Despite being inside a building with all the comforts of a bed, I slept terrible for some reason and woke up with a headache. We packed up with a sense of exhaustion, the calm of yesterday somehow vacant. Mike drove us to the post office to send our bounce box home before joining us at MartAnne’s for breakfast. A killer place for breakfast in Flagstaff, it sports a massive menu with generous helpings, especially for the hungry hiker.
We walk in, grab a seat, and are putting back some fresh-squeezed orange juice, when we here a commotion at a table over. I look over and see a group of older looking people all staring at us hardcore, very directly, and then talking excitedly together. It’s then that we hear a: Forrest? Janna?
It’s Bilbo!!!! We haven’t seen him since south of Tucson!!! He’s there with Junco, his wife, and several other thru-hikers. We all get up and give hugs. Both Janna and I are so heartwarmed to see him. Turns out, everybody is heading back out on the trail today and we just all happened to eat at the same breakfast place. All of us begin to eat ravenously large breakfast burritos and chilaquiles, aware that this will be the last hot food until the Grand Canyon. Filled to the brim, we all take a photo together before exchanging plans for the next few days and heading out. Mike (are we ever so grateful for you!) drives us to the outskirts of town back at the Elden Pueblo Ruins parking lot. We wave goodbye as he heads back to work. Our packs our heavy with food (trail hunger has fooled us into carrying SO MUCH more than necessary on this part, lol), and we jump a wooden fence to rejoin the trail.
The Arizona Trail heads up towards the flanks of Mount Elden before splitting off a reroute. Flagstaff, along with the rest of the state, is undergoing a massive effort to curb potential future wildfire by thinning all national forests to pre-European levels (before extensive fire suppression). Although the trail proper heads further up the mountain, there is heli-logging going on top - literally loggers on top thinning tree stands and then a helicopter hovering, wrapping, and hoisting the trees away. In an effort to not kill anyone by the unlikely dropping of a tree, all the trails in the area have been closed or rerouted during operations. With that, Janna and I head around the mountain circumventing the process where we clearly can see helicopters carrying trees away - which is mind-blowing to view.
We come around a bend and a guy is walking towards us marking flags along the route for an upcoming running race. He excitedly tells us that we are near a parking lot where he just pulled up and parked 5 minutes ago and saw a mountain lion that hid behind a boulder. Super alert, Janna and I continue past him, looking all around us for signs of the cougar. We’re not too worried though as there are tons of deer to serve as more suitable prey in the area. The reroute joins an old double track and powerline road deep in the ponderosa woods and turns straight up a rotund flank of the San Francisco Peaks. It’s an arduous climb up and down rolling hills on repeat. As we walk, big thunderheads begin to build overhead.
The weather had originally called for bluebird skies all day, but such is the nature of mountains. The clouds darkened, the sky winced. We kept moving, watching the gray turn black. Then…bam! A crackle of thunder as lightning lit the scene. We immediately left the open powerline road to shelter away from metal in the even height of trees. The rain came down for a few minutes and then ceased fairly quickly. After 15 minutes, the lightning was gone, the thunder choked up, and we returned to our route. Shortly thereafter, we ran into a biker on Salsa El Mariachi who was racing the AZT 750. We talked about Industry 9 hubs he was sporting before he moved on, back to his race. The undulating hills continued up and down repeatedly. It rained again, and we opted just to leave rain gear on as temperatures dropped.
Finally, past the no-entry zone for timber harvesting, we regained the AZT. We wound through the woods on the singletrack making up a circumference of the mountain where my jaw dropped at the impact of the harvest. Just last fall, I had done a massive gravel and singletrack mountain bike ride around the entirety of the peaks down this very section. Instead of thick trees, it was sparse singletons. I’ll support what science says here but the visual impact was a bit disappointing. Around this time, my headache began to creep back up and Janna and I decided to eat and take a break since we were making good time. Laying on our packs, a thru-hiker named Detour came hiking up. After a brief conversation, she pushed on, and us the same. We played leapfrog with her for several miles, each of us getting ahead and then taking a break to kick back and eat - no one in a rush.
As afternoon came on, the trail crossed Snowbowl road and began an ascent up towards the ski resort. As elevation topped 9,000 feet, the biome began to change as vegetation took on a stronger alpine look. Gone where homogenous ponderosa stands; now stood aspen, firs, and spruce. All deciduous lacked their leaves as spring had yet to bring bloom in the alpine. Snow lay packed in the woods, some of the biggest patches we had yet seen on the trail in total. And there it was: the 600 mile marker. We were 75% done. Pictures taken, we pushed upwards as thick soil made up the A horizon. The smell of decomposing organic material mixed with snow, pine, and plant matter. The trail curved and I stopped. A wave of nausea and my morning headache returned full force. I took some acetaminophen which kicked in thankfully.
In late evening’s light, we left the trail, hiking through the snow, and exited the forest into a giant prairie making up the slopes of Humphrey’s Peak. Down below, Alfa Fia tank glowed with the setting sun. There was Bilbo! He was setup in the woods and enjoying his evening dinner. We talked to him for a bit before we walked up and found a nice flat and sheltered spot next to a fallen aspen. Detour soon exited the woods and camped down near the tank. We filtered water in the frosty evening, temperatures already approaching freezing. We ate dinner and watched a STUNNING sunset. The adjoining peaks silhouetted, the grass golden, and the clouds providing depth. Best sunset ever for eating dinner.