New Mexico Gets Grueling but Gorgeous
After a painful stretch of “hiking” on paved roads through lackluster landscapes, we arrive in Grants, New Mexico. Grants is located on I-40 and Route 66, so naturally it’s a good location to refuel. For the first time since starting the trail, we are in a town that has consistently good cell reception as well as decent wifi. There is a Walmart, providing vast resupply options. Typical chain restaurants greet us with their familiar menus. I had expected Grants to provide convenience but the hospitality in this town takes me by surprise. We stay with a friend of a friend of a friend: Carmen. Despite having never met any of us before, she left us the code to unlock her door so we could let ourselves in while she was at work. She welcomed the four of us to make ourselves at home in her small house. We do laundry, fix gear, and even get to use the hot tub! When she comes home we make a steak dinner and enjoy the company of her and her family.
Low Points Up High
The next day, Wiz and I leave in the late morning. Peppermint and Taco will stay for a zero day. Since Wiz and I are getting off trail for a wedding in a few days, we want to try to pull ahead so it will be easier to catch back up to the guys after we have been off for four days. This will be the first time on this trail that it is just the two of us. On our walk out of town, we meet and engage with more friendly locals. Grants is one of the “Gateway Communities” along the CDT and we can tell the townsfolk are excited to be a part of the trail. Several people comment that there are more CDT hikers than ever this year- they are eager to watch this trail grow in popularity.
Our first day out is hot and we are carrying several pounds of water along with 5 days of food. We start with a significant climb, and I can feel the weight pulling me down. Still, we make good time and find ourselves a cozy campsite near a piped water source after 16 miles. We opt to cowboy camp. It’s warm and the sky is clear- it looks like it will be a beautiful night. A few persistent mosquitoes keep us up, though, and after trying to ignore them for a few hours we end up setting up the tent at midnight, then we are finally able to rest.
Our sleep doesn’t last long. We have an alarm clock set for 4:30 am. Our campsite is 3 miles from the summit of Mount Taylor, an 11,300-foot peak and our highest mountain so far on trail. We wanted to catch the sunrise from the summit and despite our poor night sleep, we decide to follow through with our plan. The climb is slow and arduous. I am laden down with food and water, and once I pass 10,000 feet I notice that I am even more sluggish than usual. By the time I make it to the summit, the sun has been up for over half an hour. It is drastically colder at the top. We find a sheltered alcove where I put on all my layers, and crawl into my sleeping bag so I can stay and enjoy the view without freezing. After a warm cup of coffee, we get moving.
As we begin the more gradual descent down Mount Taylor, the temperature stays frigid and the wind is icy. The sun is covered by a layer of clouds. Eventually, it starts raining. It is a cold rain, and at points, we think it might actually be snow or hail. Up until now, any rain that we have gotten has been short-lived. This time, it lasts for hours. My “waterproof” gloves are soaked through. I struggle to keep my fleece hoodie dry under my raincoat. Each gust of wind bites at my exposed legs. When it is time for lunch, we decide to set up the tent. We aren’t as far along as we should be, having started so early, but we take a three-hour lunch break, napping and enjoying the warmth of our sleeping bags. Our afternoon looks like it might be just as dreary, but soon after we start hiking the clouds begin to part. Another hiker, Pika, catches up with us. The last few miles pass by quickly as we chat. That evening we camp with Pika and enjoy a vibrant sunset.
High Points Down Low
After this grueling day, each day gets better and better. We start with easy dirt road walks that transition into flat, straight trail. The miles come easy. It’s windy and small rain clouds pass by, showering us for brief moments just to move on. The sun dries everything out quickly. The desert is reacting to the recent rainfalls- wildflowers are popping up everywhere! There are dozens of different species and I stop to take pictures often. Desert paintbrush, asters, strawberry, scarlet hedgehog cacti, desert parsley, wild iris, and globemallow. Some I have already learned to identify but many I won’t learn the names for until I have service to look them up.
We hike down the steep edge of a mesa, and then into new landscapes. We are still in vast deserts but with plateaus, mesas, and mountains all around us. The rock formations in our immediate surroundings are stunning. I compare it to Escalate, Utah and Wiz mentions Monument Valley, Utah. Around each corner is a new surprise. We spend an evening cowboy camping near a cliffside with tremendous views, and this time there are no mosquitoes annoying us. We wake up to the sun rising over the San Pedro mountains in the distance.
At this point, we have 20 miles into the town of Cuba, NM for our next resupply. We get an early start, eager for town luxuries. The terrain continues to surprise us, and at one point we spend a half-mile scrambling up a steep cliffside- I am astonished that they managed to build a trail here. We meet some other hikers that have a friend nearby who will be out with trail magic. Towards the end of the day, we stumble upon Carlos, the trail angel. He is making fajitas out of the back of his truck and has a cooler of beer. We spend a few hours here with other hikers until we finally go on to finish the last 5 miles of road-walking into town.
Cuba is a small town with many deserted buildings and run-down homes. But the motel we stay at is comfortable and there is laundry and food within walking distance. We have phenomenal chicken at a small restaurant (twice). There are at least 20 hikers in town and many are planning to stay for another day or two. The San Juan mountains are just a week or two away, and we are getting reports that the snow is still deep, so hikers are deciding to take it slow to allow more time for the snow to melt.
A Slice of Heaven
We take our time leaving Cuba and just do 6 miles out – we are ahead of schedule for our arranged pick up later this week. We enjoy another lovely evening camping alone with a stunning sunset. The next day we are rewarded with some of our favorite stretches of trail so far. We climb up to 10,000 feet and are surrounded by forest. Snow-melt is filling the creek beds generously. We cross several natural water sources. The ground is muddy, and in some places, the trail is under a few inches of water. There are still snowdrifts that haven’t melted, though there is no need for us to walk through snow in any place. We take a long lunch in a lush meadow and I paint the scene before me. As we are packing up, we notice a few elk on the fringe of the meadow.
Our spirits are high as we continue forward, everything is so beautiful and we are finally getting a taste of the mountains that are to come. Eventually, the trail takes us back down to the desert, into Chama River Canyon. We begin to notice a faint clicking noise from the trees. We stop to investigate and find what appear to be cicadas. Their noise follows us for the rest of the day, eventually turning into the more classic chirping noise I associate with cicadas. They cross our path carelessly, hitting our packs and hitching a ride on our hats.
We take an alternate through the bottom of the canyon, enjoying red walled cliffs for the last time on this trail. We are back in the desert, and we are faced with the hottest afternoon on trail so far. Our quick dip in the Chama River does little to cool us down. Wiz complains of a persistent pain in his shin, but luckily this is is our last full day before we are to be picked up.
On our final morning on trail, we are left with only three miles to Ghost Ranch, where we will be picked up. We wake up slowly and take our time hiking. This alternate trail goes through Ghost Ranch and hikers are welcome to pass through without purchasing a visitor pass. As an artist, I am eager to see where Georgia O’Keeffe created many of her paintings, so we spend $10 to tour their exhibits. I am disappointed to realize there is no exhibit on O’Keeffe and that we would only be able to see her studio if we register for a bus tour. We do enjoy small exhibits on anthropology and paleontology and spend the rest of the morning eating ice cream on the front porch while we wait for our ride.
Eventually, our friend arrives, and we head off to Boulder, CO (Wiz’s hometown) to visit with family and attend his brother’s wedding. The break from hiking and time spent celebrating is much appreciated.
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