.
The trail came over a higher ridge and began a steep series of distant switchbacks to the now visible Verde River valley. The trail straight-up plunged down some 5,000 feet to the river valley in only a few miles. We began descending the slanted trail, my knees lock stepping to halt the speed of my descent. Trekking poles were slammed in front in many places. We wound down and down. Above and behind us, large cumulus began building - the storm in wait. As we were walking, I began to feel a certain pain developing in my right knee (my good knee!). Then, the pain became sharp, defined, and felt like clicking. All bad signs. I stopped immediately began going through my ritualistic stretches in an attempt to realign that which wasn’t. Unfortunately, this pain would haunt me for days, causing much alarm about possible damage. By the time we got to the Grand Canyon, it was gone. But in this moment, it served its own dish of worry.
We rounded a corner and found a hillside swept with gold poppies. Plus, we caught up to two backpackers ahead of us. We met Wags and Frenchie - two flip-flopping thru-hikers from Pine. They raved about their town and insisted we meet up when we all got there. They were doing the Mazaztals now and then were going to flip down to the border and head north from there. Then, flip back to the northern end of the trail to finish up. We talked about the profusion of flowers, the insane amount of snow/rain this past winter, and our favorite areas in Arizona. They were honestly some of the few other thru-hikers we had run into who were from the state. We pushed ahead, gingerly (my knee was clicking with pain on every step down) ahead of them.
A few hours later, the incline of the trail decreased. It began to wave past more flowers, instead undulating through pinion-juniper stands. The heat of the day had risen as our elevation decreased. And suddenly, we spilled out on a dirt road leading to the Verde River past a ranch. As we walked, we heard barking and a pack of dogs from the ranch came out at us. I was like, “Shit!” but the dogs barked and circled us before running back on their property. As we walked on, sunlight began to dip (even though it was only early afternoon) as rain clouds built up. The deepening gray made the entire area seem damp already. The studded rock trail became smooth, then sandy, as the floodplain approached. Large sycamores grew densely along the sandbars and banks of the Verde.
We were curious how deep it would be flowing. Guthook comments from only a couple of weeks ago suggested that the river was flooded with spring melt. Hikers had to actually swim across to get to the other side. We walked through the sand and large river stones and came out into the actual river channel. Deep sections lay before us so we walked upstream and found a perfect crossing spot with an easily manageable depth. We crossed and took some time to enjoy beauty of this undammed river still running wild in Arizona. But the gathering clouds were starting to dim everything more, so we climbed a hill. As we left, loud peacocks from the ranch began calling. We would hear their calls all night long.
Pacing up the hill, we entered juniper-pine stands again. A few miles in, we left the AZT to hike into the wood to Polk Spring. Polk Spring ended up being a naturally warm spring that made the resulting field it ran through temperate and comfortable in the gathering chill. We setup camp in the field well away from widowmakers and branches, using a bush as wind-block. The spring fed a stream through the north side of the large field. A layer of watercress and ivy richly covered it, not making any water visible. I walked up towards the source in the woods and found water exposed and running through tree roots. I took off my shoes and soaked my feet in the warm and clear waters. Being here by 3 pm, Janna and I decided to divide tonight’s dinner into two. Early dinner and late dinner. We ate early dinner right away and took some time to reorganize and patch our gear (especially the rip on my backpack where I had fallen in the Superstitions). By 4:30 we decided to eat late dinner as it was obvious that the storm was going to unleash in the next hour. Food consumed, we made sure the Triplex was well battened with all tie-outs and headed in. Not 10 minutes later, a wave of clouds obscured all peaks as a steady rain began to fall.
The night would bring an intense lightning storm, thunder, and driving rain for hours. Refuge was our shelter.