I’ve come to realize that I’ve had a lot of expectations about the Arizona Trail, most especially what kind of experience I would have on it. It had been seven months since we finished the Continental Divide Trail and I was yearning for the natural rhythm of living outside with uncluttered thoughts and that feeling in every cell in my body like a breath of fresh air …and most of all, that magic that happens after a few weeks on a long trail when everything just clicks. I’m still trying to understand what that is, but I always get this image in my mind of that scene from the movie “Powder”, when the guy opens his arms wide and disperses into the lighting storm. Not that it has anything to do with the movie, but just the feeling of bursting into and becoming what is around you, merging into Nature…
The southern half of this trail has been rugged and exhausting for us. We decided to hitch into Payson from Sunflower. It took awhile, hitching in and back out, especially out. Payson turned out to be a good trail town, in that it had everything we needed, but we certainly stuck out there. I don’t think they get many thru-hikers there and walking around smelling bad, wearing an old backpack, definitely turned some heads. It took a couple of hours to get a ride back to the trailhead. But as it often goes, the longer the wait, the better the ride. We got picked up by the most animated and talkative fellow ever. It was a great ride and we arrived back at the trailhead feeling good.
I had heard a lot about the Mazatzal Mountains that we were about to enter, but mostly about the overgrown trail with all the scratchy bushes. I was curious about the name “Mazatzal” so I looked it up. Apparently it is a Nahuatl word, meaning the place of the deer. No one knows how it got a Nahuatl name, but it’s been called that for as long as anyone knows. The Mazatzal Mountains used to be covered by pines, but much of those are gone now after a history of fires, leaving the mountains covered with scrub oak and other spiny shrubs. The mountains were pretty and I was intrigued by their history, but I had absolutely no inspiration as I wandered through them. Perhaps I was just tired, but I was just there and they were there; I felt nothing for them. The miles passed more easily than the previous trail-miles so I began to anticipate arriving in Pine, our next trail town. It rained the night before arriving in Pine. We woke after the rain to muddy trail. I walked ten feet on the trail and looked at Neon, “How do you feel about going cross-country?”, I asked. The soil here had a lot of clay in it and so the wet trail left our shoes caked in mud and our steps labored. We’d had days like this on the CDT so the familiarity of the situation caused me to instantly start searching for a way out of the mud. We made our way cross-country to a forest service road that was hard-packed and graveled. We arrived in Pine early before more rain fell.
Pine is a small town that is listed as a Arizona Trail gateway community. A lot of folks know about the trail and were accepting and welcoming, but the town itself is small and really does not have much to offer hikers. There is a laundromat, but no showers or camping. There is one cabin available for a hiker at the famed brewery and one, more expensive, cabin at an RV park in town. If those are already rented then you’re expected to hitch to Payson or Strawberry and pay twice as much for a touristy place to stay.
Pine was a great little town, but we had no place to stay because the cabins were already rented. We were planning on walking back to the trail to camp, but the rain was endless, drenching, and torrential and just the mile back to the trail filled us with dread. We spoke with the guy at one of the RV parks and he said that since the weather was bad it was ok for us to pitch our tent in his RV park, but he had no facilities to offer us. We knew the hikers that had rented the cabin there so they offered to let us use their bathroom in the night. We pitched our tent and prepared for bed when we heard a voice, “Hey! What’s going on?” Neon got out of the tent. The guy said again in a firm voice, “What’s going on? I know the owner and I’m getting him on the phone right now.” Neon explained to him that we had spoken to the owner and he had given us permission to stay. He handed Neon the phone and listened to the conversation between Neon and the owner of the RV park. The guy apologized, saying, “Hey Man, I’m sorry. I didn’t know.” “No problem,” Neon said, crawling back into the tent. But by this time the whole afternoon and evening left us feeling funny. People’s acceptingness seemed almost forced, outlined in the idea of being nice, but it was awkward. I recognize it because I am often in their place when confronted with something unfamiliar and out of the norm. But of course it feels different when you find yourself on the other side of the situation. It causes me to wonder about how much of what we think and react to is merely programmed, influenced by the subtleties of prescribed social mores and belief systems. It rained hard all night and the torrential downpour flooded our tent. Neon decided to sleep on the porch of the cabin. I stayed in the tent, curled up in a ball, waiting for the day to arrive.
After leaving Pine we finally began climbing up to the Mogollon Rim where we had heard tales of easier miles. The landscape immediately changed atop the rim. It was mostly flat and covered with pines. I felt inspired, oddly by just its flatness. I could see way off through the trees and blue sky overhead. It was not overgrown and I felt welcomed by the landscape. The water became scarce again, limited to stock pond water. We saw herds of elk and woke to the sound of coyotes each morning. Twenty-plus mile days came and went easily. We arrived in Flagstaff just before another storm system rolled in, this time having reservations in a motel. We arrived in town early, hours before check-in. We had breakfast at Denny’s, hung out at Starbucks for hours, and roamed the grocery store aisles for food. As we walked the streets we saw others that looked like they had no real place to go. I wondered where they would stay when the rain rolled in…
We checked into our motel, showered, washed our clothes, and ate some more. Later we went back out into town. We stopped by a few stores for supplies and gear repair, and then met a fellow hiker friend for dinner at the local brewery. Along our way, a man in a truck stopped and asked, “hey, do you know where to get some weed?” I laughed, and said “no, I don’t even live here.” A few blocks later a man walking by said, “Hey, nice dreads, how’s it going?” Neon replied, “It’s going good. We’re walking across Arizona.” The guy laughed and said. “That’s good, I gotta go now, I’m walking across the reservation.” I was struck by the interaction. After dinner we walked back to our motel. A man, leaning against a light post, stopped us and said, “Hey man, is it supposed to rain tonight? I know Mother Earth needs it, but…” Neon interjected and said, “Hey, the awning. Stay dry,” pointing at the awnings on the nearby buildings.
Cities are such strange places. On one hand, offering so much, and on the other hand, offering so very little. In Nature, things just are… A deer hunkers down in the grass during a rainstorm, blinking as the rain drops flood its eyelashes. We crawl into our tent and wait for a storm to pass. We walk in search of water. We walk until we are tired and then we sleep. We watch the stars overhead at night and look for shade during the day. We are the earth, the sky, the trees… But in a city nothing belongs to you. You must live somewhere, own a car, open your wallet to show your credit cards. Everything is spoken for, and you do not belong anywhere that you have not paid for… How did we come to this?