Divided: A Walk on the Continental Divide Trail

Hello dedicated readers, hiker hopefuls, curious cubicle dwellers, seasoned striders of trail, sole-softened veterans, and armchair adventurists! Knots here, giving you all a sneak peek at my upcoming book Divided: A Walk on the Continental Divide Trail. It is a story of a hiker returning to the favorable discomforts of trail, determined to savor unforgettable highs while trudging through unavoidable lows, all for the glory of being able to walk outside every day and sleep in a tent every night.

This book is scheduled to be published in October 2019 (that’s next month!) so get yourselves a little taster of my words by reading on below and stay tuned for the full release! To remain updated on the publishing process throughout these final weeks, follow me on Instagram (@lifeofbri92) and feel free to send me a message!

As always, thanks for reading.

Peace and Love,

Knots

Part One: New Mexico

I. Once a Thru-Hiker, Always a Thru-Hiker

April 30 – Day 1

It is just another early morning at the Econo Lodge in Lordsburg, New Mexico. I am not sure what other clientele this hotel supports but hikers seem to be their main source of income during this season. Some of us fill our stomachs at the continental breakfast before leaving. We slowly make it out to the parking lot. It’s still dark outside. A few stars remain shining in the western edge of the sky. Ten hikers and two drivers mill around a pair of large rental trucks. Tired faces hold half-cooled cups of coffee or full bottles of water.

The Continental Divide Trail Coalition runs a shuttle service from Lordsburg to the southern terminus of the trail: the United States/Mexico border. From here we will hike back up to Lordsburg for a resupply before continuing north. It seems silly to be taking a vehicle down to the border just to walk back up to the same town we left a few days prior, but I am not going to get started on what’s silly. Not yet.

I put my backpack in one of the large black trash bags provided and set it down in the bed of the truck. It’s a dry ride to the border and you do not want to start off the hike with a dust-covered backpack weighing you down and wearing out any material it infiltrates. There will be plenty of time to get yourself and your belongings covered in dirt over the next few weeks. No need to get a head start. We pile into the trucks, three across the back and two up front with the driver.

The CDT Coalition rents full size, four-door trucks so there is adequate space for six grown adults. They rent these vehicles from early March to mid-May, when most northbounders begin their journey. Any earlier than this and you arrive in Colorado before the winter’s snow has a chance to melt. Any later and you are hiking through the New Mexico desert in extreme heat, with water sources dangerously low or else completely dried up. Our driver is a volunteer and well-rehearsed in navigating down to the border. The thru-hiking season and shuttles having started nearly two months earlier, he is plenty comfortable getting to the drop-off point and leaving hikers stranded in the middle of the desert with only their backpacks and each other.

We get rolling down the asphalt road and introduce ourselves. Leah is upfront in the middle, the driver, Joe, and my brother, Nick, on either side of her. She is the only female amongst the nine male hikers being taken down to the border this morning, a standard ratio. Across the back sits Adam, Will and myself. We also provide our trail names but only three of us have them: Will is Tarzan, Nick is Nacho and I am Knots.

A trail name is usually given to a hiker early on in their hiking career. It is essentially a nickname or a moniker to adopt in the woods to mask your true identity. We leave a society we know so well to walk in the backcountry for half the year, becoming outsiders to the world that recognizes us by our original name. Going on trail is a rebirth of the self and one that requires a new tag to establish your commitment to life as a thru-hiker. A trail name is usually out of your control. It depends on who you hike with, who you speak to and what sticks to your aura as a hiker.

For the first fifteen minutes of the ride, Leah is on the phone with her car insurance company having waited until the last morning to cancel her automobile coverage. Today we are all making the transition from human to hiker, choosing to leave our roles in society to become a wanderer of barren lands through the Continental Divide passageway. As hikers we are a leech of civilization, spending limited time in the small towns that line the trail, a passive sightseer never to be seen ‘round these parts again and a tourist in the rawest sense of the word. These are kind, somewhat romanticized descriptions, yet this is the desired life for a thru-hiker and the type of lifestyle that constantly haunts us between hikes.

We are going as far south as we can along the Continental Divide in the United States, where the Divide is virtually non-existent, hidden beneath ripples of desert sand. We turn off the highway and onto a dirt road. The sun rises to our left as anticipation grows with the day. Nerves in my stomach are tossed around as the truck rocks back and forth down the bumpy road. Joe sits comfortably behind the wheel as he navigates over the battered desert. Seven weeks into the hiking season and he well knows every foot of dust that makes up the dirt path to the border. Windows remain up during the ride. The black trash bags in the bed have taken on a layer of desert camouflage.

We take three stops for pee breaks. We are all relieved to be back in nature, free to pee wherever, especially in the desert where we don’t have to worry about urinating too close to water sources or streams that aren’t there. All passengers are clearly well hydrated and prepared to walk in eighty-degree sunshine across the exposed desert. Grateful for the fresh air, we breathe deeply and stretch our limbs. I’m never one to get car sick but this ride is not an easy roll down the highway.

Included in our shuttle package is the placement and upkeep of five water cache lockers between the southern terminus and Lordsburg. We drive along a low mountain range as our driver informs us of where the water caches are located, tucked behind desert brush and hidden out of sight from the road. The first eighty-six miles of trail have but a few reliable natural sources and these caches save us from having to haul an absurd amount of water between them.

On the other side of the truck, Tarzan begins to eat an apple from the hotel. He devours the whole thing in primal fashion, stripping the scarlet ball down to a palmful of brown specks. Hikers do not like to waste food. We don’t like to waste anything actually. For most of us, this isn’t our first long-distance hike and we are all properly trained to Leave No Trace: the ethical principles carried by most hikers and travelers of the outdoors. These habits are well ingrained in our hiker code, having been learned and developed on prior backpacking trips.

There isn’t much conversation amid the bouncing around inside the cab. I am glad to be wearing a seatbelt in this full vehicle with bodies that provide complementary cushion. I grab onto Nick’s headrest in front of me as I try to keep a level field of vision. I figure I might as well get used to looking at the back of his head.

Nick completed the Pacific Crest Trail two summers ago, in 2016, and during the summer of 2014, we hiked the entire Appalachian Trail together. From Georgia to Maine, we camped every night together and always hiked within a few miles of one another. We took no days off amidst the 2,185-mile journey. I did my best to keep up while doing my part to slow him down as much as possible. After 131 days of playing hiker tug of war, we summited Katahdin, capping off our thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail.

Four hours after leaving the Econo Lodge parking lot, we arrive at the bottom of New Mexico. The southern terminus is marked with a granite obelisk, an information board and a small pavilion providing respite from the sun. Ten yards away, the international border is marked with a crude barb wire fence. Anything more would leave a scar on this landscape. No more than four feet high, this primitive combination of wire and wood reinforces the fact that the landscape itself deters most from pursuing the American Dream.

Tarzan walks to the border and stares out over the fence.

“You watering the plants over there?” I call out to him.

“Yeah, they’re lookin’ a little dry!” he yells over his shoulder, still facing Mexico. He pees through the fence, not in an attempt to disrespect our southerly neighbors, but in a sentimental manner to honor his excitement of being here and the beginning of his journey.

We all take pictures with the monument, marking the start of our new lives as hikers of the Continental Divide Trail. Today marks the beginning of a 2,500 plus mile journey from the bottom of the country to the top and a day that marks the commencement of many good days to come. It is only the beginning yet I tell myself that getting to this point was the hard part. Working two jobs through winter was the hard part. Saying goodbye to friends, which damaged some relationships while strengthening others, was the hard part. Leaving a town that became home was the hard part. There is difficulty in saying goodbye but I knew once I left, the next five to six months would hold nothing but bliss and tranquility. Doubts murmuring in the back of my mind fade away to be replaced by words of encouragement and thoughts of elation.

I have an idea of what to expect in terms of lifestyle and demands, not only physically but mentally as well. Those of us who have thru-hiked know the feelings that accompany such a journey and yearn to experience these emotions again. We have felt the overwhelming joy of a thru-hike and conversely have felt the lowest lows that break us down into tears of pain and shouts of frustration with no one around to listen or help. You can scream at the hills in front of you, cry to the sky or else plead with the trees for the pain to stop, but it never does. The only solution is to breathe and walk.

No matter how low you get while hiking, the highs are worth every step. There will be bad moments during this journey, but the worst day on trail is still better than the best day off it. We have made the sacrifices necessary to be here and must face the miles that await. As thru-hikers, we are chasing the high of being able to walk all day, through the longest days of the year and the hottest hours of the season. We watch the days get longer and hang on to every minute as they slowly shorten. We desire to accomplish something most only have the energy to scoff at while feeding off their looks of uncertainty and their words of desire. We yearn to complete this challenge, to achieve something measurable by days and miles but enjoyed more for the things that hold no measure.

Time between hikes is spent reminiscing over our months and miles in the wilderness as a backpacker: an unemployed tramp of the trail, an evolved caveman tuning into the energy of Earth and ultimately returning home. Knowing this life exists is a curse. It haunts your thoughts while you work, encourages your identity off-trail, fuels your heart to love and promotes the pursuit of simplicity in all aspects of life.

Regardless of how simply I live off-trail, I believe the only truly simple life is one spent outside, smelling sage and sweating under the sun while carrying everything you need on your back. We wander like the children of Neverland, wishing it was Everland. Looking for an “X” on the treasure map, we search for elusive riches. Riding a sea of unknowns, endless opportunities await.

The sun stands high in the sky and after taking enough pictures, it is finally time to start hiking. Goosebumps cover my body and I pinch myself, giddy with excitement. Smiling dumbly, my nervous legs carry me over desert sand and between needled cacti. Tears of joy escape my eyes as the smile on my face breaks even wider. We are actually on the Continental Divide Trail. All that is left is to walk.

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Comments 3

  • Claude ‘Pilgrim’ Houge : Sep 14th

    I’m very eager to read the rest of this! Way to go, Brian!

    Reply
    • Brian Cornell : Sep 15th

      Thanks Pilgrim! Looking forward to getting it out there!

      Reply
  • Justin Gregg : Sep 17th

    Been waiting for a CDT memoir after reading all the AT/PCT books…looking forward to this book!

    Reply

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