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.