The trail changes shortly after mile 100. It becomes impossible to mistake it for anything other than Arizona. You walk into desert scrub, where prickly pear cacti are everywhere, and 20-foot-tall ocotillo stand sentry. They’re ready to erupt into numerous shades of pink over the next few days, adorning the landscape with bursts of new color.
* I’ve been hiking with two lovely individuals since the start
* So, so much prescribed fire!
* Will be 17% done after tomorrow (such a short trail!!)
After tens of thousands of miles of hiking, I’ve seen my fair share of gates. Your run of the mill, barbed wire gate with 3 strands of wire looped around a 6″ diameter tree limb. These gates crumple to the ground when unlatched, making use of a clever, yet janky, loop of twisted metal to ensure tension. Or, there’s the less-common swinging gate, attached with little hooks around a metal post which is never as easy to unclip as expected. Then, there’s the surprisingly too frequent (at least on the CDT) “no trespassing” gate, where you crawl under or over strands of barbed wire fence while cursing the “gate” creator for forgetting to install a passage. The AZT, however, has some of the most glorious gates I’ve ever seen!
The trail starts at a monument on the border of Mexico. Thru-hikers casually cross back and forth, capturing photos of their illegal border crossings next to a towering, 100-foot incomplete section of an all-metal border wall. As you inch your way up the trail, you pass through numerous metal gates made out of steel, with some serious artistic craft that went into forming an AZT trail marker emblazoned on the center (the marker is the state of Arizona with a trail running through it). The trail markers, more rare than expected, are similarly crafted out of steel, and truly embody some gorgeous metal work. The markers stand proud at forks in the road, never seeming to point you in quite the right direction. They’re strikingly beautiful nonetheless.
As contrast, most other trails use increasingly-faded plastic to mark the way, but the AZT and its metal craft are a mystery! Perhaps gates, walls, and metal work are the defining features of Arizona. Or, I would have believed this to be the case of it weren’t for the prescribed fires.
The 2nd day on trail we ran across a sign, informing us to be aware of the still-hot ash from the RXBurn. As we setup camp for the night, we noticed some flickering in the distance. We decided to check it out, and went through some “serious CDT shit” as ShortStix (@maxinemachine) aptly put it. We decided to drag an on-fire log into the nearby creek to avoid burning down our campsite during the night. We woke periodically from our peaceful dreams to see flames flickering on the ridges above us.
The next day, we walked through sections of trail actively on fire, with trail crews tipping their hard hats as we passed, readying themselves to rake out the smoldering remains of grasses and shrubs.
It’s not until mile 100, though, that it actually feels like the AZT is truly in Arizona. You start the trail traversing across conifer forest with surprisingly high snow pack. It would be screaming “Colorado!” at you if not for the rolling bluffs of the surrounding landscape, easily mistakable for Idaho. As you wind your way down toward the true desert, you pass through manzanita and oak grasslands that would look at place in California. Yet once mile 100 hits, you start to expect a symphony of red-tailed hawks ready to play counterpoint to the “chk chk chk” rattling of the snake you very nearly stepped on. It becomes hard to find shade amongst the beach ball-sized “stout boy” cacti and tall yucca.
There were 4 of us sharing a shuttle the morning of the 30th to the AZT terminus. I will likely continue to hike with Carlit (@carlit.2921, named after a pyranese peak) and ShortStix for at least a couple more days before the mysteries of the trail gods eventually divide us. I’m excited for the new adventures the AZT will bring as we make our way through Saguaro National Park.