This post was written in my sleeping bag at the end of a long day. Please excuse any errors.
I stay in Grants for far too long. A months worth of phone and internet chores, including replacing a bank card that my bank decided to replace two days after I left, keeps me occupied for a day and a half. By that point, a storm is rolling in. I sit in my motel room watching tornado warnings roll across my screen.
I head out in the tail end of the storm. Thunderclouds roll black across the sky. I road walk for six miles and then eat lunch at the trailhead. It starts to rain, so I string up my tarp. Then I am cold, so I unroll my sleeping bag. Before I know it, I wake up three hours later. The CDT has already left me tired to my bones. I climb up towards the thunderclouds, darting across open meadows to what I hope is the safety of the forest. I set up my tarp as the hail starts in ernest. In the morning, half a mile from where I camped, there is snow. I’m beginning to sense a theme for this trip at this point. It’s not too bad to the junction for Mt. Taylor though, so I decide to head up that road. But a few miles later, it’s already about four inches. I check my GPS. I still haven’t hit 10,000 ft. Time to turn around if I don’t want to be slogging through snow all day. It stings, although I know I’m making the right decision. Sometimes it feels like I’m giving everything I have to the CDT and it is laughing in my face. Turns out there is still plenty snow to slog through, even on the low route. It takes me longer than normal to make miles- between the increased navigational challenges and the slippy ground, it’s not easy going. Around lunch, the snow turns to slush. My feet are soaked. Finally, I get low enough that the snow stops, and then I am racing for lower elevations for a warm camp spot. In the morning, my shoes, still damp from slogging through the snow, are frozen. I pull them on and march with numb feet until the sun warms me. I’m looking for the water when I spot him - fat little butt waddling as he makes his way up a dry creek bed. Porcupine! The hardest part of this section hasn’t been the storms or the snow or the elevation gain. The loneliness of not seeing another human for days is starting to creep up on me. But this little guy lifts my spirits. “Hello Porky!” I say, then realize it’s the first time I’ve spoken since I left town. It’s a long road walk, with little distractions. I see a coyote far off down the trail, but there’s nothing to distract me from my aching feet. Slipping and sliding in the snow and mud the day before has done a number on them and I cave in and take my second ibuprofen of the trail. Then I’m at the next water, slipping and sliding down a steep trail to Ojo de Los Indios spring. I climb back out of the canyon to camp, the detour adding a full mile to my day. In the night, a fierce wind wakes me. The trees thrash violently overhead and I realize I can’t see the stars. Then I feel the first rain drop. I throw off my sleeping bag and throw up my tarp. Remarkaby, it stays up, despite my haste, the wind and the soft ground. In the morning, I circle a cliff. By lunch, I’m climbing down it, dropping to the desert floor. It feels like descending into a furnace. I have to stop and siesta. This is the scary desert we feared so much on the PCT, though we had to walk less than a hundred miles of it. Fierce heat, no shade and no water. I forget that I was fighting through snow just a few days ago. The drop on elevation means I’m back in cow country and I have a face off with some frisky bulls. I step towards the trail, and they take several steps towards me. I back off, wait for then to get bored, then make a break for it. I cross the valley and I’m climbing up through soft sandstone, when I hear a fierce hiss. It takes me a while to process what I’m hearing. Is it an angry Shake’nBake, a figment of my imagination after all? It’s not until I spot the pissed off yellow-green rattlesnake a few feet off the trail that I realize. I set up my tarp early, exhausted from the heat. I’m just the wrong distance from Cuba to Nero in and out, and I don’t want to zero again after Grant’s, so I am struggling to slow myself down. I climb into my sleeping bag and a second later, there is buzzing. Bees! They flock to the juniper tree that I have tied my tarp to and bumble against my tarp, drunk on pollen. Once the first star appears, they disappear, as suddenly as they came. In the morning, I’m climbing and descending sandstone bluffs, marvelling at the rock gardens and sculptures left by erosion. The trail between Grant’s and Cuba has been fantastic- well manicured and signed. It almost feels like being back on the PCT. There’s a water cache at the road and rumors of a cooler. It’s not yet ten and I’m already so hot that I’ve been dreaming of cold soda. I open the cooler and see beige boxes and some more water. Disappointed, I pick up a box. MREs? I can’t even eat these without a stove. Then I remember Dan pulling one out to make lunch on a bitterly cold day at Echo Bend, and Prithvi, Jack and I passing around the chemical heater to warm our hands. Ecstatic, I am eating warm spaghetti ten minutes later and thinking about my incredible roommates. The dark cloud of loneliness that I felt so intensely at the start of this section has started to lift a little over the last few days and thinking about my friends helps even more.
After lunch, another rattlesnake startles me, bigger and more angry than the one the day before. He is even further off trail than his little brother and I bypass him with no issues. Then I am on the most gorgeous ridge walk of my life: stark limestone cliffs on one side and soft green hills on the other. There are stone beehives and slickrock paths and weird, melted rock formations. I half expect to round the corner and bump into a film crew making a wild west movie. I took three litres from the cache, normally enough to get me the fifteen miles to the next water with a litre to spare, but I am so thirsty despite the overcast sky. Guess I need to make it to the water before dark- so much for neroing into Cuba. Then, a few miles before the water, I start to see cat prints. They’re big. Mountain lion! I know there’s no way I’m sleeping at kitty’s drinking spot, so I hustle to make it to the water with enough time before dark to make a little more distance. I fly down the mountain, following tracks the whole way. I hustle at the water, filling my bottles from the tank rather than the slow flowing spring. The sun is almost down and I need to make a little more distance. Then, just a few hundred feet from the water, new tracks replace the mountain lion. These ones I’m very familiar with. Bear! They are small, at least in comparison to Alaska bears, but now I am out of daylight and I refuse to night hike alone in mountain lion and bear country. I throw up my tarp and rifle through my bag for the smelly things I normally don’t bother putting in my ursack- sunscreen, toothpaste etc. I’m taking no chances with bear safety tonight. I don’t sleep well. The wind rustles my tarp against dry grass and it sounds like paws crunching their way closer.
Daylight finds me groggy and a little nauseous. I hike up to another band of cliffs, feeling progressively worse. The trail climbs steeply enough to be close to a scramble- footholds cut into some of the steeper boulders. At the top, I stop to refill my water bottle and promptly throw up. I think about puking after Goat Rocks last summer- I hope it’s just stress and dehydration and not giardia or something. I sip my water as I descend the back side of the cliff, slowly feeling better. I’m listening to a podcast about bear encounters, since I know I’ll be safe in a motel room tonight when I hear something behind me. Bear? No! Person! Tennesteve is the first person I’ve seen or talked to in five days. I attach myself to his heels and we fly down the trail together, keeping up a steady stream of chatter. He tells me there is a bubble a day behind- my trail curse is to always be between bubbles. He had a similar story about the prints the day before, and had camped within a mile of me the night before. Still, with company, I make good time to Cuba, where food, showers and a soft bed safe from lions, tigers and bears await.