October 18th, 2019
Mm 275.6 to East Verde River mm 308.9
Distance in miles: 33.3
It’s a pretty eventful day, and in a diverse way. We start off being a little exploratory. We come across the new trail that we were alerted to days ago. We follow it, hoping it’s more direct than the zig-zaggy road. By the time we come back to the official trail, it appears that we have shaved several miles (14 miles done by 10 am).
We also get really close to a bull elk leading a train of 5 or 6 cows. He’s bugling like crazy and never senses us watching him from about 50 yards away. His calls are so intriguing to hear up close. They sound a little like the song of a humpback whale.
We cross a highway mid-day, taking advantage of a water cache at the trailhead nearby. I sign the trail registry and am surprised to see that there is a gap of about 3 days from the last entry. I wonder what has happened to the 10 people that were only 1 or 2 days ahead of us. All their names are missing.
We continue a little ways, shortly coming to an area with lots of smoke. There’s a prescribed burn and a map directs us to do a short detour of about a mile. Ok, no problem. Along the detour, we meet 2 fire managers and they just confirm the short detour we’re on and wish us well. Once on the trail again, we climb to a plateau and start seeing more smoke. Then we are walking through a lot of smoldering areas. It’s not so bad at first but gets more intense as we go along. There’s a lot of fresh deadfall on the trail, all from trees burning and falling. There are even tree stumps burning with open flame next to the trail.
I don’t think we’re meant to be hiking here in such conditions. It’s not that we’re in a lot of danger of burning but rather it’s the risk of falling trees. Plus, inhaling all the smoke isn’t good. I keep my buff pulled over my face but it does little. We didn’t see any signs that this area was closed nor did the fire managers say anything about it. So we just continue on.
We descend into a canyon and some of the switchbacks are compromised by the burn. At one juncture, the ground is collapsing a bit from a smoldering stump underneath. At another, a fallen tree is burning across the trail. We have to pick our way around on the steep hillside, amongst all the smoldering debris. I’ve faced a lot of challenges and conditions on trails but this is a new one. Yet it’s handled the same as snow, wind, rivers, etc. Go slow but steady, working around the problems.
The bottom of the canyon is the line…there are no more burn areas after this. I’m relieved to be out the smoke but now my clothes all reek of it. We pass through several more small valleys, these ones with pools of water. We come to another trailhead and still there’s the same 3 day gap in the registry.
A truck is parked a ways up the road and there’s a tent and hammock set up. A lady is cooking dinner and calls to us, inviting us to share beers. And thus we meet Valerie, the all-time coolest grandma on planet Earth. She has a thick Hungarian accent and talks at a decibel level near 100. But she’s into this camping and hiking thing and is out to test her hammock for the first time. I had figured there were multiple people, given all the gear but no, this whole camp is all hers.
We chat for a bit and she starts pulling out food to give us. She has bins of stuff, all carefully labeled and organized, including a bunch of dehydrated vegetables and fruit. She gives us dried mango, peaches, and bananas. All my favorites!
We hate to say goodby to sweet Valerie but we have some more ground to cover. We have been looking forward to finally seeing some running water…the first real streams and rivers since the Grand Canyon. This part of the trail goes down the Mogollon Rim, a prominent geological feature that signifies the edge of the Colorado Plateau that extends north. We’re dropping down into a different part of Arizona now: the basin and ranges, or sky islands.
The plateau is very porous, hence the lack of water sources on top, but here at its edge, water starts to come from every direction. Just half a mile down the canyon, we are suddenly surrounded by clear, cold, beautiful water. And there are huge conifers, oaks, and even ferns…albeit dried out and dead-looking this late in the season. It feels magical to see so much water flowing again. We find some flat spots near one of the streams just as its getting dark. It’s so nice to go to sleep hearing the sound of running water!