As we hiked north from Pine along the Highline Trail, we were appreciative of the care and love that has gone into the trail’s maintenance. This section dates back to the 1800s when it connected homesteaders below the Mongollon Rim. I considered this as I hike, with my cuben fiber gear and smart phone and energy bars. I imagined if the trail was my main tie to the outside world, instead of a way to escape it.
We cowboy camped a few miles out of Pine, falling asleep in darkness and waking immediately to a bright moon overhead. It illuminated the forest so well that I woke thinking I had overslept. I waited until true morning to get up, though it is easy to linger in the sleeping bag when it is cold out. We hiked below the Mongollon Rim all morning and it was sunny and pleasant. We took an early break next to a lively stream, later we found an off-trail gushing spring, at noon we ate lunch next to a flowing creek–water is plentiful here, and we feel rich. In the afternoon we climbed 1000 ft, the last big climb until after Flagstaff. We were up on the plateau now. The trail was pretty flat. And it was cold. We hiked on, past General Springs, past more forest roads, and found a nice flat spot under some pines to camp.
The next day we were up and moving quickly, trying to ward off the cold by hiking. We dropped down to the swollen East Clear Creek and felt the temp drop, too. We hiked past a few water sources listed as “tanks” before we realized that means stock pond up here on the plateau. They looked murky and low, so we went off-trail to a nearby ranger station for water then rejoined the trail as it meandered between forest roads and single track. We saw elk in the distance running through the woods and smelt their musky odor. A porcupine startled Spider. Otherwise, the flat and forested trail was a little monotonous.
We picked a bad place to camp. The sun set and it got cold again and we were desperate to get into our sleeping bags. In the morning, after a below-freezing night at 7000 ft, our sleeping bags were damp from condensation and the air was still brisk.
When we finally started hiking, we cruised. The terrain was great for making miles. We saw Softie again, we’ve been hiking the same schedule since Pine, and met Baloo, who bumped ahead of us for a northbound section at Pine. We ran into Baloo twice more during the day and got to chat a bit and swap contact info. We hiked on until we were just outside of Mormon Lake and called it a day.
The next day, Monday, we took forest roads into Mormon Lake and picked up packages and got hot coffee. Then we hiked out, knowing that there might be bad weather that evening. We hoped to get to Flagstaff on Tuesday for a nero/zero and would need to do the bulk of those miles today. We got back to the trail and hiked all day as the winds get sharper and the clouds rolled in and the temp started to drop. We stopped only twice for water and snacks. The wind was brutal, with gusts that blew us sideways. We found a semi-sheltered camp site at the end of the day and set up the tent. We had cell reception and checked the weather, confirming that we would have precipitation overnight and in the morning. It was cold but not as cold as the past few nights, so we figured if we could stay dry we’d be fine.
Just before bed, Spider checked his email and saw a message from Baloo. He’s at home in Flagstaff avoiding the bad weather and invited us to stay with him and his wife Jan when we get to town. We wrote back excitedly, accepting this generous offer. I went to sleep smiling, imagining a warm bed and a hot shower.
It snowed all night, sometimes coming down as little ice pellets, sometimes accompanied by mighty gusts of wind. When we woke up it was still snowing but the wind had dissipated. Seeing no break in the weather, we packed everything up and started hiking. We have 10 miles to Flagstaff.
It was a brutal first ten minutes in heavy snow and sideways wind, but once we got into the forest, the morning became beautiful and calm. It was so peaceful in the shelter of pine trees. We saw more elk and a big bird of prey and lots of rabbit tracks. The snow tapered off after an hour or so of hiking, and the trail was easy to follow even dressed in white, so we made good time.
When we walked into Flagstaff, Baloo was there to greet us. He whisked us away to his lovely home and we took hot showers and started laundry and had a delicious lunch and met his wonderful wife Jan. We felt completely warm and safe and happy. We spent a day and a half completely out of the elements and enjoying great company. We are so, so lucky.
Huge thanks to Baloo and Jan for inviting us into their home and helping us recharge for the last section of trail. This was the best kind of trail magic!