How one man provided full-time support to his wife as she thru-hiked the 800-mile Arizona Trail
I was the one who really got Erin, my wife, into hiking recreationally. Don’t get me wrong. When I met her, she was hiking most of the day through the rainforest of Madagascar tracking lemurs, but it was a means to the ends of conservation. When she moved to Colorado — where I lived at the time — she started hiking for hiking itself. It’s appropriate then, I suspect, that I ended up supporting her on a thru-hike of the Arizona Trail (AZT): an 800-mile walk through the Sonoran Desert, Mount Lemmon, San Francisco Peaks and the Grand Canyon.
We were living in an apartment in Tucson, Arizona, and we were both working full time when Erin decided to hike the AZT. First, it was day trips or one-night backpacking adventures near Tucson; but by the time Erin was ready to get serious, there were still over 700 miles to walk in what she referred to as “the big push.”
FROM A VAN
We’d lived on and off in a Ford Econoline camper van for a few years and were moving out of our apartment in Tucson once again. It made sense that I would live in the van while Erin hiked the rest of the AZT. My job was mainly to live in the van, buy and deliver supplies, shuttle Erin to and from showers and lend her emotional support. I also helped care for our two dogs: Zari, a 14-year-old Shih Tzu and Birdy, a 2 ½ year old “mega mutt” — according to a DNA test (we had picked him up in a Mexican forest). Birdy did get to join in on some of the hiking fun.
Supporting Erin from a van made everything easier for both of us. Traditional support is more “hands off” — such as sending packages to a thru-hiker. It also made everything more expensive. Rather than one person taking time off work, it was two of us off work, two of us eating food plus the gas for the van. Supporting a thru-hike this way takes careful budgeting, but it can also make some aspects of planning easier.
One of the more challenging aspects of supporting Erin on the thru-hike was taking a backseat when it came to planning. She told me when and where I was meeting her, I just followed her lead. I was the more experienced hiker, but it was her adventure. Part of backpacking is learning from your mistakes and taking responsibility for your plan. This is especially true on a thru-hike, even in an age where smart phone apps can guide your entire trip turn by turn. My job in supporting Erin was to take care of the necessary visits to town and leave the trail to her.
A lot of thru-hiking is eating and a lot of support work is supplying food. For the first time in our relationship, my wife was eating more than I was. I bought bags of gummy candies, pretzels, Snickers bars, bacon jerky — anything calorie rich and easy to eat while walking was on the menu. I purchased these foods at almost alarming regularity, meeting up with Erin for her provisions every couple days or so. About once a week it was time to drive to a shower in the nearest town. We used campgrounds, we used a gym, we even used truck stops more than once.
Aside from bringing food to her and driving her to showers, an important logistical undertaking was getting myself to the right trailhead. Navigating was a mixture of using a trail book, road atlas and GPS. One time, a forest service road to a trailhead was closed; this was especially unfortunate because Erin had, on a lark, decided to hike the section with only a day bag. I found a way around the closed road that involved driving miles of slippery, snow-covered dirt tracks through national forest. It ended up taking me to some of the best camping I’d seen on the trail — a quiet ponderosa pine forest full of elk on the edge of the Mogollon Rim.
Of course, a lot of my role as a support person involved waiting around. I had plenty of opportunities to enjoy solitude on my own. I ran trails and dirt roads, I biked out to meet Erin with Zari in my backpack. I hiked, explored, sat outside in the sun and read while I waited. There was a surprising amount of snow and cold in early sections of the trail, and an unsurprising amount of sun and heat later. I took Birdy on a backpacking trip while Erin rested in the van. Although the AZT was her trail, it was truly an adventure for both of us.
I think the climax for most people on the Arizona Trail is the Grand Canyon, a place I’d backpacked into twice, years before. We were both excited for Erin to get there. We spent a couple days on the rim and I did a day hike into the canyon on the Hermit Trail while she watched the dogs. Once Erin committed to the Grand Canyon section though, it was days until I would see her again. The area north of the Grand Canyon was closed and later she told me, there were very few people there, compared to the COVID-swollen South Rim. She enjoyed the desert of the inner canyon and the forests of the rims and the slow rhythm of walking under her own power. I smiled to myself when she told me about it, remembering my own shorter trips into the Grand Canyon. That’s what supporting a thru-hike is all about: facilitating someone else’s adventure and solitude. After the canyon, she had a short walk to the Utah border, where I met her with champagne.
ZACH FITZNER grew up in Wyoming and Colorado, studied and works in the natural sciences and spends as much time outdoors as possible with his wife and two dogs. He just completed writing his first book, Tears for Crocodilia, scheduled to be released in the spring of 2022.