Do-do do-do do-do do-do…
The early riser Apple alarm chimes softly from the tangle of the sleeping bag. Half asleep, I attempt to untwist myself from my silk sleeping bag liner as I feel around for my phone in the jumble of gear in my small, one-person tent.
To keep my electronics from draining in the cool of the evening, I sleep with my phone, battery pack, and water filter in the confines of my mummy sleeping bag. Not the most comfortable, particularly when you roll over in the middle of the night and your hip impales upon the sharp, hard plastic of the Katadyn Be Free water filter nozzle, but it’s better than a dead battery or frozen filter.
“Where are you?!?” I ask drowsily before at last locating the device and affectively silencing my alarm.
I lie back down, rubbing the grogginess from my eyes and yawning. The urge to roll over and fall back asleep is tempting, but instead, I turn and pull the plug on my sleeping pad. Promptly, I sink to the ground and the rocks I had slept on press sharply against my spine.
“Ready for the day, T.R.?” I ask the little lion, Theo Rufus, my sole companion in the wilderness.
His bell tinkles a soft reply as the wind blows against my tent.
Stifling another yawn, I locate my toilet paper ziplock from the mess of gear and open the door. Slipping on a pair of lightweight sandals before standing, I stretch and groan in the dawn chill. The sun was peaking through the trees on the mesa, but there were clouds in the sky, making me hopeful. Clouds meant cooler temperatures and an easier day of hiking.
Nearly everyone I camped with had left, which was quite a group at six compared to my usual zero. I normally don’t camp at water sources, partially because of the crowds, but normally because it never seems to line up well with my desired mileage. It was nice to not have to carry extra water for my ramen last night though.
After taking care of my morning needs, I crawl back into my tent to start the daily ritual. Every hiker has their own itinerary before leaving camp, and I am no different. Every morning the following procedure is re-enacted, in a non-deviating order:
First, I have to shove my sleeping bag into its compression sack and push it all the way down to the bottom of my pack. Next, goes my sleeping pad, clothes bag, and silk liner. After putting on my hiking clothes I had strung from the inside of my tent to dry overnight, I remove the last few things from my tent and move outside to take it down.
After shoving my tent bag into one of my side pockets and taking a seat on my Tyvek ground cloth, I pull my food bag to me. I still had half a bag of food, as it wouldn’t be until Tuesday that I would reach Cuba and my next resupply, but I was still careful with the quantity of snacks I pulled out. Two protein bars, tortillas, a half-melted brick of cheese that had re-solidified in the night, and a packet of pepperoni entered the easily-reachable pockets of my pack, along with a few drink mixes and a bag of mixed nuts (100% without peanuts).
After separating these from the rest, I shove the rest of my food into its sack and turn to taping up my feet. Blisters had prevailed since the beginning of trail, even despite getting larger shoes. To prevent the addition of new little friends growing on my heels, I use a little KT tape on my tender spots to provide a bit more protection from the abrasive sand and dust that gets lodged in my socks. I bang these against a rock to clouds of dust and sand before sliding them onto my feet, and collecting the wrappers into my garbage ziplock. At last, I can put my odds-and-ends sack into my bag, roll down the black contractor garbage around my valuables, and then jam my food bag on top.
Feet taped, food dispersed, and bag packed, I adjust my trekking poles to the proper height and check my watch.
“7:37, not bad at all,” I told T.R., who chimed celebratory with each step. “Not my best, but not bad.”
And then I start to walk.
A thru hike is such a romantic idea: ambling through the wilderness in solitude, braving the elements day after day for amazing sights and epic adventures… I mean, there’s a reason why thousands of hikers attempt a thru hike every year. But in between all those incredible views, stunning peaks, and heartbreakingly beautiful landscapes is a lot of walking. Most travelers experience the downtime from the comforts of a car, where the worst experience is not finding a rest stop in time after some bad diner food, but for us we saunter onwards. Today, at least, it was in the comfort of the woods.
My dad keeps asking me how much I like New Mexico and the desert.
“Is it growing on you?” he asks whenever I call, interested in how much I was enjoying one of his favorite states.
“It’s beautiful in its own way,” I always reply, “but I miss the trees. It’s too quiet.”
But today, in the shelter of pines and with the sun tempered by clouds, I couldn’t help but smile as I hike along.
“I have missed a good trail…” I sigh to T.R., contently strolling along.
New Mexico, originally, was 90% road walks with brief interlude’s of trail. Now the difference is balancing out, but it was still few and far in-between when you are able to stride down a long stretch of trail as opposed to dirt or forest roads. Crossing the mesa, although the trees are not large, the trail is beautifully maintained, cool, and shaded; my heart is light as I plod forward.
Hikers find a variety of ways to pass the day: some hike with friends for conversation and company, while others put in headphones and listen to books, podcasts, or music. More often hiking alone, I find myself talking out loud to the world around me, this time my attention directed at the clouds.
“Please don’t rain on me,” I pleaded, peering through the trees at the grey sky. “I mean you’re doing great and I don’t want you to go away, but it’d be cool if you don’t rain yet.”
T.R. backed my request with a gentle tinkle of his own.
After nearly a month on trail, the end of New Mexico was drawing near. With the weather threatening rain, my thoughts turned to what I might experience once I soon reached Colorado. The San Juans are notorious for their snow pack and dangerous weather conditions, and I was taking my time through the desert to give the mountains a chance to melt and become more favorable for hiking. I glance back up at the heavens, eyeing them suspiciously.
“Just hold off until after I get through the mountains… or dump snow and melt quickly…” I tell them, before a concept struct me.
Contemplatively, I look down at T.R.
“Is it crazier to talk to yourself, the weather, or inanimate objects?” I ask him.
He glances up at me before bouncing away. Narrowing my eyes, I take his silence as a confirmation and turn my gaze back to trail.
I sit on every good spot that welcomes a sitter. This time it was a fallen tree that allows me a moment of respite as I chew on a protein bar and check my map. Most hikers use Guthook, a GPS tracking map system of the major trails in America. I was carrying the paper Jonathan Ley maps in my pack as a back up, but it was easier and a bit more precise to check my phone. The GPS tracking did not require cell service.
“We’re moving along,” I tell T.R. after taking a swig of pomegranate lemonade flavored water. “Only a few more miles to the next water source.”
The available water sources dictate the course of my day. I try to lunch at them, especially if they’re infrequent, as it takes a while to filter sufficient water to carry me to the next source. This source lined up perfectly with my preferred day plan. It was nearly 12 miles from my last camp, which is where I like to take lunch. I always feel more optimistic toward the end of the day if I can lunch over halfway through… that is if my stomach allows me to wait that long.
“Alright,” I groan, standing, “let’s get moving.”
We broke through the tree line, entering the last few miles of the mesa. This stretch is more open than before, with sizable bushes and small juniper trees scattered across the landscape. With the clouds covering the sun, even the lack of shade did not deter my good mood… Then, it started to rain. Not a gentle, pleasant rain, but a gusty, piercing rain that fell nearly horizontal from the sky. Crying out with laughter and cold surprise, I ran forward to the nearest bush to seek shelter from the momentary drizzle.
“Nearly didn’t make that,” I laugh at T.R., who did not appreciate the rain nor the wet.
After a few minutes, we began to move again as the rain halted, soon nearing the edge and descent from the mesa.
Long stretches of the day, I follow feet: the unique shoe prints left behind in the sand. Even after the brief rain, I could still make out certain patterns of the freshest prints.
Altra Lone Peak… La Sportiva… Some kind of boot… Who wears boots? Marco Polo and Tinkertoy… I wonder what time they left this morning… Another Lone Peak…
I try to distinguish how old these prints may be, if they were just ahead or half a day out, I couldn’t tell for certain. Not until after clambering down from the mesa’s steep slopes, I discover Marco Polo and Tinkertoy taking a nap under the shelter of a nearby tree. I waved at them and Tinkertoy responded in kind. Marco Polo lay unmoving with his hat over his eyes.
So close to the water source, I did not want to stop yet, but I was beginning to need to. My ankles were sore from the steep and rocky slope of the mesa, and my feet were beginning to ache after a long first half of the day. Eager for a rest, I peer ahead trying to spot the road junction that leads to water.
Most of the water sources in New Mexico have been constructed for cattle. I have been able to filter a few times from natural sources, but they are few and far in between in the desert. The cow troughs range from pristine springfed sources to algae-riddled, something-died-in-here sludge. I tend to skip the second, but most sources lay somewhere between the two.
I set down my pack under the shade of a small tree and walk the quarter mile to the cow trough. It’s a little more than a foot high, clay ring on the ground, but it holds water and only has a bit of algae in it. Scooping some of the bigger chunks of green goo with my hand, I make room for my malleable race cup, which I use to fill my water bladder with. Once the 3 L bag is filled to the brim, I attach my water filter and trudge back to my pack.
As I draw closer, I discover that I hadn’t been the last to leave this morning. Jabberwocky, who is part of the Warrior Expedition that started a day after me, had arrived while I was around the bend.
“Hey! How’s it going?” I call out.
“Man, I am jealous of your gravity filter,” he starts his tangent, noticing the full bladder in my hands. “That’s the way to do it. When I saw it last night at camp, I thought, ‘Man, I need to get me one of those.’ I use one of those at home when I camp, but the Warrior Expedition paid for all my gear so they gave me a Sawyer and that’s what I’ve been using.”
I had first experienced Jabberwocky’s ability to carry a conversation in Pie Town, which is always welcomed after a long, lonely day, despite being mildly overwhelming. More of an introvert myself, it is difficult for me balance a conversation, but Jabberwocky more than made up for it. As I filter water and gnaw on a pepperoni and cheese (which had become slick again from the heat) tortilla, I chat with him and Tinkertoy, who had arrived not long ago with Marco Polo. They too were in need of more water.
As this was my first official rest of the day, I assigned myself an hour to rest up before pressing onwards. My companions, who rested before the source, left before me, allowing me a few minutes to lie down and close my eyes. Instead of sleep, my head began to buzz with my daily agenda. After hiking about 12 miles to reach this water source, I had about another six to go to reach my goal for the day. If I was feeling good, I could crush that in about two hours… if not, closer to three. Checking my watch, I anticipated for the latter.
The afternoon was wearing on and I hoped to be in camp before 6:30, my ideal end time. Drowsy from tiredness, I return my belongings to my pack, put on my now dry socks and shoes, and start back down the trail.
The heat of the day at last arrived. At the source, I filtered enough water with the thought that the heat would hold off. Though, by the time I caught up to Jabberwocky after crossing the open, sunlit cow pasture of the desert valley, my supply was a liter short. In cool temperatures, I can go the entire day only drinking 3 L of water, but with the late-afternoon sun burning into me, I was soon too hot and saturated with sweat.
Luck was on my side, however. Jabberwocky had found a small cache of water that a trail angel stocked for hikers. Thankful, I down the last of my liter and attempt to carefully pour myself another, listening to Jabberwocky, who had called home, tell me about his family and his son’s recent fight with the gravel driveway.
“He’s eight, so he’s all sniffles on the phone,” he confines to me, as I try and fail to pour water easily into my bottle. Squatting with a 25 lb pack on your back made aiming a bit more difficult.
I left the cache ahead of him, but I could feel my legs slowing down. After pulling a 20 mile day yesterday, and pushing for 18 today, my swollen feet were ready for a long rest. Finding a great sitting rock with a beautiful view of the valley, I took a seat to reduce the pressure legs for a bit. Jabberwocky soon caught me.
“If there’s light in the sky, I’m still moving,” he chants lightly before pressing forward.
I look down at my feet, stretching and curling my toes within my shoes.
“Just a bit further,” I told them, sighing softly and standing.
I hadn’t been sure at the beginning of the day if I would reach the second water source (this one dry and unusable, but still marked on Guthook). I made good time in the morning, despite my slow down in the afternoon, and was surprised when I stumbled up to it.
Scanning the horizon for someplace flat and protected from the wind, I continue onward 50 feet further before spotting an ideal location. Down a gentle slope, a lone tree stood and I made my way toward it. The ground seemed flat enough, so from the side of my bag, I withdrew my tent.
Similar to the morning, my evenings have their own rituals. After I set up my tent, I pull the things from the top of my pack out to get to my sleeping pad and bag. Inflating my pad, I plop down on top of it in my tent and peel off my shoes and socks. After a day of hard hiking, they are covered in congealed dirt and grime, so I spend a moment rubbing the day’s residue from my toes.
After withdrawing my sleeping bag and removing it from its compression sack, I turn my thoughts to dinner.
It is not good practice nor necessarily safe to eat from your tent, as it attracts animals of all sorts to your location. In popular campgrounds with high animal density and/or known bear activity, I make the effort to go a ways from my tent before cooking. Out here in the desert, surrounded by miles of open country and hardly even bird within the vicinity, I sit in my tent as my ramen boils on my camp stove. I do not condone the practice, but it is a calculated risk most thru hikers take.
My camp stove is not a luxurious two-burner Colman with a hefty propane tank beside, able to fry eggs, steak, or anything you could on a normal range. My cookware consists of three parts: a small, typically 4 oz isobutane fuel canister (though right now I was using the remnants of an 8 oz canister as the last town was out of all fuel canisters; luckily, someone had ditched one in a hiker box with just enough fuel for a few days), a single-burner PocketRocket Deluxe stove (deluxe because the burner was the size of a half dollar rather than slightly larger than a quarter), and my 900ml Toaks titanium pot. It could boil water to rehydrate food, but not much else.
After my meal of ramen, I couldn’t keep my eyes from lingering on my food bag.
“No…” I tell myself, beginning to pack up my extra food. “I need that for the next few days.”
Once my food is packed in my airtight and scent-proof Loksak Opsak bags, a favorite of CDT hikers, I stretch out in my tent. The day’s clothes hang from a clip on the side of my tent, air drying overnight. My trail runners sit under my rain fly, insoles and socks places beside them. I wiggle into my sleeping bag liner, used to prevent excess body oil and sweat from depreciating the temperature rating of my bag from daily use. I carefully set my feet on my backpack, which I had beaten the dirt off of and shoved into the foot of my tent, to elevate them as I slept.
Sighing deeply, I relax into my sleeping pad and close my eyes, willing myself to sleep. It proves to not come easily, but after my legs begin to relax after a long day of travel, my mind slips into oblivion.
All too soon, I wake up, ready to start it all again.