Continental Divide Trail – April 25, 2009
My feet felt as if they were wrapped in sand paper, as I hobbled around packing up my gear. I had woken up early and spent 45 minutes popping blisters with the tip of my Gerber, and then spreading red hot Neosporin on the open blisters, before slowly swathing and bandaging my feet and toes. The culmination of the surgery was strips of duct tape layered over the whole mess. Unfortunately, this also made my feet about two sizes larger, which meant they rubbed miserably against my now tight shoes.
Slinging my pack up onto my back, I headed north, cursing and muttering around sharp spikes of pain in my feet. A few minutes later my feet were numb, as long as I did not shift suddenly, I was good for about 2.5 MPH. Glancing back over my shoulder, I saw that the rest of the group had spread out over about a quarter of a mile – small, white, hat covered heads bobbing and weaving through the scrubby brush. I did not look back again for several hours, but knew I had lost them within an hour. I had passed several stands of juniper type bushes, and knew these would serve as shade stops for them.
There was no real trail. I had given up on my maps, and broken out my GPS. Instead of clear tread, there were tall metal and graphite posts with large CDT signs affixed to them, about every 150 yards or so. Most were placed at the tops of ridges, jutting up like lone sentinels on the horizon. It broke up the monotony of the hike, and took my mind off the thorny slashes across my legs, having to search for the signs in the distance. It was a a painful Easter egg hunt with rattlesnakes instead of bunnies, scattered across the land.
Around noon, I realized that water was going to become an issue. My maps indicated nothing for another 15 miles, and the water sources we had passed were simply not suitable for humans – old tires, with pools of rancid water covered by slimy, sheens of sludge – what I had decided had to be cow drool.
I’d been on an old washed out road for about a half hour, and slowed to look out at a windmill. It was far off in the distance, and most windmills we had come to so far were dry. To go or not to go – that was the question. No hiker liked to venture too far off trail. Sitting on the side off the road, I gnawed on some jerky while I studied the tiny, spindly windmill. From this distance it appeared that greenish shrubs lay scattered around the windmill, and as I peered closer there appeared to be what looked like power lines leading down to the little structure. That was a promising sign.
About a half hour later, as I still pondered the off route trek, Mr. K came around the corner and immediately announced he needed water. I pointed to the windmill, mouth now full of peanut butter. “That is too far away” he said as he squinted towards the windmill, throwing down his pack as he stared out from under the shade of his upraised hand. “We can walk there in 15 minutes or less” I said, between mouthfuls of tortilla and peanut butter. “God!” he suddenly said with disgust as he looked down at my feet. I had stripped off the bandages to let my feet air out, and the raw chunks of meat, with their crinkled white skin, sat propped on my hat. “How do you walk on those things?” said Mr. K, as he wrinkled up his nose. I grinned and wiggled my shriveled up toes.
Breaking out my Gerber, I began surgery on my feet while we waited. I was a little concerned, as I was going through bandages at an alarming rate, but I had duct tape, although the thought of wrapping it directly around my feet and blisters almost made me swoon in imagined pain. I finished my work, wedged on my shoes, and rose slowly, settling into my shoes with a soft groan. I began to hobble slowly towards the windmill. The others walked up as I was leaving, and I heard them arguing with Mr. K about heading so far off trail. I knew they would follow. The hike was still new and unknown. The pack would not separate yet.
Next to the windmill was a disgusting cow pond, a small crater of liquid that was slightly less dense than chocolate pudding. I glanced in the tank by the windmill – empty – and then headed around the pond towards a small shriveled tree, to drop my pack in the shade. All of my food was melting into primordial glops, so I always tried to find shade for my pack if possible.
I heard cries of dismay as I headed back towards the windmill. My fellow trail zombies had not only discovered the dry tank, but were disgusted they had walked a quarter of a mile for nothing. I had not given up on water yet though, and stopped to look up at the power lines. They led to a small box up on the windmill, with PVC pipe running from the box to the ground and tank. I walked over and climbed up, flipping open the box. There was an On/Off switch, but no battery. I had read about this from other hikers journals, and taken the battery from my headlamp. I slid it into place and flipped the switch to On. I heard the pump begin sucking air, and then a distant gurgling sound before water gushed from the pipe. All of the trail zombies cheered, and I grinned. I would keep my limbs for another day.
While everyone loaded up on water, I walked around to the other side of the small “pond” where I had left my pack. I walked a little past the shade tree, and looked down the embankment to see a dead cow spread out on the dried, cracked mud. I stood staring at the long dead carcass. Had she died searching for water, from old age, predators? This was such a brutal place for any living creature to live. I was a little a sad, which probably stoked my irritation as I turned to see that Katie had not only wedged herself under my very small shade tree, but had also then preceded to spread her shit all over the place, leaving me little to no room. There were numerous other trees, so this was frustrating. I walked over, grabbed my pack, and headed over to where the guys were spread out under the shade of a larger tree.
I told the guys I would see them later, and headed cross-country towards Old Hachita. Mr. K and I had discussed our route for the afternoon before heading down to the windmill, and he, and eventually the others, had decided to stick to the road. I wanted to see the old mining town ruins, and I also needed a little break from the group.
Ron had warned of drug runners, so I approached the old ruins cautiously – a stealthy hobble. He had said the drug runners hid out in the mines at Old Hachita, but I suspected he was just giving me a hard time. I stepped around a crumbling rock and clay wall, and pulled up sharply.
I stood staring at a young man. His eyes widened, and he took a step back. I glanced around quickly. Did he have company? Was he alone? Damn – Ron had warned me about the “Hachita Drug Runners,” and although I had been moving cautiously through the old ruins, in case he was not kidding, I still had not seen the man. He stood staring at me with an expectant look on his face. In his khakis, white shirt, and day pack, he looked like any other hiker out for the day. A slow, tentative smile spread across his face as I watched the tension slowly drain from his body. His eyes continued to dart around quickly, but had slowed once he realized I was alone.
“I did not mean to scare you” he said. His accent was thick, and a little broken, but I easily understood him. His smile was disarming, and I found myself relaxing as I looked around for a place to sit, or at least lean. My feet stayed numb as I hiked, but the minute I slowed or stopped, they began to scream as my weight settled onto the raw and blistered skin. There was a low crumbling wall to my right, and I moved over to it as he watched. I clinched my jaw against the pain in my feet, and moved normally, not wanting him to see any weakness in my movements. I was in a strange place being watched by a strange man. Although less tense than 30 seconds ago, my wariness remained the same.
A crumbling, mud wall stood behind the young man, and I froze as three other young Hispanic men stepped slowly around the wall. They were all in similar dress to the man facing me – some in khakis and some in jeans. All were carrying day packs, and a couple had knives on leather belts around their wastes. “Hi,” I said in a moderate tone as I slid my pack up against the wall. I slowly began unzipping the top pocket as I sat down. The others nodded at me as they began to settle on the wall and rocks around me, but none of them spoke.
I had always been taught never to run – never to be the prey that triggered predatory instincts or responses. Adrenaline was coursing through me, triggering flight, but my mind told me to stay calm. I was no threat, and wanted this to be obvious. All of the obvious questions hung in the air, unanswered as everyone settled to the ground. The silence was thick with tension. Were they alone? Was I alone? Why were we all here? Nobody asked any questions.
“Water?” said one of the men near me. He was really a kid – not over eighteen at the most, and I studied him a little more closely as he held out an unopened water bottle. He looked tired, disheveled. I did not need the water, but accepted the gesture. I knew I needed to accept the offer. The others watched, and then looked away – beginning to quietly talk amongst themselves in Spanish. They appeared to not be paying me much attention, but I knew this was not the case.
Everyone glanced towards me as I pulled a snickers from my pack. It was too soon to leave, and I needed some sort of normal purpose to be here. Taking the whole bag, I handed it to the man closest to me, and watched as my snacks for the next two days were eagerly devoured. Suddenly, they all rose quickly and quietly. It was startling how they all knew to stand, without a word spoken. Some still held their snacks. The young man I had first spoken to handed me another bottle of water, smiled, and turned to follow the others as they silently headed off through the brush, and down a shallow wash.
The moment had been unreal, like it had not really happened. Their impact had been so fleeting, and so foreign. I had no reserve of experiences to ground the encounter. It had seemed to end as quickly as it had occurred.
I moved on after a few minutes, and made it to a dirt road – an old forest service road – about a half hour later. I checked my map, and headed north. The encounter was already starting to fade. I heard tires and turned to see a Border Patrol truck come around the curve of the washed out road, maybe the first vehicle on this faint track in years. I was surprised to see it, and as he slowed beside me, and rolled down his window, I smiled and waved. He asked the typical “Why are you here?” questions, and then shook his head at the explanation, and handed me a purple Gatorade. Starting to pull away, he suddenly crunched to a stop.
“Hey, have you seen a group of Mexicans?”
“Huh?” I said. I was caught off guard by the question. “Um, no.” I said automatically.
“Well avoid them if you do. They are drug runners, dangerous, and would kill you as soon as look at you. We have been chasing a small group from the border for a couple of days.”
“I will keep a look out” I said, as he nodded and drove away. I’m not really sure why I said “no.” It was automatic. In that fleeting interaction where we had shared food and water, a travelers bond had been forged. I guess I wanted their intents to have been good – not to think I had been in a bad situation.