Staying with the Mumms in Grants, New Mexico was hard to let go of. How do you say goodbye to trail angels like them? They fed us, gave us lifts anywhere we needed to go, regaled us with stories of the pueblo ruins they’d discovered and fed us again. The feeding part looms large as the “hiker hunger” is beginning to get us all.
The duo I had started the Continental Divide Trail with at the Mexican Border, Nancy “Why Not” Huber and myself, had grown to four. We had met Eric Bow on trail just before Grants, a strong hiker from San Diego who is just completing his Triple Crown with this hike of the CDT. He’s a hiker who I’d briefly met on my Pacific Crest Trail thru hike in 2010. The Triple Crown consists of thru hikes of the PCT, CDT and AT, three of the world’s greatest trails, but Eric’s thrown in the AZT, Arizona Trail and the FLT, Florida Trail just for good measure.
After becoming a soldier in his early twenties then teaching English in the Czech Republic for eleven years, Eric came back to the states and decided to reacquaint himself with America by walking across it. He’d looked at a few trail journals and read all of my hiking partner Nancy’s in 2009, and decided he might be able to do it. His timing was for a start southbound in June 2010 leaving from Canada into deep snow in the North Cascades, just as I was entering deep snow in the High Sierra that year. He had to retreat and buy an Ice Axe before attempting it again. He completed the trail that year and has barely stopped hiking since.
The other person was Wyoming who I had hiked with on the PCT for several days in Oregon in 2010, and who is now trying to complete the CDT and fit in a NOLS certification training beginning in early June. NOLS is the National Outdoor Leadership School, an internationally recognized wilderness school, where she’d like to be an instructor. Wyoming is a soft spoken and gentle person who smiles with her whole face, from her Celtic chin to her bright red hair, which she wears short and straight and wild on top. She’s a delight to hike with and a welcome companion on any trail.
We had all begun to bond as friends after a day of Mumm’s hospitality. We didn’t hit trail until 11am after a slow morning of not being able to let go of the connection in Grants. Hugo dropped us off at the trailhead for Horace Mesa seven miles out of town, a stretch we had “slack packed” (walked without packs) the day before. After a few hundred feet of climbing we reached the top of the mesa. We had hiked past numerous terraces where we imagined ancient people living and we kept our eyes peeled for possible prehistoric pueblo sites and artifacts, but we found none. We needed the trained eyes of the Mumms to do that. Tabletop grasslands and piñon pine forests sloped in a gradual incline for many miles toward Mt. Taylor, the highest point on the CDT in New Mexico.
The tops of mesas are easy hiking, it’s the ups and downs getting there that are taxing. By late afternoon we’d reached the lower slopes of Mt. Taylor and had begun to hike in tall pines again. A pickup truck load of cowboys talked with us at one cattle spring they were working on and offered us water, but we had just filled up at a water cache the Mumms had provided at the base of the mountain. They seemed incredulous at the thought of our journey, but nonetheless, fascinated, and we were likewise, plying them with questions about their herds. All of us were from worlds apart, yet the connection for those few minutes was real and our eyes were opened while we talked, to lives very different from those we each led.
Our climb took us up through pines that transitioned to new leafed aspen and finally a high country fir forest. Stunted yew were putting out berries and eventually even that was left behind as we entered steep, lush grasslands for the last thousand feet. The trail made long traverses, switchbacking up steeply to the top. Eric showed his speed, leaving us all in the dust, just an orange shirt against the tall grass, his long strides carrying him up.
We all took photos in the thin air at the top where we were met by a small crater with a sign that we were on Mt. Taylor at 11,301 feet. This is a volcano with a shape like Fuji and that last steep incline had been a bear. Today was our first real sustained climb of the hike, and great training for the mountains of Colorado, just a few weeks ahead.
The wind was chill, and we hurried down trail over our first patches of snow and found a camp and fire ring just a mile from the summit. The wind was howling, blowing in from the southeast and we scouted out sites on the lee side of the ridge, out of the blast. Each of us nestled snugly into the cavities at the bases of large fir trees. We could hear the wind in the tops all night, but slept sheltered and relatively warm in the protection of the forest.
The next day we worked our way down onto lush meadows of grass and dandelions with old willow trees whose trunks were several feet in diameter, to American spring where the pure water gushed out of a pipe, clear and ice cold.
We gave a quick look at the maps and thought our next water was in thirteen miles at Los Indios spring. Our quick look had missed a big chunk of trail and the day turned into a very hot hike over miles of mesa top for which we had not packed enough water.
Before the end of the day I was down to a cup or two of water and allowed myself a swallow every fifteen minutes. I’d hold it in my mouth long enough to really saturate those dry membranes and finally swallow. It took about ten minutes for everything to dry out and then I’d begin the process again. Talking was hard and the trudge just went on, mile after mile as there was no water behind us and none to the sides.
At dusk we came to Los Indios spring on a half mile spur trial. It led into a deep canyon with two cement cow tanks at the bottom. Here again we found gushing, cold water coming straight out of the ground and we drank deeply. We washed the dust of our first thirty mile day off our feet and settled in on a soft pine needle carpet, surrounded by the moist air of green leaves exhaling water all evening long.
Wyoming reminded me that she had hiked her first thirty mile day with Motor and me on the PCT in 2010. She hadn’t done another until today. I pled being a bad influence and told her not to follow such irresponsible people in the future, but I think she’s hopelessly in love with long distance hiking, so there’s another thirty in her future. I’m sure of that.
Water becomes so precious in an arid land that the smell of moisture is as heady as the perfume of sage brush in the dry lands above. The wet air of a redwood forest could not have slaked our lizard dry skin any better than the moist out-breath of the willows and pines of that canyon after thirty parched miles. The next day was better and I planned for more water from then on.
Darkness fell, and clouds gathered. We felt a rain drop and all decided it wouldn’t really rain. Then another, and we agreed again that it was just playing with us. Finally the skies opened and we all scurried to clean up our camps and drape ground cloths on everything while we pitched tents, only the second time in New Mexico for Nancy and me. By headlamps we scurried and pegged and pounded our little shelters into place, packed our gear and ourselves inside and on cue, the rain stopped and never began again. Oh well, it’s all good practice for what we’ll need to do in the Rockies on a daily basis.
The next day had us hiking for miles across the table top land that is so quintessentially New Mexico. For several hundred feet the trail climbs the sheer sides of a mesa, past great mud domes, caverned by the whims of erosion, up past spires and pinnacles and mushroom topped towers, lined with the strata of the eons. Then it winds its way along the edge, giving breathtaking views out over a land of monuments and remnant mesas, a land ruled by the power of erosion. The massifs and high level lands are cut from one another by vast dry washes, snaking white across miles of flat riverine bottoms. The sides of the cut faces are painted in a layer cake, every shade of tan and grey to rust, burgundy and purple. As the afternoon clouds play out against the faces of these grand creations, their shadows cast the world into muted tones, setting off all the more the brilliance of the palate cliffs still bathed in sun.
It was nothing but spectacular and it was during this part of our hike that I began to feel the rightness of the state’s motto, "The Land of Enchantment." The power of sun and color and the airborne dust of yesterday’s blow softening it all, is simply visual magic, an arid land of sparkling springs and volcanic chaos rounded by the faces of endless, tiered mesas.
We hiked a thirty mile day, then a twenty-three and finally a twenty-four, all in a row, and all dictated by water needs, yet we only once filtered from a cow tank. We passed ruins and lunched in the sandy, cool, shadows of junipers, where the heat of the day all but left us. And we’ve been very fortunate so far with the weather. Almost all of New Mexico has been in the upper seventies and lower eighties. Many times as we walked along, waxing over the beauty all around us, we’ve also realized that at one-hundred and ten degrees in the shade, it would not be fun. It would not be beautiful. We each know friends who’ve ended this hike due to the heat and we know several hikers behind us right now, struggling in the deserts near the border where we began over a month ago, much cooler than they.
Wild horses, wild iris and cactus flowers have flashed by as we walk. One step at a time, we’ve gotten to know each other on trail, talked politics and religion and beauty, and what it is to get to know a place so intimately, foot plant after foot plant. We’ve been exhausted together and refreshed at springs so clean they begin to wash one’s soul new. The foot pounding rhythm of the miles beats a meditative cadence in our heart’s push. Blood flows and the exhaustion in our legs is transformed into an awareness of our own place in the universe, on a small trail in the Southwest. A pair of dusty feet trying not to stumble on the roots and rocks of a path in beauty, bathed in beauty.
“No synonym for God is so perfect as Beauty. Whether as seen carving the lines of the mountains with glaciers, or gathering matter into stars, or planning the movements of water, or gardening - still all is Beauty!” John Muir
If you would like to follow our daily journals, Google: Postholer.com/Shroomer or Postholer.com/Nancy. You can click on an interactive map of the CDT on the bottom right of our journal pages that will show you our current GPS Spot location. View it through Google earth and you can see where we’re camped for that night.