Miles 565 – 647
When Cheshire Cat dropped us off at the trail from Abiquiu, I still hadn’t determined how far I wanted to go that day. There were rain clouds on the horizon and I knew I needed to find a sheltered campsite. Six miles later, I finally found such a spot in Oso Canyon underneath the shelter of some conifers. I don’t remember any rain through the night, but in the morning a ring of hail surrounded my tent when I pulled back the flaps.
The last hundred miles of New Mexico lay before me and I was already beginning to miss the state. The terrain had become something to truly enjoy and each day gave way to beautiful views and exquisite sections of trail. The trees opened up to vast fields on the ridge lines, blanketed in lush, green grass and veined with small streams of snow melt.
We all knew snow lay before us, but it wasn’t until this final push that I thought to fully understand the situation. The first few days the snow was mostly off trail and many of the paths were flooded and intersected with new streams forming from the rapidly melting snow. This slowed my progress, as I didn’t relish getting stuck calf deep in muck, and soon my feet were well saturated as I crossed the boggy valleys.
The air grew cool in the forests, where the snow was the most plentiful and the insulating layer of pine needles kept it from melting. In the connecting fields, the winds howled and kept the heat of the sun at bay. The first few days of travel, I wasn’t much hindered by snow nor water, but as I journeyed further north, the snow became more plentiful and delayed my progression.
I was in no rush to arrive in Chama, the last town before entering Colorado and the San Juan Mountains. In truth, you had to cross into Colorado to reach Cumbres Pass, where you would hitch back into New Mexico to the hiker town. With heavy snow in the mountains still, I didn’t want to venture into the San Juan’s before June, which was over a week away. I took my time crossing this last stretch, averaging about 16 mile days, waking late in the morning and arriving in camp in mid-afternoon. Countless unfamiliar hikers passed me during the day, rushing toward Chama and time off before the real mountains. The cost of nights in town adds up when you’re waiting out the snow, and I hoped to save a bit of money by spending more time on trail and less in a motel room.
Despite the unfamiliar faces, I also encountered many trail friends that I hadn’t seen for weeks. Lone Wolf and Beer Goddess rolled up just before Hopewell Lake after taking off five days in Santa Fe. I hiked with Magic Hat, who had spent a bit of time in Chama, having hitched up to it earlier on trail. I even caught up to Bullet and 2Taps who had taken off some time for blisters. All the bubbles of hikers were converging on Chama to: wait out the snow, seek an alternative, or press onward and upward into the mountains.
The last seven miles before the New Mexico/Colorado border were some of the worst trail conditions I had seen yet. The trail ventured back up to 11,000 ft, and the snow was waist deep in parts with drifts well over my head. To make matters worse, the trail was nearly impassable with fallen trees blocking and hindering travel. With my micro spikes and ice axe waiting for me in Chama, my pace slowed to a dead crawl as I slowly made my way down slippery forest slopes, sinking to my waist as I post holed in the melting snow. My largest concerns revolved around losing my footing and sliding headlong into a tree, or worst a leg disappearing beneath the snow to collide with a hidden log and thusly ending my trip.
With much swearing and aggravation, I made it down from the summit and into the valley, a few miles from the border. The final distance to the state line felt like something out of a dream and when I finally approached the invisible boundary, I had to stop to catch my breath.
44 days ago, I had been dropped off with complete strangers at the Mexican border. I had survived the arid desert of the boot heel, where water had to be cached and every drop cherished. I summited my first 8,000 ft peak, then 9,000, 10,000, and finally reaching new heights of 11,301 ft. I crossed the rapids of the Gila River, ate pie in Pie Town, and spent long hours road walking through the shade-less desert. I had started the trail pale and soft, and now I stood tanned and toned, hardened by terrain and weather, the first part of my journey completed.
With a deep breath, I took a step over the border and felt my body sigh.
Good-bye New Mexico.