Days 40-43: The High San Juans, Part One

June 29 – July 2, 765 miles hiked

After experiencing a bout of extreme unmotivation to hike, during which we sat on the trail a mile from the road for over two hours, we finally decided it was time to get moving. The next section was 120 miles through the high San Juan mountains: some of the highest, most remote, and most unforgiving terrain and weather yet, but also some of the most beautiful country we’d seen so far. We’d packed enough food for six days, so we needed to average at least 20 miles a day until Lake City, our next town. In a few days, the CDT would merge with the Colorado Trail, and they would be one and the same for the next few hundred miles.

The trail wound through the Weminuche Wilderness, and the scenery was beautiful. Alpine lakes were everywhere, always surrounded by mountains, and everything was green and fresh. We ran into Sass, Chipmunk, and Paperweight several times throughout the day, and it was so nice to have fellow thru-hikers to chat with. It started raining in the late afternoon as we climbed a pass, then cleared up as we crested the top. The trail then followed a ridge, as the CDT often does, and climbed and descended steeply. Around 8pm we started looking for a camping spot, and, realizing that the trail wouldn’t be dropping below 12,000 feet anytime soon, we settled on a flatish area along the ridge in the shelter of some shrubs.


Exposed, green mountains and rocky trail. Many of the passes in this section looked like this.


The trail stayed between 12,000 and 13,000 feet the next day, almost always following rocky, exposed ridges. It was usually flooded with snowmelt, sometimes becoming a small creek on the downhill sections, and the grassy plateaus had turned into lakes. Our feet were always wet. It was constant up and down, from one ridge to the next.

A note on pictures: my phone stopped working due to water damage between Pagosa Springs and Lake City, and was never able to be revived. ūüė¶ So, I lost all the photos I took up to that point. We didn’t take very many pictures on Phil’s camera during this section, so I am using some of Sass’s photos (with her permission). Thanks Sass!!


Photo credit: Sass

A storm brewed late in the afternoon, turning to rain and hail by evening. I had started to watch the sky and clouds constantly, trying to learn its patterns and guess when the rain would arrive. We continued on through the rain and got to a section called the Knife’s Edge by early evening, which was a quarter mile-long shelf built into a shale rock cliff. We’d heard about this section from other hikers, but it seemed more tame than I’d thought it would be. I could imagine how harrowing it would have been in heavy snow a few weeks before though. Snow covered much of the trail, but so many had gone before us that there was a clear route and footprints. We grasped the rock wall above us, using all four appendages equally. I longed for trekking poles. One misstep would mean tumbling half a mile straight down the slope below us, although I was learning that this was par for the course on the CDT in Colorado.


Photo credit: Sass


Paperweight and Knife’s Edge. Photo credit: Sass


Photo credit: Sass

knifes edge

Here’s a picture of the Knife’s Edge I found on the internet, with way more snow.

We continued along the rocky slope, the rain and hail pelting us. We came across a small cave in the side of the mountain and crawled in, hoping the rain would soon let up. Phil made a hot chocolate/coffee mixture to warm us. We continued on, and came to a small lake on the edge of a basin. Realizing that we were starting to get too cold, we decided to camp, rushing to set up our tent in the pouring rain. Because we weren’t carrying trekking poles, we had to find a stick each night to hold up the rear end of our tent. We had a light aluminum pole for the front end. Phil searched for a suitable stick while I dug our tent stakes into the ground, fumbling as my fingers lost feeling and mobility in the cold. Finally, we peeled off our wet clothes and crawled in, relieved to be in a dry place. I had had a pair of Patagonia thermal bottoms shipped to Pagosa Springs, and was so glad to have them now.

It rained all night and morning, and we didn’t emerge from our tent until 11am. We spent most of the morning eating, drinking our coffee/hot chocolate concoction, and reading Blood Meridian to each other out loud. The clouds parted for a brief moment, and we donned our wet hiking clothes and soaked shoes. Squaw Pass was just ahead and we hoped the weather would cooperate long enough for us to get over the pass. We were learning that we needed to be cautious – the combination of rain, cold temperatures, and an exposed trail that never dropped below 12,000 feet could easily lead to us being at risk for hypothermia.

Almost as soon as we started hiking, it started to rain again. We ascended the pass in a cloud, unable to see anything in front or on either side of us. The trail climbed, switchbacking up rocky cliffs, until it reached what seemed like the top and started to wind around the side of the mountain. The wind howled and the rain pelted us. Finally, we started to descend, the rocky trail leading us steeply down the bare, green mountains we had become used to. Little by little, I could feel my body becoming too cold. My teeth chattered, I had no feeling in my hands, and my arms and legs seemed stiff and machine-like. We had to keep our down jackets and sleeping clothes dry, so we were in our usual shorts, light button-up hiking shirts, and rain jackets. To save weight, I had, of course, chosen the lightest possible rain jacket I could find, thinking I wouldn’t be wearing it much. As we hiked, I wished for a rain jacket that actually kept me dry, and resolved to find rain pants in the next town.

We raced down the trail, trying to get to lower elevation as fast as we could. The trail had become a steep muddy creek, tumbling down the mountain in brown gushes. We knew the Squaw Creek valley was just a few miles away and it was at 11,000 feet, which sounded like sea level after the past few days. As I got colder, it was getting harder and harder for me to hike. I could not feel my legs or feet and worried about falling each step. Every fiber of my being wanted to be in the valley, to be safe, warm, and dry. As we dropped below tree line, I knew we were getting close.

Finally, the trees opened into a wide, green valley. It was 2pm and we had only hiked 6 miles that day, but we knew it was time to stop. My body was numb and my words were coming out as a mumbled mess. We found a flat spot, set up the tent, and relief flooded over me as I fumbled to put dry clothes on and crawled into my sleeping bag.

We ended up spending that night and the entire next day and night in that valley. The rain continued almost the entire time, the valley was stuck in a cloud, and we were too worried about getting over the next pass to pack up and leave. I didn’t know it was possible to sleep so much. When we weren’t sleeping, we ate constantly (I ate an entire jar of Nutella by myself during that time) and read Blood Meridian. During a brief break in the weather, we attempted to dry out our belongings, but nothing really got dry. The San Juans had taught us a lesson, and we knew we needed to be more careful as we moved north.



Day ???? June 29th

makeshift shade, avoiding hiking

Guest blog post, by Phil.  Julia is quite particular about her beloved blog. My post may not make it out of the cutting room.

But anyway, here we sit a mile from the Wolf Creek Pass trailhead after spending a night off trail in Pagosa Springs.  Yesterday while wandering around Pagosa Springs we went into a local outdoor store and were immediately pegged as thru hikers by the store employees.  They were sweet and interested in our time on trail, so we were happy to share.

The store owner Addie, whom we had been chatting with, promptly asked how we were getting back to the Wolf Creek Pass trailhead, some 23 miles from Pagosa Springs.  We shared that we intended to hitch hike the following morning.  Addie was not pleased.  She almost insisted on giving us a ride to the trailhead the following morning and not only that but offered to feed us breakfast prior to departure.  How could we say no?  7:30 the next morning (today) came too quickly, Addie arrived, picked us up, took us to her lovely home, fed us waffles and then drove us to the trailhead.  Thanks Addie, your kindness and generosity mean more than you know.
However, Julia and I are not ready to hike.  So here we sit a mile from the trailhead avoiding hiking, writing blog posts, eating to lighten pack weight and awaiting inspiration to begin the next leg of our CDT journey, 6 days and 120 miles of hiking through the high San Juan mountains in Colorado.

Days 36-39: Into the San Juans

Hello friends of the PJ adventure! I know, it’s been awhile. My sincere apologies for the long delay. Despite months having passed since we finished hiking last fall, it’s my goal to update this blog and write about each section, even if it’s just for my own enjoyment. We are now fully immersed in Normal Life in Eugene, OR, and the CDT feels like a dream or alternate reality. Did it really happen? I look forward to reliving it through these posts. Thank you for reading!

We pick up where we left off in Chama, NM….

June 25-28, 721 miles hiked

We were so tired in Chama that once we got groceries and had lunch, we didn’t leave our hotel room until the following morning. The next morning, we quickly found a ride in the back of a pickup with a couple of men who seemed to speak only Spanish. They dropped us off at Cumbres Pass, and there we were, ready to tackle the San Juans. We’d been hearing rumors about the conditions in these mountains for the past few weeks… the snow was so deep that the hikers before us had had to hitch up to Wyoming to hike other sections… some hikers flip flopped up to Montana and started hiking south… those that did attempt it carried ice axes and crampons… did you at least have your warm clothes shipped to Chama, they asked. No, we had not. For some reason, this hadn’t occurred to us. So, we started hiking, feeling a little foolish and wary of the snow and cold ahead.

Within the first five miles, the terrain changed dramatically. The trail climbed, and the landscape opened up and revealed huge, wide valleys with rows of snow covered mountains. I was amazed at how quickly the land had changed. We climbed to 12,000 feet and the trail followed a high, green ridge. Snow dotted the landscape, and everything was melting and wet. It started to rain, and the temperature dropped. All of a sudden, soaked and cold in my shorts and light windbreaker, I realized how exposed we were. The warnings had been real…. Colorado was a different beast than New Mexico, and I had not been emotionally prepared for it.

Finally, it stopped raining. By evening we had reached the mosquito-infested Dipping Lakes, then the trail climbed to a rocky ridge again. We traversed along the ridge as the sun set, awestruck by the beauty and the high mountains we were suddenly in. We made mac ‘n cheese for dinner and drank wine we’d brought to celebrate our first night in CO. It was COLD. I was happy to be there and happy to be hiking.


The trail stayed high the next day, traversing along the sides of mountains, then around bends to the next mountains, then more traversing along the sides. There were always beautiful basins below us but the trail rarely dropped into them. There was lots of snow on the trail and it was slow going. Everything was wet and we got used to our feet always being soaked and cold. The views were so beautiful – rows and rows of mountains, with deep, mysterious valleys below. It was nearly dark when we found a saddle to camp on. We had hiked all day but only covered 23 miles, averaging 2 miles an hour. Here are some views from that day:



It was always threatening, but did not rain on us that day…


Clouds and mysterious valleys

DSC02717We continued the side mountain traverses the next day. Late in the morning, the trail dropped into a valley and we found another hiker sitting next to the river. As we had not seen another person on the trail since Tatu-Joe, we were surprised and SO happy to see another human. It was a man named Matt, a section hiker heading for Salida, which was a few hundred miles north. We stopped and chatted with him, then the three of us continued on together. Matt had a condition called expressive aphasia that made it hard for him to communicate. As we hiked, he told us about his life, how he’d had to take blood thinners his whole life for a heart condition. One day, fed up with it, he stopped taking his medication. He had a stroke, and now had this condition. I was so happy to see and talk to another person. It made the time pass quickly, and the climbs and snow traverses seemed easier. As we hiked that afternoon, the terrain changed gradually and the peaks changed into smaller, gentler mountains. The colors became greens and blues instead of grays. At one point, we stopped for a break and Matt kept going. The trail entered a forest and the hiking became much easier. We passed Matt that evening – he had stopped to camp and was sitting in a clearing near a mosquitoey marsh. We said our goodbyes, then continued on. I can’t explain why, but thinking of him there alone made my heart hurt.


We hiked until 8:30 or 9, our usual stopping time, and were excited to come upon three other hikers camping in a clearing. They were Sass, Paperweight, and Chocolate Chipmunk – other thru hikers!! They had gotten stopped by the snow two weeks earlier, so hitched up to Wyoming to hike the Great Basin, which is desert and hikeable in June, and were now reattempting this section. We camped with them, trading stories and hearing about the crazy snow that had made this section impassable just a few weeks ago.

The next morning, we hiked the last eight miles to Wolf Creek Pass to hitch into Pagosa Springs. The trail passed through a ski resort and there were tons of day hikers out. We got a ride quickly and asked to be taken to the bakery, which was wonderful and surpassed all of my expectations. I had a cinnamon roll and a huge sandwich, and we spent most of our time chatting with two delightful men who were hiking the John Muir Trail that summer and had lots of questions. After the usual errands (post office, grocery store, outfitter, thrift store), we got a room at an average but very expensive motel. Pagosa Springs was cute but extremely touristy and expensive. We would soon find that every Colorado town was like that.

We met two other hikers staying in the next room over – Nightwatch and Not A Chance! We had dinner and drinks at the cantina and an anonymous couple paid for the whole thing. A random guy at the bar insisted on giving Phil $8. Addie, the owner of the local outdoor store, offered us waffles and a ride back to the trail the next morning. After days of feeling starved for human connection, it seemed I was being offered love and connections everywhere I looked.


Food sorting in Pagosa Springs

Days 32-35: Last days in New Mexico

June 21-24, 651 miles hiked 

We woke early in the morning at the top of the canyon a few miles outside Ghost Ranch. It was about 100 miles to Chama, our last stop in New Mexico. The trail actually crossed into Colorado before Chama, and then we would hitch back into New Mexico to get our resupply box. We hiked with Tatu-Joe most of the day, gradually ascending higher and higher to steep grass-covered plains and small green mountains. The trail followed a confusing network of dirt roads, and we kept missing turns and having to cross large cow pastures back to the trail. It was a nice distraction and change to hike with another person, especially after being virtually alone for much of New Mexico. 

Late in the afternoon, Joe continued on while Phil and I relaxed by a creek. The trail followed more dirt roads and then became a trail through a damp, mosquito-infested forest. This would be the first of MANY days of mosquitoes. It started to rain, both our phones died, and before we knew it, we were lost. We continued following a trail and rock cairns that seemed right, but by the time it got dark, we really had no idea where we were. The mosquitoes swarmed around us as we frantically set up our tent on a dark hillside. In the morning, we waited until the sun was bright enough to charge our phones with the solar charger, and found that we were at the top of Mt. Canjilon, far west of the trail. This was pretty typical for the CDT. We got lost all the time, and were always dependent on our phones/GPS. It was frustrating, but just a fact of life on this trail.

We followed a dirt road that would lead us back to the trail, winding through green meadows and forest. It rained for about two hours, but then finally cleared up. We walked uphill on a dirt road and passed two mountain bike racers speeding down the road in the opposite direction. There is a self-supported race on the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route called Tour Divide that had started about a week before, and we’d heard the riders pretty much didn’t sleep and rode 200 miles a day. The winner typically did the 2,745-mile route in 12-14 days. The two bikers we saw were wearing bib numbers and looked miserable enough to be competing in this race. We camped at Hopewell Lake that evening, a luxurious experience that included running water, TRASH CANS, and a picnic table!

I wish I could say we did something more interesting than hike along dirt roads the next day, but that’s exactly what we did, for 30 miles. We saw several herds of elk in the morning. The trail climbed into the forest, then along a creek, then along a ridge at 10,000 feet, where it stayed for the rest of the evening. It rained and stormed, and it was fascinating to watch the lightning flash across the sky and the clouds morph into various dark shapes. We met a sheep herder who spoke only Spanish and his three dogs, and had a conversation in our broken Spanish that both parties probably only half understood. The sky cleared as the evening wore on, becoming a beautiful sunset. Ahead, we could see the beginnings of big mountains.  Colorado! 

As usual, we were almost out of food the next morning as we hiked the last 15 miles to Cumbres Pass, where we would hitch to Chama. We passed through meadows with more elk, then climbed into a hilly forest. With two miles to go before the road, we passed a fallen-down sign that read “Rio Grande National Forest, Colorado.” Finally, we were officially in Colorado!

We hitched a ride to town with the usual type of person who picked us up – a middle-aged guy in a pickup truck filled with guns. We satiated our hunger with burgers, then spent the afternoon doing town errands and finally renting a room in a very strange but cheap hotel above the saloon.

Days 28-31: Ghost Ranch

June 17-20, 552 miles hiked

We woke up fully intending to leave Cuba, but we told ourselves we’d have a leisurely morning and wait out the heat. I worked on the blog and talked to my sister on the phone. Around mid-afternoon, we gave in to the siren song of town comforts, and decided to stay another night. It’s so hard to leave town sometimes. We had tacos at a strange gas station convenience store/restaurant and fell asleep early. The next morning, the trail climbed on a dirt road for several miles, then became a pleasant forested trail climbing into the woods. Suddenly, we looked around and noticed the desert was gone. We were surrounded by trees, there was a creek (a creek!) running next to the trail, and we were at 10,000 feet. The climb culminated in a wide, beautiful, flat meadow. Then, a long descent, early evening hiking through some nondescript woods, and finally camping near a highway. 

We woke early the next day because we wanted to get to Ghost Ranch, our next stop, by dinnertime at 5, and we had 25 miles to hike. The trail climbed steeply to the top of a mesa, then descended to a small creek. I could see the beginnings of colorful rock layers in the distance. We followed the creek until it opened into a wide valley surrounded by the most amazing, colorful cliffs I’d ever seen. The layers were pink, yellow, and orange, like a prehistoric rainbow sherbet. We walked through sagebrush to the Chama River and the dirt road that would eventually take us to the highway and Ghost Ranch. The desert had returned, at least for a day, and it was blisteringly hot. One of the hottest days on the trail so far. 

We walked along the river, the red and orange cliffs rising up along it. My mom had given me a set of Georgia O’Keeffe cards and one of them was a painting of the Chama River, so I’d had an idea of what the river looked like, but it was far more beautiful in real life. The water was a deep blue, mixing perfectly with the green and yellow of the hills and red of the cliffs. Pickup trucks and vans towing rafts passed us, and boats passed in the river. I longed to be one of those rafters, to sit there and be carried by the river instead of walking on that dirt road in the 100 degree heat.

We navigated our way through a cross country section over the bare hills, then onto a confusing trail. The biting flies were back and by then we were desperate, hungry and sweaty, practically running from the flies and towards the promise of food. The landscape was changing again, and we were surrounded by amazing orange mesas and rock structures, like something out of a movie. 

We finally got to Ghost Ranch at 5:30. Ghost Ranch is now a beautiful Presbyterian retreat center with a green lawn and adobe buildings, but the land and ranch have a soap opera-esque history, complete with murders, poker games and ghosts in the Wild West. Georgia O’Keeffe also had a home there, which is now owned by the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.  

In our haste to arrive in time for dinner, we had forgotten to eat during the day. We walked into the cafeteria wildly hungry, seeing nothing but the path to food and water. The room was full of families at the ranch for various retreats, all sitting at long tables, summer camp style. People stared at us, but we had become animals, and didn’t care. I made a beeline for a juice machine that, miraculously, dispensed ready-made juices of all kinds, and gulped down several glasses of fruit punch. We sat in silence eating chicken and wild rice and probably 20 pieces of toast and jam, going back again and again to the juice machine. Phil ate so much that he threw up in a nearby trash can. The fruit punch sugar went straight to my head, and I began to feel a little crazy. Thankfully, the Presbyterians were extremely kind, and helped us find the showers and camping area after our feeding frenzy. 

We spent most of the next day at Ghost Ranch doing laundry, writing postcards, sorting food, and relaxing. Lunch was pizza with ice cream for dessert, and a similar feeding occurred, though not as crazy as dinner. During lunch we met Tatu-Joe, another CDT hiker. Joe is a legend in the hiking community. He is working on his quadruple triple crown, which means that when he’s done, he will have hiked all three long trails in the U.S. (PCT, AT, CDT) four times each. He had already hiked the AT this year, finishing in less than three months and then hopping immediately to the CDT. We had lunch and dinner with him, and then hiked out that evening through an amazing canyon, officially leaving the desert behind. A family staying at Ghost Ranch hiked with us for a few miles, and I was overwhelmed by the community and love that surrounded us. I wanted to stay there forever. 

Note: my phone did not like the Colorado rain a few days ago and now it’s not working at all. Sadly, for the time being, this means I can’t access any of the pictures I took during this section. Here are some of Phil’s pictures! 

very hot road along the chama river

Ghost Ranch by night

hike out of the magical Ghost Ranch canyon

Days 23-27: cows, mesas, and bears, oh my!

June 12-16, 497 miles hiked
We lacked motivation to leave Grants the next morning, finally leaving the comfort of the motel around 11. The first seven miles of the trail followed a road that ascended into the hills outside of town, past a prison and into bare, dry mountains. Phil was in a particularly bad mood this morning, and not feeling very excited about hiking. At one point he took out his phone and looked up plane tickets to Thailand. We got into the groove as the day wore on, climbing on actual trail up a steep mountain towards Mt. Taylor, which the CDT passes. I had downloaded some new music – new Rihanna and Beyonc√©, and some sugary country pop from Kelsea Ballerini that’s a little ridiculous but so catchy I can’t resist it- and it made hiking seem easy and fun. 

The next day, we took an alternate trail that goes to the top of Mt. Taylor, which stands at 11,300 feet and has beautiful 360 degree views. It was so nice to see our surroundings after being in the desert for so long, and see where we’d be hiking next. The trail the rest of the day was pretty unremarkable – a long descent on dirt roads, other dirt roads through a sparse forest, finding a spring surrounded by cows, and finally a big campsite in a clearing next to a dirt road. 

we kept seeing these signs, then saw the prison and realized why

road out of Grants

phil convinced me to play violin on top

The next morning we had 16 miles on a flat dirt road until Ojos De Los Indios spring, which sat at the bottom of a small ravine. We saw a brown bear pretty close up that morning, and he saw us but just kept bumbling along, in search of bugs or water or whatever bears search for. We finally turned onto a real trail, which wound across the top of a mesa for what felt like an eternity until descending steeply into a huge basin filled with small orange mesas. The sun was setting during our descent, and it was one of the most beautiful moments on the trail so far. We camped in the middle of a deserted red dirt road. 

cow tank bath

descent into a magical land of mesas

The next day was one of the hottest on the trail so far, hiking across this big basin with very few water sources. At one point we got lost (not unusual) and had to navigate through a sandy, dry riverbed for an extra hour. The scenery was amazing – colorful mesas, cool rock structures everywhere – but we were grumpy and hot and probably didn’t fully appreciate it. Late afternoon we got to a paved road crossing (very exciting) and there was a water cache with poptarts and granola bars!! We made a beeline for it and sat there for two hours. We hiked until 9pm, with 22 miles left until the next town of Cuba. 

The next morning, we continued our march through the mesas and the rock formations. The trail was awesome and looked like something out of Star Wars, but I was extremely grumpy. I had developed a new blister the day before and its existence made hiking very unpleasant, and I was just generally mad at the world this morning- mad at the heat, mad at the fact that the trail was all sand, mad at the remaining miles until town. My mood improved after a shady break and a Snickers bar, and we walked the remaining 10ish miles on paved highways into Cuba. These EVIL flies kept chasing and biting us along the road. We went straight to a Mexican restaurant and, as usual, went completely overboard on food consumption. The rest of the day was filled with the usual town activities: grocery store, post office, blog, phone calls with parents, motel, then finally ridiculous reality tv (this time it was Botched and My 600-lb Life) until we fell asleep. We had only 52 miles until Ghost Ranch, and there were rumors that the desert was nearly over…

phil, dancing through the streets of cuba

Days 20-22: dirt roads to Grants

June 9-11, 396 miles hiked

Radar brought us back to the trail and back to reality the next morning, and we started hiking where we’d left off the previous day. Soon, the dirt road turned into a trail, which wound through a grassy canyon before rising onto another dirt road. It was so hot. We hiked on towards the next water source while the sky darkened. By the time we got there, the wind was blowing furiously and it had begun to rain. The windmill was apparently not working, so we continued on down the dirt road, which had now turned to slippery red clay. 

The trail then followed Highway 117 towards El Malpais National Monument, which featured a rim trail overlooking a huge area covered in lava, which we would hike across. We camped on the rim that evening. The next morning, we headed out onto the Acoma-Zuni trail, which traverses eight miles across the lava. 

After the lava, we wound through Bonito Canyon, hiking into the evening while listening to podcasts. The next morning, we woke early to hike the remaining 12 miles into Grants, knowing we had to get there before the post office closed at 12. We speed walked down Zuni Canyon road, its canyon walls rising on either side. We got to a McDonalds on the outskirts of town and scarfed down three pancakes, three cookies, three egg mcmuffins, and hash browns. Somehow, I still felt hungry after all of that. 

Grants was a spread out, rather depressing town full of boarded up businesses and lots of those check cashing places. We walked another three miles down the main road to the other end of town towards the chain hotels and got a room at the Super 8. When we get to town, often all I want to do is lay in bed and watch tv. We did this for awhile, then bought some resupply food at Wal-Mart and ordered pizza, watching episode after episode of Naked and Afraid until we could no longer keep our eyes open. 

Days 18-19: Jam sessions and beef in Pie Town

June 7-8, 340 miles hiked

We took a zero day in Pie Town, which was actually very relaxing because there’s not much to do in that town except relax at the toaster house, wander the one dirt road that the town sits on, or eat at the one open cafe. There isn’t even a store. Sometime in the afternoon, two other hikers appeared! This was very exciting for us, as we’d seen only one other hiker the entire trip so far and really missed the camaraderie of seeing other hikers (or even humans, for that matter) out on the trail. They were Mark and Monique, also from Oregon! We chatted about the trail, comparing notes and sorting our food. That afternoon we wandered over to the community center and met Nita, the owner of the toaster house. She told us about a restaurant in Datil, 20 miles down the road, that we needed to experience, mentioning their amazing beef several times. We’d also heard of this restaurant from Mark, and decided we should go. Nita let us borrow her car, and within minutes, we were there. 

Datil seemed to consist of a gas station and convenience store, which the restaurant was attached to. On a big sign outside, in place of the gas prices, the letters were arranged to read, “anyone but Hillary,” and on the other side it said “anyone but Bernie.” The walls were lined with guns, flags, and elk heads. We ordered our beef, and when our food came I ate my cheeseburger in record speed and then felt like I could eat three more. Phil worked on a huge slab of steak. Indeed, it was delicious beef. 

When we arrived back at the house, two mountain bikers had arrived. I’ve recently learned about the existence of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, which goes from the Mexican border all the way up to Banff, Canada. The trail follows a similar route, so we’ve gotten used to seeing lots of mountain bikers along the way. Everyone at the house had seen my violin and convinced me to play for them, so I played fiddle tunes and some Bach. It was so nice to play for people. By this point, I had gotten very tired of carrying the violin, and was even considering sending it home in Pie Town. Playing at the toaster house gave me a new surge of inspiration, and I decided I’d carry the violin a little while longer. 

Then, Nita decided that we needed to have a jam session the following night. Arrangements were made for me and Phil to walk the trail out of town the next day, which was a thirty-mile dirt road walk, and then get picked up and taken back to the toaster house. So, the next day, we walked 28 miles down the perfectly flat, straight dirt road. The first water was 15 miles in, at the home of John and Anzie Thomas. The Thomases were an elderly couple that lived in a huge converted barn. They told us many stories, ranging from the Vietnam War to their marriage (they got married when she was 14 and he was 17). 

Radar, who was also staying at the toaster house, came to get us at 6:30. When we got back to Pie Town, the house was full of people and gigantic slabs of steak were being grilled. Various varieties of whiskey were spread out on the table. It seemed that Nita had invited the entire town, and everyone had brought their instruments. What followed was a wonderful, four-hour jam session. Everyone sang, many played guitar, and I fiddled along. After the monotony of the trail, it was just what I needed. 

One of the mountain bikers at the house that night was a musician (percussionist) doing an awesome project during his journey. He has commissioned thirty composers to write a piece for each time he crosses the Continental Divide during his bike trip, and is making a video about it. We decided to collaborate on an impromptu improv/spoken word piece before we headed back to the trail, during which he PLAYED THE TOASTERS with his mallets and Nita read haikus. Learn more about his project at So cool! 

Pie Town was a magical place. 

nothing wrong with pie and ice cream for breakfast

toaster house crew

dirt road out of town

Days 15-17: Onward to Pie Town! 

June 4-6, 312 miles hiked

We woke early and continued our march down Bursum Road, a dirt forest service road that seemed to stretch on endlessly. It was very hard to find water – many of the wells were dry or broken – but we found a great water source that morning at Flying Y spring, and tanked up for the rest of the day. The road crossed another long, flat plain, we were passed by three pickup trucks, and one gave us cold Gatorade (thanks Forest Service boys!!!). The road climbed until we got to a high point, and from there it became trail again. We hiked along a ridge, the green mountains stretching below us. I listened to Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris, which was hilarious and entertaining. We passed many cows, which all turned to stare at us. We were still in the Gila National Forest, but it was forested, dry, sometimes pastoral, and so different from the river section. Right before dark, we found an old well next to two dilapidated old cabins. There was water in there (the best water we’d seen all day, but that’s not saying much), and Phil had to get into an impressive stretching position to access it. I had decided the cabins were definitely inhabited by ghosts and was too spooked to camp there, so we walked up the road/trail and camped in a meadow. 

The trail was a forest service road the next morning, climbing again through the dry forest. All of a sudden, a herd of at least 15 elk ran by, including five calves. One of the young got separated from the rest of the herd, and they all made this high barking noise until they were reunited. It was so sweet. I didn’t know that elk made that noise!

We got to the next water source in late afternoon, a large solar tank with running water flowing out of a pipe as long as the sun was out. Running water that we don’t have to filter!! We were overjoyed. It didn’t take much to make our day. We luxuriated in the flowing water, taking “showers,” cooking food, and filling our bottles again and again. 

It was 6pm by the time we left the magical well, we still had 40 miles of dirt roads until Pie Town, and we were nearly out of food. The river section had taken longer than expected, so our food was running low and we knew we needed to get to town the next day. We crossed Highway 53 and hiked another three hours, climbing into the next set of green hills and the darkening sky. 

I woke the next morning knowing we had 29 miles and nothing but a little granola, some spoonfuls of peanut butter, and one Snickers bar left. Six miles in, we were at a lookout on top of Mangas Mountain, where we got cell service! The day stretched on, and the miles passed. Pie Town seemed like an eternity away. I took comfort in knowing that time would continue to pass, and as long as we kept walking forward, eventually we’d get there. 

We descended from the sparse, green mountains into a flat basin. I was waiting to eat my Snickers bar until a truly desperate moment, but over time it became the one thing that could keep us going. “Let’s eat it at 6,” I said. “No, how about 7,” said Phil. It seemed that we would keep walking as long as the promise of the Snickers was somewhere in our future. 

With ten miles to go, a pickup with a dog in the back passed us, the first car we’d seen all day. It slowed to a stop, and a weathered-looking man in a cowboy hat greeted us. His name was Sheridan, and he was a local rancher headed to check on his 60 cattle. He pulled two cans of Bud Light from the cooler in the back of his truck (I’m learning that having of a cooler of beer in your truck bed is not uncommon in rural New Mexico), and told us about his cows while we drank beer and pet his dog. It was a wonderful and needed morale-booster, and we left rejuvenated and ready to keep walking. 

We ate the Snickers bar with six miles to go. I listened to an old This American Life podcast episode about a boy who walked across the country, which made me cry a lot. Finally, it was 9:15 and we were one mile from town. We were headed to Nita’s Toaster House, an empty house that Nita, its owner, opened to hikers and bikers passing through. It got its name from the several toasters of various sizes and types that lined the front yard and entryway. 

We walked into the dark house – we had it to ourselves that night. We immediately raided the hiker box, looking for food of any sort. I was tired and hungry, but so relieved to be there. This had been the hardest section yet for me. The dirt roads and lack of redeeming scenery had been a bit demoralizing, but also freeing. And now, we had a day in Pie Town to look forward to: breakfast at the one open cafe, wifi, and relaxing at the toaster house. Soon we would continue north on another flat dirt road, but for now, that didn’t matter.

pretty much the extent of Pie Town

Days 12-14: Back into the Gila

June 1-3, 237 miles hiked 

We made it back to Silver City after a wonderful and very restful weekend on Bainbridge Island celebrating Ness and Emma, spending time with friends, meeting lots of new friends, and EATING. The next morning, we stood on the side of the road hoping to hitch a ride back up to Doc Campbell’s, and were finally picked up by a father and son from Texas who had just finished a backpacking trip (thanks Bruce and Matthew!). It was time to get back on the trail, and we had 125 miles until the next town of Pie Town. 

The first thirty miles or so continued along the Middle Fork of the Gila River. Soon, I was back in the Gila rhythm: find trail, hike a few minutes, cross river, bushwack through brush until we find the trail again, repeat. It was slow hiking, but it was even more beautiful than the previous section of the river. The red cliffs rose from the water dramatically, creating magical swimming holes and vistas at every turn. 

i almost stepped on this guy!

We spent the entire next day hiking through the Gila. It was such slow going that we only hiked about 15 miles, but it was so beautiful, I tried to savor the experience. I knew I’d miss all of it – the constant water, the refreshing feel of crossing the river, the scenery – when we were back to walking on hot, dirt roads in a few days. As the day continued, the cliffs became lower and lower until they changed into hills, pine trees started to appear, and the river became more shallow with each bend. We hiked until dark and camped in a meadow surrounded by frogs. 

The next day, we had only two miles until the end of the river. The river ended at Snow Lake, which was very underwhelming, especially for being the source of such a majestic river. From there, the trail followed dirt roads all the way to Pie Town. The landscape changed dramatically, and we found ourselves hiking through wide open plains towards far off mountains. We stayed on the same dirt road the rest of the day, and would spend much of the next day on it, too. It was hot, and water was scarce. We spent many hours listening to podcasts while we hiked. I felt tired all afternoon and evening, like we had been walking all day but not getting far enough – the miles were not coming easily. We camped in an open area with a big fire ring next to the forest service road, where I imagined the locals having their bonfire parties.