Islander Jean Taggart left the border of Utah on foot in early October. Crossing the Grand Canyon, she was drenched by remnants of Hurricane Rosa as it blew through the valley and swept across the south rim. Bearing unseasonably cold temperatures, Taggard pushed through snow fall twice — once near Flagstaff, and again near the town of Pine, Arizona.
She still has a long way to go.
“It’s never easy, but your body gets conditioned to it,” said Taggart.
She was at camp last week, 325 miles into her journey on the Arizona National Scenic Trail, and not yet close to being halfway finished. But she is not a novice. Taggart and her husband hiked 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail together in 2014, which stretches from British Columbia to the border of Mexico. Along with a friend, she hiked all 273 miles of The Long Trail in Vermont, the oldest long-distance trail in the United States.
“That all got me excited to do something longer, and kind of put the idea in my mind to do something bigger,” she said.
Her trek on the Arizona Trail, however, is the longest thru-hike she has undertaken solo. Traveling these distances, she said, hikers are far more susceptible to hazards such as shin splints, often brought on by strain from the weight of supplies. Seven or eight liters of water, essential for the most arid portions of the hike, weigh in around 15 pounds, on top of food rations and heavy gear.
“It’s been challenging and fun, and just an interesting experience making yourself vulnerable,” she said.
The landscape of northern Arizona is a world apart from the southern region, said Taggart, having climbed the Mogollon Rim, a mountainous terrain distinguished by creeks, streams and pine trees that give way to steep cliffs and spectacular views. Days later she found herself traversing sandy desert, surrounded by cactuses.
Taggart was still confident that she could see it through, attributing her endurance to muscle memory.
“After putting a lot of miles on my feet and legs, I’ve moved past all that, so it’s relatively a walk in the park,” she said, adding that it can be difficult to get up and move at the start of the day when it’s dark and cold in the hours before dawn. Shoes and socks can get wet and stay that way until the sun comes up. In her downtime she reads and writes. “On a more day-to-day grind level, it’s mostly a challenge just to get in the miles because the days are getting shorter, so you’re up against both sides of the day.”
What is new for her, she said, is the isolation. Taggart is equipped with GPS that can pinpoint her location, and she is able to text and call when reception is available. But much of her only company on the trail has been passing buffalo and sporadic encounters with other wild animals, especially elk.
“They’re in mating season so they’re very chatty,” she said, having also crossed paths with deer, fox, eagles, crows and hawks. “It’s been pretty cool.”
Taggart is passionate about the National Trails System. The Arizona Trail is the most recent inclusion in the network, and she has set up an online Patreon page — available at patreon.com/jeantaggart — in the hopes of raising money to support ongoing trail maintenance and stewardship, in an era when federal protections for national parks seem in jeopardy.
Taggart knows how invaluable help can be when it comes; recently she came down with a spell of dizzying vertigo and needed a hand. While exercises and medicine have remedied it, she said she was fortunate for the “trail angels” — volunteers registered with the trail association to assist hikers along the way — to step in when they did, bringing her to urgent care. The trail angels provide anything that hikers may need, from shuttles, shower and laundry access to water caches and accommodations.
Her husband Jared Taggart said that it makes all the difference.
“Trips like the one she is on would not be possible without the support of people who are interested in this community,” he said, noting his own experience of being an avid outdoor enthusiast. Among the couple’s favorite regional destinations to travel is Tofino, British Columbia, on Vancouver Island, a wilderness paradise replete with lakes and rainforest, and hiking the Wonderland Trail in Mount Rainier National Park.
“It’s mind blowing how beautiful it is,” he said. “We kind of have our favorite spots. I think we also like to go and enjoy the places that are nearby us, and we both definitely have a special love for this area.”
They are already planning for a hike along the Goldmyer Hot Springs at the base of the Cascade Mountains in January.
“When you’re out there, you’re out there to hike. Daily life has a lot of indecision,” he said. “The trail only goes one way. There’s a kind of simplicity to it; it’s almost meditative.”
Connecting with the immense beauty of the natural world, he said, is an opportunity few should pass on if given the chance, and one reason why he believes long distance thru-hiking is so worthwhile.
“But you have to love it,” he said. “It’s a long way to go.”