CDT Chapter 2, The Bootheel or: The Most Likely Place in Long-Distance Hiking Where You’ll Be Killed by a Chef (Not Really)
It’s 9:30am, and I’m standing at the Mexican border in the Bootheel of New Mexico (that’s the tiny little square-ish bit in the southwest corner). Specifically, I’m at the “Crazy Cook” monument — the point where the Continental Divide Trail starts its long and winding journey north through 5 different states to meet with the Canadian border at the top of Montana. This name of this place, allegedly, came as a result of murderous outburst by a chef here about 100 years ago. And though I can’t attest to exactly how true this fantastically western-sounding tale is, I can hazard a guess as to why such a thing would have happened here: save from the dust clouds stirred up from some distant farming over the border, there seems to be absolutely nothing going on in any direction.
Last year, I hiked and cycled from the Chief Mountain border crossing with Canada to Cuba (New Mexico, that is) along the Continental Divide before some back pain from earlier in the year came back to haunt me (it’s a long story — read this: https://thetrek.co/continental-divide-trail/my-stupid-adventure-piers-ellison/); so I’m here to start connecting the dots between the Mexican border and Cuba. I’d been a little trepidatious about starting this late in the season, as I wasn’t sure how many other hikers would be down there in the Bootheel – but my fears were subsided when I found out that I not only had a companion (“Green Grass”) on the CDT shuttle to the border; he also happened to hail from the same area of the UK as me! (Also, FYI, the shuttle is great – and Cal who drove us down was super helpful with all kinds of advice to help us get through the Bootheel. More info is available from the CDT here: https://continentaldividetrail.org/southern-terminus-shuttle/).
By the time we arrive at Crazy Cook, having just spent a good two hours rattling and crashing along a series of ever-worsening dirt tracks, the heat of the day is already somewhat overbearing. I lather myself in sunscreen, straddle the border post for a photo, and set off.
It doesn’t take long from leaving Crazy Cook to realise how different this desert is from that of the Pacific Crest Trail. Aside from the fact that I happen to stumble upon the largest rattlesnake I’ve ever seen within only two minutes of leaving the border, the landscape is drastically more exposed, there’s a distinct lack of shade, and there really are no natural water sources at all; so much so that the CDTC maintains five official water caches, spread across the hundred-ish miles of Bootheel, so that hikers can make it across.
After a long morning kicking up dust along old dirt tracks and crumbling arroyos, passing dead cows and all sorts of other lifeless-looking nature, I hit the first of these caches at around 1pm. The heat, though not oppressive, is certainly draining as I fill up my water from one of the jugs. Hippie, a delightful AT triple-crown hiker who’s posted himself up under the shade of one of the few trees around, tells Green Grass and I of his struggles through the morning heat, and how he plans to wait out the day until he can tackle this arid stretch in the cooler temperatures of the late evening and into the night.
As appealing as this sounds, however, our first day excitement is not waning – and both Green Grass and I eager to keep going. We end up hiking for another 12 or so miles to the next water cache along; miles that wind out of the canyon that the trail’s been meandering through, and out into the great open desert. Letting my new friend take the lead by a half mile or so, I follow a dirt track into the evening and walk straight toward the setting sun as it makes hazy skies to the west, the mountains of distant Arizona layering out as far as can be seen across the horizon. Just as I lay out my quilt behind the second water cache box, the sun crosses behind Big Hatchet Mountain.
Waking up early in the morning, the sun is not yet up as I pack away my things, eager to get back on the dust for as long as possible before the sun breaks through. And though it’s already warm (around this time of year, the desert seems to feel like it reaches a certain plateau of heat that never seems to go away), there does emerge a saving grace from the day’s temperatures; a breeze, which, though initially slight and hanging gently above the ground (around midriff level), will turn into a howling wind later in the day and whip the dust around violently in seemingly all directions.
I catch up with Green Grass as he lays in the shade of a small manzanita beside a dried up riverbed, and tell him of some pestering pain that’s started to develop in the bottom of my left foot. Though it’s quite manageable (if I take my shoes off for a few minutes and stretch it out, the pain does dissipate for a little while), it doesn’t feel great by the time we arrive at the CDTC’s third water cache box in the midday high heat. For a while we lay under the welcome shade of a tree, alone save for a border patrol truck in a nearby parking lot with the mother of all security cameras hoisted imposingly upon a crane high above it.
After whiling away ample time in the shade, I cover my face with a bandana to protect myself from the gusts of sand and carry on up the trail, kicking up dust in cow pastures where there’s little else to be seen but the brush on the ground, the heavy layer of heat haze and some very faint mountains poking up in the far, far distance. The wind, once gentle, now whips the dust about severely more violently than it had done in the morning, and I walk backwards for a while, uphill, attempting to avoid a face-full of desert as the afternoon slowly turns to evening. Going in reverse also seems to ease the pain in the bottom of my foot (or at least dissipate it), which has continued to plague me throughout the day. Naturally, I’m concerned — and decide that if it’s still tender the following morning, I’ll hitchhike straight into Lordsburg from a little highway that passes close by the fourth water cache.
I’m painfully aware (quite literally) that my foot problems are probably my own fault. Despite the fact that I spend all day standing up and running about in my job back in the UK, I’d just done two long days straight off the bat and haven’t at all given my body enough time to adjust to these wild new conditions.
Then, when Green Grass and I finally stop to camp in late, fading dusk, I realise that my trusty grey baseball cap (covered in three thousand miles-worth of sweat and dust), which I’ve cleverly been carrying in my hand to save it from blowing away, has somehow succumbed to the wind somewhere in the previous three miles; i.e. I’d dropped it. Having already considered trying to hitch straight into Lordsburg from Highway 113 the next day, I decided that, come the morning, I’d test my foot by going back to search for it – and then decide what to do.
In a small patch of dry grass, about two miles back from where I’d slept, looking completely unflustered, lies my hat. In my quilt under the open sky the night before, I felt so guilty that I’d left it behind. I’d carried it for over three thousand hiking and cycling miles since 2019, I’d moved to four different cities with it, I’d played music all around the world in it — and there it was, in the desert, all on its own, getting cold and dusty. Poor thing. I lay there in the darkness picturing the great western winds picking it up and hurling it across the state border into Arizona, where it would inevitably be eaten by a mountain lion, or a wolverine, or a squirrel, or some other such terrible creature. Despite my worries, however, there it was, sitting in exactly the place I must have dropped it.
Having retrieved the hat from its camp spot, I meander slowly north again toward Highway 113. A coyote weaves its way through the brush, but doesn’t notice me as I stare wide-eyed and intently at it from no more than thirty feet away. I’ve heard their cries countless times before while hiking in the desert, but have never actually seen one in the flesh – let alone from such a short distance away.
As it turns out, Highway 113 only seems to serve as a secondary connecting road between Interstate 10 and the “town” of Windmill (and its bustling population of all of 66 people), as well as sometimes being used by patrol trucks to get to the Mexican border. As a result, the only cars that do pass me when I arrive back there are heading south — the opposite direction that I need to go. For a while, I consider standing on the side of the road and trying my luck for a ride, but realise that I might as well start walking along the tarmac anyway; it’s 14 miles to the interstate and there’s no sign of anything driving the direction I’m going anytime soon.
Despite my pessimism, however, my luck soon changes when a kindly truck-driving local stops in the road (he doesn’t even pull to the side) to pick me up and take me to the i10 crossing. We make pleasant conversation about my hiking journey so far (which is clearly going well, as I sit in a comfortable chair moving at 75 miles per hour) and the Bootheel itself, and it doesn’t take long to reach the interstate. He bids me farewell and speeds down the eastbound on-ramp, leaving me to do my best to find a ride westward into Lordsburg.
After a little while waiting with my thumb out on the litter-strewn roadside, I realise that this may be easier said than done. The on-ramp upon which I’m standing leads either to the interstate or the road I’ve just come down — and that wasn’t exactly abuzz with traffic. The only option, it seems, is to start walking along the side of the interstate in hopes that someone might take pity on me and my weary feet (that seem to be performing shockingly well on the tarmac), and bring us the twelve miles into Lordsburg.
The longer the morning goes on, the further I walk and the deeper the 113 intersection disappears into the distant haze, however, the more I consider the likelihood (or not) of being picked up. This extraordinary sixth sense is, shockingly, first triggered when I walk past a sign reading “no pedestrian traffic” by a turn off to a nearby oilfield.
The realisation that I’m probably breaking not only one law but may also be about to contribute to a second (stopping to pick up hitchhikers on an interstate is also illegal) leaves me with two options: firstly; either keep going and risk being stopped by the police (who, because of the nature of where I’m walking, will have to pick me up and take me into Lordsburg anyway, thus solving my initial problem); or, secondly, make residence on the side of the highway and stay forever. I keep walking.
Hitchhiking, however, as I’d suspected from the get-go, continues to prove completely futile. All told, I spend about three hours tramping along the shoulder of interstate 10 (without being arrested) before arriving on the outer limits of Lordsburg (specifically, in the corner booth of a Denny’s) by late morning and following the backstreets into the centre of town — or the closest thing Lordsburg has to one, anyway. There’s not much here — a collection of abandoned motels that wouldn’t look out of place in Breaking Bad, a couple of gun stores, a lumber market, a handful of auto repair shops – that kind of thing. I book Green Grass and I a room in the Motel 6 (where I ensure the presence of a suitably-sized receptacle for me to fill with ice and dunk my foot in), and shower off the heavy layer of dust that I’ve accumulated on my legs during the last three days. The pain on the bottom of my foot has, thankfully, subsided considerably since the day before (despite my having subjected it to twelve miles of roadwalking), so when Green Grass arrives in Lordsburg from the trail itself we make a plan to head out at some point the next morning. Over the course of the afternoon, us two Brits and a hiker going by the name of “Disco” devour gargantuan plates of food in what appears to be Lordsburg’s only actual restaurant (which happens to be handily-placed right next door to our motel) before taking advantage of the room’s aforementioned ice machine for our weary feet. If I’m honest, the pain of submerging your entire foot in freezing water in a repurposed trash bin is usually significantly worse than that of the actual aches and pains you’re suffering from — but for the benefits it brings (by the next morning, my foot pain has disappeared), it’s worth doing. As I go to lie down in the darkness, the air conditioning unit whirs violently from the corner of the room, and all sorts of exciting-sounding activity seems to be going on in the parking lot outside. I cover my head with the pillow, and wait desperately for sleep.
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