Hiking the Arizona Trail

Arizona National Scenic Trail

By Gregory T. Jones
Photographs by Princely Nesadurai

Hiking the trail


The Arizona Trail, a narrow band of earth stretching from Mexico to Utah, was designated a National Scenic Trail on March 30, 2009 and completed on December 16, 2011. A continuous, 800+ mile, diverse and scenic trail across Arizona from Mexico to Utah, it links deserts, mountains, canyons, communities and people.

Arizona TrailEarly on a Saturday morning in April, my hiking partner Yvonne Arntzen and I hiked down to the US-Mexico border. Our topo map of the Huachuca Mountains was still crisp, sharply folded, and clean, with calculated pencil marks. Clearly printed notes to myself were in the margin. "Bathtub Spring -- 6 miles. Don't forget to pick up more batteries in Patagonia!" The clean handwriting and absence of dirty smears screamed of a month spent imagining an unknown trail from behind a desk. We were clean, well nourished and relatively sane. All this would change over the next four months. Walking 750 miles will change you. Trust me.

The physical changes happened slowly but were as obvious as any werewolf changing under a brimming opal moon. Strapping 50-pound homes to our backs hunched our shoulders, thickened our torsos and wobbled our gait. Through the months, Yvonne's armpit hair grew from stubble to fine blond wisps she could spin between her fingers. She insisted her legs were muscularly deformed, "Colin Fletcher-itis" as it was termed, named after the famed hiking guru with abnormally massive stems. We were ridden with swollen insect bites and crimson-flushed scratches from the brush. Our bodies were permanently coated in a flour of blowing dust, and dripping sweat smeared it into warpaint lines on our faces.

At times we were treated like old friends by the people whose paths we crossed, more often like amusing oddities. P.T. Barnum would have been proud to call us one of his own. I can hear his posthumous grift now, "Come and see the wretched beasts forgotten by man and God alike, creatures that strike terror into the hearts of anyone fortuitous enough to cross their path. It will be a sight to titillate and astonish. Please, those with child or weak stomachs I strongly urge you to look the other way."

By the time we reached the border of Utah we were transformed into these very beasts, or Trail Ogres, as we came to be known. The shadows on the ground were no longer of erect hominids, but that of fairy tale creatures that sat under bridges, collected tolls, and ate young maidens. Over this time we found ourselves transformed by the land into something difficult to register in the minds of our general society, a sort of missing link reminiscent of the most venerable of outdoorsmen, Sasquatch or Yeti.

Confronted on more than one occasion by cattle herds challenging our passage, we developed specialized techniques to frighten them away. Our cattle dispersal technique was perfected in the large ranges outside of Flagstaff, as the herds were enormous and less tolerant of our presence. They actually began to gather together, circling around us for a confrontation. Without anywhere to hide or trees to climb, a new approach was born.

Yvonne took our metal cups and banged them together as loudly as possible. The bottoms were eventually distorted with dents, sitting level only when screwed into the ground, but this was a small price to pay for cattle protection. We waved our hiking staffs like swords over our heads, swinging them around and then aiming the blunt end like an ominous bee stinger at the largest bull we spotted. The last step was a song and dance, jumping and spinning, combining melodic Trail Ogre grunts and squeals. There was a subtlety to this technique, as too much strange behavior seemed to freeze the cattle in place.

On the Arizona Trail sometimes we found our natural enemies, like the cattle or barbed wire fences, but more often they found us. Once, a mountain lion woke us in the middle of the night -- it wandered into our camp and let out a God-awful screech that silenced everything down to the crickets. Another time a swarm of burrowing bees attacked our tent when we inadvertently set our camp on top of their home. Another time, a bark scorpion -- the most poisonous of the Sonoran varieties -- sat in wait under one of our packs.

We had run-ins with six rattlesnakes, all of which were coiled to strike without any provocation. We decided we would eat the seventh. These experiences inevitably shaped our mentality and for a while we were wary of everything, including the grass.

From these occurrences, superstitions started to develop, no doubt influenced by reading Serpent and the Rainbow to one another before bed. I carried in my backpack the horn of a bull found during one of our battle dances. I contemplated holding the horn to the cows as a threatening gesture of our superiority, like holding the head of a witch doctor before the tribe.

Then, every night in our campfire we burned what we called a "monkey foot." It brought good luck for the next day of hiking. Although only symbolic, we spent a lot of time seeking pieces of wood with the bend of an ankle and foot. Breaking a branch to fit the criteria only fueled the curse. I have trouble giving any logical reason for this behavior. We kept a sense of humor about our new habits, but still practiced them, you know, "Just in case."

Part of the enjoyment of backpacking comes from nurturing a joyously masochistic spirit. Near the Utah border we fought down the last of the cattle pond water, voluntary dehydration being our only other option. Yvonne compared its disagreeable aroma to lauria broth, a viscous liquid used to inoculate cultures of bacteria in the lab.

A look in the compass mirror showed a wind-burned complexion splintered with several weeks worth of whiskers. My legs lumbered like there were 2x4s nailed to my heels. My backpack was maliciously attacked by rodents a month back, and was held together by duct tape and a prayer. Rats had chewed through the support straps, bingeing on the salt in my perspiration. In four months of walking, everything I carried, including myself, was worn down. At the Utah border with the sun stinging down and percolating underneath a layer of summer sweat, we celebrated our plight. I am happy to say we will never be the same.


The Arizona Trail Map


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