They were a middle-aged couple, in the process of moving to Chama. Of course, he had hitch-hiked years ago… he had a duty to stop. “I hope I didn’t look to desperate out there”, I joked to them. “Almost”, came the reply. I only felt dirty when I was in enclosed places with clean people, I felt dirty in the van. But, I felt I had an excuse for it. They let me out back at the pass. Mid-afternoon, the trail was mine… New Mexico was soon to be mine as well.
I started up the trail, it was nice… freshly graded, nice wooden structures. I was impressed actually… of course I was still in Colorado, only 3 more miles to go. I looked at my map and wondered why I drawn a different route on it. According to the guidebook, the trail I was on ended at the border of New Mexico, in the middle of nowhere. I wouldn’t have minded bushwhacking to a road somewhere, but I had no idea where the trail actually ended. So, I followed the guidebook instead. There was no more trail, just roads connected by bits of cross country… or was it cross-country travel connected by bits of roads? Either way, I walked back to the highway, and discovered something else was wrong. My camera was gone!
I’d lost my little buddy! Instantly, I knew what had happened. It fell out of my pocket in the van. What in the world could I do about it? Nothing. There was no solution. There was no way I was going back to Chama on some half-baked mission to… to do what? Of all the stupid irresponsible things to do… My camera had relied on me and I let him down, the poor guy, he was with strangers, traveling to who-knew-where? Albuquerque maybe? I waited there on the road, frustrated and holding on to one small hope that they’d see the camera in the back seat and return. It was a hope that faded quickly. There was no hope. I’d just had to walk, I didn’t need a camera to do that.
One step off the road and there was no trail, just places on the earth where my feet fell. I rose up to follow the train tracks for a while. Occasional bits of coal lay scattered along the side of the tracks. I picked some up, what a strange thing it was – lightweight, dirty… was it rock? It could move trains? I heard something coming down the tracks. It was a small cart, about 10 feet long, and only as wide as the gauge of the track. It was flying down the track at a good clip, I could hear the solid steel wheels rolling – a noise halfway between a squeak and a grind. A couple of middle-aged, plump and unshaven Hispanic men were sitting in the front of the cart. They were some of the same men I’d seen earlier in the day at the Cumbres Pass Train depot. They were dirtier than I was. They were smiling and laughing. It seemed that they’d been trying to get the cart in working order for some time, and finally, they’d done it. It was probably held together with duct tape and solder, but it was crusin’. They sailed past. The cart was rusty, the innards were exposed, buckets and rags hung from various cross-beams and hooks. The cart and everything in it rocked gently side to side with the bump and imperfect buckle of the tracks. The whole thing was like a caricature of a railroad cart, a scene that would have played nicely in a old Popeye cartoon.
The tracks intersected a road, it was my new trail. I saw it up ahead – the border, “Entering the Carson National Forest”. I walked past the sign and an involuntary “WOOOOO!!!!” spilled out of my mouth, as loud as I could, and as brief as the border itself. I didn’t stop walking. I was in New Mexico, and within a few steps I could look back and see that even part of New Mexico was behind me. Every little step… they all added up to something big.
There was no official CDT route in the Carson National Forest. That was mostly because of the efforts of one man – the county land commissioner. According to him, the national forest didn’t even have a right to exist. According to him, the forest land would have been better-off in the hands of private ranchers, period. According to him, hikers existed only to disturb peaceful cattle. If the CDT were to be designated in the Carson National Forest, it would just create one more obstacle to his ultimate goal. To him, the CDT was just another intrusion of the federal government into the affairs of a local population. To me, it was an amazing example of how one person could ruin what hundreds dared to dream.
A few truckloads of hunters passed by, “Hey, you want a ride?”. I loved refusing rides, “No Thanks! I’m doing just fine… Thanks for the offer though.” They’d look at me, baffled, wondering what kind of idiot would rather walk when he could just as easily ride? Sometimes, I’d pass the same group further up the road, “Where are you going, man?”, they’d ask. “Mexico”, I’d chuckle. It rarely made sense to them, more detail was required. The conversations usually ended with the driver shaking his head, smiling and saying, “Good luck, man”. Who knew what they were thinking inside.
Further up the road, I saw a small group of cattle coming straight at me. I stood in the middle of the road, and analyzed the situation. The cows saw me and bolted into the woods. A voice came from behind the cows, “get off the damn road!”. He was pissed. I had no way of knowing somebody was actually driving the cattle. I probably would have caused more of a problem if I had indeed stepped off the road. It would’ve only made the cows panic worse when they eventually passed me. It was a situation in which I could not win. I had a hunch the cowboy’s version of events would get re-told and re-told and re-written, “This damn enviramenalist ran up and chased all my cattle off. Them damn people ain’t nothin’ but trouble, don’t know shit ’bout nutin’…” and so on. It was probably how most stories started, without a story at all, just a couple un-notable events. It was probably the kind of story the county land commissioner would cite in his next interview. Maybe I wasn’t giving the cowboy any credit though, maybe he’d forget the episode after one or two beers. He rode his horse into the woods and managed to get the cows together after a couple minutes.
I rose higher on the trail, over lightly forested grassy hills around 10,500 feet. The wind picked up, and it began to snow. I had a clear view to the north, to where I’d been a couple days earlier. I saw Flattop mountain, covered in white. I was literally just a few steps ahead of winter. I continued walking until dark, each bit of southward progress was helpful. I spied a flat spot under some bushy trees – home for a night.
The wind blew all night, snow pelted my tarp in waves. It was cold. In the morning, the land was covered in a thin white sheet. The trees were crusted with windblown ice. I was in the clouds – a cold windy ominous fog whipped past my head in light and dark patches. I put it out of my mind as best I could. “At least I’m not 2 days slower”, I said to myself. Another truckload of hunters passed me in the middle of a snow squall, “Do you need some help?”, they asked, assuming that something must have been wrong… even if that something was just wrong with my head. “Naw, I’m doin’ all right”, I laughed, aware of how silly I must have looked to them. I explained my situation, and that the weather was all part of the equation. I had always expected some nasty weather, in fact I felt rather lucky that it hadn’t been much worse.
The dirt road slowly angled down, I found myself just below the clouds. The strength of the wind became ever more apparent as I watched the icy grey and white mist whip through the tree tops. It was awesome. It made me feel ever more a part of the mountains, a glimpse of their other side. The summer in the mountains was brief, most of the year, it was cold, windy, snowy… that’s what it was really like. The snow I was dealing with was nothing. I passed by a group of hunters camped just off the road. According to my map, it was exactly where I needed to leave the road – along a jeep trail that had long ago disappeared into the grass.
Three men were standing under a large blue tarp. A group of RVs and horse trailers were parked as wind-blocks. A fire whipped in the wind next to them. The oldest of them was probably in his mid 60’s, “I’m not even hunting”, he said, “I just like to be out here and help with things.” He was the cook, the fire-tender, and general base-camp organizer. He’d had brain surgery earlier in the year, an event which no doubt had put many things into perspective. His son and his son’s friend were doing the hunting. “When’s the best time to hunt?”, I asked. “A couple hours before sunrise until a couple hours after sunset…”, they joked – pretty much anytime a person could see. They had been out hunting through almost every bit of daylight for the previous week. They’d seen a few elk, but hadn’t gotten any good shots. Despite the lack of a dead elk, it had been a good week, and today was possibly the best – all the comforts they’d brought with them were now coming into play. Within a couple minutes, I’d finished my first bowl of hot chili.
I stayed with them for about an hour, although it seemed I was invited to stay indefinitely. They had a calm and generous demeanor. I wasn’t sure if it was a cause or an effect of the previous week, perhaps a little of both. I wondered… if I had met them in some mundane urban setting… say, in line at a movie theater, would we even have said hello?
A part of me did want to stay, to sit by the fire, sip hot coffee, eat warm stew, listen and tell stories… but it was easier to just move on, it’s what I did. To try and deny it would have been torment. The snow squalls continued the rest of the day. They seemed to follow a pattern I could not easily discern. The sun came out for a bit, followed by a 30 minute thunder-snow. There was nothing quite like the crack of thunder dulled by an atmosphere filled with soft falling snow. It sounded like a version of war. I sat under a tree, not knowing when or if a truce might be called.
I matched my map to the land ahead, I was no longer on a trail. Occasionally there were bits of old roads and animal paths. Sometimes, I bumped into a fence – the land grant boundary. Mostly, it was just a mix forest and open grassy fields, all the grass brown, all the flowers now seeds waiting to fall. At one point, I came to a giant open field just as a wall of snow swept sideways across it, unimpeded. I yelled at the snow, or perhaps, I just yelled to clear my head, to focus. I plowed into the stinging wind, finally finding cover behind a small clump of trees, but not before my entire right side was caked in a layer of ice. I laughed at the weather like a maniac, “Do your worst!”
I stopped early, near some water that was oozing from a cow-infected mud-hole. I found a nice place for my still-wet tarp under the shelter of large trees. For the first time outside a national park, I built a fire. The warm glow warmed my toes as I ate my evening meal. I understood how fires must have been magical to those first humans. And to tame fire, it must have endowed them with a sense of godliness. Life was easier to understand, suddenly simpler. We hadn’t come so far from those days.
Everything was frozen by the morning. I loved the noise my feet made, rolling on top of the pebbles, lodged in the icy soil. It was a dull clomp that resonated up my legs. It was the only sound in the quiet cold morning. The idea of a trail was becoming more and more arbitrary, there was only land. Whenever a road made a bend, I just kept heading south, through the trees. I felt it was impossible to get lost, after all, wherever I was, I was somewhere.
I hit the boundary of the land grant again, a barbed wire fence, an unnatural straight line in a world made of curves and gradual change. “Ok, I’ll play your game”, I thought. I felt silly, following the fence when it would have been so much easier to walk a clearer path just on the other side. I wondered if a day would come when there would be no more need for fences. What kind of a world would that be? It was a pipe dream perhaps, a silly fantasy, but a pleasant one. What if they would all just disappear… all the fences, all the people who cared about them, all the crap that nobody seemed to like, but everyone endured – all the negative emotions that kept people apart. What kind of evil person would not want a world like that? So, why wasn’t it so? Rodney King seemed like a genius, “Why can’t we all just get along?” Why not indeed.
It was clear and cold all day. Despite the sun, I wore three shirts all day, sometimes adding a windbreaker. Water was becoming scarce, I had to plan my day around water, guess where the next water might be. I had been regularly intercepting springs and streams and lakes since Wyoming, but that was all ending. I finally ended the day at a place called fifteen springs. I couldn’t find one spring though. I only found a lumpy streambed – a series of stagnant pools flavored by cows. I camped in some grass near the water. Cows galloped over the hills, behind the trees, running directionless.
During the night, what little heat had built during the day quickly escaped into a clear cold sky. The coldest of the air settled to the floor of the valley, where I was. I had no idea how cold it got, but it was easily the coldest night of the trip. I later heard that Chama had reported the lowest temperature in the 48 states that night. In the morning, my 1-liter bottle of water was a cube of ice. My filter was frozen. The murky ponds nearby were all covered with a layer of solid ice. I managed to crack through the ice with a rock and scoop some cold water into my other bottle. Bits of floating gunk swirled around. I frowned at the water, thinking ahead to the time when I might be forced to drink it.
I passed a herd of 12 elk in the early morning. They seemed to know the latest round of hunting had ended as they didn’t even bother to run from me. They were celebrating – one more week of survival. I crested another hill, and was surprised to find a piped spring – clear cold water gushing from a pipe tapped into the ground. A little bit of magic was always appreciated. I happily replaced my skunk water, and headed down the hill. The sun slowly warmed the air, the day was pleasant again.
My route took me on a trail that had faded into the forest. The only evidence of a trail was carvings on the trees – messages to nobody that had been long forgotten. Did I really need to know “C.G. Rocks”? Why did people do such things? The trees seemed to take it well though, they just stood there quietly wearing an expression that said, “Are you proud of your human brothers?”. I looked down and noticed other remnants of the human trail – faded aluminum beer cans strewn here and there. There was nothing I could do to erase the scars on the trees, but there was something I could do about the cans… something I had to do. I had to prove to the trees that people could be better. If I didn’t pick up the trash, then we truly were hopeless.
I was carrying a plastic garbage bag with me to use as a pack cover… and to use for anything in my pack that got hopelessly wet. I rarely used the bag, I had almost forgotten about it. I picked up the cans as I went and put them in the bag. There was nearly an endless amount of them. Every 10 yards it seemed, somebody had disposed of a can. Some of the cans were probably 20 years old, the paint on the labels was faded, the aluminum long ago crushed. Almost all of the cans were Budweiser cans. Some were brand new, probably discarded the previous weekend. Some even had beer in them. Who were these people? I wondered. What kind of person drank a can of beer and just tossed it aside – out-of-sight and out-of-mind? Didn’t those people realize they were a part of the land, that every material fiber of their being was once simply dirt? and to disrespect the land was to disrespect themselves? Within 30 minutes, I had a couple pounds worth. I intersected a forest road, more cans. There were so many cans on the road, I was overwhelmed. It was too much. A couple hours passed and I had a good 7 pounds of cans and no space to put any more. The full bag now flopped from the top of my pack, the cans rattled with every step – a constant reminder of so many things. I cringed helplessly as I passed more cans – dozens, hundreds, thousands… it almost seemed like a purposeful expression, “Hey, lets go spread empty beer cans in the forest.” It must have taken years of work to accumulate.
Late in the day another truck of hunters passed by – getting ready for the next elk season – a week of rifle hunting… or at least a few days of it. We had the usual conversation – Do you want a ride, No – Where are you headed, Mexico… and so on. Just before they left, one of them scratched his head… “Well”, he paused, “here, do you want a beer?” It was a Budweiser. I hoped that they weren’t responsible for any small part of the litter covering the side of the roads, but I couldn’t think of any tactful way to bring up the subject. “Sure, thanks”, I had to accept gifts. I thought of offering them my bag of cans, but a part of me was afraid the bag would just wind up behind a tree somewhere. I couldn’t risk that. I needed to dispose of the cans myself.
My route took me lower and lower. I finally camped at 8200 feet, my lowest camp since somewhere in Wyoming. The low elevation combined with improving weather to make a relatively warm evening. I drank my beer and added the empty can to the collection.
The next morning, I quickly reached the edge of a canyon. The ground ahead was carved by the erosive force of water. I had been walking downhill so long, I’d almost forgotten I was still on top of something… 8000 feet was still quite a way up. The canyons below me all funneled down from my plateau to a deep main channel, spilling into a flat expanse that extended for miles. I followed the course the water had carved – down the bottom of a canyon. The early morning sun lit up bands of red and yellow which comprised the canyon walls. Birds fluttered through the juniper and pinyon pines, talking with soft twittles and twirls. It was a paradise, I didn’t realize that so much wealth could be hidden under the mountains.
The route became more distinct as I descended. Cairns began to appear, then a footpath under steep rocky walls. A couple signs pointed the way toward where I’d been. The path got wider, I stepped through a gate in a fence. I passed a building. Ghost Ranch. I could feel the positive energy of the place before I even spoke to one person.
I found the main office and put my cans in a recycle bin… one at a time. I got a room, and a ticket for 3 meals at the cafeteria. Ghost Ranch was a special place. It was a rare place. People came to ghost ranch to discover whatever had been obscured by the clutter of their everyday lives. They came to concentrate on self-improvement, on self-awareness and self-expression. Yet, it was one of the most self-less communities of strangers I’d ever experienced. Ghost Ranch was a re-affirmation that people were indeed good, that they could “just get along”. I had to wonder, why weren’t there Ghost Ranches everywhere? Maybe there were, and I just hadn’t been let in on the secret. That was fine, it was better those places existed without my knowledge than be spoiled by it. Perhaps, I thought, I should warn everyone: Stay away from Ghost Ranch unless you’re ready to let go of yourself – otherwise you’ll risk ruining it. click to enlarge
Just before I left the ranch the next morning, I sent a letter to the Alberquerque newspaper:
Since June 15th, I’ve been hiking south from the Canadian Border along the Continental Divide Trail. For the last 4 days, the route has taken me through the Carson National Forest. While I have been impressed with the natural beauty of New Mexico thus far, I have been equally disturbed by the abundance of trash along the forest roads. In frustration, I started picking up this trash as I walked along. Within a few hours, I had all I could carry. I began to think that if all the responsible users of the forest picked up just a little trash, it would go a long way toward cleaning things up and changing the attitudes of the thoughtless minority.
So, the next time you’re out ranching, hunting, fishing, or just admiring a view, won’t you take a moment to clean up the mess at your feet? It’s our forest, don’t let it turn into a dump.
I signed the letter and included my e-mail address. I had a vision of people getting together, perhaps for a big organized picnic – trash days! They would pick up a bag at the start of the day, then go clean up an assigned forest road. At the end of the day, everyone would get together for a big picnic and revel in their good deeds. I never got any e-mail about the letter though. If it was ever indeed printed, I only hoped that it had reached somebody out there… some other dreamer, somewhere.