Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Day 20: Alpaca Ranch to Chain of Craters (Mile 479)

Wham!  A chunk of gravel whacked my ear, kicked up by a car speeding by.  More roadwalking. 

Walking toward the sun, the sweltering heat rising off the hot pavement, we were grateful for every breath of wind. Few trees shaded the wide open golden ranch land. 

A car screeched to a stop. The window rolled down, and a woman called out, asking if we needed water or anything. A trail volunteer on her way back from a project, the woman heard we were hiking this section today when she stopped by the High Country Alpaca Ranch. She shared some yummy snacks, and continued on her way. 

After spending most of the day dodging cars on the road, we were delighted to reach actual CDT trail at the start of the Chain of Craters route. And then we reached the lava. 

Deep fissures opened in the lava like crevasses in a glacier. Deeper grass filled craters dimpled the lava field. Caves hid beneath crumbling lava bridges. 

The hot, rough stone scraped against feet already travelworn from two days of road walking. We scrambled over lava, jumped over cracks and fissures, and climbed down into craters. We slowly inched our way through, and quickly found camping when we made it through. As the sun set, the clouds lit up in shades of gold, orange, and pink, a perfect substitute for the Fourth of July fireworks we are missing this evening. Happy Independence Day!

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Day 19: Toaster House to High Country Alpaca Ranch

The rooster alerted us it was time to hike. Wordlessly, we packed up and tiptoed downstairs, slipping out and back on the trail while the bikers slept on. 

Trail?  Today's "trail" consisted of a roadwalk, our feet pounding against the hard dried mud of a dirt road. Eventually, when the trail is completed, this 50 mile roadwalk will no longer be necessary. Of course, the trail will no longer pass through Pie Town then either, and I, for one, think that is a shame. Will future hikers choose to hitch into Pie Town on the promise of a slice of the Pie Lady's delicious pie and Nita's famed hospitality?  I hope so. Pie Town is a treasure.

Our goal for the day was the High Country Alpaca Ranch, thirty miles away. We easily completed our 10x10 (10 miles by 10 in the morning), which most hikers consider essential to completing a 30 mile day. Road miles, although somewhat monotonous and hard on your feet, make for easy walking. 

After 23 miles of dirt road (23 miles that, incidentally, took us 20 miles farther from our next resupply), we turned onto an old paved highway with a narrow shoulder. New Mexico drivers, although speedy, are very polite. They all gave us a wave and a wide berth, except for the few who pulled over to make sure we were okay or to ask if we needed anything. 

Carolyn, John, and granddaughter Harmony greeted us at the High Country Alpaca Ranch and welcomed us to camp anywhere on their property. They told us all about the animals, and their sweet, beautiful alpacas quickly stole our hearts. We got cold drinks at their small store, and found a nice camp nestled under a canopy of pinyon pines. 

Day 18: Ranch to Toaster House, Pie Town

Pie. We woke early, thinking of pie. We thought about pie as we hiked. 

Pie Town is a tiny town "3.14 miles from the middle of nowhere" in New Mexico. The town is known for its delicious pie restaurants, which are open, more or less, whenever they feel like it on the whim of the owners and/or bakers. As they tend to feel like it at lunchtime, we woke early, hoping to finish the remaining miles to Pie Town by lunch. 

The Tour Divide, an endurance bike race or ride that overlaps with the CDT as it follows the Continental Divide, also passes through Pie Town. Although the front runners have already completed the event (the rider we met a few days ago would have already finished, with a completion time of 20 days and some number of hours), lots of riders are still coming through. We would talk to many of them over the course of the day.

First stop? The Toaster House.  Owner Nita raised her family in this eclectic little house in Pie Town, and now makes it available to hikers and bikers who are passing through town. We explored the house, stashed our packs, and then walked down to the restaurants. 

After a quick meal at the Pie Town Cafe (tasty hand cut fries!), we headed up the highway to the Pie-O-Neer. Kathy ("the pie lady") and Stanley served us up two delicious slices and welcomed us like family. We really enjoyed talking with them, and the pie was so delicious we took two more slices to go!

Returning to the Toaster House, we chatted with passing Tour Divide riders as we completed town chores.  We even had enough time for a nap up in the warm and sunny "penthouse suite" upstairs. Later in the afternoon, Nita stopped by. She greeted us with hugs and instantly made us feel like family. 

None of the local restaurants are open for dinner, but Nita keeps the freezer well stocked with frozen dinners and ice cream, and also dropped off some fresh corn. We talked to the bikers while we ate, and topped off our meal with our last two slices of pie. 

The Toaster House is always open. Everyone was sound asleep when the last Tour Divide rider of the day rode up by headlamp. Bleary-eyed, I clumped downstairs to direct him toward an empty room, showers, laundry, and food. I left him marveling at the kindness and generosity of strangers, as do all of us whose journeys have been touched by Nita and the Toaster House. 

Day 17: Near Highway 12 to Ranch 14 Miles From Pie Town

Mud. Thick, sticky mud covered the trail and clumped on the bottom of our shoes. We tried walking on grass or rocks near the trail to no avail. A thick, uneven platform of mud built up in as little as 5 minutes, requiring us to scrape our shoes. Bear tracks sunk deep in the mud shows us the bears weren't having any better luck. 

The rain beat down steadily from the moment we woke. We packed up our wet tent and hiked in the rain until lunch, when we enjoyed a momentary respite from the rain. But all too soon, the rain started back up again. We lugged an extra 5 pounds of caked mud with every step. 

Wild strawberries brightened our day. And a local rancher provided water late in the day. Another rancher stopped and invited us to camp on his land, an offer we gratefully accepted, knowing camping might be limited for the rest of the way to Pie Town. 

The rain finally stopped in the early evening, and the last light of the sun lit the clouds in bright pinks and reds. 

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Day 11: Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

Sleeping in on a zero day always feels so luxurious. But it very rarely happens. This morning, an amorous grouse, persistently calling out to potential mates, woke us with the sun. 

After a relaxing morning in camp, we headed up the road to Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. And yes, by headed up the road, I mean we walked (so not technically a zero day). 

The Gila Cliff Dwellings were once home to a group of ancient Puebloan people. Built inside natural caves high on the cliffs that form the rocky canyon walls, the cliff dwellings are cool in summer and provide protection from the elements in winter. Archeologists are not sure why the Puebloan people left the area, but believe the dwellings were abandoned in the early 1300s. 

After touring the cliff dwellings, we returned to camp and enjoyed a long, luxurious soak in the hot springs while Carla, one of the owners, told us a little more about the area. Then, back to camp for dinner and relaxation. 

Day 10: Tadpole Ridge to Gila Hot Springs

They say the early bird gets the worm. We woke early, hoping to get a head start on our 25 mile, partially off trail route to Gila Hot Springs. And what did our early start get us?  Lost. 

Our trail disappeared into the woods, and our GPS proved to be no help, positioning us on a steep hill. We eventually found the trail, but lost the advantage we hoped to gain with our early start. And we would need every advantage to get through the Gila before dark. 

Entering the beautiful river canyon of the Gila after days of hiking through the desert is like entering a magical world. The river meanders through a lush, green canyon with steep red rock walls. Wild turkeys, deer and other animals make those homes there. The river teems with fish, tadpoles, and frogs.  Pockets of warm water mix with the cold due to several natural hot springs flowing into the river. In places, the force of the water has carved caves into the steep, rocky cliff walls. 

The trail, such as it is, disappears and reappears constantly, leaving you to fend for yourself through thick brush or over rocky terrain. The steep canyon walls necessitate frequent river crossings. We didn't count, but some have counted as many as 56 crossings on this 14 miles stretch of river.  

We stopped for lunch on our own private sandbar island, dipping into the water whenever the heat of the sun became too much. Then we continued our long, slow trek up river. 

A long, low rumble interrupted our thoughts. Awed by the beauty of the canyon, we had not noticed the angry thunderheads piling up overhead. The sky opened and it began to pour. After more than a week of worrying about water through hot, summer desert hiking, we are now surrounded by it. 

With the rain, clumping mud, and wet progress, progress slowed even further. We made our final crossing by headlamp, then quickly walked up the highway to Gila Hot Springs Resort, where Jeff had secured a campsite by the river. 

Day 13: The Meadows to Snow Lake

Eighty-five crossings. Twenty-one miles. One long day. 

Squishing into sodden shoes, we packed up at dawn. The pale pink clouds to the east faded as golden light warmed the western canyon wall. 

Above The Meadows, the canyon narrowed. We bounced back and forth from one side of the river to the other like pinballs. Sometimes we hiked only 10 yards before crossing back over to the other side. Occasionally we just stayed in the river, rejoining the trail when it reappeared.

Several families of ducklings frolicked on the water. Wild turkeys and great blue heron fed nearby. Two young elk eyed us warily, then raced into the woods. Deer bounded across the river as we approached. 

We ducked into a shady cave for lunch to avoid the scorching sun.  An hour later, dark clouds towered overhead, blocking the sun. A strong gust of wind dropped the temperature 10 degrees, thunder rumbled nearby, and the rain began. We waded across to a rocky cave for shelter, but soon continued up the trail. The irony of wearing rain gear to stay dry while wading through a river was not lost on us. 

We played hide and go seek with the trail all day. The trail repeatedly disappeared into rocky cliffs, walls of thick willows, or thickets of poison ivy. All the while we remained distracted by the incredible beauty of the canyon: the lush green plants, the colorful wildflowers, the spires and towers on top of the vertical cliffs of the canyon walls, the meandering river teeming with fish, frogs, and invertebrates, the countless animals and birds. 

Nevertheless, I breathed a sigh of relief when we finally climbed out into the wide open spaces of the rolling hills surrounding Snow Lake.  The Gila was incredible, and we definitely want to go back when we have more time to explore.