Whistling Jim had warned me that the next section, part of which he had just hiked, was boring and exposed. I agree. On the approach to the Babbit ranch, the forest gives way to juniper again, rubber rabbit brush and snakeweed. Of course, I have nothing against this flora, but it is tedious. When, at about 10am, a tarantula ambled across the trail in front of me, I stopped for a full 10 minutes to watch it, capitalizing on my spotty cell phone reception to call T and tell her of my recent adventures. We planned to meet either in Flagstaff or Mormon Lake the next weekend, and I wanted her to know that I was on track.
Overnight, there had been bugling elk to listen to and Great Horned owls to hoot with, and I'd hoped this traditional trail-like wildness would persist, despite the warning. However, as the day progressed, things began to look more ranch-like. Earlier in the day, I'd spotted a grey fox near the trail, and now, I couldn't get a view without cattle in it. Cattle under juniper. Cattle attempting to hide behind rabbit brush. Cattle basking in the sun. Cattle dropping piles in the trail. Cattle and juniper, juniper and cattle.
When I needed water midday, I went to Lockwood cattle tank, a dirt hole filled with mud and cattle. No approach to a dirt cattle tank is without at least one shoe-sinking mud step. And no water gathering attempt in the wind is without intense frustration of bottles toppling over, etc. Amid pouring water from my Ziploc gathering bag (you can't easily gather from a shallow pool with a Sawyer squeeze bag, by the way...a Ziploc is a great alternative to skim above the muck), I looked up to see a steer urinating into my water source. I swear the thing was sneering at me.
It took longer than I'd liked, but I gathered 4 liters and continued up the hard pan dirt road. Relentless wind was starting, and I felt wind-burned and exposed very quickly. Nothing made me want to stay on this damned ranch. About 3pm, I saw, unbelievably, the silhouette of Whistling Jim headed toward me. He looked a bit tired and asked how far it was back to his parking spot, up at the stage stop. 9 miles. It was my turn to ask him about his water situation, and he clearly could use a bit. I passed him my Nalgene of filtered cattle urine apologetically, but he took it unquestioningly, like a hiker. I hope he was able to drink it. When I drank from the same batch later, the taste lingered. Safe water and good water are different beasts entirely.
He continued on, and I was very happy to have returned the gift of water. Backpackers and distance hikers have a very special relationship with water, since most of us have been in water crisis, whether real or perceived, at some point before. Getting water in need can bring me instantly to tears. Basic needs are quite visceral.
A couple of hours later, I found a minor respite from the wind in a little juniper and holly oak grove. Getting the tent set up without tearing anything on the oak leaves took a bit longer, but being out of the wind was worth it. The hard ranch roads absolutely devastated my feet and leg. They are like concrete, except that the concrete has occasionally (for a mile at a time) been jackhammered into jagged limestone cobbles, ankle-breakers and stride-breakers. If I ever do this trail again, I will categorically skip ranches. I've seen cows. Thanks.