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. 

One thought on “CDT New Mexico: Northern Highlands

  1. Omg I’m laughing so much my husband wants to know why! My hands are so cold reading this that I’m hugging my hot tea cup! An inch long cactus spine covered in blood! Jeez don’t hold back Connor! I love it that you guys take time to write this stuff down (double baton drum major?! Who knew?). And I believe you guys will make it. I know you will. I send you my good juju on sweetgrass smoke that you make it.❤️

    Like

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