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.

CDT Colorado: Winter Has Come

Sonic and I rise at our usual 5:30am. It’s been getting colder at night, usually in the 20s. But with all my layers (5 in total, plus my rain pants and two pairs of wool socks) I’m pretty warm, especially once I start walking. I keep my water filter close to my body at night and while walking in the frigid morning air. If my filter gets too cold then the expanding, freezing water crystals could destroy the sieve. Giardia roulette is not my idea of a good time, and I purify every milliliter of water I don’t get from the tap in town.

Not having had the opportunity to dry out my belongings the day before, I awake to almost all of my things frozen solid. My tent is a solid sheet that I have to shake in order to get it non-rigid, and I just shove it to the bottom of my backpack. I can take care of it later in Winter Park, the next town stop.

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Sonic and Pounds taking a water filtering break.

Town day! We’d originally been planning on doing the Grays Torres route, in which the official CDT goes over 14k feet, but the cold has been scaring us so we’ve opted to instead do the Silverthorne route. So we’ll only need about a day’s worth of food from town. If we’d known we’d be doing the low route we wouldn’t have bothered with hitching into Winter Park, but ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

First we have to climb 3300 feet out of the sheltered valley to summit Mt. Flora. It’s cold and windy on the long, sinuous switchbacks scaling the peak. But it’s a clear day and I see a black bear bolt away on my way up, so life is good.

I don’t stop at the top, the intense cold and excitement of going into town propelling me forward. I just want off this f@#king mountain and to feel my fingers again.

Hitchhiking solo is not my favorite activity. I hate the uncertainty of it, never knowing how long it’s going to take. I passed Sonic on my way up the trail, and I have no idea where Dingo, Baby, and Pounds are so I’m on my own. Hitching can be fun with a partner, but… After an eternity that’s really only 30 minutes tops, really not bad for a hitch, I’m barreling down the highway to the semi-upscale ski resort.

“I’m fluent in Spanish, and if you speak Spanish from Spain then Latin American Spanish is almost impossible to understand,” the driver’s girlfriend tells me. They’re about my age. I just smile and nod. I neglect to mention that if you call the language Spanish in Spain then you’re going to get attacked by an angry mob of Catalonians or Basque (it’s castellano, NOT español), and that I had no problem conversing with the locals in my six months in South America.

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EMBRACE THE BREWTALITY. I think pumpkin spice lattes are the only thing getting me through Colorado.

They drop me off at the McDonald’s, where I get my pumpkin spice latte and wait for Sonic. We’d gotten separated near the peak, but she’s a big girl who knows what she’s doing and before long she joins me.

There’s a free bus to the nearby town of Fraser, which has a supermarket and thrift store. Sonic and I peruse the latter, trying on cold weather gear. The benefit of being in a ski town is that there are lots of good, practically new thermal long underwear options in the thrift store.

“It smells like…,” a shop worker fumes as she stares daggers at us, not voicing the mystery smell. “It’s smelled like that since this morning!” Uh oh, crazy shopkeeper alert to DEFCON 1.

This morning Sonic and I were drinking stream water and trying not to get blown off a mountain and we’ve only been in the store for 15 minutes, but the woman running the shop doesn’t seem like the type to let facts get in the way of her fun.

“Okay, we’re out of here. They think we’re psycho hobos,” Sonic murmurs to me. We grab our stuff, pay quickly, and bolt.

At the Wendy’s we lay out our tents, clothes, and sleeping bag on the lawn while we eat inside.

“I’ve been in your shoes before, and I know how hard it can be. Here’s some extra food,” the cashier tells me.

“That was so nice of her. But she doesn’t look like the hiking type,” I tell Sonic what transpired and hand her the extra burger.

“Yeah…oh. Wait. She probably thinks we’re hobos. Which, I mean…we’re both living in tents in the Rockies…so,” she trails off. I shrug. Free food is free food.

Pounds walks in, wearing his rice farmer hat he bought online from China and a shirt with the sides haphazardly cut off with a pocket knife to aid ventilation. Not helping our hobo look, but the friendly staff gives us a marker to help make a sign for hitching back to the trail.

It takes over an hour to get a ride, but finally we’re picked up by some dude in a jeep. He’d done the Appalachian Trail (AT) a couple years ago, and we do trail talk.

Although I love the CDT much more than I thought I would, I feel a little bummed that I don’t have the crazy stories you get from the PCT or AT. On the drive up Pounds and Sonic discuss a guy named Special Game Night Dinner, who killed a protected species of bird with a BB gun on the AT and ate it, and his girlfriend Fire Hugger, who was such a pyromaniac that she kept kindling in her bra. I mention all the self-professed witches I met on the PCT, and the host of other oddities. Like when some hiker rented a u-haul truck, filled the back with 18 fellow thru hikers, and drove to San Francisco for the weekend. They were pulled over by the police and each given a ticket for not wearing a seat belt (apparently hammocks strung up in the back to fit more people does not count in Cali). That didn’t stop them from continuing to San Fran and enjoying a baseball game. Instead, I just have tales of bear encounters, thunderstorms on exposed ridgelines, and getting five inches of snow while in my tent.

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For part of Colorado we join the Colorado Trail, a 486 mile walking path stretching from Denver to Durango that is waaaaaaay better maintained and graded than the regular CDT.

The dude drops us off back at Berthoud Pass, which has a warming hut set to 80 degrees. “It can go higher,” Pounds calls to us as he inspects the temperature gauge. “No!” Sonic and I call out in unified horror. After spending most of our time in temps ranging from 25 to 40F, this is almost too much.

It’s later than we’d anticipated, and we’re averse to heading out on a higher elevation exposed ridgeline in the dark. There’s a NO CAMPING sign behind the warming hut, which almost certainly means good campsites, so we hang out in the warming hut until dark. Then we make camp.

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The bit of the Colorado Trail I’ve done while the CDT joins said trail has been phenomenal. Lots of awesome hostels, great campsites, and an overall well maintained trail.

The wind that night is intense in tents, and I end up sleeping on top of mine after it collapses in a strong gust. This frightens a disoriented Pounds, who in the dark thinks I’m a policeman about to give us a citation for illegal camping. In the morning we hang out in the warming hut, and don’t leave until 8am.

The wind isn’t as strong as before, but is still pretty bad up top. We descend back to the valley, collect some water, and return up.

This time it’s really rough, and Sonic gets thrown against the rocks in the 60mph gusts. I have trouble staying upright at times, but I’d been through bad winds on the PCT and manage to hold my ground and make it back to the valley.

We take refuge behind an abandoned building next to a stream, shell shocked.

“I’m not going another fucking step, this is my home for the night,” Sonic says, and I don’t blame her.

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The Silverthorne Alternate is a lower, shorter route that takes you right through the town of Silverthorne. The official route heads further south near Breckenridge. A couple women who had hiked 86 miles in 36 hours in the Great Basin of Wyoming bailed off, quitting the trail on the high route. So that, coupled with the intense winds and cold, made us decide to take the low route. I’m glad we did.

She meets back up with me in Silverthorne at the Starbucks, where we have our 346th pumpkin spice lattes of the week. We’re in the Breckenridge area, and the posh customers stare at us.

“You’re not helping,” Sonic hisses when I just stare back at one glaring woman. It also doesn’t help when I strip to my waist outside the coffee shop, changing into warmer weather clothes.

Soon I’m off, trying to get over a high elevation section and into Leadville before a snowstorm hits.

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I made it over the (relatively) high section with clear weather before the storm hit. I was quite glad.

On my way out of Silverthorne some guy asks me how far I’m going. “Mexico,” I call out. “You’re going north!” he responds. “Yeah, but I’m southbound,” I reply, not stopping. The trail meanders about, not always in a straight line directly from Canada to Mexico. You go around mountains, follow sinuous ridges, and take scenic detours. There are also a lot of people who just can’t comprehend that the distance between two towns on the highway is not the exact same distance on the trail. Usually I try not to mention what I’m doing (hiking 4.5 months) or where I’m going (Mexico) because I just get the same, stupid questions over and over again spiced up with lots of misguided judgment (you know there are tons of grizzlies here, right? Actually, there aren’t. you can’t get protein from plant products or peanut butter. We must’ve taken different biology classes. there are lots of dangerous people out here. Well, I see a human on average every three days so they certainly aren’t showing themselves to me! If anything, I’m the crazy person who lives in the woods; you must be rich to do this. It doesn’t cost a lot to walk all day and sleep in the woods). I usually prefer to just tell people I’m hiking in the Rockies for a bit this summer, because then I don’t get lectured by people who don’t know what they’re talking about.

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I took a bus from Leadville back to Silverthorne, where I hit up the REI and added four extra guylines to my tent to aid in stability during storms. I also got a much more powerful headlamp for night hiking, and a sleeping bag liner that’s added a decent amount of warmth to my 10F down bag. Then I took another bus to Breckenridge, where I relaxed in an amazing hostel and ate tons of ice cream and pho while it snowed outside. It melted very quickly.

 

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Hitching back to the trail from Leadville took about 30 minutes. Every time a beat up car approached I thought come on dude you obviously make bad decisions plz pick me up.

 

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I took a low route, knowing a storm was coming with 4.5 inches of snow forecast at higher altitudes. I woke up at 3am and, dazed in a sleep fugue, instantly thought something is wrong. A second later I realized that the patter of rain had stopped and that my tent’s roof was strangely low. Snow! I spent the rest of the night batting the snow off the sides of my tent until dawn, not wanting it to collapse on me from the weight of all the frozen wasteland awfulness. At dawn I hiked 13.5 miles through the snow to the highway, where a kind elderly couple gave me a ride to the town of Salida. “We’re retired and don’t have anything to do. We’ll take you anywhere!” my saviors, recently having moved here from from Texas, told me.

CDT Colorado: Winds of Winter

Sonic and I get up early after having camped just a few minutes from where our ride out of town dropped us off, and we set off in the dawn light to knock out the 11 miles of highway walking. Other than a few semis barreling down, there isn’t much traffic. And there’s a shoulder to walk on. Highway walks are far from ideal, but this could be worse.

Partway through the morning I call out to what I think is a hiker, sitting down absentmindedly in a field by the highway. Oh wait, just a hobo, I think when he doesn’t respond. Then he looks up.

“Hey, you hiking the CDT?” he calls out. Okay, maybe a hiker. Just semi oblivious to the world around him.

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Clad in all my layers above the treeline. 

Pounds started a few days before me from Canada, and took the insanely snowy highline trail that I’d heard was really dangerous. After a few minutes of questioning about it, I realize he was the hiker I’d heard about so much coming out of Glacier.

“Yeah, after I reported seeing another hiker fail to self arrest on the Ahern Drift the national park service detained me until he was found. But they put me up in a hotel, so I guess it could’ve been worse,” he shrugged. I’d only heard about two hikers making it across the Ahern, a steep bank of snow over a steep pile of rocks, back near the Canadian border.

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In the right conditions, Colorado is pretty awesome. 

Pounds ends up being annoyingly clingy, but it’s pretty easy to get ahead of him.

“I don’t think getting up at 5:30am is good, might have to start hiking at 8am instead,” he mentions.

“You’re more than welcome to do that, but I’m not,” I reply.

Sonic is a lot of fun to hike with, and we end up camping together almost every night. Even if there’s a large campsite, if I’m camping with other CDT hikers we almost always end up erecting our tents with overlapping guylines. We spend so much time alone, pretty common with only 35 others on the trail going southbound spread out over hundreds of miles, that when we find each other it’s like we’re making up for the days of not seeing another human.

Camping with her is a lot of fun, and we stay up late (like 9pm) laughing each night. Our senses of humor seem pretty similar: dark, twisted, and bizarre.

“I’m a level five fire wizard,” we decide to tell people when they give us doom and gloom about the trail. “Snow isn’t really relevant to me with my extensive repertoire of fire spells.” That usually ends conversations pretty quickly.

“Where’d you hear about this trail?” is another common question.

“Prison,” as a response also terminates the discussion when I’m trying to make miles.

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This is me descending on the ridgeline, trying to race a storm to get below the treeline. 

I know the day walkers don’t necessarily have bad intentions, but they’re really irritating after having been out here for a while. They often try to lecture us about hiking and wilderness survival. They’re usually well meaning, but we’re doing three times as many miles a day (28 to 35 a day) and have a much higher tolerance for discomfort compared to them. Usually I try to speed up past day hikers and weekenders, which gets a lot of comments like: “Why are you running uphill?!”

To which I reply, “Winter is coming!”

Sonic and I get separated in the Never Summer Wilderness, an apt name for Colorado, just outside Rocky Mountains National Park. Earlier we’d been talking about how the difficulty of the CDT has been vastly over hyped. This section makes me regret that comment. The trail gods probably heard it and have justly punished me for my insolence.

Rocky Mountains National Park is beautiful, and has an 18 mile loop that can be done as a day hike, but at this point we’re all just rushing to get through Colorado before it’s too late. The signs of winter are everywhere: bright yellow leaves on the aspens, cold nights, and shortening days. Winter is coming, the clock is ticking, and I need to get to New Mexico before it’s too late.

Grand Lake is a cool little town just outside the national park. It’s also right on trail, so no need to hitch. The lodge, on a hill overlooking the town, has dorms for hikers. It’s incredible, probably one of the best hostels I’ve stayed in, and has a large selection of teas in the common area. It’s also accessible by a short nature trail from the Rocky Mountains National Park visitor center, and I get a lot of strange looks for zooming down the easy path with all my camping gear.

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I would definitely not want to be up here in a storm. 

There’s a retreat of some sort in the lodge at the same time as our filthy hiker selves swarm it, and they shoot us puzzled looks as we pore over our topographic maps.

It’s been over a week since I last showered, and even longer for Sonic (“I got soaked in that rainstorm, that’s basically a shower,” she told me). The lodge provides us big, fluffy towels and we snack on a couple dozen fried eggs we cook in the kitchen. Life is good.

Walking on the street I spy a familiar Australian Shephard leashed up outside the public restrooms. Luna, my favorite southbounder! She barks and wags her tail when she sees me, and her owner finds me lavishing attention on her dog when she steps out of the bathroom. Her boyfriend is soon to follow. I haven’t seen them for a while, and I missed hanging out with them. But they’re off to camp on the trail before it gets too dark, though I’m sure I’ll run into them again soon.

That night it rains a lot, but I’m warm and dry in my bunk. Bliss.

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I’d love to come back and appreciate better the nature out here. But in July or August, not the middle of September. 

“There’s a breakfast buffet, they’re super hiker friendly and it’s awesome,” Sonic texts me in the morning. The cafe is the only place open in the morning with a seat available, which Sonic kindly saved for me. The buffet is phenomenal, with a plethora of pastries and hot food, and we both stuff ourselves.

After resupplying at the local grocery store, not the best I’ve encountered on trail, I set off around noon. I’d originally planned on staying until the evening, but I feel good and figure I might as well make some miles.

Grand Lake is a popular area for day hikers, who all ask me where I’m heading.

“Mexico!” I call out while I keep going. They just laugh. Nobody believes me when I say what I’m doing. And they roll their eyes when they ask how long I’m out for, replying that I started two and a half months prior in Canada and expect to have another couple of months to reach my destination. On the PCT everyone had heard of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, which is almost universally despised by long distance hikers for various reasons, but the CDT has no comparable work. It’s pretty obscure, and few people attempt it.

I night hike for an hour, having done 22.7 miles by 8:30pm. Setting up my tent in a dark parking lot in the middle of nowhere next to a sign that prohibits camping without a permit, I also spy a sign warning about bears in the area. There’s an optimal nearby tree for a bear hang, so I toss rope over a branch and suspend my food 10 feet in the air. By the time I get back to my tent, which was wet from rain prior to Grand Lake, it’s frozen solid. The ice crystals are beautiful, but if it’s this cold at 9pm then I know I’m in for a frigid night.

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Hiking in the morning after having camped below the treeline in a sheltered spot. 

I’m not wrong, and my 10 degree bag is barely enough to keep me comfortable with four layers of clothing. At 4:30am I wake up and pack up, trying to get over the 13,300 foot James Peak before the predicted storm that afternoon.

I later find out it got into the middle teens Fahrenheit that night, but I’m fine with my layers as long as I keep moving. There’s a confusing stream crossing with a broken bridge that takes me 15 minutes to figure out in the dark, but after that I’m cruising down the trail.

“You miss so much night hiking!” I hear constantly from non-thru hikers. But if they could see the way the dawn light illuminates the ice crystals on the grassy meadows, and hear the coyotes surprisingly close howling as a pack, I’m not sure they’d say that. Dawn is my favorite time on trail.

By 8am I’ve caught up with Baby, Dingo, and my favorite trail dog. Baby had sent me a panicked series of messages previously about single digit highs at James Peak, not having realized it was in Celsius.

It’s not super cold on the way up to James Peak, but non-flowing water is all frozen and doesn’t seem to be melting.

The wind is blowing hard at 12,500 feet, and we’ve still got almost 1000 feet to climb. Baby is concerned about Luna, who seems to be feeling unwell, but I literally run across the rocky terrain to charge up James Peak. It’s beautiful but cold, and I immediately scamper down into the valley to find a sheltered campsite.

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Autumn is here, and winter is coming. 

It’s already pretty cold when I get to the bottom of the valley. Although it’s early, I just camp at the bottom in one of many campsites hidden in a grove of trees. After dark I see a red flashlight shining through the forest.

“Sonic!” I call out. She comes over and camps nearby.

“What are we doing out here?” she asks. “This is so insane.” We’d just got confirmation when we had cell service on the ridge that a low pressure system was bringing cold and snow soon.

“Beans and her group did 86 miles in 36 hours, and they bailed off Gray’s Peak,” she mentions. There’s a pause while we think that over.

“I’ve been thinking of dropping low and taking the Silverthorne cutoff instead of that route,” I add slowly. I feel like I should enjoy the high routes in Colorado while I have the chance, but I also don’t want to be cold and miserable.

“Yeah, I was thinking the same,” she replies. And with that it’s settled. We’re not going to tempt the fates in Colorado. It’s hard enough in late September as is.

CDT Colorado: A Hike of Ice and Fire

The 30 mile water carry turns into 35 miles because I misread the pretty vague instructions on the maps. But it’s fine, and my five liters get me through it.

Sonic catches up with me, and we take shelter from the heat under the first tree we’ve seen in almost a week. The road walk is kind of boring, but it’s flat, easy walking. I know Colorado will be neither of those, and that soon enough I’ll be wishing for heat, so I try to enjoy it while I can.

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The general route of the CDT in Wyoming.

Getting to the first water source in a day or so is a glorious experience, especially when it’s cold and not infested by cow shit. I filter and immediately chug a liter, with the sun setting and the mountains of Colorado visible to the south.

Tomorrow we’ll climb up, up, and up out of the basin back into the peaks. But tonight we camp at the end of the road walk, as a surprising number of cars zoom past us on the gravel road. We’re in the middle of nowhere, why are there so many cars?!

We agree to set our alarms for 5:30am, concerned by how early it gets dark now, rather than wait for the sun to wake us. The desert is frigid in the pre dawn, and although my headlamp isn’t very powerful the sun starts to rise shortly after we set off on the sinuous, ever-rising route to Colorado.

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We’ll do something like this route through Colorado. The weather may force me to lower trails and cutoffs to avoid inclement weather and snow.

We follow dirt roads up to a ridgeline, and I pull my phone out to check when we start the “super difficult” climb I’d heard so much about. Turns out we already did it… This trail can be tough in spots, and late season in Colorado can be rough, but so far the difficulty of the CDT is way over hyped.

It takes around 90 minutes to get a ride into Encampment, the last town stop in Wyoming, on a mountain highway with very little traffic.

When I connect to wifi I get messages from Baby, saying the fire closure is now 25 miles. She’s been on the phone with the forest service, and they have a 35 mile road walk to detour the closure but advise walking it ASAP. It should be good for a few days, but they expect the fire to only grow.

Got us a ride back to the trail, meet me at the bar. Sonic messages me. I’ve already paid the $10 to camp at the RV park, but it’s a hard hitch out and I want to get back to the trail ASAP.

“You kids like to smoke dope?!” the older woman asks excitedly when we get closer to the trailhead, after we’d told her stories about our trans-America hike thus far. She and her husband are super nice, but we don’t think it’d be a good idea to night hike drunk and stoned into a wildfire area during hunting season. So we politely decline.

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Colorado at last! Because of the fire detour I couldn’t enter my fourth state of the hike via the trail, but it was still exhilarating seeing the sign. There were lots of hunters in the area, as well as forest service cars, so I felt pretty safe.

“I’m pretty sure she’s the same one who gave us a ride back to the trail from Encampment,” another hiker later told me. “She told us ‘stop being such a pussy and take a hit’ when we told her we didn’t want any.”

My first night in Colorado I was unable to find a suitable campsite by dark. I started going into a bit of a mental downspiral, having to jump off the road whenever a car came by.

What am I doing out here? This is so stupid. What if there’s snow on the ground and I can’t keep hiking? What if I wake up to multiple feet of snow? What if I get hypothermia in the San Juans? What if I need cold weather gear but I can’t get it? 

I realize all these thoughts are counter productive, but Colorado is going to be really tough. The weather can change in an instant, and is notoriously unpredictable. Late September in southern Colorado is a dicey prospect, but there are ways to deal with it. Low routes and cutoffs proliferate the worst of it all: the San Juans. There’s not much I can do other than hike on, pay attention to the weather reports, take low routes when appropriate, and try to enjoy it as much as possible. The latter is easier said than done, and I feel like I have a deadline hanging over me. But the worst part is I have no idea what that deadline is!

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The road walk around the fire wasn’t that bad. Lots of water, and most importantly there was a cafe along it! “Time for brunch!” Sonic called to me from the restaurant.

I catch up with Sonic and, as per usual, she’s having the exact same thoughts as me. “The San Juans are usually good through early October. Sobos have made it for years on similar timelines, we’ll just have to play it by ear,” she mumbles while eating her massive, hot breakfast at the café.

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Sonic in the Mt. Zirkel Wilderness, a few miles after the end of the fire detour road walk. We took a scenic alternate and it was well worth it.

Hitching into our first Colorado town was easy, about 13 minutes for Sonic and I to get a ride at 8am. I pet the driver’s dog while we descended into Steamboat Springs, and I only wish the other Coloradans were as friendly as him. Our first stop, after the post office to pick up some new shoes and Colorado maps, was McDonald’s to get pumpkin spice lattes and eat a massive breakfast.

“Disgusting,” some woman muttered.

“At least we’re not eating at McDonald’s without walking 30 miles a day,” Sonic growled.

“Colorado is beautiful and I hate everyone in it,” I decided after we kept getting looks of disgust around town. I’ve never felt like hikertrash as much as I have in Colorado, being constantly judged by all the pretentious jerks from Denver.

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Desperate hitches call for desperate measures! Pounds is another sobo from Los Angeles. I took a turn holding this sign while hitching out of a later town, Winter Park, and couldn’t help wondering what my crazy orthodox Jewish grandfather would’ve thought.

We leave in the afternoon, and it takes almost 90 minutes and two hitches to get a ride back to the trail. The guy who picks us up doesn’t really believe us when we explain we’re walking 2800 miles from Canada to Mexico. This seems a pretty common reaction. The CDT is fairly obscure, and there are probably only around 140 thru hikers this year. Compared to 2-3k each on the PCT and AT.

There are menacing black clouds of death on the horizon when we start the 11 mile highway walk in the direction of Grand Lake, our next resupply stop. We hurriedly set up our tents in an unofficial camping just off the road, but the storm passes along without a drop of rain. The weather in Colorado is so bizarre.

Rather than thunder, we’re kept up by the angry squeals of a squirrel. We seem to have set up camp in his territory. “Wish I’d brought my bb gun,” is the last thing I hear from Sonic as I fall asleep.

My apprehension about the difficulty of late season Colorado is replaced by excitement. It could be a lot worse, and so far things seem to be going well!

CDT: Great Basin

Descending down into Wyoming’s Great Basin, you get a feel for the contours of the land. It’s a giant bowl of desert ringed by mountains and makes for easy, flat walking.

The basin has no protection from storms, but what it lacks in shelter it makes up for in hordes of cows. There are also herds of wild horses roaming the landscape. Although I complain about it a lot, and it was rough in the middle of the day, it was overall a pretty neat section of trail. 

The trees disappear and are replaced by cows. Not a trade I’d generally prefer, but after constantly having wet and freezing feet for the past two weeks I’m willing to make a few concessions.

I cross Highway 287, where you can hitch into the town of Lander, and keep going an hour and a half to South Pass City. South Pass is a Wyoming state park, and consists of a few old restored 19th century buildings. In lieu of hitching into Lander hikers can send a box of food to South Pass, which is what I did. Another hiker was camped out in the grass next to the restrooms, which the historic site keeps open at all hours for hikers.

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Not a lot of people live in the basin. But this tiny town was pretty cool and super hiker friendly. Wyoming is awesome. 

Judge Judy (not his real trail name, but I’ve renamed him without his consent for being such a judgmental old man and it’s stuck) is harassing the woman running the place, and I push my way through this insanity to send my father a postcard. Then I bolt, because there’s no restaurant here and I want to get dinner in Atlantic City before the region’s sole restaurant closes.

Like the rest of the basin, the 4.5 mile walk to Atlantic City is flat, dry, and on deserted dirt roads. I sit at the bar with a bunch of locals in cowboy hats and inhale a massive burger and peach cobbler. It’s the kind of place where the bartender calls any youth under 65 “honey” and seems to spend much of her time chatting.

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The basin is pretty much like this for a week. 

I walk half a mile outside of town and camp by the road. I’d done 20 miles by 2pm, plus another 4.5 to the restaurant, but I’m not sore at all. I feel strong, but not as strong as the wind that hammers my tent all night and makes sleep neigh impossible.

The Atlantic City episcopalian reverend lets me spend the night on the couch in the community center, which is my first time sleeping off the floor in about seven weeks. I hadn’t taken a day off for five weeks, so it’s probably time to do so. There’s a kitchen and lots of supplies, and I cook dinner before falling asleep at 8pm. Bliss.

The basin is cool for the first couple of days, but then it gets ungodly hot in the day and makes me hate everything. I don’t see another human for 47 hours, and I can see why. It’s a dust bowl in the middle of nowhere, with cows and some of the most disgusting cow-defiled water sources imaginable.

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I scared away the cows at this spring and sat in a wooden enclosure while the midday heat fried what little remains of my sanity. Then the cows came back and started mooing at me. Whenever cows annoy me I just dream of getting a burger. 

Hikers do all kinds of crazy things in this section, like 62 miles in 24 hours, but the midday heat fries my mind and I do only 25 to 30 miles a day. I try night hiking but the howls of coyotes all around me are a little disconcerting, so I just follow my usual dawn to dusk walking schedule.

The night before arriving at Rawlins, 120 miles from the last highway, a strong wind makes me collapse my tent and sleep on top of it.

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No highway sign can tell me what to do!  A police car briefly turned on his siren when he passed me but didn’t do anything, so I kept going. Oftentimes the police in these tiny towns are older guys who are very hiker friendly, and getting a ride into town from the sheriff is not unheard of while hitching. 

In the morning I walk in the dawn light along the highway into Rawlins, and upon learning it’s an 8 mile round trip walk to the laundromat and campground just book a room. I spend about 23 hours in the Days Inn which has a hiker discount of $20 off.

The other hikers and I don’t really leave the hotel other than to get food. It’s amazing to have a room to myself and go down to pet Luna when I get the urge.

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My favorite southbounder! She’s already done the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails. I’ve been meeting so many awesome trail dogs, and I’m actually starting to like dogs. 

Sonic, who I met at REI in Columbus, has caught up with me. We hang out in the McDonald’s drinking pumpkin spice lattes and putting off leaving town. I’ve only met around 11 other southbounders since Canada, so meeting a new one is a pretty big deal. It turns out we went to Ohio State at the same time, and probably passed each other on campus walking to class. Small world. Or maybe not, considering there are almost 50k undergrads there.

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Thankfully I’ve downloaded audiobooks from the Columbus Public Library to my phone to keep me occupied in the basin. Right now I’m listening to Endurance, about the Shackleton antarctic expedition. It’s not really visible, but a herd of wild horses are running across the road. 

It’s 35 miles to the next water source (at the time I think it’s 30 miles, but soon learn the error of my ways). That’s pretty long, so I stock up on 5 liters and head out. I’d originally wanted to go all the way to Steamboat Springs in Colorado, which is about 150 miles away, but carrying five days of food plus all that water seemed masochistic. So I’ll stop in Encampment. There’s a small fire closure, so I’ll need to go into town to check on trail conditions anyways.

Eclipse in the Winds

“It’s so cold!” Murphy calls with a laugh from her tent. I’m usually the first one to wake up and start hiking, but they’ll catch up with me pretty quickly.

Last night we’d crossed the Buffalo River to get to an amazing and spacious campsite. I’d left my socks to dry from the easy crossing on top of my tent.

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Will it storm? Who knows. I sure don’t.

“My socks are frozen solid!” I call out, also laughing from how cold it is. Somebody with a thermometer later told me it was 24F/-4C that morning. Going through my pack I realize I’d left one of my liner socks on the other side of the river.

“Totally not worth it,” Murphy agrees when I say I really don’t want to cross the river there and back again to get it. Yay for my father’s Amazon Prime subscription! I’ll just have new socks mailed further down the trail.

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Sometimes you just have to scramble on the trail.

We set off in the Teton Wilderness in the early dawn light, taking off layers as I climb and warm up from the movement. Getting up is always so hard when it’s cold and my 10F/-12C sleeping bag is so toasty, but within a few minutes of walking I’m usually fine. It’s just difficult to get to that point!

There’s only 15 miles/25 km from our campsite to the highway, where we’ll hitch into Dubois, but there’s no rush. There’s no way we’re doing the 37 mile hitch to Dubois before or during the eclipse.

 

I got some eclipse glasses in Grant Village, Yellowstone National Park. Didn’t want to start off Wyoming by going blind.

 

There’s a bit of dirt road walking towards the highway before cutting across a field with a barely discernable trail, which abruptly drops me off at US 26. There’s a lot of traffic in both directions and although the cars are going pretty fast, I get picked up by the second car.

 

Shortly before totality. The stars came out, the birds stopped chirping, and for two minutes it was totally dark. To the north and south we could see light on the horizon. I later heard it dropped 17F/8C degrees during the eclipse.

A Parisian and his boyfriend on a cross-America road trip drop me off in Dubois, and I immediately head to the Episcopalian church to reserve a spot…just to find out that at 3pm I’m the first one of the day. They let hikers and bikers sleep on the floor, which is nice considering the Super 8 Motel is $1000 a night, two night minimum, due to the eclipse.

Dubois has about 1800 people in the summer, and it’s not as packed as I thought it would be post-eclipse. Some woman at the Cowboy Cafe thinks I’m an employee, which sends some northbounders into a fit.

 

They had tea and popcorn at the Dubois church! I was so in heaven.

 

“Your shorts cut off mid-thigh, your beard is insane, and there are streaks of dirt all over your face. Of course you’re a waiter here,” a hiker says once the woman has disappeared.

The church is awesome, and Dubois has everything a hiker would need. Some coffee shops are an excellent bonus, and the laundromat has pay showers inside. I ask a cyclist from the church if he wants to split a washing machine since we both have so few clothes, and he looks at me as if I’d asked if he wanted to shower together. The cyclists are weird, and come across like princesses compared to the hikers. Motown, who remembers me from the PCT in Kennedy Meadows (I honestly have no recollection of her), asks if I want to split a dryer with her and her boyfriend.

Hitching inside the city limits of Dubois is illegal, but the point is rendered moot when some weird guy in his 80s asks if I want a ride back up to Togwotee Pass. He keeps offering to take me to random other places along the trail to cut off a day or so, and I have to tell him four times to just drop me off where he said he would. Like I would accept a ride from a stranger onto a dirt road in the middle of nowhere.

I give him $10 for gas (it’s a long drive) and wait until he’s gone before I set off so he doesn’t know which direction I’m going. Never tell strangers the exact route you’re taking, and never tell them where you’re spending the night.

 

The Winds are pretty spectacular.

 

There’s a 17 mile detour to Elkhart Trailhead, where you can hitch 15 miles into Pinedale. Everyone loves Pinedale, I’m fairly fast, and there’s no way in hell I’m doing a 180 mile stretch after all the northbounders shared their stories of running out of food.

 

I saw nobody for hours along this route.

 

Getting a ride into Pinedale is easy. There’s very little traffic at 9am, but the second car stops and a trio of South Dakotans make room for me. The Episcopalian church in Pinedale lets hikers sleep on the floor and use the kitchen, and there are three other hikers already there when I arrive.

 

Another shot of the Winds in the Bridger Wilderness.

 

One is a northbounder, which is strange because there’s no way he can reach Canada before winter. As a southbounder I have to reach New Mexico before the snow starts, but I have many fewer miles and a good deal more time than somebody trying to reach the Great White North. So it’s no surprise when he’s cagey about what he’s actually hiked, and I get the impression he’s just taking advantage of the hospitality of the church. The other two southbounders I haven’t seen before, but they started 12 days before me and took a different route. They also seem to be taking multiple days off in town, which is quite atypical with the tight weather window on a CDT hike. There’s just something off about the others, and it’s further compounded when they stay up late watching TV. I’ve never seen thru hikers be able to stay up past 9pm, also known as hiker midnight. I go upstairs, find a quiet corner, and try to sleep.

 

Around the end of the more spectacular parts of the range.

 

I can’t hear the television, but I still can’t sleep. Having trouble sleeping in towns was a common problem I remember in myself and others on the PCT. It’s just hard to sleep without the cold breeze, and my one night each in Dubois and Pinedale are the first times in over 6 weeks I’ve slept inside. It’s definitely an adjustment.

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Near the northern boundary of the Bridger Wilderness at the Green River Lakes Trailhead.

I make a “CDT HIKER TO ELKHART” sign and stand by the side of the road with my thumb out. Within two minutes I’m in the car of a local, not much older than me, who’s on her way to do some hiking. It’s a Sunday morning in August, and it seems like everyone else in the northern Rockies is of a similar mindset.

“Little late for a southbounder, aren’t you?” is a familiar refrain that I hear fairly frequently from old white dudes who apparently have nothing better to do than strongly suggest I’m going to die in the snow in Colorado. This is part of why I avoid humans on trail.

“The others all came through a month ago,” I hear from one hiker. “September is a terrible month to hike in Colorado. The snow was nearly vertical when I was there in July, I normally do 25-30 miles a day and could barely manage 11! Plus, you know what happened to Otter when he went through late season.”

Here’s my response to this bullshit:

  1. Not even Anish, who holds the fastest unsupported records for most of America’s long distance trails, had been through here a month ago. I pay great attention to where everyone is, and I’m in the middle of the pack of southbounders that aren’t yellow blazing (a reference to following the yellow blazes on the road by hitching, rather than the blazes on the trail).
  2. In a typical year, September is the best month for hiking in Colorado. The monsoon season is over, but the snow and cold hasn’t started yet. October starts to get iffy, but I should be in New Mexico by that time.
  3. Doing 11 miles a day in Colorado in July is a little ridiculous, considering the snow has largely melted by then.
  4. If it takes you four months to reach the halfway point and it takes me two months, then we’re going at very different speeds. Your times are not likely indicative of what mine will be.
  5. It’s true that a hiker with the trail name Otter doing a section of the CDT died in southern Colorado, with his body being found by a northbounder the following season. But he was hiking in November, two months after I’ll be in Colorado.
  6. If winter comes early this year, there are lower routes I can take.
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It normally rained lightly in the afternoon.

One guy near a trailhead (I try to just hike fast through these, I hate everyone) asks me where I’m from. “You Ohioans are always coming out here and don’t know what you’re getting yourselves into-” I ignore him and just pet his dog as he goes into the “aren’t you a little late for a southbounder?” tirade. I like his dog but not him, and cut him off to brusquely tell him bye halfway through. Who the hell says that? No wonder your wife left you last year (I’m also not sure how that was relevant to the conversation or how it came up). And how many Ohioans can be coming out here in the middle of nowhere in the least populated state in the country?

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My maps said the detour to Pinedale wasn’t very scenic, but I have to disagree.

Although the Winds were visually stunning, I was glad to get out and enter the rolling, dry desert prairie of the Great Basin. Maybe I’m becoming too much of a misanthrope, but on the PCT I got to the point where I just avoided anyone who wasn’t a thru hiker. And I think that’s happening again on the CDT.

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The start of the Bridger Wilderness is at the lakes.