October 18th, 2019
Mm 275.6 to East Verde River mm 308.9
Distance in miles: 33.3
It was a pretty eventful day, in a diverse way. I started off with a little exploration when I came across the new trail that I was alerted to days ago. I followed it, hoping it was more direct than the zig-zaggy road. By the time I came back to the official trail, it appeared that I had shaved several miles (14 miles done by 10 am).
I also got really close to a bull elk leading a train of 5 or 6 cows. He was calling like crazy and never sensed me standing there, watching him from about 50 yards away. His calls were so intriguing to hear up close. They sounded a little like the songs of a humpback whale.
I crossed a highway mid-day, taking advantage of a water cache at the trailhead nearby. I signed the trail registry and was surprised to see that there was a gap of about 3 days from the last entry. I wondered what had happened to the 10 people that were only 1 or 2 days ahead of me. All their names were missing.
I continued a little ways, shortly coming to an area with lots of smoke. There was a prescribed burn and a map directed me along a short detour of about a mile. Ok, no problem. Along the detour, I met 2 fire managers in a golf cart. They confirmed the short detour and wished me well. Once on the trail again, I climbed to a plateau and started seeing more smoke. I started walking through smoldering areas, not so bad at first but they got more intense as I went along. There was fresh deadfall on the trail, all from trees burning and falling. There were even tree stumps burning with open flames next to the trail.
It suddenly occurred to me that I wasn’t meant to be hiking here in such conditions. It’s not that I was in a lot of danger of burning, but rather it was the risk of falling trees. Plus, inhaling all the smoke surely wasn’t good. I kept my buff pulled over my face but it did little. I didn’t see any signs that this area was closed nor did the fire managers say anything about it. So I just continued on.
I descended into a canyon where some of the switchbacks were compromised by the burn. At one juncture, the ground had collapsed a bit from a smoldering stump underneath. At another, a fallen tree was burning across the trail. I had to pick my way around the steep hillside, amongst all the smoldering debris. I’d faced a lot of challenges and conditions on trails but this was a new one. Yet it was handled the same as snow, wind, rivers, etc. Go slow but steady, working around the problems.
The bottom of the canyon was the line…there were no more burn areas after this. I was relieved to be out the smoke but now my clothes all reeked of it. I passed through several more small valleys, these ones with pools of water. I came to another trailhead and still there was the same 3 day gap in the registry.
A truck was parked a ways up the road, with a tent and hammock set up. A lady was cooking dinner and called to me, inviting me to share beers. And thus I met Valerie, the all-time coolest grandma on planet Earth. She had a thick Hungarian accent and talked at a decibel level near 100. But she was really into the camping and hiking thing, out to test her hammock for the first time. I thought there might be multiple people, given all the gear but no, this whole camp was all hers.
We chatted for a bit and she started pulling out food to give me. She had bins of stuff, all carefully labeled and organized, including a bunch of dehydrated vegetables and fruit. She gave me dried mango, peaches, and bananas. All my favorites! I hated to say goodby to sweet Valerie but I had some more ground to cover. I had been looking forward to finally seeing some running water…the first real streams and rivers since the Grand Canyon. This part of the trail went down the Mogollon Rim, a prominent geological feature that signified the edge of the Colorado Plateau. I was 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 started to come from every direction. Just half a mile down the canyon, I was suddenly surrounded by clear, cold, beautiful water. There were huge conifers, oaks, and even ferns…albeit dried out and dead-looking this late in the season. It felt magical to see so much water flowing again. I found a flat spot near one of the streams just as it was getting dark. It was so nice to go to sleep hearing the sound of running water!