Day 1 – 23 miles
Did the very long road walk out of Pie Town at just around 7am this morning. I rolled into camp around 7pm. Long day.
I took a two hour break at the TLC ranch. They put out water for hikers and let us rest in the shade of their old homestead cabin. They also came by and offered to make us elk meat burritos and blueberry cobbler ( for a donation of course ). I skipped that and just tanked up on water before pushing on, leaving 2 bucks in the jar.
This was the most boring roadwalk to date. Endless low hills sandy covered in scrub pines broken only by the occasional locked entrance gate to a creatively, but vaguely cliché named ranch.
Water in the section is pretty scarce but there is a solar well at about mile 20 from Pietown. We rolled in around 5pm. It was rumored that it didn’t work well, and as soon as I got there, I realized why. The solar panels faced east. Gunga Din and Pat despaired and started doing the math on what other water sources were available.
While they were doing that I took a look at the whole assembly, because nobody installs solar panels facing east. I realized that based on the layout of the cabling, the solar cell had rotated, presumably from the wind which is always in the west. We managed to loosen a few bolts on the mounting shaft but that wasn’t helping. Turns out that was the mount TO the shaft. Finally Gunga Din, who is six foot nine, was able to reach up and grab the panel structure and with one mighty shove just rotated the whole thing back into proper position. I flipped the power switch and within about five seconds we had all the cold clear water we could drink. 6 years of engineering school paid off! Why did nobody else do this? Because you needed “brains and a tall guy”.
It was semi-obvious that the land on both sides of the road was private. In many cases, however, there were no signs or fences. After the well I did a few more miles until the sun started to drop. The small junipers started to become more and more rare. Before I lost the trees entirely I picked a good one about 50 yards off the road and set up my camp behind it.
Day 2 – 24.5 miles
So much for slowing down. I got up really early this morning because I was cold and was on the trail by quarter of seven. Combination of the cold wind and the moon overnight forced me to get up twice and move my sleeping bag set up around the bush to keep the bush between me and the moon. Sort of like a sundial, except cold and terrible. I continued the endless roadwalk and about a mile later caught up with the rest of the crew. They were just leaving but even though I was on the road already they quickly outdistanced me.
The Ice Cave
I talked to Just Right a little bit about our plan to go see the Ice Cave and we did some quick calculations on distance and time.
Two other random things I found out from Just Right – one is that in her 32 degree bag she is sleeping with all of her clothes on, so I don’t feel too bad then I’m cold in my 20. The other is that earlier on she had such bad chafe from her shorts that she hiked in her underwear for a while. A completely badass move. I’m not getting any chafe downstairs but the combination of grit and mostly salt from perpetual sweating is leaving my face covered in a crust. When I go to rub my eyes I’m rubbing more salt in them which only makes them water more. It’s sort of a perpetual motion machine, or endless loop of salty despair. My phone is even acquiring a salt crust from being in my pocket. I have to wash the screen with a wet wipe periodically.
Just Right is going to hitch it both ways. As I mulled it over all day today and broiled in the sun, I came to agree with her line of reasoning. It’s a lot of lava field. As a side note, the relative humidity out here is under 10%, so even just sitting and talking you get dehydrated. Eventually the roadwalk ended at the side trail to the Cebolla wilderness. There we left Shady, who now has Giardia after drinking bad water without a filter. She hitched into town, stopping once in a while to do EVERYTHING in a roadside ditch.
I hiked with Pig Pen and Just Right through most of the Cebolla wilderness at a pace slightly faster than I was comfortable with. But sometimes you need a “rabbit” to pull you along. It was another 90 degree scorcher with no water, well, except this pond. Approaching the water, the muck sucked one of my trekking poles apart, and the water was full of squirming, thrashing slithery things. Possibly tadpoles, possibly leeches. Everything about it was nasty. There’s still a chalky film of crud on my poles.
Since all good things must come to an end, the trail ended at another dirt road. And so we did another long road walk to a solar powered well at mile 19.
This was pretty gross, not the worst, but it was possible with some gymnastics to get water directly from the pipe. A bunch of us all left right after I got there, I didn’t take a break other than to quickly eat lunch. There was no shade.
My goal was to make it another 6 miles and stealthily camp at a public picnic area. Since they were all rested and younger and faster, they all took off ahead of me. Down the dirt road we walked, where we merged onto, you guessed it, a paved road. Four and a half miles and countless whizzing-by cars later we got to the picnic area. Some of the people were going to celebrate Grit’s birthday by doing 29 miles for her 29 years. The rest wanted to get to the overlook on the rim so that they could watch the natural stone arch at sunset.
I did not have much left in the tank so I hiked in about a mile and stopped. It was mare’s tails in the sky all morning, which I pointed out to the others meant we were going to get a new weather front. By nightfall it was here. Lots and lots of wind, actually overcast clouds, like real clouds, and feels like the possibility of rain.
For the second time I actually pitched the tarp, and for the second time was frustrated by its desire to flap in the wind like a sail. I think it will hold the night and even if it doesn’t rain, it will keep the moon from shining in my face. It’s a full moon and despite the eclipse tonight there’s going to be a long period where it’s blasting me like a spotlight. Having a piece of gray nylon in between me and that might help me sleep better. Tomorrow it’s about 15 miles to the highway that will take me to the Ice Cave where I will camp. It will be almost like a little mini vacation day!
Day 3 – Fire and Ice
I did the basically flat walk across the top of the Mesa early morning. The trail fizzled out into a barely worn track marked by the occasional Karen. The trail technically goes back to the parking area but if you got to the top of one of the slides off the Mesa you could do a somewhat dramatic Rock scramble down. At the parking area I dumped my trash and left my pack for a bit while I did a little walk up to La Ventana. These arches and cliffs are weathered sandstone that was very that were buried sand dunes from 150 million years ago.
After that it was a few miles on the road. There was a huge snake in the road I think called a bull snake maybe 5 ft long. I heard it off into the bushes with my trekking poles so that it did not become a pancake. A few miles later I got to the trailhead for the Acoma Zuni Trail which crosses some lava. We are in El malpais National Monument, or the Bad Place. The sign said that the early Spanish settlers avoided the area but I think for mostly practical reasons, it’s essentially impossible other than by foot.
After about 4 hours of ankle twisting, grinding, route finding across black lava fields in full sun I made it to the highway right behind Just Right. Both of us had run out of water and had been rationing. I found out later that everyone was rationing, one guy kept checking that he was still sweating because that is the first sign of heat stroke ( you stop sweating ). The lava field was really cool but tricky to navigate and just plain hot. I found out from a local later that there are 26 people that are unaccounted for in the field. They just found a pair of hikers that had gone missing 8 years ago. It is a maze, the footing is treacherous, and there’s no water whatsoever. I think it would be pretty easy to dead-reckon-navigate your way out, but if you are dehydrated and suffering from heat stroke your decision making is probably bad.
We hitched for about 15 minutes. Just Right did most of the work because everyone will pick up a 22-year-old female, while no one will pick up a 50-year-old male. This beat up old rattle trap pickup truck passed us, turned around and came back for us.
It was probably one of the top three weirdest hitches I’ve ever had. We later referred to the driver as the Egyptian Cowboy Pimp, because he dressed like a combination of a cowboy and a pimp and also claimed he was Egyptian. He worked in Santa Fe but had a ranch out here in the middle of nowhere. The truck was falling apart and the bed of it and the second row seat were just full of crap. Things like a generator, a pallet, multiple pairs of cowboy boots, a giant Bluetooth speaker, and what looked to be astrology books. He was certainly nice enough, as was his silent front seat passenger who we think might have been his girlfriend. The truck had no back window and was missing an exhaust system so it was definitely loud. That didn’t stop him from talking to us the whole time although I could just see his head moving. With a final admonishing from him that carrying your passport is the best thing you can do, he dropped us off.
We got to the Ice Cave which is a small family-run business, people who own a large portion of this lava field and have walking paths that lead you through some interesting terrain up to the cinder cone and then down into the ice cave. The ice cave is basically a very deep hole where the warm air from outside can’t enter, because the ice has filled the hole with cold dense air, insulating itself. The owner also mentioned that there were five other caves including some you had to crawl through that opened up until large caverns, but those were not open because there was no realistic way to do any sort of rescue if someone got stuck.
She also mentioned later that the National Park Service is doing a hostile purchase of the entire property, a place where her family has lived for seven generations. You should google New Mexico ice cave and I bet some interesting stuff will show up online.
The same owner who was very cool also drove us back to the trail. From there we hiked up the Zuni Canyon Road, until about 8 p.m. I had plans to eat dinner at the road and then just hiking a mile or two, but Just Right and I got talking about all of our previous trail experiences and the kind of people we meet up here and some of our rationale for why we’re doing this. We just got into this great groove and steamed on for 6 miles or so. This was the first time I had camped with another person on this trip.
Days 4, 5, 6 & 7
We had unknowingly camped at about the high point of the road. The next morning was a long gradual downhill 12 mile walk through Zuni Canyon, ending on a paved road outside of Grants. A few more miles, a quick trip to the bathroom at a roadside RV park, and a somewhat frightening walk on the no-pedestrian-lane overpass over the I-40, and I was on old Route 66.
The Grants vortex
Grants is one step up from Lordsburg on the shithole scale. There are a handful of newer businesses like the Mcdonald’s, but a lot of beat up old abandoned buildings, old hotels, closed auto body shops, and the usual abandoned lot trash. Although the abandoned lots also usually have prairie dogs.
My plan was to make it to the Mount Taylor coffee place which gives out free coffee to hikers. It’s also right across from the post office, where I was waiting for a package. I had to stop and take a break in the shade and cool my feet off, later I found out it was over 90°, which explained a lot.
At the post office I picked up two packages, one containing awesome vegan cookies from an old PCT friend and the other containing my tents and new shoes. This is where I, and my family, learned that space on the mail trucks is more important than weight. Basically if you send a large box full of air it’s more expensive than a small box full of bricks. We were the unfortunate victims of this strange mathematics as the box containing my tent and shoes cost a small fortune. I get it, but it’s still kind of sucky.
Resting at the coffee shop I ran into other hikers. Checking our phones we learned that the National Forest Service is closing the three national forests around Grants due to high fire danger. This means that the next 280 miles or so of the trail are closed. Had I immediately pounced on the opportunity, I could have caught a bus the next day up to Chama via Albuquerque and Santa Fe, however the Greyhound filled up completely. Some people are trying to hitch but it looks like a rough hitch in the hot sun off the highway, so I grabbed a bus ticket for the following day. It’s a bus to Albuquerque, a trail to Santa Fe and then a bus to Chama. 14 hours.
In the meantime I am a pilgrim in an unholy land. I went to the gas station/fried chicken place / bus station, a place right off the highway, for coffee and breakfast. There’s an automatic coffee machine that only serves medium and large drinks, for which there are no cups. There’s drip coffee but the containers of half and half are actually Coffee-Mate. And the coffee has grounds floating in it. The so-called muffins in the blueberry box are actually plain corn. All the good donut stuff you would get in the Northeast is replaced by pork rinds and cotton candy. There’s also a popcorn machine next to the coffee pots.
I cannot get out of here fast enough.
My Colorado box won’t be there until Monday ( today is Thurs ). But the plan is get to Chama on Friday, then hang out there. It’s at 10000 feet and there are trees. I’ll never see any trail friends again, which is a bummer. But, Colorado looks amazing. Normally nobody goes in this easy but they’ve ALSO had an epic dry year, so it might just work. The CTDC site is full of dire warnings about how technical and remote the San Juan mountains are.
It’s had to know if these wrinkles are good or bad. Maybe