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.
I wake up to howling wind and do everything extra-fast, super-focused. Eat granola, make coffee, dig cat hole, pack up sleeping bag. The sooner we walk, the sooner I may get warm.
Up. Down. Up. Down. The ridge is steep and I feel as though I'm crawling along. Five miles, I keep telling myself. Five miles until we go down for real. Five miles until it gets warm. It takes us over two hours, but eventually we descend off the ridge.
The winds calm down to only a slightly aggressive breeze and we walk through a steep burn area, improvising until we find the trail winding its way along the slope. We're pleased to find that the thickets and scrub oaks are sparse today. With only a few along the path to remind us of yesterday's pain. My legs now look like I got into a fight with a kitten.
The trail becomes a real footpath again. All wide and inviting. What's the big deal? I've been here the whole time, it says. Not like this, not since yesterday morning! I try to tell it.
We reach another dirt road. Today, I am grateful for the road walking. So simple. So clear and wide. After several miles a pickup truck stops at our outstretched thumbs and we ride in the back. Swept away to the highway where we find another ride into town. If you can call it that. There is a small hotel and a dollar store. A shower and bed is all we need for the moment, so we are content.
We enjoy a relaxing morning with coffee, oatmeal and the colorful leaves all around us. On a gentle incline we walk towards the ridge. It's another easy, well-graded path. The kind I could walk forever and never need anything else in the world. But then we reach a junction and begin our journey on the Crest Trail through the Manzano range.
We turn left and shit gets real. Without wasting any time the path is overgrown and reaching out to grab our legs. On the up side, only some of the plants have thorns. The rest is scrub oak, just scratchy and mildly painful.
I wonder if the whole day will be like this. I left behind my hiking pants in favor of shorts and am questioning if this was the right decision. I guess eventually I'll get used to walking through constant shrubs tearing at my skin. But no,
I don't want to. I put on my rain pants at the top when it gets extra windy and feel like a super hero when I walk through the bushes pain-free.
The ridge turns out to be amazing. The wind keeps howling and roaring just to keep things dramatic and the shrubs die down. It's just us and the yellow grass and many rocks underfoot. We lose the trail and find it again many times over, always walking between cairns. It feels like a puzzle and exercises the part of my brain that loves to solve problems. Eventually we descend and it gets way too hot so I walk in my shorts letting the branches scratch at my legs. Being too hot in my rain pants, they stick to my legs and it limits my range of motion. Shorts are the only option. So my legs begin to bleed at all the scratchy shrubs.
At lunch time we stop to look for water. It's 'a short bushwhack', says the map. 'Avoid thickets at all costs' says the map. Easier said than done. We traipse for about an hour through the throned bushes and never find the water source. And we can't cook lunch until we get more water.
Mud says we could have found it if we kept looking. But there's a campground one mile up the trail and we decide to test our luck.
And so ensues the all-time low point of the day. The next mile is straight uphill. Straight. Up. My stomach roars of hunger and I shove a Luna Bar in my mouth between gasps for air, just to try and stave off the bad mood of low blood sugar. Finally we crest the top of the mountain and wander toward the campground. No faucets, but there is someone camped there with twelve jugs of water just sitting out. We call out and hear no answer, so just fill up on water and go eat lunch. Thank you! We say, to no one.
It becomes clear now that with all the water finding and losing of the trail that our pace is closer to 2 than 3 mph and may cost us an extra day before our next resupply. It's that kind of trail.
And so continues the climb through thickets. There are no places left on my legs that have not been scratched, so the new scratches are all on top of old scratches which makes it extra painful. We reach the top and climb down, losing the trail again and scrambling over fallen trees on an exposed mountainside.
After another trek off-trail to find water, we set up camp in a protected grove of trees. Our search for waternthis evening is simple
consuming, as the spring drips at a rate of 1 liter every 1 minutes. Mud stays behind to fill the rest of our bottles while I go back to camp and set up the tent.
Inside the tent,
I eat dinner and count the remaining food in my bag. Mud gives me two of his bars and with this, I think I'll make it. We fall asleep to the wind howling over the ridge and temperatures dropping to almost freezing.
It's a glorious morning walking amongst the desert shrubs on the easy path. Soon we veer off onto a dirt road that eventually becomes pavement and find ourselves at the tiniest little store. I buy some pretzels and an iced tea and we make lunch out front. From here it's either a 20 mile road walk or a cross-country alternate route over reservation land. 'Attempt this route at your own risk' says the map. So we take the road and get a hitch with a local rainbow warrior.
A long gravel road takes us back into the mountains. It's a painful few hours with the sun beating hard on our skin. My pack still feels too heavy and I haven't gotten a feel for this trail yet. Will it be awesome? It's too early to tell if this suffering is worth it.
By the time we reach camp I find that it is worth it. We sleep amongst a bed of fallen leaves with orange and reds glowing all around. It's absurd, really, how these leaves just take over the landscape with their amazing colors. And no one is here to see it but us.
We spend the morning walking up and down, up and down on the ridge. Mud sees some bears just after breakfast. They're smaller, he says. The big one is about the same size as a Labrador. The oak trees are smaller too - all shrubby and short. And the squirrels are black with ears that point straight up and the bushiest of white tails. Things are different here in New Mexico at 10,000 feet.
When we descend the path becomes more like the desert as I remember it. Cactuses, Yucca and a wide, winding trail. My back aches under the new weight of my pack. I don't even have a full days' worth of food, we're set to resupply today in Tijeras. Hiking is hard, I remember now. It takes endurance, patience, a certain kind of strength that you can only find by doing it.
Tijeras has nothing to offer us but a post office where Mud retrieves our first package of food. Not even a place to charge our phones or an inviting, cold beer. I'm secretly grateful for this. It's too early to get distracted by town things.
We walk the road out of town and I continue my metamorphosis into my hiker self. The trail is well-graded and for a moment I feel as though we're on the PCT in Southern California.
I'm looking forward to an early night since last night we had to set up in the dark. But when we get to the water source where we planned to camp we find that a) there is no water and b) there is no place to camp. It turns out we have to go off trail to find the water. We walk for a mile to find a pool of still water in a canyon, covered in an oily film with tiny creatures floating all about. Mud uses his super power: collecting the cleanest water possible in any situation, and collects us both some water that is completely free of floating creatures.
By the time we've eaten dinner and found a campsite it's dark. Again. But we crawl into the tent feeling content after a good day's walk.
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