Planning for the Silk Road

It’s about three weeks until I set out on my overland trip from the Pacific to Uzbekistan along the Silk Road. Here are some common things people ask about my trips:

Isn’t it dangerous?

Short answer: probably not.

Long answer: Despite what American cable news says, the world probably isn’t as dangerous as most think. I’ll keep an eye on the news, but at the moment things look good for the Chinese provinces and former Soviet republics I’ll be visiting. In the past I’ve had to change travel plans because of protesters storming and burning government buildings in Paraguay, floods in Albania, and the like. I’ll adapt if need be, though I don’t think I’ll need to.

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What most Americans think the outside world looks like.

Even the US Department of State travel advisory page says the areas I’ll be visiting are safe. They’re extremely overcautious and I’m not that concerned. Cumulatively I’ve spent years abroad in 45 different countries, and I think I’ll be fine. The most dangerous and violent place I’ve ever been is the United States.

How much will it cost?

Short answer: comparatively not that much.

Long answer: I don’t expect this trip to be that expensive. Hostels should be $8 to $10 a night. Chinese train tickets are pretty reasonably priced ($10 to $15 an hour for high speed lines, $4 an hour and up for slower night trains with a bed). Transportation in the Central Asian republics will be by van and train, and should be cheaper than in China. Local cuisine is about $2 to $3 a meal in China, and I don’t expect my food costs to be high in the Stans.

Typically, visas are a major cost and headache for Silk Road trips. I’ll explore that later in this post, but I expect to spend around $250 on visas. At the end of my journey I’ll likely fly from some capital city in Central Asia back to Shanghai on a Chinese airline. There are many daily flights between the Stans and Shanghai, with connection in northwest China’s Urumqi, running about $300 one way.

How will access your money?

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The merchant can scan a code on your phone to pay with AliPay or WeChat Pay.

Nobody in Han China uses cash anymore, instead opting for AliPay or WeChat Pay. My phone reads my fingerprint, which unlocks a QR code (see photo above). The merchant then scans the code on my phone, and within about two seconds it’s finished. These smartphone apps are pretty useful, also allowing you to buy train tickets and order taxis, and draw funds directly from my Chinese debit card. That card is linked to my account at the China Construction Bank, which has offices and ATMs all over the country. If I need cash I should be able to withdraw yuan at their ATMs as I go without cost. I don’t know if electronic payment systems will be common in the non-Han areas of Tibet and Xinjiang province (I suspect not, since they require some knowledge of how to read Chinese).

Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan all have their own currency. In these places I’ll use my Charles Schwab debit card, which has zero foreign conversion costs and refunds all ATM fees at the end of the month. This card refunded me about $750 in ATM fees in South America. I expect the Stans to be cash-based economies, and that I’ll be using my card to withdraw cash a lot in the former Soviet Union.

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Cash exchange listing in Transnistria.

Back in the Balkans, where you drive two hours and enter a new country with a totally different currency, faith in the local money was pretty low and so were conversion costs for cash. Changing from local currency to the more stable euro was commonplace, and there was a lot of competition for these services. You’d typically lose around 1% of the value of the cash to convert something like Serbian dinar or Albanian lek to euros, which could be used to pay hostel bills in every country (accommodation was always priced in euros, but hostels would let you pay in local currency at good rates too). Those euros could also be used to buy local funny money in the next country at good rates (definitely NOT the case in the more advanced economies of Western Europe). Substitute the US dollar for euros, and from what I’ve heard it should be very similar in the Stans.

Visas

Central Asia traditionally hasn’t been the easiest place to visit. Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Stans maintained restrictive entrance and travel policies for foreigners. Although it can still be a bureaucratic nightmare, it’s become much easier over the past two years to do this trip.

China

Usually a pain in the ass. But I have a multiple entry work visa valid through January of 2019, so I shouldn’t have issues.

Kazakhstan

No visa needed.

Kyrgyzstan

No visa needed.

Tajikistan

I’ll have to apply for an eVisa online, which basically entails paying $50 and uploading a scan of my passport’s bio information page. It should take around three days to get the eVisa.

Uzbekistan

Supposedly Uzbekistan is launching an eVisa program similar to Tajikistan starting July 1st, but I’ll believe it when I see it. If I make a reservation and get a letter of invitation from a hostel in Uzbekistan, then I should be able to get a visa within a few hours from the embassy in Almaty, Kazakhstan or Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. The visa fee for American citizens is $160.

Language

I speak conversational Chinese, which should serve me well until I leave Urumqi in the northwestern Xinjiang province. Urumqi has a large Han population, but outside of this provincial capital people likely won’t speak Chinese or English. Instead, it’ll be a language related to Turkish. They’ll speak Turkic languages in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan, while Tajikistan speaks a relative of Persian. Russian is likely the main lingua franca of this region, owing to the days of the Soviet Union, but maybe the younger generation will speak some English? I can read Cyrillic and should be fine.

Quemoy, Taiwan

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Hangzhou East Railway Station, the main hub for high speed trains in the city. Most of the modern train stations in China are built on variations of this theme. The second floor is filled with various restaurants and coffee shops, below which are seats and newspaper stands for passengers waiting to board. Ten minutes before departure passengers descend below to the train.

Train is definitely the way to travel China. The stations and carriages are clean, tickets are reasonably priced, and with speeds of up to 220mph/350kph you can quickly reach almost any Han city (infrastructure outside of ethnic Chinese areas is noticeably subpar).

If you speak, read, and write Chinese then buying tickets is pretty simple. Even if you don’t, there’s a smartphone app called Ctrip that lets you look at schedules and purchase tickets for a $3 fee. I purchase my tickets without booking fees in Chinese on WeChat Pay or Alipay, the latter being the ubiquitous smartphone payment app run by the eponymous Alibaba tech giant.

A leftover from the days of tight travel restrictions, which have largely been lifted outside of Tibet, tickets can only be printed at a Chinese rail station after presentation of a passport. The self-printing kiosks can only be used in conjunction with a Chinese ID card. In the larger cities there’s usually a booth in the ticket halls where a clerk speaks at least some English. Just be prepared to shove out of the way any elderly patron who tries to cut in line (locals will help you do this, and it’s a great way to learn Maoist-era calls for behavior reform).

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This was a lovely place to wander around at night whilst searching for my hotel. In reality, I’ve never once felt unsafe in China. I’ve never heard of anybody here getting mugged or robbed.

The journey by high speed train from Hangzhou to Xiamen, down south in Fujian province, takes a little less than six hours and cost 389 yuan ($61). I arrived around 8pm and immediately ordered a taxi on my phone to take me to my hotel. Uber lost the ride hailing battle to Didi, the local competitor, and you can use the popular WeChat messaging app to order and pay for rides (I prefer to use Alipay, but for whatever reason it says I don’t have enough “social status points” so I use WeChat; I use Alipay for everything else, like ordering delivery). It cost less than $2 for the 10 minute taxi to my hotel. Taxis in China are cheap.

The driver dropped me off in some back alley, which our maps said was the location of my hotel. “This can’t be it,” I thought to myself, so I wandered around a bit trying to find it. There were 15 hotels all right next to each other, and I finally walked in and asked a clerk for directions.

Chinese people all see me and immediately think, “WE MUST HELP THIS POOR, DEFENSELESS FOREIGNER OR HE WILL DIE.” He told me to sit down, gave me a Coke (coca cola, I’m not in South America anymore), and called my hotel to have someone walk me over. Turns it out I had reserved a room at the exact hotel in the alley I thought for sure couldn’t be it.

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This is what $15.50 a night gets you in a back alley near the Xiamen North Railway Station. There’s a private bathroom not in the photo.

Rather than brave public transit, I took a taxi straight to Xiamen’s Wutong Wharf. The 30 minute ride cost only 66 yuan ($10.45) and was definitely worth it.

Ferries depart every 30 to 60 minutes from Wutong Wharf to Jinmen Island, just a mile from China. Jinmen, formerly Quemoy, rose to fame in the post-WWII and Cold War era. In 1949, Republican forces under Chiang Kai-Shek evacuated to the island of Taiwan but opted to keep forces on Jinmen and Matsu islands. The People’s Republic of China, which controlled the mainland, knew that to launch an invasion of Taiwan they first needed to control these islands. Because of miscalculations and errors, Mao Zedong failed to take these strategically located sites and thus was unable to conquer Taiwan. Through the Cross-Strait Crises of the 1950s China shelled Jinmen, which is only a mile away from its coast (and about 100 miles from Taiwan). In the 1960 presidential election, JFK and Nixon sparred over who would be tougher on China and the prospect of a nuclear confrontation over Jinmen was raised.

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On Jinmen Island you can still see the barricades to protect against a Chinese invasion en route to Taiwan.

Tickets from Xiamen, China to Jinmen (controlled by the Republic of China, AKA Taiwan) cost 140 yuan ($22). Within 5 minutes of entering Wutong Wharf I’d purchased tickets on the next boat and had cleared the minimal security check. Although China fervently claims Taiwan, the reality is that Jinmen is not controlled by China. So I went through Chinese immigration control, which was very easy. It took about a minute of digital facial scanning, verifying the validity of my passport, and confirming the authenticity of my visa to get permission to leave the country and an exit stamp.

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A map of Taiwan with the outer islands, including Kinmen (also called Jinmen or Quemoy) by China’s Fujian province. Control of Kinmen helps regulate access to Taiwan and the South China Sea, so it’s strategically very important.

After an uneventful 25 minute boat ride I arrived at Shuitou Port. After leaving China it was a little strange to see large signs proclaiming WELCOME TO CHINA. Taiwanese immigration consisted of filling out a short customs form, and about 30 seconds later the immigration official had stamped my passport…right next to my Chinese work visa (coincidence?). Americans don’t need a visa to enter Taiwan, so it’s really easy.

There’s no ATM that accepts foreign cards at the port on the Taiwanese side, but I had some Chinese yuan with me and was able to convert into Taiwanese yuan. The Chinese and Taiwanese 100 yuan notes look almost exactly the same, and I thought I was going to cause World War III when I accidentally handed a clerk in Taiwan a banknote from across the Strait.

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A pagoda near Jincheng, the largest city on Jinmen Island.

“You’re 27 and still not married?!” a local asked me in a thick Min accent and incredulous tone as we both waited for the bus to Jincheng, the island’s capital “city.” There are backpackers that wear a wedding ring when traveling through these kinds of places to stop all the interrogations about why aren’t you married and would you like to meet my daughter she’d love to move to the United States here’s her phone number. Women get asked that way more often than men, though. It’s also more of a conversation to be had on Chinese sleeper trains, where the best and worst part of the experience is sharing a compartment with an elderly woman from a small town that is your new best friend and wants to know absolutely everything about your life from the time you were born until the present day.

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My first duty was to get lunch at this dumpling joint. Seafood and curry dumplings are really good, especially with hot and sour soup and black iced tea with red bean jelly. Lunch cost about $3, a typical amount there.

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In Taiwan you usually just write down what you want to order on a form like this, and hand it to a worker when you’re done. Taiwan uses traditional characters, while I learned simplified characters as used in China, but I was able to piece enough together to order what I wanted. One US dollar is about equal to 30 Taiwanese yuan. 

Accommodation in Taiwan is a lot more expensive than in China, so I stayed in a hostel in a village a few miles outside of the capital town. Jinmen Island is mostly rural farms and jungle, just above the Tropic of Cancer and about the same latitude as Cuba, and it was a nice change of pace to stay in a village rather than my usual Chinese megalopolis. I did notice a high proportion of locals missing an eye, arm, or leg, and wonder if the shelling from China decades ago had something to do with it.

“Why would an American come to an obscure village on an obscure island in Taiwan?” the hostel worker, a Taipei native doing seasonal work to get away from the big city, asked me. This is a pretty out of the way place to visit, but after two and a half months in some of the world’s largest cities it was nice to visit a tropical island of sparsely populated villages. Plus, China is pretty dystopic and I needed a break.

Connecting to the hostel wifi was an experience. Lo and behold, I was able to access Whatsapp, Google, Facebook, and Youtube! Much of the internet is blocked or tightly regulated in China, though I can access restricted content at low speeds with use of a virtual private network (VPN). Taiwan doesn’t have those restrictions, and it was a little weird to see people openly using things like Instagram and Facebook (both of which were blocked by the Politburo in China).

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Almost all the hostel backpackers were from Taipei. One was a professional photographer, and he helped me use slow shutter speeds and the light on smartphones to make this. My 27th birthday was the day after I left Taiwan. The Chinese city of Xiamen, just one mile away, is visible in the background skylights.

They speak Mandarin in Taiwan, though the Jinmen locals speak a dialect called Min. I had no trouble conversing in Mandarin on the island, and the Taiwanese backpackers convinced me, another American, and a Czech woman to take seven shots of 58% alcohol liquor. I don’t know if it made my Mandarin better, but it was a really fun night and I talked for a couple hours with the Taiwanese. We were all in our mid-20s, which was nice.

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The Taiwanese flag in the heart of bustling, industrial downtown Jincheng, the tiny capital of Jinmen Island.

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A wind lion god statue, of which Jinmen Island has many.

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A temple (which doubles as a fortress with cannons) outside of Jincheng city.

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I took this angsty selfie after getting sunburned (forgot I was in the tropics and should have put on more sunscreen, though my burn wasn’t bad at all) and spending 8 hours with a guy from the hostel who drove me and this Czech woman around the island. It was great seeing the island from a car, since the public transit isn’t that great, but he left us for a few hours by a beach. We hitched a ride to the closest town, where we ate ice cream until he came and found us. Then he took us to this lookout.

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There are sealed bunkers and tunnels throughout the island, and we found an open door where you could enter and walk around. The Chinese were never able to conquer the island.

Recently, China and Taiwan have made it easier for people and trade to cross the Strait between the two countries. There are some hassles for locals because both countries make a show of refusing to recognize the other’s passport, but for foreigners it’s quite easy to enter and leave each as long as you have a Chinese visa. Taiwan doesn’t require a visa for most Westerners. Jinmen is a very popular way for people to go from China to Taiwan or vice versa, and I heard you can buy air tickets from Taipei to Jinmen or back for $50 to $60 on the day of travel. Then it’s $22 each way by boat to China.

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By coincidence, another American I’d met and liked a lot from the hostel in Buenos Aires back in December 2016 happened to be in Xiamen at the same time as I was. She’s doing a trip through China’s Yunnan, Sichuan, and southeastern provinces. She’s half Chinese, and spent a couple years teaching in Taipei. People overheard us speaking English in a park outside of Xiamen University and made a show of coming up and asking us questions. One such example was this group of school kids, whose teachers wanted them to take a class photo with me. They completely ignored my American half-Chinese friend, who said she’s used to this treatment when she’s out with white friends in China and Taiwan.

Roaming Canton

I’m still not really sure what Chinese people actually do for the Tomb Sweeping Festival. Presumably at least some go sweep the tombs of the deceased, but so few Chinese actually live in their 家乡/jiaxiang (ancestral home) anymore.

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A newspaper headline detailing the tariff war with America.

It was completely my fault that I only belatedly discovered I’d have four and a half days off work for the holiday weekend. I’d misread the emails from the English Department, erroneously thinking I’d have to make up classes on the Sunday immediately after Thursday’s national holiday. It wasn’t until the Foreign Studies Department field trip I attended a few days prior that I heard from colleagues the Sunday makeup day was for Friday’s classes, not Thursday’s…and I don’t have classes on Friday = Connor can travel!

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My Airbnb host and me eating legit dim sum in Guangzhou. I’d mentioned that I really wanted to go try it, and he and his girlfriend were trying to decide what to do for lunch so we just went together. It was awesome, probably one of the coolest dining experiences I’ve had.

Finding train tickets last minute for a Chinese long weekend is not an experience I’d recommend to others. Most everything was unavailable, and my original plan to spend a few days on the island city of Xiamen (formerly the British colony of Amoy) in the southeastern Fujian province consistently ended in “ALL TICKETS SOLD OUT” error messages. Tickets to Hubei province to see the Three Gorges Dam were gone. Sichuan province, home of spicy food, wasn’t going to work out either. But finally…I scored a bed on one of the numerous daily departures from Shanghai to Guangzhou, conveniently stopping in my Hangzhou along the way.

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For dim sum you mark out what you want to order off a big paper menu, though in some places you just pick things off carts doing rounds through the restaurant. I told the Airbnb host’s girlfriend that I’d be willing to eat anything. “That’s a dangerous thing to say in Guangzhou!” she replied. There’s a saying that the Cantonese will eat anything with four legs that’s not a table, anything that flies that’s not an airplane, and anything that swims that’s not a submarine.

Guangzhou has a reputation for being a gritty, industrial (read:polluted beyond belief) city in the far south between Hong Kong and Vietnam. It’s not typically on a tourist’s itinerary, but I was desperate not to spend the holiday weekend staring at the walls of my apartment.

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Trying fried chicken feet, with bones and everything still inside.

The Chinese use their phones for absolutely everything imaginable, plus more. The popular messaging app WeChat also doubles as a sales point for the Middle Kingdom’s vast rail network. The one caveat of Chinese train travel is that tickets must be printed in person at the station, which entails queues of anywhere from 30 seconds to 30 minutes. I was lucky in that I’d remembered to bring a book and only had to wait for about 15 minutes. An older man behind me with his friend would verbally attack in a thick unidentifiable accent any and all who dared try to cut in line. 每一样,每一样,都需要排队买票阿!Everyone is equal, line up for your ticket just like everyone else!

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Another dim sum photo. One of the big reasons I came to Guangzhou was to eat tons of delicious food. It was a success.

My passport is at the police station being processed for my residence permit, but I’d been given temporary ID papers and travel authorization which got me my tickets without problem. Chinese train stations in major cities are sterile, incomprehensibly massive feats of engineering that lack the charm and character of Europe’s old rail ports, but they efficiently link the vast country’s Han-inhabited areas.

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Clear skies along one of Guangzhou’s numerous waterways.

My bed was already made when I boarded in Hangzhou, a bottom bunk in a four berth compartment. The ten hour ride, covering a roughly equivalent distance as New York to Chicago, wasn’t the fastest train available but was quite comfortable. I woke up as we passed the Hong Kong border in Shenzhen, pulling into Guangzhou South Station exactly on time.

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A couple walking across the bridge to Shamian Island to take wedding photos, with the Guangzhou skyline in the background.

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Green, leafy Shamian Island was where the Europeans used to live during colonial times. Today it’s home to pleasant walks and the American consulate.

As a city of 12 million, Guangzhou has an efficient metro system with announcements in Mandarin, Cantonese, and English. Cantonese is a dialect separate from Mandarin, but I had no trouble communicating with most people in the latter. Canton comes from the Portuguese transliteration of the Chinese name for Guangdong, a province of 109 million of which Guangzhou is the capital.

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I took the metro to the south side of the city, then hopped on the number 30 bus to an old Cantonese imperial garden. This is the bus stop outside the subway station.

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I was the only foreigner at the imperial gardens, which were very pleasant with an extensive bonsai tree collection. Oftentimes Chinese tourists want to take a photo with me, and my requirement is that they send me a copy.

I loaded $20 onto a public transit card, which let me board all trains and buses within the city. Since I can read Chinese and enjoy looking out the window at the city, I usually opt for buses when possible.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to try absolutely everything that I wanted to eat in Guangzhou. But I tried a ton of new foods and didn’t get sick once, the latter being a big success in a place like China.

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At this stall, which was constantly crowded, you pick out what grilled meats and vegetables you want. They put it in a bucket and cover it in a spicy sauce.

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A woman pours rice milk pudding, a popular Cantonese dessert, into a bowl for a customer holding out her white payment slip. 

Cantonese desserts and pastry shops are popular across China, but in their hometown of Guangzhou they were truly amazing.

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Enjoying rice milk pudding in a typical Cantonese dessert cafe.

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A chunk of grilled squid tentacle.

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Inside a Chinese traditional medicine shopping mall. I later saw dried seahorses in a jar.

One Month in the People’s Republic

Maybe my tolerance for the bizarre has some serious calibration issues, but after a month my life in the People’s Republic of China seems pretty routine. And I really like it here.

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Walking along the Bund in downtown Shanghai.

The 15 hour flight from Chicago to Shanghai wasn’t nearly as bad as I’d dreaded. Having stocked my Kindle with plenty of books to keep me occupied, including the newly published Lonely Planet Guide to China, saved my sanity (though I did start to kind of lose it after the 10 hour mark).

Chinese immigration procedures were straightforward and painless, leaving me with my checked suitcase at the Shanghai Pudong Airport train station about 40 minutes after disembarking from the plane. The maglev from the airport to downtown is the fastest commercial train in the world at 270mph (high speed trains generally go about 185mph) and dropped me off at a Shanghai metro station, which I used to travel to my Airbnb.

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Downtown Hangzhou. I live in a quiet suburb about a 40 minute subway ride from where I took this photo.

The subways in Shanghai and Hangzhou, my current home, aren’t as crowded or chaotic at rush hour as the equivalent peak times on the Metro de Madrid. Aggressively jostling each day for space on trains and buses operated by the Consorcio Regional de Transportes de Madrid prepared me well for navigating Chinese public transit systems, which are ultra modern and efficient.

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There are a lot of restaurants where you just pick from a wide variety of noodles, meats, and vegetables and the cooks turn it into a soup. Or, at some Sichuanese restaurants, you can add insane amounts of spice so that your tear ducts get cleared out. I have a pretty high tolerance for spicy food, but at Sichuanese restaurants it can be a little rough. 

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Crispy roast duck, soy rice, cooked bok choy, eggs, tomatoes, and soup. This is from a super popular hole in the wall place across the street from my university, and the not-too-approachable middle aged woman who runs it serves the best food I’ve had in China. Like in most restaurants in China, meals run from $1.50 to $3. Cooking for one’s self isn’t as common in China as in other places.

I gave myself a full day in Shanghai to get adjusted to China and the new time zone, literally on the other side of the world from Ohio, as well as print my train ticket at the station. My job is in Hangzhou, an hour’s bullet train ride from Shanghai Hongqiao, the largest train station in Asia. The building is almost incomprehensibly massive. There’s a train leaving about every 45 seconds with 14,000 passengers boarding or disembarking every hour.

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There must be thousands of different passport photos of me in various Chinese government records by this point. Every little part of applying for my residency permit, which will let me enter and leave China without a visa, requires a passport sized photo.

Getting from Shanghai to Hangzhou is pretty easy, a $12 train ticket with departures every five minutes, but in China you can only print your ticket at the station. This took about 30 seconds, I just told the attendant in Mandarin what I wanted and gave her my ticket number with passport. I’d previously bought the ticket online before leaving the US.

At Hangzhou East Station the university had a man with my name on a piece of paper waiting for me. It wasn’t hard to pick me out of the crowd, and the man drove me to my highrise in the suburb of Xiasha. I checked into my apartment, a comparatively spacious studio with shared kitchen and washing machines down the hall, and walked down the street to get a Chinese phone plan.

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An interesting ad for donkey meat sandwiches I saw recently. Some of the English translations are pretty bizarre around here.

“Don’t pay attention to those prices, nobody actually pays that,” the attendant at the store told me when she caught me reading the list of prices for phone service. “It’s 18 yuan (~$3) a month for 6GB of data for use inside the province, and then $1.50 for 500MB if you leave to go to Shanghai or some other province.”

“I don’t know my address,” I told her during the registration process.

“No problem, I’ll give you one,” she replied. And within 10 minutes I’d loaded money onto my account and was connected to the China Unicom network.

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Eating lunch on a school trip.

A professor from the College of International Studies picked me up to show me around and help me set up an account at the Construction Bank of China, a national bank with ATMs all over the country.

I teach five English conversation classes that are 90 minutes each, and so far I’ve been pleasantly surprised at my students’ English ability. They’re around 20 years old, all freshmen or sophomores, and some have near-native levels of fluency.

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There’s a great bike share program in Hangzhou. You scan a code on the bike using your phone, which unlocks the bike. You can pick up and drop off the bikes almost anywhere, and it’s about 16 cents a ride.

My first week I made all the students give a four minute introduction in English, which I’d interrupt with follow up questions to gauge their English level and better help me plan the class. Most of the intros were predictably banal, though there were some notable exceptions. One went on a long diatribe on a Japanese mystery novel she read over break about a police officer who rapes his son’s girlfriend and then is tasked with protecting her from the mob in some kind of witness protection program. I just stared dumbfounded that she’d go into such graphic detail about this on the first day of class. Admittedly, I did have to tell the students that the oft repeated phrase “Over winter break I enjoyed a decadent lifestyle” is not something one would typically hear in English.

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I saw this woman on the Hangzhou subway. I liked that the pentagrams had little colored pom poms on them.

One student stayed after class to tell me I had the facial bone structure of a movie star and that she thought I was beautiful. The list of movie stars I’ve been told I resemble is growing increasingly long and bizarre, though locals have admitted to me they have trouble distinguishing between white people. The most common one I’ve got so far is “that guy from 50 Shades of Gray,” which I’m convinced is because apparently the lead actor has a beard. Chinese people don’t have beards, and I’ve been asked a few times if it’s sharp enough to cut skin. I’d be surprised if that movie survived the censors, though I admittedly know very little about it.

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Soy braised beef noodle soup from a Hui restaurant by my apartment. The Hui are a Muslim minority, and this is one of my favorite restaurants in Hangzhou.

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Went on a hiking trip to a national forest in Zhejiang province (my province) with the International Studies Department.

Being behind the Great Firewall of China has its advantages. It’s kind of nice not hearing about the news each day, which is tightly controlled and determined beforehand by the Party. Politics and 20th century history is something that’s never talked about, but there are some pretty creative ways of talking about something without actually mentioning it.

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Also went on a boat ride on that aforementioned trip.

CDT New Mexico: Mt. Taylor to Pie Town

When I wake up the next morning, I unzip my tent to find Surprise staring daggers at me. When I lose his attention, he switches his stare to look lovingly at Murphy. The other three cowboy camped last night, but with the creepy old doctor staring murder at me coupled with all the tarantulas in the desert I thought it best to just sleep in my tent. With my box cutter next to me.

Deciding to GTFO, I quickly pack up my things and leave. It’s cold, and I’m wearing all my layers hoping to just book it to town. Last night I mentioned to Murphy and Stomper that I was running low on food, having planned on doing more miles each day than our current pace. They gifted me a bag of jalapeno cheddar pretzels and an oatmeal bar, but my food bag was still too light. Time to get to Grants.

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Looking back on the trail towards Mt. Taylor. I’m not really sure how you could get lost heading there, considering it’s a pretty obvious mountain (maybe not in the lighting when I took this photo), but Surprise somehow managed not to make it.

The CDT crosses Interstate 40 at Grants, just west of Albuquerque. There’s a steep drop before joining a highway to town, and ibuprofen is the only thing getting my knees down there and making a beeline to get a pizza.

Men are trash, a grandmother I hiked with earlier on the CDT texts me when I tell her about all the crazy drama with Surprise. Not you and Stomper, of course. Just most men.

Murphy texts me when it’s safe to head to our motel without a surprise from Surprise.

He said he’s going to head to Albuquerque and catch a flight home to work things out with his wife, she wrote to me on her phone. Surprise had been following her constantly, so we couldn’t talk without him overhearing her side of it. If he just leaves we can avoid a lot of drama.

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There was a road walk by a prison into the interstate town of Grants.

“They had a three bed room!” Stomper says excitedly when I knock on the door to room 12. I drop off my pack in the corner, claim the bed closest to the heater, and get caught up to date.

“We told him the three of us were going to split a room, and that he was to be by himself,” Murphy said. “He said that was fine, and that he wanted a goodbye dinner.” They’d gone next door to a local New Mexico burger chain and had a meal while I ate an entire large pizza, sitting on the sidewalk outside the Pizza Hut and looking thoroughly homeless.

Murphy’s phone buzzes, and she lets out a groan of frustration when she reads the message. “Apparently that wasn’t our goodbye dinner.”

I’m not Surprise’s favorite by any means, and thus thankfully unwelcome at his goodbye dinner. Murphy and Stomper reason that if they never have to see him again it’s worth it, and they pass an awkward hour at a Mexican restaurant while Surprise mainly ignores Stomper to focus on Murphy, his unrequited darling. I enjoy my first shower in days, and feel like I definitely got the better outcome.

Miss you guys already! Surprise texts Murphy the next morning. We just get busy doing our town chores, and since Grants is so spread out it’ll take most of the day to do laundry, buy food, and head to the post office.

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Satisfied my pumpkin spice latte addiction at McDonald’s, where some random guy argued with me about what towns the CDT visits and where the trail goes. Most people assume I have no idea what I’m doing.

Throughout this time Surprise keeps texting Murphy about how I’m an immature asshole (to be fair, he said I was a “hassle without the h”), and that I have no respect for my elders. This seems to upset Murphy much more than me, and I wear his assessments of me like a badge of pride. He then rants about how he’s making so many sacrifices by hiking on without us so as not to cause drama. Apparently his plan to go back to North Carolina and repair things with his life didn’t last long.

Stomper, Murphy, and I stand by the side of the highway with our thumbs out, really not wanting to walk the mile and a half to the post office. Within minutes a woman pulls over, telling us to pile on in.

“I run the bus system in Grants. No buses today, but hikers are always welcome when they’re running!” she tells us.

On this trail more than most, we have to mail ourselves packages of food and order various pieces of gear from online. Some of the towns we pass through don’t have any grocery stores, such as the upcoming Pie Town (I’m really interested in finding out what a place like Pie Town is like). The CDT Handbook, published by a woman named Yogi, has all the addresses of where we have to mail our things. These places are used to hikers and, in my experience, it’s almost always gone smoothly.

“Oh, hey there!” Surprise calls to me a few minutes after we enter the post office.

“Uh, hi,” I say, trying to act busy with arranging my maps into various envelopes to mail off to later towns.

“I’ve been really enjoying my solitude,” he cheerily tells me in direct contradiction to the texts he’s constantly sending Murphy, whining to her about how lonely he is.

“That’s nice,” I respond, heading off to find Murphy. She’s waiting in line to mail a package.

“He’s here,” I whisper to her, watching him read our ETAs on our supply packages. Probably so he can know when we’ll be in each town and can duly stalk us some more.

“I know, I’m just pretending not to,” she replies.

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My aunt sent me a box of cookies to general delivery at Grants, and I used taking this photo as an excuse to not have to deal with Surprise.

The walk back to the motel passes in a 20 minute awkward silence. I’m walking side by side with Murphy so Surprise can’t prey on her as easily. I turn back and involuntarily scream, not realizing he was so close behind us and almost literally breathing down her neck.

“Just didn’t realize you were, uh, so close,” I say.

At the motel Stomper goes off to buy a cherry coke while I search through my pack for our room key.

“He’s coming!” Murphy says. Surprise is indeed making his way over to us after having left to, we naively though, go back to his own room and leave us be. I’m tossing all my clothes and bags of food onto the sidewalk in front of our room.

“I’m looking for it!” I finally find the key and open the door. Murphy zooms in and I pick up my items wholesale, throwing them into the room.

“I got you guys some presents!” Surprise says. “I don’t know you well enough to get you anything, though. I hope you don’t mind.”

“Nah, it’s cool,” I say quickly as I slam and lock the door in his face.

“The candy is right here,” he says through the door.

“I know!” I say, leaving it out there.

Let me know when you guys order pizza so I can get in on it, Surprise texts Murphy. He’d overheard our dinner plans. Turns out the goodbye dinner, and his promises to hike on without us and give us some space, didn’t really mean anything.

So we have Stomper go over to Surprise’s room and tell him to fuck off. He returns 45 minutes later, saying Surprise is obsessed with his hatred of me and that he finally gets the message.

We opt to take a second day in town to recover from the previous day’s drama, and to give Surprise time to head off. We purposefully never told him when we were leaving Grants.

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Stomper crossing the bridge heading south from Grants.

“Surprise woke us up this morning knocking on our door asking when we were going to head out,” another CDT hiker tells us. Surprise can’t seem to function unless he’s following someone, but we’re just glad it’s not us for the time being.

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There was a train going under the bridge while we crossed.

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Spent a couple days in the Malpais National Monument, crossing lava fields with crevasses. We kept thinking we’d find Surprise waiting for us behind every corner, but we never saw him.

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Had a bit of a highway walk after the Malpais.

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L to R: Stomper, me, Baby, Luna, Dingo.

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Dingo and Murphy heading off on a dirt road towards Pie Town in the afternoon. We ran into Dingo, Baby, and the latter’s dog Luna on the road walk. The six of us camped a little over a day’s walk out of Pie Town in a farmer’s field to the left of the road. No cars came by to bother us.

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Dinner break by the road.

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Nighttime photo of Murphy and me laying out our sleeping bags under a tree in the forest. There were tons of NO TRESPASSING signs so we found a section of woods that wasn’t fenced off, walked off into it, and decided to not set up our tents so as to make it harder to see us. There were mountain lions in the area, and I agreed to cowboy camp only if we were all uncomfortably close together. Murphy and Stomper were fine with that. Dingo, Baby, and Luna kept on hiking to make it to Pie Town that night.

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The Thomases are a couple in their 90s north of Pie Town who let hikers use the spigot in their front yard, and also welcome us to camp on their property. They provide an important water source on a dry section, and are super friendly. We spent a couple hours in their house chatting with them. I think they’re pretty lonely and enjoy hosting hikers. 

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Took a selfie with a dead coyote on the way into Pie Town.

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Pie in Pie Town! 

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L to R: Baby, Dingo, me, Stomper, and Murphy enjoying pie at the Pie-O-Neer Cafe in Pie Town. They only serve pie. Pie Town was an interesting place. No grocery store, so you have to mail yourself a box of food to the post office (which is open until noon). I’d heard the guy who runs the post office was unstable and habitually threatened people, but he was friendly to us.

CDT New Mexico: Crazy Surprise in the Woods

“Can I come with you back to the laundromat?” Surprise asked me. I was sitting in the McDonald’s in the single street town of Cuba wearing my raincoat, rainpants and nothing else. My clothes were going through some much needed cleaning at the laundromat.

“Okay, but I have to use the bathroom first,” I said. He seemed to take this extremely personally, and without a word stormed back towards the laundromat. What is your problem?! I wondered for the hundredth time.

Upon my arrival at the laundromat he was already there, folding his now dried clothes.

“I’m sorry for yelling at you guys in the woods last night,” he said.

“Cool,” I replied, emptying out my clean clothes into my bag. I hold my socks up to my nose and inhale the wonderful Tide scent. On trail I love laundry, it’s such a luxury.

“By the way, I need a dollar for the detergent I gave you,” he added, which is a little strange. I hand him the dollar bill so he’ll shut up, and head back to my room at the motel across the street.

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Definitely looks different from Ohio.

Two meals at McDonald’s later, the four of us set off on the highway walk out of town. Along the way I stop at the post office to pick up my fourth and final pair of shoes, having ordered them through my dad’s Amazon Prime account (if you tell Amazon to deliver to PO Box General Delivery, you can just go to the post office with photo ID and pick up your package). No need to break in the shoes, and my feet feel pretty great considering I’ve walked over 2000 miles. There’s a perpetual sore spot on my left foot near my small toe, but in the grand scheme of foot problems I’m pretty lucky.

There’s not much traffic on the two hour pavement walk, which is a blessing considering I drank an entire liter of Gatorade immediately before leaving town and stop to pee every few minutes. Some hikers say walking on asphalt destroys their feet and knees, but I haven’t had issues with it. I do hate highway walks, the monotony of pavement slowly sapping what little sanity I have left. But I stocked up my phone with podcasts when I had wifi in town, and it’s a beautiful, sunny day in New Mexico.

We turn left off the highway onto a dirt road, continuing the 3 mph march towards Mexico. The wind is a steady constant, but not strong enough to be too much of a nuisance. My pack feels heavy, grating against my shoulders with almost a gallon of water and enough food to last me four days, so it’s a blessed relief when we stop in the shelter of low-hanging desert trees to take a snack break.

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The dirt road coming off the highway south of Cuba.

After half an hour of chatting and trying to ignore our discomfort that Surprise is still following us, the persistent cold gets me packed up and moving. It’s a gradual climb up to a mesa, with views of the desert valley floor spreading to the east and west. I doubt anybody comes out here except for CDT hikers, and I relax knowing that I’m getting farther from civilization with each sand-crunching step.

With the sun lowering earlier and earlier each day, and the rush to beat winter largely over, our daily mileage has taken a hit. Each campsite is our home for 12 hours now, and nearing the end of the mesa we walk off into the trees to find some sturdy sand that’ll be good for four tents. Descending steeply in the dark is no fun, and we decide on an early finish for our out-of-town day.

The zipper on my tent no longer fastens the teeth together, which I find out that night to my incredible frustration. Images of snakes, scorpions, and tarantulas crawling into my tent while I’m asleep and running all over my face make me paranoid.

I hate this I hate everything why am I even out here I’m so tired, I think to myself, finding my mind going once again into a negative feedback loop. I take a drink of water, knowing that 90% of the time when I get frustrated out here I’m dehydrated. My hands reach out to tap the sides of my shelter while I’m lying in my down sleeping bag. Everything else is still holding up considerably well. When I get to Grants, the next town, I’ll just wash the dirt out of the zipper and re-tighten the ends with pliers…which has worked for me in the past. And worst case scenario I can just buy some velcro.

I must’ve fallen asleep while thinking about how to repair my tent, because next thing I know it’s five in the morning and I have to use the bathroom.

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A view of the mesa from the side.

I’m usually the first one packed up and on the trail each morning, and today followed suit.

“I’ll wait for you and Stomper at the water source,” I tell Murphy, who’s in the process of packing up and leaving the warm confines of her tent. She nods, wishes me well, and I head off.

Mornings are my favorite time of the day on trail. I loved getting up half an hour before dawn to make extra miles back with Sonic in Colorado, where the dominoes of early winter storms chased us south.

The path isn’t particularly obvious, but having spent almost four months on this trail my eyes know what to look for. And, if all else fails, I have the Guthook CDT app that uses my phone’s GPS to always let me know where I am even if I don’t have service.

20 minutes after my arrival Stomper, Murphy, and Surprise show up at the first water source of the day. Out here it’s easiest to divide up the sections into stretches between water: 20 miles to the cow trough, 22 more miles to a spring which is a fifteen minute walk off trail, etc.

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Not exactly a crowded trail.

Water sources on the CDT can be pretty hit or miss (usually miss). Our navigation app has a comments section for water sources, which is pretty important to read since most water sources are dry at various parts of the year. I saw a cow taking a shit in the pond while it was drinking from it, I read once in southern Wyoming. Excellent vintage. Bear Creek has the perfect blend of pine, nutmeg, and spearmint with a delicious mineral aftertaste, and variations on that theme were also pretty common from one northbounder.

 

My biggest fear out here is to arrive at a water source I’d been counting on, only to find that it’s dry and the next one is 20 miles away. Unfortunately, a lot of the southbounders ahead of us haven’t been updating the water report on the Guthook app.

“So, the next water source in eight miles hasn’t been updated for six weeks,” was a commonly heard as we tried to figure out how many liters to filter for the next leg. Usually we’d have to carry extra water to be sure of arriving at a wet source.

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They did not like sharing their water with me. I can’t believe I actually drank that crap.

At one particularly memorable water point we found a herd of cows near the tank. Murphy has a video of me trying without success to scare away the cows, who just looked at me with annoyance.

I get the general impression that Murphy and Stomper are tolerating Surprise, whom I try to avoid and don’t respond to his attempts at conversation. It’s so obvious from his creepy ogling of her that all he cares about is Murphy, who is almost 20 years younger than him. Stomper and I are just unpleasant extras.

“Why do you hike?” Surprise asks me, interrupting my conversation with Murphy and Stomper.

“Because it’s rewarding,” I say without emotion, continuing the chat with the other two without much of a delay.

“Why is it rewarding?” he pesters. Why are you trying this? We’ve made it pretty obvious that we don’t like you and you’re not welcome without explicitly saying so. We’re not going to be friends.

“I don’t know,” I reply, again going back to the original conversation from which we’d excluded him. He let out a frustrated groan and started packing up his things, and stood staring at Murphy until she, too, was ready to leave.

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We got cell service for the first time in a long time up here.

“I’m too old to cowboy camp. I just can’t do it anymore,” I say deadpan at another cow infested water source. Murphy is in her late 30s, Stomper’s in his 40s, and Surprise is 56. Of course I’m joking, but Surprise doesn’t seem to get my sense of humor.

“How old are you?” he asked, incredulous.

I turn to face him, eyes unblinking. “I AM OLDER THAN YOUR MORTAL HUMAN MIND COULD EVEN BEGIN TO COMPREHEND. I CAME OVER TO WHAT IS TODAY THE UNITED STATES FROM THE BLACK FOREST OF GERMANY ALMOST TWO THOUSAND YEARS AGO.”

Murphy and Stomper, who spent way more time with him because he followed them incessantly while I was ahead or behind, later told me that made him quite uncomfortable. He didn’t know how to respond, so he just moved away from me and didn’t respond.

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Me hanging out at a break, with all my stuff strewn everywhere.

That evening, at the top of a climb, I found myself alone with Surprise. So I just said hi and kept walking, not wanting to be alone with him.

“Sorry I left you guys in my dust,” he told me, trying to affect a nonchalant manner. We stopped to take pictures, enjoy the spectacular sunset over the valley, and get a break from you, I had the foresight not to utter aloud.

“Cool,” I said absentmindedly, checking my maps. It was starting to get dark, and I wanted to check the topography and try to decide where we should camp.

“Is there anything I can do to repair our relationship?” he asked me. I put my maps away. Damnit, I don’t want to have this talk. We’re going to dump you in the next town. It’s never a good idea to piss someone off if you have to spend days in the woods with them.

“Not really, no,” I replied honestly. I was pretty adamant in my dislike for him. I’m not a big fan of racism, sexual assault, or viewing women as objects.

“I’ve tried to reach out to you,” he said, probably referring to when he told me he was ashamed that his daughter was dating a black man.

“I’m well aware of that,” I respond.

“Is there any reason you dislike me?” he pushed.

“Yeah, there are lots,” I responded. “But I really don’t want to have this conversation right now.”

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Following a dirt road for a little bit.

He let out an exasperated sigh and stormed ahead down the trail. A few minutes after his abrupt exit Murphy and Stomper popped their heads onto the mesa, having finished the climb. I recounted to them what had just happened. It was one of the only moments of privacy the three of us had had since he waited 20 hours for us in the woods and shortly afterwards screamed at us to shut up.

We agreed that he was nuts and, in the interest of not exacerbating the problem, that we would dump the nuisance in the next town.

That night we camped in the pines, pushing desiccated piles of cow dung away to make space for our tents. Murphy and I erected our colorful spaceship tents, and Stomper laid out his sleeping pad next to us sans shelter.

“If a mountain lion eats Stomper’s face tonight I want his tent,” I tell Murphy.

“I get his pack,” she agrees.

On the PCT I cowboy camped almost every night, but out here I just really have no appetite for it. I know a millimeter of nylon isn’t going to protect me from an aggressive animal, and that the extremely overwhelming odds are that nothing of the remotest interest would happen, but I still can’t bring myself to sleep outside my tent.

We circle outside Murphy’s tent for our nightly ritual of eating dinner together, none of us having brought stoves and instead of a hot meal just eating what’s in our food bags. I doubt I’d bring a stove on any future camping trips. It’s just so much easier to shed the almost-pound of stove and gas canister and go without.

“What day is it?” Surprise asks with a sigh.

“Friday,” Murphy responds.

Surprise lets out another sigh, impressively even more over dramatic than before. “Five days since my birthday.” Murphy and Stomper later told me that he quite regularly talks about how many days it’s been since his birthday. We think it’s a method of trying to garner pity from us.

Murphy, Stomper, and I eventually get a blessed break from Surprise when he heads on without us. We catch up on the insanity, each of us having played witness to a different aspect of his peculiarities.

“Murphy, I think he’s stalking you,” I tell her, recounting how he stares at her like a hawk when she goes into the woods to use the bathroom.

“She told him to stop complimenting her legs, and he asked, ‘Then what can I compliment?!’” Stomper added. Also, when Stomper was having a disagreement about the utility of trekking poles Surprise ended the discussion with, “Well, I’m a doctor and you’re just a carpenter.”

“And then last night, one of us, when you joked about being certain we were going to get the storm of the century last night, he said we could all go into my tent,” Murphy mentioned. “But he said he’s thinking of going home from Grants. There’s a bus to Albuquerque, and he said he can catch a flight from there back to Durham. So we might just be able to wait until tomorrow and not have to have a confrontation.”

Stomper and Murphy headed on while I took a bathroom break. The maps said the next section was a bit tricky, but that “you’ll figure it out eventually.”

Sometimes I wonder how we’ve made it this far with these maps, which told us in southern Wyoming: There are 2 roads north of the map. Which one is the right one to Atlantic City? Let go of your hesitation, breathe fully, and follow your dreams…..they will always take you to the right place.

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Took a detour to a lookout. L to R: Stomper, Murphy, and me.

Arriving at the breakoff from the regular route for the alternate path over Mt. Taylor, the highest mountain since Colorado and the FINAL POINT after which winter really isn’t a problem (I’ve been pushing with Mt. Taylor in my mind since I left Canada four months ago), I look around. All I see is Surprise, who’s sitting by himself in the shade on this cool day. He’s wearing his blue full body rain suit and a fedora.

“Where are Murphy and Stomper? They were just ahead of me,” I ask, turning around and searching the woods around the trail junction.

“I don’t know, I’ve been waiting 45 minutes for them!” he yelled much louder than was necessary, considering I was just 15 feet away from him. It probably wouldn’t hurt if I just wait a few minutes for them. I have to filter water, and I could totally take him in a fight.

“You can come sit next to me,” he whines. Yeah, I’ll pass.

“I’m going to stay in the sun. It’s pretty chilly!” I reply, filtering my last liter from the current 25 mile waterless stretch.

“Why don’t you like me?!” he practically cries out. My eyes go a little wide, and I’m glad I have my box cutter next to me. There are some rocks nearby that I think I could use if he tries anything.

“Uh, remember when I said a couple days ago that I really would rather not have this conversation? I hope you can respect my boundaries,” I say, hastily packing up all my stuff while making sure not to turn my back on him.

“Yes, that’s why I’m asking!” he screamed, acting unhinged and pacing back and forth. He started packing up all his things. I keep a hand on my box cutter, my finger on the blade release. He’s just a couple inches taller than me, and 30 years older. In all my travels to 42 countries I’ve never felt quite as concerned for my safety as I do now. Eyeing some sharp-looking rocks by my feet, I hoist my pack and head off.

I look back and see he’s following me after a few seconds. “Can I come with you?” he calls out.

“Only if you don’t talk to me,” I call back, looking over my shoulder every other step. While pretending to tie my shoes I picked up a couple sharp-looking rocks, which are in my hands, and I pat the blade in my pocket to make sure it’s still there.

“Do you even want me to hike with you?” he yells anxiously. I haven’t stopped.

“Honestly, no. I’d really prefer if you just went away,” I say, looking back to see if he’s still there. He wandered off into the woods. What the hell is his problem?

I hurry down the deserted dirt road, constantly looking back to see if he’s following me. Not seeing him, I descend down into a valley where there’s supposed to be a cow trough with water. With any luck, he’ll miss the water source and spend an hour or so looking for it. The turnoff wasn’t obvious.

Unfortunately, I spy his figure walking towards the cow troughs while I filter surprisingly clear water.

“Oh, hey there!” he calls cheerily when he sees me. I climbed under some nearby barbed wire fence so that he wouldn’t be able to easily get to me. I figured if he tried to get in I could push him against the razor wire. “How’s the water?” he asks, as if nothing had happened. I still have some rocks.

“It’s fine, there’s more water further in that direction,” I say, pointing and not knowing if it’s true or not.

“Thanks!” he says, heading off. I wait an hour, filtering and watching the direction in which he disappeared.

I don’t see him when I pack up and leave, trying to pick a somewhat circuitous route cross country through a dense section of pine forest.

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Me at Mt. Taylor! Once you’ve gone further south than here, winter is (supposedly) no longer an issue and you can take the rest of the hike at more or less whatever pace you want.

“Hey there!” Murphy and Stomper call when I emerge from the valley. I tell them what happened, looking around to see if he’s nearby.

“We haven’t seen him. He’s so psycho. Want some cookies? A woman in a car gave them to us,” Murphy says. Her and Stomper had taken a wrong turn a couple hours back, which is why I hadn’t seen them until now.

 

“I don’t see Surprise’s signature in the notebook,” Stomper calls out. That’s weird. There are so few trail registers out here that we use them at every opportunity, trying to figure out who’s ahead of us and how many days ahead they are.

“Oh, I just got a text,” Murphy said. I got service for the first time in a week on Mt. Taylor, and I text friends a condensed version of what had just happened with the crazy old doctor. “Surprise says he got lost, didn’t make it to the summit, and found a campsite for us.”

How the hell do you get lost going to the tallest mountain for hundreds of miles? We all wonder.

I get ahead of them descending from the summit, but wait when I think I’m fewer than 10 minutes from where we think Surprise is waiting for us.

“Yeah, probably best not to provoke him,” Murphy agrees when they catch up after a few minutes and I tell her I didn’t think it was wise for me to meet up with him alone.

 

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“I saw on his Facebook that you guys made the summit,” Surprise says, not even looking at me.

“Whose?” Murphy asks, confused.

His,” he hisses.

“You mean one of us?” Murphy asks, referring to my trail name.

“Yes,” he purrs, staring at her lovingly. Why can’t he bring himself to say my name? I wonder.

“We’re not Facebook friends, how did you see that?” I ask, wondering if my privacy settings have been changed.

“Oh. Then it was Instagram,” he says. Note to self, block him when you get to town.

“I’m just so glad that if anyone got to enjoy the summit, it was you,” he says, eyes never leaving Murphy. He takes a step closer to her. “Skipping the summit was my punishment for not hiking with you.”

“So, uh, where’s this campsite?” I ask. Murphy later said that if it weren’t getting dark and cold we would’ve just kept walking and left him.

CDT New Mexico: An Unwanted Surprise

The desert was one of my favorite parts of the PCT, and I have high hopes for the New Mexico here. Like its Pacific counterpart, the CDT goes through lower elevation areas of traditional desert with cacti, roaming bands of tumbleweed, and sand. But in New Mexico we spend much more time in the sprawling pine forests at higher elevation than I remember from southern California.

Our first night out of Santa Fe we camp in the pines, at the top of a climb and before a steep descent to the valley floor. It’s warm and beautiful and everything is perfect when I wake up. We were a little concerned about camping next to a dirt road here, but it looks like nobody’s driven by in weeks or months. So we chanced it, and it ended up being a peaceful night in our tents.

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Walking on a dirt road, with the desert valley in front of me.

Murphy and Stomper tend to hike and chat together, while I’m usually off doing my own thing at my own pace. But we take all of our breaks and camp together, and although I enjoy going days without seeing any trace of humanity I’m glad to have their company.

The stretch between Santa Fe and Cuba, our next town, is only two days plus some change. The trail is easy to follow, alternating between desolate dirt roads and well maintained footpaths, and largely uneventful. Until Stomper and Murphy get ahead of me, with the former calling back to me, “Surprise!”

I’m confused why there’d be a surprise up ahead, and chalk it up to a misinterpretation of Stomper’s speech. His English is almost perfect, but as a Quebecois it’s not his mother tongue. Then I reach the top of the climb and find out what’s really happening.

“Hey, one of us!” Surprise, the piece of shit 55 year old doctor who acted like a spoiled child in Santa Fe, is sitting on a log. “I found a spot up here with cell service, and I missed you guys so much that I figured I’d wait here for you three.”

“Oh, hey. I gotta go, have to make some miles. Bye!” I call out as I get the hell out of there, locking eyes with Murphy on the way. She kind of shrugs, and I give an exasperated smile.

Surprise waited 20 hours for us in the woods! WHAT THE FUCK?! I text a few trail friends when I get cell service. I feel like something weird is going to happen and I’m going to get a good story out of this, I add (way too prescient, wish I was wrong about that).

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High pine forests in New Mexico on the Continental Divide Trail.

Eventually I can feel my blood sugar start to crash, and with shaking hands I drop my pack and scavenge through my nylon food bag for something to eat. The other three catch up, and we chat like everything is normal. I just can’t take how weird it is that he’d wait in the woods for us, and not in town, so after some pleasantries I gather my belongings together and head on.

It’s high, cold, and beautiful on this section as we cruise along at around 10k feet. The yellow grass spreads out in a clearing fenced by pine trees, with the drop from the plateau not quite visible from the trail. The liters of water I’ve been chugging pass through me quickly, and I stop frequently to use the bathroom. This gives the others time to catch up, and Surprise is the first to reach me.

“Sounds like you guys had a lot of fun in Santa Fe without me!” he cries like a petulant child from behind me, letting me know he’s there.

“Uh, yeah. It was quite the adventure,” I respond, trying to stay polite without actually starting a conversation.

“You don’t mind if I hike with you guys, do you?!” he whines. Actually, I’d prefer if you just went back to wherever creepy old racist dudes go when they’re not preying on women half their age.

“Yeah, do whatever you want,” I reply, zooming off. I didn’t want to upset him when I’d probably have to deal with him all the way to Cuba, which we’ll probably reach in time for lunch tomorrow. It seemed like a bad idea to piss somebody off when they’re at your back and you can’t see them.

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A glimpse out of the pines and down into the desert proper.

“What’d you stop for?” he asks when I strip off my pack by a stream running through the forest.

“Let’s wait for Murphy and Stomper,” I say, spying the other two not far behind us.

“It is pretty high, about 10k feet, but looking at the maps I don’t think we’ll find good places to camp for the next four or five miles. And it’s going to be dark soon,” I tell the group. “I think the trail drops straight down to Cuba from here. If we got up early we could easily hit that Mexican place for lunch.” The northbounders all raved about the green chili in New Mexico, and there’s a Mexican joint in Cuba that I’ve heard is exquisite. I’ve been dreaming about it for the past two trail days.

Murphy says it’s fine with her, and Stomper goes to inspect the area.

“I’m a little worried about the elevation and condensation from being so close to the stream,” I add. The cold out here is no joke, and waking up to frozen condensation in my tent is far from ideal.

“No, it’s pretty dry under the trees. I think we’ll be fine. I’m going to cowboy camp,” Stomper calls back, and it’s settled. This is our home for the night. Murphy and I set up our tents in the trees, and Stomper lays out his sleeping bag next to our tents. There’s not much room amid all the roots, but we make it work. Surprise lays out his sleeping bag to cowboy camp about ten yards away in a clearing.

Stomper, Murphy, and I get out of our tents and start the nightly ritual of eating dinner while chatting in camp. Once we’re done eating and it gets cold, we’ll disappear back into our sleeping bags and talk for a bit more. At the beginning of the hike we had about six hours of darkness each night, and now that’s doubled. Long nights.

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I think the Rio Chama might be the last real river we cross. After this it’s mostly cow troughs. There’s a fire somewhere near here, and the haze restricts visibility in the background.

Surprise comes and joins us. I think it’s beyond weird that he’d wait for 20 hours in the woods for us only to sulk that we had fun in Santa Fe without him, but then he starts asking Murphy for candy.

“Murphy, can I have some Mike and Ikes for my birthday?” Surprise whines nasally. My elementary school students back in Madrid could learn a thing or two about pitiful begging from him. It’s really quite cringe worthy.

“Uh, you can just have some,” Murphy says. She hides it pretty well, but I get the impression she’s a little weirded out by this whole performance.

“I had a whole speech planned out, but…I wanted to tell you guys my wife is leaving me,” Surprise announces. Good for her, I think to myself in the ensuing awkward silence. Murphy is good at interpersonal people things, so I go silent and let her handle this. There’s an almost 100% chance I’d say something that would make everything orders of magnitude worse, so I just keep eating the remains of my food bag. Mexican lunch tomorrow!

We make awkward small talk until Surprise goes back to his cowboy camp setup in the clearing. After he’s departed, we resume our discussion on such pressing topics as whether or not Cuba’s trail-famous Mexican restaurant will have lunch specials, the elevation profile of the next section, and if it’s better to mail ourselves food boxes to southern New Mexico from Cuba or Grants, the latter being the next town (we decide on Cuba because, although it doesn’t have a supermarket, it’s less spread out than Grants so less walking to the post office).

“CAN’T YOU GUYS CUT THE CHATTER FOR ONE NIGHT?!” Surprise screams from ten yards away in his self-imposed isolation.

We instantly go silent. Dude, why the hell would you wait for us in the woods, tell us you miss us, and then yell at us to shut up?!

Ten minutes later he comes back over. “I’m sorry I yelled at you guys. I’m just going through a rough time. Maybe it’d be best if you all went on ahead without me tomorrow morning and give me some time alone,” he says, to which we heartily agree.

This whole thing is so bizarre, I think to myself as I fall asleep.

The next morning isn’t nearly as cold as I thought it’d be. Stomper, Murphy, and I remark on the joyous wonders of this as we pack up. I look over and see Surprise packing up and coming towards us. There goes his promise to leave us alone for a bit.

Rather than deal with more of his insanity, I head off on my own before the others are done packing up. It’s a fairly steep descent through pine forest to the desert floor, but the trail is well graded and my knees don’t give me too much trouble. The footpath dumps me out at a national forest parking lot, and my maps tell me to walk the connecting dirt road to the single paved road of Cuba.

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Looking back on the dirt road while walking to Cuba.

While taking a break, I hear the other three catching up. Stomper, Murphy, and I haven’t had a chance to discuss last night’s unhinged outburst. He seems intent on not leaving us alone for more than a few seconds at a time, constantly staying within arm’s reach of Murphy.

After finishing my breakfast break, I plug in an earbud and just walk on towards Cuba. My first port of call is the Mexican restaurant, which is everything I dreamed of. The four of us get a table together once we’ve all caught up, and the spicy green chili is heavenly.

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The CDT has more of a traditional desert feel near Cuba.

A few minutes’ walk away is the main hiker motel, which I’ve read is run by a Korean lady who’s exceptionally friendly and hospitable to hikers (sometimes we’re not the most welcome bunch, as we look pretty homeless).

“Hi! We’re interested in getting rooms,” I say to Mrs. Yang in the motel office.

“Rooms?” She looks at me confused.

“Uh, yeah. This is a motel, right? Do you have rooms for rent?”

“Oh,” she says as she stares off into space.

I lock eyes with Murphy, who shrugs.

“Do you have any available?” I ask again. She seems to snap out of her daze.

“Rooms? Uh,” she zones out again. “Yes.”

It goes like this for a few more minutes, until we agree to rent a couple rooms with two beds each for around $30 a person. Mrs. Yang hands two keys each to me and Surprise, who hands one of his to Murphy.

“We’ll decide room assignments outside,” I quickly blurt.

“I’m not sharing a room with a married man,” Murphy says at the same time. Which makes total sense. “One of us (Connor) and I will share a room.”

We head to our respective room numbers, texting Stomper that we’re sorry he has to share one with the psycho doctor and that we’ll explain everything when we have some privacy among the three of us.

“Well, Connor, you did tell me a week or so ago that you were bored and hoping for something interesting to happen!” my friend Jake tells me when I call him in the motel parking lot, recounting last night’s drama.

CDT New Mexico: High Desert

Ghost Ranch was a nice place to hang out for a few hours while I waited for the four others behind me to arrive. After spending 90 minutes inside making good use of the free wifi and electrical outlets, I felt like I could recite word for word the informational video on Georgia O’Keefe that was being played on loop nearby.

The others arrived just in time for dinner at the Ranch, which sells meal tickets to the mostly elderly Albuquerque residents who traipse through to enjoy the desert scenery. Ghost Ranch is run by the Presbyterians and hosts painting classes, guided hikes, and the like. The five of us get a room at the Ranch’s lodge, pick up our resupply packages, and make plans to head into Santa Fe the next day.

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When I texted Baby asking what the San Juans in southern Colorado were like, she sent me this photo of herself. She’s really damn tough.

Three other CDT hikers, Merlin, Hummingbird, and Red Bass, come by our room to say hi. They’d taken the bus into Santa Fe and connected with the commuter rail to Albuquerque to see the hot air balloon festival. Then hitchhiked back.

“Just stay with us! You can sleep on the floor, no big deal,” Surprise, a 56 year old doctor from Durham, told them. Please don’t, I thought. There’s barely enough room for the five of us.

“You guys don’t even have to pay us anything, there’s plenty of room,” he added without consulting the rest of us. Asshat. Luckily, they demurred and camped outside. I already had a pretty negative opinion of Surprise before meeting him in southern Colorado, largely because he had a reputation for sexual assault on trail. He told a friend of mine half his age that he was a doctor and could thus help fix her leg issues. Saying he needed to feel her calf to do that, he then went higher and higher and higher until he was well past what was appropriate.

“What are the Presbyterians like?” asked Diesel, a lawyer from Amsterdam who’d taken leave from her job to hike the trail for six months.

“They’re the ones who handle snakes and speak in tongues,” I replied without looking up from my book, knowing Surprise, the aforementioned doctor, was the son of a Presbyterian minister and vocally proud of it. “Speaking of which,” I added, remembering that Murphy had counted 27 snakes in one day in southern Colorado. “Did you handle any of those snakes we saw on the road walk to the New Mexico border?” I asked the creepy and handsy old doctor.

“No! And we don’t do any of that, don’t listen to him!” Surprise interjected. He’d gotten his name from his wife finding out that he was going to quit his job and leave for five months to hike the Continental Divide Trail via finding his trail maps hidden under their couch.

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Hiker backpacks at the Santa Fe post office, where we mailed home our crampons. Shouldn’t need them anymore (dear God I hope because I AM SO READY TO BE DONE WITH THE COLD AND SNOW).

The next morning we left Diesel, the Dutch woman, back in the room around 5am to hike a mile and a half to the highway, where we waited in the sub-freezing cold for the bus. Diesel had already been to Santa Fe and was planning on taking a rest day back at Ghost Ranch, so it’d be the four of us on our journey to the city.

“So when do we actually beat winter?” Murphy asked as we all huddled around in the pre-dawn cold. I breathed hot air onto my gloved fingers, trying to coax movement back into them. Supposedly Mt. Taylor, a week ahead of us, was the point after which winter isn’t a problem and you’re A-OK. But so far New Mexico had been literally freezing.

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Stomper (pictured) and the rest of us enjoying ice cream near the hostel in Santa Fe.

There’s a free bus every morning from the highway outside Ghost Ranch to Santa Fe via Abiquiu and Espanola, transferring to Santa Fe Transit in the latter. Espanola didn’t look like the safest place ever, but we only had to spend an hour or so there (we missed the connecting bus and had to wait for the next one). Some dude on the street in Espanola wanted me to lend him my phone, which seemed like a great way for it to get stolen so I told him no. He wasn’t happy, but didn’t make a scene.

Our first stop was the hostel, where we got a private room for the four of us for around $15 a person on the condition that we make our own beds. It was a bit of a strange setup, but had a good connection to downtown Santa Fe by city bus. And at $2 for a day pass, we took full advantage of not having to walk much. In retrospect, I probably looked like more of a hobo than he did.

I spent most of my time in Santa Fe wandering around the old Mission architecture in the old town, eating incredible amounts of superb Mexican food, and hanging out in coffee shops.

“I wanted to go to that art gallery, but nobody will go with me,” the piece of trash old doctor whined in one of the coffee shops as he followed me around town.

“You’re a big boy, you can do what you want,” I told him while Murphy and Stomper were wandering the old town. “I made it clear that I just want to drink coffee and eat a lot and not walk for a change. This shouldn’t be a surprise.”

Our first night in Santa Fe he asked me, “So can I get in on the pizza you’re ordering?”

“Well, I just finished ordering it for pickup through their website. You can order too, if you want,” I responded.

He let out a dramatic sigh and said, “No, it’s fine.” I shrugged, got my pizza, and enjoyed my dinner.

The next morning he made a big show of making it obvious that something was bothering him, and seemed upset that Murphy, Stomper, and I didn’t ask about it or care (full disclosure: I don’t care about most people’s problems, especially if they’re obnoxious and immature).

“Cool, see you in Cuba!” Murphy told him. It would be around two days or so on trail to Cuba, the next trail town. Surprise mentioned for the thousandth time that it was going to be his birthday in two days, and that he wanted to be able to talk to his family that day. So, since there was little cell service in the woods, he’d head out early. But did we want to join him…? Nah, we’re good and gonna enjoy Santa Fe.

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Stomper and me ordering at the pedestrian booth in a drive-in burger joint.

“Can I join you when you get your coffee?” Surprise asked me. It’s no secret that I’m addicted to pumpkin spice lattes, which I credit as the only reason I made it through the bitter cold and snow of Colorado.

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Fun fact: thundersnow is real and it lives in Colorado.

“Sure,” I said. He insisted on buying it for me, which always makes me uncomfortable because I don’t want others thinking I owe them anything. But he kept pushing it and I shrugged. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ Not a big deal. We talked about the next mountain ranges coming up and gear, which probably consume 90% of trail conversations.

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Stomper and me heading off into the New Mexico desert.

Until: “My wife told me our daughter is dating a black man. Apparently she didn’t feel comfortable telling me that. I’m kind of ashamed for feeling this way, but it makes me really uncomfortable,” he casually told me.

“Yeah,” I responded. “You should be ashamed.” And then changed the subject. This wasn’t the first time on the CDT some white guy had confided in me some racist belief or feelings in an attempt to build a connection with me. Both times it made me despise that person a little bit more. We said our goodbyes and I headed downtown, meeting up with Stomper and Murphy.

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The Rio Chama Wilderness, just south of Ghost Ranch. It was so nice getting off dirt roads and onto a trail. There’s a bit of haze in the distance from a forest fire, not really sure where the fire was. We saw a bunch of tarantulas, which was really cool but totally killed my desire to cowboy camp.

“Murphy, Stomper!” I called out in the morning. “IT’S NOT COLD!” This was quite the miracle as it’d been bone-chillingly cold every morning as I stuffed my tent, usually composed of sheets of ice after the nightly condensation froze solid. One night in Colorado I could see the ice crystals forming on the nylon exterior of my tent, which was still wet from a previous rainstorm. It took about two minutes for the whole tent to freeze.

We took advantage of that wonderful feeling of semi-warmth and stayed in camp for almost an hour after taking down our tents. Glorious.

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Stomper took this photo of Murphy and me packing up after our first non-freezing morning on trail in six weeks.

CDT New Mexico: Northern Highlands

My last night in Colorado found me on the side of a stream next to the highway, filtering water and trying to figure out where I was going to spend the night. I hadn’t done many miles that day, but having been harassed by a pack of dogs twice made it feel like a much longer day.

“13 mile highway walk to Cumbres Pass? That’ll take a long time,” a local told me. I’m pretty sure he thought I was a hobo. Granted, I look the part.

“I was hoping to get there by 11am with a late start tomorrow,” I absentmindedly mention, trying to calculate how much water I’ll need. Non-thru hikers have no concept of how far we go in a day. “Is this national forest land?”

“Uh, yeah, I think you can camp anywhere here.” And I did just that. It was a pretty stellar campsite, out of sight of the dirt road (Great Divide Alternate) I’d been following for 140 miles to bypass the snowy, frigid San Juans.

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This is the actual New Mexico/Colorado border. Three miles north of this point, at Cumbres Pass on the highway, we hitch into the town of Chama after a 13 mile highway walk. Cumbres Pass is technically still in Colorado, but is just an hour’s walk on the trail from this photo (the New Mexico border). It’s a little confusing because you hitch from the Pass to Chama, in New Mexico, and then hitch back to the Pass in Colorado and then cross the New Mexico border 3 miles later to the south in the woods. By the time most of our family and friends find out we’re in Chama we’re already back on trail and have actually crossed the border in the forest. So we just said we were in New Mexico when we got to Chama and claimed victory, even though we still had 3 miles once we got back on trail at Cumbres Pass until we crossed into New Mexico on trail. If I had my maps out I could explain it better. 

Story of Colorado: the night started off surprisingly warm, then around 4am became insanely cold. It was probably my coldest night on trail, and I later heard it was around 11F/-12C. When it’s that cold it’s hard to sleep, so I just tossed and turned for a few hours until it became semi-light enough for me to semi-safely walk on the highway. There was very little traffic, with a decent enough shoulder, so it could’ve been a lot worse.

It gets warmer as the sun comes up, but then when I’m on the high point that trend starts to reverse itself. It just gets colder and colder, and I put away my trekking poles so as to be able to warm up my hands with my breath.

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Picked up a cool new hat in Chama after I left my old one in a hostel in southern Colorado. The old one had thousands of miles on it and I was going to replace it anyways. This was the hat that fit me the best at the dollar store, really the only store in town, and I figured why not? The locals all think I’m insane already so it doesn’t bother me. 

Then the wind picks up and I just can’t anymore. It’s getting colder and colder. My fingers won’t move on their own, and my water bottles are all frozen. Fuck this I hate everything and especially the warm dry cars zooming by and why am I out here this is so stupid I just want to go home and why am I out here I should’ve just gone to medical school – the last thought jolts me out of my pity party. I need to get warm, fast.

I stop in someone’s driveway on this high, dry, and isolated highway. I don’t care how weird it looks being in the dirt, I just need to be able to feel my fingers again. I throw all my belongings on the side of the road and shove myself into my 10F/-12C down sleeping bag and put my hands in my armpits until I can move them again. Once they’re operable, I start eating my pumpkin spice belvita cookies which are basically like crack cocaine at this point sooooooo good.

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This was from northern New Mexico, the first 90 miles of which are basically cold and high like Colorado. On the PCT, the transition from the southern California desert to the High Sierra took days and was quite gradual. On the CDT, I was in the pine forest in below freezing temps and an hour later was in the desert surrounded by cacti. The sudden, steep drop to the desert floor was hell on my knees. Sometimes out here I feel like I’m 26 going on 80.

I check my phone, only 4.5 miles to Cumbres Pass. You can do this you can do this you can do this, I tell myself as I think of all the obnoxious people who told me I was basically going to die in the snow in Colorado. My hatred for them is what pushes me through the last hour, gonna prove them wrong and finish this goddamn state.

“Hey kid, you want a ride to Chama?” some saint in a camper van calls out a mile from the pass, where the CDT leaves the road into the wonderful forest and leaves this hellscape behind and I’ll hitch into Chama and everything will be fine because I’ll be in town and it’ll be in New Mexico. It takes about three seconds for me to realize I’ll just hitch back to this point rather than the pass and have an extra mile on my way to the next town.

“Yes!” I almost scream, and jump in the stranger’s car.

“I live near the Arizona Trail, and come up here to take photos a lot. I pick up Arizona Trail hikers and you CDT folks all the time,” he tells me as I hug the heater. “You know how cold it is out there?”

“No, and I don’t want to know,” I respond before he can tell me. Ignorance is bliss. I don’t even catch my savior’s name. He drops me off in front of a restaurant he recommends and I rush inside into the warmth and central heating.

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Immediately upon walking into the restaurant in Chama somebody asks, “Hey, were you the drum major that used two batons at Upper Arlington High School? You’re Cormac’s brother, right?” I was shocked for a few seconds before I remembered my youngest brother mentioned a friend of his from marching band is hiking the CDT southbound this year. It makes sense now that on the Idaho border a motel owner remarked that I was the fifth hiker in three days from Columbus, Ohio. Small world. He was a freshman the year after I graduated, so we never met before this. His trail name is Oilcan, and I still have no idea what his real name is.

There are 15 southbounders in Chama, the most I’ve seen thus far, with almost everyone left on trail in Colorado having gone home or hitched down here. Technically the trail doesn’t enter New Mexico three miles after Cumbres Pass, but I don’t care and am calling it a victory here. The fifth and final state!

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I was concerned I’d gotten a motel room at a brothel again (I did once in rural Ethiopia by accident and it was actually quite a nice establishment). But it ended up being nice and warm, with a great heating system. Not bad for $37.50 including tax.

Sonic did a combination of hitching and snow traverses to get down here, and we hang out one last time before her friend picks her up and drives her to the Utah/AZ border to start the Arizona Trail. That or the Colorado Trail will likely be my next long-ish hike. This has been great, but taking almost five months to walk cross country is deeply exhausting.

“Receiving a care package?” a local woman asks me in the Chama post office.

“Kind of. I’m sending one to myself. Because there’s no store in Pie Town and I don’t want to starve to death in the desert,” I tell her. In retrospect, I probably looked and sounded insane.

“You better watch out for bears out there,” she tells me in a very condescending tone.

“That’s really not one of my top concerns,” I reply. Damnit, not this again. Lightning, hypothermia, and getting lost are WAY bigger concerns out here.

“Well, it should be! We’ve been having lots of issues with bears in town.” I don’t reply. If you think bear problems in a town with dumpsters and lots of easy food are reflective of bears on trail in the remote wilderness then you’re an idiot, I say in my head.

“You’re going to have trouble beating winter,” some dude tells me, which is the thousandth time I’ve heard it on this trail.

“Too late, we already did,” Sonic responds. The next 90 miles are basically Colorado, then we descend to Ghost Ranch and the desert valley and warmth (I hope?).

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A Chama trail angel gave me and four others a ride back to the trail. We camped early most nights, not really in a rush now that we’ve more or less beat winter. From L to R: Stomper, Surprise, me, Murphy.

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Stomper took this photo of me walking across the last stretch of real higher elevation trail in northern New Mexico. It was comparatively cold at night, but still much warmer than Colorado already.

As per CDT fashion, there are multiple routes and although I started with a group of five we quickly get separated. I take a break at what my maps note is a “remote campground,” which must be really remote if it says that out here. Usually you cross a paved road every four or five days, and then it’s a 30 mile hitch to the closest tiny town (if there are any towns nearby at all). Quite a difference from the PCT and AT, where you can usually get to a major metropolitan area within an hour from a road.

There’s a vault toilet in the campground and I head up to it. There’s something weird about the door, like it’s been recently painted. The lock isn’t working either, and there’s a cord to hold onto while you’re on the toilet so that it doesn’t fly open while you’re using it. And there’s a weird pinkish stain in the corner…

Looking closer at the door, I can still see etched into it:

DEAD CDT HIKER INSIDE

CALL COPS

OTTER

In November of 2015, an experienced hiker was caught in a snowstorm here and took refuge inside the privy. I can’t vouch for its veracity, but I’ve heard he was pretty stoned and wasn’t paying attention to weather reports. Either way, he became trapped in there by the snow with no way out. It’s not certain exactly when he died, but his journal entries continued through the middle of January. That’s months spent inside that vault toilet.

I talked to a guy who’d hiked the CDT northbound in 2016 who said they were all aware that he’d gone missing the previous autumn, and that they were to be on the lookout for remains in that area. One of the first northbounders, passing the privy, found the aforementioned etching plus a note tied to the door: “Warning there is a dead human body inside bathroom locked in….. Please Notify Authorities Immediately – NOT A JOKE.” The hiker reported what he’d found to authorities. There’s a newspaper article about the event here.

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I made a box of food back in June for my father to send to me at Ghost Ranch, a Presbyterian spot in the desert where there’s no store for resupply. 

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I got to Ghost Ranch, a cool little spot, hours before my friends. So I just sprawled out on the front porch, charged my stuff, and relaxed. 

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This was my view from my spot in the photo above this one. Not much like this back in Ohio. Not pictured: getting an inch long cactus needle embedded in my thigh and pulling it out with tweezers, drenched in blood. 

CDT Colorado: GTFO

“I don’t know how you guys handle being out in that,” the owner of the Salida hostel tells me as I register my stay. After studying the weather forecast I’ve opted to wait out some thundersnow (didn’t know that existed, thanks Colorado) and get back on trail in a few days. This state is no joke in October, and I’d like to make it through without frostbite or hypothermia.

There was a bit of snow on the trail heading into Salida. 

There are four other SOBOs at the hostel, including two fresh faces. Slomo and Backtrack started from Canada two and a half weeks before me, which is why I haven’t met them until now. All of us are in our twenties, bearded, and sharing horror stories about dealing with the recent snowfall.

Some really high dude walks into the kitchen, puts a pizza in the oven, and tells the others about a basic three-walled mud hut further south on the trail.

Gotta have my morning coffee. 

“Let’s ride out the storm there!” Pounds excitedly cries.

That guy who told you about this is obviously stoned and just put a pizza in the oven, which he left and we had to remove to prevent a fire. And you’re putting your safety in faith in him? I declined to join this, hanging out in warm, dry coffee shops instead.

South of Salida in the Sawatch Range, with a thunderstorm brewing in the distance. It came fast, but I was able to take shelter in a random mud hut with some mountain bikers. It passed within 15 minutes. 

A local trail angel gives me a ride back up to the trail at 7am on my last day in town, and I’m so ready to get out of the hostel. Some others had blasted 80s music until midnight and I’m barely functioning in a sleep deprived state.

“What makes you qualified to do this hike? It’s so high up here, way different from Ohio,” he says on the way up.

Mentally rolling my eyes, I mention that I have 6000 miles of backcountry experience in the past two and a half years. And that a few months ago I was hiking at over 17k feet in the Andes, on trails where hikers had been murdered by the Shining Path. And that-

“Okay, you’ve definitely been out there some,” he interjects, acting a little self conscious when I go on about how Colorado isn’t really that high.

You opened this can of worms! I’m an asshole, so I talk about how easy the terrain is in Colorado compared to the High Sierra of California on the PCT.

On the Great Divide bike path, which winds from Canada all the way down to Mexico. It’s really popular with Europeans and Australians, and intersects the CDT from time to time. It’s often used as a means of bypassing the San Juans and their snow. 

“I mean, Colorado ain’t got nothing on California,” I add, knowing he probably loves being compared to them. But I don’t care, at this point I’m so tired of people trying to belittle me and my backcountry experiences. Locals can’t seem to comprehend that just because I was born in flat, low Ohio doesn’t mean this is my first time leaving it.

“Drop me off here, if you don’t mind,” I politely request, pointing out a random spot of earth on the highway.

“I can take you further up, cut off some, uh…,” he cuts off at the look on my face. I’m walking from Canada to Mexico, and not missing a step in between. I’m starting this section from the exact spot I got off.

Getting back on trail after an extended time in town is always a liberating, semi-spiritual experience. I don’t care about anything else out there. The only things that matter are food, water, navigation, and staying warm. The weather looks survivable for this next stretch, and I’m going to get out of Colorado without skipping if at all possible.

I’m not sure what water sources are reliable, so I tank up with a little over a gallon and fill up when I see streams. It’s heavy, but better of dying of thirst in a remote stretch of southern Colorado.

The snow line keeps getting lower and lower. 

There’s some traffic on the roads, although I often go hours without seeing a car. My first night I camp on private land, not sure when I get back to the national forest, but the owners drive by and seem not to care.

“Stomper and I are at the hostel in Del Norte!” Murphy texts me as I’m walking across a vast, open field. I met both of them near the Canadian border, and hiked hundreds of miles with Murphy. I’m excited to see them!

The village lights are visible in the distance. The moon is bright and almost full in the darkening sky, perfect for some night hiking. Until a bolt of lightning streaks across the sky.

“I might arrive a bit later than expected, gonna seek shelter in the trees a quarter mile back,” I text back before darting away.

“Stay safe!” she responds.

I get up early and follow the dirt road to the highway, where it unceremoniously dumps me into traffic. When cars come by I dart off to the side, this road walk lacking a shoulder for decent walking. But in an hour and a half I’m crossing the Rio Grande (yes, THAT one I later find out) and am chatting with Murphy and Stomper. I haven’t seen Stomper since northern Montana, and parted ways with Murphy shortly after the eclipse in late August.

“I had such a great time in Nova Scotia. America is so beautiful,” the hostel owner says.

“Nova Scotia is actually a province of Canada,” I blurt without thinking. Cash is in my hand and I want to pay, but after this he studiously ignores me and just goes on about American Nova Scotia. I just want to go get some food!

“Nova Scotia is actually a province of Canada,” I blurt without thinking. Cash is in my hand and I want to pay, but after this he studiously ignores me and just goes on about American Nova Scotia. I just want to go get some food! I ditched my stove in northern Montana, and after this 120 mile stretch from Salida I just want a hot meal ASAP.

I heeded the warnings not to drink the water for the next 20 miles. 

Murphy seems to see I’m about to do something ill advised and gets the owner to register us, and the two of us plus Stomper go down the street to get some Mexican food. The Mexican restaurants have been getting better and better as we get closer to the southern border, and I’ve heard in New Mexico (soon!!!) they’re phenomenal. New Mexico is so close… Just got to get out of the Colorado plateau and low into the warm-ish, dry desert.

An older hiker, a physician named Surprise (apparently he didn’t tell his wife he was going to hike the CDT until she found his maps hidden under the couch), arrives that night and promptly tells me he hiked the PCT in 2012, “the last good year.”

“It’s a shame you hiked it after Wild ruined everything,” he added. This really bristled me because, having read Cheryl Strayed’s admittedly decent book, it actually has very little to do with the PCT and much more with grieving for her mother. And the data, logic, and trends all point to Wild really not making the PCT popular, an adjective I don’t find apt since I usually saw only three other humans a day on my 4.5 month thru hike in 2015.

“Wow, you’re the only person I’ve ever heard argue with him,” Murphy later told me. The hostel was very small, just one room plus a bathroom, and the owner introduced himself to me multiple times but overall was quite nice. Even if they did have six boxes of laxative tea.

Autumn really is quite beautiful in Colorado. 

It’s another few days to Chama, just over the border in New Mexico, and even on the current “low” route (10-12.5k feet) bypassing the San Juans it’s fairly cold at night.

We’re on the highway for a while out of Del Norte, but I just listen to podcasts and try not to get blown over in the heavy winds as trucks pass me.

“You okay on water?” a local stops and asks every so often.

“Yeah, I’m good. Thanks!” I invariably reply. I’m pretty good on rationing water and bringing enough, typically one liter per five or six miles.

I’d wanted to camp with the others that first night out of Del Norte on the deserted dirt road to New Mexico, but it’s getting dark. The trail is climbing and I’m cold. I find a spot 70 yards off the road, out of sight, and set up my tent just as darkness falls.

The next morning, after a surprisingly warm night in five layers, a ten degree down bag, and sleeping bag liner, I’m on the trail by seven. And four minutes later I pass three tents, which belong to the others from Del Norte.

Passing by their tents in the morning. 

“GOOD MORNING!” I shout, walking between the tents. There’s no reply, not even a rustle. Oh shit, maybe they’re all dead and I’m gonna be the primary witness.

It’s cold, so I keep moving and head off to 12.5k feet on my way south. The last few miles of Colorado are here! I’m so ready to be done with this state.