Wednesday, January 27, 2016

AZT Yo-yo - The Final Yo

AZT Yo-yo - The Final Yo:
Patagonia To The Mexico Border

By Kathy Vaughan
photo by Ras/      I sat alongside the trail, surrounded by bare aspen trees. It was just past dawn and the ground was hard with frost. There were patches of snow in the cold forest and the morning air was moving in the never ending wind. Ras and I had been hiking all night, from the time we left our final gateway community along the Arizona Trail, the small town of Patagonia. We had stayed at The Stage Stop Inn and our plan for weeks had been to push straight through our remaining mileage from there; 55 miles. We had showered, washed our clothes, ate some good food and slept well. Our packs were organized. We had ourselves set up to finish our 1,668 mile thru-hike yo-yo sometime the following day.

     We had been through all kinds of extremes and they began as early as our first day on the trail. We began in triple digit temperatures at the Arizona/Mexico border.  There were dark clouds overhead and they produced a raging thunder and lightening storm. Then came high winds, heavy rain and sleet. We made it eight miles to Bathtub Spring, where we huddled inside our tent, coming tens of miles shy of our goal for the day. 

photo by Ras/
Creek crossing north of Patagonia, AZ.

     The trials and tribulations continued to build a strength in us both. I underwent changes in the trail. I began to display very raw emotions and almost animalistic behaviors. By this final push, the challenges I'd endured had hardened me physically and mentally. I had muscles and bones I'd never felt before. I was short-tempered and edgy. I had memories of our hike racing around in my mind and causing strong emotions. Chills, tears, happiness, drowsiness and disorientation all came over me as the night wore on and the darkness came over the trail, for one final time. It was too cold to stop for long. Ras and I had already had our dinner break. We were determined to continue moving all night and not stop to pitch our tent. I remember feeling like I needed to stop and rest and trying to express this to Ras. I knew we couldn't, but I whined about it anyway. I was deteriorating and hoped to not reach melt-down stage.  I was failing. We were already going to finish way past our original goal of  70 days. We then aimed for 80 days. We would finish on Day 93 if we kept on going through the night. 

photo by Ras/
Climbing out of the Grand Canyon on the South Kaibab Trail.

     We had continued and now sitting here, just past dawn, taking in some food to wake up and get fresh energy, I was trying to come to terms with the mileage that lay ahead. Ras had given me a huge protein bar. I had a few of my own trail snacks left, but he thought the protein punch from this bar would help me keep my emotions in tact. Exhausted, I nibbled on the bar and looked up the trail. I knew we had a climb ahead. I knew I could do it. At the top of the climb, we would find a nice spot in the morning sun to pull out our Jet Boil and have some hot food. The draw of this food break would help motivate me. The climb was through Sunnyside Canyon and as the name indicates, it was down in a canyon, below the warmth of the rising sun. 

photo by Ras/

     I remember leaving Patagonia the morning before, starting out with a pleasant three mile road walk with warm temperatures. I ate as I hiked. My front pack was filled with good trail food – Honey Stinger Waffles, Expedition Espresso Trail Butter, left-over potato chips our new friend Patrick Muldowney had brought us on the trail, peppermint and lemon hard candies, Thai flavored soy curls Ras had made, chocolate, fruit snacks, an orange, and other snacks that I can't now recall. We had stopped for lunch in a wash earlier in the day. I savored that break as I had savored all of our breaks. We had always found cool spots to stop to eat lunch and dinner each day. I was going to miss those special times once off the trail.

photo by Ras/

     But after that break, much of the rest of my final nighttime miles on the  Arizona Trail become a blur. I know that sometime before dusk we saw two hunters. We had seen a couple of deer earlier. The hunters had thick Slavic accents and had been watching us through binoculars. They had seen us climbing up the steep arroyo towards them and were curious about us. After all, it was December and hikers were few and far between. We shared with them how we had been out hiking since mid-September along the Arizona Trail. They were fun to visit with and wished us well as we hiked away. We saw each of them get in their own vehicle and drive off towards a distant lake. We watched the sun set over the rugged mountains of Arizona in one direction and Mexico in the other. It was all very surreal.

photo by Ras/
Postholing among the aspen in the San Francisco Peaks.

      Now, in the frozen canyon, after having moved all night, Ras pealed off ahead of me for the climb. He was chilled and wanted to find the sunshine. I settled into a steady climb. We were heading for Miller Peak at about 9,000 feet. It was perhaps 4,500 feet at the mouth of the canyon. There were patches of snow in shady spots, but whenever the sun came through the trees, it was warming and invigorating. The switchbacks continued up and up. I had done so many of these types of climbs the past three months, I knew how to get it done. I used my poles to set a rhythm that would keep me moving at a good pace. One foot in front of the other. It had been a phrase that ran through my head many times along the trail. After lots of snowy miles on this southbound journey along the AZT, I knew this would be the crux of it. This would be the last of the serious type of snow, if there was going to be anymore. By this, I mean post-holing through deep snow or carefully moving over icy snow. My Altra Lone Peaks, both the Neo-Shells I wore northbound and the 2.5's I was now wearing, have rugged traction that work well in the snow. I imagined the possibility of twenty something miles in deep snow. That just eventually gets your feet wet when in running shoes. At 9,000 feet, I had expected there to be a lot of snow. I expected my feet to get cold, painfully cold. But instead, I was greeted with this blessed surprise of just the occasional snowy patch. We were doing it. We were going up and over Miller Peak. Ras and I often said to each other on the trail, “We're doing it!” It was one of our motivational phrases.  Other times it was a way of saying, “What we are in the middle of is kind of crazy!” ( or kind of cool). This was one of those moments. Ras was still up ahead though. I couldn't say it out loud to him, so I said it to myself anyway. I was feeling a huge sense of relief that snow was not an issue on this much anticipated ascent.

photo by Ras/
Snow on the San Francisco Peaks.

     It turns out, I was just on his tail. I came around a twist in the trail where I could see a sunny patch up ahead. I saw Ras' pack propped up against a huge fir tree. He was just beyond his pack, checking to see if he could get a cell signal to message Sirena Dufault, who would be meeting us for the final 2.6 mile out and back to the terminus at the Mexico border She would be able to drive to the parking lot at Montezuma Pass. From there, we had the out and back to reach the actual border, the fence line, the swath of land dividing the two countries. We figured we would be there in a few more hours and it was time to let her know so she could drive from Tucson. Ras couldn't get a signal, but we set out our sleeping pads anyway and pulled out our stove to heat up water for coffee. We rehydrated beans 'n' rice.  The sun dipped behind the tall trees and the wind blew. It was chilly as we sat for our final trail meal. That was okay with both of us. We just bundled up and enjoyed our hot food and drinks anyway.

     We finished our break and contoured for several miles before the final climb to the high point. We stopped when there was a signal to get the message off to Sirena. I thought of our friend Benedict who had dropped us off  in September when we started our journey. He had wanted to pick us up too and I hoped he might be there. I hoped he and Sirena had made arrangements together if he had wanted to come. Either way, I felt so grateful that we would have a friend at the end to greet us and then share in our joy, while traveling back to Tucson. Our car was waiting there to take us back to Washington after a couple of rest days at the home of Sirena and her husband, Brian. 

photo by Ras/
Twilight in the Gila River Canyons.

     The views from Miller Peak were awesome. There were small lakes dotting the landscape below, the mountainous country of Mexico to our north, huge rocks and boulders to scramble around as we worked our way along the trail and a bright blue sky overhead. We both had steely focus on moving as efficiently as possible towards the end of the trail. Some icy, narrow, north facing stretches of trail wound around the western flank of the peak. There were many downed aspen to climb over and the going was tedious. The wind still howled as we moved cautiously through this area. Then, ahead the trail was visible and snow free for the final miles to the Montezuma Pass parking lot below. It felt so exciting, so unreal. It even felt bitter sweet. 

photo by Ras/

     We started the descent towards Montezuma Pass. Ras moved ahead of me on the trail. I most often led, dictating the pace so that we could stay together. We both knew the route ahead now. It felt good for us each to do our own thing, allowing the space for us to have our own special realization that we were about to finish our biggest endurance feat yet. We had hiked from Mexico, 800 miles to the Utah border and then turned around to hike back to Mexico. We had hiked just shy of a total of 70 miles to get to our resupply packages awaiting us in gateway communities. Sirena is the Gateway Community Coordinator for the trail. She has worked hard and creatively to develop the relationships with these communities for the Arizona Trail Association, so that thru-hikers can utilize their services. All of her energy has paid off and we were greeted in these communities with respect, useful services, hiker friendly lodging, and a welcoming vibe. 

photo by Ras/
The Gateway Community of Oracle, AZ.

     Ras stopped to take off a couple of layers. We were dropping in elevation and the desert sun was warming. As I met up with him, I stopped to make a couple of adjustments too. I reached up and realized that my Trail Butter trucker cap that I'd kept such careful track of for the entire three months, had now blown off of my head. I had it over the top of my warm, ear flap hat because the sun was bright in my eyes. I had already lost my Julbo Zebra Lens sunglasses back near La Posta Quemada when stopping at dusk one evening, and so I needed the hat to block the sun. It was perched too loosely, it seems and one of the strong gusts tore it from my head without me knowing. I was pretty tired and in a focused, zombie-like state as well, so it didn't surprise me at the time that it had gone unnoticed. I had been on the trail for over 30 hours at this point. 

     We passed some hikers just before Montezuma Pass that somehow knew who we were and that we were about to finish our hike. We were hiking pretty fast, a light run even. We were both in ultrarunner mode, heading to the finish with a final burst of energy that comes out of nowhere. You “smell the oats in the barn”, or your body knows you can rest once you make this final push so it gives you all it's got. Whatever it is, it feels like magic and you just go with it. 

photo by Armando Gonzalez
The final stretch to the Mexico border.

     We reached the Montezuma Pass parking lot and I didn't see Sirena or the AZT vehicle. I saw a guy running, though and he seemed to be running towards us. I didn't recognize him. He was very excited. He called out to us “Congratulations!” It was Armando Gonzales, the Trail Steward for this passage of the AZT. He had been following us and had come out to greet us at the finish. He joined us for the out and back and we soon heard a hoot from behind us on the trail. Sirena had gotten there just in time. She hustled down the switchbacks and soon caught up to us. Armando ran off ahead to take pictures of us approaching the terminus. It felt too good to be true. After all of this time, all that we'd experienced, all the miles that were on our feet, we had reached the end of the journey. We had traveled across Arizona as one, again, and then once again. 
     Ras and I set out to hike the 800 mile Arizona Trail as a Yo-Yo thru-hike (up the trail and then back again) on September 18th, 2015 . We finished the trail on December 20th, 2015. We had previously hiked the trail in the spring of 2014. At this time, I set the Inaugural Women's Fastest Known Time on the trail with a time of 35 days 5 hours and 2 minutes. With the completion of this Yo-Yo, Ras and I set an Only Known Time of 93 days, 6 hours and 22 minutes. We also became the first people to have thru-hiked the trail three times. These were all goals we set ahead of time in order to enjoy the rugged, mountainous desert trail; share our time out there with others to help teach, inspire and motivate; have the experience of a long thru-hike and to set the above records. We accomplished all of these things.

photo by Armando Gonzalez


  1. What an accomplishment! You two are truly an inspiration. Thank you again for letting me witness this historic event!

  2. It was wonderful meeting you two on the AZT, just North of The San Francisco Peaks - on the first yo of the yo-yo. Thanks for the terrific discussion and sharing of trips enjoyed. I hope to see you on the trail, once again, or at least out there on the digi-spere. Rob of the WV, Wild Vagabond.