October 29th, 2019
Mm 540.1 to mm 572.8
Distance in miles: 32.7
Voices ring out in the darkness. I wake instantly and see 2 headlights bobbing along the trail. I check the time…it’s 2:30 am. With perfect clarity, I think this must be the trail runner that’s going for the women’s supported FKT-fastest known time on the AZT. She has a friend running with her. It’s funny that at this hour, in my foggy state, this doesn’t even strike me as unusual.
They go past us, never knowing we’re camped. My tent is especially hidden, being in the small wash and camouflaged. But this is precisely why I never pitch my tent on the trail. I’ve witnessed people, or vehicles, coming by at all hours.
The coyotes start up right after they pass, very close to us. They’re mostly barking instead of howling and they sound really funny. I think they are laughing about the crazy things they see people do. I finally go back to sleep and the morning is normal when I wake.
We come to a trailhead and water cache late in the morning, where we meet several of the crew supporting Helen, the trail runner. She got off trail to sleep right after she passed us. Now we’re ahead of her again. She’s trying to match the current unsupported FKT, which is just under 16 days. So she needs to average about 50 miles a day. It’s hard to imagine how someone did it that fast being unsupported. That means he was like us, having to carry all his gear, food and water and go into towns to get resupplies. That’s a lot of walking in the dark, too. The whole thing is very unappealing to me.
We continue on and the day is a bit monotonous. Rolling dry hills. It’s pretty fast hiking, at least. Plus, I have seen a lot of birds today and the day before. I even see the notorious desert roadrunner.
On the downside, this section has an overabundance of cholla overhanging the trail. Have I mentioned the threat of jumpin’ chollas? Cholla cactus, of which there’s multiple species, often grow on high stalks and get almost as big as trees. They have little pieces that break off with the slightest disturbance and these pieces are very adept at becoming attached to things…like say your leg. Often they are scattered on the trail. I do my best to go around or leap over them. If you step on one, it will impale your shoe or worse, flip up to nail you in the leg. As careful as I am, I’ve already caught a few. They really do seem to be able to jump.
Once they’re on, you have to find some sort of tool to scrape them off. If you try to use your hands, they’ll be impaled numerous times. I’ve been successful using my trekking poles but I hear a comb works best. Regardless of what tool you use, a bunch of spines will break off and you have to pick each of those out individually, usually around 10 to 20. The big spines have a barb and really take a lot of force to remove, leaving a bleeding hole. All this from just one tiny piece.
Today there are several cholla gauntlets to negotiate. They overhang the trail and the ground is a minefield of pieces. I can’t go around so I have to practice my long-jumping skills. I escape unscathed.
There is one more water cache at the end of the day, where we fill up for another slog up a big hill and dry camp for the night. The trail climbs to some scenic ridges. It’s very windy at the top, so I don’t linger. The sun is setting and we need to find a protected campsite.
Once again, a dry wash provides the perfect conditions. In lieu of any trees in the desert, a wash is the new duff. The sand is soft and flat and free of any vegetation, especially the evil cholla chunks. But there are 2 potential problems. For one, the sand doesn’t hold tent stakes very well, so I have to get creative with rocks (recall, these are the preferred hiding spots of scorpions). And two, I wouldn’t camp in a wash if there was any chance of rain. This arid land is notorious for flash floods. Since it hasn’t rained for months, I think I’m ok.
Around 8 pm, Helen the FKT lady goes by us for the second time in the dark. Once again, she probably doesn’t even know she’s passing us or that we even exist. Her timeline and pace is simply faster, like she’s in another dimension. I think about all the tents I would see early in the morning on my past hikes. People all existing in the same space but at different times and so it goes.