Editor’s note: Stormin’ Norman’ started this year’s treks on the southern portion of the Continental Divide Trail.
“Under most conditions, the best roof for your bedroom is the sky.” Fletcher, 1989
I began my 10th season of long distance hiking on the Continental Divide Trail with a 360-mile spring trek through central New Mexico. Hampered by foot problems in 2008 I was only able to complete the northern most 100 miles of New Mexico’s section of the trail and a short southern section near the Mexican border.
I would start my adventure at Grants 40 miles west of Albuquerque and hike south to Deming, 30 miles north of the border with Mexico. I would then do what hikers call a flip-flop and somehow go north to the town of Cuba and hike back south to Grants to complete the New Mexico portion of the CDT.
My reasoning behind this unusual approach: The ease of getting in and out of Grants compared to other locations on the trail; my guidebook went from north-to-south (I had enough trouble “staying found” following the book normally, much less trying to read it backwards); and finally there was 11,000-foot Mt. Taylor to cross in the northern portion. The time spend hiking the southern portion would allow for additional snow melt on the mountain.
I had to make a last minute change to part of my route when heavy spring runoff made the numerous fords across the Gila River near the beginning of my route too dangerous. I had two alternatives. Take the offical bypass on a series of little used forest roads, or do a giant road walk around the Gila.
The offical route was arduous with a lot of ups and downs on rocky uneven tread and there was the problem of 120 miles between resupply points. But more significantly, there were long stretches without a water source. On the other hand, the 160-mile highway walk was longer but it passed through a series of small towns, so water and supplies were not a problem.
There was not a lot of traffic and the route was still scenic. It passed through the Gila National Forest in the beginning and was surrounded by desert grazing lands at the end. I chose the road.
I prepared physically for my odyssey pretty much as I have done in the past, adding practice walks to my normal routine of lifting weights, racewalking, stretches and crunches. My four week program of practice walking included three days per week in full pack (25 pounds), starting with six mile intervals and building up to 17 miles.
Realizing I would encounter cold temperatures and possibly snow, especially over the two mountains I had to cross, I added gloves, long underwear and a longsleeved shirt to my normal hiking gear. The addition of a silk liner for my sleeping bag provided an extra 10 degrees of night time warmth. For trudging through snow, I carried “yaktraxes,” elastic traction devices that fit over my tennis shoes, and Gore-Tex waterproof socks to keep my feet dry.
My adventure began with an early morning flight to Albuquerque and a short bus ride to Grants. It was raining when I arrived and I discovered I had left my foul weather jacket at home in my wife’s car. My daughter promised to mail it to me up the trail but until then a plastic trash bag with holes cut for my head and arms had to suffice. Fortunately I only needed my improvised rain jacket once.
For most of my walk I experienced near perfect hiking conditions. With the exception of the short southern-most section of the hike, daytime temperatures were in the 60s and I was well prepared for the near freezing night time conditions.
The one thing I wasn’t prepared for was the 30 mph head winds with occasional gusts to 50 mph I encountered — typical New Mexico spring weather.
Pitching a tent and lighting a stove under such conditions was definitely a challenge. Only once did I experience rain but I was able to set up camp and escape the downpour in my tent. A blistery cold front came through that night and for the first time ever I found a thin coating of ice both on the inside and the outside of my tent.
My hike began around 7,000 feet and ended at an elevation near 4,000 feet just north of the Mexican border. The terrain varied, from desert wasteland with arroyos and mesas with their beautiful colored rock striations, to dense green conifer forests.
I crossed over two mountains: Mangus and Taylor, 9,500 and 10,800 feet, respectively. Crossing the open desert, I followed a series of rock piles that marked the trail and traversed scattered patches of snow going over the mountains.
Trail angel is a term for the dedicated individuals who unselfishly assist hikers. Once again, I was fortunate to encounter a number of such individuals. There was Robin who drove me 20 miles out of Grants so I could start my hike from where I was forced to stop in 2008.
Then there was Nita in Pie Town, a small community named for its two cafés that specialize in baking pies. Her second house served as a hostel for hikers.
I spent three days in the comfort of this log cabin oasis, waiting out a snow and windstorm and recovering from sore feet. Three young men from Israel and a hiker/biker named Wilderness Bob joined me on the second day. Most hikers don’t use their real names; they take trail names.
We spent hours sitting around the wood-burning kitchen stove eating popcorn and sharing our hiking adventures. On our last evening Megan, a waitress from one of the cafés, and Rivers, the hostel’s caretaker, joined us. Megan brought a guitar and drums and we enjoyed a Hebrew-English sing-a long.
In Deming I experienced Keith and Mary’s hospitality. These two trail angels share their home with hikers and provide transportation to and from the trail. While staying at their home, I met fellow hikers Gary and Kiki, the Noodleheads, two exceptionally smart people. Both of us faced a common problem: Gary and Kiki needed to go north to Pie Town to pick up their van and I had to get to Cuba to finish the northern section of my hike.
Public transportation was not available but Gary solved our problem, contacting a fellow hiker, “Buckeye,” who had left his vehicle with Keith and was hiking north. Miraculously this stranger loaned us his car so the Noodleheads could get to their van and I could get to Cuba. I would leave his car at a motel for him to pick up as he hiked northward.
But before going north, we drove 30 miles to the border so I could have my photo taken with a banner signed by more than 100 Buddhist friends. I had tried to take the photo in 2008 when I walked to the border, but the banner was mired in the postal system.
After taking photos at the marker we started walking back to the car when two border guards rushed up to us and in no uncertain terms told us that we had to go through customs and immigration.
We told them that we hadn’t left the country. They replied they only saw us walking away from the border entrance so off we went to customs and immigration.
The first thing the agent asked was, “Can I see your passports?” When we explained we didn’t have any and hadn’t left the country, just stood by the fence for a photo, he asked for photo IDs. Gary’ wife didn’t have an ID — it was in her purse in the car in the parking lot where we were stopped.
The immigration agent sternly frowned and I thought all was lost, but he only lectured us about never again going near the fence or entrance.
In Cuba, motel owners and trail angels Flo and Marco saved me a day’s walk by driving me 20 miles to the trail head. They are the same wonderful couple who provided supper and transportation for me in 2008 when I arrived suffering severe foot problems.
There are also trail angels on wheels. Once again, I experienced foot problems from the day-after-day pounding — a combination of bone burses and old fashioned blisters to the soles of my feet. Three times kind-hearted drivers quickly came to my aid with short rides to my destination.
Finally there was Anthony, my most unforgettable trail angel. Anthony was a young man I met at a convenience store along the highway who let me camp on his property. He lived in a dilapidated trailer with no utilities. I set up my tent in the shade of his trailer out of the wind. A SUV pulled up around 7 p.m. and a man got out, approached my tent and called out, “Anthony is that you?” Peering through the netting around the bottom of my tent I saw two shiny black boots. Looking further, the individual was wearing gray trousers with a dark blue stripe up the legs — a policeman.
All I could stammer was, “Anthony is in the trailer. If there is a problem I’m just a CDT hiker he allowed to spend the night.”
The policeman entered the trailer and soon reappeared with Anthony in tow. As they left, Anthony called out, ” I’ll be back. I just have to straighten out a few things.”
Shortly thereafter a parade of Anthony’s relatives drove up asking about the young man’s whereabouts. Sure enough, around sunset Anthony returned in a relative’s car. I departed early the next morning, thus ending my unforgettable adventure with Anthony.
One can walk for days on the CDT without meeting fellow hikers. Unlike the Appalachian Trail with its thousands of weekend and thru hikers, less than 50 intrepid souls challenge the CDT each year. The CDT is brutal for the inexperienced or the unprepared. To demonstrate: I spied two hikers below me as I came off a mesa. I shouted and waved to get their attention, but with heads down and backs bent by heavy packs they kept slowly trudging across the barren desert like stupefied zombies.
The remaining half a dozen thru hikers I encountered were all experienced, chatty individuals enjoying their odyssey. I was pleasantly surprised to meet “Saunter,” my hiking buddy for the last three years. He had started at the Mexican border and kept more or less on the official trail, while I took advantage of various alternate routes in my southward trek.
Water and camping
I obtained water along the highway sections of my trip from businesses and homes. On the trail and remote back roads, I acquired water from windmills and springs primarily used by livestock. Most of the time I was able to get water directly out of the pipe that fed the cattle trough. The water in these tanks was generally badly discolored and contaminated with mold and undulating strands of algae.
In one instance, the windmill fed a large circular, 8-foot high tank. (It must have been a water tank for cows on stilts.) Using a tree trunk, a section of irrigation pipe and a large flat rock, I made a makeshift ladder and was able to full my water bottles from the pipe on top of the tank.
On one remote desert road a big-hearted rancher placed a cooler with bottles of water inside for thirsty hikers. During another hot, waterless section, a sympathetic rancher working his fence line gave me ice water and some cold fruit. Even Wilderness Bob came to my aid. Early in my hike, I met him driving with a friend setting out water caches for his hike. They not only provided me with a cold beer, they left me a gallon of water up the trail.
Camping along the trail was never a problem. I spent three nights roughing it, or should I say, “smoothing it” in various motels along the highway portion of my hike. I had considerable trouble locating the motel at my first stop. It was somewhat hidden off the town’s main street. When I found the office it was closed; there was no one around — it was a ghost motel.
There was a note on the door with a phone number. I called. It turned out the motel was managed out of a café in the next town also run by the owners. I was given the combination to a safe imbedded in a rock-decorated pillar outside the office. Inside was the key to my room and my food drop.
At the second motel, the officer manager was a sweet elderly woman who appeared to be in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. I had to repeat everything two or three times. When I finally got a room key, I found that the room was already occupied. Reflecting back on my experience with Anthony, the ghost motel and this situation, I seem to have more than my share of lodging karma.
Camping between towns required considerably more ingenuity. Strands of barbed wire fencing generally parceled both sides of the highway. This was even true for sections through national forests. Late in the day, I’d simply look for a side road leading to a trail head off the highway, take the road and stealth camp. Finding a campsite on the near barren land of private ranches near the southern end of my hike was more challenging.
I would look for a desolate area, find a ranch gate, ignore any posted signs, open the gate or climb over it and try to camp out of sight in a hollow or among bushes. Fortunately in all cases, I escaped detection and possible eviction or even arrest.
This was truly the most enjoyable of all my adventures. I had good weather, enjoyed colorful scenery, met interesting people and of course, there was the adrenalin rush of facing and challenging the unknown.
I feel that I am the most fortunate of individuals. I have health, finances and time for such endeavors, and the support of my family, friends and all the strangers who come to my assistance during my adventures.
Stay tuned for my next installment: Hiking through Yellowstone National Park and western Wyoming.