Climbing Out Of The Desert

Mile 388-564

I didn’t run into any rabid dogs on my walk into Grants; the comments on Guthook said to look out for them. When I arrived at Lava Flow Hostel, I wasn’t certain I was at the right place. The outward appearance had a less than friendly look, but upon entering the forward-most building, I was met with a welcomed sight. What the curbside appeal lacked was well made up for within. The two bedroom house was quaint and cozy with comfy arm chairs, a glorious bathroom with piping hot water, and best of all the fastest WiFi I had yet found on trail. To make everything better, 13 (who I hadn’t seen since she left Pie Town before me) was there along with Magic Hat and Storm Mocker, an older hiker who had hiked the trail back in the 70s.

“I thought you were long gone!” I remarked to 13 as I dumped my pack in our shared room.

“Yeah my feet are pretty messed up,” she said, as her voiced tinged with annoyance. “I don’t think I have a fracture… but I’m going to stay here at least until Friday to give them time.”

Last I had seen of her was when she was laying on a couch in Pie Town while Tin Man was cutting open her profuse blisters. I winced looking at them again.

Not intending to stay a second day in town, I set to work on getting my chores completed. Having already laundered my clothes on the way into town, I still needed to shower, resupply, and sort through my bag.

While doing laundry, I had ran into Bullet, a fellow female solo hiker that I met online. Bullet had invited me out to one of the local breweries that evening and I was seriously tempted to go. I love meeting other hikers on trail and connecting with them, but the brewery was a two mile walk from the hostel and I was feeling pretty run down. I was fully intending upon going until I got back on the bus with Magic Hat after resupplying at Walmart. Suddenly, a wave of fatigue washed over me and all I could think about was going to bed.

Back at the hostel, I texted Bullet my apologies and promptly sat down in one of the armchairs, knowing that I needed to repackage my food but too tired to move. Moaning, I managed to drag myself from a drowse and plopped myself down in the middle of the tiny living room. I tossed the unnecessary packaging and pack the food into my bag.

The rest of the evening was spent in a lazy fashion of chatting and eating. I slept soundly that night for one of the first times since starting trail. Oh the joys of sleeping in a bed for the first time in a month.

On my way out of town, I hunted for a good fresh iced mocha, but had to satisfy myself with a Starbuck’s Frappuccino from the local grocery, where I had stopped to pick up a Gatorade.

Mt Taylor loomed in the distance: an alternate route I have been determined to take from the start. The 11,301 foot mountain was a stunning site and would be my first official summit over 10,000 feet. I was supremely eager for the experience, but I was apprehensive on how the altitude would affect me. Hiking alone causes you to think more keenly about your personal safety and as I climbed my thoughts were drawn to the worst case scenarios.

How long would it take someone to find me if I pass out up here? Would I die before then? That would be a view.

As I continued up the near 5,000 foot ascent, I was teased with stunning views of the peak and my excitement only mounted.

12 May 2021 – My view of Mt Taylor

“Damn, that’s a sexy mountain,” I told T.R., after stopping to take a picture. “I want to get on top of that.”

After camping out at 8,700 feet, I finished the ascent a day out of Grants. The terrain wasn’t so much challenging as it was steep, and with a large food bag and a general lack of oxygen, I was forced to halt several times to still my racing heart and catch my breath. A handful of times I sat down on a rock, attempting to alleviate the dizziness that threatened to overwhelm me.

On the way up, near a water cache that was left by some trail angels, I found a half full 24-pack of Coors Light amongst the gallons of water. I took one with me, as a couple I met on my way out of town the day before, Bill and Barb were their names, had mentioned the tradition of enjoying a beer at the summit. I had not packed out any, not knowing of this ritual, but since it was available I was prevailed upon to participate. Considering it was also my first big climb, I had a lot to celebrate.

The remainder of the way up Mt Taylor was well-maintained, but the slopes were steep and seemed to go straight up at times. Nevertheless, the barren mountain side gave way to amazing views of the surrounding valley and each rest stop allowed me a chance to look back on the way I had come.

After being passed ironically by hiker Powerhouse on the way to the summit, I had at last arrived.

“Whew. That was hard,” I commented to Powerhouse as I dropped my pack near the sign. He agreed.

13 May 2021 – My summit picture Powerhouse took for me!!

I shared my beer with him and signed the logbook. I felt triumphant despite the climb being small in comparison to what I later met in Colorado. I was getting ready to leave when a day hiker arrived by the name of Walter and offered me a second summit beer from his day pack.

“Oh thank you, but I just had one. I have to keep moving today…”

Not hearing me as he dug in his daypack, he rattled off, “I have keystone, bud light, and an IPA…”

Having said the magic word, I consented to share an IPA with him at the peak. After two hours on the peak, I finally departed and began my descent… into snow. Mt Taylor had the first real snow I had seen the whole trip and I had remembered in my preparation that in previous years the snow made the summit nearly in-assessable. Luckily that was not the case this year, but it did cause my thoughts to turn northward to what potentially laid before me.

Ever present in my mind, the San Juan’s figuratively loomed over my conscious. As the days passed and the miles disappeared under my feet, my thoughts would continue to return to Colorado, but the trail through this next stretch was a sufficient enough distraction.

After Mt Taylor, the trail led me downward onto a large flat mesa that was covered with trees. It took me three days to cross it, seeing many old acquaintances along the way, and on the third day I began the long climb down after spending a morning under near constant cloud cover. From the cool mesa, I returned to the burning desert sun of the valley. I had forgotten how exhausting the sun was, but I was not caught in its fiery rays for long.

16 May 2021 – Beautiful sunset atop the mesa

I spent the next few days climbing up and over every plateau between Grants and Cuba. Sandstone formations waved and curled around the trail in lines of yellows, orange, white, and red. I walked beneath sheer cliffs of layered stone, each color contained to a long segment along the rock wall. The trail led me up sharp inclines along cliff edges, dancing along the rims, and along some of the most beautiful landscape I had yet seen on trail. Eventually, after a final climb, all I had left to do was traverse 5 miles down to 6,900 feet where I would be within walking distance from Cuba.

On the morning I awoke to walk four miles into Cuba, dark clouds threatened on the horizon. Eying them cautiously, I packed up my gear and took to the highway. School buses passed me as I made my way into town. Upon arriving, I was met with a familiar site. Bullet stood outside the Cuban Lodge Motel; I greeted her warmly. She and her companion 2Taps had passed me a day prior with an intent on zeroing in town and they invited me to charge my battery pack in their motel room. She encouraged me to go to the room, where 2Taps opened the door drowsily.

After plugging in my devices, Bullet joined us and I expressed my new interest in trying to find a place in town to stay. I hadn’t planned to nero in town, just to resupply before pressing onward. It wasn’t until the day prior that I had felt tired enough to desire an easy day.

“Would you want to stay with us?” Bullet offered genially.

“Oh, I wouldn’t want to impose…” I said, my social awkwardness causing me to become slightly uncomfortable.

“Not at all!” Bullet laughed.

With my lodging situation settled, I went promptly to complete my chores. While we had been talking, it started to rain and hikers continued to trickle in as the morning progressed, each looking more disgruntled than the last. By the time I came back a few hours later, I found out that Season Pass had also joined us and would be staying the night as well.

The 6-mile road walk out of Cuba was long and hot in the afternoon sun the next day, but it led to some of my favorite landscape so far. After climbing to elevation, nothing but pine forests lay before me with lush greenery that continued to flourish the further north I traveled. And the trails! Long stretches of beautifully maintained trails carried me with such high spirits I couldn’t help but feel glad. It had been so long since I was immersed in the woods that I reveled in every moment of it.

However, I was still in New Mexico and soon to be descending from the heights to return to the valley and my last resupply before leaving the state.

21 May 2021 – Walking in the desert with storm clouds

It was another rainy day which translates into wind and a light drizzle that dries nearly upon contact. The day before hitching into Abiquiu, a small desert town with a post office and general store/gas station. I had descended into the canyon valley and was crossing a large field to a water trough when I spotted a pair of older hikers on trail. They were instantly identified as day hikers with their stark white hats and crisp and clean blue button downs.

“Hello!” They greeted me and I responded in kind, stepping out of the way for them.

I’m not sure if it was their manner of talking or just a gut reaction, but I instantly received a bad vibe from the pair. To solidify the feeling, one of the two asked:

“You hiking alone?”

I was instantly on my guard, mildly shocked by the question. Any hiker can tell you, man or woman, it does not bode well to be asked if you are alone on trail. Defensive, I told them that at the moment I was, but there was a pair I had been hiking with that I was planning on catching up to. They took this answer easily and we departed.

When I got to the water trough where Legs and Darwin sat, the hikers I had implied my company with earlier, I told them of the encounter.

“You did the right thing,” Legs agreed, after hearing my tale.

“I got a bad vibe from them too,” Darwin stated, looking at his wife protectively.

It had been my first uncomfortable encounter on trail, and I was thankful it was brief. The pair of hikers passed us on their way back to their car, but didn’t say more than a hello. Soon afterwards, the three of us set off together until we reached the road and took our own paths: they on the green alternative route leading to Ghost Ranch and me to climb the red official CDT route 1,000 feet up the mesa to find a secluded, well hidden, and stealthy camp spot.

21 May 2021 – After I escaped the creepy guys and climbed atop the mesa

Resupplying in Abiquiu the next day proved to be my easiest yet. After a ten mile hike to Hwy 17, it took my 20 minutes of awkwardly standing next to the road with my thumb outstretched before a woman stopped on her way to Santa Fe from Idaho to visit family. I chatted with Sara during the short ride and she dropped me off in front of Bode’s General Store with a departing wave. The store was well equipped and I was able to get nearly everything I needed for the 6 day stretch to the New Mexico/Colorado border.

On my way out, I ran into Turtle Wolf and we chatted outside while we waited for our battery packs to charge. I had only been there a few hours before the last person I expected showed up. I hadn’t seen Cheshire Cat since Pie Town, and yet I would recognize that custom painted car anywhere. He was dropping off a hiker to resupply and was gracious enough to give al three of us a ride back to the trail head when he was done. So in this fashion, with Turtle Wolf and I crammed into his renovated back seat: a platform bunk since he lived in his car with his black lab, Stella Blue. I was dropped back off at the trail.

22 May 2021 – Getting a ride back to trail with Cheshire Cat, Stella Blue, Costanza, and Turtle Wolf (not pictured)

I looked northward at the darkening sky and realized the next time I would be in town, I would have crossed into Colorado. Heaving my heavy pack higher on my back, I set off onto the last stretch of New Mexico.