A 100-Mile Reunion Hike Along the Rugged Arizona Trail
Field Mag (May 13, 2022) by Kersten Vasey
I began to overheat under the weight of seven liters of water, plus food, shelter, and supplies for eight days of backpacking under the intense Arizona sun. Blisters were already forming, and I had 97 miles left to hike until the South Rim of the Grand Canyon alongside someone I had barely seen in 10 years.
Hours earlier, Sarah and I had been dropped off at the wrong trailhead on the Utah border by Glen, a shuttle driver who lived just south of the Grand Canyon. He regaled us with stories of his cockroach farm, venomous snakes, eight children, and sizable arsenal. He had also brought one of his eight children along for the ride. His son couldn’t have been older than seven, yet he was proud to recite each caliber of gun he had already fired as his dad looked on with pride. Sarah and I laughed uneasily, pondering how the next four hours in Glen’s minivan would go.
In 2010, Sarah and I met while working at the small advertising agency in Boston. But we lost touch after I left for a different agency a couple years later, and the distance only grew when I moved to Colorado in 2015 to further my career—and dabble in typical Colorado activities like climbing, skiing, and running. In 2019, Sarah took an even more dramatic leap out west and into the outdoors. Her first night camping ever was at the start of the Pacific Crest Trail, a 2,650 mile thru hike she completed during one the west’s snowiest years on record. Her substantial shift piqued my interest. We “stayed in touch” via Instagram, occasionally DMing and commenting on each other’s posts.
After a chance encounter at January’s Outdoor Retailer trade show in 2020, we planned to reconnect outside on some sort of adventure. Sixteen months later, crammed between COVID vaccinations, work conflicts, and family visits, we cemented a plan to backpack the northernmost 100 miles of the Arizona National Scenic Trail (AZT) in May, just before summer’s 100+ temperatures hit. I had never been to the Grand Canyon, nor backpacked more than two nights in a row, but the trail sat squarely in between our basecamps of Colorado and California so we went with it.
After those first few miles of hiking, feet hot and sun high, I questioned our decision making and cursed Glen for dropping us off two miles from the correct trailhead at 1 PM in the afternoon. I questioned my decision to wear brand new shoes, to not train with a weighted pack, and to carry 14 pounds of water. And I also questioned my decision to hike with someone who had recently lived out of a backpack for six months. Unfortunately, imposter syndrome can even follow you to a remote trail in the middle of the desert.
After huddling under a bit of rare shade in a recent burn, we carried on to meet our goal of 13 miles a day.
The AZT winds its way through 800 miles of diverse scenery and history from Mexico to Utah, through desert, conifer and pine forests, saguaro cacti, meadows, sagebrush, the indomitable Grand Canyon, and past Humphreys Peak, the state’s highest summit.
In backpacking, the day-to-day can be distilled down to bare necessities–food, shelter, water–your hiking partner’s quirks and habits reveal themselves quickly, from their process of setting up camp for the night, what their poop schedule is, or how they handle trail absurdities and stressors. During our time on the AZT, these ranged from scant and truly terrible water sources filled with algae and floaters, trekking off trail through a burned ravine full of ash with thunderheads looming, hitching a ride in the back of an RV, stumbling upon a fresh deer carcass on the trail–presumably eaten by a nearby mountain lion—and dealing with an aching foot rash (mine, of course) that led us to cut off several miles just before the canyon.
Throughout, Sarah, trail name “Gilligan,” is calm and collected, whereas I have a tendency to let my anxiety run rampant. A seasoned professional, Sarah prefers listening to podcasts in solitude while cruising at a breakneck pace. I prefer chatter and creating loud sounds to stave off animals at whatever speed my body can manage.
However different our approaches, it was therapeutic to reconnect without fighting to hear over drunk patrons at a bar–what would have been commonplace for us a decade prior in Boston. We laughed about the dichotomy, and revisited nights in the office that led to tears and “using our mousepads as dinner plates at 2 AM,” as Sarah put it. Desperate to interact with another human outside of our quarantine bubbles, and with nothing but time on our hands, we exchanged life updates and opinions on vaccines, immigration, wellness trends, mental health, cancer diagnoses, disordered eating, the creative industry, and beyond.
We spoke about our insecurities, how we had admired each other from afar over the years, how refreshing it was to hike alongside another woman, and how insidious and ludicrous our internalized fears were. Then we curled up and cried in fits of laughter, covered in ash and freeze dried fettuccine.
Fortunately for us, we both preferred sleeping in and slow mornings with coffee. On our final day before hiking from Bright Angel Campground to the South Rim, we woke up to an emptied canyon floor around 8:30 AM, other hikers opting to depart before dawn to stay cool on the arduous 4,380ft climb up.
During the final three miles on the now-bustling trail, our pace aligned with two friends, Dave and Bill, who had hiked down to the Colorado River and were heading back up. We bonded over our shared fatigue–Sarah and I looked especially haggard and burdened by our larger-than-average packs, and Dave was bonking after only eating part of a granola bar. We struck up a conversation and eventually celebrated our respective journeys together over a kitschy steak dinner in town.
It was also a chance to celebrate my newly gifted trail name, “Sweeps,” which Sarah dubbed me due to my ash encrusted disposition reminiscent of a Mary Poppins extra.
At some point, one of our new friends mentioned how risky it had been for us to spend nearly 10 days together after 10 years apart. What if we didn’t get along? What if we realized we had nothing in common? When the idea of our trip was still budding, I knew how we had both survived the grind of our old jobs together–with humor–and it translated easily to hiking alongside one another for 100 miles.
Sometimes it seems like fate wills people back into our lives again, and sometimes it’s up to us to take a risk by asking an old friend to go for a walk.
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