An Afternoon Hiking On The Continental Divide Trail
“Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language.” -Aldo Leopold
Mid-winter in New Mexico has been unseasonably warm and snow-less. February was a month of 60+ degree days and abundant sunshine. It was on one of such days that Silent Kyle and I threw our backpacks into his rented Jeep Cherokee and drove south from Albuquerque toward the Gila National Forest in southern NM.
The Gila is a unique place. Due to the arduous urgings of conservationist/hunter/writer Aldo Leopold, the Gila Wilderness became the world’s first officially designated wilderness area on June 3, 1924. A country of rolling forested highlands, majestic open plains and rugged peaks, it is home to elk, mountain lions, mule deer, pronghorn, black bears and even endangered Mexican grey wolves.
“Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of the wolf.” -Aldo Leopold
So it was that this sunny February Tuesday morning, we found ourselves making a left off of route 60 at the Very Large Array. Soon, the pavement ended, and for the next 2 hours, we rolled across expansive open country, seeing not one other car or human for the entire time. Vistas of natural beauty saluted us from every direction. I felt a fulfilling sense of satisfaction at traversing the landscape where once roamed Geronimo, a childhood hero of mine. We stopped to climb trees and experiment with natural fuel sources. (The latter activity could be more specifically described “play with cow poop”.) To the immediate southeast of us loomed the Black Range, a region described in the book New Mexico’s Wilderness Areas as: “…an archetype of a wilderness, defending itself.”
We were aware of the proximity of the Continental Divide Trail, a backpacking route stretching 3100 miles from Mexico to Canada. The trail’s namesake is the spine of North America, the ridgeline from which falling water diverges either to the Pacific or Atlantic oceans. It has always intrigued me to consider that 2 drops of water, falling mere feet apart, could embark on totally separate overland journeys. I like to imagine, that, years later, these same two drops might have a high fiving reunion somewhere in perhaps, the South China Sea.
“To those devoid of imagination a blank place on the map is a useless waste; to others, the most valuable part.” -Aldo Leopold
Onward. We decided, on a whim, to hike a section of the CDT. We had with us camping gear, a six gallon jug of water, and all our standard hiking accoutrements. Driving west now on paved but very isolated route 59 , we came upon what the map indicated we would find: a CDT crossing.
It was not a flashy affair, no more than a very small parking area with an outhouse and a signboard with some information about the trail. Opening the back hatch on the Jeep, we threw water bottles, snacks, headlamps, compasses, and down jackets into our packs and hit the trail southbound. The trail was a rhapsody. Not a boot-beaten virtual highway, but a gently traveled narrow footpath amongst winter-yellowed grasses, discernible, but not glaringly obvious but for it’s delineation in triplicate with tree blazes, cairns, and the beguiling CDT trail markers.
Above us soared the pines, shifting their crowns in a gentle breeze and filtering the early afternoon sunlight. The air was redolent of all the subtle scents of Wild. Warm soil. Evergreen resin. Melting snow.
Crows “cawwwd” at us as we ascended a gentle ridge. After hiking steadily for about 2 hours, we were about to turn around and had stopped briefly to sip some water when my ever-roving eyes caught movement a couple of hundred yards distant through the trees.
“Elk!”, I hissed. Silent Kyle peered in the direction I indicated, and had his second first wildlife sighting of the fortnight. (About a week ago, he had seen Rocky Mountain Bighorn sheep for the first time.) The sight of the five cow elk inspired him to an uncharacteristic burst of eloquence. “They’re big”, he observed.
The elk disappeared, whisperlike, into the undulating folds of forested land. We followed them, off trail, wrapping our pursuit around the side of a hill and finishing with views of snowy summits over near the Arizona border to the west. Daylight was fading, and an about-face headed us back towards the trailhead.
“Civilization has so cluttered this elemental man-earth relationship with gadgets and middlemen that awareness of it is growing dim. We fancy that industry supports us, forgetting what supports industry.” -Aldo Leopold
Our return was blessed with the goldening hues of late afternoon light washing the panoramas with ruddy beauty. We strode north now, admiring the views of the southern reaches of the Plains of San Agustin. Coppery summits dipped themselves into the horizon in every direction. The sense of calm with which I was imbued resolved all inquietude.
I was born on the prairies where the wind blew free and there was nothing to break the light of the sun. I was born where there were no enclosures.- Geronimo
Our 10 miles (5 out, 5 back) on the CDT came to an end when we arrived back at the black Jeep, which lurked in the parking lot dusk like a relic of the petroleum-soaked civilization we had left behind, however briefly.
Earlier, we had scouted a primo campsite in the middle of a Ponderosa studded meadow near a jumble of pockmarked boulders. Now, we drove the Jeep carefully through the pine needles and parked a half mile from the road.
In short order, we kindled a fire and heated up some spicy chicken chile that my wife Bethany had prepared the day before. Sitting by the fire, which reflected comfortingly from the rock behind it, food was eaten, IPA was sipped, and the long ago memory of Aldo Leopold danced in shadows flashed across the silent night.
Borrowing from our “make do” Adirondacks upbringing, we fashioned a grill out of sticks and the lug wrench from the rented Cherokee. Silent Kyle sliced some steaks into thin strips and we hung them over our makeshift grill where they cooked while we laid out our sleeping bags under the insanely starry night sky.
“While living I want to live well.”-Geronimo
Later, after finishing off the last scraps of grilled meat, I rooted around in my supply box and found a tattered paperback of Ray Bradbury short stories. I read aloud, in my best Irish accent, one of my favorite stories, “The Terrible Conflagration up at the Place”. Silent Kyle, feeling the pressure, squelched his taciturn self, and for the next 20 minutes, articulated without ceasing. He read “The Man in the Rorschach Shirt”.
After performing our respective ablutions, it was time for sleep. Eschewing tents, we settled down under the sky. I laid there, missing my wife, but glorying in how a brief, simple, inexpensive escape had thus far been so fulfilling. I was also glad to be able to test the alleged temperature rating of my 750 fill down sleeping bag. Light and incredibly compact, it had a comfort rating of 40 degrees F. Previous experience has caused me to question the veracity of such claims, but the REI Kilo Flash proved to be a winner. It was 40 degrees, and clad only in a wool shirt and lightweight pants, I was comfortable.
Several hours later, however, I woke, shivering and checked the temperature: 21 degrees. From a daytime high of near 65, the mercury had descended over 40 degrees. Grateful that I had brought along a warmer bag, I grabbed it from the vehicle and turned in again. Sleep came like a drug in God’s country.
I awoke to the sun’s light beginning to sieve through the evergreens and emerged from my cocoon to stir the embers to life. While Kyle slumbered, I made coffee and heated up leftovers from last night’s dinner. Our sojourn was nearly over. We breakfasted in the stillness of morning, while a squirrel scratched about in the tree overhead.
The day was a golden drive home through a network of dirt roads amidst desolately stunning country.
A lifelong backpacker and hiker, I have never spent more than 5 consecutive nights out in the woods. This brief journey has planted the CDT bug in my head. I may not be able to buy out the time to do a CDT thru hike, but I will be back to meet this supremely beautiful place again. The 6 night barrier beckons.
5 miles down, 3,095 to go!
I can go everywhere with a good feeling.-Geronimo