Deadman Peaks to Mesa Portales, 15 miles
The moon sets magenta, seemingly lit from inside. I watch the stars come out and one lone hiker passes with a bright headlamp. I wonder if I can be seen?
The wind blows all night, but its coolness against my skin is refreshing. I dive in deeper when I want to warm up and sleep well on my perch. An owl visits close to dawn. hoo-hooooo-hoo-hoo-hoo
I awake to a deep orange sky, as if painted with water colors, the dustiness smearing the shades towards deep blackish blue. One cow below bellows her rendition of “Here Comes the Sun.” Coffee is in bed before I pack quickly as the sun heats up my spot. I’ll stay high most of the day, following these rims and watching the geology change by layers.
Mostly I walk on the soft dirt still holding dimples from heavy rain. At the center of a horseshoe, exposed rock acts as a funnel to release water far down to where I heard Miss Cow. I leave the rim to walk along a road towards my next set of views. A bushtit chips in the juniper. Hey you! I’m no tits!
I meet a hiker named Phil from England’s Lake District and we talk a while about hikes we’ve both walked and ones he recommends. He’s fairly sanguine about this thru-hike, shooting to hit 20 miles each day so he’ll finish, but never pushing too hard to ensure he enjoys what he sees and doesn’t miss anything.
I tell him how I tend to saunter and go for the SKT (Slowest Known Time) It’s more a joke because I really can move when I choose to and today I plan to do as I did yesterday, eating dinner at the water source, then carrying ahead to get closer to the end.
We part and I immediately meet a group of hikers asking about water. I reassure them they have good sources and press on, climbing up steeply onto a ridge. The views are astounding of stair-stepping mesas one after another in colorful reds and browns and dotted with cedars.
Far below and ahead, I see a line of trees like poured gold. They must be lining the major river through here that makes the towns possible. No sooner am I up, then I go steeply down into a wash filled with sage and bright purple mountain aster. I tread carefully to ensure I don’t step on a snake, but I never see one.
Back up on rock slabs as if poured. I pass a wash where the rock is worn to look like houses from The Planet of the Apes. I love walking on this clingy rock, angled so I can test my grip. It’s bright reflecting the sun and I’m almost through my water.
Up and down and around, each ridge made up of different textures and colors. Now it’s soft and tree lined. I hear birds singing and when I meet the corner, there is one remaining puddle, the source of their joy.
More layer cakes of mesas appear, though I skip them heading north, this time on rock that’s cracked into large geometric shapes. From the top I look back and notice the giant cerro is visible again. Like a beacon, it reminds me of leaving the high country then walking the expanse of desert. What a fantastic walk!
I begin to leave the up and down and round and round as I come closer to my water source. Ponderosa grows nearby and birds flutter past. Jones Canyon is protected but we are allowed to take water.
It’s only trickling from a pipe into a box, so I carefully scoop to fill my dirty water bags to be filtered. I set my folded sleep pad in shade to cook dinner and relax from the very hot day. My advantage is wind in my face like a water spritz and the sun (mostly) at my back.
Oaks in red, yellow and orange reach into the space, a rock cave where swallows have built mud nests in the wall. Junkos, robins, solitaires and jays flutter and peep as I eat up and drink as much as I can take.
I stay at least an hour in this idyll. They ask that we not camp since the waterer is for wildlife too. I have only seen jack rabbits and squirrels, but the desert is home to mountain lions and javelina, coyotes and deer.
Full and happy, I press on walking an enormous flat area towards one last mesa ahead. It’s enormous with layers delineated by color and erosion style, whether smoothly shaped or jagged and broken. Clouds are building over the mountains ahead and I wonder if we’ll get rain. I swing through a gate – they’re normally a sort of shoot with no moving parts and at a sharp angle that’s manageable by humans but not cows.
That just means I’m in their home now, black and brown using the trail and milling about, though looking at me anxiously. When I say hello, they run away, not a one curious or standing her ground.
I reach the mesa and need to follow along its edge. This is because the lower grey level is smoothed out like massive yurts and it’s unclimbable. Even if you dug in steps, they’d break off easily. So I follow a contour up and down directly beneath them until a layer in red of more solid rock leads to a passage straight up, 250 feet.
Mostly, the trail builders use what’s available to create stairs, but sometimes, I have to use my hands to hoist myself up and over. In sandstone, they carve steps. As I rise, it gets more and more beautiful, the mesa revealed glowing as the sun begins to set. On top, it’s absolutely flat and I follow the rim as it gets more golden and dramatic.
It’s time to look for a camp spot. I’m picky especially when on a section rather than thru-hiking. I look at spots, but some are not so flat or very close to the trail. The mesa turns at an angle and I wonder if being on top of the beautiful part means I lose the view.
But the opposite happens.
As I swing around, suddenly the tower comes into view along with one other cone-shaped vent. I can hardly believe it. All this way and I still see my beacon. Finally the trail heads away from the edge and I notice a kind of private sky peninsula. When I get there, the building clouds melt into a wavy froth, turning pink with a view.
I set cowgirl style and take picture after picture of the magical light show, my last on this particular hike. I can see the lights of Cuba and cars on the highway, but they are slightly hidden by the remaining mesa I’ll walk tomorrow.
The crescent moon looks like a candle flame, creamy as it sets, giving the stars all the darkness they need to glow tonight. I’ll watch them until I close my eyes and dream of another deep orange sunrise and the last of this small section of the CDT.
Mesa Portales to Cuba, 6 miles
The sky is again blood orange. I’m cold, so stay tucked in my bag to make coffee and eat the last of my homemade bars (vegetarian pemmican) No one visited, but the coyotes welcome the day, too and a few birds fly over.
My spot is cozy in the soft sand, embraced lightly on each side by sandstone. Not knowing if the weather could turn nasty, I brought a poncho that doubles as a ground cloth holding my mattress, bag and various items. I leave my food within an odor-proof extra-strong ziploc inside the bear bag inside my pack.
The temperatures are mild so my 10-degree bag is ideal with my ultralight puffy wrapped on my arms, hood on to keep my hair from going wild in the breeze. As I lay back last night in the softest cocoon and watched the crescent of moon drop behind the mesa, two falling stars caught my eye as if topping off such a lovely day; such a lovely section of trail.
It’s hard to say goodbye and I honestly am not precisely sure how the next part of this walk will go. My award ticket home is scheduled for tomorrow night because the busses I’ll need to get back to Albuquerque don’t leave until late afternoon. Still, I wonder if there might be a better way to bring what has been blissful serenity and joyful reunion with the desert to a close.
I deliberately chose a corner peninsula on the edge of the cliff to camp so I would have views out both ways, plus be far enough away from the trail to avoid detection. I sling on my pack and walk along the edge, extra careful not to stumble because, well, gravity.
It’s only a few steps to the trail and within moments, I lose the edge all together, entering wheatgrass and pine, some bright orange scrub oak thrown in for color. I stir up a pygmy nuthatch which “pipes” its repetitive but sweet song.
Golly, I’m going to miss this place and its surprises. Not at all as I expected thinking snakes and horny toads and far more stretches of hot sand. Little did I know I’d fall so deeply in love with the birds and ponderosa pine! Those of you who followed my Arizona Trail adventure know how worn out I got with those big, hulking trees in the viewless – and incredibly muddy – Mogollon Rim. It didn’t help that my gear and my body became infested with bed bugs, but that’s a whole ‘nother story.
Here, the ponderosa signal life, usually in the form of a canyon where water collects, seeping into the sandstone to later emerge as a spring. Funny how one of my favorite nights on this hike was in one of those canyons, camping atop six-inch pine needles. The trees look like bonsai for giants with arms reaching out in graceful poses.
Yes, the astounding views from the mesas one after another are breathtaking and I’m so glad to have slept out right at their edges, but the trees are where the birds congregate. And look here! I’ve come to another canyon. My sticks thwok! on sandstone which abruptly ends in a horseshoe then plunges deep. I stand at its edge, then think better of it realizing I am only on a thin bit of stone eroded beneath, which, under the right circumstances, could simply break off.
The birds swoop and sing in their private riparian district. There’s not enough water for me to collect, but drips and seeps sustain them and these healthy trees. My favorite bird whistles her crystalline single note. It’s a Townsend’s Solitaire, a thrush related to the robin. Soft gray and sleek with a white circle around her eye and black and brown wing tips.
Her song is rich, complex and long in a series of warbles and and crunchy trills. And she sings it as if not having a care in the world. How did such a beautiful sound end up here in this harsh place? Then again, how are cougar tracks preserved in the sand and a bit of snake skin left behind? All of these creatures call this home and let me pass through for a short visit.
I meet the desert now and a forest road leading to a main road which will get me to Cuba. It’s flat and hot. Water is said to be nearby but at this point, I don’t need anymore. I see cars in the distance and the journey is coming to its end
I hesitate to use the word “enough” to describe choosing only a portion of the CDT to walk and allowing that much to stand alone. Enough implies a sort of weariness or cynical dismissiveness of something as lesser-than. It’s been a long and difficult summer and I wanted something bite-sized that would leave me wanting more. Besides the fact that much of New Mexico is a road-walk and this section is likely its very best.
Yet again, putting my feet on trail – such a different trail in every way to the Appalachian Trail – brought me back to myself, to the brave, curious and fully alive person I’ve always been, the one who may feel fear, sorrow, and anger but still ventures forth anyway for a do-over.
I am extremely lucky to not only have gotten off easy with only having to see my breasts amputated and five years of drug therapy. But it’s not only that. I was also given the chance to walk nice long representative sections of two of the most famous trails in the United States, ones that healed me body, mind and spirit.
I’ll be giving talks, writing and podcasting in the upcoming months, even if I walk every day in beautiful Minnesota. And of course dreaming of the next place where my feet and my spirit will roam.
I am so close I can hear the cars now, my shoes kicking up dust and my stomach rumbling ready for a real breakfast. Suddenly, an exaltation of horned larks lifts from the low shrubs, their exuberant tinkly song piercing the morning air.