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Forest fires, blow-offs and snow (Oh My!)

The trip from Cuba to Chama is my longest stretch so far. The week involves a detour through wildfires, crossing state lines, leaving the desert, scuppered navigation and a lift into town.

Of my 24 nights spent camping from Mexico to Canada, I officially finish the state with a perfect 50:50 split between cowboy camping and pitching my tent.

And for those who have been following me since Silver City, in the seven days we see the continued death of my big toenail, even as it remains stubbornly attached to my toe. I thought you’d like to know.

Day one: a whole new world

When I leave Cuba, I immediately enter a whole new world. Gone are the high and dry desert plateaus, miles of sand and the scorching hot sun. Instead, I find myself in a beautiful forest, surrounded by bluebells and irises. Snow-melting rivers criss-cross the path and dried pine needles crunch beneath my feet. It’s hard to even remember getting burned in the desert sun just two days before.

It may still look red and sandy, but seeing this number of trees is quite rare in New Mexico along the CDT.

The trail takes us to the San Gregorio Reservoir, which is located in the San Juan Parks Wilderness Area. RVs and campers flood the parking lot, and we all realize at the same time that we are entering Memorial Day Weekend. Somehow, I fully intend to Yogi someone’s beer somewhere before Monday is over (spoiler alert: I can’t manage to do this).

For now, I’m grateful for good friends, McDonalds city meals, flowing rivers and green forests.

Day Two: Smokey Sky, Smokey Bear

The flowing rivers change into vast swampy meadows, alternating with snow fields. I spend about two miles doing calisthenics to avoid dipping my feet. Finally, almost luckily, I slip and completely submerge my left foot. Then I don’t worry about it anymore and splash across the boggy ground.

The crew and I at the San Gregorio Reservoir!

At this point I can see the plume of smoke rising in the distance from the Indios Fire. The trail is closed in the area and I have to take a long 28 mile detour on the highway around the forest fire.

I enjoy my last few miles under the trees, through a forest, before beginning the highway hike to the Coyote Ranger Station.

At the Ranger Station we talk with Eric, who keeps us informed of the growth and movement of the wildfire. He allows us to fill our water bottles, eat the office snacks and – best of all – use the station toilets.

I leave the station with more Smokey the Bear merchandise than I know what to do with, and camp on the land behind the Ranger Station.

Thanks to our new Smokey Buffs we make quite a sight as we drive down the highway to Ghost Ranch.

I know I have a full marathon on a paved highway to look forward to tomorrow, but I’m finding it hard to shake my good mood. Something about the unexpected magic of the trail and the generosity of strangers here makes it impossible to stay grumpy for too long.

Moreover, with the abundance of water during the day, it seems that the desert is finally behind us.

Day three: Cult on the highway

The desert is certainly not behind us.

There’s not much to say about the highway walk. It’s exactly as you’d expect: long, hot, dry and boring.

We start the day early to cover as many kilometers as possible before the heat of the day. Thanks to this we covered 20 miles by noon.

My tramily and I play games with the passing cars and try to come up with the most unique greetings to the passing drivers.

We walk in line and do the wave, throw the Vulcan salute and bow in unison.

The drivers on Highway 96 have a great sense of humor, and we get countless waves and horns in response. The Highway 84 drivers are much grumpier for some reason, and we get more confused looks than waves.

Finally we reach the Orphan Mesa Picnic Area and camp cowboy-style on the side of the highway, surrounded by beautiful red rocks.

I’ve decided that I’ll miss the bones once we leave the desert.

Does everything hurt? Yes. Am I eager to spend another whole day on the highway? Absolutely not. But then again, my friends turn an unbearable task into a strangely fun one.

Day four: Georgia O’Keeffe

Finally I return to the trail after three quick morning miles to Ghost Ranch. Located just 65 miles north of Santa Fe, Ghost Ranch served as a summer home and studio for Georgia O’Keeffe. Many of the beautiful plateaus and canyons surrounding the ranch are reflected in her art, and I love seeing photos of her artwork while gazing at the subject itself.

Ghost Ranch essentially marks the end of the desert on the CDT (until Wyoming!). I load my backpack with the last of the food I will carry through New Mexico and begin the brutally hot climb to Box Canyon.

I enjoy the last kilometers in the desert, drowning in sweat and cursing the heat.

Finally, I step on a patch of pine needles and look up to realize that the hot sand and red rock have melted into pine trees and rolling hills. The smell of sagebrush in the air turns into the familiar smell of pine needles baking under the spring sun. Just like that – we’re out of the desert and into the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.

As if welcoming us to the mountains, the sunset paints the sky in all colors as the sun sets below the rolling hills. It feels like home.

Thank you to Judd and his banjo for creating the perfect atmosphere for the sunset.

Day five: Mountains?!?!!

In the morning I am greeted by two elk on the path. I only have a few seconds to stare at them before they both turn and run away from me.

A few minutes later, as I leave the trees and enter a beautiful rolling meadow, the rest of the elk herd runs past me and parallels the trail for several miles.

I walk toward distant mountains, dotted with the dark green of pine trees and the light green of aspen forests. Outside in those mountains I see a gigantic plume of smoke.

Could it be? In the distance? The mountains of Colorado??

With the highway walk around the Indios Fire still fresh on my mind, I worry about the possibility of another wildfire detour. Luckily the smoke is coming from a prescribed burnout near Tres Piedras and when the wind changes direction away from us we are completely unaffected.

Day six: bus ride

I’m walking with the bus driver today, because my FarOut hasn’t been working the past few days. This part of the trail is quite annoying to navigate without a map, as clearly defined trails often end without warning or turn away from the actual red line.

Fortunately, my time on the bus is very pleasant as it allows me to spend a lot of time with one of the funniest and nicest hikers I have ever met. Finally we take a side quest off the path to a shrine in the forest to Icarus. I make a note to look up the origins of this shrine in the city when I’m on duty, but never end up finding out any information.

I’m desperate for information on this incredibly cool (but random) shrine. Anyone who knows anything about it, please come forward!!

I’m really starting to look forward to a day in the city. I’m feeling particularly smelly and tired and am starting to develop several aches and pains in my lower body that are making walking a little more challenging.

But I still have a full day of hiking before I reach the Colorado border. It can’t come soon enough.

Day Seven: Goodbye, New Mexico

New Mexico digs in its claws as I try to leave. The trail, already covered in soft, deep snow, turns into a jungle gym for adults as I make my way over hundreds of downed trees.

The trail is non-existent and my pace slows to almost a mile per hour. My legs take the brunt of the obstacle course, and I finally reach the limit, bleeding but happy.

Baby’s first state transition! Hello, Colorado!

We are greeted with trail magic from Tumble On Outfitters and celebrate our border crossing with New Mexican beer. This is the first time I’ve crossed state lines on a hike, and I feel overwhelmed by the flood of emotions. Even if I have to leave this trail tomorrow, the sense of accomplishment I got from walking from Mexico to Colorado will stay with me forever.

Look forward to something

My tramily and I play a game where if someone sees you fall, you owe him or her a beer. As a result, I find myself blissfully drunk in a bar in Chama, surrounded by friends and music from the jukebox.

I enjoy knowing that tonight I’m going home to a hotel, sleeping in a bed and taking a shower. Tomorrow I leave New Mexico behind and head to the still snow-capped San Juan Mountains of Colorado.

Wish us luck!

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