Hiking the Arizona Trail
Trekking Lightly with Ray-Way Gear
by Will Lady
The moment one invests in Ray-Way, a ripple of possibilities is set in motion. Be it a short and sweet trek, or following the "The Call of the Wild", Jenny and Ray steer you in the right direction with their meticulously designed and colorful offerings. Excitement builds as the task of sewing and constructing the project proceeds, and satisfaction grows as your outdoor experience is redefined stitch by careful stitch.Don’t know how to sew? Starting from scratch and becoming adept at a skill is self-education at its best. I started with no sewing experience, unless hand sewing an iron-on U.S. Forest Service fire crew patch to the sleeve of a jacket counts for anything. The knife sheath I made from Ray’s kit was also a stepping stone to the fundamentals of properly performing a locked in stitch. Although I’m still working on the fine points of sewing, Jenny and Ray's kits continue to be a steady guide. Reluctant and inept at first, I now get professional results.
Aside from its rugged practicality, hiking with custom made gear enhances the experience in Mother Nature. In other words, by blending in better with the surroundings, it's easier to notice the shifting light, the wildlife, and all the earth’s wonders. Naturally, that’s more fun.
"Every hike I've done, a couple miles or a couple of thousand, has been a further experiment with Ray Way gear and technique."Every hike I've done, a couple miles or a couple of thousand, has been a further experiment with Ray Way gear and technique. Once you sew a kit yourself, you'll understand that what you want and need to know takes doing it yourself. Most stitching techniques used in Jenny and Ray's kits are easy to learn, and by completing smaller projects you apply the fundamentals to the advanced kits. You learn the basics before you dive in; for example, the top stitching on the bomber hat kit is the same as with the quilt kit. "Easy does it", and "steady as she goes." That's the Ray way that I've come to appreciate. With time and patience, these new skills allow total beginners to handcraft a full complement of high performance outdoor gear.
The increased freedom of hiking with lightweight gear is well known these days, but that wasn't always the case. Thanks in large part to Ray's innovations, we can free ourselves from clunky traditional gear, and as a result hike further, longer, and with far less effort. Unfortunately, while commercial lightweight hiking gear has become increasingly available, it's often costly and shoddily fabricated with untested fabrics. With Jenny and Ray's kits, you needn't worry about the weight, quality of materials or strength of the finished product. Their kits are not one size fits all; rather they have been designed to adapt to each customer’s specifications. In the process of designing their kits, Jenny and Ray have redefined backpacking gear, and in the process taken sewing to another level. In my own experience, my home-sewn gear has outperformed my commercial gear every single time. If you're ready to ease into something different, handcrafted camping gear might just be the shift you're looking for. However, the journey of making your own gear doesn't begin with the usual shopping trip. Removing the middlemen between you and your bank account eliminates a certain burden from the transaction. With no logos to market or branding to burn in, Jenny and Ray focus on what matters most; delivering the highest quality goods for your money.
(I currently reside in Hawaii. One of the many refreshing things about living here is the absence of gaudy, annoying billboards. It's easy on the eyes as well as the psyche. Why spoil and clutter paradise? And why be a walking advertisement for a company that may well use unregulated sweatshop labor to equip your recreational activities?) Sewing outdoor gear is an adventure in craft. Understanding the detailed instructions, measuring, marking, cutting, pinning and sewing – it’s all left up to you. The preparatory stages are often the most challenging; not so much the feeding and steering of the materials under the foot of the sewing machine. Making a kit from start to finish allows you to develop a personal connection to your gear. The feel of the materials is distinct, and the strength of the finished product is transferred into the seams with your own two hands. The make-it-yourself approach encourages a thorough comprehension of the design's function and naturally carries over to its application in the field. For example, the "seamster" comes to recognize Ray's crystal clear logic in installing massive reinforcement rows of stitching while hauling a heavy load of provisions and/or many liters of water. The gear is designed to optimize function and durability, while minimizing weight and bulk. No seam that bears the stress of a load has escaped Jenny and Ray's scrutiny. They killed the notion that lightweight fabric equals "fragile" a long time ago. Ingenuity is woven into the matrix of the kits. Jenny and Ray not only ensure that the finished product will last, but show you why.
When I recognize another pack like mine in a photograph or better yet in person, I see a kindred spirit; one who values the pleasures of making their own way in the world. Homemade gear is more than a product; it's an expression of individuality. Jenny and Ray have put their hard earned knowledge into your hands.
"I thru hiked the Arizona Trail twice in 2010, the homemade gear slung over my shoulders my sole companion."I thru hiked the Arizona Trail twice in 2010, the homemade gear slung over my shoulders my sole companion. Interestingly, my first encounter with this recently designated National Scenic Trail was at Jenny and Ray’s outdoor classes near the Mogollon Rim almost a decade ago. When I found myself living in Arizona for a short time, the trail again beckoned. I wanted to get to know the flavors of the Sonoran desert a little better, and I remembered the distinct contrast and cooler hiking that awaited me in the forests to the north. I only crossed paths with one thru hiker during my springtime trek north from Mexico to Utah, and none on the southbound journey I made that fall. I essentially had the trail to myself.
Solo hiking isn’t for everyone, but more and more I prefer the lonesome path. Being alone affords me the luxury of considering the bigger picture, and in those moments I find contentment in simple pleasures like a random feather sailing down onto my path. I know that’s probably the closest I'll come to that Blue Jay, the Red Tail hawk swooping in for a kill, or that swift legged Roadrunner kicking up and down its own lonesome, dusty trail. Remnants of the Wild West abound, and the thought of following in the footsteps of the Native Americans, the Spanish conquistadors, the rugged cowboys, and the ragged outlaws is intriguing. The rich history of the southwest serves as a humble reminder to remember those who came before you.
Actually, the solitary wayfarer is never without companionship of some kind. The magic of life sparkles all around and provides a different kind of kinship. Almost everything that catches one’s eyes or ears becomes interesting and enriching. Sometimes it's a coyote howling; to me, at least, the greeting of an old friend. The rattlesnakes are guardians of the desert’s secrets; they keep you on your toes, and rattle to remind you to respect their habitat as you pass through. Each section of trail both rewards you with what you saw and heard, but also informs you how much you missed. Even at the ever popular Grand Canyon I saw but a handful of hikers. Such is the character of the desert trail; delightful to some, forbidding to others. From the Mexico border, the Arizona Trail presents a recurring theme of hot and cool, with vast expanses of desert punctuated by Sky Island oases. Just five miles from the arid Montezuma Pass, the north slopes of Miller Peak were blanketed in snow. These frequent transitions make for interesting hiking. Even though the trail is interrupted by roads and the bustling Interstate, what I recall most was the spirit of adventure; entering new landscapes, camping in the quiet scenery of creosote bush, fragrant yucca blossoms, and cactus. I relished camping under the dark and star strewn skies, but I always had my Ray Way tarp and a couple of support sticks ready at my side. At night, I would often hear a rustling in the bushes nearby. With my small torch, I spotted nocturnal desert dwellers, such as a foraging kangaroo rat as it hopped and scurried in the beam of my flashlight. The Sonoran desert is a wonderful place to learn. The overgrazed and cow patty littered sections were unfortunate, but they made me appreciate the intact slices of this unique and fragile ecosystem even more. I love backpacking with my homemade gear. The features of my backpack are subtle, but once recognized they become a necessity. Sure, you can still have fun and get from point A to point B with commercial gear. However, in my experience, using Jenny and Ray’s kits provides a deeper level of comfort because I know that I’m using the same designs they’ve relied upon under much more extreme conditions. My homemade gear enriches my trips in ways that I didn't anticipate. I’m more connected to my gear, I take better care of it, and it in turn it takes care of me. Because of the time and energy I’ve put into making it, I respect it. The desert trail will test your mettle. I recall attempting to find a clear path through or around the numerous patches of cholla cactus clusters. They clung to my running shoes, the barbed spines piercing the mesh on my shoes and thin socks, and straight into my feet. They felt like white hot needles, a rude awakening from my desert daydream. Removing the spines takes effort, and you wonder how far skin will stretch before the barbs give way. I’ve marveled at how the pack rats build their nests piled high with those cholla clusters, or how the Javelina are able to take bites out of the prickly pear cactus, spines and all. Learning to overcome the obstacles of the desert is part of the fun, for this biome is not as inhospitable for some as it is for others.
Ray's backpack design is original. Even the location of the shoulder strap adjustment buckle has been considered. Details such as this make the pack more comfortable to carry; never clunky or off kilter. The pack hugs close without extending much beyond my hips, and that allows me to punch through overgrown brush without getting snagged or hung up. It also allows me to swing it around to grab a snack or water bottle, or simply offload it. The pack’s small profile and accompanying system of gear keeps the load close to your center of gravity. This makes traversing steep or snow covered slopes safer and easier, because you’re less likely to be pulled off balance. Ray's pack closure and accessible mesh pockets are the best and most functional I’ve encountered. The drawstring cinch closure stabilizes the pack, and works in unison with the buckled strap which goes over the top, keeping things snug as the pack expands and contracts with resupplies. The easy access to the three outside mesh pockets is convenient and multi-purpose. Ray’s designs continue to evolve in the outdoor laboratories his “NFTs” provide, and I’m impressed by how even the smallest of updates serves to improve and complement existing gear. Jenny and Ray forged the beginning of the lightweight backpacking evolution, yet few if any manufacturers approach the standard they established on their 1994 southbound thru hike of the PCT; that is, the approximately two pound synthetic quilt, the one pound tarp shelter, and a backpack which weighs well under one pound. With these three designs alone, Ray ushered in a new era where a ten pound or less base weight is the norm, especially when it comes to thru hiking the long trails.
My customized closed cell foam pad is another of Jenny and Ray’s low cost, high function offerings. I trimmed it down width and length wise as they suggest, and it could have been tailored further to reduce bulk. In the rocky and spiny desert, the foam pad worked well, and also served as cushioning against my back on the inside of my pack. The pad folds up accordion style, easily tied to the outside of the pack when carrying a bulky load of food. It’s another component of Ray’s system, in which everything is designed to fit like a glove. My homemade outfitting also allows me to shift into higher gear the moment the grade becomes favorable. I enjoy the zone that Ray calls 'high-daily-mileage' thru-hiking, and this is where Jenny and Ray's techniques and style of lightweight gear take flight. If you want to thru hike a National Scenic Trail, or simply hike long distances, it’s much more fun to stretch the limits between water supplies and carry gallons of water through a hot, shade-less desert divide, go up and over a high country pass with ten days of food, or make it to a distant post office or store before it closes. Unburdened by a heavy or bulky load, I‘m never in a rush or missing the scenery. I can relax, free to behold the beauty around me, my eyes on the horizon and nothing dragging me down.
"I enjoy the zone that Ray calls 'high-daily-mileage' thru-hiking, and this is where Jenny and Ray's techniques and style of lightweight gear take flight."The rich bird life provides a cheerful and constant companionship hiking Arizona trails. Interesting and showy feathered species reside there, including the zebra-patterned Gila woodpecker and its cousin, the Flicker, the Gambel's quail, and the growly-voiced Cactus wren. I have marveled at wren’s grass hut nests built in the branches of the fearsome cholla cacti, and enjoyed the uplifting whir of humming birds zipping and jousting, their iridescent wings and showy gorgets reflecting magenta colors as they turn into the sun’s rays. The Gila woodpecker likes to build her nest in a hole in the mighty Saguaro. Everything seems in its rightful place, movement is with purpose, and I pass through with humility and an appreciation for the wonder of life.
The Arizona trail was incomplete when I hiked it, so I found myself improvising. Wrong turns, dead ends, and disappearing trail are all tests of one’s self. One evening, enjoying the cool air as I maximized what was left of the waning daylight, I headed out cross country. I soon found a landmark on my map; an old line camp surrounded by overgrowth, remnants of a trough for water storage, and a dilapidated windmill. The blades no longer turned, but rattled and creaked in the gusting wind. Meanwhile, a pack of coyotes wailed, their cries echoing through the scrub filled valley as the sun slid down into a Saguaro skyline silhouette.
I awoke next morning to a steady rapping on metal; rap, rap, rap, repeat. "What the heck is that?" I thought as I opened my eyes to focus on the old windmill. It was a lone Gila woodpecker rapping on the windmill blades, informing me it was past time to rise and shine. I sat up to discover one of my camp slippers missing. A four legged desert thief apparently dragged it away in the night. I pulled my socks and shoes on, scanning the area. I located it about thirty feet away near a bush. The offender was apparently a ring tailed cat; a half raccoon half rapscallion having fun at my expense. I repacked my pack, and headed towards Mica Mountain following an increasingly incomplete section of the trail. The day grew hotter, and I knew I was in for a difficult haul because there would be no shade until I returned to the completed trail at Madrona. I crossed a beautiful creek flowing across the exposed bedrock, which fed into numerous standing pools. It was incredible to see that amount of water flowing so far down into the desert; a life giving stream, no doubt. Thankful, I topped my water containers off, dipped my bandana, and quaffed as much of this fresh source as my stomach would hold. I continued to make my way, fighting to penetrate the Catclaw acacia trees, pointed rocks, yucca daggers and cactus spines. The grade was mostly uphill, and the aspect made it exposed to the rising sun baking down. Bloody, beaten, and with shredded pants, my face crusted with salt from sweat, I finally punched through to the Madrona trail.
Before long, I was cruising in an entirely different scene. Climbing, I skirted the clouds. It was a refreshing contrast as I sunk knee deep and began post holing in pockets of deep snow, sloshing through icy creeks swollen from snowmelt. The cold soaked my socks and shoes, stung a bit, and then numbed my tired feet and tender toes. The graded trail eases as you approach Manning Camp, a world away from the desert climes I had been in only hours ago. I continued on through more snow and icy runoff, nearing Mica Mountain. I took a short break on top, and then made my way down to Italian Springs. It was too early in the season, but I recalled large patches of bracken ferns there in the summer months. From the spring, the trail descends through the fire scarred scrub brush regeneration, and takes the hiker north toward Reddington Pass, the next divide between the Rincons and Mt. Lemmon further north. I enjoyed the journey from beginning to end. The miles of backtracking while looking for a sign of the trail, the battles I waged with the Catclaw acacia, the scarcity of clean water and springs and other such travails were a small price to pay for freedom and a renewed vitality.
My southbound thru-hike on the Arizona Trail began on the last day of September, 2010. I wanted to hike the trail going the other direction to incorporate the lessons I had learned that spring. So, I shouldered my pack at the State Line Campground. The Utah-Arizona borderlands, and Ponderosa pine and Aspen tree lined slopes of northern Arizona are both unmolested by so called progress. I trekked up to the Kaibab National Forest, down across the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon once more. The weather was perfect; hot days and crisp nights with a tinge of frost in the wee hours. The flanks of the trail were aflame with Aspen groves in autumnal glow. Cirrus clouds warned of changing conditions, and the next day as I progressed toward the gold and green snow capped San Francisco Peaks, the weather shifted. As I approached the remnants of Moqui Stage Station, a light rain fell. I donned my rain shell, mitts and skull cap, tilted my umbrella into the wind and made the transition from Ponderosa forest to open sage and juniper ranch lands. I was comfortable and warm as long as I kept moving and munching on snacks.
I relish stormy weather on the trail. Moving along, I scanned the muddy banks and freshly eroded areas for arrowheads. I found pottery shards with black and white paint patterns and wondered what the symbols meant to the artists who had made them. I left the pieces there to sink back into the mud. I also counted elk and Pronged Horn antelope grazing in the distance, until thick, low lying clouds blew across the land and shrouded my view. The world took on an ethereal calm. Juniper trees stood still, their dense and fibrous cinnamon bark repelling the rain. A feeling of vulnerability was in the air, mixed with the sweet taste of adventure; freedom and possibility of discovery was all around me. In that moment, life held new meaning and being present was all that mattered. It was as if the shift in weather was a catalyst for a shift in consciousness. My world became interconnected with all things, and my heart sang a song of contentment. Let it storm! Being connected to your handmade gear and having the skill to use it permits such a carefree approach, whatever the weather. That's part of the magic of Jenny and Ray's designs; confidence is built into the kit. I grew fatigued from sinking into the deepening mud. I tried walking cross country on top of dried grass, trying to avoid the now slick ranch road. This tactic didn't work. The mud caked with clumps of grass and weighed like adobe bricks on my shoes, but I was still having fun. However, I knew the region promised sparse protection, other than a few junipers, from the approaching storm. I continued my muddy trek and slowly advanced toward the tree line, where I knew I could pitch my tarp. I slogged on all afternoon in the cold, driving rain. From time to time I tried to remove the cakes of mud from my shoes with a stick, but within a few steps it would return. Lifting my legs became difficult from the weight. Meanwhile, the rain intensified and thick black clouds piled up and rolled sideways. An eerie calm stilled the air. Not a bird sang, and one lone cow mooed distress somewhere in the distance. Something intense was about to be released, and I sensed the quickening of Mother Nature in the increasingly electric sky. The barren ranchlands finally gave way to more suitable camping, and for a moment the setting sun punched through the dark sky. A full rainbow appeared in its glow. As the sun disappeared, the darkened sky began to roar, delivering mighty bolts of lightning echoed by crescendos of thunder.
A lone stand of Ponderosa trees was my refuge as the light began to fade. Thankful to have made it to the edge of the forest, I located a site with a thick layer of Ponderosa pine needle duff, the warmest bedding in the forest. Meanwhile, the sky was unleashing a fury, and had I not reached the shelter of the tree line, I would have been in a much more difficult position. There was no time for dallying. A chill washed over me and I began to shiver the moment I stopped hiking. Drawing upon skills learned from Ray, I was focused on being as methodical as possible. Turning on my small flashlight hanging around my neck and collapsing my umbrella, I rested my pack against a wet and foamy Ponderosa trunk. It had been raining the last two nights, so my tarp and groundsheet were easily accessible in my pack's front mesh pocket. This Ray-Way technique allows the methodical trekker to rapidly remove them for drying during the day if the conditions allow, while keeping them separate from dry gear stowed inside the pack. My fingers were cold, but I needed them out of my mitts to set up the tarp. Moving fast, I wrapped one ridge guy line around a tree, securing it with Ray's Roving Hitch. (I had just learned this alternative to the taught line hitch in Ray's book, The Tarp Book Essential, and it is now my preferred method for securing the ridgeline due to its simplicity.) Then I did the same thing on the other tree trunk. My fingers were stiffening as the wind blew wet and cold. You keep moving under those conditions. The tarp, now supported between two trees, flailed in the wind. (In hindsight, I should have staked down one side first before raising the ridge, but I continued staking out the corners one at a time until it was stabilized.)
A quick readjustment and I lowered one end so it blocked the worst of the wind. The rain drenched air swirled around me like a river, and I knew everything had to be tight and correct or I would soon be swimming. I staked all four corners and finished out the side edges of the tarp using all the side guys. The conditions demanded the extra stability the side guys were designed to provide. Before I inserted a stake into the ground, I remembered to take the time to brush the pine needles out of the way so the stake had maximum purchase. Securing each stake with a Ray's Butterfly clove hitch, it was done in no time. Finally, I pulled the two lifter lines and staked them out with two small sticks and more butterflies. This allows more headroom and stability, and I needed both because my pitch was low to block the rain that was coming down like pitchforks. With a final readjustment of the sags, the tarp took on its smooth, winged shape. (I have since sewn a Batwing door, which would have been useful at this particular camp.) I grabbed my pack and entered through the leeward doorway, under my tarp at last. I sat down under the beaked corner and removed my muddy shoes, placing them on the pine needles. Then I spread out my groundsheet, took my quilt out of its stow bag, and extended my sleeping pad on top of my groundsheet. Home sweet home. I removed my wet socks and hiking clothes and hung them on the clothesline installed under my tarp. I put on my dry clothes, neck gaiter, and Bomber Hat over my beanie to close the gaps where essential heat could readily escape.
Now, with my quilt draped over me I felt pretty good as I contemplated how quickly I was able to set up camp under pressure. Everything falls into place when needed most. I was at ease, and the sweet music of the rain on my tarp grew louder. The tarp bent and flexed with the powerful gusts of wind that tried to rip it away into the cold and dark night. The sky was black, and through the open end of my tarp I watched Nature's fireworks as the earth rumbled and the sky roared. I drifted off to sleep, exhausted from a long and glorious day on the trail. One of life's simple pleasures is sleeping warm and cozy under my tarp and tucked under my quilt after a wet, cold and windy day on the trail. A favorite feature of my tarp is falling asleep while star gazing, and then waking up feeling refreshed, dry and warm. The next morning as I lifted my ground sheet, I noticed its dried outline on the pine needles below. This is interesting to see every time it happens. The tarp is such an efficient shelter, that it allows your body heat to dry the ground below you while you sleep. The fleeting light of dawn signaled a new day. During my autumnal journey I didn’t have the luxury of long days to hike, so rising early was required. Striking camp and getting going again is easy when the load you bear isn't clunky and disorganized. And anyway, there's always much to see around the next bend.
The next day the storm continued, and I journeyed on through lightening and hail. When I arrived in Flagstaff, I read the newspaper headlines stating that numerous small tornadoes had touched down in the area, and marveled at the accompanying photos of the destruction. I felt proud of the fact that I had been out camping in the maelstrom. My skills along with Ray and Jenny’s gear had passed the test. I continued south, back down the Mogollon on onto the Hardscrabble and White Rock mesas. I crossed the Verde River, and traversed the fire-scarred Matazels. I waded through the lovely Sycamore creek, skirted the Four Peaks wilderness, and through the undulating landscape of the Superstition Mountains. I deviated from the trail along an abandoned railroad track, and resupplied in the old mining town of Superior. I rejoined the trail at Picket's Post, and I found myself in the Sonoran desert once again. I passed over the murky Gila River, polluted with mine tailings, and meandered through the Tortilla hills towards Mt. Lemmon in the distance. Before long, I was nearing in Oracle
As I approached the Mexico border, I soaked up as much of the three hundred and sixty degrees of freedom as my eyes could behold. Everything my eyes saw led to someplace I was curious about. The possibilities seemed endless. Once more I trekked over Mt. Lemmon, then Mica Mountain and back under the Interstate. I skirted Mount Wrightson, and made my last resupply in Patagonia before a final push through the Huachuca Mountains to the summit of Miller Peak. The backpacking was exceptional; the peaceful nature of life on the trail was my theme. Near the junction that led to Miller Peak I noticed a distinct difference. Gone were the numerous abandoned backpacks, clothing, and sundries left strewn about by illegal border crossers that I remembered from my trip north in the spring. Volunteers had beautified the area, and I noticed the improvement it made to the ambiance of the forest. I greatly appreciated their efforts.
"Ray-Way gear awakens a distinct feeling the moment the last stitch is locked in. It’s not ordinary gear; it becomes a reflection of your hopes and dreams."As I descended the final few miles to the border, the mystery of Mexico allured me. I passed unhindered through a gap in the broken border fence, and I wished I could continue the journey on into Mexico. Slightly nervous, I captured a few photos and gazed south into the vast and unbroken landscape. I stood at the monument for a few minutes reflecting on my trip. It was the last day of October, and in the distance, I noticed autumn’s gilded leaves on the Cottonwoods lining the San Pedro River. My eyes followed its course until it disappeared in the distance into the northern Sonora of Mexico. Backpacking through this rare and wonderful landscape was like being in a dream that I wasn't prepared to awaken from.
I felt alive, vigorous, and lucky to have fulfilled this journey that began unexpectedly while Jenny and Ray taught me the finer details of making fire with a bow drill at their Connection Camp. In the sandstone shadows of our camp below the Mogollon Rim filled with heady Rocky Mountain juniper smoke, a spark was ignited. Ray-Way gear awakens a distinct feeling the moment the last stitch is locked in. It’s not just ordinary gear; it becomes a reflection of your hopes and dreams. The potential it holds waits to be unlocked, you simply have to pick it up and go in the direction you desire to go. The possibilities are boundless. It seems to perform best when you give it your undivided attention; when your life depends on it, your unwavering companion through the serene or the storm. It has never let me down.
- Will Lady Story and Photos Copyright © 2013 by Will Lady
Hiking Gear James G