The Beginning of the CDT

Miles 0 – 84

The departure is always the hardest. Saying goodbye to friends and family, who you may not see for another five or six months, definitely stirs up the old tear ducts.

“You’ll see us again! You’re coming back!” are the constant words of comfort.

It doesn’t do much to help. I always get a bit weepy whenever I must say goodbye. Though, once the transition is made and I’m on my way, sadness is replaced by my determination to complete the mission ahead.

My dad drove me down to the airport on his way to work Monday morning. The car ride was quiet, both of us tired in the early predawn hours. I cried for the last time at the drop off lane as we said our farewells. Like ripping off a Band-Aid, I kept my goodbye brief to not get caught in the hair ripping pain. I got through security easily and my mom texted me to not to get lost in the airport. I informed her that if I was going to get lost in the airport, then I shouldn’t be hiking this trail.

After ironically going the wrong way in the terminal, I found my gate and boarded the plane quickly. I don’t prefer to fly, but there is something to say about the magic of being up in the air traveling a few hundred miles an hour. In four hours, I arrived in Phoenix and was picked up promptly by Tim and Sam.

I met Tim online through one of the CDT’s Facebook groups. He was getting a ride down from his friend, Chuck, and had space for two more hikers. When I saw his post in February and his corresponding plans, I immediately messaged him. Sign me up!

It was an easy drive to Lordsburg, New Mexico, but after traveling all day my legs had grown stiff and sore from being seated for so long. We arrived at the hotel in the early afternoon, checked in, and went promptly to Denny’s. I felt antsy with excitement knowing that I had another full day before I would start, while simultaneously suppressing the urge to throw up. On a walk through town with Tim, we discussed our fears and hopes for the trail ahead, both of us nervous. I tried to fall asleep early that night, but my mind kept me awake long past my bedtime as it buzzed with anticipation.

13 April 2021 – Tim, Sam, and I at the southern terminus

We got up early the next day to take Sam to the trail head and to stock our water caches through the desert. The bootheel of New Mexico is a foreboding section of trail. This year, one out of 10 hikers have been rescued by border patrol from either heat exhaustion and/or dehydration. There is limited water in the barren desert, short of a handful algae-riddled cow basins, and the need for strategically placed water drops is paramount. There are five metal bear boxes on this 85 mile section of trail and we put roughly 4 gallons in each, enough for a gallon apiece and a little extra. It took us nearly 7 hours to drop off Sam at the southern terminus, after taking several wrong turns to the trail head, then driving dirt back roads to get to the water caches.

I was sore and ravenous by the time we returned to Lordsburg and we promptly went to the local diner to get lunch. I hardly tasted my food and was still hungry even after clearing my plate. That night, I packed my bag fully for the first time and tried to fall asleep. After laying in bed for a few hours, I eventually passed out from exhaustion and woke-up the next morning full of anxiety. The thought that this was my last chance to back out crossed my mind a few times, but I resolutely kept my mouth shut as we drove down the correct roads to the southern terminus to begin my 3000 mile adventure.

14 April 2021 – Me at the southern terminus on my start day

The first day in the desert was exhausting. I had expected it to be and fortified in my mind that these first few hundred miles were going to be the most challenging. The sun was penetrating, as Tim and I traversed the barren landscape. I was eternally grateful that I had purchased a sun umbrella, otherwise I think the sun fried me faster than an egg. As it passed overhead, my pace began to slacken and my head drooped. Unused to the heat, I felt dizzy by mid-afternoon and without bothering to search for shelter, I plopped down on the side of the trail and covered most of my body with my umbrella. Without expecting to, I fell asleep rather quickly and slept for about an hour curled up under the few foot diameter of shade my umbrella provided. I woke feeling rejuvenated and crushed the last 3 miles to the water cache, where I sat for an hour rehydrating and contemplating whether to hike on or to remain there for the evening. I met Kidnapper, patriarch of the 6-member Bennett family, along with Long Bird and Crispy, and a hiker named Wizard who was going southbound to the terminus.

After chatting a bit with them, I pressed onward and found Tim a few miles up the road.

“Trying to ditch me?” I called to him over the wind.

“Hey!” he exclaimed. “I was wondering if you’d make it. I was worried I’d have to sleep alone on the first night.”

14 April 2021 – my first night in the desert!

As tired as I was, my spirits were still high and I did my best to set up my Tarptent Notch on the desert sand. After pounding my stakes in with a rock and securing them with a few stones on each, I bunkered down for my first night in the desert. I hardly slept that night and woke later than I had planned. New to setting up non-freestanding tents, my tent flaps had been buffeted in the wind all night, creating loud snaps and crackles with each corresponding breeze. Even so, I managed to get on trail before Tim, who had cowboy camped beside me.

Hiking in the morning versus the early afternoon was definitely preferable. Although my feet began to get sore, the sun was still cool by the time I reached the second water cache box. I stop there to take lunch letting Tim and the Bennett’s catch up. Tired and eager for a nap, I rested my aching feet for about an hour. I had to get in a few more miles yet before the hottest part of the day, so I reluctantly packed up my gear and set off again.

15 April 2021 – Long stretches of red orange desert

They suggest taking a rest between 12pm and 4pm when hiking in the desert. I had manage to get to about 1:30pm the day prior before my body shut down. So after departing around 11:30am, I knew I had an hour or so yet before the sun‘s presence would become too overbearing to continue.

The Bennett’s were planning on stopping at a water tank a few miles from the cache that provided enough shade to take a rest. With the six of them behind me, I hiked past it and found some shade in a small wash under some juniper trees. Tired after a restless sleep and a day of hiking in the sun, I felt a bit homesick as I sat there by myself. I curled up again under my umbrella and slept for nearly 2 hours on the hot dirt before waking up to hike a few more miles.

16 April 2021 – water sources like these are prime. Well water without any dead birds

The terrain in the desert is all hot, dry, and dusty, but I was impressed by the variety, even in this stretch. You endure some long stretches of flat pale earth that has little more than knee-high brush, before descending into a river wash that allows juniper trees to grow strongly. A few miles further, you’re climbing rocky terrain of magmatic rock where yucca trees and cholla. Unlike the Appalachian Trail, I appreciated the trail builders on their determination to go around every small hill and mountain, rather than up and over each. There were still a few hundred foot ascents, but for the most part, the trail was flat which allowed for an easy accumulation of mileage.

I had planned to do 15 or 16 mile days to Lordsburg and I was apprehensive about my capability to manage that. So after ending my second day at 17 miles, I realize my fear was from my experience on the AT and my mind opened to the possibility that I may be able to do more each day than I had previously thought.

My third day on trail, the clouds kept the sun at bay and I had a new appreciation for shade. I made good progress in the morning and I didn’t encounter my first hiker until I stopped at the third water cache. Vincent, a hiker from Quebec, came up quickly behind me and passed me easily. We hiked together for a little stretch before he took off once again, arriving well before me to the water box. There I was able to call home for the first time in days and rest my feet under the shade of the small tree.

16 April 2021 – an oasis in the middle of the desert!

I was beginning to get uneasy about leaving good shade so close to the afternoon heat, although the clouds persisted until I reached a small green oasis in the desert. A steel water tank sat next to some fenced in trees and a saturated patch of earth allowed for fresh greenery to sprout in the otherwise barren sand. Cows frequented the spot and the smell of their poop permeate the air. Nevertheless, I was so thankful to be surrounded by moist earth, water, and shade that I plopped down in a dry spot devoid of cow poop beneath a prickly tree to take my afternoon rest. I ended up eating dinner there, which consisted of Ramen and a dessert of instant mashed potatoes mixed in with the broth. My mouth prickled from the taste of salt but for the first time in a few days my stomach felt full and I felt strong enough to keep pressing onward.

I made it a few more miles that evening to a dry river wash tucked between a saddle and a small hill, mostly out of the wind. I kept searching the hill crest anticipating hikers, but none arrived as I messed around constructing my tent. I had picked a spot where the wash wall was blocking most of the wind, however, over the course of the evening, the wind shifted from the west to the east and the embankment no longer served as a wind guard. Just about to fall asleep, a particularly strong gust blew, ripping my tent stakes out of the ground and collapsing my tent on top of me. Annoyed, but too tired to be bothered, I clambered out of my tent, and pounded the stakes back into the soft earth. In the growing darkness, I found a few heavier rocks and place them on top of my tent stakes with the hopes that the wind wouldn’t blow them out again.

17 April 2021 – The best features of the desert: cactus and cliffs

My trail guide noted that the saddle had great service, so when I summit it at dawn, I took my phone out of airplane mode. Texts flooded my inbox, most of them expressing well wishes and prayers that I was still doing OK. I responded to each as well as I could. A hiker named Cruise Control caught me at the saddle, and handed me my headphones that I had unknowingly dropped in the middle of trail. He was just as excited as I was to have service and stopped with me to make a call. Feeling a bit cold from the breeze on the treeless hill, I pressed onward until I found the fourth water cache and stopped for a brief break. Cruise Control arrived not long after me and sat with me in the shade of the metal box.

“I have to to tell you,” he said after a bit a conversation. “You are a strong hiker.”

“Thanks…!” I said, feeling a bit of pride despite my lagging pace.

“You have some big feet.”

I couldn’t help but laugh and agree.

As I was packing to leave, another hiker arrived. He introduced himself as Joe, which told me almost immediately that this was probably his first thru hike, as most previous thru hikers had earned a trail name.

The next stretch of desert was unlike the past few days. I crossed long stretches of flat, hot cow pasture, devoid of any real shade. Heat waves rippled across the sand as the clouds that had blocked the sun’s rays that morning dissipated in the heat of the afternoon. Spotting the first sizable tree that I had seen for miles, I raced towards it eager to get out of the persistent sun. I hadn’t sat there long underneath its thick boughs, when Joe arrived taking a spot next to me for lunch.

17 April 2021 – A shady spot to take lunch in a wash

After talking briefly, we learned we were both from Michigan. Not a few days before Kidnapper had remarked to me how many hikers from Michigan he had met along trails and I had been surprised by that news. Now only on my fourth day in, I had met one for myself. We hadn’t been there long when another hiker arrived by the name Roger That.

We discussed the woes of trail with a dark humor as I revealed the blisters on both my pinky toes and my inner heels. Luckily, the blisters on my heels had popped in the afternoon of day two after swelling to the size of silver dollars and I did my best to keep them taped up, attempting to prevent new ones forming beneath the old.

Acknowledging that I would regret my decision to leave such good shade at noon, I pressed forward another few miles. The dizzying heat overwhelmed me again and I found shelter in the narrow shade of a tall Yucca tree, falling asleep quickly in the hot air. An hour later, I forced myself to start packing to leave. I wanted to get a bit further that day because my aim was to arrive in town by Sunday afternoon and I needed a few more miles to accomplish that mission. After 3 miles, I stopped at a steel water tank, ate dinner, and refilled my water bottles before pressing forward another few miles to the hills I had viewed in the distance all day. I was relieved to finally arrive at them and at long last benefit from their cool shade after a long day in the desert.

17 April 2021 – my last campsite in the boot heel

I was absolutely exhausted by the time I reached my endpoint, having pushed myself nearly 19 miles to arrive at camp. Those last few miles, I lost the trail frequently and had to constantly retrace my steps to find it again. My feet were swollen and sore as I peeled off my sweaty socks. My knees were aching and my hips were stiff as I laid down within my one-person tent, trying to stretch out my legs in the cramped space.

Talking to myself, as I had been for the past few days due to the lack of company, I told myself I needed to cool it a bit.

“I’ll do an easy day in town tomorrow morning,” I told myself, as I pulled my sleeping bag from its stuff sack. “Give myself time to rest. I just started and I don’t want to hurt myself this early on.”

My thoughts turned to how many miles were between Lordsburg and Silver City, the town I intended on taking my first nero (less than 10 miles) day into.

“Well, I guess I need to figure out how many mile days I need to do to manage that,” I said thoughtfully, laying down. “That will determine if I can slow down or not.”

I laughed darkly at the classic Brown family mentality to push yourself despite the pain. Again, having difficulty falling asleep in the unnerving silence of the desert, I played an audiobook until my body started to relax and I drifted off into a deep sleep.

I was surprised how cold it got that night after the past few nights being too warm for my 15° F sleeping bag. There was still a chill in the air when I awoke that morning to hike into town. I didn’t want to get out from under my covers, but the thought of town food and being able to relax through the afternoon drove me to start packing. The wind, that had been present since I started trail, blew furiously behind me as I raced up and over the hills. My nose ran as I hiked for the first time from the cold and not from the dust and heat that had been giving me bloody noses since entering New Mexico.

When I arrived at the fifth water cache, I still had over a liter of water in my pack with only 6 miles to go into town. I rested my feet briefly but it soon grew too cold in the wind and I set off again down the rocky trail into Lordsburg.

That last stretch of trail was agonizing. My feet were cramping inside my shoes, but I kept pushing myself despite the pain. Town was in my sights, and all I could think about was getting an iced mocha and a breakfast sandwich from McDonald’s while I charged my power bank and phone.

Trudging the last mile down the road into town, I arrived at McDonald’s to find the lobby closed, the ice mocha machine broken, and the power jack outside busted.

“The trail provides,” I mumbled resignedly, ordering a mocha frappe instead from the woman who brought me out my spicy crispy chicken sandwich.

18 April 2021 – My view from Saucedo’s Grocery as I charge my phone

I walked down to the Dollar General, and plugged my power bank and phone into the outlet outside. I hadn’t been yelled for loitering outside a DG in a trail town yet, but I was still a bit apprehensive as I charged my devices as townies passed me by.

After getting my resupply from the Dollar General, I walked back up the road with my charger to the local grocery, Saucedo’s, and found Tom, a hiker I met while sitting outside the McDonald’s. After running inside to get Maruchan Ramen and not Top Ramen only sold at the DG, Tom informed me of a route closure due to a controlled burn up ahead.

I had received a preview of trail driving to the water caches, but from here on out I was entering into the unknown. As Tom left to set off ahead, I poured over my paper maps, attempting to understand what the best route to take around the fire closure was.

Still tired from long days hiking, I couldn’t wrap my head around what I was reading and packed the maps away without making much progress. I needed to still get a few miles out of town before to set up camp; I figured I would finalize my plans there.

The wind was blowing fiercely as I hiked down the Hwy 90 to get back on trail. Upon reaching the barb wire fence, I noticed a “No Camping” sign posted on the trail marker and I cursed. What was only supposed to be a few miles out of town soon turned into 8 miles, as I pressed forward trying to find a place to camp out of the blasting wind. To make matters worse, storm clouds loomed over Lordsburg and I began to fret about flash floods sweeping me and my little tent away in the night.

18 April 2021 – The trail out of Lordsburg

This stretch had no rocks nor barely any sheltered areas to pitch my tent and I was on the verge of falling over when I finally stumbled across some stones heavy enough to secure my tent stakes in the soft earth against the pull of the wind. Relieved I could stop, I quickly found a few bushes I could set up my tent behind and lugged armfuls of stones to my camp.

I laid there in my tent, full clothed, pack still holding my sleeping bag and pad, reviewing the weather forecast. It seemed the initial rain would miss me, but storm clouds were predicted to worsen as the night progressed and I wanted to be prepared to make a break for it if a flash flood did happen.

I was not in an ideal spot, again in the low ground of the desert with no protection nor hills to climb in case of sudden water. Exhausted, my anxiety was going through the roof.

This is how I go, I thought to myself as I laid there listening to the wind blow around me. I always had a fear of water and this is why. Death by flash flood.

After laying awake for a few hours, waiting for the rain to start, a light began to illuminate my tent. Fearing it was a rancher or ranger approaching to tell me to flee, I popped my head outside my tent. Instead of headlights, it was the moon I encountered, shining unhindered and bright in a cloudless sky. My head cleared at once and I pulled my sleeping pad from my bag.

18 April 2021 – Lordsburg at night under the threat of clouds.

“Okay, so the radar is much less reliable in the desert than in Michigan…” I told myself, as I drew my sleeping bag from its stuff sack.

Within minutes, I fell into my first deep sleep of trail.