Former Pine-Strawberry fire chief completes Arizona Trail
Payson Roundup (July 22, 2022) by
Adventurer Gary Morris, 75, has completed the 800-mile-long Arizona Trail. A Strawberry resident and retired Pine-Strawberry Fire Department chief, Morris is an outdoorsman to his core and continues to add miles to his pedometer.
About 100 people have completed the Arizona Trail every year since 2015, as they only completed it in 2011. With less than 7% of those finishers being over 69 years of age, Morris is in an elite group.
“I grew up in the outdoors and I climb mountains all over the world,” he said. “The wilderness has a particular draw to be out there. I just enjoy the outdoors and overnighting in the outdoors.”
While first dating his now wife, Ginger, they hiked Fossil Creek back in 1978.
“We had the place to ourselves,” Morris chuckled. “Can you imagine?”
“She joined me for the first half of the Appalachian Trail,” he said. But Morris completed that 2,190-plus-mile trek in 2012 solo. “She is an outdoorsy person. We have backpacked many times. I don’t think she enjoys the miles like I do.”
By miles, Morris means hiking many miles per day at a pretty steady pace. He covered the Arizona Trail in 81 trail days. Trail days, meaning he would be out on the trail for a week or so, complete a section and return home.
“I typically solo (hike),” he said. “As I have gotten older, nobody my age can keep up with me and I am 75 still doing 20 miles day and the 40 years olds that can keep up with me are still working and unable to spend as much time as I do hiking.”
When you meet a fellow hiker, the common practice is to exchange information. But not in today’s digital world way, Morris said.
What’s the water locations? Where are the good shelter sites? They share the kind of information important to folks walking for miles with all their supplies on their back.
“It’s fun to exchange that information. We chat for 5 minutes sometimes,” he added. It may be the only communication he has with another human for a while. “Some days you don’t see anyone at all.”
“When you see someone approaching you on the trail, you can think back to the 1700s and you come across someone who may not have seen anyone for weeks or months and it is a unique experience.”
And while this trail may not be as well known as the Appalachian Trail, you still never know who you can meet. Morris said he met folks from multiple countries as far away as South Africa and as close as Canada.
Most hikers start the Arizona Trail near the Mexico/Arizona border at the Coronado National Memorial in March and follow the trail north to the Arizona/Utah border. This way they work with the weather, going higher in elevation as the temps rise.
North of the border is one of Morris’ favorite passages,
“100 miles north of the Sonora, the trail is out on open rangeland and it’s kinda high and flat,” he reminisced. “You look to the east unobstructed for 100 miles and to the west it’s unobstructed for 100 miles. You get the feeling you are the only person for miles. It is beautiful ranch land.”
He found a unique forest on the northwest slope of the San Francisco Peaks.
“It’s an old healthy forest,” he said. “Pine trees, but not like the ponderosa pine we are familiar with. You don’t find a lot of ground cover. For a full day, it was pretty attractive.
Morris finds the Arizona Trail more difficult than the more famous and longer Appalachian Trail for a couple of reasons. The scarcity of water in Arizona and the dramatic changes in elevation.
“The Arizona Trail is a lot a harder for water issues,” he said. “The Appalachian Trail is on the East Coast and has a shelter next to some kind of water. The Arizona Trail, water is few and far between and sometime it is stock ponds which is not exactly pleasant.”
Stock ponds are small man-made bodies of water for cattle to drink from, created because Arizona has very few lakes, rivers or streams.
“You can have a 40 miles section with no water,” he said. Morris would often go out ahead of a hike and “water cache” or stash gallons of water in strategic locations. This also meant there were times he was hiking and was carrying 2 gallons of water for his 20-mile day.
As for elevation, nothing beats the Grand Canyon.
“I started on the South Rim in mid-May and went through the Grand Canyon to the North Rim and then north to the Utah border.” The highest point on the trail was 9,200 feet in elevation and the lowest point was 2,460 feet. “Coming uphill from Phantom Ranch to the North Rim, you are gaining about 7,000 feet in elevation in 13 miles, that’s the longest uphill. It’s an interesting temperature range,” he added with a laugh.
“I slept in the bed of my truck at the South Rim and woke to 38 degrees. Hiked to Phantom Ranch (in the bottom of the Gand Canyon) and it was 96 degrees at sun down. Next day it was 28 degrees at the north rim. I had ice crystals on my water bladder.”
In spite of the challenges, or maybe because of them, Morris still had reverence in his voice for Arizona’s one wonder of the world.
“The grandeur of the Grand Canyon is that it changes every hour because of different light angles,”
He called the most difficult hikes anything uphill and anything flat is easy.
“We are always looking for a long stretch of gradual downhill, getting 2-5 miles of grade on a gradual downhill. You can really get into a cruise mode and get some miles down,” he said with enthusiasm.
Other challenges on the Arizona Trail are camp spots.
“You don’t have many options for a campsite when you are going across ridge lines and steep slopes. There is just not much in the way of good campsites,” he said.
Morris found himself in just such a pickle and pitched his tent on an 8-foot-long, 4-foot-wide flat spot he found along a very steep slope.
“It was getting dark, and you got pitch a tent on an itty bitty flat spot on a slope. Any kind of slope makes for a bad night’s sleep.”
The views, the adventure and the wildlife more than make up for a few rough nights.
“A raccoon got into camp one night and tried to get into my pack. The pack was hanging in the tree (common practice for backwoods camps to help keep critters out of the food supply). Well, he made a bunch of noise, then I made a bunch of noise and he left,” Morris said. He left with no food.
He also met a coatimundi on the Oracle Ridge outside of Tucson.
“I come around a slight turn in the trail and I saw a coatimundi. We looked one and other over for a while and made a half circle about 30 feet and left.”