Saturday, May 26, 2012

San Juan Slog

Hi all, writing today from Pagosa Springs, CO, a lovely little town that seems to be indicative of what most of the supply stops in this state will be like; quaint, touristy and more upscale than those in New Mexico, for better or worse.  Everything is arranged along the bucolic San Juan River, and true to its name the place is full of hot springs fed spas interspersed with cafes and the like.  More importantly for the hiker, its all fairly compact, so getting around is rather easy.  The drive down from Wolf Creek Pass was spectacular as well, as highway 160 winds thousands of feet down to the valley floor, though a nearby forest fire smogged up the air a bit.  Luckily, I got a hitch easily with a doctor/ rock climber named Jay who also treated me to some coffee in town.  I still haven't decided whether I'll stay here tonight, but given that day passes to the springs are cheap and there is a fair in town tonight, chances are I'll elect to be lazy, again, and give the ole' knee some more rest.

The trail from Chama has been pretty much everything I had hoped and feared.  The San Juan Mountains are beautiful in a stark way very different from the Sierras in California, with less trees and more barren grassland up high, though perhaps that is more due to the lack of snow.  Wind has been the most persistent phenomena, as it seems to blow consistently all day and night at about 40 mph, with gusts up to twice that.  Often I find myself leaning at a 60% angle just to stay upright, only to topple over when a brief lull comes by.  Only the heavily forested sections can give any respite.  This is probably because the path tends to go up along the ridges and only drop to the valleys when absolutely necessary, but even then it never drops below 10,000 feet.  There have been several astounding views as the trail circles high above the headwaters of several rivers, as well a some cloud-bound peaks clad in stone covered sheets of snow, the proof or erosion in progress.  And all throughout the background are the ever present mountains, harbingers of climbs to come.

Fortunately, this has been a very low snow year, so the going is a bit easier than it might otherwise have been, but even with only about 10% ground cover, it can still be agonizingly slow going sometimes.  It has a different consistency than Sierra snow, being much looser and lighter, thus a small snowfield can turn into an exhausting slog through ice-crusted slush up to your waist.  As usual, forested areas and north facing slopes are the worst, and trail that traverses these areas is frequently buried and dangerous or tiring to navigate.  As an example, I elected to drop about 1,200 feet down a precipitous slope and hike up a valley floor, as opposed to traversing its length through snow at a higher elevation.  It required a much bigger loss and gain of altitude, as well as a near suicidal descent that was more like a controlled human avalanche, but in the end it felt worth it.  In the end, all the toil feels worth it of course (though one wouldn't know it given my epic bouts of swearing in the middle of the more draining postholing marathons), but it sure feels nice to be in town for a bit.  With that, I'll talk to you all later.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

No Mas New Mexico

Chama-Chama-Chama-Chameleon.  Sorry, the brain does wierd things while wandering around out here.  So, I've made it to Chama, in case that wasn't obvious, and in doing so am officially done with New Mexico.  The trail passes out of the state near Cumbres Pass, though the town itself is actually back across the border... sigh, NM just doesn't like letting go. 

It certainly feels like a different state however, for the scenery changes drastically after leaving Ghost Ranch.  While there had been scattered areas of snow and patches of green at the higher elevations before, everything is now verdant in all directions.  There have been multiple high meadows full of blooming dandelions and wild irises, as well as some drier plateaus populated by elk, pronghorn antelope and coyotes.  These give way to pine and aspen forests, providing some much needed shade and protection from the wind, which can lower the temperature pretty quickly even on sunny days.  Snow drifts and mountain streams abound, making water access a non issue for once, and lightening the pack load even if it is somewhat balanced out by the extra warm weather gear I'll be carrying.

The section north of here supposedly starts to get quite a bit more difficult, with weather and snow travel becoming an issue.  Elinor, who I was hiking with before my knee injury, apparently got dumped on with hail near here and her tent collapsed, so here's hoping I miss that bit of adventure.  Pagosa Springs is the next stop, just trying to take things one step at a time here, so the push must continue on.  Talk to everyone later!   

Friday, May 18, 2012

Ghosts of Artists Past

Hi all, writing today from Ghost Ranch, NM, a resort most well know for hosting Georgia O'Keefe in her prime.  Naturally, the view is pretty spectacular, with everything tucked away into a valley coming down off a multicolored mesa, and adobe structures fronting a green swath of hay fields.  Aside from the usual cabins and such, there is also a large mess hall (all you can eat meals, huzzah!), a palentology and archaeology museum, guided tours of all things O'Keefe related, a bluegrass festival, and some sort of school outing.  All in all, it feels more crowded here than it has even in the towns, but it is relaxing either way.  Given that the next major town, Chama, is only 44 miles away, and that I need to pick up packages at the post office, which will be closed by the time I get there if I leave today, I figure I'll chill here for the night and let my knee continue to heal.  

Seeing as the hike from Cuba was so short, one would think there would not be much of interest.  Instead, this last section was a bit of a surprise as the path climbs to over 10,000 feet over the San Pedro range.  The vegetation quickly turns into dense pines at that height, and we saw our first real signs of lingering snow cover.  In that sense, the long delay in Grants might have been a good thing; 2 weeks ago this area was much more blanketed.  Now, however, the high meadows that the trail crosses near the peak are simply flooded, creating wide open marshes that require getting your boots wet to cross.  Ugh.  Fortunately, these areas aren't too far across, and give nice views complete with small groups of elk off in the distance.  Upon coming down from the mountain, the terrain quickly turns drier and heads off to yet another colorful mesa before crossing the Chama River and heading towards the ranch.

There has finally been some other hiker info to report.  Gale, another thru hiker is here as well, though on her way out for the moment; she hiked part of the trail last year and is going to flip up to finish some bits she missed then.  A few other guys who passed me by while I was in Albaquerque also showed up briefly, as they had just taken some time off in Santa Fe.  They seemed pretty determined, but having been down that road before, constantly racing with one another and pushing all day long, I don't really envy them.  With so few people on the trail, its much easier to relax and take time to enjoy the sights, even if motivation is more of an issue when your boots freeze, etc.

Lastly, Crystal, Celine, and Frog should be showing up tonight.  Only Crystal is human (and a French one at that).  Celine and Frog are her two mules that she has bought along the way here, and they are her riding and pack animals, respecitvely.  We've been hearing about them right since the get go, so it was nice to finally meet up and put a face to all the trail rumors.  Even on a path as sparsely populated as this one, news has a way of getting around.  Anyway, going to hit up the shower and hopefully do some laundry, talk to you all later.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

No Mojitos in Cuba

Hi all, writing today from Cuba, NM, where, as the title says, there is nary a beachfront bar in sight.  It has been described as "sketchy", so I don't think I'll be spending much time here, but in full daylight it doesn't seem too bad.  There are, however, a hilarious number of prarie dogs running around outside the library windows, so theres that. 

The big issue this section has obviously been my knee and its back and forth state of distress.  Its held up fairly well in the intervening 110 miles from Grants, which included a fair number of ups and down that added quite a bit of stress to the situation.  Thankfully it seems to be recovering on the whole, though how it holds up over several weeks will be the real test of things.  For now, its more a matter of rebuilding strength and stamina; taking 2 weeks off pretty much put me back to square one in that regard.  Heres hoping that was the one and only setback on this little trip. 

Fortunately, this section wasn't too long, giving me some comfort if something did go wrong.  Leaving Grants, the trail quickly climbs atop a mesa and towards Mount Taylor, an inactive volcano whose 'peak' is now the highest point on the rim overlooking a massive crater, complete with an old cinder cone in the center.  From the top, one can apparently see a third of the state.  I found it particularly interesting that you can see weather patterns and duststorms from very far away due to the huge sight lines and all.  The area around the peak is heavily forested, one of the first such stretches so far on the enire trail, due to the increased rainfall from the high altitude.  There were also substantial patches of snow in the treed in areas, a taste of things to come in Colorado.  We also encountered some of the best natural springs yet, which, particularly given the lack of water in New Mexico, are some of my favorite things ever.  Cold, clear water that doesn't have to be filtered?  And doesn't have cow crap surrounding it?  Yes Please.

Following Mt Taylor, the trail necessarily goes downhill and traverses several lower desert areas interspersed with high mesas.  The terrain is pretty awesome, with massive sand and mudstone cliffs rising suddenly in bands of red, orange and chalky white.  The canyons at the bases of these areas show all sorts of erosion, from rounded, water carved rock, to pillars of crumbling mudstone surmounted by precariously balanced boulders, to huge overhangs pitted with smaller holes worn by the wind.  The trail wends its way through all this, often climbing precipitously up the sides of cliffs in ways the AT or PCT never would, before abruptly leveling off.  The tops of the mesas are like worlds of their own, more heavily wooded than the lowlands, thats makes one forget that you are hundreds of feet above the surrounding valley.  The edge of these highlands can appear suddenly, a reminder of the altitude and the loneliness of the terrain.

The last leg into town was a tedious roadwalk, which seems to be the way of the trail out here.  Thankfully there is less of that for the near future as the trail approaches Colorado.  I don't plan on staying here in town, but there are quite a few stops in the coming days, so I won't be pushing too hard.  Anyway, here's hoping the legs hold up, wishing the best for eveyone.  Talk to you later.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Albequerque and Other Spelling Errors

Hi all, writing to you today from Dave Jordan's laptop in Albequerque, NM, a pitifully long distance from the trail.  I've been down here a few days now, recuperating from my stubbornly persistent knee injury (patellar tendonitis, pez anserine bursitis, a minor ACL strain, and a crazy tight hamstring, btw), and am finally approaching a point where I am ready to try and hit the trail again.  After two visits to the ER up in Grants, a trip to the orthopedist, and several physical therapy sessions down here, my body damn well better be able to handle some hiking, albeit at reduced mileage.  Already, everyone I was hiking with is probably hopelessly out of reach, barring a ridiculously fast return to form or some catastrophe on their end, and who knows who else has passed by while I have been away.  The only course is to take it slow and hope for a full recovery in time, as a reinjury will probably result in aborting the whole shebang for this year.

I suppose there isn't alot to report in the way of action.  I was driven down here by the sister of Carole Mumm (the trail angel in Grants), who was bringing her mom to the doctor in Albequerue already.  In that sense at least, my luck has been pretty good; between the Mumms and the Jordans, I haven't been for lack of someplace to stay, thankfully.  Given that continued medical attention in the U.S. is certainly not free, and always more than a little complicated, not having to pay for a motel has probably saved this trip from utter disaster.  Tomorrow, I plan on taking the Greyhound back up to Grants and hitting the trail the following morning, making this my longest and most expensive digression from hiking a dozen times over.      

For what its worth, at least this detour hasn't been without its merits.  I'll never turn down the opportunity to see someplace new, so, despite my crippled situation, I am glad I got to see a little bit of Albaquerque and some more of New Mexico than I would have otherwise.  Being in a car when crossing the giant valleys, and having access to air conditioning while seeing the weather systems come barreling through, is always a nice treat, particularly out here where the sky is so phenomenally different than back East.  Getting to see The Avengers was a nice touch, though a summer blockbuster is about as far from the silence of the trail as one can imagine.  It'll definitely give me something entertaining to think about on the hike out of here, as will the massive amount of reading I've managed to get done in the last few weeks.  Some Lovecraft, some Vonnegut, some comic books, and some history of science books will make for a strange mix of thoughts on the trail.

And, as always, this experience has reinforced the importance of humility out here (as much as I may try to resist it).  When a 28 year old, in relatively good shape, can get hobbled for no discernable reason, while multiple sextugenarians (see, spelling errors.  People in their 60s, whatever they are) can go casually strolling by, it makes me wonder how there can be such a thing as hubris.  My prolonged mooching off people's goodwill definitely drives the point home (thanks again Dave!) that we hikers exists at the mercy of others.  That being said, hopefully I'll be able to put all this behind me relatively soon and make tracks for Colorado.  At least I won't have to worry about and excess of snow in the Rockies at this rate.  Talk to you later.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Hi all, writing to you today from Grants, NM, about two thirds of the way up the state.  I've been essentially stuck in town for the past several days due to some rather crippling right knee pain that is taking its sweet time healing, but more on that later.  Seeing as I haven't had any internet access since Silver City, there is quite alot of ground to cover.

 I was hiking with Elinor, a woman originally from Israel who has lived in the states most of her life, who is going to grad school in August.  Given her time constraints, she is trying to finish in under 4 months... a tough challenge for just about anyone, with a 25 mile a day average overall.  We booked it out of Silver City and headed up into the dry hills surrounding the area before dropping down to the absolutely beautiful Gila River Canyon, a deep scar of red rock cliffs and pinnacles towering over the twisting watercourse that we would follow for the next few days.  Given the back and forth path through the narrow canyon, the trail fords the river around 150 times during the length of its stay in the gorge.  And no, thats not a typo.  There is no extra 0 there or anything.  150 times.  Thankfully, its been a low rain year in the associated drainage areas, so most of the crossings came only to our knees or so, and the water wasn't moving fast enough to be a threat, but regardless it did get tedious at times.  The views more than made up for the effort however, with broad, grassy expanses where the canyon widened giving way to narrower sections complete with over hangs and watery caves crowding the river banks.  Seriously, just Google some pictures, mine won't do the area justice.

Halfway up the canyon, we had the opportunity to explore Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, an old Indian settlement build into  a series of caves overlooking a tributary stream.  The look into the history of the area was pretty cool, especially from a hiker's perspective; with no pack animals to freight around the building materials, the natives would have had to treck tons of stone from the stream bed far below on their backs.  Luckily we were somewhat spoiled by some visiting boyscouts who hooked us up with burgers and drinks in exchange for the usual peppering of questions and requests for trail stories.  We also ran into Uncle Don and Dan Bedore, 2 other long distance hikers on a seperate trail from ours who happened to be staying in the next campground.  Given the small number of us out on the CDT, particularly this early on, it was a welcome encounter with some kindred spirits who gave us some helpful info about the trail ahead.        

Upon leaving the upper canyon, we once again entered an arid stretch with little water access.  After being spoiled by days of light packs and fording-cooled feet, we shuddered at the prospect of schleping 10 pounds of water on dusty roads, but the trail must go on.  We once again entered areas of big skies and distant hills, a stark contrast to the closeness of the trail in the previous days.  In places, the path climbed to over 9,000 feet, resulting in a somewhat surprising change of schenery affording long views of rolling, grassy hills (and possibly an impending forest fire that thankfully petered out).  Because of Elinor's deadline, we elected to push a few extra miles each day in order to reach our next town stop early, and despite a few close calls with some... unsavory water, we managed to reach our next destination half a day early.

Pie Town is a tiny settlement on route 60 about half the way up the state on the trail.  I say "settlement", because with a population of about fifty people, its hard to call it a village even.  It does however have 3 churches, no gas station, library or convenience store, and 2 restaurants (very crucial here).  Most importantly, it is home to the Toaster House, a hostel of sorts owned by Nita, that is open to hikers.  Unfortunately, she was not in town, but the doors are always open there and the hiker box was full of goodies.  Gale, an older hiker who had been a few days ahead of us, was already set up there, and we were joined soon after by Richard (a former CDT thru hiker now doing a section hike), and 2 hippie travelers who apparently knew Nita in decades past.  With such an ecclectic crowd, the conversation was... interesting, but with hippie types not really being my favorite individuals, I was content with getting some reading done.  Thankfully, the 2 restaurants offered some respite, and Pie Town lived up to its name with a great selection at the Pie-O-Neer Cafe, including an apple-pinenut-pepper confection that I doubt I'll ever taste the like again.  The staff there, though small, was an interesting combination of people hailing from such diverse city centers as London, Dallas, and Chicago.  All chose to come to remote Pie Town, and despite its seclusion, they seem to lead a pretty charmed life.

Seeing as Pie Town was my first real opportunity to relax (given that I had been hiking with Elinor and choose not to stay in Silver City or Lordsburg), I elected to take a zero at the Toaster House.  Elinor and Gale continued on, and I spent a quite day reading before heading out onto the road once more the next day.  And road it was.  This section was characterized by much road walking across relatively flat landscape, with a few scenic breaks up some dry canyons.  The highlight was a trek across El Malpais (the Badlands) on the Acoma-Zuni trail, an old Indian route that traverses a huge section of basalt formed by a lava flow 10,000 years ago, overlooked by high sandstone bluffs.  The tortourous terrain in plagued with crevasses and swirls of rock, essentially looking like an enormous pot of asphalt had spilled over the countryside before cooling and splitting.  A long hike down Zuni Canyon, a dry watercourse flanked by colorful, twisting cliffs, concluded the trip into Grants, including a deceptive and agonizingly long road walk to the McDonalds where sweet, sweet hydration lay. 

Unfortunately for my joints, I apparently managed to push myself a wee bit too hard over the last few days.  Despite being used to walking or riding everywhere in NYC, and having a job where one is always on their feet, my right knee managed to get fatigued somehow.  Its pretty painful to walk short distances, though in the long run it seems to stop bothering me once I get going, so it looks like I'll be hung up in town for a few more days while it rests up.  Obviously, this is not ideal, but given that Colorado is still probably covered in snow, I'm not too worried about the miles just yet.  Eventually, my restlessness will get the better of me however, and the need to maintain some momentum will force me to book it out of here on the next 125 mile leg to Cuba, NM.  Hopefully I'll be 100% by then, but if not I'll just have to try and take it slow for awhile.  Regardless, I'll try and keep posting a bit.  In the Meantime, I'm staying with the local trail angels Hugo and Carole Mumm, an awesome couple who really go above and beyond for the hikers, and without whom I'd be somewhat screwed for the moment.  The continued generosity of people on the trail always astounds me.  Talk to you all later!   

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Stuck. In Grants, NM. With some sort of ankle & knee problem for an indefinite time. Sigh. Listening to traffic on I-81 instead of hiking sucks.