The goal of getting into Doc Campbell’s Post the next morning was to re-supply and leave. Upon checking my pack, however, I realized that I had lost my gaiters at some point along the Gila. Before flinging myself into a full-scale pack dump, I remembered Topo had mentioned earlier that another hiker, Cat Water, had found a pair. I raced across the road to the little red barn where she, Grey Goose, and Tin Man were staying for the night. She victoriously held them up and I cried out in delight at the easy resolution to my dilemma. While we were talking, the blisters on my feet were brought up and Tin Man, a former fire chief with years of first aid experience, took a look at them and gave me some advice on how best to take care of them on trail.
Growing up, I was taught that blisters should be left alone unless they were causing discomfort and only then, do you pop them and put on triple antibiotic to prevent infection. The expectation was that you would rest and allow the blisters to heal naturally and slowly. Out here, when you’re pushing out 15 to 25 mile days daily, allowing blisters to heal on their own accord can cause infection. Triple antibiotic keeps wounds moist, and it’s an odd day where your feet aren’t covered in dirt, sweat, and grime. Tin Man’s suggestion was to pop and dry your blisters as quickly as possible. The moment you get one, pop it, allow it to dry overnight, then cut away as much of the top layer of skin as is comfortable in order to encourage the bottom layer to harden faster. I’ve used a lot of Epson salt baths and hand sanitizer to get that skin hard and calloused. Having started the trail with blisters, I was open for a new solution, so I gave it a shot and cleared out the drying skin around my blisters.
After my side trip and minor surgery on my feet, I concluded a nero at Doc’s would probably be the best for me moving forward. I pitched my tent close enough to be able to access the Wi-Fi that night, which had previously been used up by IBTAT who was uploading videos for his popular vlog.
I had a delayed start the next morning when I waited for Doc’s to open for a double serving of breakfast burritos. After forcing down the last few bites, I slung my heavily-laden pack on my back before shuffling down the road to the Gila Cliff Dwellings. Just off trail, there was a great site to stop at on the way out of the small mountain town. Unfortunately, because of COVID, you couldn’t enter them, but it was still a pleasant hike around the valley.
The Gila River Alternative has several options to travel. The high route is available during particularly wet years when the river is too treacherous to cross, or if people grow tired of the endless river crossings. My heart was set on the low route, which follows the river, but the entrance to the high route was closest to the cliff dwellings. It was only 8.8 miles to the first official crossing back down to the low route, so I spent the day at elevation, looking out over the river valley.
At the Meadows, I crossed back down to the low route and met up with many of those who I had seen at Doc’s: OT, Jericho, Topo, Cat Water, Grey Goose, and Tin Man. I camped out with them that evening and was just behind them when they left the following morning. I had been growing tired of hiking by myself and was eager for the company that day as I rushed down the trail to catch up with them.
I had gone nearly 3 miles when a small mass of black fur moved just ahead of me and a baby black bear climbed a few feet up a nearby tree.
I spun around so fast with my only thought being to get away from the baby as quickly as possible. I hustled back to the river, listening for the growl of a full-sized bear on my trail. The growl never came. I stood at the river, calling out loudly, trying to encourage the mom to come collect her baby. I kept waiting, as ten, twenty minutes went by, unsure if mom was just on the other side of the curve in the canyon and too nervous to check.
Time passed as I waited for another hiker to come up behind me and we could risk it together. After waiting an hour with no sight or sign of mom or other hikers, I pulled up my big girl shorts and decided to wade through the water, the furthest I could get from the cub.
Slipping into the hip deep water, my teeth instantly started chattering, but my eyes were focused on the landscape around me, trying to locate the mom. After going as wide as I could around the cub, hand grazing the opposite canyon wall, I lugged my frozen legs from the water and stomped them to regain feeling.
For the next mile or so, I kept an eye out for the mom, just in case she was further along the trail, but there was no sign of her anywhere. Without the mom around, I was a bit frustrated that I had lost an hour after the start of a pretty solid morning of hiking. I pushed forward, hoping that I may at least catch up to Little Brown, who had passed me just before I left camp that morning. Any thought of that happening quickly left my mind as the storm clouds began to roll in.
We had anticipated snow the night before, but down near the river we woke to a dry morning. Now, approaching noon, the snow had arrived. The ridge line of the canyon disappeared under a wall of snow, which gradually turned to rain and hail as it descended towards the river. I did not envy those who were on the high route, but the biting wind and rain wasn’t much easier on the low.
I pulled out my rain jacket and skirt for the first time and donned them quickly. The rain wasn’t heavy, but the freezing wind that accompanied it bit at my bare legs that were already cut up and sunburnt from two days on the Gila. My legs cried out in pain with each step, every time my kilt rubbed against my scabs, each time a twig whipped against my raw and tender skin.
I gritted my teeth as I pressed forward through the chill, fighting against the pain and the disappointment that I would not be catching up with anyone today. The rain stopped after a few hours, and I enjoyed the brief break, until it started back up in the last few hours of the day. I had intended on making it to Snow Lake, the northern end of the Gila Alternative, but found a windless campsite about a half mile out where I set up camp alone.
Frustrated, in pain, worn out, and feeling incredibly lonely, I hunkered down in my sleeping bag. Had it not been for the bear, I may have run into the other thru hikers, but once again, I had spent most of the day alone, except for brief encounters with those going the opposite direction.
To top off my loneliness, my legs were so dry and enflamed that I cried out in pain when I tried to put on my long underwear. After struggling to pull them on, I finally laid down to go to sleep, wondering if I would end up seeing anyone the next day.
There was a final river crossing before I left the Gila, which was sufficient to saturate my shoes for the day. When I at last arrived at Snow Lake, I immediately became grateful I hadn’t camped there. The wind blowing over the treeless campground would’ve flattened my non-freestanding tent. After stopping to use an actual toilet, I caught sight of a pair of bright blue crocks on the feet of a nearby hiker.
I greeted Little Brown, who had lagged behind that morning to attempt to dry out his gear.
Leaving the campsite with a bit more pep in my step, I set off on the brief road walk back to the trail. The path after the Gila started with long stretches of fields, full of golden grasses blowing in the howling winds, before returning to pine and the shelter of forest.
I was sitting on the side of the road, listening to a DND podcast, when a familiar car rolled up the mountain. Cheshire Cat popped out of the custom-painted car, and took a quick seat next to me.
“Sugar Mama is just ahead of you. She told me to save half her honey melon for you, but then I gave it to Marco Polo and Tinkertoy…”
“Oh it’s alright,” I told him, laughing, “they were having a rough day.”
“Now, I come up and see you sitting here all sad… I feel so bad now.”
“I’m doing alright! Don’t worry about it!”
He still looked a bit guilty before he got back into his car and continued down the forest road. With the prospect of not camping alone that night, I pressed forward until I found Sugar Mama’s tent along the side of the road.
We started together the following morning, to be soon joined by Marco Polo and Tinkertoy. As we climbed up the forest roads to the next water source, we were joined by 13 and Jacob, and Cake and So Good. After a lonely day of hiking, I was surrounded by hikers once again and spent an enjoyable day chatting with the group.
The next day proved to be a hot one… and a long one. Sugar Mama and I had discussed potentially doing two back to back 20 mile days to end with a 14-miler into Pie Town. The day started off easy as I chose to do a Ley alternative into the Govina Canyon, but the brief climb out took my breath away. Hiker hunger was kicking in with full force and I did not have nearly enough food in my pack to sate my increasing hunger. I took a brief rest with Sugar Mama, ate one of my limited protein bars, and continued the climb up and over the mountain.
We had a long descent until we reached Aragon Well, the first good water source in 22 miles since Dutchman Spring the day before. I pushed myself all day until I reached that tank right before 2 PM. I immediately decided to make dinner then, my stomach rumbling as I surveyed my vastly depleted food bags.
As I sat there beneath a tree near the metal tank, the others came to join me. Jacob stayed only briefly since he was going to try to hitch into Reserve at the highway a mile north. 13 was next to arrive with So Good and Cake, followed by Sugar Mama in the rear.
I sat beneath that tree for a solid two hours, resting my malnourished body, and eating the most I could ration from my food bag. 13, So Good, and Cake left about an hour after arriving, but I couldn’t will myself to start up again until I received a very sharp kick in the butt.
I was filtering the rest of my water when I felt an incredibly painful sting in my butt. Screaming out and jumping from my seat, I swatted the yellow jacket away from me.
A stream of profanities surged from my mouth as I clutched my behind, laughing against the pain.
“I’m sorry to ask this but can you check to make sure there isn’t a stinger?” I asked Sugar Mama, pulling my pant leg up to reveal the sting.
“It looks clean to me,” she said after a quick inspection.
We had 7 more miles before we would reach the 20 mile end point, and it wasn’t until we started up again that I felt like I could manage it. With a full meal in my belly, my legs felt empowered and I cruised through the last few miles, catching 13, So Good, and Cake and passing them as I powered up the hills. After 20.5 miles, I reached the summit of a particularly long ascent and found it a perfect spot to set up my tent. The summit had service and was free from strong winds, and I felt amazing that I had achieved my goals despite the challenging day.
After my hard push yesterday, I woke Sunday morning feeling rough. My legs felt exhausted as I climbed over the small hills between my campsite and Mangas Mountain. At Valle Tio Vences Campground, the low point before the 4 mile, 1,500ft climb, I noticed Cheshire Cat’s car parked in the lot, but it was empty and I wondered if I would see him up trail.
There are many different kinds of trail angels along the more popular hiking trails. Some offer services around town (mail drops, shuttles, or places to stay), others drive out to trail heads to offer snacks and refreshments, and yet others take whole seasons to drive northward and provide continual services to hikers along the way.
The first I met of the last type was a trail angel named Solo, who was heading north from Lordsburg to Grants before returning to await the southbounders. Cheshire Cat was the second. He lives in California during the off season, but follows hikers along the three major trails during the summer months. From delicious camp dinners to fresh fruit and melons, it’s always a pleasant sight when you see Cheshire Cat’s car parked at a trailhead.
And sure enough, as I began my ascent up Mangas Mountain, Cheshire Cat and Stella Blue were descending after walking with Sugar Mama up the mountain.
“I was just rushing down so I could get you that melon!” He called to me. “I told so many hikers, I felt so bad about it.”
“Oh don’t feel bad! Give it to someone who deserves it.”
“Yes, but you deserve it! Can I carry your pack?”
I paused for a moment, feeling a bit guilty, but at the same time not wanting to say no to trail magic.
I handed him my pack and we chatted as we walked a little ways up the mountain before we parted ways and I continued north.
Maybe a mile later, I pulled off trail to go to the bathroom, when I heard a car rapidly approaching. Zooming past my discrete bathroom spot, Cheshire Cat’s car raced up the mountain.
“He is not…” I said with a laugh.
After returning to the trail, I stepped off to the side as his car came flying back down the mountain. He stopped abruptly in front of me.
“You can’t tell me to give it to someone who deserves it, when you deserve it!” He stated, climbing out of his car with an amicable smile.
I could only laugh at his insistence. After slicing me a quarter of cantaloupe and chatting while I ate it, he packed up his car and I absolved him of any made-up sins he had against me.
The rest of the climb up Mangas Mountain was easier with my lighter heart, and I ran into Sugar Mama who was resting at the summit. We both set off down the mountain, the last big descent before Davila Ranch, our anticipated 20 mile end point.
The ranch hosts cans of pork and beans, eggs, and potatoes, and I was already drooling over the concept of a real, filling dinner. But I hadn’t gone more than a mile before I had to pull over and force myself to eat some of my limited food supply. I only had tuna left, which I had been avoiding with a passion, and I had to force myself to choke down the last few bites.
Starting back up again, I felt better for the food and crushed out a few more miles before I ran into Sugar Mama again, who was accepting trail magic from a former Appalachian Trail thru hiker, John Boy.
He gave me a bag of crispy M&Ms, a Sunkist, and a Bud Light for the last 6 miles before we would reach Davila Ranch. Sugar Mama and I hiked the first stretch together, but eventually, I pulled ahead and ran/walked the remaining two miles.
Upon my arrival, the ranch was full of familiar faces. Little Brown congratulated me on keeping my schedule and arriving as I had intended on Sunday evening. I cooked up two potatoes, some eggs, and a tin of pork and beans, apiece for Sugar Mama and myself. We tucked into the food with a vengeance.
Tomorrow, we would be arriving in Pie Town and the Toaster House, a popular hostel since the 1980’s. I was ready for a day of rest from the relentless push onward.
Awesome job detailing your hike. You describe things I don’t think about to make me more aware. Keep up the good work meeting your goals.
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