CDT: Chama to Ghost Ranch Alternate

9/23: 16.3 mi (Hwy 17 2195.3 – 2211.8)

Before heading back onto the trail, we made sure that we got up early enough to have yet another GIANT and supremely tasty cinnamon roll at Fiona’s, that we paired with bottomless and equally good mugs of coffee.

The guys at The Hotel Shops kinda flaked and failed to provide a ride back to trail as we had arranged with them the day before. So, Terri and Kip stepped up. Together they drove us back up to Cumbres Pass, leaving their motel unattended. “It’s not like it’s gonna go away”, Terri joked as she hopped into their truck.

Once unloaded, we trekked uphill for our last 3 miles in Colorado.

Just prior to the state’s border crossing we caught a glimpse of and heard the “chug” and whistle of the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic steam-driven train making its way up toward the train station at Cumbres Pass.

Stepping out of Colorado and into New Mexico was not as eventful and/or cathartic as we imagined. In fact, the signage of border line between the two states was underwhelming, to say the least.

A tangle of barbwire and license plates on a decaying post stood as an afterthought. If one was not looking for and/or was unaware of the “seam” between states, one would most likely continue without notice of the significance.

Colorado/New Mexico border

The day rolled by without much change in terrain or foliage. The grass was golden and dry.

The trees were perfectly shaped “Christmas” trees, cows were aplenty and water was scarce. We witnessed the most amazing thing however. Somehow we startled a cow in a grove of tall and fallen pines. The cow leapt uphill, over a fallen pine that was easily at the height of the cow’s shoulder, to make its “getaway”. Now that is one nimble and athletic cow, or should I say a highly motivated cow who associates humans with his probability of becoming a burger of some sort.

We descended into a valley that led to a plateau that we would ascend and traverse for the remainder of the day. There we would camp, and spend of first night in our last state on the CDT, New Mexico.

9/24: 20 mi (2211.8 – 2231.8)

The bugling of elk pierced the stillness of the night till the wee hours of the morning. And yet, we have still to see one “on trail”. We were fortunate to camp where we did for the night, as no available or acceptable places existed until we reached the US Forest Service Lagunitas Upper Campground.

It is within the confines of a particular cinder block US Forest Service bathroom that the unfortunate “ballad” of “Otter“, a late season CDT hiker was recorded. In short, he was found dead, in the Lower Lagunitas Campground restroom, inside his sleeping bag, having died from hypothermia exacerbated by starvation. This particular story is a “cautionary” tale for any and all who enter the wilderness. What I learned and also practice, is the following:

  • Listen to and obey that “inner voice”
  • Carry and keep in good working order an Emergency Locator and Communication Device. ie (Garmin InReach) Had Otter elected to “reallocate” his marijuana money to the continuance of his InReach subscription, I dare say he would not have died as a result of this particular prolonged weather event…just my humble and opinion, so don’t hate me for pointing out the obvious
  • Have additional Maps in which to locate/access “bail out” or emergency egress routes
  • Have and share your itinerary with people who WILL pay attention
  • Hike with a partner
  • Fight like hell to survive, even if it means that you’ll be “uncomfortable” and/or may not make it. At least you gave it beyond your best effort.

Okay enough pontification. Unlike Otter, the Lagunitas campground had particular fond memories for us, in the form of spectacular and unexpected Trail Magic. As we wandered toward the interior of the Upper Lagunitas Campground, looking for a place to take our 10am break, we came across two elk hunters that were in the process of packing up. In the nearby tree there hung “game bags”, that indicated to us that they had been successful. As avid hunters, we inquired as to their success, and of course the “story” that goes with such a hunt. They had filled their cow elk tag, and had a “missed” opportunity at a bull elk. In the process of telling their story, they offered us, water, snacks, an assortment of beer, and Mountain House meals.

Not wanting to be rude, we accepted their generosity. We even took a “road beer” to go.

The remainder of the day was relatively uneventful. The trail was good to moderate and the temperature was pleasant.

We wove through Aspen groves, wide open fields, along fence lines and past “extraordinary” cow ponds, where water filters go to “die”.

This made the fact that we had a relatively heavy water carry for most of the day, not so arduous. I will say however, that a 3 liter carry over a rolling ascent to 10,500 ft for our last 2 miles of the day was not helpful in keeping an increasingly and utterly painful case of shin splints to my left leg, at bay.

9/25: 21.6 mi (2231.8 – 2253.4)

After a healthy dose of “Vitamin I”, arnica oil massaged into the shin, and sleeping with a compression sleeve overnight, I awoke with no noticeable pain to my shin. Today would be spent wearing the compression sleeve and taking regular breaks, as opposed to pounding out the miles. Today would also require particular attention to water, in the form of hydration and carry, as there would be a long stretch without water toward the end of our intended day.

“Second Breakfast” with the wonderfully joyful Connie

Because of my shin splints, we had to effectively “pull back on the reins” today. This meant that we had the pleasure of meeting Connie from Taos as we entered the Hopewell Campground. While we were in the process of taking a break and filling our water bottles, Connie, who was camped with her dogs and horse, inquired as to what we were doing. We explained that we were hiking the Continental Divide Trail. Connie, who had just recently retired from teaching was “all ears”, and offered us a fresh brewed cup of coffee. Never ones to turn down a fresh cup of coffee, we removed our packs and settled in to what became a lengthy, but most pleasant break and conversation, as well as a “second breakfast”. I can say without question, it is the people one meets on these lengthy trails that transcend any terrain or vista.  Connie was certainly a most memorable encounter. I loved the fact that she had declared herself a “non-smoker” after decades of being one, and her adventurous, kind and loving spirit. I imagine she was one of those remarkable teachers that leaves a lasting, if not positive, “mark” on those lives she taught. She oozed joy and awe.

After our “second breakfast” that nearly transitioned into “lunch”, we pried ourselves away from Connie’s intoxicating joy and continued on.

As we pattered on, we jumped a small herd of deer, and both startled and were startled by… several grouse. Paul spied a cow elk, or so he claims, while I on the other hand neither saw nor heard said elk. An avenue of golden giants left us in awe and flanked us on either side of the trail, as weaved our way through the tallest and fattest grove of Apsens we have ever seen. And, as we have come to be reconciled with this trail, our last 2 miles were comically “uphill”, and littered with rocks that required our utmost attention. We set up camp on a knoll, hoping to catch wildlife sauntering by.

9/26: 20.1 mi (2253.4 – 2273.5)

Ever since we have entered New Mexico, we have been quite amazed and perplexed its terrain and sights. I think the “NOBOs” give New Mexico a “bad rap”. We were under the totally mistaken impression that New Mexico was mostly flat, devoid of water, and filled with all manner of pokey plants. This could NOT be further from the truth. In fact, of the four previous states we have trekked through on the CDT, New Mexico is turning out to be the most diverse, if not our favorite state.

Each day our preconceived notions of what to expect for the day are shattered…to our delight. Mountainous terrain filled with an amazing diversity of plant life, and spectacular vistas. Mesas, vast fields and valleys hosting cattle and a maze of forest roads. Lakes and streams, when you least expect them, all teaming with life. Daytime sounds that are quiet and serine, while night time is alive with movement and the drama of “courting” elk. And…Trail Magic that has been shockingly abundant. Today was no exception.

Again, the elk were quite robust in their banter till the wee hours of the morning. A giant bull elk stomped by our tent near midnight, but passed before we could clamor out of the tent to get a full view.  The morning found us following well used and often faint forest roads through golden fields, clusters of deep green pine and groves of turning aspens whose leaves of bright yellow littered the ground.

The trail emerged from a chokingly dense forest and flanked a wide ribbon valley whose “seam” down the middle oozed with  icy cool spring water. While on a break, a local on a section hike greeted us with her dog. She asked us how we liked New Mexico. We explained our amazement with New Mexico. She agreed wholeheartedly and then asked if we would ever consider hiking the CDT again. Without hesitation, I boldly replied, “Hell No!”. We all chuckled at my unconscious blurt. While we find the CDT quite challenging and totally worth the effort, it is a truly brutal trail that wears you down in one way or another. “Primitive and Challenging”, as the CDTC bills the this trail is an understatement. The hashtag #bravethecdt and #embracethebrutality is the only way to succeed on this trek. But for all my “complaining” I can tell you without a doubt, it has been totally worth it. It IS a #brutiful trail and experience. Going southbound has saved the best for last…New Mexico.

Piles of river rock emerged from sparse golden vegetation almost in a hedge like form. Its attempt to “hide” evidence of the tailings from vast mining operations failing miserably. Our trail led us to a parking lot near a well stocked “lake” and the day’s trail magic. Our water source was to be the lake, but Lorenzo and Anya from Albuquerque (and their two kids) changed that.

They offered us water and shared their adult beverages with us. We talked all things New Mexico. They beamed with pride as we related how diverse and beautiful we have found New Mexico to be. We talked history with their kids, and trail life. They told us of what more we had to look forward to and enjoy as we continue our southbound trek through their wonderful state. It was a beautiful Sunday morning encounter. After well over an hour of conversation, we made our way back to the trail…and promptly got lost. (So many social trails) Rather than do our “usual” bushwhack back to trail, we retraced our steps and found where we had failed to make a “hard left”.

Once back on trail we paid particular attention to staying on the “redline” until it began to weave in a useless and frustrating serpentine manner. Looking at our alternate maps, we reverted to the “old CDT” route that followed a near perfectly straight, or rather direct route, via a cobbled dirt road. This allowed us to make better “time” whilst being “chased” by a dark and threatening storm. Our destination for the day was the Rancherilla Spring and the beginning of the Ghost Ranch Alternate. We camped in a small clearing nearby, to the annoyance of the resident cattle.

This entry was posted in Backpacking, Continental Divide Trail, New Mexico, thru-hiking, Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to CDT: Chama to Ghost Ranch Alternate

  1. Jaunting Jan says:

    Oh Otter, a walk to remember and thoughts of preventing a similar fait.

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