Magical Aspen Forest to Cowboy Cabin, 22 miles
I sleep well in my aspen grotto, even when the wind gusts shaking leaves to land on the tent with a pftttttt.
I wake before the sun lightens the canyon, wondering how I will find the right spot to watch the annular eclipse. After the mountain, I’ll walk on a high mesa, not so much in the desert itself.
I’m carrying far too much weight having packed my fears I’ll be too cold. After a few hours in my warm bag, I begin shedding layers. I’m also carrying a stove, but silly me forgot to put the gas inside my bag to keep it warm and it’s like ice up here at 10,000 feet. It won’t stay lit, so I drink cold coffee.
I pack quickly and begin heading up. It’s a rise, but not steep and still in shadow as the valley and red-toned mesas come into view far below. It’s brown grass punctuated by pinyon pines, one glowing as the sun begins to filter through. The wind is cold.
I zigzag up steadily in and out of shadow looking down to my canyon, bright yellow. This is easy compared to back east, but still a good push as humpy mountains come into view cuddled in next to Taylor. It’s a sacred place and I climb reverently, excited to have such stunning views all around. At the top I look straight out to Sandia Peak where I was only a day ago.
I snap pictures then head down the other side on soft pine needles from very tall trees. It’s a short forest walk before I walk on a ridge looking down into a canyon filled with bright yellow birch. I certainly picked the right moment to walk with deep blue skies and autumn at peak.
I hit a saddle and a road which I want to take down, but that is the wrong way and instead I climb up steeply to radio towers before heading down over rolling hills.
Pockets of aspen cozy in around what must be water sources, though deep underground. I have lunch under an avenue of trees, so brilliantly golden, the air around them glows.
New Mexico is experiencing drought and I am going to need to be very careful with water. Up ahead, and off trail, is a piped trough. I find a cairn and plunge into forest which eventually opens to a small cow pasture.
Black cows and calves mingle tightly near the blue tank. Upon my approach they shift and moo, except for one who refuses to move and bellows a low growl.
Nice cows! Just getting water.
I drop my bag, then place my bottles under the pipe to fill. It’s cold and fresh though I still filter it. A group of stones makes a great seat and table where I have second lunch. One calf comes closer to check me out.
A ring of aspens frames the cows and I wonder if they have any idea how good they have it. I drink a liter and a half then pack up two liters to carry. My bag is so heavy.
It’s all woods down and down to meet the road again which will take me to the official CDT. Along the way, I meet a hiker named Matt who warns me all of the tanks are empty and I’ll have a 20 mile carry.
He also tells me that I’ll be on road and can always ask for water since many people are out now picking up pinyon nuts.
“Don’t worry, it’s all flat!”
I try not to think about water as I meet the trail to continue north. It’s in forest to start and more rolling than flat reminding me of Northern Arizona.
When I’m spit out on rutted road, I begin to see cars creating dust clouds. Already the view back to the mountain is astonishing. It’s giant and receding fast. Even from this distance, I can see an orange swath of aspen.
But now I’m exposed to the sun and it bakes me even if, as Matt said, it’s flat. The air is cool, but so dry I’m not sure two liters is going to cut it.
A truck comes my way and I flag it down to ask for a top off. A man named Mark stops telling me in a Spanish accent that he’s a fifth generation cowboy. He gives me a gallon jug to swig from and I kill half of it. He then suggests I camp at his cabin six miles ahead. “I’ll keep an eye out for you!”
The road is pretty flat, rocky and rutted but not bad walking. It’s like a moonscape reaching out to a vanishing horizon with humpy cerros popping up.
I like the wild vastness and look back as Taylor gets smaller and smaller. Cars and ATV’s pass with others offering water and one offering to try the pinyon. They taste earthy and I crunch a few down, shell and all.
Angels truly are everywhere making sure I’m ok and reminding me that everything is dried up until a spring over 10 miles away. I’m tired and may have gone too far today, but I’ve been invited to a cowboy cabin and I plan to get there.
Indeed, Mark waits for me ensuring I know the way up a road near a cerro and a corral. He drives ahead and I walk over as the sun begins to set.
I have just enough light to set my tent and snap pictures in this desolate landscape. Mark makes beef and squash with serrano peppers (on the side for this gringa) and we gather in the warm cabin to talk about life.
I’m so glad I brought two eclipse glasses, somehow knowing I’d meet someone. I’m tired from such a long day and we’ll drive up Cerros de Alejandro, with its expansive views, to watch together.
I walk out to my tent through low prickly plants, the milky way on full display and an owl hoots me good night. What a glorious day of such different scenery and what luck to make a friend along the way.
I leave my food inside the cabin after Mark tells me they have a resident bear. Coyotes yip their high pitched barks and one owl hoots.
I sleep deeply.
Mark – his real name is Celestino, a fifth generation Hispanic rancher – is full of bumper sticker aphorisms like, “How does the enemy come in? Through fear, doubt, and lack.” He calls himself a Transformative Dreams Life Coach and it’s pretty clear the reason for his inviting me to the cabin – to be his audience.
Still, it’s a good halfway point along the 24-mile waterless mesa of wheatgrass and pinyon. I start my day picking up handfuls of the brown little nut and learn breaking off the shell reveals a sweet meat inside.
This morning is the eclipse and I packed a pair of glasses having a feeling I’d meet someone along the way. Mark is game and wants to take me up Cerros de Alejandro for the wide view.
The only way to get there, though, is riding a 4×4. I have never been on a 4×4 and just sitting still I feel I’ll slip right off. Mark doesn’t take things too fast but each bump, dip, or awkward maneuver has me moaning with fear. Still, it’s gorgeous up these mountains. I picked precisely the right time to be here at fall’s peak colors.
The scrub oak creeps up sandy hillsides in a deep orange and crimson like a tapestry glittering as the sun’s rays catch each little hand. The tree grows above my head, then its branches die in a frozen dance ad leaves bush out below. I fear tumbling off so only look away from the road ahead furtively, still awed by the stained glass effect.
It’s a decent but rocky road, steep at one point where I really hold tight, but well worth it. Below, the mesa reaches out towards pink badlands. Two perfectly shaped lava cones rest like dunce caps.
The wind picks up with an icy chill under a cloudless sky. We find rocks to sit on and lift our glasses and see an eclipse already in progress. The moon’s shadow crosses from above, a black disc held up to a ball of fire. I attempt a photograph and hope I’ll find better professional ones that capture this eerie moment.
An eclipse produces a crescent unlike our familiar nightly moon glow. Exaggerated, this one sports horns that narrow until finally touching in a ring of fire before the disc slides off the other way, exiting its shape backwards.
It’s a stunning site as is our perch on lava rocks and hidden cactus. But it’s cold and we part, with me now much less nervous on the descent. A red-tailed hawk flies just in front of us, huge and noble. Mark tells me it’s a sign and good luck.
Then he gives me an opportunity to drive – for all of 50 yards – and I must say, it’s fun.
When we return, all I can think about is food. I hiked a lot yesterday plus burned calories hanging on tight on our outing do hiker hunger has fully set in.
As has a tired body.
It may not have been prudent to walk over 20 miles, but this stop was ideal. When Mark suggests I stay another night, I see the wisdom in giving my body a rest and starting fresh in the cool of the morning.
Mark’s brother Daniel and niece Mariah are staying too and we meet them near their well where they need to lay a pipe to fill the dirt tank. It’s hard work and frustrating since most tanks are full this time of year. We take the 4×4 passing a murder of crows flying in a tornadic dance, their silky black wings catching the sunlight.
The work takes a long time but 11-year-old Mariah is inquisitive and we set to finding pinyon. She has a knack for locating the best, digging them up with long, pink nails.
We join together for dinner and Mark waxes on with one life tip after another – never say sorry, go with the flow, stress causes cancer, you can manifest anything by thinking the right thoughts, there is no such thing as right or wrong, don’t trust anyone…
We manage to find some common ground and enjoy a dinner of beef, squash, chilis and home-made tortillas. I finally make my way out to my tent under a blanket of stars and sleep deeply as the temperatures drop.
I feel blessed for the invitation to share water and food, this space and our eclipse outing plus see the life of a rancher at work. Our politics and worldview are very far apart and I begin to feel I’m getting coached whether I desire to or not.
Still, the break was a good one for my body and mind, plus I have the opportunity to enter a world that I’ve never seen up close before.