I had no more guidebooks and only crude maps. I had no idea where the next water was. I had only heard, “There isn’t any”. So, I brought a heavy 4.5 liters – my maximum. I crossed a bridge over I-15, over cars that barely knew where they really were, and headed back into the desert.
I walked up zuni-canyon, a winding canyon with a floor 150 yards wide and flat. The wrinkled canyon walls shot straight up a few hundred feet to a mesa above. There was no stream in the canyon. In fact, there was little evidence that there had ever been a stream… other than the existence canyon itself, which was evidently carved by water some time long ago. The road was gravel and extremely dusty. Cars rolled past every now and then, stirring up immense clouds of choking dust. None of them slowed down, they didn’t care. I made motions with my hands – pushing toward the ground. I figured it was the international hand signal for “slow down”, but it was a language the cars didn’t speak. People had to get where they were going, and it was too much of an inconvenience for them to reduce their speed even for 50 yards. I tried another approach and preceded my “slow down” signal with a “choking” signal – hands around my throat. Most of the cars slowed-down when they saw that. It made me think, maybe I had it wrong, maybe they did care. Maybe they just had no concept of what it was like to walk along a road, to breathe a cloud of dust. They’d probably driven that road a hundred times, but walked it? Never.
As it got dark, I pulled off the road. I walked into the trees, as far from the choking dust as I could. But it was difficult to escape. Everything in the bottom of the canyon was covered in dust. The plants were hardly green, more of a pale brown. I hit a few of them with my poles, and they sprung to life, released at least temporarily from their choking shroud. They coughed a simple, “thank you”, but I knew their relief wouldn’t last long, what they really needed was rain. I finally settled on a spot beneath some Pinyons, more pine needles – the softest of beds. Cars rolled by all night. It was Saturday, the opening of another short hunting season. With all the guns and camouflage, it almost seemed like a war was brewing.
I got off the dusty road, and onto a dirt one, down another canyon – Bonita Canyon. It was a primitive road, filled with trenches and rocks. I passed by an old windmill. I’d heard a lot about windmills from CDT hikers of years past. They had described hiking from “windmill to windmill” in a continuous search for water. The windmill I’d found wasn’t turning in the steady breeze. I walked up to a large metal tank next to the windmill. I knocked on the tank, and the hollow reply told me it was empty. A couple hours and 6 miles later, I spied another windmill. It was turning in the breeze. I felt lucky, and raced through thick thigh-high dried weeds toward the structure. My legs were scratched white, and my socks were covered in sticky burrs by the time I reached the windmill. A shallow metal holding tank was built into the ground next to it. I looked over the edge and saw nothing but sand and weeds. I looked up at the windmill. It was still spinning, but connected to nothing. What a cruel hoax to play. I began to wonder if there were any working windmills in New Mexico, or were they all just relics, tapped out long ago?
I got back on the road, and soon passed by an RV, parked in the shade. A man and a woman were sitting just outside. He had been hunting, although only halfheartedly. There were a couple days left in the drawing, but he’d pretty much given up. He hadn’t even seen any sign of elk. The woman was his girlfriend, out there just to be “with him”, I figured. I not-so-subtly asked him, “Do you know if there’s any water up ahead?”. He replied, “Oh, I’ve got plenty extra here, if you want some”, It was just the answer I was hoping for. He offered me food as well, but I just couldn’t take any. I needed to eat my own heavy food, my pack was so full, it was starting to dig into my shoulders. I filled a couple liters and wished him well. His girlfriend never even looked at me.
At the end of the canyon, I entered El Malpais – the badland. El Malpais was a giant lava flow, actually a series of lava flows that inundated the land 2000-3000 years prior. The thick black lava had hardened into a shape much like the surface of an ocean, frozen in a still-frame. Long ago, two indian tribes had lived on opposite sides of the lava (actually, I was fairly certain they still lived there), they established a trading route across the rugged rock – the Zuni-Acoma trail, named for the tribes. The original cairns that had marked the trail were still there, still marking the trail. It was a special trail to walk, not so much because of the indian history, but because of the human history, the history of walking. Walking was the way we had evolved to travel, for so much of our history, it had been the only way. The Zuni-Acoma trail was a monument to those times.
The trail started out rather nice, a dirt path through fields of dry brown grass. But soon the lava took over, and there were only the ancient cairns to guide the way. The surface of the lava was never level, the path never straight. Every 5 feet, I had to change direction to follow the undulations of the rock. Every miniature ripple of the lava was visible, as if it had hardened just the day before. In many places, the bed of the lava had collapsed into hollow chambers below, revealing entrances to a network of lava-tube caves that snaked under the crust. The cracked surface had the texture of a bed of nail-tips, it ripped into my rubber shoes with every step. There were few places in which I could take a comfortable break – everything was sharp or slanted. Trees and other plants had colonized every crack in which they could take root. The tenacity of the plants was impressive, I couldn’t understand how they’d managed to thrive in such an environment, or why they even bothered. My back was getting sore, the burden of so much heavy water was wearing on me.click to enlarge
The trail seemed never to end. Every now and then, I reached the crest of frozen wave, only to see that I’d made imperceptible progress. The sandstone cliffs at the other end of the lava appeared forever distant. I took a break on the lava. I tried hard not to adjust my position so the lava wouldn’t shred my clothing and pack. A sign at the trailhead had said the Zuni-Acoma trail was 7 miles, but I felt like I had already walked 10, and had 5 more to go. I wearily picked myself up, and continued to follow the cairns… now supplemented by modern concrete pillars engraved with the words “Escalante Trail”. Escalante Trail? The lava eventually ended, but the trail must have heard me complaining, for it turned to sand – perhaps worse than the lava. At least on the lava, I was able to gain a foothold. On sand, my feet just sank, my pack felt even heavier. By the time I reached the other side, I’d had about enough walking for the day. I sat near the road, and cooked a meal.
A full stomach always gave me energy, and I was soon on my feet again. I noticed a small cattle trough on the side of the road. It was full of clear water… but the bottom was covered with 2 solid inches of saturated bird droppings. A few fresher droppings floated on the surface. I looked up to see a dozen swallows, racing back and forth across the sky, angrily chirping at me. “Nice!”, I sarcastically thanked the birds for enriching the water. I filtered a couple liters, but hoped never to taste them.
I walked down the paved road, which was wedged between El Malpais to the west, and a long sandstone cliff to the east. Just before dark, I hopped a barbed-wire fence and snuck a campsite on indian land that was just a small overgrazed pasture.
A couple more miles down the road, I reached La Ventana Natural Arch. The arch was a piece of a sandstone cliff that had failed to erode. It was billed as the largest natural arch in New Mexico accessible by car. I was the only person there. I took a break and read a sign that described how the arch was formed, how old it was, how big it was, etc… A car pulled in the parking lot and a elderly man with a new baseball cap got out. He paced back and forth in front of his car, occasionally glancing my way. After I left, he walked over to the sign. I wondered if I really looked that scary?
I headed off the little paved pathway, and up a steep slope opposite the arch. The slope was covered in broken rocks, stunted trees and prickly plants. I climbed my way through them, proudly forging a little alternate route that kept me off the road. At the top of the cliff, there was a trail which paralleled the road, high above El Malpais. The trail stayed close to the edge of the cliff. The top of the cliff was mostly smooth rock covered with a thin layer of light tan sand. Beautiful old trees grew from impossibly small cracks. El Malpais stretched to the western horizon. It was immense, I’d walked over but a small section of it. From my new perspective I could see grander textures in the lava, great sheets of frozen black ooze that had funneled down a once fertile valley, smothering any history that had lain beneath. click to enlarge
The trail followed the rim of the cliff for about 6 miles, then gradually eased down to the road. From there on, the road was the only sensible choice. I only had a little bit of water left… well, I did have the birdstink water, but that was only a survival stash. I decided to fish for a fresh supply along the asphalt river. I waved my lure – a empty upside-down water bottle, and before too long, I hooked one. The first car gave me one liter of bottled water – unopened even! They didn’t know if there were any windmills up ahead. Another car approached, I noticed an orange plastic water cooler hanging off one side, I re-baited my hook and got another liter. It was almost too easy. The dryness of the desert was not a problem as long as there was a fresh supply of traffic.
I spotted a spinning windmill off the side of the road. “OK”, I said to nobody, “This one’s gotta be working”. And it was. A steady wind blew the giant circular fan into a blur. The fan drove a shaft up and down, pumping water out of the ground and into a holding tank that was just low enough so cows could take a drink. The overflow of the first tank flowed into another tank, then into a puddle of mud. It was a great thing, I decided to take a break and cook a meal. The clouds had been thickening all morning, and it looked like only a matter of time before they’d break. I set up my poncho as a small lean-to and huddled inside. The rain fell in slanted waves, smacking against the back of my poncho. The pump churned continuously, playing a tired rhythm of clanks and shudders to the ever-changing tempo of the wind. click to enlarge
When the rain stopped, I gathered my things and headed up another canyon, happy to get a break from the main road. I passed a couple men who were repairing a fence. The bed of their pickup truck was piled high with freshly cut juniper branches, soon to be converted into twisted but reliable fence posts – Martha Stewart would have approved. The men appeared to be father and son. They looked at me, apparently curious why anybody would want to walk anywhere now that the combustion engine had been invented. One of them asked me where I was headed. “Mexico”, I replied cheerfully. “What are you going to do at the border?”, the younger one asked. “It’s all about the journey”, I told him, “not the destination” He replied with a perplexed grin, like the concept was so far out of his experience that he didn’t know how to respond. But it wasn’t out of his experience, he was on a journey too – the same one we were all on. I wondered if he was eager to reach that destination.
The new canyon was wonderful. The rain had cleared and cooled the air, the sun lit up the soft canyon walls and freshly cleaned bushy trees. The plants along the ground were mostly brittle networks of dry twigs, decorated with pointy seeds. Many of them disintegrated with a gentle touch. Others, shaped into balls, were easily sent adrift by the wind. They rolled to and fro as if they were searching the ground for the best place to proceed. Like most people, I had always believed that plants couldn’t walk. But watching those little tumbleweeds changed my mind.
As I walked along, I startled a golden eagle. It had been perched in a tree, about 10 feet above my head. I’d seen many eagles along the way, but those were usually soaring in circles high above. I seldom had a chance to view an eagle from so close a perspective. The one I had surprised was huge, with proportionally gigantic wings that flapped slowly, barely fast enough to keep it in the air. It glided smoothly just above the treetops, down the valley toward where I’d come.
By evening, I was headed down another canyon, back toward the main road. The sun lowered behind distant thunderheads, giving them a deep red glow and an intricate silvery outline. Beneath the clouds, extinct volcanic cones provided a geometric contrast of angles versus chaos. As the sun went down, I listened to coyotes, who howled wildly as lightning silently flashed in the distance.
I woke up covered in ice. The storm had moved overhead during the night, and the fallen moisture had later frozen. The sky was clear though, and by 9am, everything I owned was dried by the sun. I quickly reached the main road. It headed almost due south, the fastest way to Pie Town was to follow the road. Vast empty fields of brown grass stretched as far as I could perceive. After a couple hours I felt like I’d made no progress at all – everything still looked the same. I just kept walking, trusting the knowledge that my tiny footsteps did indeed amount to something. The road was easy on my feet, but hard on my mind. The never-ending sameness dug into my psyche where it festered into mental chaos that erupted through my eyes and mouth. I let loose the lunacy inside. I was that guy on the corner, the one that made people shiver because he was yelling at nothing… which was far worse than yelling at something. How long could a person act insane, I wondered, before he was considered so? Were we all nothing more than actors? If so, I didn’t have a part to play on the road, I had no reason to pretend anymore. I felt almost as if the layers of my identity, those thoughts and words that made me who I was were being peeled away. What would remain when they were all gone? I needed to find out. Was I nothing more than the sum of my parts? In the end, I realized that I was simple… just an animal cursed with an intellect, but still programmed to survive. I camped on the divide. It was the first time I’d crossed it since Colorado. I survived the road, I survived the emptiness and I survived that night. click to enlarge click to enlarge
3 more miles to Pie Town. I wore a grin every step of the way. It kept going through my head – “I’m gonna be in Pie Town… I’m gonna be in Pie Town…”. 2 more miles… 1 more mile… I was there. Pie Town was one of those places I’d been dreaming of, thinking about and visualizing since the start of the trip. I raced past the post office, and saw a dream take form – the Pie-o-neer Cafe – it really existed. There wasn’t much in Pie Town, and if not for the Cafe, there was nothing. A number of years ago, a woman from Texas had driven through Pie Town. There had been no pies in Pie Town at the time, and it had troubled her deeply. She quit her job, divorced her husband, moved to Pie Town, and set up shop. My timing was off though. The cafe was there, but its soul had moved on. The woman had a new dream, and was pursuing it in another place. The cafe still had wonderful pie and friendly people. But it had been another person’s dream, and without her, it was just someone else’s job.
I picked up the trail register from the post office. My only real companions were the paragraphs left in its pages by other slow travelers. A couple, biking from Banff to Baja, had passed me somewhere between Cuba and Pie Town. I never did meet them, but on some level, felt that we’d talked about all sorts of things. I spent the rest of the day sitting on the breezy porch of the Pie-o-neer Cafe, watching nothing happen slowly. And nothing happened all day in Pie Town.
Early the next morning, I stopped back in the Cafe for breakfast. The people inside greeted me with friendly faces and warm wishes. As I ate my french toast, and watched the cafe stir to life, I started to feel differently about it. I started to see it in a new light. Perhaps it was not the end of an old dream, but the birth of a new one, persistently struggling to find its own identity. No story was ever over, they were all just beginning.