Lordsburg receded quickly as we stomped out on New Mexico Highway 70, ducked beneath a barbed-wire fence and found ourselves once again in the dry heat and dazzling brightness of the Chihuhuan. We trudged across 15 miles of flat cattle property, cowering once from the Flaming Ball of Death in a ravine and again under the gangly limbs of scrub oak.
I walked with a friend I met on the trail, a tall and rangy traveler from Atlanta who goes by the trail name Chimichanga. He’s been more or less on the road since 2011, spending months in Southeast Asia, South America and Mexico. He’s also hiked the entire Appalachian Trail, making him a much more adept backpacker than I.
For this reason he gives me tips – little bits of advice to make trail life easier. Recently, for example, I ascribed to what we’re calling “Chimichanga’s Holistic Footcare Therapy” – an unorthodox approach to blister maintenance. In a nutshell the theory is the more abuse your feet take in the first few weeks the tougher they become. When we get to camp, he takes off his shoes and walks around barefoot, allowing his feet to get scuffed and stickered. This rough treatment causes the soles of your feet to harden up, making them better at fending off blisters. Or, as Chimi put it, “Who’s going to do better in a street fight, the pampered kid who has to be home every night before 8 o’clock, or the kid with the abusive alcoholic father?” And Chimichanga should know about tough feet: he hiked the entire AT without a single blister (knock on wood).
Nowadays you can find me prancing barefoot around camp like Captain Jack Sparrow, plucking goat heads from between my toes.
On the morning of the second day, while we were above 6,000 feet in the Engineer Mountains north of Lords, we broke camp in a freak snowstorm. By the time I got my tent packed, it was soggy as a wet rag. We set out on the trail, walking apace in driving snow, until we found a ramshackle structure of corrugated metal and decided to shelter up.
A few other hikers were in there, too, making hot food, drinking hot chocolate, watching the snow swirl in through the caved-in roof.
Chimi and I felt antsy to walk, so we pressed on. It snowed, rained and hailed intermittently all morning. At a highway, I called some friends I had met a few weeks ago in Silver City, Carol and Richard Martin, who are Trail Angels (people along the trail who help hikers out.) We made a plan for Carol to pick us up at a place called Jack’s Parking Lot after we covered 10 or so more miles. Knowing we had a warm place to eventually stay, we walked all day and enjoyed ourselves despite the cold, stopping to lay in a field at one point when the sun (kind of) came out.
We passed Burro Peak Trail Head and began the 2,000-foot ascent of Jack’s Peak in the late afternoon – assuming all the while that Jack’s Peak Parking Lot (our rendezvous) was at Jack’s Peak Road. Well, when we got to Jack’s Peak Road, it was rough and steep and near the top of the mountain. It just didn’t seem right. I called Carol, and it turns out Jack’s Peak Parking lot was adjacent to Burro Peak Trail Head, meaning we passed it a long ways back on the trail. There was no going back.
At the top of the mountain, where we stood amid the snow, wind howled through the treetops and scudding clouds crashed into the peak above our heads. A scary prospect, but we had no choice but to camp. Chimichanga took all of this in stride.
I said, “Should we go up over the peak and drop down the backside?”
And Chimichanga said, “We shouldn’t go higher.”
So I followed him down the backside of the mountain and we found a little shelf in the lee of the hill. We could hear the wind wailing like a banshee on the other side of the mountain, but where we made camp, it was still. Inside my tent, everything was damp, including my socks, beanie and sleeping bag. We both put our soggy shoes in plastic bags and tucked them beneath our legs before turning in for the night.
We rose before dawn and watched the sun line paint gold down the mountainside, pleading for it to come just a little closer. When it washed over us, we stood on rocks facing east and praised the Flaming Ball of Life.
We hiked for about 13 miles Monday, summitting Jack’s and Burro peaks, and then got in touch with Carol again. She picked us up and took us to her place, an acreage outside of Silver City, putting us up in a cozy hiker hut. We spent part of the afternoon reading, writing, loafing and hanging gear out to dry, until Carol cooked us a fantastic dinner. Her warm hospitality was the perfect counterpoint to a frigid 24 hours.
Today we resupply in Silver City and head out for the Gila, where we’ll take the trail up the Gila River Canyon, past the hot springs and the Gila Cliff Dwellings near Doc Campbell’s Post. It should be about 10 days and 175 miles till the next dispatch.
Scenes From the Trail