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.

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