In the morning we still had plenty of water, so we climbed out the side of Indios canyon via a series of ramps above our campsite, and rejoined the CDT cross country. After we passed the main turn off to the spring, a curious pattern emerged on the trail: paw prints. Bear prints. Fresher than any of the shoe prints. And of varying sizes. Then we realized what it must have been: a small bear following a bigger bear- a cub and mama, heading south to the spring. We back-traced these tracks for a couple of miles, to our delight.
We consumed miles through the flat forest, well-seasoned with podcasts. I listened to a string of adventure stories from Outside podcast, the main theme of which were people expecting something from a trip and finding themselves in situations or conclusions they did not expect, but valued perhaps even more than what they’d assumed they’d find.
The forest opened at the sheer edge of the mesa overlooking Cabezon Peak and surrounding badlands below. We ate a snack, drank some water, then were off again, more miles of flat, until our descending edge appeared.
The sides and strata of these mesas held so much variety, the vertical miles were often more intriguing than the horizontal. Bright green oaks shaded short volcanic walls, big ponderosas shaded small sandstone shelves. Incongruently, as we dropped and the land grew sparser, the flower blooms multiplied. Orange desert globe-mallows, yellow-blossomed prickly pear, and fancy white mariposa lillies: entire benches just covered with mariposa lillies. I had not expected those.
Several people had passed us, and we projected they’d be stacked up at the spring, so Prana wanted to take lunch a bit before in order to let the space clear out. It was a miserable spot- cow poopy, barely shaded, dusty and hot as. Keenly aware how slow our filter was running and how long it would take at the spring to filter enough for 16 miles plus dry camping, I was not happy.
I arrived first and alone at the spring trough, which was dense with algae and the accompanying oils that float on the water wherever it grows thick. A roofed spring box was fenced in across the road, but the ranchers were in sight, welding on a corral with a generator, and I wasn’t sure what was allowed. I started scooping and filtering from the trough. The sun beat down. The smell of cow poop hung heavy in the air. Another hiker appeared, silent, and the rancher walked over and opened the fence, warmly invited us to use the spring itself, under the hinged roof, which he thoughtfully propped up with a dead branch. The spring proper was clearer, but not clear, and the filter still dripped at a maddening pace. I truly despise how Sawyer advertises that these are good for a million gallons- I’ve never gotten more than a hundred gallons, even with fastidious cleaning and care, before the flow rate slows to 30 minutes a liter or slower, which is as slow as unusable. But there really isn’t anything better that I’ve found yet, and so here we are.
Prana arrived and we moved to distant shade, leaving the filter system to its own devices. It seemed like everyone we had talked to was taking big chunks of time off in Santa Fe, which we didn’t want to do, but what were we going to do about the snow in the San Juans? It turned out to be a terrible time to talk about it, since neither of us were in a good mood and phone screens are not ideal for paging back and forth through lots of maps. I was deeply, deeply bummed when I went to retrieve our water, only to find the hose had popped off the filter and all the hard-won drinkable had run out all over the ground.
As I was starting over, refilling the dirty bladder, Goldfish and Chimney walked up. “I am just having the best day!” said Goldfish, with a smile that proved it. It put a dent in my mood- I mean honestly, look where we are! Ok, maybe zoom out a little bit from this cow-churned spring, but seriously. Some pretty cool stuff, fascinating landscapes, the ability and privilege and time to do a hike like this. My perspective brightened.
As we hiked away, clouds rolled in to cover the sun. My mood brightened another notch. We didn’t really have the water we needed, and I was already thirsty, but this would help. After a bit I stepped off the trail to pee, and when I was done I realized with a start one of the fattest rattlers I had ever seen lay only two feet behind me. He hadn’t moved or made a sound. I scampered to catch up with Prana.
The trail led down into a weird set of mud badlands, grotesquely mesmerizing. “I can’t believe you wanted to spend our other half day off in these badlands,” said Prana. “Not these,” I said. “There’s colorful sandstone stuff coming up. I think. The badlands last like 40 miles.”
Nonetheless, between moving on trail and a break from the glaring heat, we both had senses of humor and wonder again. Within a few miles we reached the edge of the La Lena Wilderness Study Area, and the sandstone began. The trail snaked around bowls, balanced on ridges, wound around toadstools and hamburgers all of sandstone. The clouds smeared the sunset into an impressionist’s painting, and the row of volcanic plugs took turns glowing mauve in the setting spotlights.
3 miles short of our goal, a white sandstone ridge offered a flat, easy cowboy camp, overlooking the twilight spectacle and ringed by a circle of stones, as if runed for protection. We accepted.