Out Of The Woods- Day 4 On The CDT
del río sofocante
en que con otros peces navegamos
desde el alba a la noche migratoria
y ahora en este espacio descubierto
volemos a la pura soledad
If the suffocating river of humanity sometimes makes you long for the open space of pure solitude, set stress aside for a moment and continue the CDT hike with me and El Stevo.
Hunters and Wanderers
Have you ever slept outside? If so, you know that it’s not about the sleep; it’s about the outside. Far from being an uninterrupted 8 hours of forgetfulness, sleep, when taken outdoors, is a continuation of one day and a segue to the next. It drifts upon you in bits and pieces and imprints it’s own unique memories.
So it was this third night atop the ridgeline just south of Pelona Mountain. I dozed, sweet visions of the day bringing recurring smiles to my face. I thought- of my wife, of childhood backpacking trips with my parents and brother, of miles, years, and friendships gone by.
I got up to pee far too many times and every time with the greatest perturbation at having to fuss with the sleeping bag zipper and waste my accumulated body heat.
The annoyance of nocturnal urination in the wild night is, however, more than compensated for. The heavens, ripe with stars, are a grand pronouncement of the Creator’s glory. The breezes smell different, of dew, moonbeams and cold dirt.
Each time, I would return to my sleeping bag, shivering, and slowly rewarm to comfort.
Coyote yips woke me. I unzipped and rolled out, ready for another day. The morning’s first light was just beginning to awaken the mountain-studded eastern horizon, tracked with our last few day’s footprints.
El Stevo by now was becoming a veteran. We went about our respective morning chores with a sense of simple satisfaction. We both knew exactly what we’d be doing that day, and it was so pure, so uncluttered, that it brought peace.
When you spend time in the outdoors, you come to a much more profound appreciation of certain basic things. Hot water, for instance, on a cold morning, boiled in a pot over the steady, reassuring roar of a backpacking stove.
I must digress. Just yesterday, I fired up my old MSR Whisperlite International on the back deck just to make sure it was functioning well. The smell of combusting white gas, together with that unmistakable, memory-printing sound, (If you’ve been there, you know exactly what I mean, right? If not, you must experience it) instantly brought me back 30 plus years in time. I could see my dad, his breath steaming in the early morning Adirondack coolness, crouched over his vintage Svea backpacking stove. To child-me, this was a most comfortable, reassuring sight. It meant that all was well in the world. It meant food, love, and another day’s adventure.
And so the stove there on that ridgetop on the CDT brought to us another fine day of grand, eloquent adventure. El Stevo had shaken out the tent, we hung our sleeping bags over piñon trees to dry in the dappling sunshine. The hot coffee sparked us to life and we packed our packs and tightened our laces.
That morning before leaving camp, we went our separate ways and, following an ancient biblical mandate, cared for a certain necessary matter.
Curiously, upon finishing, when I remarked to El Stevo, “Well, method 3 works very well!”, he responded, “Hey, that’s just what I did!”
Just as we were admiring the view and preparing to set foot on the trail, a lanky flannel-clad man rode a horse up onto the ridge from it’s west side. We exchanged greetings and conversed for a few minutes. Rick was an elk hunter and a true backwoods gentleman. After finding out that we were on foot and how far we had to go (he seemed impressed by these facts), he offered some water which we accepted with alacrity, our supply being a bit low.
He remounted and rode away as we began to climb the escarpment bound for a promontory on the western shoulder of Pelona Mountain.
The light this particular morning lent a magnificent clarity to the air. Away to the east, far below, we spied a pocket of paradise which the map refers to as Cienegita. A small cabin, enhanced through binoculars, adorned a beautiful grassy meadow near 2 small ponds. Tall evergreens festooned the perimeter and the dusky mountains cradled this bucolic vision in a magical moment of near unreality.
Reality, though, was the steeply ascending trail. We sucked in air and gaped at the stunning, calming scenery on every side.
Be careful about gaping at scenery. Doing so resulted in not carefully consulting the map in my left hand pants pocket.
As a result, we were making fine progress on a trail that was not the CDT!
Thankfully, the clopping of hooves heralded the presence of another hunter on horseback. He, too, proved to be a godsend. After confabulating about his hunt, the weather, and sundry matters, he queried us as to our intent.
“We’re hiking on the CDT!”, we declared, perhaps thinking he would be impressed as Rick had been. We felt rugged and embarrassingly, a bit smug.
To our chagrin, this fellow was not the least bit dazzled by our manliness. “Shoot”, he remarked, “you guys are no where near the trail; the Divide’s over there!”, and he pointed to the southwest, indicating a faintly visible cairn on a distant ridgeline.
We cringed, dismayed. We had no desire to downclimb the interminable slope we had just ascended and then have to regain all that elevation all over again. Our smugness dissipated like a stinky whiff of sweaty armpit.
The hunter, having steered us in the right direction, clip-clopped away down the mountain while we reviewed our options, somewhat crestfallen and humbled.
Magnetism and Ligaments
Ultimately we decided to strike out cross country following a compass bearing that would intersect with the CDT. We began with a descent through a lovely Ponderosa grove quartering to the southwest. El Stevo found a large rock, cratered with various indents, some of which contained a substantial amount of water covered with a thin film of ice. He broke the ice and sipped cold water from the rock. I followed suit, realizing that we needed to both stay hydrated and keep cool heads.
Our off-trail jaunt ended up being a blessing in disguise. We saw a herd of beautiful brown bovines wandering the open range, we funneled down through a pretty canyon which drained out to the western plains, and…suddenly, I collapsed forward, falling on my face in an unceremonious heap!
My old nemesis seemed to have returned. When I was a kid, I had sprained and fractured my ankle numerous times playing basketball and for many years thereafter had lived in a state of constant terror that it would happen again. For years, I wore the tallest, stiffest boots I could find, lacing them to near fanatical tightness…all to no avail. I would continue to roll my ankles and end up with severe sprains resulting in several days, sometimes weeks, of immobility.
Then, in 2004, I read a book that changed my life. “The Naked Warrior”, by Pavel Tsatsouline espouses a bare bones bodyweight exercise program featuring a one legged squat variation that Pavel terms “the Pistol”. Tsatsouline also advocated exercising barefoot or in minimalist footwear (well before the the latter term had entered the vernacular.) Following this prescription, along with heavy deadlifts on non-supportive foot wear, had dramatically strengthened my feet and ankles to the point where I had almost forgotten about my history of tumbling to the ground, overstretched ligaments protesting ferociously.
And now, over a decade later, here I lay, grimacing as I clutched my ankle and envisioned El Stevo having to hike out alone for help.
This wasn’t how it was supposed to end! I gingerly (it is a requirement to use that adverb in this context) clambered to my feet with all the grace of a freshly born colt. El Stevo, stood by, looking worried as I gently took a few steps. I seemed intact. We pressed onward. What I now reveal to the world and El Stevo is that it was actually rather a nasty sprain that pained me for the rest of the hike and even made me a bit grumpy towards the end.
Anyhow, enough whining. It was not nearly as bad as it would have been pre-Pavel! We trudged on, hoping with mounting nervousness that we were going to intersect the CDT soon.
The little red needle didn’t lie. After a stiff uphill traverse, I spotted a signpost indicating that we were back on track. Hallelujah! El Stevo took the lead as we paid careful attention to our surroundings, which, incidentally, were exquisite. Cirrostratus clouds scudded across the welkin, filtering sunlight in halos of gold. Tall grasses undulated hypnotically, herds of grey green buffalo galloping in photosynthetic unison across the prairie.
We descended into Rail Canyon and took a short break sitting on rocks near a few inviting pools of rapidly evaporating water. Continuing, El Stevo led the way into another cool evergreen cathedral peopled by a family of mule deer which effortlessly bounded upslope and away, phantoms.
Soon, near Batton Pond, we arrived at a dirt logging road which we would follow for the last 6-7 miles. It wound through an up and down landscape of wooded slopes and dry creek beds. We stopped for lunch, sitting on a rectangular boulder where we dried our sweaty socks in the warm sunshine, quaffed agua, and ate pepperoni, bread, cheese, and, you guessed it: gorp!
The remainder of the afternoon was unpunctuated by anything more remarkable than we had already experienced. Road walking is never as enchanting as navigating a thin ribbon of untamed trail. A cartilage crushing rocky descent brought us to the last leg of our journey. Here, we began to see the detritus of humanity in the form of the occasional beer can blighting the earthscape.
El Stevo uttered a memorable and lamentably accurate remark about the preferences of sleazy high school boys with Jeeps.
Ale and Owl
As we trudged across ranchland towards our extraction point, a dull sky of graphite grey lowered upon us. The CDT snaked away to the south now, a tantalizing Elysium that begged us to follow. Time, alas, had other dictates.
A herd of cows, motivated by seemingly inordinate curiosity, thundered towards us as a united body. El Stevo seemed quite worried that we would be trampled to a bloody pulp. What a way to go! Death by cow. Happily, the herd turned aside at the last minute, crossing the dirt road in front of us and ogling us now from the other side. This scenario repeated itself several times until El Stevo no longer flinched at the sound of drumming hooves. I think they enjoy messing with our heads!
As we came to a junction where our dirt road joined a slightly larger one, El Stevo pulled out his iPhone and called his wife. Miraculously, our timing had been nearly perfect! The girls were a mere 12 miles away. We went into full on tech mode as El Stevo activated an app that allowed him to see their progress towards us in real time.
Wilderness sunk back into it’s lair as we watched the blue dot, soon becoming a dust cloud on the real road. I reflected, not without some sadness, that it had taken us 3 days to feel like we were one with the woods, but in just a few seconds, the modern, artificial world had reasserted itself.
Oh well, así es la vida.
It was wonderful to be reunited with our wives. They had brought a few bottles of Chicken Killer Barleywine and a delicious meal of roasted bell peppers stuffed with tabbouleh and savory beef. We supped grandly beneath the glowering, darkening sky, listened to the coyote chorus, and soaked up the memories of the past few days.
As we began the long drive home, a massive owl materialized in the road ahead of us. We stopped and stared as it stared back, yellow eyes incredible in a round, grey face. With not a hint of fear or malice, it spread it’s noble wings and disappeared into the windy night like a savage dream.
We will be back! The CDT is there…waiting patiently; desolate, lonely, beautiful.