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