As a loyal reader, you surely know by now how much I love the American West!
One corner of the West is particularly dear to my heart, namely Arizona. Of course, Utah is also very special to me. But whether I prefer Arizona or Utah doesn’t matter for now – I think they’re both super special.
I’ll just call them outdoor paradises!
The Arizona Trail is 800 miles long or in the language of most of the world – 1287 kilometers. It starts at the Utah border and ends where a wall may stand in the future, the Mexican border.
Space, freedom, tranquility. Hardly anyone there, and a lot of nature!
The idea to hike the AZT was more “plan B” than something I was keen on doing at the time.
Admittedly, I was tired; 2020 was not an easy year for me either. Even though I had much more freedom than most – apart from the ten weeks of total lockdown in Colombia – as a long-term traveler, I am pretty much dependent on being able to travel because I don’t own a place of my own to stay.
This year brought endless back and forth questioning. Where can I go, and where am I not allowed to go? How to continue at all? Like so many others left hanging in the air: no easy answers, no solid ground.
But I still had a score to settle with the trail; I had attempted it previously during the winter of 2015 with my touring bike setup. That attempt failed, however, because of snow, mud and along with too much gear.
With a little more than two months left on my visa before I would have to depart from the U.S., hiking the AZT seemed like an excellent choice to fill this time. But despite my love for Arizona, from the beginning, I was not really in the mood to tackle this long thru-hike with full force.
Of course, I wanted to hike it, but my attitude was not right. The mental strength needed to hike and still enjoy it just wasn’t there; I was too distracted and mentally elsewhere.
The ballooning issue of Corona, the uncertainties with the upcoming American election, do I return to my bike, or will I now hike the world? What’s next after this upside-down year?
All these unanswered questions weighed on my mind and were more important right now than this trail.
On the other hand, it was the best thing I could do at that time – I would be out in nature, wildernesses, and far away from all the world’s problems. Problems I could do nothing about anyway. But of course, one can’t always escape the problems of the world these days.
I also underestimated the length of the AZT. Everyone knows 1287 kilometers makes for a long hike, but how long they actually are in the end, and the effort required to Thru-Hike them, is something else!
Again, one of life’s lessons, I need to be at my best or at least mentally strong to tackle ventures like a long thru-hike – to be successful, they can’t be taken lightly.
So, I had an inescapable deadline from the start! I could have tried to extend my visa, but that would have cost me about $500 just to apply and with no guaranty of receiving an extension and no refund either way. And who knows how the USA would have handled it at all in the days of Corona and Trump.
Additionally, the USA is expensive! The food prices are high, so, really the best thing was to look for something new and leave when my visa expired.
Nobody knew or knows to this day how the situation with Covid-19 will develop. When and where we will be able to travel freely again is in limbo.
My good friend Ron, welcomed me to Arizona and offered to support me on the trail!
We first met in 2015 when Ron let me stay at his house for many weeks as a Warmshowers host so I could recover from the rigors of my trip. We were friends from the moment we met!
I even got to celebrate my first Halloween in America with his grandchildren, plus spent Christmas Eve with his whole family!
When I was hit by a car in Montana in 2016 and suffered a concussion and whiplash, Ron also came all the way from Arizona and helped me get a new bike.
He himself had been tackling parts of the AZT for the last six months and so he knew the northern part of the trail very well, as he had to hike everything twice as a section hiker.
He kindly drove me out to the starting point of the trail, the border between Arizona and Utah.
Way out in the desert, surrounded by endless space!
There had been fires in many areas in the U.S. this year, including Arizona, and several of the AZT passages had been damaged and were closed.
So, it was pretty clear from the beginning that I might not be able to hike the whole trail this year unless I ignored the regulations.
At the starting point, however, the rangers had just lifted the closure so, my first miles were through burnout juniper and ponderosa pine forest.
It had been an extremely dry year so, it seemed water would be a constant issue along the trail. Hikers rely heavily on natural watering holes, used mainly by cattle and wildlife. A dry year leaves these holes empty or nearly, and if there is water, it is often more mud and cow shit than anything else.
But I was in the US where there is always someone looking out for you! Just as it had been on the Colorado Trail.
On the AZT, individuals were giving their time to make sure trailheads were well-stocked with “public” water jugs to be used for free as needed. Special people indeed, people like James who I met, giving their time and effort to help strangers on their way. Superb.
I had no trouble social distancing – the trail was lonely, too lonely. I love lonely places, but this year I realized that I also love meeting people. To exchange ideas and to have someone around. So, it was a bit sad that I only met a total of three thru-hikers on the entire long trail.
Thus, there were almost no trail encounters. No opportunities to sit and talk with other hikers in the evening. Something I had enjoyed very much on the Colorado Trail.
In the northern part, north of Flagstaff, there were always feeder trails, where I would run into campers, hunters, or day hikers from time to time. And I still met up with Ron when possible, so we both had company. He also worked on filling my shopping lists, and enjoyed my cooking when camping together.
We understood each other again, right away. It seemed that nothing had changed in our friendship during the years we had not seen each other. We had a lot of fun together.
It had also been important to me not to miss the debates before the U.S. election, a tradition. So, I preferred to take a break on those days, making sure to meet up with Ron so we could watch the debates on his iPad together somewhere along the route.
Sometimes we even watched the police drama, Tatort which is available online with English subtitles, so I was able to introduce him to some of our German cult series and also had a little feeling of home.
Northern Arizona is a lot of forest. Aspen, with their great fall colors, giant ponderosa pines, juniper trees smell quite delicious, and the wood burns super. But, unfortunately, this year – understandably – there was a statewide fire ban.
I have to say that a trip to the U.S. without a campfire in the evening just doesn’t seem right. The coziness of a campfire at the end of the day is just priceless.
Especially since the fire talks to you, it needs affection, gives you light, warmth, and replaces the gas stove. Campfires are simply great fun – but we will undoubtedly have to do without them more and more all over the world – climate change sends its regards.
The trail was straightforward in the northern part. Super well developed and well-marked.
However, it was a long Latscherei! ( A heck of a long walk !!!) Some sections often looked the same. After a hundred kilometers of ponderosa pine, you’ve seen enough for a good while.
Surprisingly I didn’t see or encounter much wildlife along these passages or, for that matter, not during my whole six months in the U.S. this year. Sure, water-scarce, there were the fires, and hunting season was on, but the animals must still have found refuge somewhere.
Of course, I saw deer, and now and then a few birds – but all in all, very few.
So, I walked all day and have to admit I struggled a bit. It was soon evident, I was glad to have tried thru-hiking long trails, but in the long run, probably not my thing.
Or maybe I was still too stoked from the Colorado Trail, which I hiked with total enthusiasm this summer. Or maybe my mind was still stuck on the canoe trip, which unfortunately didn’t end the way it should have.
Enthusiasm just wasn’t there – even though each morning, I packed up and put on my pack with high hopes for the day.
I’m pretty convinced I’m just too much of an explorer to follow the same trail someone else has created. That said, it was an experience, which I wouldn’t want to have missed, lots of kilometers to think and learn.
Many undertake such a trail with the desire to find themselves, push themselves, or just get out of the rut of everyday life for a few months. I don’t have to do that any longer; I’ve already cycled a lifetimes worth of kilometers – the process is behind me.
I’m driven into the world to satisfy my curiosity, and I realize that I’m going in a different direction. After all, I have evolved in the more than seven years I’ve been on the road – at least I hope so. 😊
It seems that I no longer have to create everything by force; I would instead concentrate more on the details around me, taking more time with places and subjects rather a closer look.
In principle, that’s how I’ve been doing it the last few years, but I’m going to step it up even more in the future.
Something I never did before, but I did on the AZT from the first to the last step of my days, listen to podcasts or audiobooks. The environment didn’t give me enough to keep my brain occupied.
But now, back to the positives of this trail, so no one here thinks I didn’t enjoy it.
The Grand Canyon. Everyone knows the pictures; many have already stood there at the precipice; no one leaves this canyon unimpressed. The Grand Canyon is magnificent.
Since the trail traverses the length of the state, it, of course, passes through the Grand Canyon.
Since I had chosen to hike the trail starting at the north end to continually hike away from the winter weather that was already fast on my heels, my canyon crossing started at the North Rim, descended down to the Colorado River, and climbed back up to the South Rim.
With a real bit of luck, I managed to get a permit that allowed me to spend two nights in the canyon. So, I had a lot of time and, of course, a great time.
I was especially impressed by the North Rim, the South Rim not so much as it was very crowded. One surprise was the number of “trail runners” running from rim to rim or rim to rim to rim.
Obviously, there are course records – as there are on almost every trail. In total, there are 6000 meters of altitude and 80 kilometers R2R2R, and the trail runners do it all in one go. Temperature differences between day and night as well as between the canyon rim and below the rim are equally remarkable.
One encounter I had with which I couldn’t help but be impressed was with an 85-year-old thru-hiker who had hiked the Appalachian Trail 3 years ago – over 4000 kilometers in the eastern part of the country – as the oldest thru-hiker ever to hike the trail.
When we met in the canyon, he was attempting to break the record and become the oldest Rim to Rim-to-Rim hiker. He accomplished that, as well.
Next, he wants to paddle the length of the Mississippi River as the oldest canoeist.
Great when people at that age are still so fit and show so much will!
Except for a wide-open beautiful stretch across the Babbit Ranch, my next couple weeks of hiking were pretty much through the forest, a little dull.
The election was approaching; the nervousness of the few people I met was palpable. Needless to say, I also hoped for the right election outcome; like so many others around the world, I didn’t want another four years of Trump!
It was getting increasingly colder, the nights uncomfortable in a tent covered with frost by morning.
Ron had at first lent me one of his tents, since I do not own an ultra-light tent at the moment, because I had planned to be hiking with a donkey through South America, where my heavier Hilleberg would have worked just fine.
As soon as possible, I bought an ultra-light for myself but had real condensation problems with it, and before long, I returned it to REI (the American Globetrotter).
When I camped with Ron somewhere, I used my Hilleberg – 1 person tent, which he carried in his van. For me, the Soulo is still the best tent ever, but unfortunately much too heavy to carry.
Finally, the cactus country started; I was in my beloved desert. The many miles of forest were behind me, and the trail became truly exciting.
But at the same time also more exhausting, as the track became far rockier, the climbs were steeper, and the mountains and landscape more rugged and dry.
Along with the desert came the thorns so, it wasn’t long before my sleeping pad was full of holes. Not so easy to find and repair without a bathtub or pool.
Waking at some point in the night to re-inflate my pad became my new routine. Annoying but not so bad as it also gave me a chance to gaze at the ever-changing starry sky, so brilliant here in the Southwest.
Mars this year was as bright as I’ve ever seen it. It almost felt like it greeted me every night. I could see the red color even with the naked eye.
Jupiter was also super visible without me having to do any great searching.
Despite the drier conditions in the southern passages of the trail, water supplies became less of a problem. The passages here traverse several designated wilderness areas where road access is minimal, meaning the AZT Association can’t rely on hikers or trail angels being able to stock the trail with water.
So, they have made sure the trail passes reliable permanent concrete or metal tanks. Some water basins with spring access points were set up by AZT volunteers, pretty much guarantying reliable water.
Often, I shared the waterholes with many bees and birds, which was nice.
To navigate, or rather to know where there is water, you use the APP Guthook on such thru-hikes. The various types of water sources are indicated on the online map, and hikers can leave comments through the APP commenting on the quality and quantity of water they found on arrival.
It is essential in wilderness areas to calculate how much water you need to carry from the last water point to the next. Of course, this also makes it super easy, – so it doesn’t have much to do with an adventure.
One watering hole which I hadn’t researched before and only saw by chance. The water was nasty green, and to be on the safe side, I used my U.V. filter and drank a cup of it; this was before I read the comment on Guthook that someone had fished a dead rat out of the water a few days before.
Well, I had filtered the water, so the only issues were the yucky pictures in my mind, and I had already, on a few occasions along the trail, downed some pretty disgusting water.
The sunsets in Arizona are super! Hard to think of anywhere that compares. Many of my days ended with the simple pleasure of admiring the spectacular colors and light as the sunset behind the hills—pure peace.
One of the best things about Arizona is the untouched nature, it’s just great when your view reaches miles in front of you devoid of powerlines, houses, roads, cars, and at night the skies are clear and bright without light pollution.
The only noise there was, was the constant wind. Hard to imagine nowadays how quiet this world must have been!
The trail seemed not to have an end. Every day I hiked about 25 kilometers up and down, down and up. I began counting the kilometers.
The landscape, especially the cacti areas were always incredible, but there were also boring sections, making some days even more exhausting.
Then I met Zelzin. A young Mexican woman who has earned the “Triple Crown” title, having hiked all the big Thru-Hikes in the U.S. She walked the Appalachian Trail (2810 miles), the Pacific Crest Trail (2653 miles), and the Continental Divide Trail (3100 miles).
And once you’ve done that, you’re a “Triple Crowner.” She was also the first Mexican woman ever to do it. In all, there are about 450 people who have hiked their way to this title.
I was setting up my tent as it was getting dark when we met. We were both happy to see someone, and Zelzin allowed herself a short break with me but then had to move on because she wanted to complete 35 miles that day.
A remarkable feat. She was small and petite, and her backpack certainly didn’t weigh much less than mine.
The problem with long-distance hiking in the U.S. is that you’re off the beaten path, which is the real appeal of these trails but also means you have to carry your water and food for many days, in addition to your camping gear, clothes, and stove.
The longer you need to hike a section of trail, then of course, the more food, and water you have to carry.
If I had not had Ron, who supplied me with good food every now and then, I would have been on the trail those two months with instant soups, pasta with MSG and preservatives, which gets on my nerves in the long run.
Some thru-hikers only eat chips or chocolate bars.
If you do that for a month or two, that’s okay, but as a lifestyle, it’s not for me.
„I’m from Mexico, I’m used to the heat, I need much less water than others, but I’m always starving because I hike so many kilometers a day.“Zelzin
I’m pretty sure you are getting the point that the weight in your pack on a thru-hike is on every hiker’s mind. The weight on my back is undoubtedly crucial to me, unlike many others who are only carrying their cell phone for photos, I wouldn’t bother going out at all without my camera and at least a couple lenses, which comes at a cost – weight, and space.
Therefore, the number one topic meeting other thru-hikers is how they minimize the weight of their packs.
I’m also just much slower, especially in the morning. I always need time for my photography as well. Speed records and ticking off trails and routes is not what I’m about.
Something else that’s a little sad with the thru-hiking is that you have such a short window for “good” photography; early morning and late evening.
Meaning all day long, you may be walking by fabulous scenery with useless light, and then also forced to keep going to reach that next water hole where the evening and morning scenery may be lacking. These issues stole a bit of the fun away.
Election night had come, and Ron and I watched the U.S. election together for the second time; four years back, we also sat together and hoped for the right result.
Back then, Ron had burst into tears when it was clear that Trump had made it, and he was super nervous about what would happen this time.
Outside Phoenix – we treated ourselves to a hotel on election night – I saw a woman carrying a Trump-Rambo flag with a sign in her hand: God wins!
When the result was finally known many days later, Ron was in tears again, and we both danced together in the desert and were so happy that now a little more peace will return to our world and especially that now the environment will have a much better chance to be considered again!
Corona should show us all that we have to protect our planet to protect ourselves; this should be our top priority. And Corona is only the beginning. The real crisis, namely the climate crisis and its consequences, is still ahead of us – but I know that many people do not want to hear that.
The cacti compensated for all the sweat! Saguaros are just absolutely super beautiful! These giants are the Queens and Kings of the landscape.
Time was running out, the days were getting shorter and shorter, it was now already dark early, and the question of what to do next was the focus of my day. I had to go somewhere. But where? There were very few possibilities!
The easiest, of course, was to leave for Mexico, since the border is officially closed, but then unofficially wide open, meaning going into Mexico didn’t appear to be an issue, whereas returning or coming up from Mexico isn’t possible for me as a German.
But I didn’t quite like the idea, although I longed for nothing more than a long break.
So, the thought tumbled back and forth while I stumbled along past cacti all day and marveled at the beauty of nature, and yet I was mentally not quite in the here and now.
The fact is, this is the first time in my life that I cannot go where I want to go. Limits and restrictions are everywhere for us all—the very first time in many decades. Of course, this only really applies to the Western World.
Many people on this planet always feel this way! How many nations are not allowed to visit their neighbouring countries? How many times have I heard in Iran, “I have the wrong passport, I’m not allowed to go anywhere!”
Or how many people don’t even have a passport in the first place because they can’t afford one?
When I was locked up in a hostel in Colombia for ten weeks, I often thought of our refugees forced to live in a house or a camp with people from other nations and little variety in their daily lives, almost sealed off from the rest of the world. In an unfamiliar land and culture.
While we in the West throw tantrums if we have to quarantine for fourteen days, and have little understanding for refugees in overcrowded refugee homes and camps.
I also couldn’t help but think about the people who are stuck in prisons and are never allowed to take a step outside.
Circumstances like these would be an absolute nightmare for someone like me who loves her freedom and for everyone else who is used to living life the way we want to.
Now, I was in the wilderness most of the time during the Corona period, and I didn’t communicate much with people about the pandemic. So, I wonder if the Western World, which is now suffering from the Corona crisis, is thinking about how privileged we are despite it all?
For the farmer in the countryside somewhere in Africa, my guess is life has changed little in the Corona era. He may suffer from Corona, but he has most likely suffered from hunger, unbalanced nutrition, malaria, bilharzia, and many other diseases. All this plus, he’s probably living under a corrupt government stealing away his hopes, or he may be living in a war zone.
At least some of these things or maybe all of them are very likely to be present thru his life – his whole life. And for decades to come, because malaria and many of the other hazardous tropical diseases are not to be found at our doorstep, at least not until today – but may arise in the very near future because of climate change – but are far away, so we do not see the urgency as we do now with Corona!
With the Coronavirus, it has taken less than a year to develop a vaccine, precisely because it affects us, the rich nations, and because the pharmaceutical companies can profit significantly from their efforts.
We from the Western World can assume that by the end of next year at the latest, the issue will be resolved, and we can return to normality.
But have we learned anything from this? Or will we go back to business as usual?
My sincere hopes are that we become far more aware of the enormous mistakes we are making with how we treat our environment and our fellow human beings today.
Will only those who lost their loved ones under Corona understand this, or will we all? How do we approach our future – what comes after?
Sorry, I’m digressing from the trail, but on such a long hike, you have a lot of time, and with my choice to live alternatively, I probably just think more globally.
A lot is going wrong on this planet, and we should change that as soon as possible! But I doubt that this will happen because many problems are far away or are pushed far away!
But back to the trail.
In some areas, the fire ban had finally been lifted, so I had a few evenings enjoying a campfire. My favorite hours of the day!
One evening as I sat by the fire, there was a rustling noise behind me, and when I turned around, a curious skunk was looking me in the eyes. Probably the most beautiful moment of the whole trail.
Perhaps that’s not entirely true; there was another great moment when I encountered a bobcat. I saw him from a distance, and at first, I thought it was an average house cat, but that was impossible out here, far away from everything.
The bobcat studied me carefully for a moment before disappearing back into the undergrowth.
Special moments also included bumping into a family of collared peccaries (Javelinas) who barely paid attention to me as they foraged for food, or my up close and personal photoshoots with tarantulas.
So, in the end, I saw little wildlife, but still always very special!
Unfortunately, I had to break off from the trail. Time for me in the U.S. was at an end. Altogether I had to leave out roughly 150 miles – including the fire closures. So, you could say this wasn’t a true Thru-Hike, but I knew this from the outset. After all not a drama.
The question now was and is: How do I go on?
This is what I will be mulling over during the months ahead in a small beach house in Baja California, Mexico. Or maybe while wandering thru the beautiful peninsula, depending on how long I can sit still.
So, I’m taking a break from traveling and will start with the work that I have as a blogger and one-woman-show, to keep you up to date and to be able to finance my life on the road.
Many THANKS to Ron – who has always kept me happy! The portrait I made of him was discovered by a painter the other day and is now hanging recreated in paint in a gallery somewhere in Mexico.
And as always, many THANKS to everyone I met along the way, who gave me a chat or just a smile.
The USA was great as always.
I wish you, dear reader and your family a great Christmas and all the best for 2021!
I hope the postcard got to you!
See you soon – with more stories from the road – you’ll hear from me again!
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