I awoke to sssssssssssssss, sitting straight up and gripping my sleeping bag to my sides. Somehow a snake had made its way through the mosquito netting into my new tarp!
I looked around wildly as my butt settled gently to the grown. Frowning, I looked down to see my new inflatable sleeping pad completely flat. I had been told to use foam in the desert due to all the thorny things, but the bright yellow pad was just so comfortable. I would have to make do until I could find another pad.
I unzipped the tarp as quietly as possible, so I did not wake up Amy, and leaned out to see the horizon beginning to lighten. I loved the peace and solitude of a new day – listening to everything around begin to stir.
A fresh new start, and I could do anything I felt like with it – even better because there were no alarm clocks, emails, phones, texts – the noise and pressure of constant expectations. The only expectation now was to walk as far as possible day after day and roll with whatever came my way.
“Damn,” I whispered….
I had been so quiet – like a mouse, and those two single words, spoken at an elevated volume, had literally ripped my peace and tranquility to shreds.
“I did,” I said has I pulled out some trail mix and began munching.
“What are we doing for water today?”
“What did YOU plan to do?” I said, hoping that would open the door to a lengthy response, so I could focus on my rummaging for the morning. I also wanted to emphasize the lack of a WE. I am socially adept, but had come out here to remove myself from any type of expectation, planning for others, dependency, etc. – and just wanted to live in the moment – my moments.
“I had not thought about it.” she said – clearly waiting for me to respond.
We were in the desert, about to embark on a six-month hike. How could she not have thought about water. More importantly, I needed to focus. I am not a morning person – even more so without coffee.
“I am carrying my water. Ask the men when we pick them up this morning. I’m sure they will have a plan for water.”
“Did you bring maps? I have a GPS but don’t know how to use it.”
I jumped from my tarp, stating “I’m going to see if Sam is up.” I took off across the yard. Please let him be up I thought. He looked like a morning guy, so maybe. Amy was right behind me, and as I came around the corner of the house, I saw Sam sitting on the porch.
“Hi Sam! I’m packing up and getting ready to go. Amy is looking for some advise on how to hike.”
“I am not! I’m an experienced long distance hiker.” she announced indignantly.
“Fine then – how to plan for water in the desert,” I said as I swung around, stepped around her, and hurried back to my shelter. I was sometimes a little grumpy in the morning, without coffee.
I rapidly threw all my belongings into my pack, pulled down my tarp and shoved it into an outside pocket, heading for Sam’s old Scout. He had told us that we would be taking it to the trail terminus after picking up the other hikers in Deming. At the Scout, I unpacked everything, munched on some more granola, and repacked according to needs for the day.
As I waited, I went through my maps, and filled up my two water bottles along with 2 (1) liter platypus sacks. I was carrying about 8.8 lbs. of water – about double my normal weight.
I also always drank at least a liter right before I left. I would much rather carry it in my stomach. On the AT, I had never taken more than one liter, stopping at every source to drink a half to a liter of water. On the PCT, I had done the same and carried about two liters on average.
This trail was different though. It was “make your own way” a large amount of the time – getting lost, determining your own trail, map and compass – true long distance hiking. I was excited.
I glanced at my GPS and then shoved it into the pack – near the bottom. I was going old school, using my maps. I had taken an orienteering refresher course just for this trip.
About an hour later, we all piled into the mini-van and headed to Deming to pick up the other group of hikers. We had all met through the internet and conversed on trip preparations over the few months before the hike. As I glanced over at Amy, I hoped at least one was engaging – and chatty.
Picking up the three men at their hotel was uneventful. Much to Amy’s relief, they informed us they had arrived a day early and cached water at three different locations along the trail, where it passed near roads. They had not used the metal boxes, because they had been told that apparently “border crossers” from the south also knew about these.
I was thrilled to see that all three gentleman were around Amy’s age, and everyone chattered away as we headed back to Hachita to pick up the Scout for the 2-3 hour trip out to the trail.
Piling in to the scout, I was overcome by the gasoline fumes, and mentioned it to Sam.
“There is a leak in the tank, but it is a slow leak.” Sam said indifferently. “Oh, and the gas cap is missing, but I have a rag in it.”
I watched with mounting alarm, fumes settling around our heads, as he lit up a cigarette and we pulled away, rattling along in our own Molotov cocktail.
The ride was tough, bouncing through huge ruts and potholes, while gagging on noxious gasoline fumes, as I prayed the fumes would not thicken around the constantly burning cigarette ember. We stopped only once – because the Scout stalled after we bottomed out in a small ravine that appeared on the other side of some scrub brush.
Finally, Sam slowed to a stop, and I exited the vehicle with a raging headache. I stood staring at an old wire fence with what appeared to be the leg bone of some animal attached to it. Sam said there used to be a picnic table and granite monument marking the beginning of the “Crazy Cook” route on the CDT, but it had been “taken.” I thought the leg bone more appropriate for our start.
Once we had piled out, Sam used all of our cameras to take pictures for us, and we all paid him for the trip. He pulled away with a quick wave, undoubtedly thinking he would see several of us very soon.
I liked all three of the men we had picked up. Jason was a retired LAPD officer – a deliberate rather cynical guy with a dry wit.
Robbie was tall and a little gangly, seeming the most unsure of the group. He was a little nervous, and along with Amy, he seemed the most eager to stay close to everyone.
Mr K. was the oldest of the group, and had the most experience of the three men, having also already hiked both the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail.
All five of us had long-distance hiking experience to some degree. We were also an older group, myself being the youngest, around 40, and the others ranging from 50-70 years old.
There was no trail. I watched everyone’s heads bob off towards the horizon, snaking in and out of obstacles I could not see below the grass. I had laid back to let them get ahead, having just come off the PCT this past season, and being in pretty good shape.
Being a loner, I also wanted to savor the start. I turned slowly, looking south towards a barren, dry border, and then north towards the low lying hills, that would be home for the night. A huge grin spread slowly across my face.
For the next 5-6 months, I would be completely self-sufficient – depending on my own resourcefulness and determining my own path. I loved these hikes.
The first stop was an old windmill, with no water. Our trail notes, from previous hikers, had said there was water. I saw the nervous looks pass between the other hikers after their fruitless search for a water source.
We peered into the tank by the old windmill, but the abundance of bloated corpses (winged and four-legged) quickly eliminated any thoughts of trying to filter water from this source. The need was not yet significant enough to risk this toxic sludge – not yet anyway.
After a quick lunch in the shade, we all pushed on, and I slowly passed the others, pausing for a few words of encouragement and a quick smile. Weaving in and out of brush and scrub trees, I headed north towards a thin line on my map. There was supposed to be a dirt road, and down that road would be the first metal box, with the only water cache that Sam would leave, and our stop for the night.
Mr. K. stayed ahead of everyone for the majority of the day. He was in great shape and had set out early after lunch. I did not catch him until early evening, at a fork in the dirt road.
“This fork is not on my maps,” Mr. K said, peering down at his map, as I walked up. I looked at mine and nodded in agreement.
“Why don’t you take the right and I’ll take the left,” I said. Let’s meet back here in 30 minutes.” The road clearly headed east, and we were only about a mile from our destination. Fifteen minutes should give us a good idea of the direction of each fork.
My fork was easy. The rugged road hooked north, and then five minutes later it dead ended at a huge mound of boulders. I turned and headed back, turning to head up Mr. K’s fork.
The road was rocky, washed out, and slow going, but about an hour later, I came around a curve and saw Mr. K wandering around in the brush off the side of the road. I guess he had decided not to come back to where the forks split. I already loved the CDT. Every hiker for themselves!
“The water cache is over there.” he motioned back behind him. “About a hundred yards, and off to the left of the road.”
I had enough water, but went back to see the brown wooden, metal box. It blended in almost perfectly with the surrounding landscape. I slid the latch back, and noted the gallon jugs of water. I would get some in the morning.
I set up my tarp, made dinner, and slowly stretched out on the deflated pad I had laid over the few lumps of clothing I had spread across the bottom of the tarp. I had a feeling the stiffness I felt now was going to be magnified by morning.
About an hour after dark I heard frantic yelling and lights flashed across my tarp, waking me from a deep sleep.
“I need water! Where is the water!” Robbie yelled, with an urgent tone to his voice.
“We ran out hours ago,” said Amy, also frantic and panicked.”
“It is back just a hundred yards off the road,” I said as I pulled back the zipper and rose quickly from the tarp.
“Give me your water”! Robbie said in a panic. “I have to have water!”
I began picking my way through the sharp rocks, with no shoes, as Robbie and Amy insisted I give them my water.
“It is right down here,” I said as I continued walking towards the cache.
Jason had just walked up, also looking for water, and now the chorus of “Give me your water” became angrier and more insistent. I was becoming a little nervous when they suddenly spotted the cache, and I stepped to the side to not be trampled. Turning around, I slowly picked my way back to my tarp.
I could hear the cries of joy as I began to drift back off to sleep.
“Where do I set up my tent?!”
A light shown in to my tarp, and startled, I jerked upright again.
“Where should I set up everything?”
“Ya know, I really don’t care. You have hundreds of miles of desert. Pick a spot.”
This was not a promising start to our first day. Everyone was cranky, dehydrated, and probably a little sunburnt, but I’m sure things would improve.