5 am. I wake up and slowly get out of bed in our little house only 3 blocks from a little downtown. The light is already drawing – sunrise comes early in this part of the map. I look out the window and inhale the view. I see mountains peaks covered in green trees, with a bit of snow here and there. I smile. One cup of coffee later I am all set to get out on a local trail, that will lead me to my long run’s route – the Humphreys loop, the favorite, just north of our new home, Flagstaff, AZ…
March 23rd, 2011.
5 am. It’s dark outside, on the street of Austin, but I like beginning my road runs during a week in the dark. As I am sipping my morning cup of coffee, I browse my favorite blogs, when I come to Ian's new post. It suddenly hits me. This is it.
I gotta say, it just hit me one morning that Flagstaff might be just the place to move in a few years! Larry and I, while here in Austin due to family reasons, are really looking forward to getting out! And we looked, and planned, and talked, and picked...and then it was a light bulb: Flagstaff is a small town, yet young (not retired) community, has mountains nearby, as well as desert, easy access to any other states we love to visit, National Parks, has big trees (my demand) and lower humidity, 4 seasons with leaf changing and snow falling, and yet nice hot summer, and your photos are just awesome!
Anyhow, just like that, after reading your post and commenting, I bought tickets for Memorial Day and we are coming to explore.
We truly did lots of search and research where we would like to go for our “early retirement” plan. Not retire, really, but move into a small mountain town once kids are out of the house, and change jobs to much less demanding, more of a soul-inspiring. We wandered about Park City, Albuquerque, Bend…it was all nice, but just somehow didn’t strike a nerve. That morning changed that. It was sudden and strong. Larry woke up, and I announced – I found a place. He looked at me – How come we didn’t think of it before? – and agreed wholeheartedly right away. The tickets were booked that very day.
May 27th, 2011.
We were supposed to have an early flight, and a tight connection, but our plane got seriously delayed. We dreamt about this trip for two months, and with Memorial Day overbooked travel the fear rose. I stood in line quietly. The woman behind the counter looked at me, smiled and said: “Next flight is only an hour later. You gonna love your new seats.” We flew first class. We picked up our car – which was reserved as a smallest yet exchanged for free as a good size power-everything. We drove next 2 hrs in anticipation. We arrived into a downtown, bought a trail map and set at a neat little coffee shop. It was heaven; it was love from first sight…
Ian, just checked in to Hilton for 1 night before the mountain wandering. The downtown is the loveliest place on Earth! I don't want to leave already!!! How in the world did you keep it secret before? :)
April 1st, 2011.
We'd like to do a 2.5 day backpacking with about 10 miles a day circle, and Larry thinks Kachina Peaks Wilderness is the way to go about it. Something like Katchina trail, Humphreys, Bear Jaw, Inner Basin and near-by peaks. In your opinion, can you tell me how is the weather in that region/altitude at that time, is there water sources, and are there maps available better than a hand-drawn one we found.
Definite potable water sources will be at the Snow Bowl and at the Lockett Meadow Campground and a spigot at the Waterline Trail and Inner Basin Trail junction. Other than that you may find seeps and snow melt streams up there that time of year...but these are very dry mountains...no water unless some of the cattle tanks are full, like Shultz Tank and Dry Hills Tanks. Snow is melting fast here right now.
Yup, I think you'll love Flaggy!
May 28th, 2011.
It does get light damn early, and especially since we are 2 hrs behind in time zone, we are restless long before we need to leave. We picked a 20 mile loop with no specific destination at which point we’d camp out, so there is no hurry. I mean, it’s a 20 mile loop (or so), how bad can it be, even with backpacks? We finally pack, head out for a breakfast and make our way to a trailhead. We decided to start at the Schultz tank, connect to Kachina trail, get up to Snow bowl ski area, pick a trail to Humphreys peak, highest in AZ standing at 12,633. That would be about 12 miles (or about, may be a tad more). There is no camping allowed above tree line, which is designated at 11,400, so we’ll have to break the tent either before Humphreys or after. We’re figuring, so much time in our hands, definitely after. We start slow. Man, it is beautiful!
There is no hurry in our steps, and we take tons of photographs, with two cameras between us. The air is dry, the temperatures are in 60’s, the sun is bright, and it is the most wonderful place on Earth. We couldn’t be happier. With a spring in our steps, we contemplate. This is what life is about. Really, running is not what either one of us loves the most. It’s been outdoors. In the mountains. Far away from boring high-speed life. It’s when the only care is how to put the foot down. When to drink. Where to look and gasp. I don’t care where I run, walk, crawl, ski, snowshoe, hike, whatever, as long as it’s out there. Running simply gives us a tool to see more land in shorter time, and to explore more.
This place has everything I ever dreamt about. The fur trees and pine trees, the aspen that look almost like my home-grown birch trees, high peaks on a horizon, vast valleys, and a narrow single-track. We meet great people, and we stop and chat with all of them. They are awesome, those people who make their way to the trails. You won’t see many of those in your regular life, in the city. The smile can’t be wiped off our faces. We make it to a ski area and refill our water bottles.
The trail picks up elevation rather quickly here and gets more difficult. There are many trees blown down, and we see snow, which begins to cover more and more ground in longer stretches. But this trail is heavily traveled, and there are footsteps through and no loosing direction. We get a bit more tired, and while I keep speeding up, the wind picks up above the tree line, and we need to put some clothes on, and to take deeper breaths. Eventually, we can see the last pitch, the saddle between Humphreys and Agassiz, and we make it, fighting hard to not get blown away. I wish the pictures could relate just how windy it was – steady 50-60 mph with gusts up to 90 mph, true hurricane force. We had to spread our legs, bow low and stop dead in our tracks way too many times. After short consideration and looking at the watch (4 pm), we make a decision to not scale the Humphreys peak itself (a mile out-n-back) and continue on the other side.
Right. But where is the trail? While Larry stares at the map, I a faint rocky path around nearby mountain and, trying to balance on my feet, scout it – seems to be the right way. We get into next saddle – and there is nothing but the snow and a long steep drop down. Now what? Map shows we have to go across (thank God Larry can read maps!), and I make my way across the first short snow field. Yep, I can see the trail over there! We just need to be careful, plant our feet into the crust – and we’ll be snow free and on a downhill!
The wind picks up even more, but we make it, and start our way on long dry switchbacks, begging for a tree cover. Temperature outside is dropping down, so is my core’s, and I am getting frightened. I have a low thyroid function, and once hypothermic, I fade quickly and have a difficult time to recover – not only physically, but brain-function as well. I feel getting fuzzy. More clothes, quickly, and a doze of sugary snack! While I am trying to walk fast, our luck runs out even faster – and the dry trail ends in a snow, again. We can still see where to go and make our way, but the snow is getting deeper, wetter, and the path disappears at times.
And then it’s gone. We are in the woods, finally, for now anyway, and there is not a single trail marker or any other identification of where we have to go. A slight panic sets in. I don’t feel my feet and get a sock change. Larry looks at the map and makes a decision to cross-country down the snow between the trees across “potential” switchbacks in hopes to run into next trail intersection. We move fast. And – oh, joy! – we see a trail post. Saved?
The excitement was short lived. Wa-a-y short lived it was. From there on, we are on the open side of the mountain, wind blows like hell, snow waist deep, and not s single idea where the trail is. We can hardly make out the mountains and align them with what the map says, and have a general idea of a direction. 2 more miles. It is only 2 more miles to the saddle. The daylight is running out on us. I make the first step into the snow…
It is hard work, post-holing like that. I have to make sure the step is firm and deep, so Larry wouldn’t slide down (he is heavier, and so is his pack). We still slip often, and grab any tree we can find. Thankfully, the slope ends in a valley, and it’s nothing like an abyss, so I try not to look down and go. Occasionally, I hear Larry swearing behind in frustration. One more step. Another dry piece, and we are actually on trail? Larry celebrates…we take a turn around the bend…and there is no end of next snow – as long as you can see. It’s a sea. It’s steeper here. And it’s 7 pm. Holly shit.
No time, there is no time to gripe. There is only one way – forward. We can’t stop here, in the snow, on the slope, in the wind. We have to make to a dry place. Focus, honey. Block every other thought, every pain, and focus. See that saddle? This is where we should be at some point. We walk. We crawl. It’s cold. It’s never ending. I just hope to God we are somewhere near the right trail…
And just when the hope was about to abandon and I was to propose to break a tent right where we are – there it was, a saddle, dry, with gusty winds, but safe. With crooked fingers we set the tent on the snow, got inside – and the dark fell. Exhausted, we lay still, listening to a hauling wind. We are so tired and cold, we can’t even eat. We are seriously dehydrated, but afraid to drink so to not have to get out into that bitter windy cold night for a pee. The headache is splitting. We are both shivering. And the muscles ache as if we just ran a 100M race…
There wasn’t much sleep that night. Neither one of us could get comfortable, and the wind was so loud and so strong, I was positive we’ll be known in a history as new Dorothy. I have no clue how the tent held on, but eventually the sun rose, and while the wind never died, we crawled outside, packed our belongings and somberly took on the last part – last some 6 miles downhill back to the car.
The trip down was rather uneventful. It was a very slow and boring grade – and we were quite out of any adrenaline. There was an insane amount of blown in trees, and then trail turned into rocky a’la Zane Grey 50, and we knew we are close. When I saw a car, I thought I couldn’t make another step. Just like crossing a finish line in a long mountain race, everything just gives – and that was it.
May 29th, 2011.