Our convoy to the border included one pickup, two SUVs, a deuce-and-half military transport vehicle, and a border patrol escort – the biggest group of hikers to hit the trail on one day this year, if not ever.
En route, the Border Patrol agent told us the area we’d be traveling is a “dope trail.” Apparently cartels post lookouts along the spine of the Big Hatchet Mountains, sentries who monitor the Border Patrol’s movements. Smugglers then fly below radar in gliders and drop drugs bundled in burlap sacks. Groups of runners called mules await the signal at the Mexican border, and when they get it, they break for the desert, collect their respective bundles, and disperse. The Border Patrol is able to catch some, but enough, apparently, make it.
Resurrecting the Monument
The monument marking the southern terminus at Crazy Cook was toppled, likely by folks from across the border, which is about 20 feet from where the monument sits. On April 20, we decided to resurrect it. This was no small feat considering the obelisk is about 6 feet tall, solid granite, and must weigh in the ballpark of 1,000 pounds. Luckily a man named Jeffrey from nearby Hachita was there. He devised an elaborate engineering scheme, directing us to pile blocks beneath the obelisk, cantilevering it higher and higher – like how the Egyptians built the pyramids – until we could muscle it onto its perch. Then it was time to walk.
The New Mexican Sky
The first day of hiking was odd. All this time I had this romantic vision of myself striking out alone into the Chihuahuan Desert. As it was, the entire group of 20 filed out in a matter of 15 minutes, so we leap-frogged one another till dusk. The walk was pretty, though – hot, but pretty. The path skirted the southern buttress of Big Hatchet Peak, and the mountains were stark before a wild ringing blue New Mexican sky.
I went, with most of the group, 13.7 miles to the first water box (the Continental Divide Trail Coalition includes five water catchments with the $120 shuttle fee), and camped there, in a grove of blooming ocotillos.
The CDT’s Flex
If the first day was odd, on the second day the CDT showed me its flex. I took the high trail along the rolling terrain at the mountain’s skirt. There is no trail here, as it were, but rather a roughly nine-mile, cross-country traverse. To negotiate it, you get out your map, find the “trail’s” contour, and march forth into the heat and the undulations and the spiky bramble. Every so often you’ll see a wooden post in a pile of rocks (a cairn). These are little tokens of comfort. They tell you that you’re on the right path in life.
This nine mile section is a slog – up and down arroyos, hacking through mesquite and yucca and prickly pear and creosote and chunky rocks. Along the way, however, I passed Thompson Canyon, an historic draw within the Big Hatchet. CDTC Director Teresa Martinez – who is a remarkable person, a great source of knowledge, and passionate about the trail – told me about how a group of Apaches, lead on-foot by Geronimo, duped the U.S. Cavalry by retreating up Thompson Canyon – a passage too steep, rugged and rocky for horses to negotiate. “You’ll be waking in the footsteps of Geronimo,” she said.
I loved the idea of doing that whenever she said it, and I loved actually doing it even more.
For the next few days I walked mostly alone from water box to water box, although I did meet a few friendly thru-hikers who I hope to see in the long unfurling of this great adventure.
I passed the Little Hatchets which cut like a serrated knife edge down the center of the valley; I watched dust devils tall as skyscrapers whirling on flats that stretched to the curve of the Earth; I limped amid the uplifted ramparts of Coyote Hills and slept in my tent in a rainstorm at the foot of Pyramid Peak.
The bootheel truly is an immense landscape, a vast solitude, shadeless and naked and flat before vaulted crystalline skies. Many of these formations are inaccessible to motor vehicles. If you walk to them – just make the plans and take the plunge and do it – you can count yourself as one of the few among Earth’s 7 billion who have experienced their grandeur – and this, mes amis, is what excites me.
When I finally came into Lordsburg, straggling out of the desert, a woman was at the Econolodge Motel. She brought ice chests of beer and cokes and water, and when I approached she handed me a container, and within this container was a trove of ruby red watermelon wedges. I sat right down on the steps and ate about 15 watermelons and washed them down with a Miller Lite and a Gatorade before going for lunch. Her trail name was She Bear, and she was supporting her friend on the CDT. … I still can’t get over it, though. Watermelon wedges. I mean, I couldn’t possibly think of anything more delightful. She Bear, wherever you are, I hope the remainder of your life is an endless succession of joys and triumphs.
Anyways, it’s a wild feeling to have come 85 miles or so through the Chihuahuan. It took me 4.5 days – the most aggressive hiking of this old goat’s life. Today begins the journey to Silver City.
Rain is in the forecast.
Scenes From the Trail: