AZT in a DAY
Throughout 2018, I worked with the Arizona Trail Association to organize "AZT in a Day." The goal of the event was large and unprecedented on a national scenic trail: Recruit hundreds of runners, hikers, bikers, and equestrians to complete every inch of the 800-mile Arizona Trail in one 24-hour period. We divided the trail up into 99 sections, and chose a date: Saturday, October 6th---the same week as the 50th anniversary of the National Trail System Act. After hundreds of hours of prep we had over 800 people signed up to cover the trail.
This is the story of the week leading up to the event and how my day went on AZT in a Day.
On October 1st, heavy and steady rains from Hurricane Rosa covered the southwest, soaking western and central Arizona. The storm compromised dams, and caused flash flooding, landslides, power outages and road closures. By October 2nd, Phoenix had recorded its wettest October day and the eighth wettest day of all time. Two of the national forests in northern Arizona had also closed roads due washouts and landslides.
The rain machine Rosa was bittersweet. Before the storm, Phoenix was 2.52 inches below normal rainfall for the year and the southwest was coming out of one of the driest winters on record. Arizona needed this rain. So, as long as you weren’t trying to get to a trail located down a long remote dirt road, the rain was a mostly a blessing.
By Thursday, Rosa had passed, leaving Thursday and Friday’s forecast mostly sunny. Two days of sun was long enough to dry out most of the trail and the roads. The forecast for Saturday still wasn’t perfect, as Arizona was about to welcome yet another storm system; however, it had improved. Instead of all-day rain, the northern half of the trail could look forward to a clear morning with afternoon thunderstorms.
Noting Saturday’s unfavorable weather report in the north and again the possibilities of road closures and flash floods due to the incoming storm, I sent one last email out to participants. Three people dropped out of AZT in a Day, but their sections were still covered by others.
Just an hour later, a participant informed me that a sinkhole had opened on Highway 89, the main thorough-fair to northern Arizona. The washout had claimed a motorist's life late Wednesday night and ADOT had closed the road with no plans to open in the near future. This turned an already long 200-mile, 3-hour drive from Flagstaff to the North Rim into a 300-mile, 5-hour drive.
I informed participants north of the Grand Canyon of the closure. And that night, 22 participants dropped out.
The North Rim had been a tough area to get bodies to for the trek. Most of those who registered up there had been spurred by the idea behind the event, ready to endure a long day’s drive from their homes in Payson or Phoenix just to see it successful. The closure on Highway 89 though, became an impossible feat to overcome. Two sections, 82 and 84 became open without backups. Two tiny holes ready to deflate this elaborate, state-wide tapestry of people.
It was the day before the event, and I felt desperate. I posted to the Facebook event page with a plea. The "ask" sounded professional, but inside I knew it was ridiculous: “Could someone just drive to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon to potentially hike 4-8 miles a random spot, in foul weather, all to save this idea?” And unsurprisingly, no one could.
I contacted the staff and board of the Arizona Trail Association and asked them to throw me their North Rim resources. The executive director wrote me back with a single email address.
The contact was for the owner of the North Rim Country Store, which is just outside the National Park Boundary. She was the only person he knew that lived up there. I wrote her, introducing myself, the event, and finally I made the ask. She called me within the hour. “Yes, we’ll do section 84, we’ve done it before.” She said. What a gem.
We still had one more section to fill, but I was elated.
As all of this was unfolding my husband, Jake, and I were stationed in Big Water, UT. While I typed furiously on my laptop, seeking solutions in my fingertips, Jake went out to scout our 10.6-mile section from Winter Road Trailhead to the AZT’s northern terminus.
The AZT ends at Stateline Campground, which is down House Rock Valley Road. As the road exits the highway a sign reads, “Impassable when wet.” More clay than mud, the road winds for 10 miles through a drainage to the AZT’s northern terminus, where there is a monument marker designating the trail’s end.
Due to the rains earlier in the week, the road had been freshly grated, which was nice. The wash it followed was still flowing, but the water was low enough to cross in the Subaru without too much spinning. However, one small rain, here or upstream could strand a smaller car, and if we were going to make it out after our hike on Saturday, we would need to finish well before the afternoon storms.
With still no word from anyone about completing section 82, and the afternoon wasting away, Jake and I devised that if we needed to be done with our section early anyway, we might have time to drive over 100 miles to section 82 and hike it ourselves.
We drove to the Winter Road Trailhead, the southern end of our section, and made camp for the night. I felt both relieved and anxious to be out of cell phone service. Both of us were tired from several days of driving and stress and we fell asleep quickly after the sun went down around 6:30 pm.
By 5:15 in the morning I was wide awake with no alarm. It would be pitch black for an hour longer, which made for a slow morning. But just as soon as ambient light crept in, I set off with mission speed hiking pace.
The light day pack felt good, and while I’m not a trail runner, I jogged excitedly. The section was beautiful in the red morning glow, with the Vermillion Cliffs framing my traverse. The trail rolled through the top of a plateau overlooking House Rock Valley below, through small canyons, pinion and juniper, oak and sage. I remember enjoying the hiking as much as I enjoyed the idea of what it meant to be hiking there on that day. Jake, who had driven our car to the other end at the monument, hiked up to the ridge line to meet me. We hugged and enjoyed the view, but only for a moment. Dark, clouds were filling our sky view, growing thick and threatening rain.
We exchanged a quick glance, and Jake fell in line behind as we started our descent. Hiking behind me, he noticed quickly that I had a bloody heel that had soiled my sock and shoe. But didn’t hurt, heck I hadn’t even noticed. I begrudgingly gave him my heel to bandage, with my eyes to the sky. I just want to get to the end before the storm. I wanted to know we were out.
By 10AM we arrived at the monument. I had completed 10.6 miles by 10 am, and still there hadn’t been a drop of rain. We snapped a quick pic at the monument and without much more fan-fare we were packed and driving out House Rock Valley Road in 3 minutes.
When we hit pavement, the rain started.
The aspens were peak for fall, and the rain was perfect for hypothermia, but Jake made it out of the 6.5-mile section 82 slog before 3PM. As we drove out from the North Rim to Jacob Lake, snow began to fly, and lightning lit up the sky. That night we had planned to camp in Jacob Lake, but the snow was getting worse and locals told us to head to lower ground.
In Jacob Lake, we discussed options and treated ourselves to some warm time indoors and a few burgers. I checked my email and saw that Highway 89 had been reopened with a temporary patch. “That’ll be nice for when we go back south,” I thought. Then, while reporting the completion of section 82 on Facebook, I noticed that an equestrian group in Flagstaff had had a horse injury in the morning and as a result they had not completed their sections. They signed up for two: 66, where at least 4 other groups were also signed up, and 66*, where it was just them with no one to back them up. The section was about 4 miles long.
I looked at Jake and said, “it’s only 4 miles.” We mapped the driving route. With the closure lifted it was only a quick 2.5-hour jaunt to Flagstaff. If we left now, we could certainly hike those miles before midnight.
And so off we went.
Around 7:40 PM, I started hiking just North of Flagstaff. The sun had set an hour before, and with no moon and towering pines, I was very happy to have a strong headlamp. The sky started to mist a light rain.
Hiking alone at night can be beautiful, but if you listen well and have watched too many scary movies, it can also be unnerving. Jake chatted me down the trail by walkie-talkie as he drove along the road in parallel. I talked nervously, rapidly and nonsensically, the way one does when they are tired, and have hiked and driven more than a full day’s worth.
By 9PM, I was done. We drove to a dispersed spot and camped for the night. As tired as I was, I stayed awake for another two hours, unable to sleep. I laid wondering if the day went well for everyone else. As snow tinged on the roof of our tent and car, I finally nodded off in a whole-body exhaustion that always brings the best sleep.
The day had made me feel exhilarated, purposeful and spontaneous. We had driven over 349 miles and hiked 3 sections totaling 21.1 miles all in pursuit of this idea of collectively completing the whole trail in 24 hours.
I saw only a handful of people on the trail that day. For the most part, it was just me and Jake out there alone. But I felt like I had been with hundreds of people the whole time. I could feel the energy in the air, the race, the curiosity for my peers and the community. And to me, that's what makes this event special.
On October 6th, 2018, at least 796 people participated in AZT in a Day: 57 mountain bikers, 34 equestrians, and 705 runners and hikers. An additional 106 family and friends provided shuttles.
Together the group amassed over 5,784 miles--enough to cover the AZT's 800-mile length 7 times. Some had the “perfect” Arizona day, while others experienced rain, sleet, snow and thunderstorms. Several hikers were out for multiple nights to reach their remote sections. The youngest hiker was 4 and the oldest was 86.
The most miles covered by a single individual was 65.2 miles, completed by two mountain bikers. The most miles completed on foot is close, around 44 miles, a distinction shared by four runners who completed a rim-to-rim-to-rim through Grand Canyon.
In 24 hours, around 96% of the trail was completed. And that’s nothing to scoff at. It is a testament to the desire to be a part of something beyond yourself, the strength of the AZT community, the love of outdoor spaces and public lands, and the trails that take us there.
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