Hiking north from Silver City on the Continental Divide I had two options.
I could hike the “official” Gila Mountain Route, or I could take the Gila River route. I chose the river due to the availability of water and the chance to hike through a unique landscape and wilderness environment.
Immediately upon entering Bear Creek Canyon, I knew I was in for something special. The water was plentiful, the wildlife was more abundant and the trail almost non-existent, but the way was obvious.
Once I descended the long switchbacks into Gila River Canyon, I was confronted with towering cliffs like ancient monuments on all sides and a cool winding river running through it all. I threw down my pack, stripped to my wool SmartWool boxers and submerged myself in the water, letting the water wash away the past ten days of dust and sweat.
As the sun was setting on the rim of the canyon, I hiked two additional miles up-river while my swollen feet rejoiced in the healing power of the cold water with each crossing, before setting up camp under a cottonwood tree.
The next morning I awoke to a wild turkey gobbling near the river, poked my head out and saw him saunter off, startled at my emergence from my tent. That afternoon I hiked the remaining ten or so miles up the canyon to Doc Campbells and the Gila Hot Springs Resort, picked up my resupply package, and then took the rest of the day off alternately soaking in the hot springs and then dipping my sore feet in the cool river, giving my strained left Achilles a chance to heal.
The hot springs manager is an old salty dog who will talk your ear off about the benefits of GMO food and the evils of Obama politics if you let him, as will the owner of the Doc Campbell’s store, a German native who immigrated to the Unites States in the 70’s and has strong opinions of self-determinism and welfare.
North of Doc Campbell’s I toured the Gila Cliff Dwellings and then entered the Middle Fork of the Gila via Little Bear Creek Canyon, a slot canyon that leads to a big bend in the Gila River. Once in the canyon I felt dwarfed by the cliffs and awed by the forces of water and time that it must have taken to carve out this majestic scene.
I didn’t make it very far that afternoon for a few miles up-stream of my entrance to the canyon is one of the most beautiful natural backcountry hot-springs.
Jordan Hot-Springs is a gorgeous turquoise pool with a temperature estimated to be somewhere between 90° F and 100° F, and is set on a hillside over-looking the Gila and the towering spires of its canyon walls. What a beautiful setting to spend an afternoon, and I briefly considered camping here. However, after four hours of soaking and with daylight still to burn, I decided to make some miles before I settled in for the night.
I feel small here, in this canyon. Walking through the Middle Fork next to the towers of rock and granite and watching the stars of the milky way float into view and cross the sky makes me contemplate my place and purpose in the universe. These and other thoughts occupied my mind throughout the following day as I crossed the river almost 85 times in over 16 miles to make it just shy of my exit at Snow Lake.
Despite the beauty of my surroundings, the Middle Fork of the Gila beat me like…well, it beat me hard.
The Middle Fork was a slog. Last November a flood came through the canyon washing out existing trails and pulling up trees by the roots and piling them up against other larger trees to form large piles of debris.
When not wading through the river, I was dodging these debris piles, walking over ankle twisting river rocks or trudging through loose sand, always my legs getting scraped up by the thorny knee high whips of new growth sent up after the flood.Trail would often appear in the bends of the river, cutting the corners of each twisting turn where higher ground permitted it to escape the ravages of the flood waters.
My hopes of getting to the Snow Lake campsite that night were hampered, but as a sort of recompense, the wilderness came to life as evening set in and I looked for a spot to settle for the night. I witnessed a family of Javelina watering at the river, and later a beaver slapping his tail in the water warning me as I approached. I also saw a small herd of Mule Deer turn and run when they noticed me coming down the trail.
The flood destroys but it also breathes new life back into the canyon.
Once out of the Gila the miles started to fly by. After a five-mile hike to Snow Lake, I was once again back in an open dry New Mexico landscape where water is scarce and the sun is blinding. I made 17 miles that afternoon before camping in an expansive grass valley, but this would be just the beginning of a new drama over the next three days to Pie Town.
My food planning for the section between Doc Campbell’s Trading Post and Pie Town was flawed.
I had planned 5.7 days of food to make the 125 miles of distance, estimating 22 miles per day. When I took a day off at Doc Campbells, I used my resupply food for that day and did not replenish it with store-bought food. When I took my time exploring the Gila Cliff Dwellings and relaxing at Jordan Hot-Springs, I lost another half day. The big hiking day in the Middle Fork was about 16 miles, not 22 due to the slog through the flood debris in the river canyon.
Thus I found myself using up the last of my fuel on April 16th, and eating the last of the “good food” on April 17th, with 2.5 days of hiking left to my next resupply at Pie Town. So I made a plan to bail out at Highway 12 which I would reach on the morning of the 18th. This would be a 28 mile hitch to the small town of Reserve where I would purchase food to last me the two days to Pie Town and then hitch back to the trail.
I pushed miles as hard as I could on the 17th, getting to the big descent before HWY 12, where I camped on the side of the mountain, ten miles from the highway and fifty miles from Pie Town.
At that point I had the following items left in my food bag:
- 1/2 jar of peanut butter
- One homemade zip-lock baggy of oatmeal
- One store-bought single serving package of apple-cinnamon oatmeal
- One 400 calorie bar of Pemmican brand fruit and nut food bar
- One partial package of dried berries and a handful of walnuts (to be used in the oatmeal)
- One dinner of dried rice noodles with a pouch of sauce
That evening, after trying to soak the rice noodles in cold water for a half hour with no success-they remained hard and brittle-I went to sleep without dinner. An evening meal is critical in a hiker’s diet, usually the biggest meal of the day and the one where he/she can replenish some of the thousands of calories lost to the effort that day, so skipping this meal was no small matter.
When I arrived at the highway the next morning carrying the rice noodles in a water-filled zip-lock bag tied to the top of my bag, I was hungry but not starving. The guidebook mentioned that this was a tough hitch, but I had no choice. I took out my sharpie and began writing the following words in big bold letters on my tyvek ground cloth, “HIKER TO TOWN”. As I was working I noticed that most cars were headed east, I was headed west. I counted about one car every ten minutes heading west, not a good sign.
I held up the sign, stuck my thumb out and hoped for the best. An hour went by and nobody had stopped or even waved. My frustration building, I decided to sit down off the side of the road, eat my still tough rice-noodles, and consider options.
After eating and an hour of contemplation, I decided to give hitching one more shot. I had forty miles to Pie Town, up and over ten-thousand foot Mangas Mountain, with maybe a thousand calories in my pack and no fuel. I was already in a deficit on calories having skipped dinner and breakfast, and having eating only a small lunch. I could do it, but I knew I would suffer from it. Twenty minutes later, after only one car had passed on the highway, I made my decision.
The cars were just not stopping, so I threw on my pack and started down the trail.
Forty miles. It may sound like a lot, but to a thru-hiker with his trail legs under him, it is less than two days of walking. At three miles per hour, it would take me just 13 hours. I have hiked 35 miles in a day before. I will go fast. I will knock out 20 miles this afternoon and finish the last 20 tomorrow. My body has reserves. I will portion out my remaining food until I know I am in the clear.
The first ten miles was a climb up to Mangas Mountain, which I did with a map and compass as my smart phone with its GPS had died. It had been cloudy and overcast the past couple of days and my solar charger would not give me a charge on my phone. I may have added one or two miles on the route with my off-route tracking, but I finally made it to the top of the mountain, and this test boosted my confidence in my navigational ability. I performed under stress, in a critical situation, and was able to navigate to a point on a map with no help from a GPS device.
Elated, I moved quickly down the mountain another ten miles that evening, making my goal of twenty for the day. I hiked until I could barely spot the trail in front of me and then camped under a tree near a private property line as the brooding clouds turned to drizzle. My remaining half of a Pemmican Bar (~200 calories) was my snack before bed, along with a few spoonfuls of peanut butter (170 calories per tablespoon, a life-saver!) I would skip a second dinner in a row.
I had a sleepless, hungry night imagining that I would be angering some backwoods ranchers by crossing their private property line tomorrow (with bold sign saying “No Trespassing”), and trying to determine if I had walked the wrong dirt road to get here. I tried not to think about food, but with a destination like “Pie Town” on the agenda for tomorrow afternoon, I couldn’t help myself.
In the morning I ate the store-bought packet of oatmeal cold out of the package along with the remaining dried berries and walnuts. My hike through the private property was nervous but ultimately uneventful.
Later that morning I navigated the best I could with my paper map, boldly crossing into and out of private property, skirting around a herd of bulls blocking the road, and finally making it to a major dirt road that I knew would lead me on a twelve-mile road walk to the highway, and to Pie Town.
With the goal in sight, I sat down for a break and scoured and ate anything left in my pack-the bag of home-made oatmeal, a packet of hot chocolate mix (70 calories) that I drank with a packet of freeze-dried coffee from my Gatorade bottle, a last piece of dark chocolate I found buried in the hood of my pack. I was running on fumes, but the road was clear.
I arrived after the P.O. closed on this Saturday before Easter Sunday. I would have to take a day off and wait for the P.O. to open on Monday to retrieve my resupply package. Fortunately, I had known about the trail angel Nita’s Toaster House from hikers last year who described it to me. “It’s just a house that you can walk in, make yourself at home, and nobody is there.”
And that’s what I did. I fed myself from the snacks left on the table and from the frozen pizza’s in the refrigerator left there for hikers and vagabonds. After that initial replenishment, I walked to the Pie-O-Neer Cafe and caught them just as they were closing up for the holiday. They stayed open late that day and fed me pork stew and cherry pie. I felt the life begin to come back in to me, but I knew some damage had been done. My body had begun consuming itself for fuel over the past few days and looking in the mirror, I could see the effects. I wasn’t supposed to look this skinny so soon on a hike, or ever.
I ate anything I could find while in Pie Town and at the Toaster House that Easter, took the day to rest and received my resupply package on Monday, hiking out-of-town only after eating a burger, fries and a large piece of pie and ice-cream at The Good Pie Cafe.
As I write this I am sitting in a hotel room in Grants, my second night here, 84 miles north of Pie Town. I am carefully reviewing my future resupply boxes. Never again do I want to punish my body with inadequate nutrition on this hike. Health comes first, miles a distant second. I have a long way to go still, and my body has to carry me all the way.
The next time I post I will be in Chama, at the footsteps of the Rocky Mountains!
Thanks for reading.