This Arizona Trail segment is like an open book

Arizona Daily Sun (Jun 22, 2021) by Sam McManis

Whenever I step foot on a passage of the Arizona Trail, especially a segment that’s somewhat remote, I think about all those hardy (crazy?) thru-hikers who have traversed the 800-mile trail, in toto.

How were they feeling at this point in their epic trek? Were they dehydrated, blister-sore and cursing the universe? Or were they blissfully loping along, cosmically at one with the rustling pines, swaying juniper and prickly cactus? Were they lonely out there for weeks with only a book or smart phone music to keep them company after another dusty day?

I feel for these women and men whose only source of support are the “trail angels” who sometimes leave water — or sustaining granola bars — at various junctions along the way.

On a recent weekend morning, when I had just set off on a 12.3-mile loop that included a 5.5-mile stretch of Passage 29 of the AZT (the Mormon Lake area), I literally stumbled upon what I figured had to be a thru-hiker artifact. I was a mile into the part of the AZT where Lake Mary Road meets Forest Road 91, when on the singletrack I noticed a torn piece of paper smack in the middle of the trail.

I bent and got a closer look. It was a torn page from a book, the title in the header reading, “They Came to a Valley.” How fitting, because I was about to enter a valley studded by pines and juniper and tall grass waving in the breeze. It was Page 414 from the book, and try as I might to follow the narrative, it was missing too much to discern full meaning.

Here’s an excerpt: “And Ike came within a whisker of being hun … (tear) … thief. Which proves that a good raising will tel … (tear) … it time.”

Normally, I will pick up detritus on the trail and dispose of it later but, after considerable contemplation, I chose to leave the torn page where it lay.

Who knows, the hiker might notice that the page was missing from the novel and backtrack to retrieve it. Hey, it could happen? I could just picture the frustration of the thru-hiker curling into a sleeping bag, cracking the spine on “They Came to the Valley” and discovering the missing page. What would come to poor Ike? Was he ever hanged or not?

Page left behind, on I went on the singletrack AZT. I encountered no one on what is a mellow, smooth stretch of the trail between FR 91 and FR 219. Had I run into any thru-hikers — they’re easy to spot in the wild, you know; just look for a hulking backpack and a thousand-yard stare — I would have asked if they had lost some reading material.

But it was preferable for me to let the mystery be and dream up my own scenarios. There’s plenty of time for daydreaming on this part of the AZT. It’s a relaxing, bucolic part of the longer 14.8-mile passage that starts at the Gooseberry Springs Trailhead and continues above Mormon Lake before ending at Mayflower Spring.

Except for a half-mile stretch that traverses an unnamed logging road, the path is singletrack, replete with a carpet of pine needles and without much elevation gain. There’s abundant shade, too, which is welcomed because the roughly 7-mile loop back on forest roads is exposed to the sun. But it’s also flat and mostly rock-free, so there’s that.

I suppose you could avoid the harsh exposure by turning around at FR 219 and retracing your steps back on that lovely stretch of the AZT. But I harbor and almost pathological aversion to out-and-back courses, so I cobbled together a long loop just to spice things up.

Once the AZT meets FR 219 — there’s no sign, but it’s the first wide dirt road you’ll cross and it comes 5.5 miles into the trek — you make a left turn (southeast) and follow 219 until it intersects with FR 9485K. Now, some of these smaller forest roads, the ones with letters attached to the numerals, can be sketchy in terms of maintenance. Happy to report, though, that 9485K is mostly smooth with a nice downhill grade for less than a mile before dead-ending at FR 91C.

At that intersection, I came to a valley — hey, just like the book — but I had to veer around it by making a right turn on FR 91C and climbing out through some pines. That eventually led to an even more expansive valley and FR 91, the main drag in these parts. It’s a 5-mile trek back to Lake Mary Road on FR 91, and what under normal circumstances would be a pleasure jaunt surrounded by verdant fields was marred somewhat by dust-blowing ATVs.

When not being crop-dusted by the four-wheelers, I thought once more about “They Came to a Valley,” and vowed to learn more a about it once back in cell service.

And here’s what I learned: Published in 1966, the book written by Bill Gulick is a historical epic that recounts the settling of the Idaho Territory in the mid-1860s. The novel is 424 pages, which means that the torn page left behind on the AZT was probably smack in the middle of the story’s climax.

I thought, momentarily, about ordering the book from my friendly independent seller, just to figure out what happened to Ike. But then I figured, why spoil the mystery?


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