We pulled away from Ashton Idaho in a little white rental car with the touchiest brakes I’d ever encountered. About 22 hours of driving would bring us to Silver City, New Mexico, along highways and byways that would closely parallel our hiking route. It would have been nicer to leave before 1:00, but it just hadn’t worked out that way – a few last minute snags in logistics, about 20 hours in the last two weeks lost to driving to and from physical therapy, and a day claimed by the process of receiving and feeling like garbage from the vaccine. We’d still managed to pull off a monumental to do list and only leave 6 hours late.
As we drove through Salt Lake City, rain and snow spitting down, we swung by my cousin’s house to drop a package on her porch I’d intended to mail over the winter, but somehow never managed to, along with a whole pineapple that I’d run out of time to chop up, which I hoped she’d find mildly amusing. We were then consumed with the absolute need for sushi burritos, which we located not too far off route, and where Prana somehow circled the block 4 times without catching the entrance, which we attributed to the universe waiting for us to finally notice the epic pirate ship treehouse on the far side of the block. We were both delirious from exhaustion and having our brains on overdrive the last four weeks, and as soon as we’d inhaled the food, we realized neither of us was up for camping in the cold, nasty weather, or capable of driving another 4 hours to Moab, where we’d be clear of it.
I can’t even remember the last time we got a hotel room when we weren’t on foot, but when we checked in I crawled onto the bed and didn’t move for ten hours.
For better or worse we set no alarm, and resumed our southward course late morning. I wish we’d given ourselves more time to stop at weird and quirky places, but we mostly hurtled through: Moab, Monticello, Shiprock. Our first non-gasoline stop was Cuba, New Mexico, to drop a food box and snow gear at Rebel’s Roost. It’s an adorable, whimsical campground with a smoothie stand, and those enchanted smoothies somehow sustained us for the rest of the day. I took a picture of the menu so we can goad ourselves onward from Grants; that and I’d received word from a friend that the best taco’s on the trail were to be had at El Bruno’s. Cuba, small and shrinking as it appeared to be, will be an excellent resupply.
Onward to Grants, through country I couldn’t wait to hike through, a landscape of big pedestals of colorful rock. Something strange happened on a side highway, that I still haven’t found an optimistic explanation for. A man was standing in the middle of nowhere, no hiking gear, no camping gear, no transportation in sight, holding his thumb nonchalantly out. I slowed down: do I keep the code? I wondered. Then I noticed a sagebrush glowing behind him, small flames doubling exponentially as I watched. I sped up, unease prickling the back of my neck, and he leapt onto the highway behind me, jumping up and down and waving his arms. The reality was, we had no water in the car to put a fire out anyway, and the whole situation gave me a bad feeling, so at the top of the next big hill we found one bar of cell service and called it in to emergency services. Whether the hitcher was in the wrong place at the wrong time or something more sinister I guess we may never find out.
We pulled into Grants late, and reached the Lava Flow Hostel a few minutes before 9:00. Ranger Ross had told us where we could find him wood-working until then, and we located him at the back building to give him our food box. I don’t know what I expected, but he was not it. One of the security cats, either Frank or Frankie, came over for pets, and we chatted with Ross a bit about his off-the-grid hostel and how he’d worked as a law enforcement ranger in The Maze for years before transferring to work at El Malpais. “I just needed a bit less isolation, ya know?” I am hungry for story after story about that place, but also don’t want to intrude on his time.
We barely remembered the need to buy gallons of water for our two caches in the Black Range, and nipped into a Walmart (going out of business?) right before they closed. The math was short circuiting our brains so we broadly overestimated, then homed in on Pie Town. I was bummed to be driving through here in the dark, as the signs for El Malpais, when I took the southern route home for winter visits to the Midwest, always piqued my curiosity. I nodded off as Prana drove on.
At midnight we made Pie Town. We’d been uncertain about taking any of the dirt roads that were a direct shot, so had come the long way around on pavement. Prana had pinned a spot he’d found earlier on Google Earth that had promised decent camping, and unerringly navigated to it. We spread our bed under a frosty sky, and I levered myself down to it, the first test of ground level living since my whole leg debacle began. I’d been having gradually increasing pain in my knee throughout the winter, which became unbearable March first. A visit to the doctor gained a diagnosis of bursitis (bursitis? my friend Mark had said, weird, the really old guy on the Google picture looks pretty grumpy) and a referral to physical therapy. The PT had analyzed a hamstring weakened to a useless noodle. One upshot was she also looked at my ankle that has been so problematic the last three years, and found the muscle from the arch to the inner knee was basically inactivated. Well.
“The good news is hiking won’t make any of this worse; it’s just whether you can bear the pain that goes with it.”
I’d been faithfully applying PT and ice since receiving the answers, and was essentially hoping I could hike it all off. We’ll see.
In the morning it takes me awhile to figure out how to stand, then hobble into mobility again. Not ideal, but. Workable.
Pie Town is only a couple of dirt roads, only a few houses. The Toaster House is obvious, covered with toasters, as it were; and the caretaker is up and takes our food box, tells us where the closest gas station is. The gas attendants tell us which highways that are dirt roads are passable to our little rental, and we head down highway 12.
From the CDT trailhead we walk in, dig a hole with our little bathroom trowel, and bury 2 days worth of food and a gallon of water- which didn’t take nearly as long as I thought it would. We steered onto dirt highway 52 south and hoped it stayed good all the way through.
It indeed stayed drivable, even after we passed the parked/broken down grader, and within a few miles of highway 59 a hiker appeared on the road, thumb out.
“We have to pick him up,” we agreed. After all, the whole reason we were burying these caches is because this highway is reputed to be godforsaken for hitchers. “Do you think he’s on the CDT or GET?” Prana asked. “GET,” I wagered, and won.
“Everyone that has stopped has no idea what I’m talking about when I say I’m hiking,” said Noodle, relieved to finally be in a car. “They offer water but say they can’t help with a ride. A pair of hikers in front of me said they got picked up in no time, but I’ve been out here over four hours with no luck. I’d just accepted I was going to have to walk the whole 26 miles to the general store.” This made me very happy with our choice to cache, even with the extra time and logistics it dictated on the front end, and the hassle of carrying out our trash and gallon water jugs for the 12 days between towns.
After delivering Noodle to the tiny, one store outpost of Winston, Prana and I wound up highway 59, through beautiful ponderosa forest. This area was going to be excellent hiking. At the CDT trailhead, same drill: hike in and dig. To be fair, Prana did all the digging since I was unable to kneel after sitting in the car all morning, so I ferried water gallons and our 6 days of food up to the squirrel hole. The end result was pretty darn well camouflaged, and both caches had been double-wrapped in odor proof bags against animals. I crossed my fingers that everything would be there when we were back in 3 weeks.
Now the final sprint. We were going to be several hours past our return time, but I just hoped to make it before they closed: this was the only rental place I’d dealt with that didn’t offer after-hours drops. A quick jaunt on I-25 to highway 152, and we were enchanted as the scenic back way wiggled and wound through and over the Black Range to Silver City.
Car returned with a half hour to spare, an employee drove us to the Triple Crown Hostel, where we spent the evening and the next day finalizing our last couple of boxes, repacking our packs, watching the Falcon and the Winter Soldier, sleeping, and hydrating in anticipation of the desert.