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 Beyoncé, 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.