A Whole Lotta’ Nothing- And Some Pie
We have just spent the last few days hiking northbound through the Gila River National Forest in New Mexico. The trail wove us through a desert oasis and unique geography, ending at the Snow Lake Dam. The moment we cross the dam, the scenery change is drastic. Ahead lies miles of rolling hills covered in dry, yellow grass and sprinkled with ponderosa and juniper trees, but hardly anything else. It is a stark contrast to the vibrant lands we left behind.
The Monotony of the Desert
The first day in this dismal landscape is actually enjoyable. We hike up a short but steep climb, and at the top I feel as if I am on top of the world. I can see for miles in any direction. The scene lacks variety, but the hiking is easy along a dirt road. We make miles quickly. The strong gusts of wind are a relief from the hot sun, and I am enjoying the upbeat playlist I have downloaded on my phone.
Over the next few days, we find ourselves in more wooded areas. The dubbed “Gila Alternate” ends and we are back on the proper CDT, where the trail immediately begins some of the steeper ascents and descents we have had so far. We hike through an area that had been victim to wildfire a few years prior. Our general elevation is getting higher and higher, camping at 7,000 or 8,000 feet and the difference is noticeable.
Earlier on, our night temperatures had been mild but now it’s growing colder when the sun goes down. This makes for slower mornings, as we are all hesitant to crawl out of our sleeping bags while the temperature still hovers near freezing. Eventually, the wooded areas thin out and we are back in wide-open desert nothingness. We hike for miles following nothing but a fence line- the scenery is static. We camp in wide-open fields with no protection from the wind, which wakes us up by lashing at our tents. We have long water carries. We are bored. We are tired and our feet hurt.
In general, I can tell that morale in our group is low. We make humorous comments at our dismal surrounds, but mostly our lunch breaks are silent. The four of us hike a bit spread out, lost in our own podcasts or playlists. I suggest shaking things up, altering our schedule so we can do some night hiking, but ultimately we decide against it. We just want to get to where we are going. Get to the next town, the next opportunity for a break from the monotony.
The Joy of Town Days and Generous Locals
The highlight of this stretch has, by far, been the towns. We make our first stop in Reserve, NM. We were meant to go in and out of town on the same day, just staying long enough to resupply and charge our phones. But the boring landscape inspires us to hike faster so we are able to get to town a day early and justify a night’s stay at the lodge. Reserve is about 30 miles from the trail so I arrange a shuttle pick up by texting from my Garmin inReach. Reserve has a population of 537 and is the largest town (actually, village) in the county.
It consists of two restaurants (each with inconsistent hours, dependent on employee availability), one bar, a small grocery store, a smaller convenience store that offers video rentals (“23 new movies this month!” a sign on the door boasts), a post office, the county courthouse, and the lodge that we will be staying in. That’s it. Wiz and I are mesmerized by the small-town lifestyle. It is quaint and quiet, and everyone is very friendly. At one point, while we were drinking at the bar, I saw a few people saunter into town on horseback. They weren’t out for the novelty of horseback riding- this was simply how they came into town to run errands.
Our next stop along this stretch is Pie Town, a town even smaller than Reserve. This stop has become notorious among hikers, despite not offering even a grocery store for resupply. For starters, it is Pie Town. So of course, there is pie. Before last year, there had been two pie shops in town, catering to hikers and road-trippers alike who wanted to experience the novelty of having pie in a place called Pie Town. They both went under during the pandemic.
Sarah Chavez had moved to Pie Town for a quiet retirement but stepped up to the plate when she realized Pie Town was no longer able to serve pies. She opened up Pie Town Pies, a new pie shop with a small menu, and with her small staff is keeping the novelty alive. We spend hours here. Wiz asks to take some pictures in their kitchen of the pies in the making and ended up making pie crusts for the better part of the hour. They ask Peppermint to help with dishes in exchange for a free meal (they are short-staffed). I sit and paint a scene of the quaint cafe and gift a copy to Sarah. Customers come and go frequently while we are there. Batch after batch of pies are sold out, and some customers are forced to either sit around and wait for more or leave Pie town pie-less.
The other offering Pie Town has is a house by the name of “The Toaster House.” This old home is decorated with hundreds of old toasters, and its doors are open to all hikers. It is sort of like a hostel but on a donation basis. One hiker points out that it reminds them of the Weasley’s house (from Harry Potter) and it’s an accurate comparison, eclectic and homey while also being in a bit of a disarray. There are probably about 15 other hikers staying here when we make it in. It is here that we meet up with Spoons, a friend of mine from home who is in New Mexico on his own adventure. He meets us with trail magic in the form of beer and frozen pizza. We enjoy a late evening with a crowd of hikers, drinking and sharing humorous hiking stories. I have missed this form of socializing, and the experience is revitalizing.
Out of Pie Town, we are faced with road walking all the way to Grants, our next town. The boring trail is now even more boring, and with the added pain of walking on pavement or compressed dirt all day. It is demoralizing, but on our first night, we stop at TLC Ranch. The ranch is run by a couple and their family. They realized a few years back that CDT hikers came past their property and started offering water and a place to camp. Since this stretch is mostly through private land with “No Trespassing” signs, the offer is much appreciated. But their generosity didn’t stop there. At 6 pm they rang a dinner bell and invited the hikers to come sit at their table. They brought out plates of baked beans, mashed potatoes, ham, ribs, and topped it all off with a cobbler. They encouraged us to eat as much as we could and shared their stories of how they have been feeding and helping hikers for the past few years.
The generosity of others and the vibrancy of these small towns is revitalizing, but the hiking itself still wears on us. It gets harder and harder as we head north. Leading up to the town of Grants, we find ourselves on a 38 mile paved road walk. I have three blisters that have popped up in the last week. The tread on my shoes is almost worn away and I am slipping on the gravel. My feet hurt. My pack is heavy during the long water carries. The group is disheartened by the bland trail we’ve been hiking since leaving the Gila and we all are ready to get to Colorado, or something more interesting than this.
However, as disappointed as we all are, our tempers stay cool. We joke and offer support to each other. I am more thankful than ever to have my partner, Wiz, with me during this stretch. We have taken to sharing my Bluetooth headphones so we can listen to the same podcasts as we walk alongside each other. I quote the repetitive tag lines of the ads in a silly voice. We offer massages in the tent and enjoy cuddling in the cold hours after sunset. I had worried that the challenges of thru hiking might make us frustrated with each other but so far there has only been an appreciation for each other’s presence.
Even still, this segment of trail is wearing on us. Due to some personal commitments, we have to make it to a certain town by a certain date, so we take a shorter alternate that leaves us with 4 days of road walking. At first, it is a dirt road that is boring. Then it is a paved highway that is boring and painful. For 20 miles a day, my feet slam on the hard-packed pavement. I have blisters and shooting pain through my arches and shins.
I had full intentions of making this hike a continuous footpath from Mexico to Canada, but I have to rethink my priorities. There is a lot I could be sacrificing by finishing this long road walk. I am setting myself up for injury. We will have to rush through this next, more scenic, section to get where we need to be in time. After some discussion, we decide to throw out a thumb to catch a ride. We enjoy the last 20 miles of this section of “trail” from the back seat of a kind older couple’s camper van. By landing in town a day early we are able to catch up on town chores and take some time off before tackling the next section.
I am disappointed to have cut this corner- I want to experience the good, the bad, and the ugly all together. But I am also relieved to have this section behind me. Up next is Mount Taylor, an 11,300 ft mountain that still has patches of snow. The landscape will start changing soon and I am excited to discover what it has in store.
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