I will start tentatively April 10th on the AZT. I must fulfill my work commitment of April 8th then zip on down to the Mexico/Arizona border and begin mashing tread northbound. The diverse and beautiful AZT is approximately 800 miles long stretching longitudinally linking island mountain ranges, scorched deserts, and high, arid plateaus.. The sky islands provide a cool haven amid the blazing furnaces of the Sonora Desert. In fact, the elevation of the sky ranges, such as the Rincons and Huachucas, spring up from the desert floor rather abruptly reaching 10,000ft. Various biospheres are experienced in the sky ranges and I’ll be able to trek from clusters of Saguaro cacti in Saguaro National Park to thick forests of Ponderosa high in Forest Service land in a day. In the southern portion of the AZT, the trail ventures from island to island with the desert floor metaphorically representing the sea. In the northern portion of the AZT, the trail levels out at high elevations at around 6,000ft. or above. The first uplifting shelf is the Mogollon Rim which eventually tops out at the Coconino Rim. The AZT meanders transversely across the pine forested rims to eventually plunge into the Grand Canyon. From the bottom of the chasm I will then ascend into the lofty Kaibab Plateau which leads to the northern terminus of the AZT at the Arizona/Utah border.
Many challenges threaten a complete thru-hike of the AZT. The trail environs consist of isolation and remoteness but a stark, rather attractive quality of the AZT is the linkage of communities, such as the major cities of Phoenix, Tucson and Flagstaff. Despite the vast, empty, inhospitable lands these metro areas provide an oases for the restless wanderer lacking social interaction. Most hikers attempt the AZT in either Spring or Fall. Thus is so to beat the dangerous heat of summer and the brutal cold and deep snow, in some areas, of winter. Temperature is not the only factor in start dates as, needless to say, the AZT is extremely arid and lack of water may pose serious concerns for the wayward hiker. Most water sources are polluted with cow patties and/or are unreliable and ephemeral. The AZT is a trail of severe extremes---a tantalizing quality for an adventurer like myself.
From the end of the AZT, I will intersect Highway 89 and make my way west cross-country towards the town of Kanab which will front as an outpost to re-group for the Hayduke Trail. After a few days of respite, I will then continue west and eventually make Zion National Park, the western terminus of the HT. The AZT and HT actually intersect in northern Arizona on the north rim of the Grand Canyon. However, with the thru-hiker’s mindset of the urge to relentlessly move ever forward, I choose not to backtrack and will make the 80 or so mile connection between the AZT and HT with a non-detailed planned cross-country route paralleling Highway 89. This particular connection may change because of the few miles between the termini, isolation and the lack of cars on the highway, and private land issues.
The Hayduke Trail, named after the grizzled, irascible character, George Washington Hayduke III, from Edward Abbey’s book ‘The Monkey Wrench Gang,’ is an 800 mile backcountry route through the wilds of Utah bridging Zion, Grand Canyon, Bryce, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, and Arches National Parks as well as a peregrination through the Grand Staircase National Monument and the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. The HT is unmarked, has hardly any trail tread to mash, is rugged and stunningly beautiful, and requires an expertise level of experience to safely navigate the way through wending, maze-like canyons. The HT consists of varied terrain in which I will traipse among juniper and pinyon pine-sprinkled plateaus, trod around pillared and serrated hoodoos, and mash lonely desert roads. Flash floods are of constant concern, and diligently reading your maps and the landscape correctly are paramount for accomplishing a successful thru-hike. Water is even scarcer than the AZT, spookier to boot, and more desolate. The wind is fierce and the sun omnipotent. Even though the trail is 1/3 the distance of the Continental Divide Trail, the Hayduke Trail will test and push my knowledge, will, and emotions more than the CDT did, which is notoriously labeled as the toughest trail in the world to trek.
By far, the Hayduke, I believe, will be the most challenging of the four trails I will be attempting this summer in the VL as indicated by my previous sentiment. I estimate the AZT to take around 30 days to complete and I expect the HT to take about 5-6 weeks. Though the trails share roughly the same mileage the HT will take slightly longer than the AZT, assumingly, because of the nature of the route. Most hikers attempt a thru-hike during the spring or fall season, the reasons being very similar to the AZT. However, very few hikers have connected the AZT and HT in succession due to the oncoming heat and dryness of early summer. I have a small window to do both trails, say 2.5 months, but I believe I have the ability to accomplish the task. I have been in communication with Cam ’Swami’ Honan, an Aussie I met last year on the CDT who in 14 months hiked over 14,000m along the major trails in the U.S. He is a hiker I trust and respect; shit, and admire greatly. Check out his website and blog. Last year, he connected the GET, AZT, and HT in a clockwise horseshoe. The timing of his hike put him on the HT in May which, in his opinion, is the most optimum time to hike the HT. According to Swami, May has mild temperatures, cool nights, available and somewhat reliable water sources (though ephemeral as they may be), and a substantially subsided wind from the cold month of March on the Red Rock desert plateau. In May, I won’t have to battle the elements as much as the months book-ending it.
Everett Ruess has a strong presence in the HT. Some of the HT route embodies some of his wandering essences and trails. The allure of the Hayduke Trail weighs more on me than the others simply because of the mystery of Ruess. Here’s another intermingling theme within the VL: Ruess was one of Ed Abbey’s heroes, kindred spirits in the great Southwest. I like to think I am following in their footsteps, marching aimlessly driven among National Scenic Trails (I will elaborate on this contradiction in a future blog entry).
I think back to the documentary of Ruess, Wilderness Song. I envision the wind whistling and whipping up sand. I think of wispy, ethereal clouds poofing into a disappearance, vanished in the void; the mystery of nothing intrigues me. My vision sees vast distances blurred by heat, I breathe in hot air hotter than my exhaling breath, and dry salty tears evaporate on my swarthy cheeks. I am at home here, swallowed by the full empty soul of the desert I yawn and fall sleepy.
Here is an essay in video by Abbey. I hope you feel the silence of the desert and the pricks of the cactus and the heat of the blazing sun.
Continuation of the VL route to come soon and I will pick up from Moab, the eastern end of Hayduke Trail and the popular mountain bike town that once was the stomping ground of the desert rat Abbey. From there, the VL extends into the high Rockies of Colorado.