I’ve finished walking the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) in New Mexico. The trail lives on the extremes:
- It’s either incredibly obvious (a dirt road) or completely non-existent!
- Its water is also extreme: the water is either perfect (e.g., from a well/windmill) or most foul (e.g., I’ve found water tanks with cow feces floating, fishes swimming, algae growing out of control, and even a decomposing bird).
- The weather is also extreme: either very windy or incredibly windy!
I’ve walked across New Mexico in less than a month, been snowed on three times, and now I’m in Colorado.
I’ll share my most memorable story from New Mexico.
A tale of two dogs
After leaving Cuba, New Mexico, I stopped by the Circle A Ranch at 7 a.m. Although the hostel was still not open for season, one of the workers was outside. It had snowed the night before and the entire town was covered in snow.
Snow obscured the trail, so I asked caretaker for directions. After he told me where to go, I set off to climb 1,000 meters to the summit of the San Pedro Mountains (about 10,500 feet). Just as I left him, two dogs started following me. One was dark brown with black hair and looked like a husky Dalmatian (white and black spots).
“Are these two dogs going to follow me?” I asked the caretaker.
“Oh no they won’t,” the caretaker assured me. “They’ll walk with you for a little while, but they’ll eventually turn around when you go too far.”
Having seen only day hiker in the last three weeks, I was happy to have company, even if their English was a bit weak. The dogs led the charge through the light snow cover. They relished the walk in the winter wonderland. However, after an hour of walking, they still hadn’t left me and they were as enthusiastic as ever to walk with me to Canada. I yelled, “Allez de nouveau à votre maison!” They didn’t speak French either.
After another hour of hiking and with fresh snow beginning to fall, I had enough. I love dogs and I wish I could take them with me, but I didn’t want the responsibility of caring for them. I turned to them and yelled profanities and screamed, “Go home! Find your own pack! You’re not my posse! You’re fired!!!!”
The verbal abuse seemed to work. Their tails stopped wagging and their ears drooped. I felt terrible being such a brute, but I was worried about the deteriorating conditions and that we were getting too far from their home. The snow levels kept rising as we gained altitude. I was knee-deep in snow in my Inov-8 running shoes and thin liner socks. I was wearing all my clothes: a GoLite Drimove T-shirt and a 3 oz GoLite Ether Wind Jacket. I was carrying a GoLite Chrome Dome umbrella though. All this is not exactly winter gear. I must have looked funny climbing up a mountain in a snowstorm with an umbrella.
This was dangerous enough for me and I didn’t want to endanger the dogs. I left the dogs behind.
I had hiked two hours without the dogs as the snowy blizzard continued. I reached a summit of one of the 10,500 foot San Pedro Mountains. The winds were disagreeable. The visibility was about five meters. I hadn’t seen the trail since I left the Circle A ranch, four hours ago. I was simply slogging through the snow, heading northeast, figuring it would take over the mountain range. Then I turned around and couldn’t believe my eyes.
The same two dogs, that I had last seen two hours before, sheepishly reached the summit. They trudged through the snow and avoided eye contact with me. They had a meek attitude, looked around, and gave me the impression of, “Gee, nice day for hike, no? Hey! Look! It’s that same guy that we were walking with two hours ago! What a coincidence!”
I stared at them, but they didn’t look at me - they knew they were so busted. But what could I do? We were four hours from the Circle A Ranch, I had yet to see the trail, my tracks were getting covered by the continuing snowfall, and I was halfway through the mountain range. Like it or not, the dogs were now my responsibility.
I’m not sure why they had followed me two hours after I had left them. Three possibilities:
1) They were more lost than I was. Although they would pee and leave their marks throughout the walk, I’m not sure if they knew how to get home. They followed me hoping for salvation.
2) They came back to protect me. At the beginning of the hike the dark dog (I called Chocolate) would be in front of me and the white/black one (I called Salt & Pepper) would walk behind me. Sandwiched between them, I felt like they were trying to protect me at times.
3) They were out for a joyride. They had no fear of hypothermia or the dangers of the mountains. They just followed me because it’s more fun than hanging out back at the ranch! “Let’s play in the snow!” they thought. “Woo-hoo! Road trip!”
Whatever their true motivation was, they were my dogs now. I was determined to get them back to their owner safely.
“Are you guys hungry?” I asked the dogs.
They wagged their tails excitedly. Surprisingly, I wasn’t carrying any dog food with me. I threw some trail mix on the snow. They eagerly devoured the nuts and M&Ms.
“Maybe you guys are thru-hikers after all…” I told them.
By now I was clearly the Alpha Male of the pack. The dog I called Chocolate no longer led through the snow. Both dogs followed my deep footprints. At times I would turn around and just see their heads peeking out of the snow. They seemed to be swimming through the accumulating snow.
Salt & Pepper never took the lead; she faithfully followed me. Occasionally Chocolate would boldly lead if he could tell that I was consistently hugging the contour of a mountain on a northeast bearing. But whenever the terrain got tricky, he would get behind me and follow my lead. Twice we encountered bear tracks in the snow and the dogs sniffed and followed them until I yelled, “C’mon you idiots! That bear will kick your ass! Get back here!”
Finally at 3 p.m. the snow stopped falling. However, I had yet to see a sign of the trail thanks to five feet of snow cover. I did find a creek heading north, so we followed it, figuring it should take us down the mountain in the right direction. As the sun set, my goal was to get low enough so that the dogs didn’t have to sleep on snow, which could lead to frostbite on their paws or even death.
At 6 p.m., after nearly 12 hours of stomping through heavy snow, we had descended to 8,000 feet and found a trail sign next to a forest service road! We were saved! I screamed in triumph! I hugged the dogs and they shared my excitement by vigorously rubbing against me and wagging their short tails. They probably didn’t know why I was so happy, but they were just happy that I was so happy.
We hiked a bit more to find a snow free piece of dirt under a tree. “Guys, this will be our home for the night. OK?”
They stared at me, trying to understand me. I set up my 3.5 oz Mountain Laurel Designs tarp that I had brought “just in case it rains” in New Mexico. I never expected it to provide protection against snowfall. Meanwhile, the dogs scouted the campsite area, peeing everywhere to establish their new territory. Once in my sleeping bag, I opened a jar of peanut butter, scooped up a big helping with my finger, and yelled out, “Hey guys! Dinnertime!!!”
They ran over and started licking the peanut butter off my fingers with great gusto. One finger for Chocolate, one for Salt & Pepper. Soon they had consumed over half my jar.
Their thick coats were soaking wet from the snow and their hair fibers were freezing in place as the temps continued to fall. I rubbed them vigorously with my MSR PackTowl and invited them to sleep at my feet under my tarp, but they preferred to rest a few feet from my head.
I wished my loyal companions a goodnight: “It’s going to be a cold night folks! Wake me up if you need anything or get chilly. Keep watch and I’ll see you at sunrise! Tomorrow, you’re going home!”
Soon I heard the dogs snoring.
At sunrise I was relieved to see the dogs still breathing. I got up and they sprang up with an excitement in their eyes that said, “This is fun! Where are going today?!?!”
I checked their paws and they were in good shape, no frostbite. I knelt next to them and put my hands on their heads and said, “Fellas, you’re going home today. We’re taking this forest service road down till we find civilization. Then I’m calling your owners so you can get back home. Sound good?”
They licked their chops.
For their breakfast I threw some Bob’s Red Mill granola on my plastic groundsheet. The dogs preferred eating it off the dirt.
I told them, “You must have been thru-hikers in a previous life…”
The sun finally came out by the time we came to the tiny hamlet called Gallina. I knocked on the door of a mobile home. A robust and kind man named Roberto answered. He let me use this phone and two hours later the Circle A Ranch owner showed up. She was grateful that her pooches had fared well. She said she was going to “kill” the caretaker for telling me that the dogs would only follow me so far.
The dogs resisted getting into the truck. The owner put a muzzle on Chocolate fearing that he would snap when she forced him into the truck. I had to get into the truck to encourage both dogs to get in and stay put.
I hugged and kissed these beloved dogs goodbye. They licked my dirty face. I whispered to them, “Don’t worry, I’ll be back in October.”
I waved goodbye to the truck. The dogs stared at me through the truck’s windows as they drove away.
Their sad eyes communicated everything.
I miss them too.
Next Email: Entering the Real Snow Playground - Colorado
T.S. Elliot wrote that “April is the cruelest month,” but May will probably be the cruelest month for me. I will spend this entire month climbing snowcapped mountains and crossing endless snowfields. I doubt I will camp below 10,000 feet for the entire month of May. In Chama, New Mexico, I picked up my ice axe, crampons, my MLD waterproof rain mitts, heavy socks, gaiters, a long sleeved shirt and warm GoLite tights for my legs. I’m sending my GoLite umbrella ahead to Wyoming and wearing Gossamer Gear’s rain suit instead.
I’ve been hit with snowstorms and lots of snow lately and I expect the snow coverage to get more intense as I climb above 13,000 feet in the San Juan Wilderness. Where the hell is global warming when you need it?
I’m about 15% done with the CDT yo-yo.
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I’m not cooking anything! I have no stove or pot! I’m eating a variety of Bob’s Red Mill granola, muesli, nuts, and dried fruit. I eat cereal with dehydrated soy milk and Bob’s Red Mill protein powder. I'm also soaking golden couscous, potato flakes, and textured vegetable protein (TVP). I trade off with soaking either their Polenta (corn grits) or their Spice'n Nice cereal, which has cinnamon and raisins. As a result, I get a diet packed with plenty of carbohydrates, protein, vitamins, and minerals. I buy high fat foods in town as treats. All together, that should be more than 5,000 nutritious calories a day!
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