It was a week of surprises for me as I backpacked the first 160 miles of the Arizona Trail at the end of March. Working at a school district in Oregon, I was excited to escape the snow, gray skies and cold of my hometown, in order to fly to sunny Arizona for my spring break.
Beginning at the Mexican border in the early morning of Day One, my first surprise was to encounter about a mile of snow that afternoon, while descending the northside of Miller Peak. Did I make a wrong turn at the border and end up back in Oregon somehow???
The abundant sunshine and warmth of the trail overall, however, soon thawed out the frigid fingers and toes I’d brought with me from that bitter, cold winter of Oregon.
That first evening, I enjoyed another surprise of the trail: an absolutely amazing sunset!
Hiking in the old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest, I am not often treated to the indescribable beauty of the expansive sunsets and sunrises that I enjoyed on the AZT.
My phone camera could not capture the Arizona night sky that was SO BRIGHT I didn’t even need a headlamp to organize inside my tent in the dark. Nor was I able to capture by camera, the joy I felt falling asleep that night to the howl of coyotes in the distance, or when a pair of horned owls awoke me at midnight, as their soft “who-who-whoooo”s echoed across the canyon to each other. No photos, but you can be sure, those moments of peace are etched well inside my heart.
On my third day on the trail, I was startled to see a mama bear and her two cubs peer at me from a grassy meadow, and then quickly scamper off. One of the cubs came toward me in a false charge, bellowing a menacing “HUFF” sound before darting off to the safety of Mama. While hiking in bear country is familiar to me in the PNW, with its abundant wild berries and marsh grass, I hadn’t expected to find black bears in a desert landscape as well.
Speaking of desert landscapes though, the Arizona Trail certainly surprised me with its diverse terrain. I had anticipated walking among dense cholla cactus as I’d experienced in the Anza Borrego desert in southern CA, but the AZT turned my assumptions upside down.
At times, I was walking through cool pine forests, beside patches of snow, or along bubbling green creeks.
At other times, the trail wound through the majestic Saguaro National Park, ablaze with a stunning display of wildflowers. Just gorgeous.
And then the next bend in the road would bring about grassy plains with snow-capped mountains in the distance. Arizona, you are a treasure trove of variety!
Having hiked much of the PCT closer to home, I am aware and appreciative of trail angels — those individuals who generously share rides, food, their home with hikers. However, since the AZT is only a fraction of the length of the PCT, I was surprised, humbled and blown away to discover that trail angels exist there as well!
Kentucky Camp is an abandoned gold-mining site, awash in history (and perhaps some gold nuggets yet too?) with tiny, rustic cabins for rent in the middle of a hot, desolate wasteland. There was only one cabin in use when I passed through, with a sign noting there was Trail Magic inside. Here was a couple from Tucson, who said they come to the cabin for a few days every March, in order to provide a hot meal and cold drinks to hikers. All free. Wow.
I had already eaten breakfast and two morning snacks just before stumbling upon this surprise, but as any hungry hiker can tell you, a free meal is rarely declined! (especially if it’s one that we can carry onward in our tummies instead of on our backs!) Pat made me a cheese/egg burrito atop the cabin’s tiny cookstove, and then handed me a cold Fanta to wash it down. When was the last time I drank orange Fanta??? Maybe 50 years ago. But, it was cold, it was wet, and it sure as heck beat the tepid water I had in my bottle.
Although Arizona had an unusual winter, so that water was fairly abundant through much of the trail, there were also dry stretches where the only drinking option was to filter water from a stock pond. Gag. But when it’s 90 degrees and no shade, and you’re carrying 20+ pounds on your back, you drink the water you find, and you try not to recall the cows that were relieving themselves at one end of the pond as you filled your bottles at the other.
Spring break flew by way too fast, and I’m back in Oregon now. But I sure hope to return to Arizona, and its Trail of Surprises someday….soon.