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

CDT day day 13: And then there were ribs

May 17
Mileage 19
282.5 miles from Mexico

It’s cold next to the cow pond but not rainy and I sleep hard, wake up feeling super awesome. Yay! We’re up high in the pine mountains and today the trail is a maze of jeep roads and bushwhacking, tracks going off in one direction and then ending, the maps and the data not agreeing on what the CDT is and is not, we all take different routes and fall into a time warp and walk all over different parts of the mountain and end up together, somehow, in the afternoon, dipping deep blue water from the best cow tank we’ve seen that looks like a giant swimming pool and sitting in the sunshine, talking about food we’d like to eat. In a mile we’ll start the long dirt roadwalk to pie town, 1.5 days away. Hunger, hunger, hunger.

A mile later at hwy 12 we find a sign offering a shuttle for hire to the town of Reserve, New Mexico. We heard there’s not much there but we call them and they say there’s one restaurant open. We stand in the sun debating- fifteen miles into the night to a campsite at a fire lookout, with only gross bars we’re tired of left to eat? Or take a shuttle thirty miles into a cow town we know nothing about. We’re all chafed and sun-fried, smeared with dust and sunscreen residue. I’ve got some weird rash on the backs of my calves that bleeds, bleeds, when I put sunscreen on it.

45 minutes later a huge SUV blasting funk pulls into the turnoff where we’re sitting and a huge man named Joe with a ruddy face is handing out beers and a bag of “nacho chips”, which we devour. Somehow we squeeze six people in the SUV (Hikers: if we fits, we sits) and then we’re at the Hidden Springs Adobe Cafe in Reserve staring down a full salad bar and plates of all-you-can-eat ribs which, somehow in this small town away from everything, are the best ribs any of us have ever had. Meat and fat and BONE, oh my god.

“Did we die?” I say. “Did we die in the Gila?”

We all needed this more than we wanted to admit.

A room in the attached inn, a piece of pie to go, our putrid clothes spinning in the washer, a shower, and all the internet errands. I feel so overwhelmed when there’s wifi and my phone goes crazy, slumped in bed hearing the blings and beeps of days worth of stuff coming in. More and more I don’t even want to turn my phone out of airplane mode. More and more I just want to look at the trail, I just want to be free. But this happens every year- it’s why I come out here in the first place.

Photos on carrotquinn

CDT day 12: snow in May

May 16
Mileage 29
263.5 miles from Mexico

All night the wind blows and the rain falls on my tent, then turns to rattling hail. The night is deeply cold. I toss and turn in my bag, legs cramping, unable to get comfortable or fully warm. At one point I wake and the rain/hail has stopped and I hear the crunch, crunch, crunch of something stepping softly around my tent. Cougar? Hail-monster? Then the rain returns.

When I wake I can’t tell at first what’s different with the light. Then I see it- there’s an inch of snow on the walls of my tent. I punch off the snow and poke my head outside. The wind-swept hillsides of dry yellow grass are dusted in white and it’s cold, so cold. My shoes, which I left outside the tent, are full of snow. Fuck.

How much did I sleep? A couple of hours? I fix my cold-soaked oatmeal and listen to my friends punching snow off their shelters. I pack away my wet sleeping bag and wet tent, put on my icy shoes. I fold up my trekking poles and stash them away- my hands will be too numb to use them. The snow is still falling. Time to hike.

I’m cold and achey and it’s hard to hike this morning, although the heavy clouds are beautiful, the way they bunch up and race across the sky in the howling wind, the way the light is diffuse across the dry land. Then we’re in pine forest, the forest floor soft and white, and I pray for a break in the clouds. Just a little sun. Just enough to dry my things. Tonight we’re camping even higher, at nine thousand feet- I can’t imagine how cold it will be. A wet tent and sleeping bag? No bueno.

Mid-morning the clouds break apart and there is just enough sun to yard-sale our things and huddle on the ground, eating snacks, before the rain/snow returns. We rush to stuff our barely-dry things away and plod on, down the dirt forest service road that will carry us farther into the mountains.

Late afternoon finds us climbing up an actual trail that quickly disappears into a series of cow paths, reaches the summit of a mountain of sorts and then drops, only to climb up again. We repeat this again and again, following cairns, happy for the endorphins that climbing provides. We start to talk about what food we’d like to eat, if we could eat anything. Pot roast. Barbecue. Sauteed green beans. Lasagna. Each time I pass a cairn, I add a little stone to the top.

“Magical cairn,” I say. “Deliver us safely to Pie Town.”

The final descent is steep and drops straight down the mountain, no switchbacks, lots of rocks and downed trees to climb over. We’re tired, our ankles/knees/feet are hurting. Camp is a low cow pond waving with green water plants, accessed through a barbed-wire fence. It’s frosty here but at least the sky is clear, and the stars are out. Maybe the storm has blown over?

Photos on instagram

CDT day 11: lightning and hail and infinite peace

May 15
Mileage 27.5
234.5 Miles from Mexico

The storm arrives at midnight: BOOM! BOOM! Peeee-ow! Thunder cracks and echoes down the canyon. Lightning flashes, sheering the night in half. I lie awake in the dark, listening to the hail beat the fabric of my shelter. Outside I can see the lights in my friends’ tents come on, everyone fumbling around, attempting to batten down the hatches. I drift in and out of sleep but the lightning wakes me again and again. Mud splatters up into my tent from hail striking the ground. I think of the canyon flash-flood horror stories that Mehap was telling yesterday. We’re up high enough here, on this forested bank above the river- aren’t we?

I feel haggard when I wake in the morning. But it’s good to be here, in the Gila, and I’m stoked to play the Gila game some more. I eat caffeinated jelly beans in my tent, looking out at the drizzle. Time to hike!

I’ve figured out the Gila game. I am one with the Gila. I zone out while I hike- water, rocks, sand, downed tree, rocks, there’s the trail. Beautiful canyon rising up. Water, rocks, trees. I enter a sort of meditative state. My brain clears out. All around me I can feel the land- the land is the only thing there is. I’m calmer than I’ve been in months.

Mid-morning we stop and dry our things in a bit of sun, and then the drizzle returns. Time to hike! My feet have been wet for days, and I’m pretty sure they’re rotting inside of my shoes. My wet socks have rubbed my heels bloody, and each step stings. I see some cool caves alongside the river, their roofs black with soot. I switchback up a steep trail and sit, watching the valley below. I am free.

We take the high route above the Gila for the last eight miles- a grassy jeep track stretching on forever, freezing wind, a little drizzle. I hike in all my layers, feet pounding the road. Camp is a cow pond in the dry hills north of snow lake, squatting to fill my bottles in the amber water, looking at the cow patties on the bottom of the pond thinking don’t think about it don’t think about it. A cold wind still blows, the sky is heavy and grey. We set our shelters up against the drizzle. I shiver in my tent, pawing through my food bag. Hiker hunger is here- hiker hunger is here for real. I poor frigid cow water into my tupperware to make instant black-bean ice-cream. How many miles until Pie Town?

Photos on instagram.

CDT day 10: The Gila Game

May 14
Mileage 13
207 miles from Mexico

The Gila game is as such: walk in the water. Walk on rocks. Walk in deep sand. Climb over a downed tree. Walk in the water. All while in a glorious canyon that pens in the sparkling river, pink rocks rising up in the slanted light, forgetting about miles and just trying to dance with the shifting, convoluted surface of the earth. Wild roses and blooming solomon seal and croaking bullfrogs. Also poison ivy. Lots of poison ivy.

But before all of that, the cliff dwellings of the Mogollon people- the park doesn’t open until nine and so we have a slow morning and I tell myself to relax, relax. It’s not all about the miles. At nine we walk up into a beautiful narrow canyon to deep-set caves, black with thousands of years of soot. Forty people lived here around 530 C.E., before moving on. Since then it’s been occupied by all manner of humans, doing who knows what. There are stone walls, fire pits, rooms for storing grain. Rooms for ceremonies. The people ate acorns, squash, corn and beans. They traded chocolate and macaw feathers with the people of what is now Mexico. They were short.

By the time we get on the trail it’s noon. A half day for us. The Gila game is a slow one and after seven miles there are tepid hotsprings and we tarry there, letting the salt slough off, picking up rocks from the gravelly bottom of the pool, looking for crystals. After the hotsprings we’re sleepy but the cathedral-like magic of the canyon enchants us and we play the Gila game until seven, when we find a nice campsite just as it begins to sprinkle.

Photos on instagram

CDT day 9: deep thoughts in the Gila

May 13
Mileage 21
194 miles from Mexico

A storm comes in during the wee hours and even though we’d planned for this, grumblingly setting up our shelters for the first time on the trail so far, there is still that bleary moment making sure all is secure for the onslaught, touching everything in my tent in that half-state between waking and sleeping.

In the morning we find ourselves in a beautiful golden canyon, Gila river flat and sparkling in the morning light, sycamore trees hanging over the water. Mist rises off of everything. And so begins today’s challenge:

We are walking up this wild convoluted river canyon and there is no trail.

Or rather, there is a quarter mile of trail, and then a cliff, and so one is forced to cross the knee to thigh deep, rain-swollen river to the bank on the other side, which one scrambles up using a variety of crumbling footholds, to the tall grass, and downed trees, and sticker bushes, and deep sand, and jumbled rocks, and tangled undergrowth beyond, and one stumbles forward, river water sloshing from one’s shoes, until one finds another bit of trail, which continues for another quarter mile until ending at a cliff. And repeat this whole process into infinity.

I watch my pace drop to just under two miles per hour, and I begin to panic. This is actually what I thought the whole CDT would be like- convoluted and slow-going- but so far it’s been pretty straight-forward and gentle. And now this is happening, and my shoes are full of gravel, and I am freaking the fuck out. This is definitely a day to check one’s ego at the door. You think you’re a fast hiker? LOL! Not today!

All day I fight with the river and fight with myself in my brain. It doesn’t even matter that it’s beautiful. I should be hiking faster, I think. I should be doing bigger miles. I shouldn’t have taken a zero. I’ve got to get to Canada. And then another part of me says- but why? Why any of this? Why anything? Who am I and what do I even want? Why am I out here?

We reach the road to Doc Campbell’s, our next resupply, in the afternoon, and gratefully shake the last of the gravel from our shoes. We’re all a little weary after that beautiful long slog up the Gila. I pick up my box at the little store, eat a can of peaches.

Everyone wants to see the Gila cliff dwellings, which are just down the road. The only problem is they’re already closed for the day and they don’t open again until eight. My friends decide to camp overnight in order to see them in the morning.

Which means that tomorrow, at best, will be a short day.

I can’t decide what to do. I want to do big miles, don’t I? And if I want to be on my own rigid schedule of my own making and not compromise for anyone else then I’m going to have to hike solo. Which people do all the time. I feel that I’m at a crossroads. I say goodbye to my wonderful friends who I have known for years and with whom I share many laughs every day and set off down then lonely road as the sun sinks in the sky.

As I walk I fight with myself in my head. Why am I out here? To try and do the biggest miles I can? Or to share experiences with others and have a magical time? I go back and forth as I walk. I’m out here to challenge myself. I’m out here to bond with other humans in nature. I’m out here for myself. I’m out here for the relationships it affords me. I can’t tell what my heart wants or what I’m scared of or what the best choice is but after four miles I suddenly realize that for now, tonight, I don’t want to camp alone. So I stay on the road all the way to the campground and find these other nice weirdos who I share my days with sitting around a concrete picnic table, eating their gross dinners. And I feel so much relief.

I don’t know what the future holds but for now, this is what feels best in my heart.

Photos on instagram.

CDT day 8: down to the magical Gila

May 12
Mileage 30
173 miles from Mexico

I sleep ok, I guess. I’ve been waking up at four a.m. for some reason, and then sort of tossing and turning. Adjusting. I am still adjusting to the trail.

On the walk out of town to the trail I stop in at the store and buy one of those giant two-pound rice crispy treats. This seems like a great idea at the time. I carry it in my arms and tear off chunks while I walk. Soon I have a stomache ache and I strap the thing in its shiny foil wrapper to the top of my pack and cinch it down. That oughta do ‘er.

The trail, which today is a mix of paved roads, jeep roads and single track, climbs back up into the lovely pine forest. Ten miles in we catch up to Kevin and a hiker named Apache, and then we all roll together for a while, which is possible on a jeep road. Even though we didn’t start hiking until 8 I want to do a thirty, and manage to convince everyone else to do this as well. Then we’re really climbing, for what feels like the first time on the CDT, and I’ve got these great endorphins and I feel really, really good. Hiking! I love hiking! Two miles from camp we all start to fade and my feet hurt as we pound down the rocky trail into the canyon but whatever. Camp is a burbling stream, our first running water, .2 miles from the Gila. It’s Apache’s birthday so I give him an antler I find in the leaves and we force him to pledge Ride or Die. We all eat our gross/amazing dinners.

Tomorrow: Gila cliff dwellings!

Photos on instagram

CDT day 7: zero in Silver City

May 11
Mileage: zero

I never meant to zero this early in the trail. Some of us are havin some foot pain and we’re not tryin to get injured in the first week (it’s a long trail, as they say) and so we’re taking a day off. I mean I guess I could hike out by myself but these dudes are my friends and excellent company and what’s that thing that people say on their deathbeds- that after it’s all said and done, our relationships with others are the only thing that matters? Something like that.

In the morning I discover that I’m in a wonderful place called “Silver City”. Silver City is a small old town of bright adobe storefronts and chirping birds and women in turquoise jewelry driving sun-faded pickups. There are crumbling bakeries and a letterpress shop and shops selling “curiosities”. Somehow this town seems neither gentrified nor sterilizied, like how Ashland, where I was living last winter, sometimes felt, but as though it’s populated by desert mystics and destitute hippies who hunt javelina and make their living reading palms. I eat breakfast with a hiker named Kevin and Handy Andy aka Andrew Bentz, who I hiked with for a few days during PCT 2014 and who also happens to hold the current self-supported speed record for the John Muir Trail. Handy Andy is rollin through town like a tumbleweed and we eat at a ramshackle taco cart in the shade of some dusty trees whose names I do not know. I slept bad in the dark motel and I’m hella bleary, but no matter. Here I am. I exist.

All day we walk around town, eat, buy this and that. Boring zero-day stuff. Our hotel is old, four stories and definitely haunted. I lie in bed, read a book and listen to the birds chirp. There is chocolate coconut bliss from the co-op. I condition my hair. Talk to hikers I haven’t yet met. Life’s small pleasures.

Before bed we watch a stressful show about night-shift ER workers and then I lie awake in the dark, sleepless. I think about what Handy Andy said when I told him I could never do thirties on the CDT right out the gate, like he is.

“Of course you can,” he said to me.

I think about that.

Photos on instagram.