CDT day 23: rock formations of magic

May 27
Mileage 34
521.5 miles hiked from Mexico

Now that we’re camped way down near six thousand feet, the cold never arrives. There’s a stillness, a windlessness, on this flat sandy mesa, and I sleep cradled within it. The sky is gentle, the lightning-gnarled trees are gentle. The small soft stick-breakers do their dances beneath the moon. The mice run their errands.

I wake at 6:10 and sit on my sleeping pad, eating last night’s leftover cold pasta out of my cookpot, now with Sand in it. I feel hungover. 32 miles, blergh! My first big day on the CDT. Oof. My blood is thick and slow and my brain is full of fuzz. I blew my load yesterday, I’ve got nothing left. Time to do 34!

I have a stumbly sort of morning, everything feeling misaligned or out of order or badly packed. I fidget and snack and drink cold green tea made in muddy cow-pond water and try to get my hiking boner up. After four long miles I reach the cow trough water source, featuring clear good water from a spring, albeit tainted with cow saliva. The cows stand around me, mooing forlornly, while I fill my bottles. I sit on the ground, rub my face, try to wake up. 34 miles to town, 34 miles.

Today is all of the various convolutions of water-worn sandstone, glowing salmon and marigold in the light, full of caves, a wonderous playground to walk all over. The trail is wonderful in this strech, real trail alternating with cairn trail, leading me on an adventure. I’m happy even though the sun is out today and down here in the lower desert it’s Hot, so Hot, and my face legs arms are sunburnt and my brain feels too warm and I have to stop to rest more than I’d like. In one such break, soaking up the pure euphoric glory that is one single patch of cool unbroken shade, I discover that I have phone reception and so I look online to see what’s happening with the snow ahead in Colorado. I learn that Colorado is having the wettest spring in twenty years and that the storms are still, as we speak, dropping snow. The San Juans are absolutely full of deep new snow and there is much avalanche danger. It seems that my options are

a) road-walk around the San Juans
b) see how the hikers ahead of me fare in the snow and set out into it with microspikes, an ice-axe and… snowshoes?
c) wait two weeks for the snow to melt
d) wait two weeks, flip up to Canada, and southbound.

I think about this for a while. I don’t really love any of these options, but I like the idea of waiting the least so I’m leaning towards road-walking or hiking the snow. Because what if I wait two weeks, lose my window to finish before the cold weather in Glacier park, and then the snow is still there? And flipping up to southbound just feels wrong, although I’m open to it. Oh well, I’ve still got some time before I reach Chama, NM, which is where the trail starts to climb into the mountains. Things could shift a little before then.

I reach my last water source for the day, a spring in a trough beneath a sandstone cave full of bats, at four p.m. Track Meat joins me there- I haven’t seen anyone else since yesterday. They likely camped just behind us, and I’ll see them when they get to town tomorrow. I’ve been stopping so much in the heat, and I was so slow this morning, that I’ve only gone nineteen miles. Four p.m., and I’ve got fifteen miles left! This is too much to think about so I tell myself that I’ve only got ten miles to the highway. Ten miles is doable. I can walk ten miles in my sleep! Right? And then if I need to, when I get to the highway, I can hitch the last five miles into town. This is what I tell myself.

My feet hurt, and I’ve got new blisters from the heat and the sand. I’m tired. The evening light is so beautiful it makes me cry. I play the medieval choir music I have on my phone- it goes so perfect with the yellow light on the sandstone, the big valleys draped in cloudshadow and sun, the stormclouds that gather and blow over, gather and blow over. I don’t take a single break and at 7:20 I reach the highway. I put my thumb out on the lonely stretch of road as I walk the pavement but the pickups barrel past without slowing and dark begins to gather and I put my thumb down again, relieved. Of course I’ll walk the road too. Of course I can do it.

I use the roadwalk to do instagram, which makes it easier to ignore my feet. Along the highway are busted trailers sitting in lots full of gloaming, doors flung open, life going on inside. There are barking dogs, rows of mud-splattered pickup trucks, ancient cabins tilting towards the earth. The light grows more and more lovely. My god, what is this enchanted place. New Mexico! Then it’s full dark and I am a spy, making my slow way past these lonely properties, watching the stars come on.

I reach the tiny town of Cuba at 9 p.m. Both of the two restaurants are closed at this hour, as is the grocery store. I’m hungry, so hungry- but I cannot bring myself to eat another bar. I head to the Del Prado motel, an inexpensive, humble little place where the hikers like to stay. In the lobby, which is full of dusty knicknacks for sale, I find the hikerbox, and there I discover a box of Lucky Charms and clutch it to my chest. Once in my room I take off all my clothes, sit on the bed wrapped in my sleeping bag, and eat many bowls of lucky charms in protein powder milk. I’m off my feet and I’m eating food. I’m off my feet and I’m eating food! I’m so happy I can’t stand it.

Photos on instagram

CDT day 22: summer was there all along

May 26
Mileage 32
487.5 miles hiked from Mexico

When I wake up I realize that I left my shoes outside my tent and they’re now frozen solid. Dammit. I make hot tea with brown cow water in my pot, which is still coated in the remnants of last nights’ dinner. The end result is a hot rich tea broth which is actually incredibly fucking delicious. Is this how the most basic of human cuisine first evolved? Last night, while making my pasta, I noticed that the brown cow water acted as a sort of stock base, very much enriching the meal. I oughta bottle this shit, I think, as I drink my tea-broth. New Mexico cow pond water: the new superfood.

Putting on my frozen shoes is difficult but not unpleasant. What is happening to me, I think, as I wedge the icy things onto my feet. Be careful when you set out on a thru-hike, folks. One day you might find yourself loving brown cow water and enjoying the sensation of putting on frozen trail runners. You might wake up and suddenly realize that you’re more ruined for regular life than you ever thought it was possible to be.

Slogging all morning through dogshit mud, three pounds of it on each shoe. The sun is out today in full force, though, and as rapidly as the desert laid down this water, it begins to take it up again. After a few hours the road is dry. Oh, glorious solid ground! There’s a water source a half mile off trail, way down in a canyon, and when we get there we find a cool, clear, piped spring. Hallelujah! Then I’m cruisin fast under the blue sky, feeling for the first time as though I’ve got my trail legs, as though I could walk forever. I’m on a wide open yellow plain and suddenly the ground ends at a cliff- and I realize that I’m way, way up high, that we’ve been walking on a huge mesa and we have suddenly reached the edge. Now way down below me I see a great, open, baking desert- there’s summertime! There it is! It’s been there all along! Dotted all over with smaller mesas and rock formations, and cinder cones. The trail goes straight down, into this desert, and I am practically jogging, and the air is growing warmer, and warmer, and warmer still. Here is summer! And now I am roasting, positively roasting, crossing a great open place to some rock formations on the other side. And then a patch of cool shade on the other side and I sit, and suck at my lukewarm water. The boys arrive and collapse as well.

Clouds appear, and curdle and threaten, and play games with the sun. Rock formations, incredible light, I’m in heaven. I’ve got butt chafe, I’m racing to a water source that would make a 35 mile day but then the sky opens up and I know I’m not going to make it. I spot a cow pond way off, drop my pack and jog across the desert. It’s far- a half a mile. The storm is full-blown now, whipping the water and pelting me with rain. But it’s warm down here at six thousand feet- so warm! I get brown water for myself and whoever else ends up camping with me and jog back to my pack. Track Meat appears and we hike another mile, look for a cave but don’t find one, watch the most incredible sunset from on top of a small mesa and camp on its sandy flat top, among the gnarled trees. The storm ends and the stars come out. I make my noodle dinner, so happy to be warm.

Photos on instagram

CDT day 21: embrace the suck

May 25
Mileage 27
455.5 miles hiked from Mexico

In the morning it’s overcast, and an icy fog hangs over everything. Fuck it’s cold! I say, like a broken record, as I boil water for tea. I have reception, somehow, and I get a message from Threshold, a fellow CDT hiker who I also share friends with IRL-

They say there’s no summer on the CDT, She says. I tell this to Spark as he stirs his instant coffee from within his sleeping bag, and it makes him sad.

“But maybe it’s not supposed to be this cold?” I say.

It’s so cold that the five of us don’t start hiking til eight. Eight. We just cannot brave it. Part of me knows that the early bird gets the miles and also that, for some reason, the number 8 is cursed. You can start hiking at 7:30 and have a great, productive day. 7:45? Fine. But start hiking any time after 8, and you may as well take a zero. You’re fucked.

It grows colder as we climb to the top of Mount Taylor. There are no views- just fog everywhere, but the fog is pretty in its own way. I feel good on the climb up to eleven thousand feet- I love endorphins! At the top we find ice, and snow, and then we’re rushing down the other side, slipping on the ice/snow in all our layers, finally dropping low enough to be on bare trail again. Then a long series of dirt forest service roads that follow the ridges, watching the clouds collide and tear themselves apart. It’s still really cold, I’m still wearing all my layers. I can’t remember a day on the PCT when I wore my layers this long into the morning. Suddenly it’s hailing again, and I walk faster. Fuck! Then, as soon as it’s started, the hail stops. This process repeats itself for hours.

We take a lunch break and spread our stuff out to dry on the grass but after fifteen minutes it begins to hail again. Fuck. Fuck fuck! I put all my layers back on and keep hiking. The hail turns to cool rain as I walk through the pretty ponderosa forest and the dirt forest service road becomes a muddy slick. It’s the kind of mud you find in the desert and that I like to call “dogshit mud” for the way it clumps up and sticks to your shoes, making you feel as though you’ve got weights attached to your feet. Suddenly the going is very slow- I try to walk in the trees, away from the road, but the ground everywhere has become this mud. My plan was to go 31 miles today to a water source so I wouldn’t have to dry camp, but now I feel myself slowing, slowing. We enter a big open plain with storms racing overhead and the wind whipping and the temperature plummets- now the rain is freezing, now it’s soaking through our layers. I’m a tad alarmed. I know what this is. This is goddam hypothermia rain. We’re looking for a water source that’s supposed to be right next to the road, and is now potentially our last water source for the day, but all our water info for this section is conflicting and we’re all cold and grumpy and unreasonable, standing drenched in the mud on this great uncaring plain (except for Spark, who becomes, in this moment, what I’ve come to think of as Camp Counselor Spark, and for whom I am suddenly very grateful). In the end three of us end up walking a mile off trail, a mile, to get to what turns out to be the brownest, muddiest, most opaque cow pond we’ve seen yet. The water of which we, of course, drink. I shouldn’t be drinking this water- my steripen is only supposed to work in water that is clear, and as I watch the eerie glow within the cool brown water full of swimmies I wonder if the gadget is doing anything at all. But I’ve discovered something strange- I actually like the way this water tastes. Not the water from the metal troughs and tanks- that water has an off flavor that I can’t place- but the muddy water from the cow ponds that is literally spring water with soil dissolved into it to make it opaque. This water tastes really, really good to me, cool and fresh and full of minerals. I wonder if this means there’s something wrong with me, that I have some intense mineral deficiency. I wonder if I’d be one of those people who eats dirt, like Rebeca from One Hundred Years of Solitude.

“Did you try the water yet?” I ask Track Meat, who has also filled his bottles with the brown liquid.

“Yeah,” he says. “It tastes really good.”

I will find this to be true at other cow ponds, further up the trail. I will never understand why. I drink more of the water. I peer into the bottle and watch the tiny propeller creatures scoot around. Delicious broth of the earth. Ah well. I’ll either be fine… or I’ll get All Of The Giardia.

The sun comes out, somewhat miraculously, on our long one-mile slog through the mud back to the trail, and this thin cold light begins to dry us. And then the rest of the evening is spent wrenching our way down the awful mud slick that is now the road. Mud that sucks at our feet, mud that tries to pull off our shoes. Mud that flies up and coats our legs. Wet shoes, wet feet, ankles rubbed bloody. Mud, mud, everything is mud. This mud, I tell ya. It sucks. And not only that, but we pass a couple of cow ponds right next to the trail. So we didn’t even need to hike an extra two miles for water.

Evening finds us beat-down and exhausted in a field next to the trail, watching the light put on its evening show. I cook my pasta dinner, watching happily as my alcohol stove does its thing. Due to the mud we’ve only done 27 miles, 25 of those on trail, and I packed exactly 4 days of food. That means my next two days are going to be long ones, in order to get into the town of Cuba on time. I fall asleep in all my layers, burrowed deep in my sleeping bag against the cold.

Photos on instagram

Day 20: pizza on the side of the road and the sawyer SipSip

May 24
Mileage 20
428.5 miles hiked from Mexico

Ye ol’ five hour hotel sleep- I mean to hike out early but Denny’s is right next door and we all tarry eating underwhelming breakfast items and drinking watery coffee; I remember in 2013 on the PCT when I was at the Dennys in Lake Tahoe with Spark, Mehap, Track Meat, NoDay and Instigate- suddenly I miss Instigate so much and we decide to all text her at once, emojis, but then we remember that she doesn’t have a smartphone. She’s probably building a cob house with her hands right now anyway, covered in mud and wearing the same sun-faded black tanktop she wore on the PCT, or riding her bike twenty miles to scout out abandoned buildings in which to build the revolution.

It’s 10 a.m. when we hit the literal road, a paved roadwalk out of town, past a couple of prisons, sad places. On impulse the boys call dominoes and order pizza and when it arrives we sit on the side of the road and eat it. It’s like cardboard- when did dominoes get this bad? Or maybe it always was.

We reach the trailhead for Mount Taylor- we’re gonna climb a mountain in the morning! We hike up and up on actual trail, into the forest of quaking aspens all shot with long yellow light. Climbing gives me endorphins, and that makes me feel great! There have been so few climbs in New Mexico- oh, how I’ve missed them.

We reach our first water since Grants after 18 miles, a bathtub-sized, spring fed cattle trough, and sit in the pine needles assembling our dinners. The temperature plummets- shit damn it’s been cold in New Mexico. With great happiness I extract my new stove and pot from my pack. Gluten-free noodles, olive oil, dried spinach and peas, salt. That’s how you make a good dinner, I tell ya. I boil the whole mess, add a packet of salmon and eat too fast, burning my tongue. I’m so happy to have a stove. So, so happy.

Two more miles up towards the bald peak above and we camp in a ponderosa forest at ten thousand feet. Summit in the morning! I heat water for peppermint tea. More happiness. The boys try to smoke a joint but succeed only in lighting their beards on fire. Topics of discussion: Track Meat’s gang of bandits, which would be called Rad Times; the Sawyer SipSip, which hangs from a tree by a wire hanger and has a little metal ball on the end that one must lick in order to get water; our “trail” trail names- Bow Hunter (Track Meat), PeckPeck (Apache), CoCo (MeHap), Heavy Flow (Spark), and Beets Steve (me).

The sky is clear and the stars are bright and so we cowboy camp, laying down our sleeping pads and sleeping bags in the soft pine needles. This feels wonderful- I love cowboy camping. The simplicity of it, just having your things all around you, being able to stare at the sky as you drift off. I’ve missed cowboy camping- I can’t remember the last time it was clear enough at night to just lay out like this. Every day for the last two weeks it’s either rained some or threatened rain. These same unseasonable storms have been dumping snow on the CDT in Colorado, where it mostly stays above ten thousand feet. This does not bode well for all of us.

As if to prove a point, we’re just drifting off in the inky blackness of the meadow when it begins to hail. I swear I could just see the moon- where did these clouds come from? After a moment of disbelief we pull ourselves from our warm bags and fumble in the icy cold for tents, stakes, stow everything away as the little ice pellets bounce off of us. At last I’m back in my bag, warmth gathering around me again, safe from the hail. I’m wearing all of my layers, even my rain jacket- it’s so freaking cold.

Photos on instagram

CDT day 19: Grants, ho!

May 23
Mileage 10
408.5 miles hiked from Mexico

Walking the 10 miles into town fast in the pre-dawn chill wearing all my layers watching the sun throw yellow/orange light on the sandstone cliffs. Edge of town is barking dogs in bare dirt pens, a handful of sheep, a foal. Picking up my stove from the post office! Everybody staring b/c I’m dirty and I smell bad but oh man, are they kind, and for this I am grateful. It’s three miles off-trail to the hotel where hikers stay and I put out my thumb as I walk along the closed-up storefronts under the brilliant New Mexico sky. A blustery wind is blowing. It’s still snowing in Colorado! How will any of us get through the San Juans. A woman with a toddler transports me to the motel where I get a room and shower, grateful for hot water, electrical outlets, this whole massive industrial infrastructure that allows me to play make-believe while I’m in the woods. The boys arrive and we find the Chinese buffet, a great deal of food is consumed. There are BNSF intermodals everywhere, thundering through. I go to wal-mart to resupply and wander the aisles, thinking about how everything in wal-mart is a little different in a way I can’t quite put my finger on. Besides my exciting new stove dinners I find a synthetic real-tree t-shirt and a pair of highlighter-yellow running shorts for all of seventeen dollars. The neon shorts are a bit of a gamble as I’ve just gotten my period but I think, what the hell. If they get covered in blood that well make them funnier/better.

Laundry, various organizational tasks. We all go to Taco Bell for dinner, the boys are drinking Limearitas, which comes in a can and is made by beer? 250 miles until Chama, the start of the mountains. And snow, there is so much snow, the snow is still falling. The snow looms ahead of us.

Photos on instagram

CDT day 18: surprise rock scrambles and pooping on anthills

May 22
Mileage 30
398.5 miles from Mexico

The sky clears sometime in the night all the clouds and wind gone and when I wake to pee it’s just stars, stars. Hello stars, I think. It’s been a while. Morning brings condensation and that pre-dawn chill and I shiver awake. It feels good to be solo, the world so peaceful and still. Hiking solo is wonderful! Why did no-one tell me this. But they did, they did.

I take the South Narrows rim trail along the rim of the mesa before La Ventana natural arch. It’s beautiful up there, looking down from the sun-warmed sandstone onto the black lava fields, the winding highway. I have reception and I sit on a rock and while away nearly an hour posting blogs. When I brush myself off to continue on I discover that the trail abruptly ends- and according to my maps, I am to make my way down the mesa via rock scrambling. No, no no! Rock scrambles are ok, sometimes, but I do not like surprise rock scrambles. Not at all! Today I am PMSing, and everything annoys me. Stupid rock scramble! I think, as I follow the faint path down the loose boulders and dirt and such. I brush up against a cactus and it stabs me. Stupid cactus! There is a cool secret cave in the mountainside, shallow and deep, and for a moment I forget to be negative. Then back to my slow descent. Stupid rocks!

After I reach the bottom I chill out a bit and walk up the highway towards El Malpais National Monument. El Malpais, aka The Badlands, was so named by some Spanish explorers who were hella pissed when they couldn’t find a way to get across on their horses. El Malpais is a massive black lava field, millions of years old, its surface convoluted and riddled with fissures and cracks and yawning crevasses. The European settlers who came later also could not find a way across, and they badmouthed it as well. The pueblo indians, however, had been crossing it on foot for thousands of years, via an ancient cairn route they had developed. Today this cairn route (a cairn is a pile of rocks used as a trail marker) is called the Zuni-Acoma trail, and I am about to cross it, as part of the CDT. I’m leapfrogging with Josh again today, and we stand reading the signs at the trailhead. This hike takes 6 to 7 hours! one sign warns.

The hardened lava is rough sharp and grabby- this is good, on one hand, because the surface is so tilted and uneven and this texture helps one’s shoes stick but on the other hand it catches your feet and tries to trip you. We walk from cairn to cairn, looking for the next cairn before moving on. One wouldn’t want to get lost in this black, enchanted lava field that goes on forever in all directions! We make up stories as we hop from lava chunk to lava chunk- if we tarry too long we’ll wake the lava monsters. If we tarry too long the mists of sadness will get us. If we stop to rest carnivorous plants will reach their tentacles from the depths and ensnare our ankles. In our imaginations the lava crevasses open and close, expelling steam. I wonder which cairns are new, and which stacks of rocks have been teetering for a thousand years. How many animals have fallen into these cracks, to be preserved for all of time? I stare at the lava. Don’t trip!

Three hours later we’ve made it safely back onto the soft, grassy earth. But already I miss the lava. Maybe I’ll find a secret cave to live in there, with an even more secret spring. Maybe that’ll be my retirement plan.

Josh and I start down Zuni canyon road, a winding dirt road that will take us, eventually, to Grants. We stop to fill our bottles for the 22 mile dry stretch at a windwill/cow tank and I discover what I decide is the most leave-no-trace method of pooping in the backcountry- there are these bare spots, here, that one sees in the woods/fields and which bring to mind a campsite, but when you get closer you see that it’s actually a large hill of red ants surrounded by a circular bare spot that they like to make, for some reason. I locate one of these in a far field, dig a cathole at its edge, and have just enough time to poop before the ants begin to swarm. Even so, I have to brush them off my gaiters, saying Back! Back! Afterwards I fill the hole with dirt and watch happily as the ants come in droves. Oh that I was camping here, so that I could check on the fate of my poop in the morning. Will the ants, like, carry it away? I wonder!

The canyon grows more beautiful as we walk along it, into the afternoon. Camp is a forested wash along the road where the cold air gathers, but no matter. I’m tired, tired.

Photos on instagram

CDT day 17: hermits pottery and old stone houses

May 21
Mileage 30
368.5 miles from Mexico

The night is black and still and I have sad dreams about people living lonely lives and wake once in the middle of the night to stare at the thick darkness of the trailer, wondering what its narrow halls have seen. Mostly, though, I sleep. Sweet, sweet sleep.

I wake at six, dawn coming in through the dusty white curtains, some fabric I don’t know the name of. Didn’t we used to know the names of the fabrics? The parts of animals? The contours of the landscape? Didn’t we used to have more words?

I don’t know why I was afraid to hike alone. Boredom, mostly, I guess- I was afraid it would be boring, and that the boredom would grow intolerable. But today I’m not bored- today I feel great! I walk the dirt road under the wind-blown blue sky twirling my trekking poles. I’m happy. I’m a little creature, walking over the land.

The roadwalk is flat and pounding but since we live in a merciful universe it eventually peters out into a faint jeep track cutting through the sandy desert, linking remote windmill-powered cow tank to remote windmill-powered cow tank. Cows! I go where the cows go. And actually, I have found the CDT desert to be much less harsh than the PCT desert, on account of all the water that is here for the cows. Sure, sometimes the pump is off and you have to drink directly from the tank, and that water is comically bad, but I don’t mind. It’s funny, really. Look at this gross shit I’m drinking! It’s brown and/or green and/or has dead animals in it! We should be so lucky, to have such stories to tell.

All day I leapfrog with a hiker named Josh, who is in his thirties and works as a teacher to support his hiking habit. Josh carries a battered REI daypack which he slings over one shoulder. The back of his neck is sunburnt. He tells me about the hermit who lives in the Gila river canyon.

“He’s been down there for seventeen years. He goes to town just once a year.”

“Wow,” I say.

“That’s my retirement plan, I think,” says Josh.

Josh finds a couple of shards of Anasazi pottery in the dirt. They fit together, and have a pattern. This is just the coolest thing. Then the trail, which has become a cow path winding through lovely, remote Cebolla canyon, passes by a Pueblo stone house from 1200 A.D., situated just so in a wash where there once was a spring. The doors and windows of the house are gone but one could totally camp inside, if one needed shelter from a storm. Nearby there are some petroglyphs on a rock. This canyons are so full of history, it’s magical.

Speaking of storms, all day thunder booms, the clouds pile up, the wind blows, and then the sun comes out again. Over and over. Sun/thunder/sun/thunder/sun. It threatens rain but never does. At the end of the day I’m walking along the highway towards El Malpais and the wind picks up for real, battering the yellow grass. In the distance I can see the edges of the hardened lava blobs from long ago, now spotted with trees and things, that we’ll walk over tomorrow. I scoot under a barbed-wire fence and make my way to that. At the edges of the blob are lots of nooks and crannies and half-caves, and eventually I find a leafy clearing, sheltered on three sides by magma, where there is not a breath of wind. You can tell that the animals come here, there are lots of trampled spots in the grass. Above the lava you can hear the wind howling, but not here.

Photos on instagram

CDT day 16: more rural New Mexico magic

May 20
Mileage 15.5
338.5 miles from Mexico

I’m awake for much of the night, how it usually is in town. Ah, well. As soon as the birds start to sing I’m up, doing this and that, making instant oatmeal from the hikerbox, watching the other hikers stumble around the cold kitchen, woodstove just beginning to warm the air, waiting for their coffee. At eight a.m. exactly I’m in the tiny old-west post office with its wall of ancient post office boxes and the clerk shuffles around in back, hands me my package. New gaiters! My other ones were all torn from the stabby desert. Have I told y’all how much I love dirty girl gaiters? They keep the rocks out in a very luxurious way. And they come in wild patterns. My new ones have watermelon on them!

I take a shower and then join everyone for second breakfast once the single cafe opens at 10 a.m. After eating I pack up. The boys want to take a zero in Pie Town so I say my goodbyes- I’ve got to make it to Grants, 83 miles away, by noon on Saturday for their post office hours. Today is Wednesday. I’m pretty sure I’ll see these duders in Grants but still, it hurts a little to hike away, which I finally do at one p.m. What follows next is the most excruciatingly boring roadwalk I have yet to experience on the CDT- one single pale-yellow dirt road, perfectly straight and flat, going exactly forward through the desert for many many miles. I still have not found the end of it when I reach the first water source and my planned campsite fifteen miles later, a ranch to the left of the road. All the water report says is “Water 500 feet west” and I imagine that this, like all the other sources in New Mexico so far, will be a vessel of some sort for providing water to cows. Instead I see a huge metal building, like a barn or a place you’d store a tractor, and a hand pump coming out of the ground. Cool! I think. I won’t even have to filter this water! Just as I reach the water a small door at the end of the barn slams and a little old man is standing there, stooped inside his western shirt, trucker cap perched just-so on his head.

“You’re late!” he says.

“I’m sorry,” I say. A little old woman appears beside the man.

“You’d better come inside then,” says the woman.

The couple, whose names I learn are Anzie and John, lead me into the metal barn. Inside I find that all the trappings of a fancy house- beautiful old furniture, nice kitchen full of shining appliances, quilts and woven tapestries, hat racks, shelves and shelves of antiques- have been transported here and carefully arranged to fit within this cavernous space. In the center of it all is a woodstove larger than any I have ever seen, and I watch as John wrestles a huge log into its gaping maw. I sit on the couch, feeling thirsty and also as though I’ve fallen into a storybook. John begins to tell me stories about relations of his who were connected, somehow, to the civil war, speaking animatedly with his hands and wandering off on tangential threads. Now and then Anzie interjects to keep things on track. I try to follow along but it’s already my bedtime and I can barely keep my eyes open.

“Is there somewhere I can camp?” I say.

“Well,” says Anzie to John. “Should we make her camp?”

“We’ve got a trailer out back,” says Anzie to me. “We keep it up pretty good. You could stay in there if you’d like.”

Of course I want to stay in the trailer. What even is this? What children’s story have I stumbled into? I am overwhelmed with gratitude towards these kind people, out here in the middle of nowhere, who live in this enchanted barn and who are so generous.

The trailer is old and cozy and warm from the last of the sun and there is a good bed made up with quilts and I say goodnight to Anzie and John, eat my cold bean-soup dinner, brush my teeth and spit in the dirt, and collapse. As I drift off I think of the people of rural New Mexico, how kind and open and wonderful they are, here living their happy eccentric lives outside of time. The land of enchantment!

Photos on carrotquinn

CDT day 15: don’t believe the hype

May 19
Mileage 17
323 miles from Mexico

Wake up in the frosty morning ice covering everything and pack up as the sun struggles over the distant hills. I hear there’s major snow north of us- I wonder what Colorado will bring. I wonder what will even happen there. It’s good then that I started in May, that I’m not pushing super hard. Give that snow some time to melt!

“Embrace the brutality” is what they say but there’s been nothing about the CDT, so far, that I would describe as brutal. If I had to pick adjectives I’d say that the CDT is peaceful, calming and chill. The CDT doesn’t have the infrastructure that the PCT has, the proliferation of trail angels and the trail magic, and so it also lacks the inherent drama around those things. There is no FKT for the CDT, no comparing oneself to others in trail registers (there are no trail registers) no point in obsessing over numbers. There is no trail gossip, no two-thousand mile game of telephone where rumors spread and stories are distorted. Alternates abound, and the alternates have murky, inexact mileages. Trail markers are few and far between. Most of the time, at least in New Mexico, there’s not even a trail.

We’re just sort of out here, walking on dirt roads for no reason.

It’s incredibly freeing.

And the weather, the navigation, the planning around water, the learning to laugh when everything goes awry, the actual walking- that’s just hiking. If you’ve got a long trail under your belt, you’re in good shape, and your pack is light, you’ll do fine on the CDT. There’s absolutely nothing brutal about it.

CDT: Don’t believe the hype. It’s magical out here.

Once packed up we set out for the long-feeling flat 17 mile dirt roadwalk into Pie Town. I make the time pass by looking at the clouds, tossing my trekking poles into the air, and listening to a David Sedaris audiobook. We reach our destination mid-day and discover that “Pie Town” is a sprawling cluster of wonderfully ramshackle cabins and trailers and a handful of churches the size of tiny homes. There is one restaurant in town that’s open, the Pie Town cafe, and we crowd inside of it, our hunger radiating out from us in waves. Many burgers are eaten, and also pie and ice-cream, and a wonderful contentment settles over us. We slump down in our seats and eventually stumble down the street to the Toaster House, which is an old wooden cabin, dark and cool and long inside with only a wood cookstove for heat. The house is owned by a woman, Nita, who raised five children here. Nita now lives elsewhere but she leaves the house open for hikers. The walls are still covered in ephemera from the time this quirky ramshackle structure in middle-of-nowhere New Mexico held an entire family and I find myself walking around, touching things, wishing that I had grown up here, that this had been my childhood. There are other hikers here and in the evening we crowd the kitchen in our puffy jackets and running shorts, cooking mac and cheese on the wood cookstove. Outside the sun sets and the crickets come out. I throw my sleeping bag down on a bed in the loft. In the morning I have to hang around until 8 in order to pick up a package from the post office when it opens but hey, I ain’t complaining.

Photos on instagram

CDT day 14: life is an endless dirt forest service road

May 18
Mileage 23.5
306 miles from Mexico

I can’t sleep. I don’t know. The internet is there on my phone and there’s so much to do, such a flood of bleeps and bloops and bits of data that mean everything but really nothing and oh, I can’t sleep. And it’s too hot in the hotel room. Or too cold? And I’ve eaten too much dinner. Or not enough? And someone is snoring. And do you think there’s a place online I can buy chapulines, those fried seasoned grasshoppers they sell in Mexico? I’d really like to try eating those as trail food. I turn my phone on in the dark room. I don’t find the grasshoppers but I do order a popcan stove. I’m getting a stove! I imagine myself making some salty instant rice dish and crumbling fried grasshoppers into it. And pork rinds. Trail cuisine really is its own special thing.

In spite of various people snoring I do eventually drift off only to shoot awake again at 5:30. Oh hotel rooms. If I have ever slept well in one I do not remember it.

Breakfast at the Adobe Cafe is just as fantastically wonderful as dinner was the night before. I have sausage, eggs, gluten-free pancakes (!!) and a pot of loose-leaf organic green tea, steeped exactly perfect. The boys have huge cheesy melted breakfast burritos and biscuits and gravy. I order a slice of gluten-free tiramisu (!!) to go. By the time we’re back on trail at 10 a.m., we are all ready for a nap. But no matter. Morale is high! Reserve, New Mexico is a tiny oasis of super-friendly hippie cattle ranchers who make the best ribs this side of the milky way. It was totally random and we went there and it was awesome! We’re practically skipping down the trail.

“The fat on them,” says Track Meat, as we hike through the cool pine forest on the jeep road that will take us all the way to pie town. “Do you remember the fat on those ribs?”

In the afternoon we reach the fire lookout atop Mangus Mountain and we climb up the metal stairs in the howling wind to the glass-walled hut on top. Inside there is an older gentleman, listening to squaks from a CB radio and writing things on a notepad. This man kindly points out various features to us in the landscape, which consists of broad valleys and strangely shaped mountains, everything covered in pine forest.

“I new nothing about New Mexico before hiking the CDT,” I tell the man. “Now I’ll always remember it as high-altitude pine forests and a convoluted network of dirt forest service roads.”

Speaking of dirt forest service roads, we’re on the same one all day, and tomorrow we’ll take it the last 17 miles to Pie Town. Whatever “Pie Town” is, if there even is a Pie Town. After the Adobe Cafe in Reserve, I’m not sure anything will ever compare. That place was like the Stehekin of the CDT! Future hikers take note.

The sky does wild things while I walk the long flat dirt road. O Tempestuous clouds! Camp finds us at a cattle tank on a grassy slope, watching the light move while we cook our dinners. A drunk rancher rolls to a stop in his pickup and gets out to watch the sunset with us, gives everyone bud light. Then the rain begins to fall and we retreat into our tents.

Photos on instagram