No carcass-eating visitors in the night- phew.
The hill in front of us would lead to the long ridge we’d follow the crest of, for miles, to the confluence of the Gila alternate and our main route. At the same pain-staking pace, we picked our way up between volcanic rubble and tussock. We were now playing the game of going as far as we possibly could before eating our next bit of ration; we were both hoping the tread would improve once the alternate that 98% of hikers took rejoined, but neither of us dared to hope too hard.
The morning was beautiful, again- no wind, golden meadows infused with sunlight, majestic ponderosa wafting their subtle scent of vanilla and soft spices. After several miles we relented and chewed each bite of breakfast to mush as we walked, trying to make it last. Probably healthier to chew that way anyway, no? I usually wolf my food down like a sled dog afraid the other sled dogs will take it away. Amazing how good one bite of food tastes when you are aware it is so finite.
Up and down, the broad ridgetop bucked along, and we traced it, occasionally getting suckered down a side branch before checking our drift. I tried not to watch the time, tried not to calculate the miles – 80- that were left in the section, and how long they would take at this pace. At our first break we watched the gamma grass’s blond eyelashes stir in the imperceptible breeze, and joked about how if we had gone ultra-ultra-ultra light, we could have knocked it out in three days. “It’s really not that bad,” Prana said, not for the first time, “it’s fun and beautiful; the only problem is we should have planned cross country mileage instead of trail mileage.” For these 14 days we’d planned 20 miles a day, assuming the days in the Black Range proper would be slower, but that all the other days we’d easily make 20, even bank time for a half-day off. We hadn’t counted on an additional 70 miles of the trail being cross country on 1-2 mph terrain. If we’d planned 80 or 85% of our trail mileage, instead, say 16-17 miles a day, we’d have gotten what we aimed for. “Good training, though.” “Ha. Yeah. Good training.”
Finally we gained the main ridge line. “I think I need a snack,”said Prana, and we worked our way onto the GPS line of the main ridge before sitting in the sun again. And, interestingly, right where we stopped, impeccable trail tread began, coalescing out of nowhere. “Don’t look at it. Don’t mention it. Don’t even think about it,” we joked.
It was still there when we were done chewing our bars, and we strode along it, reveling in how easy it suddenly was to walk. So easy! Then we were on an abandoned dirt road, side by side, no need to look at our feet. We flew along, returned to trail, and there it was ahead: a gravel road and parking area marking the end of our section. We sank down on the trail, mixed up some raspberry lemonade, drank a toast, made a little video, and soaked in the last few moments of our adventure side.
We crunched a mile down the gravel road, which was backtracking on the Gila alternate, to Dutchman’s Spring for water. 5 hikers sprawled there, a crowd, and the spell of solitude was broken. They were nice, to be sure, and guessed what we’d been up to – why else would we be walking backwards? Picasso shared her watercolor sketchbook, and it was incredible – I wished not for the first time I had artistic talent like that. We filtered our water as they all left and silence re-descended. If we had missed them by another half an hour, we’d have added another day of no-one to our tally.
We crunched back up the gravel road, and blisters that had been silent for a week started complaining. I pulled over, retaped, and realized that a lot of basic self care had gone out the window over the last few days – I hadn’t been drying out my socks and shoes on breaks, hadn’t been cleaning my face or feet at day’s end. My shoes were sodden, stinking, and battered, my lower legs a permanent dark chocolate color, my hair forming little dreads. Maybe ought to carve out a bit of time for that.
On the CDT, excellent tread led forward: wide, well formed, rockless, unmistakable. At one nice viewpoint we found Pro, the quietest and most interesting hiker of the 5 from Dutchman’s Spring, wearing a neon pink sun shirt and sitting in the shade. We chatted a bit- he seemed like a kind and gentle soul. We spent the afternoon winding through a spectacular series of ridges, very familiar of the Black Range, spires and hoodoos and fins of rock exposed at every turn. Kneeling Nun welded tuff, I would later learn, a volcanic rock from superheated ash and cinder.
Through canyons of gambel oak and cliff rose, we reached our last climb of the day as the wind kicked up. Switchbacking up trail, at the top was a perfect cluster of pines and oaks around a flat and rockless s square, with a downed log peeled of its bark for a couch. Camp.
We cleaned our faces and feet and I tended my reinflated blisters, weird bits of other old callouses crumbling and peeling off. We tidied our gear as best we could, and spread the groundsheet in front of the log on the leaf litter- cushioned ground, so we could lean our knotted, tired backs against it, stretch them out a bit. Color blazed in the sky as the sun sank.