I’m in a motel in Deming, New Mexico. I’m 55 trail miles away from the border of the United States and Mexico, 35 miles as the crow flies and I am, in the most basic, trite, sappy, emotional way imaginable, wrecked.
I’ve been hiking with five boys for four months. I haven’t had too many quiet, lonely moments where I stand and look across some sweeping vista and imagine myself a protagonist in an adventure/coming-of-age film or whatever I used to do when I hiked solo. But I parted ways from the crew today, appropriately in a motel parking lot, and the force of solitude hit me like a freakin hurricane. I walked from a Sonic Drive-In to a Comfort Inn and a dog barked at me, a breeze lifted the ends of my hair and the tears I told everyone I definitely wasn’t gonna cry came unbidden to my eyes and leaked out onto the Deming sidewalk.
I left off this blog in Grants, NM. I named my post “The Last Zero” but I think I knew, even then, that it wouldn’t be. Grants to Pie Town was all a road walk. 60ish miles on asphalt and dirt forest service roads, through the El Malpais State Park but somehow not connecting to any of the dozens of trail systems nearby. Sigh. Classic CDT.
The first night out, I left Grants solo, a little late, and night hiked for a couple of hours under the bright, waxing moon. It was a perfect night to walk alone. Around 9pm a pickup truck slowed down when it saw my headlamp, passed me, turned around and came back to me. I clutched my bear spray and an elderly man rolled down the window and asked me if I was okay. I was.
I camped past the boys that night, alone in a closed campground. All the campgrounds are off-season these days. No fee, spigots turned off. Gates closed, only allowing pedestrian access – perfect for me. I ate cheese and crackers and hard salami and fancied it a backcountry charcuterie. I got out late, and caught the boys on their lunch break. We rested from the sun in the shade of a shrub on the side of an asphalt road. Later that day, we passed a bloated elk corpse. As I walked by it, a truck pulled up and three men got out. They were removing it from the road. “Want a snack for the road, missy?” One called out, gesturing at the elk. I gave a weird shudder laugh and kept going. A few moments later, the truck passed me, dragging the body behind it. I watched it bounce down the road in horror. It’s just a body, just meat, I tell myself. Nut up, Phantom.
I camped with the crew that night after a 31 mile day. We slept near a solar well and cattle trough. We cowboyed. It was Cheesebeard’s birthday the next morning and we roadwalked to Pie Town. We stopped for water at a trail angel’s house along the road. An elderly couple, their house looked like a rummage shop built into a garage. They wanted to talk all day, but we had Town on our minds.
By the time we got to Pie Town, we were hot, hungry, thirsty and sore from the pavement. The Toaster House in Pie Town is infamous on the CDT, it’s fame has even spread to the other major trails. Nita, a trail angel, allows the Toaster House to be a hiker haven. No one lives there, but many, many people pass through. Our crew stayed two nights and a day. The first night, OilCan and I stayed up late talking to a British couple who are bicycling from Alaska to Argentina. We swapped stories and marveled at how much of the journey they still have left. The next night, Hummingbird, Merlin, Red Bass, Scratch and Magpie all stayed at the house as well. Two Bad Dogs, an older couple of Triple Crowners, magicked is all with beer and burgers. We had a cookout and a proper party at the house. When night fell, along with the outdoor temps, we all moved inside and played music on a BlueTooth speaker. Brandon did magic tricks. We all told OilCan (who is starting college in January), speaking with the wisdom and importance of our advanced years, that this was kiiind of like a college party. Everyone always ends up hanging out in the kitchen.
We ate the famous Pie Town pie at the Pi O Neer Cafe, and we met Nita there. She was kind and lovely. Pie town was the most hiker-friendly place I’d ever been, and we all hiked out that next afternoon a little regretfully. A cow stared me down in the road. It was bright and hot. Another truck pulled over for me and a man offered me a beer, but I didn’t like the way he looked at me so I refused politely. “My group is just up the road, there are SO many of us,” I said. The man had simply driven by all the boys, me he stopped for (PS – if you’re tired of reading me talking about stuff like this, imagine how tired I am of dealing with it). We all camped that night near a huge water tank filled with goldfish, a broken down yellow school bus nearby. Magpie talked about space and we all listened in a trance. Black holes, dark matter, satellites, space-time.
And then, suddenly, unceremoniously, we were in the Gila River Canyon. I knew the Gila was supposed to be special going in, but it absolutely blew my mind. Walking between steep, high, dramatic canyon walls, following a mighty river. It was hard hiking. Wild, untamed. It felt like every plant had spikes, like every patch of mud was slippery and sticky. We fought through thick brush and crossed the river quite literally hundreds of times. I stood in the middle of the river at dusk and watched in a stupor as a full moon rose between the canyon walls.
We slept by a lake and had a fire. I broke twigs and threw them in the flames absent-mindedly, sitting cross-legged with these boys I’ve come to love. We all inspected the scratches and cuts on our legs and arms from the canyon. I’ve travelled enough to know I probably won’t see them again. We pass around a bottle of Yukon Jack whiskey and don’t talk about it.
We hike all day on Halloween. It’s GilaWeen, we say. It’s a beautiful, cold day. The freezing river numbs our feet. I get separated in the early afternoon and listen to a horror podcast while I walk. I get two miles off-trail somehow, before I notice, and bushwack back to the trail while listening to legend of vampires and werewolves. I catch the boys at camp after dark, more than a little spooked. They’re all in their tents, but I cowboy. Pie and Cheesebeard joke that I’ll be pulled away in the night because I’m exposed. I sleep well anyway, the moon is a floodlight.
The next day, we hike to Doc Campbell’s post and eat homemade ice cream on picnic tables outside the store. There’s not much selection for starving hikers. Cheesebeard and I split a pack of hot dogs and eat them cold, sandwiched between slices of wheat bread. Pie, CB and I stop on our way in at the Gila Cliff Dwelling National Monument. It’s a maze of rock walls and roofs built into natural caves in the side of the canyon.
It’s wild to imagine people living here. Eking out an existence among the scraggly rocks and sharp vegetation. I mentally chide myself for complaining about the difficulty of hiking in the Gila. I walk for leisure and eat granola bars that have been scientifically designed to give me energy and vitamins, with thousands of dollars of gear on my back. And no warring tribes are trying to kill me. Boo hoo, Phantom.
After Doc’s, we went right back into the Gila. This was the longest stretch out we’d had in a very long time, and I think we all felt the town itch. We took a long break in the golden afternoon sun and swam in the river, washing some of the dirt and mud and stink of the last 5 days off our bodies. We skipped rocks on the riverbank and I laid on my back on a stony shore and stared up at golden trees waving in the electric blue sky and wished the afternoon could last forever. Pie, Scratch and I got separated (because the Gila is wild and dense and hard to follow) but we found the crew a bit after dark. We forded the river in the deepening twilight one final time that night when we saw their headlamps in the distance, heard their howls and yelps echoed off the canyon walls.
We cowboyed in a tight circle, laughing and cooking a few feet away from each other. When I laid down my head that night, I stayed awake for hours watching the sky and listening to crickets chirp. Soak it in, Phantom.
The next day, we climbed out of the canyon for good. We stopped for lunch before the ascent, and I swam in the river one last time and waited for everyone to hike out so I could say goodbye to the wild, beautiful Gila on my own. I can’t wait to come back.
That night, OilCan, Scratch, Rusty and I camped on property that belongs to Doug the Hermit, a fascinating Roman Catholic man who has lived in the wilderness for 18 years. He goes to town once a year to stock up on provisions, otherwise, he works on an ATV road that he built and prays. He showed us his cabin and his garden. He was effusively friendly but not, he says, because he’s a hermit. He says he’s always been a people person.
The next morning, we are all unbelievably ready to be in town. We’re up before the sun and hiking by headlamp til sunrise. It’s a cold, frosty morning. The trail is frustrating, a roller-coaster, pointless ups and downs. I stop and sit on the side of the trail and glare at it. I’m trying to will myself to be in a good mood. To enjoy it. Just then, Pie and Cheesebeard come along and hiking with their company into town cheers me up. We book it to the Pizza Hut lunch buffet. Cherry tomatoes are the food of the gods, tbh.
We get a motel room in Silver City and drink Miller Lites and do laundry and buy new food. I’m savoring the rituals of town, our “town chores.” I know everyone so well now. I know what everyone prioritizes in town. These boys like to watch a lot of Impractical Jokers. I go over to the film crew room and watch a Polish Criterion collection film with them. We stand outside talking until 2am, then I head back to the hiker room and eat fried chicken and watch Jurassic Park with Rusty til we both pass out.
The next morning, we pack up and hike out again. 60 road miles to Lordsburg. Rusty and I walk together and talk about what’s next, our intimidating post-trail lives. We take a long, lazy break on the side of the highway and drink the beers we packed out. We end up cowboy camping as far off the road as we can manage, but we still sleep restlessly all night, cars and headlights zooming by.
The next morning is one of our warmest mornings yet. Daylight savings happened and we fell back. I felt like a go-getter leaving camp at 6:45am, but losing light at 5:30 is a definite drawback. We do miles quickly, listening to music, adjusted by now to flat road walking. We set up our cowboy camp just before sunset. I sit in my sleeping bag and cook rice and beans and watch a hawk swoop against the sky. Golden by the horizon, then deepening in a slow gradient to dark blue. Crickets again. I can’t believe it’s almost over. Keep it together, Phantom.
We wake up and hike to Lordsburg. I walk with Pie for the last 10 miles. We hop a barbed wire fence and talk about what brought us to the thru-hike, what we’ve loved about the CDT. We eat at Denny’s on the edge of town. I’m sunburned because Pie wouldn’t share his umbrella with me. I don’t deserve it, I guess, because I stubbornly refused my own umbrella back in Grants.
I wash my face in the Denny’s bathroom and a woman takes a step back from me. I won’t miss THAT part of the thru-hiking life. We meet up with the crew at the EconoLodge. We do our town chores, and drink Tecate. Brandon and Jordan ask me to do a final interview for the documentary and I agree, so we head out to a field and I lean against a tree at golden hour and decide to let them all know that I do care. I’ve loved my time with this crew, and I’ll miss them all immensely.
It’s not what I expected. I thought I’d be alone, but I haven’t been alone since the Bob Marshall Wilderness, roughly 2500 miles ago. I’ve had people to laugh with, cry with, curse with, drink with, barter and banter with. I’ve felt a lot of very human emotions toward these other humans. Frustration. Annoyance. Attraction. Friendship. Fondness. I’ve worn their clothes and drank their juice packets they didn’t want. I’ve heard their stories and imagined their lives. Well, their other lives.
I’m grateful for these things. For the humanity and community I found on the CDT. They changed me as a thru-hiker and shaped my thru-hike. No regrets, friends. thksforthemmrz.
I left them today because I’m doing an alternate to the border. It’s shorter and less remote. It’s logistically easier, and, I didn’t want to say goodbye at the border. I want to finish alone, so I can be however I want to be. It’s selfish to want to be alone for this, I think, but thru-hiking is inherently selfish so whatever.
We all stayed up late in the hotel room, film crew and hikers crammed in together. We listen to music and laugh and drink and when we finally go to bed, I barely sleep. I hate goodbyes and I hate finishing trails. Even the hard ones.
I’ve been addressing myself and introducing myself as Phantom pretty regularly since June. At Denny’s, Pie called me Laura and I thought, “oh, yeah.” I’m Laura again. He’s Paul. They’re Eddie, Josh, Eric, Trevor, Meg, Tessa.
Trails end, there’s a border coming up. I’ve pretty much run out of America. I’ll write something else when I’m done, but, since I’m here – thanks for following this journey, whoever you are. I’ve found a lot of peace in writing these posts. They’ve helped me sort feelings and contextualize experiences. I’m happy I’ll have something to look back on when the inevitable post-trail depression sets back in. I’ll be happy this record exists. Hope you are too.
The CDT. Huh.