Chihuahuan Desert Hiking Day 2 (April 29)

It was a breezy night, off and on, up on the desert hillside. Breezy enough to blow my tent stakes out when they weren’t reinforced with rocks on each corner.  I kept my tent fly off so that the wind could roll through the mesh, instead of pushing against the solid fly and buffeting the tent all night.

The landscape reminded me a lot of a place where I’d heard a cougar, back on the PCT.  I tried not to think about it, but cougar sightings remain one of my chief concerns.  I kept waking up and listening intently, then drifting off again for a while.  I’d forgotten about that anxious and unnecessary vigilance that keeps me up some nights out here, especially when camping alone.  That should subside with a few weeks’ time.

I woke up to a pretty dawn, birds chirping all over the hillside.  Mountains outlined in pink and blue from the sun coming up behind them.  This whole vast landscape before me, the sandy basin below.

As I was packing up, two hikers I had seen before passed by me and called out Good morning.  It was good to know they’d be nearby.

As pretty as the sunrise was, I felt a sense of urgency seeing the sunbeams, feeling the heat from even those first softer rays.  Only a matter of time before the land would be baking again.

The morning hiking was beautiful, breezy, in gentle light.  The hiking was different than anything I’d done before, winding from hill to hill, with small gullies between.  I’d read time and again about how easy it is to “get lost” on this trail, had just been told yesterday by a veteran hiker, “You’re going to lose the trail all the time”.  It was hard to imagine, without seeing it, but now all became clear.  I was walking over a sparse land of creosote, sagebrush, ocotillo plants.  The hills lacked the vegetation to clearly outline a path.  On top of that, cow-paths criss- crossed the hiker trail often, blurring its boundaries even more.

What an adventure.  Most hillsides had a trail marker, a wooden post with a rock on top, to shoot for.  The trail was well-defined by that post, then sometimes petered out after that, and I often couldn’t see the next post.  If I had been hiking with someone, I probably wouldn’t be able to say why I chose to walk a certain way, following a faint hint of a trail, or the natural curve of the landscape, but sometimes it just intuitively felt right to head off in a certain direction, scanning for the path and the next post as I went.  When intuition failed, I dug out my phone and pulled up my map, altered my course accordingly.

My progress was slow (7 miles in 6 hours!) because of the meandering course, but the hiking was also more engaging, putting observational skills to the test.

I loved not having a set path, more of a direction.  Being out here sometimes feels like multiple acts of surrender- my mind and anxieties over wildlife letting go enough to fall asleep, and later, embracing the freedom of having multiple paths to choose from.

I took a break under one of the rare trees to be found, then continued on, descending to the desert floor and starting a long hot trek of waterless miles to the water cache ahead.  I fell short on this one, in part because of the meandering nature of the section of trail behind me- it had taken longer to hike those miles than I’d expected.  Nothing more serious than a few thirsty miles, fortunately.

The water cache was a metal bin filled with large durable containers of water, supplied by the CDTC and one kind volunteer who runs the Hachita General Store.  I’m told that he runs out to several caches and refills them daily, for a time.  Thus far, it has saved me from attempting to gather from cattle troughs out here.  I’m thankful.  The longer I can put that off, the better.

I sat in the thinning sliver of the water cache to eat a snack.  The 6″ sliver of shade was a treasure, in a landscape of Joshua trees, yucca, parched grasses and sagebrush, and the sun cooking everything from overhead.

To compensate for that last stretch of dry hiking, I drank til I couldn’t any more, and filled all the containers I had, for the 10 mile carry ahead.  I trudged away, thinking of my PCT friend cameling up at a water source last year.  When I laughed at him groaning and asked how it felt, he said, “Like a good friend I’d missed has crawled up on my back again”. Pretty apt- pack creaking, steps heavy.

I passed the two hikers I had met earlier, sitting in the shade of a kiosk trailhead sign.  They offered me a spot- a considerate move, given that the shaded patch measured approx 6×4′.

I hiked on, thinking how if anyone ever asks me about hiking this trail, I’ll tell them to hike the PCT first.  I’m glad that I’m facing this NM desert, with the whole California desert heat hiking experience in my mind.  Sun-screening up all the time, finding shade patches to rest in, estimating water amounts to carry, cameling up at sources.  I guess you could learn that out here, but the stakes seem higher.  I saw a total of two other northbound hikers all day (and 2 southbound).  Self-reliance is essential.

All day I kept turning around to look at Hachita Peak, where I had come from, and marvel at how different it looked, with distance.  Massive.  It’s often satisfying to have a reference point like that to gaze back on, to think about what it felt like earlier in the day, to be there (!) and back there (!), and put it all together up to this point right now.

By the end of the day, after some hot hiking and crawling into shaded hideaways to recover, I made it to a trail magic cooler that Radar, the general store owner, had supplied with electrolyte drinks in ice cold water.  The other two hikers walked up after me, and we ate together, camped nearby.

One is a veteran hiker (his third time on the CDT!) who said that he’d done all three of the trails (Appalachian, Pacific Crest, Continental Divide), finished his triple crown 10 years ago, thought that’d be it, but somehow, “kept coming back to it” and “here I am now”.  These stories are always both admirable and unnerving to me.  If you really love thru hiking and all the best it has to offer, can you make your peace with a thru hiking conclusion, potentially not thru hiking again?  Is thru hiking repeatedly time well-spent?

The other hiker was also completely hooked on long distance hiking, saying, in response to how’s it going for you so far?  “I love it!  I already know I want to come back again next year and hike this again!”

So here we are, camping in the NM desert under the stars, after a hard day’s hiking.  I’m thankful to have met these two hikers, to be here now, for my family/friends at home, and the ongoing pull between the two places.

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