Michele and Brooke on AZT Highline

The author and her daughter, Brooke, take a break on a log during a hike along the Highline/Arizona Trail.

Undaunted, my daughter trudged up the Highline/Arizona Trail from the Pine Trailhead. She walked this same stretch two years and a pandemic century ago — a different person.

Brooke solo hiked the 800-mile Arizona Trail after obtaining an undergraduate degree in geology from ASU. She’s working on a master’s degree in geology in Alaska now — reading the dense data in satellite images of the Earth. She hopes to serve the environment, but she’s not sure how.

After the long anxiety of the pandemic — she came home for a break between projects. So, we set out on this hike in the footsteps of her memories.

It’s been a tough year on all of us, including the forest. As we walked, I made note of the dead snags and the dry dirt after a year with neither a monsoon nor a snowpack.

Our hike fell in the late spring of May, wildflower season. But with the region in the grip of an “exceptional” drought, we did not expect to see bursts of wildflower color.

But nature likes to gift us in surprising ways.

As we headed out from the thinned and tidy Pine trailhead, the forest soon swallowed us, and the first pond of bright yellow, daisy-shaped flowers came into view.

“Wow! Look at that color!” I blurted, master of the obvious.

My daughter just smiled.

Soon, white and yellow daisies, followed by a fragile, lavender poppy-shaped flower showed up next to the trail. Further off, the bright orange flare of an Indian paintbrush caught my eye.

So brave, to flower in a drought.

So like my daughter.

She has always loved the wild world. I remember when she was a little girl on the beach, she would stretch out her arms and spin in a circle of joy — dancing with the waves.

As life threw us challenges, she struggled to hold onto that joy, through the hard times of our family, the pain of adolescence and the climate crisis. We watched a documentary on the Arctic together, luminous with blue ice and sounding humpback whales shadowed by melting ice caps. I thought it was beautiful — she wept when it ended, afraid of what we’re losing.

Brooke now lives on the edge of the wild in Fairbanks, Alaska. I dropped her off in December of 2019, in another time in a world of no sun and the Northern Lights.

She’d launched her post-graduate career with hopes of engaging in the local culture. Along with her science studies, Brooke has a fascination with native cultures. In this last year, she’s taken several classes on the indigenous people’s connection with the environment — all online. Making friends has proved difficult. Brooke craves the relationships and connection from in-person classes, just as the wildflowers and forest need the rain.

I have no idea where her life odyssey will take her. She’s worried that becoming an expert in satellite imaging will mean she’ll spend her life in an office in front of a computer — instead of in the dwindling wild. I don’t know what to tell her. But for now, it’s enough to walk with her through a magical world on a single-track trail through a forest that has been thinned and restored to some measure of its ancient balance. I listened to her memories of that longer trail, winding the breadth of Arizona from Mexico to Utah and climbing every mountain peak in its path.

The Highline and the Arizona Trail overlap for miles here.

The Highline is a National Recreation Trail, while the AZT is a National Scenic Trail.

This has attracted the attention of the U.S. Forest Service and private organizations who work to restore and protect the area. A few years ago, studies determined the communities of Pine and Strawberry faced grave danger from wildfire, so a local firefighter started the Pine-Strawberry Fuel Reduction Committee to build trails each weekend.

The Payson Ranger District then partnered with the PSFRC to create the Pine Strawberry Fuel Break, a system of trails that provide access for the Forest Service to thin and burn to reduce fuels.

The thinning projects created meadows for wildlife and wildflowers. The trail meanders by trees that provide shade and boulders to take a water break. Up higher, views that reach down to Four Peaks and up to the Mazatzals take your breath away.

Brooke and I stopped many times to shoot selfies and closeups of the flowers, letting the peace of nature seep into our souls.

She explained how she picked campsites and planned her days on her solo hike.

“On really hot days, I just napped during the hot part. That saved water,” she said.

As I listened to my daughter talk, my eye went always to the wildflowers — bursts of chromatic joy in stony soil.

“I guess there wasn’t much water,” I said. “Since you hiked during another drought year.”

“Oh, you get by,” said Brooke. “People left jugs of water along the trail.”

I remembered seeing jugs of water at the Pine Trailhead just before our hike — tokens of a shared struggle.

“You must have been happy when you found a spring to camp by,” I said.

“Oh, I tried not to camp near the water,” she said. “The critters come.”

Of course. Best to fill your flask and keep moving.

I think Brooke will do just fine putting one foot in front of the other.

Contact the reporter at mnelson@payson.com

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