This is update #3.
Chris “Pacer” Ford is attempting to thru-hike the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) when he began on April 30, 2022. He will keep us updated every week or two with the progress of his adventure with stories and photos from the trail. Follow along with us… get automatic updates by subscribing to this blog.
May 26, 2022
846.9 of 3,100 miles complete…27% complete
Hikers I met this leg:
Shady Grove, Hammer, Hawkeye, Dr Tom, Shoes, Chameleon, Let It Rip, Snail Trainer, Som (short for sommelier), Mr Green, Band-aid, FrenchMan, Lemon Hope, Mud, El Flaco, Yeti, Finder, Whistler, Chester, Jinx, Smoke Beard, Mud, Ponderosa, Soccer Mom (a guy), Cash, Your Honor, Fast Food, Hide.
Leaving Grants, NM:
The CDT Coalition has numerous resources on their website that hikers keep our eyes on. One of those resources is their link to “Closures and Alerts.” During my ZERO in Grants, they updated us to begin preparing alternate plans due to an expected announcement from the US Forest Service that planned to close forests because of extreme fire hazards across NM. We had heard rumors that the Santa Fe Forest was a specific concern…it lies between Cuba and Chama, my next section. Before leaving Grants, I spoke to several other hikers and we all came to the same conclusion…press towards Cuba, and we’ll just see what happens. If I hustled, I thought I had a chance to get to to the Colorado border before the closures…such a naive optimist!
After a Denny’s “Grand Slam” breakfast, I started my walk out of town. Before exiting town on the other side, I stopped by Smith’s grocery for a couple apples and Gatorade…treats for the trail. I had been looking at a distant mountain over the past couple days. It turned out to be Mount Taylor, and I would be climbing it this day. The road out of town went by a prison, and I eventually took a right into the Mt Taylor’s parking/trailhead where I saw a small US Forest Service crew loading up their equipment…looked like they had been working on trail. The trail started to climb as expected…nice to be back on Trail and off road. The short climb away from the trail head only lasted about an hour, and I was on a long flat bench, plateau, mesa…I wasn’t sure, but it was remarkably long, flat, and cruisy. I eventually started climbing again and ended up just short of 10,000 feet.
Aspen trees grow in pockets at specific elevations. The Aspen leaves were just starting to emerge about the size of my thumb nail, but over the coming days, they quadrupled in size and were flickering green in the breeze in the way that only an Aspen can do. There was a decision to make: 1) follow the official CDT route and traverse the side of Taylor, or 2) follow an alternate route and climb to Taylor’s 11,300 foot summit. I opted for #1 to save precious time just in case I had a shot at beating the US Forest Service clock. I met 2 hikers, Chameleon and Shoes, taking a shady break. Remember the USFS crew I avoided; they didn’t. The crew told them the Forest Service would announce all NM federal forests would close on/about May 23rd due to extreme fire hazards. As we ended our conversation, I revised my mental hiker math and came to the conclusion that I had a shot at reaching Colorado before the 23rd with an alternate route or two…probably a good bit of road walk…ugh! At the Taylor summit intersection, as planned, I opted to save time and skipped the summit. I “camelled up” on water at Lobe Canyon Spring…cold clear water doesn’t come often. The afternoon was unusually cloudy, particularly towards the mountain peak…it looked like it might rain. I hoped it would, but it didn’t. This was the first of three 30ish mile days that would set me up for a 22ish mile day into Cuba.
The next morning was cool and comfortable. So nice to be at a higher elevation with big trees to help block the wind and sun. Slightly cooler temps were nice as well. I saw several deer, a few elk, and even some chipmunks. All across NM, lava rock was ever present, but lava was more abundant this morning…it’s grippy and can cause tripping…makes nasty cuts if you fall. The Aspens were very dense and were now the dominate tree throughout the morning. Glad that I had loaded up on water the day before. The water sources ahead were grim. About 20 miles ahead was another spring…that was my target. I had just passed the exit alternate route from the Mt. Taylor summit, and the Trail once again returned to flat and cruisy, passing in/out of trees at 8,000 feet. The patches of trees started to spread out with sun exposed Trail in between that was actually a sandy road walk…drink more water. I had only seen two hikers since I left Grants. While I was taking a shady lunch break, I heard a hiker passing behind me…it was Let It Rip. We compared notes and both were planning on water at Los Indios Spring…the Guthook comments made the spring sound like an oasis…beautiful water and loads of shade. But, it was at the bottom of a steep .7 mile descent into a canyon. I left my pack at the top and just carried down two water bags, a dip cup, and filter. The descent wasn’t as bad as expected, but the oasis was better than I expected. A piped spring dumped into a 10×3 foot deep concrete trough…crystal clear and cold. At the spring, I met two section hikers, another thru hiker named Snail Trainer, and Let It Rip arrived shortly. Water this abundant gave us a chance to rinse off our caked trail dirt from our legs and feet and to actually guzzle to our content. Just shy of my max water load, I made the climb back out of the canyon.
So, it’s day three since leaving Grants and still no cell coverage. I was still on the 8,000 foot plateau, but would reach it’s edge in just a couple hours after breaking camp. Once I reached the edge, I had a strong cell signal. I checked the CDT Coalition’s “Closures and Alerts.” There it was…new updates. The US.
Forest Service announced closures effective May 19th at 8:00 am. for Cibola Forest (I had just passed through that Forest), and also Santa Fe and Carson Forests. As I was reviewing these closures, along came Hammer and Let It Rip. We briefly discussed the impacts, and in short order, they started the 2,000 foot descent back to a more typical desert terrain. I studied and thought a little more before loading back up about 10 minutes behind them.
Santa Fe and Carson Forests were between Chama and the Colorado border. I was arriving in Cuba the afternoon of May 19th. The early closures made it impossible to reach Chama by Trail now…such is the life of distance hiking, and well, life. A re-plan would be required; plenty of time to think while I hiked. For now, press to Cuba and figure it out there. The descent was steep and fun footwork. I would now cross deep sandy sections, typical of southern NM, but now I’m looking at canyons and mesas all around me. Deep sandy sections led to canyon rims about 500 feet from the floor below. Cairns guided me along the edges of the rims all afternoon…up and down to other canyon rims…spectacular views.
Sand, sand, and more sand. Every 10ish miles I started taking shoes and socks off to dump the sand that collected to reduce foot damage. It became part of all hiker routines…dump sand and let the the feet air out…repeat over and over. My next stop was a 50 gallon water cache. So accustomed to sandy road walks, I missed a turn back on single track trail. I bushwhacked a shortcut back to trail and got lazy with my foot work in the sand. I accidentally kicked a cactus—ouch! I pulled a couple thorns from my shoe, but could feel more that would require taking my shoe off. I chose to deal with those at the water cache. Hammer was resting at the cache when I showed up. Shoes off and finished plucking a few more thorns…damage was minimal…no biggie. We chatted, rested and snacked in the shade. We traded a couple snacks. I got a grape propel mix, and I gave Hammer some Haribos and two Hi-Chews. Off to the Trail I went…Hammer was gonna rest another hour or so. My target for the day was about 22 miles short of Cuba. Hammer, Let It Rip, and I all had similar plans. All three of us camped within a quarter mile of each other.
The next morning, I was off for the town of Cuba. Shortly, Let It Rip caught up…we switched back and forth all morning. We tagged up at a mid-morning shady spring for water. I was headed toward a canyon wall that would require a stiff climb up its face. The Trail meandered to the canyon’s right, then steep switches, left and right, took me straight up about 500 feet over about 1/2 mile. I had to stop a few times to catch my breath…short, but stout pull! A large Ponderosa Pine at the top offered a great shade break…pack off and drink some water. Five more miles of sandy trail, and five more miles of road walk led me into Cuba. Checked in at the Del Prada Motel, dropped off pack, dumped 22 miles of sand from socks and shoes, and headed to McDonalds…I restrained myself and only spent $18.
A Twist At The End Of NM:
Now in Cuba, it was time to figure out the next steps. It was very early to enter the San Juan’s snowy mountains, but it was an average snow year with a record snow melt so far. But, the San Juan’s would also get light snow and rain over the next few days. What to do? The next section of open trail was right at Cumbres Pass along the Colorado border…Chama was the gateway town. My plan took form…ZERO in Cuba a day; get to Chama next where Cookie Jar sent my snow gear; ZERO another day there. This string of ZEROs would give the snow/rain/high winds to pass through the San Juan’s…hopefully. Over dinner with Som, Mr Green, Band-Aid, and Frenchman, we all discussed our plans which were the same…let the San Juan weather pass, and hit the Trail again. Since Let It Rip and I were making similar miles, we decided to tag up with each other as we headed into the San Juan’s…dangerous sections deserve partners. There was still a lot of snow pack, and it’s best not hike solo if possible.
I ate and rested in Cuba another day. Martin who met up with me in Grants offered to shuttle Let It Rip and I to Chama. His wife, Wendy, came along too. I hadn’t seen Wendy since we all worked together on the B-2 bomber test team back at Edwards
AFB in the Mojave Desert in the mid 1990s. Martin and Wendy brought us a box of Two Boys donuts for the 2-hour drive…great donuts! We caught up on the last 25 years. I remember their boys as 10-12. They’re both in late their 30s with growing families of the their own…time is flying, isn’t it? While we were driving, it started to rain…the first rain I had since arriving in NM…and it was cold. In Chama, I had a bit of a scare. My resupply box wasn’t at the pickup location. Luckily, the Post Office had it…ice axe, micro spikes, bivy (just in case tenting above tree line isnt possible) and food…so glad it was there! As we drove through town, hikers were everywhere…we all poured into Chama with similar plans. The hiker bubbles were being reset…I saw hikers I hadn’t seen since Pie Town. Several hikers planned to head into the San Juan’s even with the snow and rain, so I would have hikers and reports ahead of me. The Vista Del Rio Lodge would be home for two days while I waited out the weather myself.
After ZEROing in Chama, Let It Rip had a friend passing through named Alex. Alex drove us up to Cumbres Pass at 11:00. We scheduled our ZEROs to let a snow storm pass us by, but the storm extended a couple more days, and we would be caught in it. That said, we thought we’d see for ourselves, so we started our climb out of Cumbres Pass. About 6 miles into the climb, we ran into two separate groups that camped up top the night before…6 inches of snow, 50-60 mph winds. They were headed back down to reassess their plans. It got my attention that all of these hikers hiked the PCT in 2019 so they knew what bad conditions are. The next two nights we expected similar weather…it became a quick decision. So, we decided to ditch the climb, drop back to the pass, and take the lower elevation bypass route…back to a road walk and stay at lower elevations to get to Pagosa Springs. Along the way, it drizzled, spit snow, and lots of wind. We ended up hiking until 8:00 pm. Overnight it rained and transitioned to snow…less than 1 inch.
The small town of Platoro was about 18 miles away through a long wide valley. The morning was full of wildlife…herds of elk, deer, and big horn sheep. The wind cranked; sleet became spitting snow; then back to sleet. Platoro had the promise of food and drink at the Gold Pan Cafe and General Store. When we arrived, they weren’t fully open yet. However, Debbie and Mike (the owners) made their place open to us…cooked vegetable soup and grilled cheese sandwiches, hot coffee, cold sodas. They were even cooking dinner for anyone that stayed the night. Let It Rip and I stayed a couple hours for a break, then wanted to get another 8-9 miles to make the next day to Pagosa Springs shorter. We found a good spot at about 10,700 feet and only 24 miles from the South Fork Pass where we’d hitch 43 miles into Pagosa. It snowed a little overnight, and my tent frosted over inside and out.
Chilly morning, but the skies were completely blue…a sight I hadn’t seen in about a week. The hiking was cruisy and chilly until the sun settled on us. Then, very warm. Took us about 30 minutes to catch a hitch. A guy from NC came to Colorado to do some ranch work pulled over and made room for us…very nice. Once in Pagosa Springs, I pinged Abby and Dillon. Jamie and I have been part of Abby’s life her entire life…it has been a minute (as they say). Abby and Dillon let us stay at their house. It was great fun catching up; chatting; meeting their new puppy, Luna.
The next morning, they dropped us off in Pagosa Springs so we could resupply and work our way back up to South Fork as we headed for Creede next. Since we’re about 2 weeks too early for the San Juan’s, we’re taking lower routes. After Creede, we’ll climb back up to 12,000-13,000 feet to see how things are.
Water. Now that I’ve cleared New Mexico, I want to describe the challenges of water across the desert. Water is obviously a top concern across the desert. It’s the heaviest item we carry, but also the resource we need most. It’s a very individual decision for each of us…how much to carry…when to ration…when to guzzle. Luckily, I have found over the years that I can go a long way on very little water…I call it one of my hiking super powers.
Virtually, all thru hikers use an app called FarOut (formerly Guthook). We use it to navigate, see town resources, read comments, and to FIND WATER. Through the desert, we’re constantly looking down trail to see the next water source. There are only 3 viable possibilities through most of the desert: caches, cattle troughs, and cattle ponds. The last hundred or so miles springs are a very welcomed new possibility and there are a few streams.
Not all water sources are created equal. If one doesn’t plan well, or they aren’t willing to carry a large amount, then literally, poopy water is the last choice…I’ll get there. Here’s a little description of the water sources I’ve seen as I crossed the desert.
Caches – Across NM, trail angels take responsibility for long barren sections of trail by stashing water for thru hikers. A cache can have hundreds of gallons or as little as just a couple gallons. Some caches are maintained daily, while others, well…not so much. You have to assess the comment on FarOut to determine if you think there will be water left when you get there. Although caches aren’t the most reliable, at least we don’t have to filter it. If you end up guessing wrong and find the cache is empty, then less desirable options come into play.
Cattle Troughs – They sound rough, but I found most troughs to be pretty good water sources. Yes, cows are drinking from them, and you might even find yourself sharing water at the exact same time with a cow…most of us did. Actually, you might even have to carefully nudge your way in around cows late in the day. Trough water is usually (not always) pretty clean looking. It must be treated…filtering works fine. I’d say less than 5 troughs were nastyish looking. How so you ask? There might be an algae film; water color could be slightly brown or green; bunches of dead bugs; swimming tiny critters; floaties; whole bunch of other undesirables. When the next water is 20 miles away, you do the best with what you have. For these rough looking troughs, I usually tried to filter through my bug net to catch the big stuff. I let the filter do the rest. Even these rough looking troughs end up tasting pretty good after the filter does its job.
Cattle Ponds – The last, last resort…game over…you’re screwed. Luckily, this is the one source I was able to work around…never had to pull water from a pond. Those that have, had great stories to go along with the foul water they had to live with. Cows pooping in the ponds is just the beginning of the disgust…I’ll let you think of everything else that can go wrong…like the smells. Many things happen before you can drink the pond water though. First you have to work through deep mud banks. Maybe you lose a shoe or two in the process. Next, dip cup the amount you want…it looks like chocolate milk…yum. Now, filter/treat 2-3 times to at least bring the color to gray. Now, drink up and taste all those minerals…trail life is so glamorous!
Until Next Time,