Pine is a strange place. Yes, there are large expanses of pine forests to its north justifying its name, the ladies volunteering at the library were very helpful and chatty, a bakery served good espressos, the hiker-friendly brewery served excellent thin-crust pizza and beer, the Pine Creek Cabins where we stayed were clean and cosy and provided more horseshoe-throwing entertainment, the village next door bears the quaint name of Strawberry and the postman looked suitably guilty at having returned our box of essential trail supplies to San Angelo 3 days earlier, but Pine has a strange air to it. The streets were mostly deserted with people seeming to scurry into the safety of quaint-looking buildings, the supermarket was a magnet for misfits, the thrift store occupied the prime high street location and the lady making the espressos came right out with the news that Pine harbours several polygamous Mormon families. Isn’t that illegal?
We’d already discovered how fast hard-earned muscle and stamina can melt back into flab and lethargy when we re-started our hike in Flagstaff after a 3-week break to let Glenn’s shin splints recover. However, on that leg, while the distances were long, the trail was clear and on relatively even ground compared with what was to come, and the pine forests cloaked us in shade and sprinkled springy pine needles at our feet.
From Pine, both the scenery and the trail became a lot more rugged. No more springy pine needles for us. The trail was now strewn with pink and purple stones and rocks as slippery as ball bearings, but lined with a growing array of spectacular, XL cacti and aloes and offering panoramic views pine forests would have hidden. And it felt wild. Wild in a way only places with few human visitors can feel.
We’d just stumbled and slid into Oak Creek -an explosion of russet and yellow leaves against a purple rock backdrop in a canyon hidden until you’re in it- when I said to Glenn that my instinct was telling me there were dangerous animals around, so we stopped and took some photos and a brief rest, as you do. We’d only just started walking again when I spotted a 1.5 metre (4.5 ft) coral-like snake lying motionless across our path, too cold in the shade to slither any faster than a snail. There’s a saying which is supposed to help you remember the colour sequence of the deadly coral snake, but was it “red on yella, kill a fella” or the opposite or a whole different set of colours??? No idea. We hiked on, now much more careful about where we put our feet.
That night, we camped under some power lines, buzzing like an angry beehive 24 hours a day, in the wake of the juniper bush destruction left behind by 2 giant strimmers (Am. weed eaters) attached to giant yellow tank-like machinery, which had strewn saw-sized splinters across the trail for the last 2 miles and 2 more to come, about 10 miles south of Pine and 14 miles north of LF Ranch; our next hot meal. We’d packed a surplus of food and set out with 12 litres of water; plenty for 2 days, so that night we had a salami, olive oil and spring onion feast.
The next day, a praying mantis and a tarantula later (no praying mantis was harmed in the making of the photo), we came across three deer hunters driving around in something which looked like a golf buggy and very clean camo gear, who told us that they’d been a little way down the next stretch of the Arizona Trail and turned back, as it was “a twisted ankle waiting to happen”. Well, all my mind would do was wonder how tough those hunters in their little golf buggy and clean clothes, worried about their ankles actually thought they looked and of the laughing out loud of one of our rugged Spanish hunters had they ever met… but of course, within 20 minutes, I twisted my ankle badly enough to make me squeal like a baby, so they had their revenge.
We spent the next five hours slithering down a black and brown and purple hill, across sandy patches, between prickly pears, century plants and spiky aloes, following zig-zagging rock cairns and cow tracks to Whiterock Spring, where Glenn suddenly made the increasingly rare sighting of people coming down the trail behind us; one of whom, as it turned out, was Puerto Rican Shawn, a hiker walking to raise money for the MS cause, whom we’d met before Grand Canyon. We thought she would have finished the trail while we were resting Glenn’s leg, but it turned out that road closures and other issues had meant that her husband hadn’t been able to cache water for her on some sections, so as a supported hiker walking with a day pack only, she had ended up having to come back to complete some of the more remote sections out of sequence.
Not long afterwards, we discovered that our last 3 litres of water -plenty to get us to LF Ranch- had become contaminated by disintegrating plastic in the water reservoir, making it disgusting to the point of undrinkable and, potentially, poisonous. We were tired, thirsty, had a steep descent and about 4 miles ahead of us with just 90 minutes before we would lose the light.
Shawn and Rob followed us for a while, but our thirst was slowing us down, so we encouraged them to go on ahead. We hiked on, religiously tracking down and following the cairns. By the time we reached the top of the second and final, though super-steep and slippery descent to LF Ranch, the thirst was parching a sand dune blockage into my throat and messing with my concentration. I was desperate enough to drink some of the plastic-laced water and starting to get disoriented. Glenn was desperately thirsty too, but still in decent shape. Towards the end of the descent, it was all I could do to follow him. There was no time to stop, as the sun had set 20 minutes before and the light was fading. We had to make it to LF Ranch to get water.
We walked through some wooden posts and thought we had finally arrived, when we found the path cut off by a river. The Arizona Trail hadn’t tackled rivers with no obvious crossing before, so we thought we’d gone the wrong way. I lost my balance on the pebbles and fell backwards, landing on my behind. In my waterless stupor, it felt pretty good down there, sitting next to a cool, flowing river in near-darkness, and I briefly considered staying, but I could just make out a cairn on the other side and hear dogs barking, and knew from the map that LF Ranch was the only place for miles around, so Glenn pulled me to my feet and we put the waterproofing on our boots to the test. My socks were soaking by the other side, but LF Ranch soon emerged and Maryann came out to see what all the barking was about. Glenn was out of it too and forgot about drinking while he petted the dogs, but I was soon gulping like a wild thing straight out of a spigot while Maryann fetched a glass.
Shawn and Rob hadn’t made it, though, despite being well ahead of us. We knew they had plenty of water, food and camping equipment, however, so we decided against a search party and tucked into the roast dinner Maryann had waiting in the oven. Wyatt and Pat, two frustrated mule deer hunters, were staying in LF’s bunk room too and they kindly shared their very welcome dark beer with us after supper while we threw a ball for Pistol, an Australian shepard with limitless energy. So, it was with a beer in my hand that I noticed a faint light on the top of the mesa we’d slipped and slithered down, about a mile off-course. That would be Shawn and Rob.
We slept like logs in the bunk beds and awoke to a freshly cooked breakfast and the big box of groceries Maryann had very kindly bought for us via our texted shopping list for the next 6-day leg of hiking. Thank you, Maryann! Shawn and Rob appeared later in the morning, in good health and raring to hit the trail again. We, on the other hand, decided to enjoy Maryann’s hospitality for an extra day to let our muscles recover.
LF Ranch is a functional, working cattle ranch in a wild and beautiful setting on the East Verde River, 16 miles from so-called civilisation, where you’d probably be able to find a spare part for almost anything. Not that you actually see the cattle, as they roam across the rugged countryside until Maryann saddles up and rounds them up.
The set-up’s not that dissimilar from home in Spain: a well for water (though Maryann’s gives her quite a bit more than 40 litres a day!), solar panels, gas-powered water heating and lots of dogs to warn of strangers and ward off wild animals. (And, yes, I can’t resist mentioning that in Spain, our 2 boxers have just produced another 6. Very exciting!)
Maryann is a great host with unbeatable mountain lion stories, local knowledge (she identified our coral look-alike snake as a King Sonoran Snake, which is thankfully harmless except to other snakes, which it eats) and a passion for photography which has earned her numerous local prizes. While she scared me to death with the revelation that ALL Arizona bees are africanised and potentially, therefore, killer bees, we felt privileged to hang out with her and hope to stay in touch.
On morning 2 at LF Ranch, after Glenn had finally exhausted every imaginable excuse to delay hiking, we set off towards the daunting 4000 ft (1333 m) straight-up mountain on Maryann’s doorstep.