CDT2024 – Grants to Cuba

I continue my trek along the CDT, from Grants to Cuba, NM.   This is part of a 260 mile jaunt to finish up the state of NM.
Last time I was here, the section from Grants up to Chama was closed due to forest fires in 3 different National Forests.

Day 0 – God created Arrakis to train the faithful

After landing in Albuquerque and paying a stupid amount of money for a cab, I arrived in Grants, NM for the first leg of my hike up to Cumbres Pass.  It was Beat down before, and still is.  A sort of post-boom, ex-tourist, crummy sort of place.  My cab dropped me off at the grocery store, where I stocked up for the 5 days, 105 miles, to Cuba.   Side note: Beaver rightly pointed out that people pay $175 for the shuttle to the Terminus, so “the cab ride was basically your shuttle”.  I grabbed dinner at the closest place that wasn’t closed (hint: everything closes in Grants), which was a sort of surf-themed, independent Chuck-E-Cheese-like place, that was hosting a birthday party for a 10 year old girl.   1 shitty “veggie sandwich” later and I was done.

I was being optimistic, which if you know me, was already outside my comfort zone.  Average 21 miles a day, over 5 days, right put of the gate?  As I wrote in my journal that night, “we’ll see”.

It was only in the upper 70s but the heat was oppressive, and the light of the Sun seemed to have a physical weight pushing down on you.

The hostel in Grants is new, and similar to the Toaster House in Pie Town, essentially self-managed.  All the booking was done online, there was a sort of system for laundry and trash, and a general expectation that people would respect the place.  I think it worked.  After packing and repacking my food, I watched Dune 2 with two other hikers, a guy named Wildebeast (sic), and a woman named Taylor who was being deliberately cryptic about her hiking plans.  I found my mailed-ahead package with my fuel (sent USPS ground under special restriction) and pointy things like my tarp stakes, knife, and trekking poles.  I had done this so I could bring my pack in the plane.   Getting stuck in Midway overnight with nothing to sleep on but pizza boxes taught me my lesson – always travel with your stuff.

Lava Flow Hostel, Grants NM
The Lava Flow Hostel, in Grants, NM

Day 1 – up and over

Next morning, on the road by 6.  And by road, I mean the 5 mile highway roadwalk up Lobo Canyon Rd.  Roadwalks suck, there’s no give in the footbed, the no-slip aspect of the asphalt chews up your feet, and you can’t trust the shoulder.  That’s how I tore the ligaments in my ankle in ’22.  Grants quickly got nicer as the richer folks moved uphill away from the Interstate and blight ( or by doing so, CAUSED the blight? ).  Eventually it’s just grass and cactus and cows and the massive Federal prison with its “DO NOT STOP FOR HITCHIKERS” signs.  But finally, real trail. 

I immediately realized that I was at about 7000 feet and climbing.   I was huffing and puffing as the rocky trail wound up and up the back side of the mesa.   Once I got to the top, I told myself, it would smooth out and be easier walking.   It took a while, and by the time I got to the top I was sweating in my thobe.   This was a new piece of gear I thought of trying out for desert hiking.   I’m not convinced it was worth it, but it was awfully nice not to worry about sunblock.   Note that linen only has a SPF of about 5, so you really do need to protect yourself underneath it on areas constantly in sun (arms, shoulders, etc).

Once I did make it to the top, I got to ring the bell (actual purpose unknown, but everyone rang it).

A bell on a sign post
your reward for climbing to the top of the mesa is you get to ring the bell

I basically raced the heat of the day up the mesa, so by the time I got to the top it wasn’t any cooler than it was when I started.  But the walking was much easier, leading through a few small wettish valleys of grass, but mostly gradually up into the pines.   What started out as a few sparse junipers quickly turned to pinion and then ponderosa.

Atop Horace Mesa
CDT atop Horace Mesa

The sun kept climbing as I got to about 8000 feet, and started running short on water.   There was supposedly a spring at Gooseberry Springs trail (hence the name), so I wasn’t too worried.   All of a sudden, I started walking through mud on the trail.   Mud, in the desert?  Looking around I found a water line that some ranchers had run through the woods – broken, with a steady stream of water coming out.   I filled up my 2L Evernew bladder and moved on.   Shortly after, I came across this – proof that there are sometimes “bubblers” in the woods.  Sadly, dry.

water spigot
There are occasionally drinking fountains (bubblers) to be found on trail.

I came to a horse corral where there was a full trough of mostly clean water, but moved on, assuming I could fill up on the trail after the Gooseberry Springs trailhead.  Turns out I was wrong; I couldn’t find the spring.   Other hikers DID find it, so either I had the wrong map, looked in the wrong place, or both.    There was supposedly a side trail down to the water which was piped coming out of the ground.   I did a long side trail down a valley to a dry creek bed and wasted half an hour and a lot of oxygen.

Climbing Mt. Taylor

The alltrails map up the mountain is here.

Near the Gooseberry Springs Trailhead on Mt. Taylor
Near the Gooseberry Springs Trailhead on Mt. Taylor

Short on water, but enjoying the slightly lighter pack because of it, I pushed on.   My original goal was to climb and camp on the mountain.   During the day I had pulled the throttle back a little, assuming I’d camp at the trailhead and do the climb in the morning.   But, despite the dry heat, I was doing really well considering the altitude, 5 days’ food in my pack, and non-trail legs.   Working daily at a desk, there’s only so much training you can do ahead of time.   Well, you can do lots of training, but it kind of ends up not meaning anything when the rubber under your trail runners meets the gravel.

The final few miles were gruelling.  Steep, but not New England steep, long switchbacks through grass.   BEAUTIFUL views the whole time, which I had plenty of because I had to keep stopping to catch my breath.   It was also near/past dinner, and I was running low on energy too.   Finally, mercifully, I hit the final switchback and saw the summit.   There at 11,301 feet, where there was less than 65% of the normal oxygen in the air, I was treated to an incredible view.  

Looking around the back of Mt. Taylor
Looking around the back of Mt. Taylor

 

Summit sign on Mt Taylor
Summit sign on Mt Taylor

I met Wildebeast on the summit, a kid just out of college.   He had started in Mexico a little early, and hiked too fast – so he and a buddy took the bus to Flagstaff, did the northern 250 miles of the Arizona Trail, then came back to Grants.    You know, an extra, bonus, 250 miles.   Just because.  We hung out for a while, absorbing the view and taking pictures.  The wind started picking up, and there was nowhere to camp – especially in the cooling wind, so I pushed on.

The trail runs down pretty steeply on the north side of the peak – right into some tall trees and hip deep snow.   I managed to hop along for a while then started sinking in.   I stopped looking at the map and just went the most “down” way I could find.   The snow was deceptively soft, so I ended up doing the trick where you hold your poles sideways, and if you posthole, you immediately lean forward with the poles perpendicular to catch yourself.   Despite that, it was crotch deep in a few places; I almost lost a shoe at one point and had to dig myself out.  After a short stretch the trail evened out into a saddle between Mt. Taylor and some other hills, and there was grass, and a fire ring!    At 21 miles, having done an 11-thousand footer, I was done, cooked.   Plop went my pack next to the fire ring.

Shortly after, Beaver, Wildebeast and Extra all rolled in.   They seemed indecisive as to whether to push on or not.   “I’m lighting a fire”, I said, and with that, they all declared they were camping there.   We had a good dinner circle, and some good chats.   Extra and I melted snow for water, both of us were short.   I wasn’t sure where the next water was, supposedly around 8 miles.  

Cowboy camping at 11,000 feet was surprisingly fine.   No wind, we were buried in the trees well enough, and it maybe got down to 40 degrees.  And no bugs.  Besides, I was so tired, I think you could have lit me on fire and I would have slept through it.

Day 2 – 23 miles mostly downhill

I left first, maybe I was still on East Coast time, maybe I was cold, or maybe I just had those hiking jitters.   The trail wound down through some trees and out into another saddle, where we picked up a road.   The rest of the morning was on and off with Beaver, who finally dusted me at about mile 5.   It was great to be out there, still at pretty high altitude, strolling along, mostly downhill, on a pretty well graded dirt road.   Plus every step had slightly more oxygen than the last.  What’s not to like?

Mid morning the road crossed a bunch of other roads on the way to rejoining the CDT.   Nearby, according to the map, was a spring.   I explored a few dead ends, then settled on the main road, and sure enough, there was a cairn!   Only about 1/4 mile off trail down in a valley was the cow pasture and piped spring.  Excellent water; you fill from the pipe, NOT the tank.   Beaver and Wildebeast were there, as was a momma turkey somewhere nearby.   She kept squawking the whole time, I think calling for her chicks – or maybe trying to distract us FROM them.   Wild turkey poults are almost invisible, so maybe she was making a ruckus to call us away from them.   We hung out at the water for a while, then saddled up and moved on.

gross water tank
The trick is to fill from the input pipe, NOT the tank.

The rest of the day alternated between some rough two-track, and a twisting single-track across the high fields.   Plenty of junipers around to eat lunch under, the only shade for miles around.

 

Are we there yet?

By mile 20 I was MORE than ready to camp.   But there was water just off the trail at mile 24, and I wasn’t going to dry camp.   I’ll admit to checking my phone repeatedly in the last few miles, “are we there yet?”  But it was good walking – a decent road is a great way to burn up the miles.

The water was down in what looked like a collapsed lava tube.   After a bit of a scramble. there was a wide grassy lawn on either side of a dry streambed, and Wildebeast and Extra were already there.   Fried from the long day, I plopped down and ate dinner – mac and cheese + pea protein, chased down with a Clif Builders Bar (for the protein), and a handful of Fritos and a double handful of peanut M&Ms.

The water was gross, although not nearly as gross as the water on the Arizona Trail, they assured me.   All around the water, in the rocks, birds (woodpeckers?) were nesting, so I’m sure this was basically their toilet.   The water left an almost greasy brown film on my water bottles, I tried not to think what it was doing to the insides of my filter.   But I filtered it successfully, it came out brown, and tasting of … pond, but it worked.

The sky got cloudy, something I’d learn happens every night.   I was worried so I put up my tarp.  Turns out, each day the day dawns clear, then gradually clouds up as what little moisture there is boils up into the air.   In the late evening and over night, the heat of the sun goes away and the water stops evaporating.   But if there’s just a few clouds up there at bedtime, you can be almost sure its NOT going to rain, AND be clear by morning.


Day 3 – into the badlands

Up first again, I trudged on, along good old Forest Road 239.    The USFS maintains a huge network of roads, complete with route numbers, and road signs at intersections.   It’s like a mini highway system.   The trail followed this for about 18 miles total.   Great walking, minimal rocks, no need to check your map, good times.

About midday I finally had to say goodbye to the road.   The trail veered off along the northern edge of the mesa through a high pinion pine forest.   Great trail, great footbed, and SHADE.    It wasn’t solid shade, but good enough, felt good on the exposed parts which were starting to burn, and provided a few good dark spots for lunch.   At the trail junction, there was a 3/4 mile hike down into a canyon where apparently there was a gushing spring.   I didn’t have the juice to do the hike, and I still had plenty of water.   Especially because there was a cache, a few gallons of water were left there some NM Horsemen’s Association for hikers.   Thanks guys!  

covered in melted sunscreen
The beard ended up full of congealed sunscreen, as the heat kept melting it off my face.
lava and oaks on the north side of the mesa
lava and oaks on the north side of the mesa
First view of real classic NM desert
First view of real classic NM desert
Girly Girl, Switchback and Wildebeast at Cerro del Ojo Frio spring
Girly Girl, Switchback and Wildebeast at Cerro del Ojo Frio spring
It's called a hiker tan
It’s called a hiker tan
Another gorgeous NM sunset, followed by tons of satellites and a few shooting stars.
Another gorgeous NM sunset, followed by tons of satellites and a few shooting stars.

Girly Girl, a multi-trail thruhiker, was going to nighthike.  She’d been living on just snack bars, no stove, no noodles, no cold-soak, and was short food.   The guys gave her some stuff, and she powered on just after dinner time.

Day 4 – canyons and more canyons

Up at dawn again.   It sounds early, but when you go to bed with the sun at 830 or 9pm, by 5am or so, you’re done sleeping.   I hiked down the road and through a dry river valley.   Up out of this I went along a fence for a bit; turns out some of this is USFS ranch land.  Down the valley I could see a handful of “cerros”, which translates to “hill” – but here in the desert I think they’re the cones of dead volcanoes.  The rest of the land has eroded away, leaving the cones sticking up.    Or canyons, where there’s softer ground.

Cool desert canyons in the sunrise
Cool desert canyons in the sunrise
Wind sculpted rocks in the Empedrado Wilderness Study Area
Wind sculpted rocks in the Empedrado Wilderness Study Area
Climbing up into hoodoo country
Climbing up into hoodoo country

 

Weathered rocks everywhere
Weathered rocks everywhere

I wound up and through all these cool rock formations all day, “hoodoos”, and gradually climbed up to the top of the mesa.

Cerros

Around lunchtime, clouds REALLY started to roll in.    I got to a middle-of-nowhere highway, and found a cache of about 40 gallons of water under a shrub.   Wildebeast was there ahead of me, having passed me earlier like I was standing still.   The kid was FAST.    There was only room for 1 person in the tiny shade, so I filled up my water and unsocially found another bush to hide under.   My plan was to wait until 2pm and move on.


“Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.” 

— Rudyard Kipling

“And thruhikers”

— Smokebeard


A few more hikers I hadn’t met before rolled in, and they had a bit of a gam.   An older, solo hiker, I’m invisible to the youngbloods, so I took a nap in the shade.  A 20 minute catnap is amazingly invigorating.

Actual rain

The thunder really kicked in at this point, so I saddled up and moved out.   After about half a mile, I actually felt raindrops!   The sky was dark with thunderclouds, so I expected to get soaked.   I put on my raingear after making sure my down jacket, quilt, and thermals were secured in my pack.   Since no pack is waterproof, and since pack covers suck, I use a large nylofume bag inside my pack as a liner.   Lighter than the trash compactor bag we used in the old days on the AT.

The rain seemed to hold off, and I met Switchback at a spring-fed cow tank.   He was really worried about the rain, but I pointed out that despite the sprinkles, only a few of the cows were laying down; my point was that the cows knew the rain wasn’t really coming.   “The cows do this for a living, they know whats happening”, I said.  We filled up bottles and moved on towards “Deadmen Hills” and another mesa.

Spring fed cow tanks
Spring fed cow tanks

Deadmen Hills would have been 20 miles for the day, but I didn’t like the name so much and wanted to push on.   The sound of thunder and sight of big clouds down the valley south of me also was an incentive to find a better spot.    At this point the trail was back on dusty two-track, thanks to ranchers and ATVs.   After crossing through a few gates I managed to find a spot in some bushes.

Storms down in the valley
Storms down in the valley

I kept an eye on the clouds, they rolled across the valley, blasting lightning down and within the clouds, and ultimately drenching the hills on the other side of the valley.   I cowboy camped – you could see that the clouds were moving steadily east, not north.   Switchback came by and we chatted a bit, and he pushed on having consumed 600 mg of caffeine and “having a demon in his chest”.   As it got dark, the coyotes west of me woke up, and they sang me to sleep.

Day 5 – into Cuba

Another early morning, this time fuelled mostly by the notion that I’d be in a hotel that night, if not earlier.  I also only had food for breakfast and a paltry lunch constructed of mostly snacks.   So I had to make it.   I did have my emergency ramen of course, but it seemed poor form to count on that for dinner.   It was only around 22 miles including a 5 mile roadwalk at the end, so I wasn’t worried about the time.   I was slightly worried about water, having done a “dry camp” not at a water source.   But there was a spring in 7 miles and I had a liter of water left after finishing breakfast.  Plenty in the morning cool.

La Ventana Mesa in the sunrise
La Ventana Mesa in the sunrise
Climbing the mesa
Climbing the mesa
The source of the spring is protected from wildlife trampling it into mud.   Clear cold water coming right out of the pipe.
The source of the spring is protected from wildlife trampling it into mud. Clear cold water coming right out of the pipe.

Jones Canyon Spring was amazing.   Cool air blowing off the wet rocks, shade, the smell of roses, and water flowing out of a pipe.   Just being able to sit in the shade for 30 minutes was amazing.   I ran into Switchback here, and we chatted and filled up.   He explained that he was here to do sort of the “greatest hits” of the CDT from the last time he was here, AND that he didn’t know when he’d fly home, because “there are no flights to Tel Aviv” right now.   I also got an interesting, if compressed, lesson on Israeli politics.

I pushed on, because I knew the trail followed the mesa down, across a flat, and then climbed the next one (Portales Mesa), and from the topo map, it was going to suck – facing southeast in late morning, and very steep.   It was only 300 feet or so, but it was New Hampshire-like climbing.

Walking north towards the road to Cuba
Walking north towards the road to Cuba
Final scramble up this, of course at midday
Final scramble up this, of course at midday

I was roasting by the time I got up to the top – and a good sign, soaked with sweat.   This means I wasn’t dehydrated.   It was past lunch and I looked around for a place to take a break and found this massive tree.   So welcome.

Thank you tree, for your shade.
Thank you tree, for your shade.

Coasting into Cuba

The rest of the afternoon was a long, gradual descent, first on trail through some canyons, then out to a path in a river valley, finally crossing the river bed.   I will admit to singing the words from America’s Horse With No Name, as I crossed it.   At this point I was back on two-track, clearly on ranch land.   I could see the road, or at least, cars moving quickly – meaning they were on asphalt!   I decided not to walk the 5 miles of highway into Cuba.  Roadwalks suck.

It reminded me of a scene from “The Beast”, a 1988 movie about a Russian tank crew that gets lost in the hills of Afghanistan.   Through trials and tribulations they come out of some canyons, out of water, out of food, nearly out of fuel, and in the distance they see trucks moving on the road.   Their joy was palpable.   (In the movie other bad things happen to them and they can’t get to the road, but thats another story)

I got to the road and noted that most of the cars were heading west, AWAY from Cuba, and not too many heading east.   But I cleaned up as best as I could, put on my smiley face, tipped my baseball hat up away from my face so people could see my smile, and threw out the thumb.   Amazingly, the 2nd car that passed TURNED AROUND and came back for me.   A Native American woman pulled up in her SUV with her two kids.   “You’ll have to sit in the back!”, she shouted, pointing to her small child in the booster seat in the passenger seat.

She explained that she told her kids “that man must be so hot and so tired, we need to go pick him up and give him a ride”.   Both kids were silent, the smaller one (5 years old?) kept turning around and peeking at me and smiling.

So generous, it made me happy.   She dropped me off at the grocery store, where I bought salty chips and multiple drinks while I waited for my hotel to be ready.   There were a few semi run-down ones, this was the “nice” hotel, but worth it.   It was there, I was there, and I had the money.

I watched old Dr. Who episodes while eating ice cream and potato chips.   And doing sink laundry.   My socks were gross.   It’s the sand, sometimes its like you’re on a beach, other times its a fine powder.   It gets everywhere.

Sink laundry at the motel in Cuba
Sink laundry at the motel in Cuba

It was great to sleep in a bed, drink all the water I wanted, take 3 showers, and have AC.

Next stop – Ghost Ranch!

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Michael Ferioli says:

    Mr. Gruberman, you write so well. It is a pleasure to follow your adventures. You seem so happy.

    1. smokebeard says:

      Thanks man, it was a great time.

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