415.7 Miles hiked
Nice flat campsite under junipers, the earth littered in cow patties. Warm night at 6,200 feet. What could go wrong?
Lots of things, actually.
The last of the light is fading from the heavy, leaded sky and we’re in our shelter when the mosquitoes appear. No problem, the zippers on the screen doors are failing but I put a little oil on them, and that has been helping them close. Except tonight the zipper on my side won’t close. The slider has officially shit the bed. No matter how carefully I work it along its track, it won’t zip at all. While I fiddle with the zipper and Muffy smashes the mosquitoes inside the tent, the low sky opens up and it begins to rain. Hard. Torrents of rain, drumming on the thin fabric of the shelter. Here’s the thing about my shelter. If you set up the poles at an angle, the zippers close with two people in the tent, but there’s a big gap between the storm doors. If you position the poles straight up, the gap in the storm doors is smaller but the zippers are too tight to zip all the way when you have two people inside. You can have storm protection or mosquito protection, but not both. And now the zipper on my side won’t even close.
A few minutes later I’m sewing the zipper on my side of the tent shut with dental floss by the light of my flashlight app, while rain falls so hard it bounces off the ground. The vestibules won’t close all the way but hey, what can you do. At least it’s warm? I hope I don’t have to pee in the night, but just thinking about it makes me want to. I didn’t really drink water today because it was so cold, and as soon as I ate dinner I became desperately thirsty. I feel like I could drink another liter right now. Except, I am sewing myself into my tent, so if I have to pee in the night I’m going to have to crawl over Muffy to do it, waking her.
“Doesn’t the rain keep the mosquitoes away?” Says Muffy.
“Yeah,” I say. “I guess there is that.” I give up and lay back on my neoair, the screendoor sewed just half shut. I am so, so exhausted, to tired to really think, and this conundrum is making me feel panicky. The drumming of the rain is deafening. There are also a dozen little pinholes in my shelter- I find new ones every few days, when the sun hits it a certain way. The inevitable disintegration of cuben fiber! Excuse me, dyneema composite fabric. And the shelter’s seams need resealing- they drip. I watch the rain rattle the fabric, my mind spinning. Is it going to leak on us tonight? How much? When will the rain let up?
The rain does let up, for a few minutes, before starting in again. During one of these breaks we hear a cow crashing through the clearing past the tent, and then- the cow screams.
I feel like I’ve heard this sound at a distance, but never up close. It is really something else. The cow screams again, and comes crashing closer, in the dark. Is the cow… charging our tent? The cow huffs, and stomps. There is the breaking of sticks and sounds like rocks tumbling down the hillside. The thunder of hooves as the cow runs past our tent, again. The cow huffs and grunts, and screams again.
“Oh my god,” says Muffy. “Oh my god.”
We crawl out Muffy’s side of the tent, the one not sewn halfway shut, and shout and clap our hands at the dark. Does the cow think our tent is a predator, come for its calf? What even is going on?
The cow retreats at our shouting and clapping, and the night falls still again. We crawl back into our shelter, shook, just in time for more rain. I lay in my sleeping bag, warm but so, so, anxious, and listen to the fabric rattle. I just can’t with this night.
In the morning it is still pouring. I’ve slept maybe two hours total, on account of the loud, constant drumming and fear that my tent would leak. Muffy hardly faired better. We are dry though, with just a little puddle under our neoairs. Bless! We lay in our sleeping bags an extra hour, hoping the rain will taper off, and miraculously it does. We go through what’s left of our food before packing up- we each have just enough to make it to the end of the day. It’s 8 miles of unknown trail conditions to Stray Horse campground on Hwy 191, and from there a 30 mile hitch will take us to Alpine, AZ. Traffic is reportedly light on this highway in the middle of nowhere- about one car per hour. There will be vault toilets, though, so we can shelter from the weather in there if we need to.
We hike out just before 8, in a gentle drizzle. Super late to be walking but we just could not stomach the idea of leaving the tent in that downpour. We scramble down off the flat cowpatty saddle back to the trail, which drops us into a warm, lush drainage of new growth, trickling springs, and the damp smell of forest in the rain.
The trail is vague, sometimes dissapearing completely under the leaflitter but we don’t mind. We make our way slowly, breathing in the wet living air, feeling grateful to be here in this secret world after so many days of walking through stark, whistling burn.
We gather water from Bear Spring, we cross from one side of the drainage to the other beneath the dripping trees, we dodge the small red leaves of springtime poison ivy. We turn north into Chitty Canyon, past a small waterfall, and then climb out on “switchbacks” except the switchbacks are not there, there is only the steep earth and bits of cow trails and so we make our way straight up to a saddle, feeling so exhausted deep in our bodies.
On the saddle the path appears again and we follow it, more or less, in and out of drainages on a rollercoaster whose net gain seems to be steeply up.
The temperature drops as we climb, and the rain falls harder. I’m warm on the ascents but as soon as the trail levels my body cools, and I wish the trail was clearer so that we could go faster, I wish we were at the vault toilets. I visualize the vault toilets, a sheltered space out of the wind. I can’t stop to eat or drink, it’ll make me colder. I’ve got to protect at all costs the small warm room that lives in my core. I check in on Muffy- she’s cold too. I visualize us boiling water for tea in the vault toilet. Has there ever been anything better than a vault toilet.
This 8 miles is taking forever. 8 miles on steep vague trail is a long, long way in the cold pouring rain. At last at 1pm I’m at the road, kicking dogshit mud off my shoes and then we’re in the vault toilet, tearing off our soaked rain jackets and putting on our puffy jackets, huddling on the concrete floor on our grey foam pads and heating water with the door cracked open, trying to ignore the smell of human shit. It is a pretty clean vault toilet, and for this I am so grateful. We’re both shaking from hunger and I make my last dinner for lunch, and Muffy does too. The hot food returns some of the warmth to us and we venture outside, to a three sided log shelter next to the highway meant for pack animals where we can hide and wait for the sound of approaching cars. The first few cars that pass don’t stop but then one does- a Navajo man in a huge pickup truck headed home from his workweek at the copper mine. He tells us he makes the commute, 5 hours each way, every weekend. He is kind, he doesn’t need to chat, and we melt into the car heater, almost falling asleep. At 3pm we are in Alpine.
Our room at the sportsman’s lodge has a bangin heater and real blankets on the bed. We are two blocks from a restaurant and the small grocery store with its attached laundromat. The most walkable town of the whole MRT! Around us are green fields under the grey sky, and a steady rain falls. Sheep and cows browse in the pasture, monching the grass. We put on our puffies and rainjacket skirts and shiver to the laundromat where we stuff our clothes, which smell of rot, into the washer. Across the street is the Bear Wallow cafe, the only restaurant open right now. We enter in a haze of hiker hunger, feeling like we could eat anything. It’s only after I’m halfway through my dinner that I start to notice the decor around me. Military this, “right to bear arms” that. Ok, ok. It’s rural America, what do I expect. But then I see the flier for the Arizona State Militia. The poster calling Obama a “lying African”. On the way out I notice the Trump flag on the flagpole, limp and faded. The don’t tread on me flag. Holy shit, where did we just eat. An hour later I learn from one of the creators of the route that the Bear Wallow cafe does not serve People of Color. I check the google maps reviews and it’s true- multiple reviews from POC saying they were ignored or treated like trash. And many, many reviews from white hunters, motorcyclists and military saying that this restaurant is their favorite place to eat.
Future hikers of the MRT- do not eat at the Bear Wallow Cafe. They are white supremacists. Just don’t do it.
Yelp tells us that the other cafe in town, will be open tomorrow. It also tells us that this restaurant is LGBTQ friendly, and I understand why, in this town, they would want us to know that.
Back in our motel room with our clean laundry, I think about the white supremacist cafe. It’s not as simple, really, as where to eat or not eat. The issue is that this country was built on white supremacy, and white supremacy continues to thrive. It’s not one little cafe being out and proud about being bigots that’s the problem. It’s everything. They say that white supremacy isn’t a shark- it’s the water. That cafe could go out of business tomorrow, and it wouldn’t change a thing. There is so much deep, structural work that needs to be done. So much to be dismantled and rebuilt.
The heater is on high, and we’re finally warm in bed. Outside, the cold rain continues to fall. The forecast isn’t clearing up anytime soon. We’ve only got 63 miles left of the MRT, though, and we’re anxious to get back to our friends and our dogs. Our plan is to hit up the thrift store here tomorrow, and get another fleece layer, if we can find it, and find a local we get pay to give us a ride back to the trail Sunday morning. If all goes well we’ll be in the tiny community of Blue, which the trail passes through but which has nothing but a post office, to pick up the resupply boxes we mailed ourselves Monday morning. Three days on overgrown trails in the Blue mountains in the rain and by Wednesday evening we should be rolling into Alma, New Mexico. Done. Our friend Emma, incredibly, is going to meet us there and drive us back to Tucson, where we’ll be hit with a wall of heat. And little dogs. So many little dogs.