Tag Archives: appalachian trail

Winter Road Trip to Everglades National Park, Big Cypress National Preserve, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, Congaree National Park, Pisgah National Forest and Great Smoky Mountains National Park. For $325.

We have about a 4 week winter break here as grad students at West Virginia University so my girlfriend Kristen and I decided we would take a trip to somewhere warm for the winter! Our ideas were Big Bend National Park, somewhere in Arizona or Florida. Well we decided to take the easy route for us and drive Kristen’s green, racing stripe Mini Cooper because it gets good gas mileage and has a surprising amount of trunk space, plus we pack light. We wanted to drive so we had the freedom to go anywhere we wanted to on a whim and I have to say that this was the right choice. We ended up going to all kinds of places that we hadn’t planned.

December 29th, 2015

We left early in the morning from Morgantown, WV with a goal to get to Kristen’s sister’s house in Jacksonville, Fl that night. It’s about an 11 hour drive there and then about 8 more hours the next day to Key West where we wanted to hang around for New Years celebration in a few days. When we got to Kristen’s sister’s we thought about going to Big Cypress National Preserve before going to the Keys because we couldn’t find a place to camp or stay.

A spiny orb weaver spider in Jacksonville.

December 30th

The next morning we made our way down to Big Cypress and asked where we could backcountry camp and were told we could walk north from the Oasis Visitor Center but that finding dry ground to tent on could be difficult. Turns out the visitor center is also the southern terminus of the Florida Trail. We got a backcountry permit which was $4 a person and we decided to head out on the trail and see if we could find somewhere to camp for the night then walk back in the morning. Near the visitor center there was a deeper canal that was full of alligators in the 5-8 foot range and the trees on the edge of the water were full of water birds like Anhingas, Cormerants and Herons of all kinds. The trail was just how I had seen it from pictures of friends who had walked this section of the FT. It was very warm out, probably mid 70s to low 80s in the evening when we started walking. After half a mile of walking through thick grasses along an airstrip or something like that we met the swamp as the trail went into the water. Now when most people think of swamp water it is brown and stinky but this water is crystal clear and warm. Little minnows dart away from your feet and little plants like bladderwort bloom on floating rafts of greenery. In all directions it’s a sea of sawgrass with scattered Cypress domes and islands of pine trees and palmetto. We walked until it got dark and made it to a pine island where we put up our tent frantically as the mosquitoes emerges in full force as soon as the sun set. We got into the tent and so did about 20 skeeters in the 10 seconds it took us to crawl in and zip it up. All night there was the evil buzz of mosquitoes swarming the tent. That and the hot humid air made sleeping a challenge.

12512826_10154849663549572_7998219080844260281_nA nice big gator!

  1. IMG_4986Green Heron waiting to strike IMG_4977Great Egret with a feather in its mouth.IMG_4974White IbisIMG_4980Wood StorkIMG_4971Snowy EgretIMG_4963Double Crested CormorantIMG_4964 Anhinga

  Kristen on the trail!

Cypress dome in the distance. Cypress trees are in the same family as redwoods and sequoias and grow in domes on the swamp because the water in the center of the dome is deeper than the edges, allowing the trees in the middle to grow taller and be more vigorous.

December 31st

We woke up before sunrise and I really wanted to get out of the pine forest and back to the open sawgrass prairie to see the sun come over the horizon. We were able to just in time.

Morning is my favorite time of day to hike. Watching the sunrise, all the animals switching from night shift to day shift and the joy of experiencing a whole day from sun up to sun down.

We also weren’t in a rush to get anywhere so we wandered around the swamp checking out the cypress domes and the wildflowers that were around.  Purple bladderwort
 Passiflora species

  Warming up for the morning hunt!
 An airplant on a bald cypress.

We walked the few miles out back to the Oasis Visitor Center and packed up for out next location. We decided to hit up Everglades West, which is mostly mangroves and salt water, compared to the freshwater plains and swamps at Everglades East. Our plan was to rent a canoe from the park and paddle out to a chickee, which is a raised platform with a roof in the water for people to camp on. Think AT shelter in the mangroves. Well when we got to the park most of the campsites and chickees were full but by good luck there was a campsite still available called Lopez only 7 miles by paddling. Though we were warned it is mosquito and no-see-um central. We booked it anyway! About $14 for the site and backcountry permit and we had a place to stay in the Everglades! Also this area is very easy to get lost or turned around because there are little mangrove islands and keys all over the landscape and they look the same at a distance so we made sure out map was safe and our phones were charged. We got our canoe for 2 days for $80 and then went to buy supplies before we launched. I went to the the library in Everglades City and bought a fishing license and then got some bait at a bait shop. I wanted to feesh. We drove the few miles back, loaded up our boat and took to the water! There was a Roseate Spoonbill around the launch site as we started out trip! What a cool bird!

 Roseate Spoonbill

As we got to paddling I started trolling a lure behind the canoe and it didn’t take long to start catching a bunch of little fish!

 I caught lots of these small Crevalle Jacks (I think that’s what they are) trolling a rooster tail behind the canoe. I tossed them all back as they were too small to become dinner.

About halfway to our destination we stopped on an oyster bar to rest and walk around in the shallow water near Chokoloskee Island.  We picked up the oysters and found lots of neat crabs and other critters among them. Some whelks were also cruising along the ground. I love finding animals I’ve never been around!

 12509171_10154849663084572_3754307758069239499_nYou can stand almost anywhere in the bay, the water is very shallow but also very muddy when you’re not on an oyster bar.

We continued paddling towards our campsite but the wind started to pick up and it was blowing our canoe in the opposite direction we were trying to go, making for some very tiring and frustrating hours. Eventually the wind started making the waves on the water large enough that they were almost splashing into the canoe and it made travel sketchy. We had to keep trying to point the nose of the canoe into the waves and around this same time we realized we started going up the wrong river mouth and our campsite was still very far away in into the wind. I got worried our canoe was going to get swamped and it and all our gear would sink and even though the water was probably only 4-5 feet deep, the soft mud would prevent us from flipping the canoe upside down to get the water out like you would in a river. So we started paddling back towards Chololoskee Island to get to less turbulent, shallower water. It was also getting late in the evening and we only had a few hours of sun left. We didn’t want to keep trying in vain to get to our far away campsite in the dark against the wind on a mosquito island. With this in mind we decided to head back to the canoe livery, put up our canoe and then camp somewhere. We’d come back in the morning and grab our canoe and go the opposite direction we went today to check out some little islands.

Once we got back around Chokoloskee the wind was hitting us sideways which was far less exhausting and we made it to the livery before dark. We got in the Mini Cooper and headed to a bridge where I fished for a little bit as the sun set. I caught a few hardhead catfish and tossed them back. Kristen got a really cool photo of the sunset in the meantime.

 We had been told that there was a place to camp at Bear Lake if we took a gravel road 839 for 20 miles through Big Cypress. I was also excited for this because I always wanted to night cruise backwoods roads in the Everglades to look for snakes. So we took off down the road and it didn’t take long to find lots of frogs. Then after a few false snakes in the form of shadows, sticks or garbage Kristen said she saw a snake moving so we stopped quickly and I jumped out to see what it was! Sure enough it was a snake! And not just any snake, one of the coolest snakes in the states! A Scarlet Snake!!! First one I’ve ever seen! This beautiful little guy is a mimic of the venomous Coral Snake that also lives in Florida, but it’s not a perfect mimic. Coral Snakes and Scarlet Snakes both have alternating rings of red, yellow and black but only the Coral Snake has yellow stripes touching the red stripes. A Coral Snake’s rings also go all the way around its belly but Scarlet Snakes have a white belly. Though you should probably just not touch any snake you can’t identify.


  Notice the white belly

  I was pretty excited. Croc Hunter wannabe.

As we were stopped holding the snake a car drove up and asked if we needed any help, and I said nope just looking for snakes and showed him the critter. The man said, “Ohhh!” In a slightly disgusted tone and quickly drove off. After some glamour shots I moved the little guy out of the road so it won’t be run over by another car.

We continued looking for snakes and other critters on our drive but just kept seeing frogs and about a dozen opposums. That was until we saw some large green eyes reflect just up the road. At the same time we said whoa did you see that?! That looked different from the opposums so we raced up to try and see it closer. As we did we see the occasional eye shine again! Holy shit. It’s a Florida Panther we both say. We’d been seeing panther crossing signs all over Big Cypress and now we were behind one of the endangered Eastern Mountain Lions. We sped up to try and get a good look but it matched our speed. We were so amped up about seeing one but somehow after 5 minutes of going 40 mph it was still ahead of us occasionally seeing the eye shine! It was like trying to catch a legendary Pokemon but in real life. Eventually we got closer to the shine and our excitement turned to disbelief. The eyes shine was just lights from a distant elevated highway… Allowing brief views of two headlights that looked to us like a cats eyes. We had a real good laugh at ourselves. We were so sure we were afternoon a panther. I’ll tell you what though, the adrenaline and excitement of the chase was so real. We had a blast anyway.

Just before we made it to the campsite we saw some orange eyes reflecting on the road that also didn’t look like an opossum. As we got closer we saw a big 8 foot or so alligator crossing the road!! I hopped out to get a closer look and to see what it would do. He stayed still until I was about 15 feet away and then he let out a big loud hiss to warn me. I took a couple pictures of him and then he was done and launched himself into the brush creating a loud thrashing noise so we ran back to the car with adrenaline pumping. I love alligators!!! They’re so cool! IMG_5024Hissy face

We made it to our campsite and drank one of our homemade Nut Brown Ales to celebrate New Years and hit the hay as the rednecks in their RV fought the next campsite over. What a long and eventful day.
January 1st

We woke up at sunrise and got back to our canoe in the early morning. The bay this time was dead calm. It made for some beautiful and quiet paddling. IMG_5040Our first destination was a small group of keys a mile or two away. Once we arrived we tied the canoe to a mangrove tree and explored the small jagged patch of land. Many pelicans inhabited the trees on the island and big fish were jumping all around it so I started to fish, but to no avail.


Next we went to check out a neighboring key that was completely covered in mangrove trees. When we arrived the whole island was made of oyster and whelk shells and it was a tangle of mangrove roots but still open enough to walk around. However after about 1 minute an absolute swarm of mosquitos descended on us. How are they even alive on this saltwater, windy island?! We didn’t stay long. IMG_5055
After we had our fill of canoeing we paddled back to the livery and prepared to go to Fakahatchee strand, a bald cypress and Royal Palm swamp that a ranger told us to check out. As we were leaving Everglades City we saw an Osprey on it’s nest and I had to get a picture of it. Then as I was taking pictures the male swooped down and landed on the female! They weren’t mating, he just stood on her!

 Screaming into the air

 Their facial expressions are great.

 This is the guy about to fly off of her. She so pissed looking.

The Fakahatchee strand natural preserve has a 2000 foot long boardwalk through the swamp and allows some good looks at Royal Palm trees in their natural habitat, air plants, and some big cypress. Saw some turtles and a gator as well!

Royal Palm   One hell of a big, flat spiderIMG_5082Brown Anoles are everywhere in Florida. They were introduced from Cuba and are now out competing our native Green Anole.

We then made our way to Everglades East with the plan to backcountry camp there. On the way to the visitor center we drove through lots of farmland and plant nurseries. There were many dragonfruit plantations which were cool to see. The dragon fruit grows on a vining cactus. A strange plant indeed. When we arrived at the park entrance we talked to the ranger there and told him we still had our back country permit and that it was good for another six days. For $2 each we were allowed to camp in a backcountry campground that was down an abandon road about 6 miles of walking. The man told us, “You know it’s SIX miles, it’s a pretty tough hike.” Yea like 6 miles on an old road with no elevation gain will be hard we joked together. We’re no soft city tourists! We started driving the Mini, which is now a dirty hiker mobile, down the decrepit roads in the backcountry of the Everglades and accidentally slammed into a big pothole. After checking for leaking fluids revealed no injuries we kept on until we reached a gate and double checked that it was the right spot to park the car.

 Action couple Mini Cooper

We began our 6 mile walk to our campsite in the late afternoon and found lots of cool invertebrates and vertebrae along the trail. Lots of vertebrae from larges snake skeletons which I’d guess are the invasive Burmese Pythons that the park is trying to eradicate. Deer flies started to become a nuisance as we walked along the 20 foot wide strip of old, crumbling pavement with the infinite swamp to our left and a deep pool and then Everglades to our right where alligator slides were everywhere in the grasses. The ever present fire anthills towered up out of cracks in the pavement as well. Surprisingly the bugs weren’t too bad yet as we could see lots of dragonflies and damselflies literally snatching up the deer flies before our very eyes and devouring them on nearby leaves within seconds. We have our own little Air Force!

 Snake bones

  Real cool snails on the trees!  The Bella Moth.
 Huge hairy orb weaver

The views with the sun getting low were amazing. There’s just something about being able to see to the horizon, unobstructed by and trees or buildings that makes me happy. I daydream about walking across flat deserts to the distant mountain ranges at the horizon. As we were walking along we passed right by a cute little 3-4 foot gator just laying in the grass on the roadside and I took some pictures before he slowly crawled into the deeper water and swam into the reeds. img_1680Killer viewsIMG_5091

 Gator friend!

We walked to where we thought our campsite was supposed to be and all we noticed was a small patch of grass on the left side of the road just large enough for maybe two tents and thought no way is this a campsite. Just as we walked up to it I saw a HUGE cottonmouth on this little path of grass! It opened its mouth wide and hisses really loud and before I could even get my camera in my hands it launched into the thick grass. How cool was that?! That’s the first one I’d ever seen in the wild. Well I guess we’re camping at cottonmouth campsite? We convinced ourselves that this could not possibly be the right spot so we walked on just until it started getting dark and then we ended up walking through water and muck in a dark forest of some sort and decided to head back towards the grass patch or to just set up wherever it was flat. As we were walking back the mosquitoes came out in full force since the dragonflies and friends went to sleep. Kristen was bitten so much that her body had a reaction to all the mosquito saliva in her and her arm swelled up and she felt ill. Each bite was leaving lemon sized raised area. We set up our tent right in the middle of the road and climbed in quickly. Once again the mosquitoes poured in after us. Once we killed all of them we went to sleep to the sounds of gators splashing a few feet away in the deep water and the buzz of the skeets. A few times during the night we woke up to the sound of something sloshing up out of the water and then walking in the grass around us. Hard not to think about gators all night! But of course they left us alone. IMG_5095Swamp sunset

January 2nd

We woke up to some crazy chattering noises in the nearby shrubs and finally it was revealed that a flock of birds were the culprit. We got out of the tent expecting to be swarmed by the mosquitos but they weren’t too bad. Maybe they know the dragonflies will wipe them out in the daytime. This time however the deer flies were not stopped by the dragonflies. We saw some getting snatched up and eaten but there were just too many and we were swarmed. Deer flies really like hair, I assume since humans aren’t their usual food source they are just tuned into locating and burrowing into any hairy animal to get at some blood. They rarely try other parts of your body, but I found out if I put out my hand they’d occasionally land on it and I sent them straight to hell with a smack from my other hand. They are fast but are pretty easy to kill once they’ve landed. But with four or five of these little bastards orbiting your head and burrowing through your hair you just end up smacking yourself in the head a lot and pulling out little pieces of flies. After about an hour of suffering through this we decided their quick deaths were too good for them and I devised a plan to deal with two pests at once. I smacked the flies with not enough force to kill them but for me to be able to grab one and then I kicked open a fire ant nest and threw the tribute on to the boiling pile of ants that emerged. They blamed the fly for the nest break in and punished it accordingly. I’m not a mad man I swear! You’d do the same if you knew what it was like!

 Swamp sunrise

When we finally made it back to the Mini we threw our stuff in and got in as fast as we could but some deer flies followed us in. We drove away from there with haste and went towards a hiking trail through some pines and prairies we saw on a map yesterday. We got out to see how bad the bugs were there and after a few minutes of no attacks we decided the hike was worthwhile. It was a beautiful place and there was nobody else around. Just us, birds and lots of wildflowers.

  No idea what this cool flower is

A yellow flax!

Sabatia  A nightshade

After we had our fill of flowers and fields we got in the car and headed for the Florida Keys! Key Largo in particular as we knew camping was available at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. When we arrived there a big green iguana walked past the car and greeted us. These huge lizards were also brought in from South America and have established populations in south Florida. IMG_5098

Once we were in the park we went straight to the beach that we had been fantasizing about after our mosquito attacks. I remember visiting here as a kid with my family and being disappointed that there were no waves to ride and the beaches were all coral covered and hurt to walk on. This memory was just about spot on. We were still going to have fun anyway!

We set up under a palm tree and hopped into the water. It was just the right temperature. It didn’t take long to notice that the ground had lots of upside down jellyfish pulsing away. I remembered seeing these as a kid too and thought that they couldn’t sting you but I tried not stepping in them anyway just in case. As it turns out we stepped on plenty by accident and they didn’t no harm but felt rather squishy as you’d imagine.

We swam a couple hundred feet to where coral rocks come up out of the water and some people were standing around and they said they saw an octopus! Sure enough two octopuses not much bigger than your hand were creeping around the coral and plants catching little fish! I remembered my GoPro was in the car and I jumped back in the water and swam as fast as I could to go get it and swim back before they left! When I got back the little critters were still poking around and I was able to get some real nice video of them! You could get very close to them before they moved away from you. Although you can’t see real well in the videos the octopus would turn this bright blue color when they stretched out into an umbrella shape! What a cool experience! Other than the octopuses there were some small barracuda and little colorful fish around. At one point we even saw one of the barracuda catch and eat one of these poor fellas!

We decided to go on some little hiking trails in the state park as well and learned quite a bit about the local native plants here thanks to some signs explaining what trees were what. I wanted to find some scorpions or other cool things so I flipped over a bunch of rocks and logs but only found snails and a bunch of these really cool millipedes.

 Apparently this species has recently invaded the keys and south Florida from other islands in the Bahamas, but they do little harm and only eat rotting vegetation.

Once we had our fill we packed up and left because there was no place to stay in the keys that didn’t cost a fortune. We booked a hotel online in Lantana, Fl as we began heading up north. We figured we’d seen lots of southern Florida’s wilds and we’re ready to escape the evil bugs. We promised ourselves another beach day tomorrow but it was too cold up in Jacksonville where we were going to stay the next night at Kristen’s sisters place again but they’d be home this time. When we got to Lantana we hit up an Outback Steakhouse and gorged on a bloomin onion and other goodies. Then we went to the store to buy more food. Then we finally made it to our Motel 6. It was in a pretty sketchy area. A dude loitering at a decrepit gas station in the area earlier was shouting at us that,”He had good weed!!!” Didn’t need any. The motel room had a smoky smell and we laughed at the deep cigarette burns in both of our beds even though this was supposedly a no smoking room. We showered our stank off, drank some alcoholic root beers and watched cops. Felt great.

January 3rd

We woke up, packed up and headed to the nearest public beach. Luckily for us it was just a few miles away and had ample parking. The area was really nice, a beautiful pale blue ocean with soft white sand. Now this is what I think of when I think of Florida beaches! We swarm around for a little while and picked up seashells. I went fishing in the surf for a bit and caught some pretty cool looking fish! I’ve always loved surf fishing. It’s what we always did on vacation in Hilton Head, SC or the outer banks, NC. Usually we’d just catch stingrays and sharks but here it was snapper!

While we tanned on the beach the tide was coming in and I warned that we should move our stuff before a wave soaks us unexpectedly. Of course we didn’t and 15 minutes later a big wave snuck up on us and swept all of our things up into a mixture of water and sand… Including Kristen’s poor new iPhone 6. After we found it under some sand and towels it miraculously had no apparent damage other than all of its ports being filled with sand which was easily removed.

In the afternoon we started our several hour drive north to Jacksonville. When we arrived we met Kristen’s sister and husband as well as their little 1 year old. The kid can’t talk yet but knows sign language to let you know when she’s thirsty or hungry or finished! Smart kid! I want to teach that to my kids someday! We eat a delicious meal and talk until it’s bedtime. We looked at what cool natural areas are on our way back to West Virginia and see that Congaree National Park is right on the way! I’d never even heard of the place but after reading about it, it didn’t take long to convince us was going to be cool. In the morning, to Congaree!

January 4th

We woke up and began our 5 hour drive to Congaree National Park.

Congaree is a huge floodplain forest with some of the largest trees in the Eastern U.S. This park also holds the largest known individual trees of about a dozen different species. Trees in the east don’t get nearly as tall as those in the west but these are still mighty too look at. Among the huge trees are the tallest known sweetgum (157 feet), a cherrybark oak (154), an American elm (135), a swamp chestnut oak (133), an overcup oak (131), a common persimmon (127), and a laurel oak (125) and the tallest known loblolly pine at 169 feet! Also fun fact, loblolly pine has genome size of 20.15 billion base pairs, that means this pine tree has 7 times as much genetic information in it than a human does!

We got to Congaree in the afternoon and walked around in the pine forest that was near the visitor center for a few hours looking for critters under logs. I figured there would be lots of cool salamanders in this area because of the swampy areas near the boardwalk and the vernal pools of water randomly in the forest. Too small and isolated for any kind of fish which may eat their young. So these sort of habitats are just what salamanders need to breed in! First log I flipped over and low and behold a real nice Slimy Salamander! These guys don’t actually lay their eggs in water but still appreciate the moisture in this damp forest. We found a couple more slimy salamanders as we walked around and I said I bet that there are marbled salamanders here from what I know about what they like but I’ve yet to ever see one. So I really wanted to find one.img_1391

Slimy Salamander

Under a dead pine tree Kristen found what at first she thought was a weird looking salamander but after further inspection she had found a ground skink all curled up for the cold weather. After a few photo-shoots of this little guy we put it back right up against the bark it was laying on.img_1414

Ground Skink
I did manage to find a critter I’ve always wanted to see under the bark of a downed log, in fact I found two bombardier beetles! These beetles are extremely special. They have a unique defensive mechanism where they spray a mixture of hydroquinone and hydrogen peroxide into a chamber in their abdomen, which react with each other to create a boiling hot gas that they can aim at an attacker and burn them to death or seriously change their mind about trying to eat another bombardier beetle! I poked around at this little guy go see if it would spray and it sure did! It let out several blasts with a very audible, “pshhht!” How freaking cool?!
Soon it started getting dark and pretty cold as well! We saw on the forecast it was going to get to about 27 degrees tonight. A big switch from the 80 degree nights in the Everglades just a few days ago! We was on our rudimentary map that there was a campsite we could teach in a few minutes so we walked that way. On the way we came across a Carolina jasmine plant still blooming from the warm spell we’ve had! The smell of the flower was intoxicating. Everything was brown and dead and here is this deliciously smelling yellow flower blooming. We made it to the campsite just as the sun set and put up our tent. Once we were settled in we decided to play the Appalachian Trail board game that Kristen got for Christmas. It seems to be geared towards younger crowds or at least people unfamiliar with hiking culture but it was still fun to play! We had some good laughs over the game. It also had lots of cards where you had to identify a plant or animal you could encounter along the trail which was a good exercise for those unfamiliar with the animals. I also was able to get in touch with my friend Nicole who lives in Asheville and she said we could come visit and stay with her a night a couple days from now! Kristen has never been there and always hears people talking about it so we decided that we would go there on the way back north. We also called the Great Smoky Mountains park and reserved Ice water Spring shelter on the AT for the night of the 7th for a few dollars.
January 5th
It sure did get cold last night. Since we didn’t plan for any nights in the cold we didn’t have that many warm layers but we still managed just fine. We walked on the trail back to the visitor center as it opened. In there we watched a movie about how the park came to be and checked out the displays. It looks like it will be a killer place to kayak or canoe in the spring or summer time although mosquitoes can apparently become a major problem.img_1385
We then we went outside to walk on the nearby boardwalk to see a bunch of the big trees that it passes but we were also warned that since it had been raining a lot recently the whole floodplain was under water and some of the boardwalk was as well. After a few minutes walk we found the end of one of the boardwalk paths disappear into the water! All the tree species here are used to this happening several times a year and I was amazed that their roots can survive that long saturated. These flooding event are the reason why these trees can get so large because fresh nutrient rich sediment is left behind with each receding flood.img_1447
Once the boardwalk ended we walked around on a dirt road that after about a quarter of a mile also ended into the water. Around here I flipped a cut log and there was a beautiful fat Marbled Salamander! These cool amphibians need to breed in water and are also pretty tolerant of colder temperatures compared to other cold blooded animals. Their coloration is also something to marvel at. It always amazes me how normally drab colors look so beautiful when they are in certain patterns on a thing.img_1497
Marbled Salamander
While looking for more salamanders we came across a Bess Beetle colony in a rotten log. Bess Beetles are large, tough looking beetles with a gentle nature. They live in family units where the adults dig tunnels and chew up wood for their young to eat. Bacteria decompose the chewed wood into a food that the larva can consume. They also are capable of making a dozen different squeaking noises which use to communicate with each other! So if you ever see some of these guys, check them out! If you pick up they will make squeaks at you. Just make sure to put them back on the log the came from, their babies depend on them!img_1503
Bess beetles!

Once we had our fill of Congaree we decided to head 4 hours to Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina for our next adventure. I was actually there just a few months ago over the summer for Buzz Lightyear’s (Jon) bachelor party. We had an absolute blast. Hiking, swimming in waterfalls, beer games, telling stories of our boy scout shenanigans. We went to the visitor center first in Pisgah to see what trails were around and which ones we could back country camp on. We decided that John Rock would be a nice hike and we’d arrive at the top just as it would get dark. Camping permits were about $4 each I think. Kristen bought a cute raccoon novelty hat from the gift shop to keep her head warm for the forecasted 14 degree night.

As soon as we started walking it was clear it had been much colder here than it was in South Carolina. There was needle ice poking up in cool formations on the side of the trail and little creeks were partly frozen. The trail was quite steep and it didn’t take long to get very sweaty even though it was about freezing out. Once we made it to where there were lookouts the sun had just set and made for some beautiful pictures of icy rock faces. A short distance farther up the hill we found a great campsite with a fire ring already set up. Kristen set up the tent and I gathered fire wood for what we knew was going to be a cold night. We were able to get a real good hot fire going and we heated up our McDonalds burgers and McChickens by the fire while drinking one of our home brewed beers. What a relaxing evening!
January 6th
Last night was COLD. Kristen woke up at one point worried that she was getting so cold she couldn’t warm back up. But after rearranging all our blankets and sleeping bags we got comfy again and fell back to sleep. In the morning the ground had frozen solid again and fresh ice formations were on the ground and in moist places.img_1517
img_1507Turkey Tail still looking good!
On our hike down my feet were freezing in my Brooks’s cascadias. These shoes are great in hot deserts, not so great in bitter cold. They finally warned up the more we walked. About a mile before we got back to the parking lot we heard a rushing noise and notice a part of the forest that was really white colored in the tree tops. A waterfall! We jogged down a side trail to check out this great big waterfall that had been spraying mist which froze to all the nearby rocks and trees in the area making for a mystical site. We looked at all the cool ice formations and icicles in the area for awhile and then made our way back to the parking lot and car.
Asheville is a quick drive from Pisgah and we get into the city and head for a coffee shop. Later we kill time eating at a local curry spot and have a beer because Nicole doesn’t get done working until later in the day. We bought more groceries for the last few days of our trip and then made it to Nicole’s. Her house is on a steep hill in the mountains and has a big silver maple growing right through the roof of her porch! I haven’t seen her in a few years and we all catch up over some local beers. Later we go to a real nice restaurant and drink huge margaritas, buy some lotto tickets since the powerball jackpot is enormous and talk about what we’d all do if we ever had that much money. Next we end up playing a game of thrones themes monopoly and drinking some more. It’s a great night of laughing and hanging out.
January 7th
We got up, enjoyed some coffee and then headed to our next destination… the Great Smoky Mountains National Park! A 2 hour drive later and we arrived at Newfound Gap and decided to do some day hiking around the park before  the AT to our shelter. We drove down the road a bit to the trail head for Chimney Top. I hiked up it almost exactly a year ago when a bunch of friends and I rented a cabin in Gatlinburg over New years. It is a busy trail with lots of people walking the several mile route up the steep trail. It is also a beautiful day with sun peaking through and mild daytime temperatures. We rocket past people who are huffing and puffing their way up the climb and look for critters under rocks and logs along the way but it seems to be way too cold for anything to be out. Even the ground under logs is icy. At the top of the hike the trail gives way to the “Chimney Tops,” a rocky, steep scramble to the top of a treeless lookout. We eat lunch and talk to a ranger just before the steep climb. Turns out the ranger knows our professor and several graduate students we’ve both worked with! Small world.
Last time I hiked up to this point and decided not to go all the way to the top, the steep rocks were slippery and too sketchy for me, but after sitting for a bit I decided to go for it and made the final scramble to the top where lots of people were eating and taking pictures. A great view for the smokies! IMG_5116
We ran back down most of the way and ate more at the car before we drove back up to Newfound Gap to start our 3 mile hike on the AT to our shelter. Once on the trail it got cloudy and chilly again but the forest was moist and full of cool mosses and ferns. We split up and took our time meandering up the trail. I took a bunch of pictures of the greenery. Once we made it to the shelter we gave ourselves a few hours to gather firewood for the night since our shelter had a fireplace in it and a tarp blocking the wind and rain. there was also a lot of wood already in the shelter from past hikers so we were set for a big fire for another cold night. We got the fire lit and played another round of the Appalachian Trail Game until it got too dark to do so.

The orange “moss” in the last picture is actually an Alga! Trentepohlia spp.
Just after sunset a couple of hikers walked in to the shelter. A guy about 20 years old and a girl in maybe her late thirties slowly thru hiking the AT this year, about 7 miles a day with big packs in the middle of winter! This didn’t seem unusual to them however as they were very cheerful and having a blast their first few weeks. Props to them! We chatted with the two of them for an hour or two talking about hiking life and happiness. Turns out the guy used to date this lady’s teenage daughter and then they left to thru hike for as long as they want! Rough life for the daughter. Getting dumped for your mom and then they leave together. But hey, I’m not judging, they seem genuinely happy and were a fun group of people to talk to. We fall asleep with a raging fire and actually stay warm all night.
January 8th
We get up as it gets light out and wish our fellow hikers happy trails. We walk our 3 miles back in a wintery mixture of snow, sleet and rain. The trail is slushy and we want to get to the car before the steep road starts to get slippery. Its a nice morning walk. Morning will always be my favorite time of day to hike. Even in this cold snowy wintery place Dark -eyed Juncos are hopping around in the twilight in little groups. “Its a junco party!” Kristen declares. We get back to the car and then drive through the rest of the park and see some big beautiful turkeys on the road. I get a few pictures of them and then we make the long 7 hour drive home to Morgantown, West Virginia. Take me home, country roads.
Thanks for reading this long post! I figured a broken down road trip might be a fun post and I want to inspire some people to take road trips of their own. The freedom of changing plans at the drop of a hat makes for an exciting trip, and if you’re in to camping the cost to stay anywhere is extremely cheap. The most expensive part of most trips is lodging so if you carry your own home with you, you can make for a long, fun road trip. The night in a Motel 6 cost almost twice as much as all of the other nights combined! Always ask if you can back country camp in national parks or forests, its extremely cheap and you’re in nature compared to the packed, dirty established campsites. I’ll be thru hiking the Colorado Trail June 29th-July 21 so I may do a daily blog then! Until next time, Woody out!

Day 34. Done! Oh Arizona, it’s Been Real.


Mile 773 to 801. 2 miles on highway 89, 28 on trail. 30 miles. 

Woke up early and was out of my room and waking down highway 89 at 6:10. 2 mile a road walk to the AZT trailhead. It was very cold. Maybe upper teens? My hands and face were painfully cold and as I walked, moisture from my breath collected on my mustache and froze into little ice balls that I occasionally picked off.   


The morning finally warmed up a bit as the sun rose among the ponderosa pines. I was just smashing the miles again. Another flat day for the finale. I walked down a wash for most of the morning and it finally opened up into a sagebrush flat with a view of the vermillion cliffs off in the distance. That is Utah! I can see the end!  

  Original gangster trans fat

Original gangster saturated fat

Oh my god cholesterol!!!

 Utah in the distance!

For the rest of the day these beautiful rocks got closer and closer. I thought the AZT ended in some scrubby desert in the middle of nowhere. But the trail began to head down a hill and then some switchbacks with an insane view of the beautiful vermillion cliffs the whole way. It was so beautiful. Birds were chirping and the wind had stopped. It was dead still and I was in awe of the last of the AZT.  


As I made it to the terminus I looked around for a monument like the mexican border one but never saw one! Maybe I’m an idiot but I didn’t find one. As soon as I reached the parking lot I heard someone say, “Woody!?” It’s Coughee! He’s been hiking around the area and says its just insane everywhere. I got to the terminus much faster than I had expected. I told Coughee I’d be there 4-5 PM so I was surprised to see him when I got there at 2 PM. 30 miles by 2. The last half of the trail is a moving sidewalk. I’m done! I can’t believe it! It seems so long ago I started but at the same time not. The terrain was so different along the way that it seemed I was in totally different places than just Arizona. 34 days. 1 day faster than my goal, but since I had to skip the snowy area on the north rim I was spot on with my goal. 
We’re heading over to Zion national park to meet up with Twinkle, Rice Krispies, Big Sauce and Guthrie who we hike the PCT with last year. A bunch of them are doing a 100 k race tomorrow. As we pay the fee to get into Zion we have no idea what we’re about to drive through. The place is just out of this world. Massive pink and red monoliths, thousands of feet high. It’s like a gigantic red Yosemite valley. I had no idea this place existed. I have to get back here some day just for this park. Coughee and me both just looked out the windows with our mouths agape. The layered rock was decorated and had pines growing very sparsely among the cracks in the cliffs. It’s a park like no other.   


Meet up with our buddies at a sick campsite in BLM land next to a river lined with cottonwoods and surrounded by beautiful mesas. What a way to end this trip!

 Left to right: Coughee, Guthrie, Big Sauce, Twinkle, Me, and Rice Krispies.

Thanks so much for following along with my adventure! There will surely be more to come. If anyone has any questions about the AZT please feel free to ask me on this site or by emailing me at mberger3@mix.wvu.edu

Day 28. Fresh Prints of El Bear and Attempt to Summit Humphreys Peak.

Miles. 10. Some on AZT some off.
We slept in until about 7:30 because it was really cold and I wanted to wait for the sun to warm the area. It sure did get very cold last night. Enough to completely freeze the top of a small pond that was liquid last night. I stayed pretty warm until about 4 AM when I started getting chilly even with all of my clothing on.  

 Oh the aspen.

We ate breakfast pretty quick, jammed in the Guthmobile and drove to the trailhead. It is about a 9 mile hike one way to the summit of Humphreys Peak at 12,637 feet. We leave all our camping gear and only take cameras, food and water so we can cruise up the mountain. It’s easy hiking up the trail almost all the way until we hit snow. In the first large patches of snow we see some relatively fresh paw prints from a very large black bear! 


We get to a trail register and were only the second group to hike this trail this year. The last group was back in mid February. Then the trail gradually becomes completely snow covered, occasionally snow free on the south facing parts of the tail. The whole area is covered in many feet of snow. It’s early in the morning so it’s hard and crunchy so we can walk on it like a smooth rock free path. Hopefully it won’t get all soft and become posthole city like the Sierra Nevada did in the afternoon on the PCT. 


As were walking on the snow we hear a loud fluttering sound and in a tree is a big dusky grouse! Also called a blue grouse, they live on the north rim of the Grand Canyon and were introduced into the San Francisco Peaks back in the 70s! Apparently that was a success because they’re still here! And beautiful birds! This guy was flaunting his tail feathers and stayed put so I could take lots of pictures! 


We finally get up to the saddle that looks down into the eroded caldera of the stratovolcano that is the San Francisco Peaks and the views are amazing. It’s looks just like the Sierra Nevada on the PCT except instead of being a chain of mountains, it’s a ring of mountain peaks with lots of tiny volcanic hills off in the distance. You can also see flagstaff way down there, pretty small city really!  


The saddle is mostly open and free of snow in an area where we take lots of pictures and eat some food. It’s also covered in Rocky Mountain bristlecone pines! A distinct population, the only one in Arizona, the next closest place they grow is hundred of miles away in central Colorado! I always wonder how the hell such populations of alpine plants get so far apart. Maybe they grew everywhere In between during the ice age and got stranded at colder areas as the world warmed up? Or by some miracle the seeds got carried hundreds and hundreds of miles by some extremely serious wind, or a very alpine loving seed carrying bird that didn’t feel like eating the seeds but dropped them 500 miles later? Sure pine seeds have a little wing on them so they flutter around in the wind but they’re really a short distance dispersal kind of seed. Anyway, somehow they’re here and it’s amazing!  


We start walking across the mountains towards the peak and it didn’t take too long to figure out this was not looking very safe. The trail is buried in 6-8 feet of snow in some areas and it is crazy steep snow. Almost sheer drop. One slip and you’re sliding down the mountain a slamming into trees on the way down. There’s no way you could stop yourself. A little farther and we can see where a recent avalanche has plowed through some sorry looking trees. The trail goes right thorough this avalanche chute. On top of this the snow has a crust about half an inch thick and underneath it’s all dry powder for feet. I can stick my trekking pole all the way down until it’s buried with little resistance. This seems avalanchey to me. Easily moved powder feet deep. We unanimously agree not to keep going towards the peak. We really all want to be on the highest mountain in Arizona but we don’t feel like risking ourselves to do it. We made it up to 11,000 feet and got some killer views so we are satisfied! It’s okay to turn around. We eat a bunch of food and hang out at the saddle for an hour or so.  

 Avalanche wiped out some trees down thar.  

That sign be buried! 


 The snow is deep and steep! 


We head down the mountain and are postholing regularly but nothing as bad as the PCT. The snow has all become soft and it takes much more energy to walk on. We pass where the grouse was and he’s still flaunting sassily in his tree. We make it down the mountain with soaking wet feet and pass a few day hikers near the bottom of the trail. We cram into Guthrie’s car and head into town for a celebratory feast at McDonalds. Big Mac, 2 pies and an ice cream cone for me! Guthrie takes off to find a place to camp and Michael and me hit up the grocery store. I get a dozen eggs and an angel food cake. We book a room back at the Motel DuBeau after the Grand Canyon hostel messed our reservation up. I eat more than half the angel food cake and write this! What a kick ass day! ALSO! My amigo Coughee may be coming around soon to hike the Grand Canyon with me! Hell yea!  


Day 20. To Pine!

Mile 434 to 464. 30 trail miles plus 1 more to Pine on highway 87. 

I dreamt about eating a cheeseburger and fries covered in malt vinegar. I’ve been craving malt vinegar so much lately. What a weird thing to crave right? It got quite breezy during the night but other than that it was a good nights sleep. I’m sleeping better almost every night out here which is nice! Not to mention I go to sleep at 7 pm and wake up at 6 am! 11 hours of sleep every night! It’s really the best. I love mornings, it’s cool out, you can walk fast without getting too hot and I just like the light. At home I never see the sun rise. I’d usually sleep in until 11 am at least every day and stay awake until 2 or 3 am. Out here I’m back in the natural human cycle be awake during daylight and sleep when it’s dark.  


Hit the trail at 6:30 and had a fairly large and frustrating downhill that was steep, rocky and overgrown with thorny plants again. Lucky this was only a couple miles. The trail then hit the East Verde River, the largest river I’ve seen yet in Arizona. It was possible to not get my feet wet with a lucky trekking pole vault into a rock and to the other side where there was a peppermint plant growing on the bank! Smelled so good. 
   Came across this horse near the river. He smelled really bad and started following me for a bit. 


Then the trail went steeply up towards a mesa that I’d be on much of the day. It looked like beautiful walking looking at the topographic map, smooth very slowly climbing almost all day. The trail disappeared into a scree field at one point and I just could not find any cairns so I pulled out my GPS app that had been spot on every time about where the trail was in relation to where I was… until now. According to the GPS this is the trail!  

 The trail? Probably not.

I finally figured it out after climbing up this mountain thingy and saw the trail off to the east. At the top of the climb the trail did indeed become a wonderfully flat open area for miles and miles! Also cows were everywhere and they make their own trails. A lot more cows hike the AZT than backpackers do so they’re the ones keeping the trail looking trail like, trampling down the plants that grow on the trail to make it visible. The downside to this is cows also like to go wherever the hell the want. So there are all kinds of trails all equally worn going in all directions. The AZT trail builders solved this problem by building cairns to mark the trail. There have been cairns in other sections here and there but they did a marvelous job in this section with cairn building. You can almost always see the next one in the distance so you can ignore the cow trails going all over. Just keep finding the cairns! A bad part about this section however is its just all rocks. The trail is flat elevation wise but it’s rocksss. Rocks the size of softballs, but sharp and jagged. Ankle twisters and balance killers.  

  Nice Mesa!  A cairn made with weird rocks.  

The rocks. Worse than Rocksylvania! Just not as long.

Later in the day the trail got steep for a mile or two and once again all rocks! You could still make good time but I could feel blisters starting to form on my heels from not being able to get a solid foothold on a rock, as it rolled underneath my foot would smack the ground or other rocks and this constant beating did finally give me my first blisters of the trail. They’re pretty small, but still unwelcome.  

 This steep scree field IS the trail. It’s like this for a good long climb.

Almost all of the final 12 miles in passage 26 were on roads. After the Mazatzal area I was perfectly fine with this. Wide open and flat, no thorns near me. I crushed these final miles to Pine, listening to Gustav Holst’s “Mars” which seemed so appropriate with the red rocky plains all around. 
   That’s some good camouflage!

They puff up to look bigger when you pick them up. They don’t even run! He just let me pick him right up off the rock!   Easter chocolate or dried mud?

 This is one of those moments that I truly love. Maybe just leaves to you, but I immediately recognized these leaves as a Mertensia species, often called bluebells. I have some I grew from seeds at my house in Ohio and when you care for a plant from seed to  flower you really know it! Sure enough a few hundred feet later I saw a blooming bluebell plant. The thing is they’re never really common, and these two species are in opposite habitats on different sides of the country! I love it!

 I made it to the highway at 4:30 and began the 1 mile walk to THAT Brewery whom I called earlier and booked the last cabin they had for the night! I tried hitching the mile walk but had no takers even though about 30 cars passed me. When I got to the brewery I payed for my room, just $35 a night on weeknights! It’s got just about everything I want like a TV with cable, shower, AC, queen bed, microwave, fridge and all the normal hotel stuff! Plus it’s 50 feet from a BREWERY. I took a shower and then went right for the food they brewery serves. Got a burger with fries which I covered with malt vinegar. My dream realized. Also got their signature beer and it was good! And just $3! This place rules! Zero tomorrow. 🙂

 If I didn’t have toenails this would have hurt.

Day 13. Angry at Quail.

Mile 265 to 302. 37 miles.
It rained on and off all night and I decided to get up even earlier today, before it was even light out. It stayed warm during the night because of cloud cover and because this is the lowest point on the AZT. I was damp all night but slept okay. I ate and packed up my soaking wet gear and was on trail by 6:15.
The first few hours of the morning it was pretty rainy, but I could see patches of blue sky around and it was warm so I didn’t mind it at all. You can almost see the plants rejoicing. The saguaros looked a bit inflated and more blue in color when wet. The cholla and hedgehog cacti are full of buds ready to bloom and a species of Tradescantia is blooming away on gravelly hillsides. This was surprising to me because all the Tradescantia species I know from the eastern US like to grow in really damp places like creek beds! 

10418852_10204015651017923_984991197836881798_nhedgehog cactus blooming!

I saw a bunch of vultures hanging out with their pals on some rocks and they’d keep flying away when I got close, only to fly away again when the trail kept leading me to their new spot. We leapfrogged for a mile or two this way. I also kept catching a whiff of dead animals all day. Either there is a lot of dead stuff around or that bird corpse water is sweating out of me.

The sky eventually cleared and it quickly got very hot and humid. It felt like the middle of summer in Ohio! Yet this is winter still. Crazy to think it. Not for long though. 

At mile 15.9 of the passage you can either walk to the Gila River, which is very muddy and brown, for water or walk .3 miles up a wash to Red Mountain Seep, which my water repot says “monitoring bucket full.” I’m imagining a small pail filled with water and bees swarming around it like they seem to do at any source of water. I decided to take a risk and walk up the wash towards the seep.
Then I saw a lady and a kid in the wash! People?! Are they hiking? I said hi and the lady says, “Hi! Oh! Wait, I know you! You’re Sheriff Woody!” That I am! Her trail name is India and she’s out for a hike with her son and husband. She’s been following my pictures on Instagram! Crazy! I actually had this happen once on the PCT last year too! Instagram has power.
I chugged a liter and then took two more from the bucket which is a buried 10 or so gallon bucket with holes drilled in the side so water seeps in and fills it. It is kinda brown and lots of insects are in it but it’s so much nicer than what I’ve seen. Tastes okay too. Almost cold!
I said bye to India and her family as they were southbound on the passage. They also said about 5 people were just ahead of me! And would be zeroing in Superior so I will catch someone finally! 

paloverde tree

As the trail leaves the wash it goes up a long steep hill into magnificent views of what I always imagined Arizona looked like. Big red rock spires and cliffs, blue skies patched with white clouds and full sun. Saguaro all over, paloverde giving me shade. It’s so pretty! I eat lunch in the shade.

 On the ridge there were little pockets of different plant life that get more moisture by being shades much of the day by the tall rock walls and because any rain that hits them goes right down the side to these plants. There was a beautiful red sage plant that grew there as well as miners lettuce! A kind of spring beauty that is edible. I munched a bunch of them down. They were delicious! A lot like spinach, with the same texture and similar taste. 

beautiful red sage species

miners lettuce

The rest of the day seemed to drag on despite being so pretty with big vistas. I just couldn’t go as fast as yesterday due to tougher terrain. The at about 3 pm I looked at my GPS app. 12 miles to go. No, no, no. I should only have like 5 more miles to picket post trail head. I looked back at my databook. Picket post trailhead mile 294.9. Then water report. Mile 301.6. GPS app… Is right. I have an old databook I borrowed. FUCK!!! About 7 miles extra. It will be almost dark if I even make it today. But no, I’m freaking getting to Superior tonight over my dead feet! I let out a loud yell of just the AGHHHHHH feeling and it echoed very nicely throughout the canyon.

I ate a bunch of snickers and rice crispes to fuel me, then downed an instant Starbucks coffee to energize me and I put in my music and took off. Mumbling to myself in frustration and not really listening to the music. I keep it low usually so I can still hear what’s going on around me for example hearing a rattlesnake near me. A few minutes later a group of quail explode into flight a few feet away from me and scare the shit out of me as they often do. “Fuck you guys!” I yell at them. Then I came to the sudden realization that I’m angry at quail. This literally made me laugh out loud. I’m angry at quail. If someone asked you what was a frustrating party of the day for you it’d probably be traffic or work related crap, but here I am, walking through the Arizona wilderness angry that some birds flew up and startled me. This is the shit I have to deal with, and this laughing at myself actually put me back in a good mood. 

I cruised in down the mountain as quickly as I could but my feet were starting to hurt even with ibuprofen. After a few miles I ran into a biker who was heading up the mountain on to take pictures. We chat a minute and then I continue in down.
I run into a Grand Enchantment Trail thru hiker named Hitch about 3 miles from the trailhead and we chat a few minutes. Sounds like another fun trail!
A few miles from the trailhead I try calling the copper village motel a few times with no luck in my shitty sprint service. Then finally about a mile from the trailhead I get 2 bars on an extended network and am able to call and arrange for a pick up in 20 minutes!!! I’m going to be in a bed tonight! And have a shower and watch TV! I’m so excited! And there are other people in town! I’m so tired though I may end up zeroing tomorrow which will mean I’m still a day behind the “pack” of about 5 or 6 people.
John picks me up and takes me to the motel which has very nice rooms and a hiker rate! I take a shower, walk over to the dollar store across the street and buy all kinds of delicious snack and microwaveable food. I binge and watch TV. I stay wide awake until 2 AM because of the caffeine today, feeling like I can’t breathe unless I think about breathing. Told you that stuff messes me up unless I’m moving.

Day 12. The Taste of Death and a Recipe for Miles.

Mile 229 to 265. 36 miles.
Woke up a little earlier around 6 am. I actually slept really well, despite being spooked by the big critter last night. Pretty sure it was a cow. Heard a bunch of poor wills, a great horned owl and a coyote howling.
Hit the trail at 6:40 and wasn’t feeling super good. I had just that liter of dead corpse, killer bee swarming water to drink for the 7.5 miles to the cache that I really hoped had water. About 4 miles of hiking I was getting really thirsty and I had missed a cow pond that was supposedly right on trail. I sure as hell wasn’t walking back to it. I did see a mule deer in that area though, first of many probably. 
So, the liter of water I had. I filtered it with my sawyer squeeze so it should be okay! I won’t get sick, I think. But I was wary of it. Would the filter get any gross taste out? Sure no microbes would be in it but all the filthy dead smell? I’m not sure. So I drank it because I was real thirsty. I downed about third of the liter and I will not soon forget it. It was fucking bird corpse tea that had been brewing in the desert sun. It tasted like a rotting body, just as I feared. The taste stayed in my mouth too. It was REALLY bad water. The worst I’ve ever had to drink. It made my stomach turn and feel bad. I think just because of the flavor and thought of what it was I just drank, not that it was actually going to hurt me. 
So I was very reluctant to drink any more of it. I thought I could make it to the cache without drinking any. It was rough though, I was really thirsty and started getting dizzy and lightheaded by the time I got to the cache. But oh the cache was the turning point today. There was water! Good water! So I filled up my bottles and chugged a liter on site. There really was quite little public water, just a few gallons maybe. Almost all of it there had people’s names on the gallons. I also donated about a pound and a half of snacks that I had way too much of. A bunch of fruit snacks, snickers, etc. 

I don’t know what this bush is but it is one of the best smelling flowers on earth. Like Easter candy or something.Devils claw seed pod! They hook on to the legs of cattle and deer and disperse seds as they walk and it breaks down.

I also put a caffeine crystal lite in my water. Caffeine really hits me hard. I normally can’t drink it without getting jittery or anxious, but if I’m on the move, it really helps. So I look at the map and see that it’s really good terrain for cruising, it’s also really cloudy and cool. This with the caffeine, all the water I need and lots of food make for the perfect recipe for big miles.
So I cruise on out into the flat lands called the tortilla mountains, which as their name implies are about as mountainous as a tortilla. The place was almost dead flat! I was moving nearly 4 mph out there! Listening to Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, MGMT, and other uppity high energy songs also kept my morale high. By noon I had already gone 16.5 miles! I though oh hell I’m going to go over 30 today fo sho. Maybe even make it to the Gila River. 

A parasitic plant in the broomrape family!

a widdle baby saguaro!this is a massive cow killer species. Almost 2 inches long!

The day went by pretty fast and around 4 pm it started raining again. I was up on an exposed ridge for a few miles and was pelted by strong winds and light rain. This lasted about 30 minutes as usual and then the sun even peaked out for just a few! Enough for me to takes some neat photos. At 5 pm I ran into my first and only human of the day. Some guy walking up the mountain with a pistol and a camo fanny pack. 

I made it to the kelvin bride over the Gila River at 6 pm. It’s also where I’m camping tonight because it was getting dark and started raining again. It’s been lightly raining for about an hour now and it’s an easy way out of it. I just hope no hoodlums come down here. 
36 miles in 11 hours and 20 minutes! That’s 3.18 mph for the whole day including breaks! You still got it Woody! Superior tomorrow night if I can pull of 30 miles tomorrow. 
Well exactly what I didn’t want to happen happened. At About 7:30 PM a car with loud music came flying on to the bridge with their brights on, parked on the bridge right over me and the people got out, yelled and started throwing shit into the river and on the ground near where I was trying to sleep. They fucked around about 5 minutes and then did a burnout on the bridge and took off. I’m just glad they didn’t come down under the bridge. I thought for sure they were. 
I said fuck this, packed up all my gear and walked back up the trail a little ways with my headlamp and set up my shelter near he trail. I saw an owl in a tree and man, do their eyes reflect light! 
I hate camping near roads or towns but I’m too tired to keep walking the trail which follows roads through town a few more miles. There is also a very active railroad by the river. Ughhh. I wish I was camping somewhere in the wild. 
It also stopped raining and it looks like it rained enough to soak the ground a bit! Should make for some increased greenery! A little silver lining to the crappy turn of events. Back to sleep for me. 

Day 11. The Marathon Burrito.

Mile 201 to 229. 28 miles.
Woke up and got my stuff packed. Marney came out and asked what I’d like to eat from the Mexican restaurant for breakfast. They told me about a huge breakfast burrito last night so I ordered that. Jim swung by and picked me up to go get the food. We brought it back to the RV and ate in there. This burrito is a monster. It puts chipotle burritos to shame in size. The thing must weigh at least 2 maybe 2 1/2 lbs. I can only eat less than half of it before I’m stuffed so I wrap the rest in foil and save it for he trail. Jim showed me videos of him and his buds rock crawling in their jeeps as we ate. 

We set off for the trailhead. I hit the trail at 7:40 and cruised on through Oracle State Park. Just before the tiger mine trailhead I saw an odd colored lump on the side of the road. It’s a Gila monster! This guy is a little skinnier and smaller than the first but still so cool! 

sweet sweet water cache

I fill up on water at the cache by the trailhead and keep on cruising. I come across a big bunch of people doing trail maintenance and chat with them for a moment and say thanks. Then I take a 20 minute break to finish off that burrito around 11 am. Only a few minutes to gobble the rest and then some time to let it digest so I don’t puke the thing while hiking. 
I thought the walk today would be flat and hot and boring but was I wrong! The black hills are beautiful. Lots of wildflowers everywhere, saguaros here and there and dominated by teddy bear cholla. The walk was mostly rolling hills and it was cloudy most of the day so I didn’t get too hot! Saw some super fast fat little lizards that I haven’t gotten a good look at yet. Too fast to identify!

desert mariposa lilycactus wren nest!

hmmm . Phallic. poppies!

Around 2 pm I was stopped in my tracks by a fat thing moving in my peripheral vision. ANOTHER Gila monster! This guy was less than a foot from the trail in the open digging a little hole out. I didn’t even see it till it moved! They really do have good camouflage for this red rocked desert. I got some great photos and videos of this guy since he was in the open! 

Not 2 minutes after taking pictures of the 3rd Gila monster it started to rain. And it rained pretty hard for about 30 minutes, just enough to moisten the ground but not soak in. It felt very good to cool off and the desert came alive with smells. Smells like rain on asphalt, earthy soil smells, and the smell of all kinds of vegetation. Minty smells, leafy smells, smells I’ve never smelled before. It was really neat! 
After awhile I was running low on water and was pretty sure I was close to beehive springs which is right on trail. I still had a liter left but wanted to save it just in case the place was dry. Once I got to where my data book said it was and I couldn’t see it anywhere I got nervous. I was really thirsty and didn’t want to down the last of my water without finding more. Literally where my book said the water should be there was a cow skeleton with some of the flesh still on. Looks like his data book lied too. To make things more frustrating, the air is filled with little flying aphids. They keep flying into my eyes and dying and I can’t get their little corpses out and I also keep breathing them in and eating them. Come on!!!

Finally I looked at the water report and there was a .9 mile discrepancy in the same water source. Ughh. Had me worried. So I walked to where the water report said the water was and found it! A whole thing filled with water! As I got closer I see why it’s called beehive spring. The place is just swarming with bees trying to get some water. Then I look into the tank. Green, nasty ass water filled with drowning bees and a rotting bird corpse. This is the Arizona Trail water I heard about! I filtered a liter of the water and it actually came out looking nice. Haven’t drank any yet though. 

rotting bird in the water covered with beesbefore filterafter filter

I walked about another half mile to where the trail leaves the wash and set up camp. 28 miles and the only food I ate today was that burrito and donut from circle k. That freaking burrito fueled 28 miles of backpacking. I didn’t even open my food bag until camp was set up. 
I take some pictures of the sunset and now I’m in my shelter. I decided to set it up because it’s still cloudy and I heard it’s supposed to rain tomorrow. 

Not bad right?

As I am writing this entry there is some big ass creature right outside my tarp walking way too close for my comfort and taking in big sniffing noises. It’s freaking me out pretty good. I yelled and shook the tarp and that made it stop moving but I think it’s still around. Please just be a cow. Pleeeease just be a cow. I’m glad I’m in my tarp tonight. Not that a thin wall of fabric is going to save me but it makes you feel better that you’re in here, and it’s out there. Wish I wasn’t alone. 

Day 10. The Oracle Ridge


Mile 179 to 201. 22 miles.
Around 10 PM the wind really started blasting but luckily I was sheltered from most of it by rocks on the prevailing sides. The tree above me though was really moving and making noise. The wind died down around 3 AM and I slept a little better after that. Out here you wake up a lot at night just from sounds or wind and I often check what time it is, hoping it’s almost morning. I mean I sleep almost 12 hours a night every night which is so much more than what my body is used to so by 3 AM I am really just waiting for the sun. I was a bit nervous throughout the night since it was my first night alone and I was cowboy camping in an area I knew had high mountain lion and bear activity, but nothing ever bothered me. 
I hit the trail at 6:50, glad to be back in daylight and cruised up a thousand feet or so into the wilderness of rock trail. It’s a beautiful winding trail through large boulders and rock formations and the area is littered with streams and deep pools of water, all a bit brown from the ponderosa pine’s tannic acid leaching into the water. Still tastes great though! I also saw what I thought might be mountain lion tracks going in the opposite direction of me in the trail that appeared regularly for about a half a mile and then disappeared. 

I got to the trailhead and road that leads into the tiny community of Summerhaven. After a half mile or so of road walking I saw a sign that said PIZZA. Whelp, I want something. I walked up to the Cookie Cabin which is a little bakery that has stuff like cookies of course, pizza, hot dogs, etc. They didn’t open until 10 and it was 9:45 so I chilled on their patio until they opened. I got a bratwurst on a pretzel bun with cheese and onion and a bag of chips for a good price and stuffed my face with the delicious protein. They also let me charge my phone and they even filled my water bottles for me. Very hiker friendly apparently! 

the cookie cabin!

I then kept on walking down the road until it hit the oracle ridge trailhead. From then on out it was a beautiful hike down the ridge with killer views on both sides! Off to the left of the ridge heading north I saw a bunch of buildings and domes and knew just what it was! It’s biosphere 2! The enclosed ecosystem meant to mimic biosphere 1 (the earth) was the site for many different experiments such as extraterrestrial bio domes on other planets and seeing if people could survive cut off from the outside world for 2 years. Very cool, I knew it was somewhere along the AZT.

Coues deer buck just watched me walk by. They’re a tiny white tailed deer subspecies.

now that’s just a good cacti clusterI’m not sure what this shrub is but its flowers are beautiful and are so intensely sweet smelling it’s almost nauseating.

When I was about 5 miles from the American flag trailhead I called Jim and Marney, owners of the Chalet Village Motel in Oracle, who I was told would pick up hikers, take them to post office and then to their motel, and back to the trail the next day! Jim said he would be happy to come get me but that all the rooms were booked, but if I wanted I could camp in their back yard. I said sure! I needed to pick up my box from the post office anyway. 
I got to the trail head and waited for their arrival. Just on time, Jim and Marney pulled up in a jacked up jeep rock crawler and said hop in! They looked like cool people already. They also had an ice cold water bottle still partially frozen waiting for me! They took me to the post office and then to circle K where I bought a pint of half baked Ben and Jerry’s and a big ass donut. Then we went back to their place and they chilled with me in the backyard for a bit. I downed the ice cream and we checked out the hiker box. Lots of goodies here. A few 2 liters that were just opened yesterday and a whole bag of lays potato chips! I sat and had me some purple fanta and listened to Marney tell stories of the javelinas, bobcats and coatimundis that have been in their yard. She has a few horse in a barn right next to us and she rides them on the AZT frequently. She also told of a story where a bear attacked a person in the camp next to her near Kentucky Camp! 
Jim swings by a little later and says he fixed a water leak in their RV if I want to stay in that instead of the yard. Sure! It has a TV, DVD player, shower, heat, a nice bed and everything anyone would need. I charge my stuff and get talking to Jim. He’s all about having fun, he’s obsessed with the sport of rock crawling and he’s got a bunch of friends who do it with him. He’s also got a lot of mechanical experience and his friends all have machine shops. These guys literally machine their own car parts and make crazy modified jeeps for the sole purpose of rock crawling up flowing waterfalls and dry washes. He’s so passionate about it that I get excited about it too. He’s naming all these parts he’s modified that I don’t even know the name of even less the function of. He also modifies bikes and sand cars for flying up the dunes in the west. Sounds like a blast. 
He also is a locksmith and owns his own high end locksmith business alongside owning the motel. He tells me how he used make vault locks for many of the banks in Arizona and that he also made all the locks for biosphere 2! He used to go over there all the time and walk around the different biomes and had keys to every door in the building. So freaking cool. All of his other friends in this small town seemed to work there too. Doing different maintenance work on call. Pretty tight community here! Also nice to have a billionaire’s project on your hometown. 
I went through my resupply and got ready for tomorrow’s hike. Its gunna be flat and hot and I’m going to try and push some serious miles. I’ve been trying to catch up with someone who has been leaving Brooks Cascadia shoe prints since day 1. I watched the movie Spider-Man on DVD and am about to go to sleep. There is a great horned owl hooting in a tree right by me. I got a good picture of it earlier in my canon camera. Jim says yea there are two of these things that have lived in my trees for years and they keep fucking on my roof.  

Day 9. On my own!

Mile 173 to 179 + 3 miles up Sabino Canyon. 9 miles. 
Woke up to Sagan leaping on me wanting to be pet around 6 am. Todd made some coffee and Irish oats with figs and agave nectar. So freaking good and filling. 

Todd offered to take me back up the terrible Redington pass road but I didn’t want to make him take his truck up there again. I’m not kidding, it is a BEAT road. He suggested I take the Sabino canyon route up. Its very popular with locals, especially since it’s a weekend. It’s a very scenic steep climb up to the AZT but you walk past tons of pools, waterfalls, saguaros, etc. I say sure! It skips some trail miles for sure but I am no purist. I am out here to have fun and enjoy the beauty of Arizona, if someone has a problem with that, then they can shove it. 😊
Then we went out for some supplies. When we got back I packed up my bag to get ready. I say bye to Bill Muarry as she leaves for the Tucson hostel because she needs to wait a day for her flight back home as her spring break ends.
Todd takes me towards Sabino canyon and on the way we stop at a famous Sonoran Dog restaurant. A Sonoran dog is a hotdog wrapped in bacon on a bun with mayo and mustard, with pico de gallo and onions on top. It was absolutely delicious. 
We hit the Sabino canyon area around noon and I said bye to Todd and thanked him for some of the most epic trail magic I’ve ever experienced. At the park you can either walk up a few miles of burning pavement, or for $8 take a tram up with a guided tour telling you about all the plants and animals in the area. Let’s think on that… Yea I took the tram. 

Once I hit the top of the tram ride I was the only one of 40 or so people who took the tram who actually got off it. I switched into my Merica shorts which made some folks next to me snicker. Then it was climbing all day. Went up about 3500 feet or so along a stream mostly and called it a day just after Romero pass on a ledge off the trail nestled in some big rocks which block the wind. Just big enough for a cowboy camper and soft duff underneath from a tree leaning over the spot. This is a killer campsite. I am a little nervous though, first night out here all alone and cowboy camping. But it was just too good to pass up! 

nice sunset at my site!my view falling alseep

Day 7. A Magical Friday the 13th in Saguaro.

Mile 122 to 138. 16 miles.

This was my favorite day on the trail so far. So much wildlife! Woke up to the dog running around and the family’s kids talking. Drank a Pepsi, ate and then hit the trail. The dog followed us up the trail a ways until she came across an all you can eat horse shit buffet. She literally was swallowing big horse turds. Nasty, but it stopped her from following us.

Since we only have 16 miles to walk today we decided we will take our time through saguaro national park with lots of breaks and pictures. I put away one trekking pole and had my big canon PowerShot sx 50 hs with a raynox 250 macro lens on for close ups. Holy balls, this was the right day to do this. 

ocotillo about to bloomdesert morning 

The morning was cool and wildflowers were everywhere. We ran into 2 older guys walking their dog near a trailhead and we got talking. Turns out one of these guys and Bill Muarry went to the exact same high school in Pennsylvania, but 64 years apart. Crazy small world!
We got to Rincon creek which was still flowing nicely and took a break. Less than a mile after that we came across a big western diamondback rattlesnake stretched out next to the trail! I got close and took some pictures and it didn’t move a muscle. I was just a few feet from him and its tongue never came out and I couldn’t see it breathing. Looked like he dried out and died… Until I poked him with my trekking pole and out popped his tongue! But still didn’t move an inch or rattle. Then I got closer with my big camera and he moved into coils and backed up towards some prickly pears. He gave out a hiss but no rattling. Took a bunch of pics and a video then we went our separate ways. 

is he alive

We saw a few desert cottontails, a ground squirrel and some lizards in the flat areas around hope camp. Then we saw this big leggy creepy creature walk by us. When it stopped moving we saw that it was a huge jackrabbit! They are so goofy looking! Like a normal rabbit got stretched in every way. And the way it moved was just creepy looking! Hunched over and moving fast like some golem. 

normal desert cottontail creepy ass jackrabbit.

Then we started up the mountainside and the park just came alive. Flowed everywhere! Saguaros everywhere! It’s insanely beautiful. It also started getting really hot. We could feel ourselves roasting in the sun. The only shade most of the day was the narrow strips of shade behind large saguaros. These cacti are amazing. They’re just massive and stand there perfectly balanced no matter how weird their branches twist out of them. They feel like a hard plastic with a waxy coating, the spines stiff and sharp but easily avoided. 

gilded flicker on the lookout!

lupine chia!delphiniumfirst blooming ocotillo I’ve seen! Yall a week or so behind will probably see tons! the only aloe plant I ever saw in saguaro

Around 1 pm or so it started getting cloudy, giving us a break from the burning sun. We walked along pretty mountainsides and occasionally crossed happily running streams not in our data book. Found a cute little horny toad! 

Like a little dinosaur

Then it happened. Bill Muarry said the words I needed to hear. Gila monster! Right on the trail! I was so freaking stoked. A lifetime goal to see a Gila monster was finally achieved! And he was a big fatty! I got some good pictures and video with my big camera which I so conveniently decided to have on hand all day! They’re a fat, slow lizard and only one of two venomous lizards on earth. The other being the very similar mexican beaded lizard. The bite won’t kill you but it will hurt like no other. Also to be bitten you’d have to try and grab one. They are quick to go away from you as the fella we saw today did. Now I just need to see a scorpion and a tarantula and I’ll be satisfied for a long time.

just walking down the tail! 

We finally made it to grass shack camp at about 3 pm just as it started to rain a little. It’s got a nice sized stream full and running right next to it. We met another thru hiker already set up here named Jules. She’s a nice gal who’s out to enjoy all the beauty out here. She also saw TWO Gila monsters today! We ate some food together and about an hour later Slugger showed up. He also saw two Gila monsters today! Must be a nice day for them! Or there are just lots here. 
As the rest of the crew chatted I decided I would use the remaining daylight to look for more critters under rocks, and boy did that produce!!! I found some crazy mole crickets and these two killer dreaming awesome centipedes. Then I flipped a big rock and bam! Scorpion! And a black widow spider! Under the same rock! Some peoples nightmare, my dream! Took some pics of them and kept flipping rocks. Bill Muarry and Slugger walked around with me enjoying the finds as well! Found probably 10 scorpions in this little area in just a few minutes! Also lots of other beetles, spiders and lizards. Talk about an awesome wildlife day! Especially venomous animals! Rattlesnakes, Gila monsters, centipedes, scorpions and black widows, got them all! 
Enjoy the pictures!!! 🙂

mole cricket!these are called cow killers. They look like big red fuzzy ants but are actually wingless wasps that parasitize other ground nesting wasps. And they pack an otherworldly sting.black widow! how cool is that!?i love them!