We wake up at 5AM and I am energized from 10 hours of sleep. Today we ford the Black River, possibly a lot of times. Or do we ford the Black River? We really don’t know. The water could be too wild, or too high, and then we’ll have to take the alternate. Absolutely nothing can be known in section six right up until we get there. Each morning, I read the day’s data book dutifully, but I know I can’t count on absolutes anymore. I still hope for 20ish miles of hiking a day but….I also don’t hold my breath.
Carrot and I spend one anticipatory mile hiking along the dirt roads that frame the banks of the river. The water is rushing sometimes, and other times calm, which is encouraging. It is indeed black, beautiful dark water of indeterminate depth. We hear the rocks on the bottom are slippery.
We debate how we will do this. Shorts? Pants? Definitely shoes, as it’s too much effort to take them on and off nine times. It is very cold out, but eventually we decide to preserve our pants. We only have the tiniest pile to keep us warm, and we need to ensure that no matter how long the day goes, we have dry layers to retire to.
Carrot goes first, hooting and whistling through the cold. She’s so brave about cold, usually. Happy to jump into water I wouldn’t even consider on account of the temperature. I step into thigh high water, sliding my feet over slick mossy rock. I lean heavily on my poles, desperately hoping I don’t slip. I’m pretty clumsy. I almost think I probably will fall, at some point.
Halfway through the ford my toes turn to pins and needles, a thousand tiny pointed pains. Something inside of me says to cry, but what at? The cold? My feet? I am not sad, I’m just….confused. My body wants to burble up and release. What is happening and why?
We exit the water and pick up our speed along the river again, lifting ourselves over blowdowns and doing our best to avoid the thousands of thorny plants that grab us as we go. My feet are hot now, burning with the contrast of the air (which couldn’t be more than 45 degrees) and the water (which is much colder than that).
We start to ford again, this time with a river much wider. Again, my toes go to pins and needles instantly and this time my calves seize. My legs feel like lead, heavy and hard to move, my feet disconnected from me. My instinct is to stop moving, curl in a ball to find warmth right in the middle of the water. It is in this moment that I know I won’t be doing the nine fords. Each one is said to get wider and deeper then the next and there’s an alternate route! Why not take the alternate route? This doesn’t feel safe.
We find the next Black River crossing. We need to look at the water, we have to know we aren’t giving up too soon. We arrive at the point where our river conflates with another and it’s roiling. Okay, okay, okay, we say. We’ll take the alternate.
We steeply cut cross country swaths up and up and up. It rains at first, and then the rain turns to snow. Thorns grab and tear at our exposed skin. I slip a little in the sleet. This is really the path to the alternate?! The eroded nothingness into the flurried heavens?! Yes. Yes it is.
We hit a road, a straightforward and gently graded dirt path that leads right to the next thing. I am grateful for this road all the way to lunch. We are good on actual trail and road, can walk “fast”, whatever that means. I listen to my book (Where the Crawdads Sing; it continues to be incredible) and the weather weaves. Sun then rain then sun then rain. We take a side trail into Fish Creek and set up the tent, just in case. No matter what, in here we’ll be dry.
We silently eat chips and cookies and bars. Outside, it rains. The rain turns to hail and I turn to Carrot, looking her square in the eye:
“If all else fails we could just stay in this tent, braid one another’s hair, listen to an audiobook, and wait to die” I say, and then we can’t stop laughing. This weather, man!!!! It’s trolling us.
Our break alarm goes off, we gather up two liters of water, and start another cross country climb away from the creek. There are downed trees, one thousand downed trees of all sizes to step over, move around, crawl under, and straddle. It’s steep going, eroded going, no trail at all going— once again. I grasp at burned tree branch and step on tussocks to make my way, and just like that, I’m at another road. A blessedly simple thing to walk.
My shoes have been wet all day, and my toes haven’t made it back to normal since the river crossings. I try to walk as fast as I can for warmth and it works everywhere except my feet. The straight forward nature of the dirt road makes me feel like I am flying, though. It turns out my toes can be numb and I can still walk.
Our road walk ends, and Carrot and I find one another before setting out on our final miles. Our plan is to traverse through another stretch of eroded blowdown trail, find a spot without too many dying trees, get some water and camp. We walk as fast as we can, wind roaring and burned trees creaking, threatening to fall. Eventually, we find a secret plateau, one tiny sliver of space where if a tree fell, it’d most likely miss us all together.
As soon as we set up our shelter and crawl inside, the sky releases and it pours. I eat my dinner beans from inside my quilt and burrow down as hard as I can.
Please universe I pray. Keep us dry in the tent tonight.
📍The Mogollon Rim trail is on Yavapai, Western Apache, Hopi and Hohokum land. I am a grateful guest