I put in six weeks notice at my job this week. Feelings: sadness, because I really like my job a lot. Happiness, because I really like thru-hiking. Thoughts: for awhile, I thought I was going to hike the CDT this year. Then I decided not to, because my life in Tucson is great. But then I went on a vacation, got really sick, and somehow the combination of those two made me realize how badly I wanted to hike the CDT. Badly enough, apparently, to give up a great job and living in a wonderful community with lovely friends. But, I am sure to encounter an inspiring community on the CDT, and I am both ecstatic and nervous for the challenges and adventures that await.
It’s been awhile since I’ve posted…a long while. A lot has happened. For one, I left Boulder, Colorado and moved to Tucson, Arizona, which is upwards of one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
When I left Tucson in 2012, I knew I wanted to come back. When I hiked the AZT, that desire was reconfirmed. A work opportunity came up, and now I am here, exploring the beautiful state of Arizona! It’s been a fantastic few months of living in Tucson and traveling the wildernesses of southern Arizona through both work and play. Through work I have had the privilege of assisting on a variety of trail remediation and reconstruction projects, including a project near Picketpost Mountain and the AZT. I don’t know what the future holds in terms of work or thru-hiking, but I have dreams of hiking a route I’ve planned between Denver and Moab. With the current state of affairs, who knows how much funding will be available for conservation-related work, so I might just be hiking again sooner than I expected…
This is something I think a lot about: every thru hiker I’ve ever met is addicted to thru hiking. We ask each other not “Will you ever do another long hike again?” but “When (or what) is your next big hike?”
Why is it addicting?
Seriously, why? In the moment, much of the thru hiking experience sucks. You put yourself through physical discomfort and pain on a daily basis, you contend with difficult environmental factors, you make many decisions throughout the day that are vastly simple yet extremely important, like, “Do I make the slog to that water source that’s a half mile off trail, or continue on with this liter I have to the next water 8 miles down the way?” Or “Should I leave town now, and head into this wilderness with my phone (re: maps) and battery half-charged, and make some headway on this trail on which I am already behind schedule, or do I wait and make sure I’ve got the electric juice to navigate my way to the next outpost of civilization?”
Those questions. And their answers. Like everything in life, thru-hiking is a risk. When taking a risk, a reasonable person often asks questions and seeks answers to determine the possible outcomes to taking said risk. Sometimes you think you have good answers, and they’re actually really shitty answers. Like my answer to that last question up there. I chose to make headway, and I found myself two days later in the middle of the most remote wilderness in Arizona, alone, lost in the thickets of a long-overgrown trail, running low on water, and kicking myself for having to be thrifty about checking the map on my phone. It was a bad situation that I got through with some determination and skill, and probably a lot of luck.
What if I hadn’t been lucky? I like to think of thru-hiking as being one of the less risky outdoor pursuits. The likelihood of bashing your ankle or your brain hard against a rock wall, or succumbing to HAPE and drowning in your own fluids is pretty low. But here is something that is fairly unique and definitely risky about thru-hiking: depending on the trail and/or personal preference, almost every thru-hiker is going to find themselves alone in a remote setting, perhaps even for days on end. And being alone in the wilderness is a mindfuck.
Being alone in the wilderness is a beautiful, privileged mindfuck. Being alone in the wilderness is a terrifying, gut-wrenching, shit-your-brains-out mindfuck. Being alone in the wilderness makes you question whether you are truly alone. Being alone in the wilderness makes you feel utterly, hopelessly alone.
Here is the reality: it doesn’t fucking matter what being alone in the wilderness makes you feel, because you are alone, and you have to rely on you. There’s no one else. Don’t know where the trail is and can’t read your map? Well, figure it out, or press your SPOT, or die. Scare a bear 50 feet away? Yell and hope it wants to get the hell outta there as much as you do. That water source is dry? No one around to share water. I guess there are real risks to thru-hiking…alone, at least.
But I have digressed, because even with this reality of risk and mindfuckedness, we are all hooked. We are addicted to these experiences and we remember them with such fondness that our hearts ache and we want to cry, or we do cry. Why? I think, because, thru-hiking reaches down to something very primordial: the challenge and reward of surviving, or of achieving success through your own hard, hard work.
Everyone says that life on the trail is simpler, and I agree. Life is hard out there, but it is simple. There is no human drama in the decisions one makes on the trail. The bond of fellow “hiker trash” unites, and sure while there is plenty of dirtbag gossip, it is ultimately the environment at which we lash out. We hate the driving rain or the deep sand or the incessant wind, but we do not hate each other. We see the kindness and generosity in other hikers and in the people, strangers and friends, who help us along the way. We have a renewed sense that maybe humanity is not so shitty after all. And even though the environment is so often harsh, if we look and try hard enough it gives us what we need, and there is something…something very glorious in observing landscapes bereft of human touch.
Ok, the title of this post is a lie. I’m already looking at doing another solo thru-hike in fall 2016. But I’ve scaled back my previous ambitions of a Hayduke Trail solo to something smaller, the Colorado Trail. This is for a few reasons, the main one being because I remember: I was miserable on the AZT. I was miserable because I was lonely.
As much nostalgia and good feelings as I have toward the AZT (see forthcoming post), as much as I am inclined to remember the positive and forget the negative, I cannot forget the loneliness. Now, true, there was only one day on the entire AZT where I didn’t see a single other human being. Only one day! But most days, human sitings were from a distance, or in passing. I encountered many hunters, some mountain bikers, some people out for the day to shoot bullets into hills – most of these encounters were near road crossings. Overall, I saw very few hikers on the trail. I would go days without having a conversation with anyone but myself. For the first week or so, it was exciting and even kind of exhilarating. But it got old fast. By the middle-end of the trail, I actually went out of my way to talk to strangers. Like, in a stupid way. I put myself in situations that could have been dangerous. I don’t think most women in their right mind would approach [alone] a camp of big, scruffy male hunters in the middle of nowhere and strike up a jolly conversation. Yet I did this time and time again, always aware and cautious of potential consequences, but too desperate and longing for human contact. Maybe I was lucky nothing bad happened, or maybe there was not actually much risk, and we as a society teach women too much to fear being alone amongst strange men. I know I was lucky in that all of these men wholeheartedly welcomed me into their camps and were unanimously curious and awestruck at my solo journey.* I left the man-camps feeling strong and feeling like I could make it to the next trailhead, or town, or whatever. I needed reassurance. Especially toward the end, I needed someone, man or woman, to tell me I could do it. Telling myself I could do it was not enough. My hike was successful, but my foray into immersive solitude was a failure.
But I learned, and that is what is important. I learned that, even though I am more introvert than extrovert, I still need people. I need people with whom to share experiences, to reflect on those experiences, to feel those experiences together. I have a strong connection to nature, but even nature cannot fill the void that solitude creates. There is a time and a place to seek solitude in wilderness, and for me that is not 50 straight days in the desert. That’s a little bit too long. (Mad respect, though, to the many, many hikers out there who gladly venture solo for days on end.) Don’t get me wrong, I loved parts of the AZT and I have no regrets. I am so glad I did the hike, and I would go through all of the struggles and good times again, in a heartbeat.**
*Their reactions made me feel empowered but also sad that what I was doing was not more….normal. Lots of women thru-hike, but I think one would find that many more men than women choose to hike alone. Both sexes have to contend with the dangers of wilderness solitude, such as exposure, lack of access to resources, wildlife encounters, etc. For men, it ends there. Women have other factors to consider. Namely, rape. Let’s face it, even the most remote wildernesses in the lower 48 are frequented very often by people. A disproportionate number of those people are men. Encountering an unknown man alone in the wilderness…. yeah, you get the idea. Women have every rational right to fear men in the wilderness far more than bears, mountain lions, or any other creature. This is the sad, sad truth about our world that even the fairytale never-never world of thru-hiking cannot escape.
**And I am forever grateful to the friends, family, and strangers that endured my interminable grumbles about the trail.
THE BIG THREE
Pack: ULA Ohm 2.0 (28 oz)
Loved this pack. What a gem. I love ULA packs in general. They are not super-ultralight (a la Gossamer Gear), but I think ULA does a superb job at maximizing durability for the weight. Also, wonderful customer service. I used the ULA Circuit on the PCT, which ended up being a little to big and plush for my needs. So I downsized to the Ohm for this thru-hike and it worked out well. I enjoyed the bare-bones frame of the Ohm. Just enough to hold things up, no superfluous padding. (At night, I removed the thin inner padding and used it as extra insulation for my feet.) Not gonna lie, this pack was not comfortable leaving town with 6 days worth of food and 6 liters of water. But would any lightweight pack be comfortable in this situation? No way.
PROS: Durable material, comfortable unless carrying excessive loads, can remove unwanted features (like bladder pocket and “wallet”) to save weight, great customer service.
CONS: No great place to strap a zrest to the outside, one hipbelt pocket zipper broke about 600 miles in, uncomfortable during long food and water hauls.
Shelter: Six Moon Designs Wild Oasis (14 oz)
Note: This is the older version of the Six Moons Designs Deschutes
I had this shelter on the PCT but seldom used it as I cowboy camped most nights. So it was still in great condition for the AZT. On the AZT, I set it up every night. Something about being alone at night is shelter-inducing. My love for this shelter remains, though the infatuation has faded. There are definitely pros and cons.
PROS: lightweight for a sil-nylon shelter. I really like the floorless design.* It saves weight, and a bathtub floor isn’t all that necessary unless you have a deathly fear of creepy crawlies or you are hiking in a place that gets a ton of rain. Other pros: great price, simple and sturdy design, easy and quick to set up, keeps out mosquitos and other flying bugs, can comfortably accommodate 1 medium-sized person + 1 large dog + all gear.
CONS: single-walled design means condensation (and the low-hanging design at both ends means head and feet will almost certainly get wet if there is condensation), inside mists during intense rainstorms, not much vertical space to move around in.
*The floorlessness has only been an issue twice: one night long ago when I was testing the shelter for the PCT, a desert mouse got under the bug net and into the shelter, then couldn’t get out (It was running laps around me until I finally achieved enough consciousness to figure out what was making so much noise and coax it out!), and once when I was camped in a riparian area that was ripe with spiders. Ach. I killed like 10 of those suckers that made it in between my ground tarp and the bug netting.
Sleeping Bag: ZPacks 10 Degree w/ Draft Tube (21.5 oz)
Ok, I really liked this bag a lot but it is not rated to 10 degrees. At least not for a cold sleeper like me. On nights that got below 35 degrees, I was cold. On nights above that temperature range, I have no complaints. Some people seem to think the footbox is too narrow, but I found it to be fine. I have somewhat small feet, though. I move around a lot, so I got the draft tube option over the zipper, which I was really happy with. I didn’t have to worry about whether the zipper was oriented below me or not. This bag is no frillz: 3/4 length zipper, no hood.
PROS: so lightweight, warm above 35 degrees, holds in fart smell.
CONS: cold below 35 degrees, expensive (but certainly not outrageously so for the quality), no hood (but not that big of a deal as long as you have a hat and a hood on your down jacket), holds in fart smell.
BEFORE: I made a couple of changes prior to starting the AZT. I spent some time just before the AZT on the Colorado Trail, and I was really cold. True, the trails are in very different environments, but paranoid old me decided to add some layers. I took a pair of Patagonia Houdini wind shell pants (3 oz) on the AZT and loved them. I didn’t use them too often, but on really cold days, they added a surprising amount of warmth. They were also quite water resistant. I was glad to have them on those cold and blustery days. Instead of a t-shirt, I used a Super Natural long-sleeve base layer shirt (3.5 oz) for sleeping. I really like this brand because they blend wool with synthetic materials. Less itch and less $$. Win-win. Too bad because I think they’re going out of business?
DURING: I only made one significant change during the trail – I sent my stove and pot home. There were so few daylight hours in October and November that I didn’t have time to cook. I would spend all day hiking and then I’d set up camp, usually as it was getting dark. Sometimes after dark. On the PCT, this was when I would usually cook; I was always camped with other people and had this mentality that strength in numbers meant I didn’t have to worry about bears or other wildlife. Alone on the AZT, it was a different story. I just didn’t feel comfortable cooking where I camped. Kind of like don’t shit where you eat, right? Not wanting to screw myself over with a scary bear encounter, I just stopped cooking and, you know, it wasn’t that bad. In fact, I would consider going totally stoveless in the future.
Least favorite piece of gear: SPOT Connect device (4 oz)
I’m not sure what happened. I carried the same SPOT on the PCT and had almost no issues. So many issues on the AZT. The SPOT would continually disconnect from my phone. Some messages displayed as “sent” would be received by only one or two of my contacts instead of everyone. At one point, a “sent” message never reached my mom, and she called the county sheriff. I still have the missing person poster. Not ok!! Finally, with a week left in my trip, the device just quit sending all messages. I didn’t even realize it, because all messages displayed as sent. When I called SPOT customer service, they didn’t even have a record for my device. Their only advice was to generate a work order and have me send in the device. They would look at it…for a fee! I was like, “You don’t understand, I’m going to be in the middle of nowhere tomorrow.” So, my amazing boyfriend overnighted his Delorme InReach and oh my god, what a world of difference. I used it for the rest of the trip and there are so many reasons why the InReach makes SPOT look like a POS, the biggest being that the InReach has two-way communication. Re: peace of mind. If you’re looking for a satellite communication device, DO NOT get a SPOT. Spend the extra $$, suck up the extra ounce, and get a Delorme InReach.
Favorite piece of gear: Montbell Ultralight Down Jacket (8 0z)
I feel like most of my gear did the job well, so picking one thing is hard. The thing that stands out about this jacket is that it has just kept going and going. The energizer jacket. I used it before the PCT, on the PCT, between the two trails, on the AZT, and I still use it almost every day. It’s got a few bits of tenacious tape here and there, and I’m sure it is not as warm as it used to be, but man, the thing is still kicking. I have almost as much sentimentality toward it as I do KeyKey, my childhood stuffed bear.
Stay tuned for other post-AZT musings!
I am happy to be done with the AZT but I miss it already. Such is the way of the thru-hiker. Despite (or perhaps because of) the daily challenges, there is something so profoundly satisfying about hiking, something existential in the experience that soothes the adventure-prone soul. It’s been less than 3 weeks since I reached the border and already I can feel a stirring of restlessness. The seed is planted for some new adventure. To occur in the fall of 2016, perhaps?! What will it be? The Hayduke Trail, the Israeli National Trail, New Zealand’s Te Aurora? Grad school applications? (Re: probably not the latter.) In the meantime…
I am settling back into the daily grind at home near Boulder, CO. I shouldn’t call it a “grind,” though, as of now it is quite refreshing. I’ll be temporarily employed for a couple of months as a substitute teacher, and then I’ll be returning to basically the best job in the world, where I get to romp around outside all day with teenagers. (Well, it’s a lot more complicated than that, but you get the idea. :D)
Whilst routine calls, I will be continuing my long-distance running pursuits. (I.e. possibly this 50-miler.) Indeed, I owe you a review of the Colossal 50/50, in which I ran the 55-kilometer race 36 hours after finishing the AZT…
I also owe you concluding thoughts about many facets of the AZT.* I plan to write primarily about trail conditions and gear. In addition, look out for an updated version of my friend Rainer’s AZT town guide! I took notes along the way and we are collaborating to update it a little bit. I found it to be super useful along my hike, and if you are a future AZT hiker you should download it ASAP. It’s free but I highly suggest donating some $$ to Rainer, who, besides being crazy fast hiker trash, is also an exceptional visual and music artist.
So, stay tuned for some exciting stuff ahead!
*From now on, everything will be in written, not audio, format. I have access to a computer now, which makes writing everything much easier. Additionally, I recognize that a lot of folks frequented my blog but didn’t actually listen to (m)any of the audio recordings. I hope that arriving in a different format, my soon-to-come summaries will prove easily accessible and informative/useful.
15.7 miles hiked
786.3 total miles
Click here for audio.