The Worst Section on the CDT

Throughout all my preparation for the Continental Divide Trail, I’d been constantly warned about the first 84 miles from the Mexican border to Lordsburg, New Mexico. Not only is the water nonexistent and the sun relentless, I’d been told, but the hard packed ground and sandy terrain will wreak havoc on your feet.

The first 84 miles are marked by a complete lack of shade and water.

In some ways, all these predictions came to fruition. However, the high desert still managed to surprise me, in both positive and negative ways. Here are the five surprises I found in the desert over the first five days. 

Surprise #1: Excitement Only Takes You So Far

I spend the drive down to America’s southern border staring out the window at a cloudless blue sky and the flat, sandy expanse desert that awaits me. Tim, the shuttle driver, peppers in many helpful pieces of advice about known water sources, rattlesnake dens, and horror stories that have already befallen CDT 2024 hikers, but my nerves are too high for conversation.

Once at the border, Wrong Way and I duck the fence to dance in Mexico, touch the monument, and take our first steps north.

It was absolutely surreal to finally stand at this monument!

Part of our decision to hike NOBO stemmed from wanting to tackle New Mexico’s tough stretches while still excited enough at the newness of the trail to stay in relatively good moods. However, with not a cloud in the sky, 14 miles to the first cache of water, and temperatures hovering in the upper 80s, I burn through my water and my excitement far faster than I would’ve expected.

Already, just four hours into a six-month hike, I’m doubting every choice I’ve made that has led me to this moment in time. Aren’t I supposed to have fun on the first day of a thru-hike? And yet, as the afternoon slips by, I find myself in a worse and worse mood.

At the first water cache I absolutely inhale 2 liters of water, sit under my sun umbrella, and talk to no one for an hour. Slowly, I start to feel like myself again, and introduce myself to the people at the water cache around me. We will all be seeing a lot of each other over the next week while all our days are primarily structured around making it to the next water source without burning up.

So much for that early-trail excitement.

The final three miles were the easiest, as we waited for the sun to completely go down before hiking on. However, this did mean we had to set up camp in the dark, which I never enjoy.

Surprise #2: There Are Cameras in the Desert

The second day dawns with a beautiful sunrise, and I’m grateful for the miles I’m able to pack in before the heat of the day.

Desert sunrises sure are beautiful.

The sandy ground does no favors to my feet, and I already have four frustrating blisters formed. I spend breaks sitting next to Wrong Way– both of us too hot to speak– draining my blisters enough to allow me to walk another 6-mile stretch before I allow myself to rest again.

People will do anything to find even the slightest shade out here.

Once again, our cohort congregates at a campsite in the evening, as it provides access to the only water around for miles. As I set my tent up, I notice a cloud of dust on the horizon headed our way.

A car? This far into the desert?

No, not a car– a Border Patrol agent. He drives up in a golf cart, approaches our campsite, and informs us a camera picked up a group of people walking through the desert. After we assure him we are fine, he tells us we are okay to camp here and drives away, but not before telling us there are cameras “literally everywhere out here”.

Our group looks around at each other, not particularly sure what to say, but suddenly feeling a whole lot less alone out here.

Surprise #3: Wind is Refreshing– Until It Isn’t

The third day proves itself– impossibly– to be the hottest day yet. Wrong Way and I choose to spend close to five hours napping under the only tree we could find and are absolutely thrilled by the shade the Juniper offers.

We’ve learned by now to pack in as many miles as possible in the cool of the morning before loitering in whatever shade we can find for the hottest hours of the afternoon.

Nothing feels less welcoming than an utter lack of water surrounded by the bones and bodies of the animals who did not survive this area.

Everyone, at this point, is complaining of some type of pain. Whether it be blisters, back issues, knee issues, or hip issues, the desert is leaving its mark on all of us.

The only reprieve from the heat is the wind. While refreshing at first, the gusts grow in strength throughout the day until I’m hiking with my buff pulled up to my eyes as sand pelts me from every direction.

I try to just focus on the sunsets, which are by far my favorite part of this stretch.

Pitching a tent in this isn’t in the cards– it’s cowboy camping tonight for me. While I enjoy cowboy camping, knowing that this decision is forced on me due to my own inability to manage my gear feels frustrating, and I spend the next few hours staring up at an impossible number of stars while staying in an impossibly bad mood.

Surprise #4: I Don’t Like Desert Hiking

I would have expected, by Day Four, to feel settled into hiking in the desert. Really, what I feel I’ve learned is that desert hiking is not for me.

Once again, I repeat the motions. Wake early, hike as far as possible, find shade, rest away the afternoon, keep hiking, find water, set up camp, go to bed.

I share the trail, the water, and the shady spots with cows.

Everything is covered in a thick layer of dust and sand that hand sanitizer does little to cut through. My eyes are irritated from the grit behind my contacts, and my teeth crunch when I press them together.

While I am able to pitch my tent this evening, the wind continues to howl through the evening and I know I’ll be lucky to steal even a few hours of sleep. Wrong Way and I discuss how the past four days have essentially eliminated any desire we’ve ever had to do the Arizona Trail. You win this round, desert.


Though, through this, spirits are high at camp as we talk about how we will spend our time tomorrow in our first town: Lordsburg.

Surprise #5: Unreasonable Kindness Fixes Most Things 

By the time I arrive in Lordsburg, feet aching from the final, paved road walk to the town center, I am in a pretty crappy mood.

I have a pretty good idea how this town stop will go: I’ll walk to the Dollar General for a resupply, get some food, wash my clothes in the library sink, wipe myself down as best I can, and head back out on the trail in a pretty bad mood.

Enter: Felicia.

Felicia is an elementary school teacher in Lordsburg who lives by the motto “be unreasonably kind”. And, her kindness sure is unreasonable.

She picks my group up at the Econolodge, takes us to her house, and we spend the next six hours using her shower and laundry, napping in her hammocks, and eating the amazing food she cooks for us.

She tells us her story and how, after overcoming a lot of hardship in life, she promised herself to always open her home to people in need. While she wouldn’t accept payment, she did share with me her Amazon wishlist for her classroom, which I’ll share with you all as well. After all, I’ve also found the hiking community to be unreasonably kind.

The most massive of thank yous to Felicia!!

I leave Lordsburg in a much better mood than expected. The desert may be brutal, but I’m clean, well rested, and full. While I may still consider this the worst section of the CDT, I continue to be grateful for the days I get to spend doing what I love, and I’m excited to see where the trail takes me next.


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