DAY 29: Cuba, New Mexico
A benefit of cowboy camping? (That's sleeping with no shelter, aka just your sleeping bag/pad on the ground, for those of you who haven't been paying attention.) When you can't sleep at night you can just lie on the ground and watch shooting stars (or possibly alien spacecraft) whiz across the sky.
As my sleepless night turns to morning, I pack up my backpack to the sound of Appa and Moist heavily breathing in their sleep. They're still in their sleeping bags as I ready to leave camp for our day's destination, Cuba, New Mexico. It's ten miles (16 km) of waterless desert to Highway 197 where the CDT turns into a 4.5 mi / 7.2 km road walk into town. I take 1.5 liters of water and set off alone in search of town.
Although many people would like to imagine thru-hiking as a constant stream of never-ending excitement, it can be incredibly boring. At the top of a small climb after an hour of hiking, I get cell reception and decide to pass the time walking to town annoying friends with early-morning phone calls. I get some answers, but my labored breathing and the sound of my footsteps (apparently very audible via my microphone) result in my calls all ending with, “Can you call me back when you're not walking?”
That was fun, I guess.
Following the trail along a plateau I see the highway in the distance.
Ahead of me, the trail meets a dirt road where I find that Silver, an older hiker we met a couple of days ago, is not too far ahead of me. I can't see Silver, but I can see his footprints. It's something that happens when you're thru-hiking – you get to know and recognize everyone's footprints (a largely useless skill outside the thru-hiking context).
Walking down to the dirt road, I pass multiple cow herds as I warily avoid the largest and most evil-looking bovines. Although I have never been, seen, or heard of anyone being attacked by a cow, their size (and occasionally their horns) mean that I keep my distance. Speaking of cow horns, did you know, technically, a “cow” is an adult female that has had a calf? Only bulls have horns. Does anyone really care? Can't we just call all cattle (what we should be calling cows) cows? Sure.
I reach the highway and start walking toward town with my thumb out in hopes of catching a passing motorist's attention and sympathy.
After half an hour of walking, a kindly New Mexican man stops to give me a ride.
The driver drops me at Cuba's grocery store (there's only one in this town of 700-something people) and I head inside to buy tens of thousands of calories. It's an impressive little store and they've got everything a hiker could ask for (including Sriracha and gas for my stove). As I leave, the owner attempts to sell me a solar-powered light. I decline, citing potential impracticalities.
My backpack filled with food for my time in town and for the next stretch of trail (~50 mi / 80.5 km to Ghost Ranch), I embark on my next town mission – finding out which of Cuba's three motels to stay at. The Del Prado (where most of the hikers apparently stay) doesn't look too nice; it's $59 plus tax. Nobody at the Frontier Motel (appears to be the nicest of the three) is answering the phone and since it's on the north side of town, I'm not risking the ten minutes it would take to walk there and ask my questions in person.
That leaves the Cuban Lodge.
A wall filled with crucifixes and bibles greets me when I enter the lobby for the Cuban Lodge. As I cower in the presence of such overwhelming religion, an elderly woman emerges from the back room to greet me.
The price is $60 (including tax) for a room, and all I have to do to be granted permission to enter my room is endure a twenty-minute lecture about local politics and this woman's grandson. Fair trade, I guess. Turns out that the cash price is $60 and since I lack the necessary paper to pay, I promise to get the monies later in the day (despite very much not wanting to leave the confines of the motel room).
Said room is acceptable as far as CDT motels go – not great, but not the worst. It's got two double beds, a bathroom, some peeling walls, and a CRT television in the corner.
I send Appa and Moist a message to let them know where to come when they get to town, and by the time I'm out of the shower they've arrived.
We head across the street to the Cuban Cafe where we get some excellent breakfast burritos and exceptional service.
New Mexico might not have the greatest reputation when it comes to US states (and if you're finding this out for the first time, New Mexican, I'm sorry), but goddamn, we've gotten some exceptional service along the CDT.
After our most excellent of town meals, Appa volunteers to do the laundry (another necessary town chore). As he walks across town with a bag of filthy clothing, Moist and I go to work on the beers I picked up on the way to the motel. Drinking beer during a thru-hike is necessary to help the body recover and to maintain an aggressive hiking regimen.
The double beds in the Cuban Lodge are too small for two people who aren't trying to spoon. After losing a coin toss to Moist, I make up my bed on the floor.
Before heading to bed we decide it's best to eat one more meal and as we wander the street of Cuba (there's just one) we discover that our options are limited to McDonald's and/or gas station convenience store (to which the McDonald's is attached).
When I order my Mighty Kids Meal, the McDonald's employee (foolishly) asks me if I want the toy. Do I want the toy? Of course, I want the toy. Why do you think I'm ordering the Mighty Kids Meal? For the not toy?
My toy turns out to be a small stuffed moose whom I dub “Dog” because of the couple (Wolf Man and Dumpling) who is hiking with their dog named Moose. GET IT!?
DAY 30: McDonald's
Obviously, we go back to the Cuban Cafe for breakfast, and despite our server not being on the same tier as yesterday's, we leave satisfied.
Also in the cafe this morning are Messenger, Lumber, and Sherpa C – fellow walkers of the Trail of Continental Divide. It's Sherpa C's thirtieth (a word that looks very strange spelled out) birthday today. Yay? I feel people are generally pretty glum when it comes to thirty. I guess I should take advantage of my remaining twenties.
Back in the room, we start packing up and during a brief interaction with the motel owner, she makes a comment (a joke?) that strongly suggests that our checkout time is noon (something like “checkout is noon” followed by an old lady cackle). So…checkout is noon? Excellent, no rush then.
We are still packing when the same woman returns around 11:00 to scold us for not being out of the room (which it appears she “needs”). I thought check out was noon? Nope. Apparently, it's 10:30.
On our way out of town, we get sucked back into McDonald's.
I hang out inside making regrettable decisions as Moist and Appa head across the street to get their resupply. Chris, another CDT hiker, has claimed the one table with a power outlet and I join him to ensure my phone is operating at maximum battery when I step off onto the trail again.
Acorn, JPEG, Napolean, Red Cross, and Haas (yes, more CDT hikers) also get sucked into McDonald's and pretty soon we (the hikers of the CDT) dominate the place.
This is how people get sucked into town and never leave.
When Moist and Appa return, I'm on the phone and they get back on the trail without me (don't want to waste that battery, you know?).
I fill up my water bottle with Powerade from the fountain machine (hey, I bought a drink and there are free refills, who says I can't fill my water bottle?) and by the time I leave, I've been at McDonald's for over five hours (this is how you know you've had a great and productive day).
It's a road walk out of town – first a paved highway, then a paved side street, then a dirt forest road.
As I begin a climb, cars start to pass me coming down from what I assume are people returning from day hikes (either that or they are stashing bodies out here in the New Mexico mountains where they will remain undiscovered for probably ever).
I stop one to ask if they spotted two hikers (Moist and Appa) ahead of me. They have.
When I catch Moist and Appa they're already looking for a place to camp and to eat the Subway sandwiches they packed out of town. I'm okay with this.
We settle at a campsite 6,306 ft / 1,922 m above sea level and light a fire to celebrate being back on the trail (and because now we can – fires weren't a great idea in the Bootheel).
It's literally freezing all night.
DAY 31: “I HAVE MADE FIRE!”
My tent's fly (that's the cover that keeps the rain off you) is covered in ice when I wake up since it was cold enough for the condensation to freeze last night. The current outside temperature is a brisk 23°F / -5°C.
Hands and fingers now freezing from having to pack up an ice-covered tent, I start hiking only to be interrupted by a call from nature. Let me tell you, digging a hole is not easy when the ground is frozen.
The sun rising higher into the sky brings relief to my hands, but it also brings with it another problem, melting snow. I'm soon walking through freezing water up to my ankles. Hooray!
Trails crisscross everywhere and I find myself having to pay attention to not get myself lost (imagine that). Zoning out and just hiking is a luxury only occasionally afforded by the CDT (a big difference from life on the Pacific Crest Trail).
In addition to having to avoid taking the wrong trail, I also find myself having to avoid water-filled holes in the ground that are literally deep enough to fully submerge me should I accidentally step into one. This is some next-level-thru-hiking shit.
Some elk in an adjacent field serve to briefly distract from my now freezing socks. Speaking of elk, do you know what are delicious? Elk.
Relief from the freezing, flooded meadow that is the trail comes as I begin descending into what I hope will be some nicer terrain.
It's not, really. Instead of walking through freezing water, this section of trail involves navigating countless downed trees. Sometimes the blowdowns are so dense that it is difficult to find the trail again once I've made it through their maze.
At the next water source, I find Appa and Moist drying out their tents and filling up on delicious spring water bubbling up out of the ground.
Drying out our shelters and sleeping bags has become something of a ritual on the trail. It's never nice to get to the end of a long day of hiking only to have to set up a went shelter and get into a wet sleeping bag.
We pass two new hikers whom we have not previously met and who will not be named since I saw one of them pooping in the bushes. Careful with your site selection, friends.
Crossing a road, we come across a site of former trail magic – an empty cooler with a half-filled trash bag hanging from a nearby tree. Hopefully, this hasn't been like this for long and the awesome person who left this magic on the trail is going to continue being awesome by coming out the clean up the aftermath of their good deed.
The road is at the low point between two plateaus, the one we just came down off and the one we're about to go up. Dark clouds are gathering over where we began our day, and it's not long before the sound of thunder calls for us to look back as lightning flashes above where we began our day.
Good thing we're about to go up.
It's around 1,000 ft / 300 m to the top of the climb and despite having the fear of Zeus in me, I can't seem to keep up with Appa and Moist's pace today.
They're waiting for me near the top and we take a break in a random shelter that we find. Looking at the map, I find a forest road that looks shorter and appears to climb less than the official CDT. Obviously, we are going this way.
The shortcut works brilliantly and before long we're back on the official CDT. There's blue sky ahead of us and we appear to have safely made it out of the storm's reach.
All around us the air is buzzing with what sounds like static, but what's apparently some sort of insect. If it's a cicada, it's definitely not one I've heard before.
We have good views ahead of us as the trail switchbacks along another round of downhill hiking (downhill is where I excel).
When we reach a bridge over the Chama River (which is raging with snowmelt), we take the 25.4 mi / 40.9 km Ghost Ranch Alternate heading towards Ghost Ranch – our next resupply stop (where we've all mailed ourselves boxes).
It's back on a dirt road for this alternate and, fortunately, there are some established campgrounds with proper toilets along the way because my stomach is very angry with me for some reason (could it have been all that McDonald's?).
We stop in at one of the campgrounds and stake out our campsite near the river where we enjoy our second consecutive night of building a stone circle and watching wood burn inside of it.
DAY 32: Ghost Ranch
When I wake up Appa is nearly packed and ready to go; Moist isn't far behind.
My stomach still isn't doing great and so I'm probably about an hour behind my hiking companions by the time I finally leave camp.
It's about 7 mi / 11.3 km down a dirt road to Ghost Ranch this morning and, rather surprisingly, a fair bit of traffic uses this road (I'm nearly run over a number of times).
I reach Highway 84 which means Ghost Ranch and my glorious resupply box are less than an hour away, but I get stopped by a guy named Tom hanging out in his camper on the side of the road.
He's driving around hiking, biking, and apparently handing out bananas, grapefruits, mangos, chocolate milk, salami, and pita to hikers like me. Good on you, Tom.
Now I'm really behind Moist and Appa.
I cross the highway and try to find my way through the abandoned museum that (I think?) used to be part of the trail. Multiple errors in judgment mean that I end up having to jump a fence and then cut cross-country through the scrub before finding the trail.
By the time I arrive at Ghost Ranch, Moist and Appa have already unpacked their resupply boxes and started wondering where the hell I was.
Nope, not dead (yet).
My understanding is that Ghost Ranch is a retreat – whatever that means. An employee tells me that it was originally called El Rancho de los Brujos (that's the Español) so that people would think it was haunted (and I guess not come here?).
Since then, it's made a name for itself as the former studio of Georgia O'Keeffe (you know, the flower vagina painting lady) and has been used as a set in a number of films including 3:10 to Yuma, No Country for Old Men, and one of the greatest pictures of all time, Wild Wild West.
Filled with new facts about this strange place in the middle of New Mexico, we get down to business and buy our entry to the $12 lunch buffet where an array of sandwich making materials and watermelon slices await our consumption.
We spend the entire lunch hour (from 12:00 until 13:00) stuffing ourselves.
After lunch, we head to the library where there are not only books to be enjoyed, but also a television. This television happens to have a DVD player and there just happens to be a large DVD library available to the public? Whoever decides to come here? Can anyone just come here and hang out for free for the day?
a little very confused about what exacetly this place is/does.
Obviously, we need to watch a movie before getting back on the trail (what else are we going to do while we drink Appa's bottle of whiskey?). CDT TIP: if you want alcohol at Ghost Ranch, send it to yourself in your resupply box because there's none available here (except don't ship yourself alcohol because that would be illegal).
We pop in the Jeremiah Johnson DVD and get to work.
It's nearly 17:00 by the time we've finished our film, our whiskey, and our conversation with the former-pastor turned Ghost Ranch regular who decided to spend his afternoon with us.
We head up the box canyon north of Ghost Ranch and make camp as soon as we find somewhere suitable for our shelters.
“Where you headed?”
“Same place you are, Jeremiah: hell, in the end.”
DAY 33: Getting Lost
The climb out of Ghost Ranch continues this morning; if only we were less drunk and lazy last night, we could have gotten this over with.
Markers on the CDT can be incredibly varied and sometimes you don't know if you're following something that means “CDT this way” or “something completely different”. Today I followed a blue square that apparently meant the latter.
Don't worry, I didn't stay lost for long.
By the time the Ghost Ranch Alternate rejoins the official CDT I've found my way and with my way I've also found Moist.
It feels like we've been hiking uphill the entire day (which is entirely possible), and the two of us take a break to gather our strength for the next round of extreme walking. We nearly miss Appa at the next water source; he's getting ready to leave as we show up.
In other news, it looks like it might shape up to be a stormy afternoon.
When we get moving again, Appa takes off leaving Moist and I to fend for ourselves.
We pass a number of junctions and at some point the two of us realize we've gone the wrong way. We need to backtrack (maybe my least favorite thing to do on the trail) for close to ten minutes before we find the trail again. Ten minutes might not sound like that long, but it feels like an eternity in the current context.
Our next break comes at the base of a large climb and as I shovel candy into my mouth we watch dark clouds gather above our heads. Then comes the thunder. No sign of Appa. He's probably dead.
As we advance, we're met with probably the worst section of blowdowns (that's trees that have fallen over) I've ever seen. It's literally so thick that we're walking along tree trunks more than we're walking on the ground.
Forget about trying to follow any semblance of a trail.
When it looks like we've made it past the worst bit, we find a sign attached to a tree informing us that the official trail here is closed. Pink ribbons mark an alternate. We blindly follow them (when a piece of paper attached to a tree in the middle of nowhere tells you to do something, you do it).
The ground is getting snowy again and just as we find Appa (sitting on the other side of a stream crossing), Moist slips and takes a huge fall. I don't care who you are, people falling is funny.
Our path to camp leads up through mounting fields of snow.
For laughing at Moist earlier, I'm rewarded with a huge fall as I attempt to jump from a snowbank down onto a muddy trail. My ass, arms, and backpack are now covered in freezing mud. Excellent.
After investigating animal tracks in the snow and another elk sighting, we manage to find small (and most importantly, dry) campsite where we pitch our shelters very close together and facing one another so that we can all cook and eat dinner together but from the comfort of our sleeping bags.
We're very cute.
DAY 34: Losing Your Friends
I'm very happy with my decision to ship my gloves to Ghost Ranch because I'm now using them every morning (honestly, I could have used them from the start of the trail).
Day thirty-four of extreme walking across the US had a couple of highlights – the first of which was a thunderstorm.
Ultimately, where I happen to be during a thunderstorm is my own fault, but sometimes I can't help but imagine that the universe is just having a laugh at me (or actively trying to kill me).
Today's thunderstorm strikes as I walk a ridge at around 10,000 ft / 3,050 m.
Looking at the map, I see that there looks to be a forest road paralleling the trail at a slightly lower elevation; I decide to cut down to it because lightning, etc.
The rain intensifies until I decide it's time to put on my rain jacket. Unfortunately, in my rush to equip my rainwear (rushing not because I'm getting wet, but instead because I irrationally fear that each additional second I spend on this ridge puts my life in extreme peril), my sunglasses fall from their incredibly secure storage spot on my backpack's chest strap.
I do not see them fall.
It's not for nearly a mile that I realize my eyeball protection has been left behind. Do I backtrack twenty minutes via a lightning-plagued ridge in hopes of (probably?) finding my (quite expensive) sunglasses?
I haven't seen any sign of Appa or Moist since seeing them both stopped for a snack around four hours ago.
The trail today hasn't been incredibly well-defined and the opportunities for alternate routes and shortcuts have been plentiful. Last I knew, both Appa dn Moist ahead of me, but I am hoping that I've somehow passed them and that one of them will come across my lost sunglasses.
Making it to the end of the ridge, I'm relieved to see that I've made it to (what my brain tells me is) safety. This point in the trail would be where I would expect to find Appa and/or Moist to be waiting for me, but I find no sign of them. Either I've passed them or they've gone on to the campground just ahead (or, the obvious answer, they're dead).
I reach the campground and still no sign of Appa or Moist.
When you're hiking with others, you (generally) need to be able to predict and trust one another's judgements if you're going to successfully stick together (and not kill each other). Usually, assuming that the other person (or persons) will make what you would consider the most rational/logical decision in a given scenario will lead to a successful hiking partnership. If you and someone else don't have similar definitions of “rational and/or logical”, then your fellowship will probably be short-lived.
Deciding I have somehow passed Appa and Moist, I confirm my suspicion by asking a group of campers next to trail (now a forest road) if they've seen two other hikers come by recently. They have not. Seeming concerned, they graciously offer their ATV for me embark on a search and rescue mission (an offer I did not take them up on – but that I definitely should have).
After half an hour of sitting alone in the rain (and hoping those nice ATV people would invite me over for some food and a beverage), my companions arrive.
Even better than our reunion? Moist has found my sunglasses.
We've only hiked 20.5 mi / 33 km and we've still got plenty of sunlight left, but this campground has a nice shelter for us to hang out in and a nice fire pit for us to burn stuff in, so we decide to call it a day and relax (and watch things burn).
Our decision turns out to be a good one as we are gifted cold and delicious beverages by a couple searching for Napolean and Red Cross, two fellow CDT hikers.
And to think, just a couple of hours ago I was shitting my pants in a thunderstorm; how quickly fortunes change on the CDT.
DAY 35: A Perilous Creek
I chose to sleep in the wooden shelter last night; Appa and Moist chose to set up their tents for fear of rodents. They wake up today with tents and sleeping bags covered in condensation, I wake up perfectly dry. Suckers.
While Appa and Moist dry out their gear in the morning sun, I head to the parking lot privy to take care of some business; the toilet paper I find (which is a surprise in itself) is some of the softest I've ever found in a public toilet.
I take some.
I'm the first one out of camp today (which is rare) and I slowly head up the trail as it crosses a highway and heads up a dirt road filled with tricky junctions (many of which I am forced to guess the way at since my GPS is still not functioning and many of the spurs are not featured on any of my maps).
Luckily, I have the Best of Bowie to keep me company.
The CDT transitions from the road to a faint trail through a lot of snow and marshy areas – wet (and freezing) feet once more. Before starting the CDT, wet shoes and feet would have ruined my day, now I've accepted them as a part of my life.
Appa catches and passes me which is a bit of a relief since I was unsure whether or not I was on the trail. Mornings are typically when the Appa thrives; I usually excel in the second half of the day. As Appa disappears from view, Moist catches me and the trail emerges from the trees and enters a large meadow.
We head through a thick aspen grove as my phone beeps at me with random spots of reception (I had turned off airplane mode in an attempt to get a location fix earlier).
As Moist pulls ahead and out of view I once again lose faith that I'm on what some would consider the “Official CDT”. I end up following a fence until I reach a point where I know I should be at a river – visible a lengthy vertical distance below me.
I cut down a steep canyon wall towards the river crossing at the bottom. Once again, the CDT is (literally) what you make it.
Surprisingly, Appa and Moist both arrive at the crossing at nearly the same time as I do – but from different directions. We hear the approaching roll of thunder in what's become an all-too-common occurrence. We're at the start of a climb up onto the canyon rim and decide to take a break in an attempt to wait out the storm.
The storm intensifies as we are rocked by thunder, lightning, rain, and hail for the next twenty minutes – just enough time to cook and eat some rice.
When the danger looks like it's on its way out, we start our climb up the (now incredibly muddy) trail (it's still raining). The mud clumps and sticks to our shoes like clay (maybe it's clay?) making progress slow and frustrating. Story of the CDT.
During our impromptu meal, I noticed that I am running quite low on food. If I conserve, I should have just enough to get me to Chama, New Mexico (the final New Mexico resupply stop and, technically, the first of Colorado – you have to cross the border and then hitch back to get there).
In the interest of getting to town as quickly as possible, we take a cut via a forest road that turns out to be the equivalent of a mud-covered ice rink. Fortunately, when we rejoin the CDT the trail is buried beneath snow and has become a literal ice rink.
Following the invisible trail through a maze of trees feels a bit like walking around a house of mirrors – you feel like maybe you're making progress, but everything looks the same and you can't be quite sure (and sometimes you feel like just destroying everything).
Eventually, the trail breaks out of the trees and onto a ridge where we find Appa and we calculate our next move.
Looking at the map (as we are all constantly doing), we discover (what we believe to be) a large cut that will save us something like 5 mi / 8 km. We follow a clearing down to a meadow below and everything is going swimmingly until we get to a quick-flowing and a rather deep creek (stream?).
We walk up and down the bank looking for a spot where we can at least see the bottom.
Appa abandons hopes of a successful crossing and heads north on a large detour (of our detour). Moist and I resolve to cross and after finding a spot we deem acceptable, we step into the freezing snowmelt.
It quickly becomes clear that we've underestimated the strength of the water as I inch deeper into the stream and the water rises above my knees. The two of us should definitely be crossing this together (as opposed to simply at the same time). With water now up to my waist, I am more focused on not being knocked over than I am with making progress to the other side; this may not end well.
I look at Moist who appears to be having an even more exciting time and I watch as he slips, loses his balance, wildly flails his arms, and somehow manages to catch himself before being completely taken in by the water.
That was almost not very good.
Fortunately, we both make it across without our torsos or backpacks entering the water.
Once we link back up with the CDT we find shelter and camping in a grove of trees near the trail. Thunder is rumbling in multiple directions, so we expect this to be quite an eventful night.
Our dinnertime entertainment features the elk bugles and the distant rumbling of elk hooves – the perfect mac and cheese complement.
Tomorrow, we enter Colorado.
- Day 29 (May 27): 10.5 mi / 16.9 km (arrive Cuba)
- Day 30 (May 28): 13.2 mi / 21.2 km (leave Cuba)
- Day 31 (May 29): 30 mi / 48.3 km
- Day 32 (May 30): 11.5 mi / 18.5 km (Ghost Ranch)
- Day 33 (May 31): 29.3 mi / 47.15 km
- Day 34 (June 1): 20.5 mi / 33 km
- Day 35 (June 2): 32 mi / 51.5 km
WEEK'S TOTAL: 148.8 mi / 239.5 km