Stormin’ returns to the Continental Divide Trail

By December 1, 2008

JOURNEY'S END — Stormin' Norman arrives at the Mexican border.

JOURNEY'S END — Stormin' Norman arrives at the Mexican border.

Editor’s note: Section hiker Norm Stoldt resumed hiking the Continental Divide after healing from an injury earlier in the summer of 2008 that took him off the trail.

My summer jaunt on the Continental Divide Trail through Montana was cut short by a stress fracture in my left knee. After two months recovery I decided there was enough of the hiking season left to walk the New Mexico portion of the CDT.

In mid-September I began a 36-hour excursion across the Southwest  to Alamosa, Colo. I figured that traveling by bus would be a great way to see the country but after passing through and stopping in Los Angeles, Phoenix, Flagstaff, Gallup, Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Las Cruces, I wondered if I’d overdone it.

September 18

Alamosa was the nearest town with public transportation to the CDT trail head in northern New Mexico near the town of Chama. To cover the 78 miles to Chama I had to hitchhike 28 miles into Antonito. A pickup truck gave me a ride within minutes of standing at the town’s only intersection but the only space available was in the truck bed, which was stacked with construction material.

I sat on top of the tool box exposed to the wind and hanging on for dear life as we roared down the highway. It took two more rides before I arrived at Antonito but I never had to wait more than a few minutes. It was a good day for trail angels, those who go out of their way to help hikers. My large sign with a bright yellow happy face saying “Hiker to town” probably helped.

September 19

From Antonito I took the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad into Chama. It’s one of the few remaining narrow-gage, coal-burning, steam-powered trains left in America. It is only a remnant of its former self today and limited to hauling tourists over the scenic and historic 68-mile route between Antonito and Chama.

Completed in 1880, its narrow-gage construction (3 feet between rails) allowed it to make tighter turns in the mountains, thereby saving construction costs over the standard 4-foot-8 gage.

I particularly enjoyed our guide’s tales of the many historical happenings along our route. The scenery was magnificent, from mile upon mile of wide open high desert plateau to the fall yellows of aspen trees as we crossed over the 10,000-foot high Cumbres Pass. The ride came with a lunch at the halfway point. We were greeted by snow showers over the pass. All too soon the five-hour ride was over and we arrived in Chama.

September 20

I began my adventure road-walking on the trail because of my past knee problem. If I got into trouble help would be readily available. The first day I covered 23 miles, refilling my water bottles at a gas station food mart. Where to safely spend the night was resolved by going through an open gate onto a dirt side road and stealth-camping out of view of both roadways on a juniper-covered hill. It took a while to find a cactus-free campsite.

September 21

The next day I replenished my water supply at a house along the road. As I approached Ghost Ranch, my next resupply and rest point, I passed through a canyon with exposed sandstone cliffs on both sides. You could see the various geological layers — each a different color — red, brown, gray, orange and more.

I finally arrived at the ranch museum. Ghost Ranch is not really a ranch, but a desert environmental education center and Episcopalian retreat. It has a campground and numerous cottages to house visitors and an excellent cafeteria that provides three meals a day to staff and visitors.

I took an educational side trail to the ranch complex that had signs naming all the various desert plant life. It even included a small suspension bridge. I arrived at the campground after my second 20-plus mile day.

This was some campground. In addition to showers, washrooms and laundry facilities, it was equipped with a refrigerator/freezer, ice maker, microwave, coffee maker and even a telephone. That evening, nature put on quite a distant lightning show along with some very gusty winds.

September 22-23

Re-energized after a one-day layover, I began my first trek through the desert. After only three days here I concluded that New Mexico with its exposed multi-colored layered cliffs, mesas and arroyos had the most colorful terrain of all my backpacking adventures. At the same time its desert environment made it the most unforgiving. Without a good map and guide book, this place could easilty become a death trap for lack of water.

I refilled my water bottles from a piped spring that filled a cattle trough and later from a shallow stream flowing through a canyon. I ended up climbing out of  the canyon packing a full load of water in the heat of  the day.

The 1,000-foot climb was brutal but I made it to the top of a high, forested mesa and decided to call it a day after 19 miles. I cowboy-camped, sleeping without a tent under a large oak tree.

At 8,200 feet, it turned out to be a rather cold night. But tucked warmly in my sleeping bag the near freezing temperature didn’t bother me. I woke up in the early morning hours to the bugling of a male elk upset by my invasion into his territory.

September 24

It was too cold to eat breakfast so I packed up and moved out, stopping for my cold ceral-in-a-bag breakfast after it warmed up. I descended to a jeep road into a valley followed by a very warm 4-mile highway walk before stopping to cook lunch at a small stream.

I left the road and headed up a trail to San Pedro Peak, another long climb with a full load of water in the heat of the day. About 100 feet short of the summit and after 16 miles, I stopped and set up camp.

A cloud-filled sky kept the temperature in the 40s in spite of the 10,000-foot elevation. I heard another elk and some kind of hawk — both disturbed by my presence — but otherwise it was an uneventful night.

September 25

In the morning I packed out toward the peak, which wasn’t a peak at all but a series of flat, wide-open grasslands that stretched on for miles. I missed a turn and got lost for about an hour and had to use my GPS and waypoints to get back on the trail. Before descending, a storm came in and I was showered by snow pellets and buffeted by 30 mph winds.

The storm lasted for about an hour, covering the ground with a scattered blanket of white. It felt like I was never going to get off that 10,000-foot plateau but eventually I got down to the trail head and onto a series of dirt/gravel roads leading to the Circle A Ranch, my next resupply and rest stop.

September 26

The ranch’s main building was a 90-year-old Mexican-style adobe hacienda. The downstairs floor consisted of a modern kitchen with a large open living room area and a huge central fireplace.

There were half a dozen rooms upstairs for guests. Some were private while others were bunkhouse style and could sleep six or more. Numerous antiques and relics of the Southwest were displayed throughout the building, including a library with shelves containing a myriad of old books on the West.

I shared the facility the first night with a group of grade school students and their parents on a class outing, but they tent-camped far enough from the hacienda to be of little concern to an old hiker usually in bed and asleep by 7 p.m. The second night a group of seniors were there for a reunion. We swapped stories and drank wine into the early evening. I certainly didn’t have a problem falling asleep that night.

September 27

I departed the ranch in high spirits, walking the 5 miles into the town of Cuba where I enjoyed a giant breakfast and filled all my water bottles. I then hiked 6 miles on the highway before turning onto a dirt road and looking for a rock cairn that marked the start of a recently constructed trail.

Unfortunately a road grader had just reworked the road, erasing all evidence of the cairn. I tried several narrow side paths but they all turned out to be cattle tracks. Finally I just picked a path and headed into the desert using GPS waypoints to guide me.

I soon found out that my route was taking me in the right direction but it wasn’t the easiest path to the next point on my map. I had to scoot under barbed wire fences, force my way though thick brush and worst of all, cross numerous arroyos. Some were only a couple feet deep and several yards across while others were 50 yards across and 20 or more feet deep.

Thus at times I had to deviate miles off my course until I could find a shallow enough place to cross. At times a shallow trench would turn into an arroyo where 15-foot loosely-packed sand walls would trap me for hours. To get out of one such arrowyo I had to leave my pack, scramble up its crumbling walls and then haul my pack up by rope.

Twice I came to siturations where my way was blocked by tree trunks and debris washed down the arroyo by heavy rains. Dragging my pack behind me I was able to crawl under one such blockage; in others I simply climbed over by taking off  my backpack and hoisting it to a secure limb or log above my head, pulling myserlf up and repeating the process until I reached the top of the pile of twisted limbs and logs.

What should have taken a matter of hours took me the rest of the day and taxed this 67 year old to my physical and psychological limit. By late afternoon I had used up all my water. To conserve, I hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast in Cuba. Around dusk my GPS led me to the official trail, which I followed down off a massive mesa and back onto the desert floor.

It was soon dark and I cowboy-camped in the middle of the trail. It was a little difficult getting to sleep as I was so hungry and thirsty. Still I wasn’t too worried as my map and guidebook showed a spring only a few miles away.

September 28

In spite of my ordeal I enjoyed a beautiful desert sunrise before quickly packing up and heading toward the spring. All I could think about was cool spring water and a big breakfast. The trail ended at an intersection of unmarked dirt roads. I proceeded to the location of the spring and found it dry, with the next water source 14 miles away.

I was totally devastated. It had now been more than 24 hours since I had eaten and 16 hours since my last sip of water. I tried to chew a stick of gum to wet my mouth and give me energy but it only stuck to my teeth. I couldn’t make it another 14 miles so I sat down at the side of the road to think things over.

I could press the 911 button on my satellite locater and a search and rescue team would find me in a matter of hours. However some counties charge the rescued person $6,000 to $8,000 if they feel the person knowingly put themselves in danger. Here I was in the middle of an inhospitable desert trying to hike to Mexico. I just didn’t believe anyone would consider that a reasonable and responsible act.

I also knew that I was between two major highways. The dirt cross road where I was should take me to both, but which way to go? Which way was shortest? I had no idea if I had to walk 5 miles or 25 to reach the highway. As I sat there I saw three specks approaching.

As they got closer I realized they were the three cyclists from New Zealand who were cycling across America from the Canadian border to Mexico. They gave me a liter of water and said the highway was about 5 miles back the way they had come.

I was saved!

With the crisis resolved I started down the road to civilization only to realize I had considerable pain on the bottom of my left foot. Taking off my shoe I saw the skin was intact but the bottom was badly swollen. I had no choice. I put my sock and shoe back on and trudged down the road.

When I reached the highway I started to thumb a ride back to Cuba. Again unusually good fortune came my way. A car made a U-turn and came back to pick me up. The driver told me that her husband, who was parked off the road in a truck just a short distance ahead had said, “We just can’t leave that guy in the middle of the desert with no place to go. Let’s pick him up.” They were nice enough to let me off right in front of a motel and I limped into the office.

I must have looked in pretty bad shape because after I registered the owner said, ” The restaurant across the street is closed but after you get settled I’ll have my father-in-law bring you a bowl of homemade chicken soup and tortillas.”

Being able to speak a little Spanish might also have helped a little. Wow! After meeting all those wonderful people there was no way I could lament my hiking experience of the last two days.

September 29-October 2

I spent the next three days in Cuba recovering and icing a badly swollen and painful foot. Based on my recent dramatic experience and reinforced by a sentence in my guidebook that said, “One’s best source of water on this section is to flag down a motorist when crossing the next highway or in finding a hunter,” I decided to bypass the Cuba-to-Grants section of the trail.

Florence, the motel owner, felt confident she could get me a ride to Grants from a work crew that passed through every Thursday. If not, she and her husband would drive me. As it turned out Florence and her husband ended up driving me 115 miles to Grants. This couple has to be my all-time favorite trail angels.

October 3

From Grants I had to limit my hike to road-waking where water was more available and I could get help in case my foot became more of a problem. Little did I realize that it was the 20 miles per day pounding on the road that was causing the pain.

I rented a car and dropped water off every 15 miles along the highway and dirt roads leading to a remote little trail town called Pie Town, some 70 miles away. After hiking to Pie Town I planned on hitching back to Grants and taking a bus to Deming, thereby skipping another long section of the trail through the waterless desert.

Pie Town turned out to be a four-building town with a post office, real estate office and two small cafés. I stopped at one of the cafés and sampled one of its renowned pies, Mexican apple, an apple pie with chiles and pinion nuts.

During my one hour trip to Pie Town on the dirt road, I only encountered two cars. With so little traffic it meant finding a ride back was almost impossible. I therefore decided to hike the 35 miles just to the dirt road leading to Pie Town and then hitch or walk back.

October 4

The weather forecast for the next two days called for strong winds and scattered thunderstorms, nevertheless I decided to go for it. I departed Grants under partly cloudy skies. Maybe it would be a nice two days after all.

I arrived at my first water drop around noon and took a short snack break. The pain in my foot had returned but I pressed on under clouding skies, increasing wind and off and on drizzle. I came to an off-road area with extremely large rocks and decided to call it a day after 22 miles.

I found what I thought was an ideal campsite under the overhang of a bus-size boulder out of view from the road and sheltered from both the rain and wind. I had just finished laying out all my gear when the wind changed direction and my gear and supplies took to the air.

I collected my sleeping pad, bag and supplies but staying there was like being in a wind tunnel. I set up my tent in a spot protected from the wind but exposed to the rain. I cooked and ate supper under the protection of the boulder and them moved myself and all my gear into the tent for the night.

It rained steadily all night. While my tent kept me dry from the rain, condensation formed on the inside of the tent and dripped on me and my belongings throughout the night.

October 5-6

By morning the rain had mostly stopped. All my clothing and food were packed in plastic bags so while the outsides were wet, everything inside was dry. Not so for my sleeping bag that got “rained” on all night.

Still with a little bit of sunshine I knew it would be dry and comfy by nightfall. I finished breakfast and packed up under shelter of the boulder as it started to rain again. Between the rain and a very sore foot, I decided to cut short my travels and simply hike back to Grants.

About a quarter of a mile from Grants a car stopped and offered me a ride. The driver worked for the Grants Chamber of Commerce. I was only a short distance from my destination but my foot hurt so much I took the ride. She said the town really wants to support the CDT hikers and even offered me a ride back to the trail the next day. I got a motel room and once again iced my foot.

October 7-8

After almost boarding the wrong bus, I left for Deming N.M. via El Paso, Texas, the next morning. I had a 12-hour layover in El Paso so I camped out in the bus station that night and caught the 7 a.m. bus to Deming.

I had hoped to lay out water both north to Gila/Silver City and south to Columbus, but there was no car rental service in Deming. I therefore decided to drop the Gila section and simply hike to the border. My big problem was that a banner signed by more than 100 friends that I wanted to display at the border was in my drop box in Silver City. To get the box I’d have to wait another two days.

The weather forecast called for two days of clear conditions followed by a major two-day rain and wind storm. If I waited for my box to arrive I’d be stuck in Deming for four more days until the weather cleared. I decided to go to the border without the banner.

October 9

I departed for the border and Columbus in near darkness. I chose to walk the road over the trail for safety. This is an extremely active area for smuggling both people and drugs across the border. The road is actively patrolled by the Border Patrol, greatly reducing the chances of me running into trouble.

I was strongly cautioned by local residents not to camp along the road for my safety; there were 11 people killed the previous week just across the border in an on-going war between rival drug gangs.

My plan was to hike a litte over half way and hitch a ride into Columbus, which is about 3 miles north of the border. I would get a motel room, take a break and then hike to the border and back to Columbus to spend the night. The next morning I would hike back to where I was picked up the day before and hitch a ride into Deming.

It was a fairly warm and sunny day. I replenished my water supply from an outside faucet at a church along the road. It seemed like every 10 minutes or so a Border Patrol vehicle would pass by in one direction or another. Most of their vehicles were pickup trucks fitted with shells for confining prisoners in back. A couple of trucks pulled trailers with ATVs.

I’d also been told that there are a multitude of off-road sensors to detect anyone illegally crossing the border in addition to a large monitoring balloon that floated overhead. These guys are really serious about protecting the border.

When I reached the 17-mile point I took off my pack and started to hitch. No sooner had I set my pack down than I had a ride. The driver had just come from Columbus but turned around and drove me back.

After a two-hour rest I made the 7-mile round trip to the border. By the time I returned to Columbus the town’s only café was closed. I bought two frozen steak sandwiches and a pint of double chocolate ice cream at a food mart in the town’s gas station to celebrate finishing the trail.

After eating I fell asleep too exhausted to even shower or soak my sore foot after a monstrous 26-mile day.

October 10

After a 400-calorie breakfast muffin I was ready to hike back to Deming. It was a cool morning and I made great time.

Near the midway point I came upon a border check point. It was rather amusing; there I was on foot with all these cars in line. The border personnel were really taken back by this lone old hiker trudging down the road in the middle of nowhere.

A mile past the check point I started looking for a ride. I had made a “Hiker to Deming” sign before leaving home but never got to use it. I was picked up immediately by the first car to come by. The driver was the motel owner from Columbus who said whe never picks up hitchhikers but stopped when she recognized me. My string of unbelievable good fortune continued.

She drove me to the post office in Deming where I picked up my drop box with the banner before hobbling painfully back to my motel room.

My adventure was over and I was ready to return home. I called my daughter who made reservations for me.

October 11

I watited for the bus under a threatening sky. It was a little stressful. I didn’t know whether the bus or the impending big wind and rain storm would show up first. But after a two-hour wait I was on the bus to El Paso for my flight back to Sacramento.

In spite of foot problems and having to bypass several sections of the trail, I felt good. I’d encountered some wonderful people, saw some tremendous scenery and gained a deeper understanding of the Southwest. I will never forget all the kindness and compassion shown to me by the people of New Mexico.

Norm Stoldt

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