We find that the mesa is a most wonderful place once we get up there. It's a flat, straight and peaceful reprieve from yesterday's drama. I use the morning to listen to music and relax even though my legs still have to move. I'm all out of food except for three bars, which means that my pack is extra light and walking is almost effortless.
At the junction we have to choose between going down to a trail that requires fording the Gila several times (translation: wet feet and potential dense, overgrown terrain) or staying high to follow a horse trail. We stay high.
When the trail fizzles out I keep walking in the general direction of it, checking the GPS to see if I'm on track. When it reappears I don't see Mud's footprints in the dirt and wonder if he's still ahead. Maybe he got lost? Not likely... so I trek on and enjoy putting the trail puzzle together all by myself.
I wander out of the wilderness to a horse corral and a road. There's Mud, waiting. He thinks I'm going too slow today. Maybe I am, but I've been having fun.
We attempt to hitch the three miles from the Gila Visitor Center to Doc Campbell's store but cars are sparse and no one stops. So we continue on, feet pounding the pavement on the windy road. Mud goes ahead and I watch him get smaller and smaller until finally he disappears around a curve. Now it's just me.
When I get to the store Mud has already claimed a picnic table out front. I go inside and am bummed to find they don't even have a decent iced tea. They do have fresh picked apples, so that kind of makes up for it. Sitting back down at the table outside, a wave of exhaustion runs over me. I didn't realize how tired I was. That might explain why the past couple days have been so hard.
Mud and I wander down the street, past a pen of goats and over a dirt road to a hot springs retreat that holds promise of a bed and showers. We arrive to find the place empty except for the owner, who offers us a large straw-bail-adobe-hogan-house-yurt.
It's better than we could've ever dreamed up. Our very own adobe cabin and our very own hot springs! Someday we'll have a place just like this, but in Washington. It's shaded and quiet and we don't see another person the whole time we're there. We spend the rest of the day soaking in the springs, eating toast with chocolate and reading books. If it weren't for the fact that we didn't have any fresh food, we may have never left. We both fall asleep just after sunset and I don't move an inch until the sun returns, trickling light in from behind the curtains.
There's nothing like a good climb in the morning to get your blood flowing. I always dread it at first, but before I know it I'm completely awake, and it was totally painless.
We leave the grassy creek bed to walk up on a plateau. It's a straight, flat path all the way to the next trailhead. A flock of wild turkeys cross the path about fifty feet ahead of me. First one, then another and another. They all disappear by the time I reach their spot.
By mid morning we're trekking along another creek bed through more tall grass. But this grass is more characteristic of the desert, leaving various forms of prickly things attached to our shoes and clothing. The most annoying are the ones that insert themselves head first into the mesh of my
shoes. Only the wispy little tails remain within view while their sharp ends poke my toes. I try to ignore the pain but have to stop frequently to remove them.
The best part of the day is short lived and quickly turns into the worst part. We find a cross country path along a dry wash. It's wide and easy to walk with rock walls towering beside us. I make the mistake of believing this is how things will be - cheerfully taking pictures and cruising along on the gravel.
Then this wash joins another wash. The new one has a running stream and is thick with willows. Our maps say to follow the stream until we cross the Gila river about four miles away, but there is no clear path. Only a faint line in the brush where it's been pushed aside a little - this is the trail.
It takes us a while to figure this out and even longer to accept that this is our path for the foreseeable future. Mud charges ahead and I don't see him for two hours. Meanwhile, the trail crosses the creek every two minutes or so. No rocks to hop on this time. I splash through, my feet sinking into the mud on the shores and releasing sulfurous gasses. When I'm not crossing the creek, I barrel through the jungle. If my legs weren't torn up before, they sure are now. I come to welcome the burning pain on my shins as a sign of progress.
I can't stop to care - we have to get through this by dark.
The jungle walk is almost over when I see Mud waiting for me amidst the tall grass. We decide to camp soon before the climb up to the mesa. We're both tired and grumpy. When finally we've set up our tent on top of the prickly terrain, I fall asleep listening to music on my headphones, promising myself that tomorrow will bring a more welcoming trail.
One canyon leads to another this morning until eventually the trail twists us up through golden oak trees and aspens rattling in the wind. We're still on the CDT, so it's a game of up and down, but mostly up, with a trail that's mostly easy to follow. We often get views of the distant mountains all painted in fall colors.
Right before lunch we see the return of the thorn-laden, overgrown trail. I'm wearing my old, worn down hiking pants which are too thin to stand up to these thickets. They rip right away in two places. This bums me out way more than expected. I've been through so much with these pants! I change into shorts before my pants get ripped more than I can repair.
My legs get scratched all afternoon but I am unfazed on account of how great the views are. The trail is rough but I'm just dazzled by the beauty of it all. Finally we start our descent, leaving the CDT and ending up on the wrong trail. Luckily, this one leads where we wanna go, too.
We follow diamond creek all the way down. It's more water than we've seen this whole time. The trail crosses the creek about forty times in three miles, usually just easy rock-hops. But this doesn't stop me from slipping and getting my feet wet. After spending a few hours navigating the tall grasses of creek side meadows, we stop to camp just before the next climb.
Our legs are weary from all the up and down today. Gila hot springs is our next stop and we're ready for a good soak. So tonight, we fall asleep dreaming about hot springs.
I wake up in a pretty good mood because we've slept at an empty campground of sorts and there happens to be a privy there. It doesn't smell bad and it's fully stocked with toilet paper. So I feel like we've really found luxury. That is, until we notice that neither of our sawyer water filters are functioning correctly. Either they're clogged up from the cow water or they froze overnight.
Luckily we're right next to a paved road. And luckily I have an extra filter in our bounce bucket, sitting at the post office just 20 miles away. It only takes 45 minutes for the first car to show up going the right direction. But he stops right away and takes us all the way to Winston. We enjoy conversation with Bo, the driver, who has taken some days off to just camp and run through the mountains.
Winston is probably the most charming of trail towns, as New Mexico goes. There is one store and a post office. Nothing else. The old lady at the post office forwards our bucket for free once we've gotten what we need out of it and the cashier woman tells me how to get cell reception.
"There's a post out there. If you walk about five steps away from it there's a black rock. Face south." And stick one leg in the air and tilt your head slightly to the left. "That's where you'll find service." She says.
The hitch back is an easy one and we're back on the trail by noon. It's a well-graded and easy-to-follow path through a pine forest. It feels like such a treat until I get used to it. Then I put headphones in and just cruise for most of the afternoon. For a moment I forget where I am. I could be anywhere, just one foot after the other, making miles.
The evening finds us walking a forest road and turning off into another canyon where we set up camp just as the sun goes down. My stove glows blue and pink against the night as I boil water for dinner. I fall asleep happy, feeling like I've found my hiker-self again.
It's exciting to be on the CDT, mostly because there are frequent trail markers in this area. Notches on trees, cairns, and even CDT blazes. Even though the trail fizzles out frequently, it's not completely cross-country walking.
The forest is lovely up here at 9,000 feet. The trees aren't too dense and pine needles carpet the ground. It's up and down on the divide all morning until after lunch when we leave the trail to find water.
A dirt road leads to a canyon where we scramble down and find several nice pools from Adobe Spring. We rehydrate and then walk down the canyon, following the wash instead of going all the way back to the trail. It seems faster that way, so we think. Then we climb up and over to another dry creekbed and follow that wash for a while. On the map it says that we're on a 'road'. But there is no road in sight. So it's cross-country all afternoon. Before we know it it's almost four o'clock and we can't tell that we've made much progress at all.
But eventually we wander out of the forest to find the cutest little dirt road. A quiet breeze welcomes us and now I can tell that it was all worth it just to be here. Cruising through the wilderness so easily. No bugs, the sun reflecting against red rocks in the distance, bunnies scampering away through tall grass. Sometimes road walks suck and sometimes they are awesome.
An ATV rumbles up eventually and the two young men stop and talk to us.
"We're just wasting our life away, drinking beer and driving this road." They tell us, before wrapping up the conversation and driving away.
Eventually I get tired of walking the road and secretly wish they would turn around to pick us up so that we could also drink beer and ride on the ATV. But one step leads to another and before I know it we're back on the trail.
We call it a day and set up camp right as the sun is going down.
We toss and turn all night in the squeaky hotel bed. Mud seems to be at baseline when we wake up but I feel like I haven't slept at all. My head is still fuzzy from all the sunshine and I'm not sure I can face it again.
Luckily there's a cafe open down the street and we manage to get some potatoes and vegetables, which helps a little. By the time we have to leave town, I've had a nap, iced tea and one aspirin and that seems to do the trick.
We spend much of the day on the side of the road, waiting for a ride out of Magdalena. A man across the street is selling apples and gives us two each, then insists on giving us each a cold bottle of water. So generous. New Mexico has been, overall, a very different kind of place than I'm used to. But it's these small acts of kindness that add up to make me think so fondly of the state.
We eventually get a ride, then another who takes us an hour on dirt roads, stops at a cow trough so we can fill up water bottles and drops us off at the CDT trail head. It wasn't exactly where we were headed, but only about 10 miles from where the CDT and GET overlap so we're happy to be there.
It's just a few miles of walking before we reach a spot too beautiful not to stop and camp. The clouds are whisping in the sky and the grass is all glowing in yellow. While we're eating dinner, the sun sinks below the horizon and lights the sky in a hundred shades of orange and pink.
The road walk continues this morning. It's not so bad since it's a dirt road and there are things to look at: hills, rock formations, cactuses, cows. But the sun rises higher and by mid-morning I'm already walking under my sunbrella attached awkwardly to my shoulder straps.
Then a truck comes rumbling up from behind us and slows down to offer us a ride. Mud leaves it up to me. I'm so hot and blistered from the sun that I hardly have to think about it. We get in the cushy back seat of the truck and ride all the way down to the highway where a little town called Socorro sits.
We find a shady spot in the Walmart parking lot and share a pint of Ben and Jerry's non-dairy ice cream while assessing the situation: we've got limited time until we head back north and want to see the most enchanting parts of the grand enchantment trail. Plus, we drove through Utah on the way here and feel compelled to at least spend a few days exploring the land of towering rocks and red canyons on the way home.
So it's decided: we'll skip ahead. A few hours later we find ourselves on the side of the road. I have my hitching crystal out and Mud is singing the hitching song. Most people just drive by and give us weird looks. They'll wave if they're feeling friendly. New Mexico hitching is a whole different game
than we're used to. It takes a while, even when we're at our best.
Finally a dude in a pickup truck stops and we hop in the bed and fly down the highway. We spend the night in the next town where the grocery store has gone out of business and the locals hang out at the saloon, throwing empty beer bottles across the bar into the trash can. But at least there's iced tea.
I wake to the sound of coyotes howling at the dawn. Yip yip yipooooooooooo, they say. All high pitched and echoing.
Our tent is dripping with condensation and our sleeping bags are wet too. We get up right away to start dealing with all the wetness. It's still dark when we start our day's walk. No trail
this morning, just cross-country for a few miles to the next road. We zig and zag and look at the GPS on my phone every few minutes to see if we're going the right way.
It doesn't take long for the sun to come up and already we're taking off layers. After an hour of cross country we meet a road that passes a few ranches. It's all dirt and gravel and soon the map tells us to leave it again. We march into unmarked territory, stepping carefully to avoid prickly pear cactuses that blend in with the exact same colors as the surrounding grass. All silver and green.
Eventually we see a barbed wire fence which serves as our guide through the open terrain. West, then south, then west again. A few times we have to cross the fence. We lift our packs over the top, then roll/crawl under the bottom wire trying not to get poked. Our final fence line guides us down a steep, rocky slope to the road below. The rocks are all loose and we make our own switchbacks. Despite my careful steps, I still end up rolling my ankle twice.
The rest of our day is a long, hot walk on jeep roads and two-track paths. In my shorts and short-sleeves I end up with blisters on my body from the heat of the sun. This desert is intense. At 6,000 feet (in the valley) we're too close to the sun. I feel myself frying, all my energy being zapped away by the big ball of fire in the sky.
All day we're walking through private ranch land. We pass cows who stare at us as we walk by. It's good they're here though, otherwise there'd be no water. It's all here for them.
By four o'clock we can't take the heat any longer so we stop for dinner. There's a solar powered well next to an empty cow pen where we can collect water. So we eat amidst the cow patties under a shady tree and wait for the sun to go down.
Just 5 more miles in the evening and we're finally past the private property. Now, we can camp. It doesn't even get cold tonight. I lay down to sleep with my ankle aching from the twist this morning and my skin emanating heat. But the sunset is breathtaking and the peace sublime.
The storms rage away outside our window. It feels good to know we made the right decision - not to sleep out there. We're safe inside for the night.
But in the morning we have to get back to the trail. It could take all day: hitching out of a city is hard work. We start by taking an Uber to Starbucks and then walking/hitching/walking from there.
It's five hours before we're finally one road away from our destination with another storm rolling in at any second. A rancher pulls up to the four way stop with his windows open, about to turn left.
"Can we go with you?" Mud calls out.
He stops in the middle of the intersection to let us hop in. I'm happy to see there are two herding dogs in the back and spend the whole ride patting their heads. The older one nuzzles me every time I stop. We drive away from the storm and into the foothills.
We set up the tent right away in preparation for the storm to hit, but it never comes. With a few hours of daylight left, we pack up and walk on. Our trail is a dirt road for a while and then takes us into a canyon wash with red rocks on either side and small pools of water leftover from last night's storms. Finally, we've found the Enchantment of the grand enchantment trail! Our very own canyon. It's the most beautiful thing we've seen in days.
We're sad to leave the magical canyon but happy to find water in a nice cattle trough. We've climbed up onto a plateau now and are following a cattle trail. We pitch our tent and make dinner, then fall asleep as lightning glows on the horizon.
The weather report says it's supposed to rain. Mud needs new shoes and I need new socks and a desert shirt to keep the sun off my chest. So we leave the almost-town of Mountainair. Walking out on the highway past barking dogs and buildings for sale, I think about the culture we're walking through. Specifically, the dogs. They ride in the back of pickup trucks, on a good day. They bark at us from behind a fence, if they're lucky. But many of them are tied up or in pens. Confined to a solitary life with little to no stimulation (I can only assume). No hugs, no baths, no games of fetch. I think about Sprout, sleeping on a couch in Redmond. So well-fed and surrounded by love. What a good life he has.
Walking past the lonely barking dogs, like when I see a truck full of pigs on the interstate all crammed on top of each other being hauled off to slaughter, I can only offer them an apology on behalf of all human kind, and move on with my day.
Two hitches, a train and bus ride later, we're in REI of Albuquerque. We buy the things we need and nothing more - a blessing of having to carry everything up buy on your back. Then search through grocery store full of processed foods to find something, anything for dinner. We leave with tortillas and juice, grateful for our supply of extra dehydrated meals back at the hotel.
Tomorrow, we go back into the desert.
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