The CDT Quest Continues!
So when you put on your old clothes and take to the road...You get into your right place in the world right away...You get into an air that is refreshing and free. You liberate yourself from the tacit assumption of your everyday life. What a relief! - from The Gentle Art of Tramping by Stephen Graham, 1927
In February of 2015, in this post, I reported on my pleasant afternoon stroll and subsequent campout on the Continental Divide Trail. Ever since that trip, I have been fevered with a desire to continue the backpacking quest begun then.
Silent Kyle was back in NY.
Who would accompany me to the Gila Wilderness and trek through the Black Range? I floated the idea to several friends who feigned interest, but alas, due to other obligations, were unable to accompany me.
2 deaths in the family stymied the plans of a dear old friend. (Philia, Brian!)
Finally, a neophyte said “Yes”!
El Stevo, a city boy from the wilds of Los Angeles, thought that spending some time in the wilderness would be fun. We settled on October 22-25, 2015 as the dates for our journey and began the planning process.
The route chosen would continue north from where Silent Kyle and I had camped the previous February. We would follow the official CDNST route northward along the spine of the Black Range, then swoop west across the Plains of San Agustin through the Pelona Mountains and then out to a dusty country road where our wives would pick us up four days later.
El Stevo, being a tenderfoot and mendicant, had to be equipped and outfitted on a budget. Bethany’s venerable Kelty backpack (with adjustable torso) fit him nicely. A trip to Costco led to the acquisition of some wool socks and a down vest. Warm hat and headlamp were obtained from REI. Big 5 sporting goods supplied El Stevo’s boots (which incidentally, were literally disintegrating by journey’s end.) Finally, Amazon.com completed the kit with long underwear and wool gloves.
The less you carry, the more you will see, the less you spend, the more you will experience. -Stephen Graham
Our gracious wives agreed to drop us off at the trailhead on Rt. 59. Thus it was, that on a sunny morning in late October, fueled on caffeine and anticipation, we piled into the gold Volvo at 5 am and headed south from Albuquerque.
After exiting I-25 near Truth or Consequences, NM, we began to wend our way into the mountains. Passing through the old mining town of Winston, we marveled at how the rising sun goldened the plains and mountains. Cattle, nearly wild on the free range, curiously eyed us. We came to a sign reading “No Gas, Food or Lodging Next 121 miles” and knew that this would be a fine adventure.
At around 9 am, we arrived at the point of no return. North of us stretched 55 miles of ambition, hardship, joy, pain, discomfort, rapture, and GORP!*
Not fortuitously, just as we were shouldering our packs and kissing our wives good-bye, a frigid rain began to knife through the now misty morning air.
Knowing that plunging into the fog on the northbound trail was the only option, we tightened our hipbelts and began slogging. Within minutes, despite our dirtbagger raincoats (garbage bags; who needs real rainwear in New Mexico, right?) we were wet and shivering. El Stevo wore a look of deep chagrin and later admitted that at that moment, he wished we had stayed in the car and driven back to Albuquerque.
Nonetheless, he whined not once, even as cold rain sluiced into the crevice between his neck and packstrap.
Since backpacking must include above average discomfort, a cold wind contributed it’s amiable charm, and we trudged on wet, cold and in full realization that, since our wives were already departed and our legs were the only thing between us and laying down to die of hypothermia, we must continue!
After a few hours, though, as expansive views of the plains ahead began to be glimpsed from 8000′ summits, the sun again emerged and we shivered warmly. We took our first break of the trip sitting on a log where we snacked on gorp and cheese, drank some water, and attempted to dry our socks.
Later, redolence of woodsmoke wafted through the dripping woods. As we neared the smell, I envisioned a camp, mutton roasting perhaps, over a beckoning fire. Alas, it was not to be. The source of the smoke was indeed fire, but rather than a hospitable blaze, it was a lightning struck tree smoldering, fallen. The Ponderosa pine was riven, it’s once stately trunk a smoking, blackened pillar. The fire had burned well into the innards of the fallen tree and continued it’s slow, but inexorable consumption. We did our best with gear with which nature endowed us to douse the flames, then returned to the path.
That afternoon proved to be very psychologically challenging for both of us.
El Stevo, not knowing what to expect, had not expected the discomfort inherent in lugging a 40 lb pack, such cold, and such a deep feeling of fatigue as the miles racked up over very rugged, undulating terrain. At one point, endeavoring to maintain a cheery outdoors spirit, he summoned an eager grin and queried, “Are we going to have a fire later?”
Knowing that by day’s end we’d both probably just want to crawl into our sleeping bags and pass out, but not wishing to squelch his enthusiasm, I replied noncommittally, “We can.”
Despite my lifelong outdoors experience, I am always humbled by the demands of what an old friend once succinctly and somewhat derisively termed “difficult walking”, that is, hiking through the woods with weight on your back. I’ve done this all my life, and the difficulties are blended with some of the very best memories I have. However, in the moment, before it is tempered and massaged in the crucible of fond hindsight, discomfort is much less pleasant that it will come to be viewed later.
Anyway, we survived, hiking till twilight at 6 pm and covering about 12 miles. As we selected a place to sleep for the night, a cold drizzle began again, and we were both immensely grateful that Bethany’s counsel to bring a tent had prevailed over my demented ultralight tendencies.
El Stevo learned how to set up a 10 year old REI Half Dome, we laid out our sleeping mats and bags, boiled water on my MSR Pocket Rocket and supped on the finest freeze dried Louisiana red beans and rice ever imagined. A cup of herbal tea was the coup de grâce to any lingering thoughts of a campfire. We brushed our teeth, rigged a bear bag in a nearby pine and tumbled into our sleeping bags.
We were too tired even for a sip from the flask in El Stevo’s pack.
Dawn vitreous clear. Eating oatmeal as the sun rises. Instant coffee, break camp, don backpacks, step onto… no trail. Immediately, we are temporarily misdirected. Never ever lost. The CDT is uncivilized, not well marked as is the Appalachian Trail. We despair not, but trust the earth’s molten core. It talks to my compass needle which in turned engages with Jonathan Ley’s paper map.
We re-direct ourselves. Back on course, feeling like true woodsmen, find a trail marker, exulting in the simplest thing. Water tastes like champagne and each footstep is a victory. Steep switchbacks up, views like trumpet blasts. Mountains, Wind, Rocks. All the entities of Nature arrayed.
El Stevo, climbing, shrugs his sore shoulders. Upward, morning dissipating in cool wisps. Feeling the warm eternal slumber of the earth beneath. My breath geysers in and out, alive, alive!
Quiescent thoughts awaken and mull themselves. We are in our heads. Up to the summit. El Stevo performs an iPhone miracle and connects us to our wives. Relief, safety, appreciation. Pepperoni, peanut butter and jelly, pita bread and gorp fight off fatigue. Down we stride, tarantulas cringe at our passage.
Suddenly, a slap in the face of isolation! Ahead, who is that? Caught at bathroom break, 2 specimens of humanity see us as the interlopers. We exchange greetings and talk water and trail conditions. They are traversing the Grand Enchantment Trail. Two weeks of walking have left them grubby but trail-strong. Like old rope. We part while I eye their Gossamer Gear packs with a touch of envy.
Water is life and we find life here in the dregs of Silver Creek. Filtered, it is chalk-colored but potable. We fill bottles and bladders and head uphill. Then down again. The forest is a friend and trees wave at us. Glades of startling majesty interspersed with sunshine and sweat.
El Stevo tells me how he met his wife. Ungodly is the steep downhill into Wahoo Canyon. We misdirect ourselves again, smile because it doesn’t matter, drink water from a puddle and re-orient. An elk hunter. We now climb steeply, steeply and the sun is pure fire above. Trail angel water in a tree and we chugalug in stick thin shade. Topping out is bliss and evaporation. Golden grasses salute the prairie, we flop on our backs.
Route 163 only 4 miles away?
North now on a dirt road. The going is easy and the conversation flows. Wind from the west soughs fine dusts from afar. Cattle country. Off track again we discover too late. Climb a forbidden barbed wire fence and consult friend compass for the 100th time. Indecisive, fatigue is overwhelming us and we quarter southwest, chasing the final sunbeams. For a long time tromping in tussocks following a bearing. Stumbling towards sleep. Relief as we spot a trail marker! Continuing on the trammeled way. The sun drips it’s final days blood. Languorous thoughts and steps.
13 tough mountain miles today, the final 4 becoming 6.
In tramping, you are not earning a living, but earning a happiness. -Stephen Graham
At last, on a slope west of 163, we collapse our packs to coarse earth. Tent up, water boiled, stars rioting overhead. Calories console. The minutiae of backcountry bed readying. Teeth brushed, water in bottles, dry socks, pad in tent, bag lofting, boots drying, hat on, pack stowed, headlamp beams interrogating the desert night.
El Stevo snores under irreproachable starlight.
Check back soon for the continuing saga! Will the spiders seek revenge on El Stevo? Can our feet remain blisterless? Will lightning strike twice? www.Strongility.com is the only place to find the answers to such germane questions!