We walk the edge of the high mesa south of Cuba, NM, looking out at the desert and the line of volcanic plugs that protrude from the valley like sentinels. The rock we stepped on is smooth and rounded, while cryptogamic soil pushes up at our sides. This spongy biological soil crust is very fragile and alive and will take up to 1,000 years to rebuild should be step on it. We stick to the bare rock whenever possible. The sandstone gives way to sand, worn down over the ages, and there, on more than one early morning’s walk, are huge mountain lion tracks. The lion is just ahead of us, perhaps being chased by us. Another long-distance hiker passed this way just yesterday and his tracks are covered by the massive paw prints. We peer far ahead as we hike, hoping to catch a glimpse, but maybe the lion walked through our camp last night, which was perched on the mesa edge, as we watched the full moon rise over the desert and celebrated the start of this long CDT hike.
We met a thru-hiker this time around who reported a terrifying account of a mountain lion fight right outside his tent, with coyotes, who yipped and screamed. The hiker cowered in his tent, hoping the coyotes were enough of a meal and the lion didn’t desire a human as dessert. Come morning, they had left their blood all over the land and he was left with a new insight into the circle of life and his place in the food chain. Just knowing the lions are out here and knowing they know that we are also out here, electrifies the air and makes us hyper aware.
We’re walking from Cuba to Grants, NM, about 100 miles for this first stretch of New Mexico’s CDT 2020 hike. This year’s hike was supposed to be the last installment of our epic adventure on the Great Divide, 20+ years later. We mountain biked Jasper National Park in Canada down to the CO/NM border over three years (800 miles each year), and between last year’s backpack in N New Mexico and this year’s hike, we hoped to get to the border of Mexico and experience the entire CDT hiking trail that has now been built through the state. (When we crossed NM 20+ years ago, the “trail” was the road, which we chose to cover on tandem mountain bikes as it was impossible for us to road walk 40 miles between water sources carrying water for us and the llamas.) But if we have learned anything over the course of these forty years of adventuring, it is that things do not always go as planned. Flexibility is key.
I thought five years was the magic number as it took the same number of years for our family of little children to cover the Continental Divide Trail 20+ years ago. My goal is to write a book about Circling Back to the Great Divide, checking in on what has changed, with the land, the climate, the people we met who helped us years ago; checking in with ourselves and our children, now 20+ years older, and track how we all have grown and changed. We did not reach the monument on the Mexican border this year like we had hoped before calling it a year, but we did reach some fascinating conclusions and insights.
To begin with, it was a Covid year and nothing is the same, nor will ever be the same again. Every major Triple Crown trail (the AT, PCT and the CDT) were “closed.” Long distance hikers were told to stay home. Many of the small communities that the trails pass through are marginalized. The folks living there did not want thousands of travelers bringing in germs which could wipe them out, especially since many long-distance hikers are young, do not practice social distancing and are often asymptomatic. Indeed, one 20+ year old ignored warnings back in the spring, and in the border town of Hachita, NM, less than a week’s hike from the border, became sick with Covid. He broke into the closed community center to recuperate and stayed there for 2 weeks alone, threatening the community.
We canceled our spring flights to El Paso and postponed our spring hike, hoping the fall would provide a window of opportunity between the initial outbreak in the spring and the second wave expecting to hit in the colder months, coinciding with the regular flu season. The temps in October appeared similar to those in April, in the 70s, with the threat of high heat pretty much over. This time, we would drive to NM, use our truck’s capacity to carry food, water, extra clothing etc. and minimize our impact on the communities. Sierra and Bryce bought flights for what folks claim to be the best trail section in NM- the alternative Gila River walk- 200+ crossings of this remote canyon. Leaving PA in late September, we were excited and hopeful and in pretty good shape to backpack hundreds of miles.
Todd and I picked up where we left off in N NM last year, in the little trail town of Cuba. As luck would have it, temps were still up in the 80-90s, and because NM was in severe drought, the water sources were scarce, often dry, and far apart. I purchased a lightweight, reflective sun umbrella which we secured to my pack. It saved my life. I am susceptible to heat exhaustion and become very ill very quickly as I can’t seem to keep my body temperature low, especially with no water to dunk my head into nor soak my shirt.
Todd’s pack was heavy and we had to cover 15-18-mile days right out the gate, which is a little too much for senior hikers (it feels weird to even type that word- senior- but at 60 & 64, that’s just what we are). Even so, we had some help and needed it. The Trail Angels (TA) of Cuba and Grants did not have the hundreds of hikers to help that they normally support and they were anxious to do whatever we needed to be successful. TA Crystal Trujillo couldn’t administer her normal support as her husband Huge was going in for surgery and needed to be extra cautious, but she trained newbie Dean Kaehele, a physical therapist on how to help. She drove him many hours on rough dirt backroads to show him where her water caches are, stocked with gallons of water for the thirsty hikers. Dean wanted to go the extra mile and so he also drove a 5-gallon bucket of our extra food up to a water tank so we did not have to carry 7 days of food and could lighten our packs. He brought his daughter and girlfriend and puppy dog along, as well as treats and camped with us. It was such a joy to share the evening with these new friends who cared so much for people they barely knew. If the goal was to help us be a success, it was already achieved in this first stretch, for we were filled up with their generosity and kindness, and that was success enough.
And this first stretch surprised us with its great beauty- canyons, mesas, unusual rock formations, spectacular views and mountain lion tracks. But along our way, we heard from our children that they were canceling their flights and decided not to join us because of the increasing Covid threats. Todd and I were heartbroken as we so longed to share the beauty and adventure of the Gila River stretch with them and make a big memory.
When we got to Grants, TA Mac Bridges (whom dislikes being called a Trail Angel so we dubbed him Gandolf of Grants who does Trail Magic), took us home for some R&R. Mac put out some water caches for us in the south of the Cuba- Grants stretch and was trying to figure out how to get water to us in the next stretch- Grants-Pie Town. He pulled up a Google earth image and saw that a FS road paralleled our trail for a bit. It didn’t touch it and we would have to figure out where to go cross country for the cache. But then he shared how laborious it was to place the caches in the last stretch- a drive that took many hours over horrendous washboard and pot holed forest service roads. “Forget it, Mac,” we said, to this surgeon who was offering to give up his precious time so we could keep hiking. Instead, Todd and I decided to drive south and hike the Gila River while it was still warm. We were scheduled to hike it in three weeks but since the kids were not joining us, why wait until it was freezing cold. Temps were still in the 80s, dropping to the 30s at night, but getting your feet wet 200+ times sounds better when its warm out.
The stretch we were planning to do was from Snow Lake to Silver City (SC). When I started working on logistics on how and when to rent a car in SC and shuttle our truck, the car rental place was only open from 9-3, M-F. The way our schedule was falling, we would have to rent a car for three days and sit in SC, until the office opened back up again Monday morning. Mac listened to us and said, “I’m getting off call and driving down to shuttle you myself.” We tried to talk him out of it as it was many hours of driving and two days of his life but he convinced us that it would be an adventure, he has been wanting to see that part of NM anyway, and he truly wanted to help us and be with us. Todd and I were so touched.
We also decided to scrape the section from Grants to Pie Town as it consisted of many, many miles of road walking which we have already experienced on our bikes 20+ years ago. Todd and I discussed in detail our growing lack of interest in road walking, particularly black top. We came to NM to experience the new trail that has since been built through this state that we could not hike 20+ years ago. Back when there was no trail and thru-hikers were cycling the road, once they reached the Mexican border they considered themselves end-to-enders, rationalizing that they reached their goal via self-propelled travel and that was good enough. For 20+ years, we have thought of ourselves as Triple Crowers (covering the AT, PCT, & CDT) and now, suddenly we are not, because a trail has been built? We began to ask ourselves, who are we hiking for? At our age, after all we have accomplished in our lives, we do not feel the need to prove anything. When someone in Cuba heard we were getting a ride 5 miles down the blacktop road to where the trail began, they called us “cheaters.” Todd and I had some talks about that accusation that night.
Many thru-hikers, on every long-distance trail, stick their thumb out when they hit a road Sometimes they are dying of heat and lack of water. Sometimes they are downright scared of getting hit by a car. Sometimes they just don’t want to walk a road because they came out there to hike a trail. There is a saying that goes, “Hike your own hike.” When we hiked the CDT 20+ years ago, there were no cell phones, no Guthooks ap on your smart phone that showed your location as a pink dot and indicated when you when you were off/on the trail. Years ago, Todd hiked with a compass around his neck and a map in his hand. There was no path pounded into the earth from decades of use, very little signage or cairns. And, we had very small children to take care of and llamas, and we didn’t take a single short cut.
Most of today’s CDT end-to-enders/thru-hikers often take every short cut possible in order to reach the border in a calendar year. For example, the trail travels in an arch about 800 miles around the east side of Montana by the Idaho border. It traverses the Beaverhead, Bitterroot and Centennial Mountains and is some of the most beautiful hiking. Some thru-hikers, cut that whole arch completely off and hoof it straight down the Bighorn Plateau, hiking hundreds of miles less. Cheating? That’s what they felt they needed and wanted to do. In fact, when the thru-hikers finally reach the border, instead of 3,100-miles, they might have only hiked less than 2,000, if they take all the short cuts. The CDT is different than the other three big national scenic Triple Crown trails as there are alternatives for nearly half the trail and sometimes multiple routes for the same section. No one considers them cheaters if they take every single shorter alternative. They just miss a lot of beauty, but their goal is to get to the border as fast as possible.
(Todd and I had one of the most exquisite hikes in our lives down the Middle Fork of the Gila River and then the main branch. We truly did cross the river over 200 times that week. I will write another blog post about that experience but for now, I want to continue on with this same thread of choice.)
After we completed the Gila, we considered which section to do next. The heat was still cranked up high in southern New Mexico. Water was getting even more scarce with reports of hikers hiking after midnight and covering 30-40 miles to reach water. When you can hike that fast and far, and you come to a source that is dried up, they just keep their lightweight rucksack on and do another 10. Todd and I could not do that. We could die. It’s that simple.
Most of the CDT thru-hikers are young. Many have something to prove. They long for the designation of earning the Triple Crown. At this point, Todd and I are about enjoying our lives, having adventures, but risking death from heat exhaustion, nope. We met a 61-year-old thru-hiker doing the CDT and after a few hundred miles, and when heard that we were hiking 11-12-mile days through the Gila instead of 20s, and he shook his head and said, “Lingering. That’s how that trail should be hiked through there, it’ so gorgeous,” and we could see that he was feeling doubtful about his break-neck pace, which at 61 was a lot more difficult to maintain.
I met a AT & PCT thru-hiker who is running a hostel in Silver City who longs to also complete the CDT someday, and earn his Triple Crown. He doesn’t know how he can possibly ever do a thru-hike and run his business at the same time, however. Coming from a LD hiker who hiked the AT in two halves because I broke my foot, the PCT in two halves so I could go slower and write and create a book, and then the CDT in 5 stretches because we had little kids and could only cover 10 miles a day, I said, “Why don’t you do the CDT in stretches then, break it up so you can run your hostel when the bulk of the hikers are coming through?” To that he replied, “That’s not my style. I need to do it all in one shot.” And I asked, “What if that’s the only way you can hike it?” He didn’t know. Flexibility. The CDT teaches you that. And it makes you question your motives, your reasons for being there.
There were Trail Angels who wanted to help us hike the Grants to Pie Town section and the Pie Town to Snow Lake section- Carol Mumm and Jetta Sturgeon, but they were 80 and 74 years old and it was getting very difficult for them to lug water to remote spots, just so we could hike through the desert. Earlier this year, Jetta’s truck broke down on the horrendous roads that she must access in order to get the water out there and she was struggling financially to repair it. How could we possibly, in good conscious, have them assist us, even if they wanted to, even if it was their idea and said it would bring them great joy to help us? We still had 25 miles in-between water sources, even with their water caches, and we still couldn’t cover that in a day.
There wasn’t much trail left for us to hike. Through the Gila, Todd’s knee began to hurt and he spent that week limping with a brace on. Then Dr. Mac Bridges examined his swollen groin and diagnosed him with a double hernia, which he advised us to return home to repair.
So, after 200 miles, after only two weeks of hiking, but two great weeks of hiking, he decided to turn our truck eastward and headed home. But before we left, Mac orchestrated a wonderful day hiking the Acomo-Zuni Trail across the fascinating lava fields in the El Malpais National Monument. This great trail is the actual CDT but thru-hikers rarely take it and take the more direct but less scenic road to Pie Town instead (with their thumb out or not). We also hiked the Narrows Rim Trail above the gorgeous sandstone cliffs which the thru-hikers never take the time to experience it, so who is the richer for it?
Will we return to hike the remaining arid desert stretches? Not in 2021. I have two books coming out (Jan & April) and need to be available for interviews. We already know the fall is not the time to be out in New Mexico’s desert- too dry compared to the spring. Spring of 2022? Todd said if his body only has a certain amount of miles left on it, is the dry hot desert where he wants to spend it? How about the Hebrides Islands off the coast of Scotland, where you ferry to each of the ten islands and hike down each one? Or maybe backpack in Newfoundland where there are 250 drop-dead gorgeous miles of hiking trails that look like Norway? We will have to see. I presently enough material for a new book about Circling Back to the Great Divide already. These discussions on what is important, how what is important changes over time, how the droughts and climate change have changed our land, how the ranchers are selling cows because the land cannot support their livestock, how the type of hiker has changed (professional who is “bagging” trails), and how this elitist group of sometimes entitled hikers are being elevated to the level of gods, are all topics I want to explore in my book. I want to ask questions like can the more arid land/climate support future hikers in New Mexico, and is it really the responsibility of elderly women to keep thirsty hikers alive? And can we look at Covid too and how it has changed how we do everything in our lives, including long distance hiking. These are all discussion points that make for a more interesting book. We will have to wait and see what shape our bodies are in in 2022 to undertake another long-distance desert hike and if there is any passion for it. In the meantime, my pen will take me back to Jasper National Park and I will begin work on a new manuscript.
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