May 24, 2016

The Road to Mile Zero: Hiking the Arizona Trail

Read how one man braved the elements, and his own ghosts, simply to reach the trailhead of his 800-mile thru-hike of the Arizona National Scenic Trail.

“If I die out there, you’re not responsible,” I told my wife, Clare.

“Jeez,” she answered. Our hatchback flew over the high red desert north of the Grand Canyon. The face of Vermilion Cliffs flickered as a fierce storm lingered above the Kaibab Plateau. Our daughter and son, 10 and 6, were enduring a school night passed out in the back seats. The trailhead was still hours away.

“I’m not worried,” Clare added. She had been supportive from the inception of this crazy adventure. She wanted to see me healthier—perhaps thinner—before I turned forty. She hoped I could find my muse, stop pacing, gouging mental ruts, while my latest manuscript made the rounds in New York. But she wasn’t pushing me.

This solo backpacking trek through the north-south length of Arizona, from Utah all the way to the Mexican border, was my idea, those motivations my own.

“Just remember,” I pressed. “Not your fault.”

“Jeez.”

Rain lashed the car. The weather—which had already denied me a festive weekend start of camping with the family—threatened my inaugural night at mile zero of the Arizona National Scenic Trail. I ignored the downpour and focused instead on the ways I might die. Why the dread? I’m a backcountry enthusiast. Where was that traditional euphoria for the adventure ahead?

Picture of author Austin Aslan getting ready to take to the Arizona TrailWell, at 40 pounds overweight, backpacking alone for the first time, I was no outdoor model. Nor was I your typical purveyor of wilderness adventures. But, these shortcomings weren’t the source of my angst. They were precisely why I sought to thru-hike the Arizona Trail. So I believed.

The excuses for turning back recycled themselves: rattlesnakes, heatstroke, thirst, canyon stumbles, becoming lost, outlaws, mountain lions, oh my. Yet I pressed forward.

It would take me nearly two months and exactly 800 primitive miles—climbing and descending a dozen rugged ranges and the world’s grandest of canyons—to say why. It was enough for now, I sensed, to trust the whispering of the trail in my ear. That singular American pursuit of the Great Outdoors beckoned. I obeyed.

We pulled over where the AZT crossed the highway, a few miles from a dry smudge on the map amusingly labeled “Jacob Lake.” I opened the hatchback and hid a cache of water in tall grasses, taking mental snapshots of landmarks that would guide me back in three days.

Running out of water along the notoriously parched AZT was my greatest fear. I stared at my lifeline, Sharpied with my name and “DO NOT TAKE,” wondering what I might do if I couldn’t find this gallon when I returned.

We drove into the misty dark. Fog clouded the road and my mind. A strange sound slowly registered in my ears. I slammed the brakes. I had left the hatch open.

My pack. All my gear.

I sprang out, certain I would discover my accessories were missing or destroyed: my ultralight backpack, filled with 50 pounds of water and homemade dehydrated food, my MSR® DragonFly® stove, a minimum of white gas, a tent as light as a membrane, my Asolo TPS 520 GV GORE-TEX® Boots, my solar charger, my satellite texting device for use during cougar attacks….

My pack stared up at me, snug. Smug, even. I swear it winked. “Relax,” it told me. “We’ve got this.” I took a deep breath and closed the trunk.

We drifted up into Utah and looped back south toward the trailhead. But the first step of my adventure came sooner than expected. Slick mud caked the neglected access road. Our car fishtailed. The washes flowed deep. I risked stranding my family. I had no signal, no bearings, but the Arizona border felt near. I decided to walk from here.

The stars were hidden, no city lights shone off the clouds. As we killed the engine and stepped out of the vehicle into nowhere, we saw a flashlight in the near distance and heard a raised voice. We called back, but no response followed. The light flickered and vanished.

Clare was reluctant to desert me. “That’s super creepy. You sure I should go?”

But this was the moment of truth, high-desert apparitions or no. “I’ve got this,” I promised.

I woke my kids and embraced them tightly. I hefted my pack, cinched the straps, and fastened my headlamp. I clutched heavy plastic bags filled with loose supplies I had intended to secure in the morning. With an unflattering kick-off photograph of my extra pounds caught like a deer in headlights, my family waved goodbye and faded to black.

I was alone, and would remain so for the next 60 days.

A sign that reads Entering Arizona, Leaving Utah

The trailhead, it turned out, was 8 miles away. The road branched. It branched again. My preoccupation with the phantom flashlight was soon replaced with a more sinister alarm. Was I already hopelessly lost? I slogged through the drizzling dark, sliding over mud and plunging through flooding washes. Doubts stalked me as my headlamp dimmed.

Somehow I found the trailhead on the Arizona border at 3:00 a.m., starving, chafed and blistered, with raw palms and sore shoulders.

I unrolled my sleeping bag on a covered picnic bench, too spent to bother with my fancy new tent. I kicked off my footwear, grateful I had remained dry throughout, then burrowed inside my cocoon and listened to the storm.

Picture of Juniper trees along the Arizona Trail

I breathed in juniper-scented air. And then my apprehension turned to wonder. Through the pattering raindrops, the trail still whispered my name. I was surrounded by a raw world that, even in darkness and cold mist—without a hint of the monuments and vistas to come—had already captured me tightly in its grip.

The truth of what I was seeking began to reveal itself. I made up stories for a living. My horizons had become metaphors. It was time to live a story of my own making.

I marveled.

I had just conquered 8 gritty, unforgettable miles of surreal borderland simply to reach the starting line. What on earth would the next 800 have in store?

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