CDT Update: New Mexico

The shrinking, rolling mountains of the Divide. The winding Gila River. The remote and wild desert. New Mexico was everything I needed. I traded in warmer layers for more forgiving weather and extraordinary sunsets. While yes, there was plenty of cow shit water and road walking, but I managed to soak in all the sun and dust I could during the final leg of the hike. 

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Walking into Cumbres Pass felt like a victory in itself. We'd spent over a month trekking through Colorado and it had finally come to an end. While Cumbres Pass is technically in Colorado, Route 17 was the first hitch into a New Mexico town and only a few miles from the border. We took two planned zero days in Chama to rest up and for me to organize resupply boxes for New Mexico. There are a handful of spots where there was no food resupply option and sending yourself food is crucial. 

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It wasn’t as though the early winter conditions simply disappeared as soon as we crossed over the border. It was a few days of walking through the Carson National Forest before the topography changed dramatically during the drop down into Ghost Ranch. What was left of the Aspens began to thin out and massive branches of cacti took their place. The mountains of clay shined bright red as the sun went down and the sweet smell of sage teased my nose. This is a place rich in history of the Native people; something that's felt, not always seen. No longer were there trees to protect us from the sun. Instead, my nose would remain in a constant state of peeling until the trail was complete. 

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Water again became a frequent issue of conversation between the few remaining southbound hikers. Nearly all of the water sources we were dependent on we would share with cattle, as we had through parts of Montana and Wyoming. This ultimately means that we are drinking water that is highly contaminated by cow feces and tastes of methane. Wells, windmills, and troughs are put in place and maintained by ranchers or BLM to provide enough water to meet the needs of America’s beef demand. One of the toughest challenges (and privileges) on the CDT is the lack of reliable information, water sources being perhaps the most important. It seemed as though we were always guessing as to which water sources would ACTUALLY contain drinkable water taking into account: last rain, snow melt, outdated comments on the Guthook App and local intel. Drinkable is a relative term, and out of necessity a hiker will inevitably lower their standards over time. Sawyer Squeeze filters proved yet again to be the greatest invention on earth and I didn’t get the slightest bit sick. Not all were terrible, we came across some beautiful springs as well. Longer stretches between sources meant filling typically 6 or 7 liters at a time for both Luna and I for a 15-20 mile (sometimes more) stretch. Flavor packets to the rescue. 

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Having spent the majority of my life in the Northeast, I was reminded again how strangely intriguing the desert is. It is so vastly different and unfamiliar to me. From Ghost Ranch on, we walked through the rolling desert hills into the flatlands of New Mexico. Lava rocks, canyons, dramatic cliffs, and the most wildlife I’d ever seen. Every day I saw large herds of elk, deer, and pronghorn. There were also wolf, coyote, bobcat and ring-tailed cat sightings.

I was weary of walking through New Mexico during hunting season. The moose, elk and deer were in rut, which was fascinating to hear and see. But it also meant that we bumped into hunters on the weekends tooling around on quads asking us if we’d seen any elk. Some had ethical practices and you could tell genuinely enjoyed the hiking and stalking of the animals, but others left campsites trashed and took their motorized toys where they shouldn’t have. I let Luna continue to roam off-leash despite the hunting season while keeping a close eye on her. We have just as much of a right to be there as hunters do, though I frequently reminded myself that they were the ones with the guns, not me. Everyone is always asking me “What is the scariest part of hiking?” Well, it’s not the wildlife, or weather, or serial killers. It’s walking by the occasional un-sportsmanlike hunter under the influence shooting guns from their vehicles. 

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Every plant of the desert has unforgiving sharp edges to ward off predators. I often thought back to last Spring living in Southern California during the superbloom, when I saw art that was the bright-colored cacti on the side of the trails. I was grateful that Luna’s paws by this point were hard as rocks and she was able to walk with only the occasional pricker between the pads. All the fears I had about the desert being hard for her drifted away once I discovered that she was so incredibly strong and prepared. That the desert is much, much less harsh in Fall compared to Spring. While there is more water in the Springtime, the days are short enough in October and November that the temperatures hardly reach dangerous levels and hikers are able to avoid the midday siesta. Therefore, we drink less. 

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The days began to shorten, but temperatures warmed up enough that hiking past dark was again a realistic way to end the day. I no longer had a tent and enjoyed falling asleep under the dark sky and bright stars every night. I struggled with a pair of shoes that I had mailed from home that were too small now, since my feet had swelled after months of hiking. Some bad blisters put us up for an unplanned zero day in Grants further down the trail. Hot tub, pizza, and a Walmart next to the hotel where I could buy a $19 pair of new shoes made for a successful stop. 

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South of Grants there was an overwhelming amount of paved road walking that was tough for us. It’s hard on your body, unstimulating to your mind, and slightly irritating to keep a dog on a leash for long stretches. Some generous trail angels from the towns in New Mexico often stashed water caches for hikers, which was crucial around the dry El Malpais area. I had packed lots of snacks, eating like a queen for the little time we had left and keeping myself entertained on the road. For the first time in weeks, we camped with other hiker friends, a welcoming change. The norm on other trails, but not here, is to have lots of company. Prior to running into our friends, Dingo and I agreed to pick up the pace and begin pushing longer, more consistent daily milage. Slowly, we did. We stopped in Pie Town, a highlight from my time on the Ride the Divide route. Here, Nita’s Toaster House is a safe haven for hikers and cyclists, perhaps the only spot like it on the lesser-known CDT.   

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With lots of route options to choose from, we chose the High Gila River alternate, followed by the Gila River route. Both were stunning, with contrasting views from above and in the canyons. When we arrived at Doc Campbell’s Post near the Gila Cliff Dwellings, we camped in one of my favorite spots on the entire trail, next to some hot springs. I soaked every few hours while the dog only woke up to eat or play in the river. The final day of the river route, crossing it maybe 50-60 times, was one of the most brutal days. It was beautiful, but we followed nothing more than the occasional cow trail and bushwhacked through fields of thick, brown burrs that would eventually cover Luna’s entire body. Positivity, and lots of treats on Luna’s end, got us through. I spent the next few days picking them out of her fur. 

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My parents showed up around then, and would attempt to meet and camp with us for the remaining nights of the trip. They drove from Maine with their truck-bed camper and spoiled us rotten with amazing dinners when we’d finished hiking for the day. It was a blast to have them around, and helpful for refilling on clean water. We slept each night under their tarp awning and woke up on East Coast time to get rolling early. Luna got to enjoy a few days of slackpacking since we were doing bigger days (wearing an empty pack or none at all). Much of the trail was cross-country towards the end (i.e. no trail, following cairns or signs). During one eventful night, we got disoriented walking at in the dark on flat terrain with no trail (and signs that only were reflective if you were walking NORTH), and accidentally wandered on to a rancher’s property. Oops. There were tons of barbed wire fences to crawl under, separating various groups of cattle, so there was no distinction to us. Being near the Mexican border, ranchers warned us of Cartel activity, but optimistically we walked on. 

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The final days were filled with some of the most spectacular sunsets and sunrises I’d ever seen. A full-body-experience type sunset. Where you are so mesmerized that no number of missteps or stubbed toes will tear your eyes away. The further we walked from Lordsburg, our final town stop, the more remote the trail became. My parents navigated a few horribly washed out roads to set up camp with us some nights. But luckily they’re nuts and love an off-road adventure. 

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On this trail, there are THREE possible ending points: 2 are road walks to actual border crossings, and the “official” one being the middle of nowhere cow country at the Crazy Cook Monument. We opted for the water-less remote finish. On the last night Dingo, Luna and I camped alone a few miles past the CDTC’s final water cache with plans to wake early and walk the final miles. One last sunrise, one last Poptart. We each had our moment, but knew the finality of it wouldn’t hit until days or weeks later. A dance party and some self-timed pictures kept us from being too bummed out that it was over. Luna, unaware of her accomplishment of hiking over 5,000 miles in less than 3 years, simply found some small sticks to run into Mexico with. We took a walk over the not-so-much-anymore-fence across the border long enough to wonder why the roads on the Mexican side were in better shape. While there is a road into the Monument, it had been washed out during the recent monsoon season and Border Patrol warned us we might not get the truck in to get picked up. So we had brought enough water to walk an additional 20 miles back out to the remote Highway 31 near Antelope Wells. Lucky for us, my dad had ditched the camper and made it over halfway in with his truck. I cracked open a bottle of champagne to celebrate with my incredible partner, changed out of my sweaty clothes, and took a nap in the backseat cuddled up with my sweet puppy. Some 2,600 or 2,700 miles from July 3rd to November 15th. 

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