Now that we were back in the high desert, crossing vast plains with little cover, the daily heat brought challenges again. In an effort to combat it, the big group of thru-hikers we found ourselves in, strangely enough, woke up early to get going. All day, we were in a giant sagebrush basin with little vegetative cover. The views were incredible. Behind us, the snowy husks of Humphreys Peak and Kendricks Peak loomed stark against a flat arid-land. The sense of distance and expanse seemed unmatched by any other segment of the Arizona Trail. This is why I love this state. The shear diversity of landscape and biome all slammed into a single state. A few miles bring you from the equator to the poles.
The morning was cold with a slight wind as we left East Cedar Tank and rejoined the rocky double track crossing Babbitt Ranch. We got to the Arizona Trail segment trailhead where a small scattering of low-hung juniper provided some wind protection. Detour was sitting on some rocks with the hiker box open. It was stock full of water jugs and snacks, which she was enjoying in the early morning. As we talked to her, a van pulled up out of the horizon and four backpackers got out. It turns out they had been hiking the entirety of the AZT in segments for the last couple of years and this was one of the last ones they had left. Their driver-friend was going to drive 10 miles ahead and setup a day camp they were walking to. With generosity, they let us know we could grab water from the van when we passed it. This was super helpful as I think we had 20 miles until our next water source and then another 20 to the following one. Such was the nature of this section - reliable water at repeated 20 mile intervals. Their offer meant we could carry less water weight and drink a little more freely in the day’s heat.
Despite the vast and remote nature of this segment, there was soon a string of thru-hikers staggered to the horizon along this lonely dirt road crossing the high desert. Ironically, the most AZTers I had seen at one time. The thru-hikers covering 40ish miles a day rose and snapped to the trail at day break. Their 3+ mph average quickly outpaced us all. Everyone else was going more of less the same speed - everyone playing chase to each other.
As the morning went on and we approached an isolated rise to our lefts, a pair of thru-hikers going south passed us. They let us know they had stashed water north of us they no longer needed, making it public. I laughed at the relative abundance of water that had fallen on us in this dry section. We passed a few jugs of public water and turned right and left onto dirt roads leading to remote ranches and who knows where. The AZT stuck to some double track that went up a rise covered in poppies and fireweed and then stuck to a high view of the San Francisco Peaks in the distance. We came up on a van packing up camp gear - they were the team with the southbounders. They offered some free food and I took an ENTIRE monster bag of peanut M&Ms. I ATE SO MANY it felt like my teeth would fall out.
Bilbo caught up to us at this point and we walked together for several hours talking about the backpacking scene, ultralight vs stupid light, the nature of trails, and his distilled wisdom from 70 years of living. Soon, another thru-hiker caught up to us. It turns out he had attempted the FKT on the Florida Trail earlier this year and was out here now doing 40ish miles a day. He talked to us for a bit before pushing on to catch the other large-mile hikers we had camped with last night. Around noon, Bilbo split from us to take a rest and we pushed forward as some straggler junipers started appearing. As the heat picked up, I found a nice shady spot and took a siesta nap.
Some time later, we got up and kept moving. Now, the doubletrack was approaching some topography as a small canyon rounded up around us and we approached the 20 mile mark for the day. Lockwood Tank was straight ahead - a necessary water source to hit because the next one wasn’t for another 20 miles. Except this one was notorious.
Walking up to the area, the Arizona Trail swerved left but we went straight up a rise and saw a trough and rusted metal tank down the hill. All of which were surrounded by some 40 uncastrated bulls.
I had never seen so many hulking bulls in my life.
I walked up slowly, cautiously making myself known, talking to the bulls, being like: “Hey bull…you’re my friend. Just chill man while we get some water.” They stared hard at us. Some stood behind others.
They were all colossal.
The decision to avoid the trough was easy as there were 10 bulls actively drinking from it and I wasn’t going to fuck with that. The metal tank was where I headed. There was a rusty ladder hanging off the top so I climbed it, peered in, and saw that the water was about 4.5 feet down, a good foot or two beyond my reach and probably a solid 5.5 feet of water. Now began the puzzle to solve - how to get water out. On Guthook, we read that someone flipped the ladder in, climbed down, got water, and flipped the ladder out.
Fuck that. That was insane to do.
I tried to sit on top and balance to do the stupid ladder thing, but I almost fell in. Then, I was like, “I’m totally just going to jump in. I’m tall enough I can just stand in the water and I can fill them up and pass the water bottles out.” Janna flatly rejected leaving me stranded in a large rusty basin of water. At this point Detour came and joined our decision-making. I realized I had some duct tape and Detour had massive Smartwater bottles. I taped one of her massive bottles to the end of my trekking pole, extended the trekking pole, and shoved it down until it was submerged and could be fished back out. Perfect. We scored a ton of water and waited for Bilbo who, legendary for his age, was a pretty small due at 70 years old and there was no way he could reach down. He showed up and was entirely grateful for the help.
Water obtained and carrying 5 L each, Janna and I walked back out to the AZT and joined the dirt doubletrack. Maybe 40 minutes later, a bikepacker came up behind us on the AZT 750 race! He was French, exhausted, and literally almost falling off his bike from not sleeping for days. I couldn’t believe he was still going but I cheered him on despite almost falling asleep while riding. With that, the AZT left the doubletrack into the singletrack that cut across a plain of Arizona sage and plunged into the southern boundary of the Kaibab National Forest. I was very excited to be in this area as this suggested the shear nearness of the Grand Canyon.
As afternoon drifted towards early evening, we walked several more miles repeatedly passing and being passed by Detour. We passed through ponderosa-juniper-pinion forests that rose with the slight elevation gains on the land. Finally, we walked across a large sagebrush field and saw the old historic sign for Moqui Stage Station along this ancient stagecoach route. With that, a brisk wind had picked up in early evening and a thunderhead of clouds was building in the east. We decided to camp in the forest nearby and found an excellent spot with wind protection and not too many branches should a storm hit us tonight. Detour decided to push ahead to meet a friend at the Grand Canyon tomorrow and we bid her goodbye. Bilbo came upon us in early evening and we invited him to camp with us. We all sat around eating dinner with another thru-hiker named Tyson showed up, someone Bilbo knew. We invited Tyson to eat with us. He was an awesome guy who lived in Alaska part of the year and down in Arizona doing vanlife for the moment. He pushed ahead after dinner, making plans to hit the Grand Canyon tomorrow as well. Fed and satiated, Bilbo, Janna, and I climbed into our shelters and passed out under the glory of stars and darkness.