Desert Initiation: Southern New Mexico on the CDT

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I spent about fifteen hundred dollars on gear: new tent, backpack, sleeping bag, all kinds of miscellaneous things: I was ready to shake everything up in my life, cut loose the cords and just go. When I had it all ready I sketched out my plan; luckily I had a friend to stay with, to start, someone I’d not seen in eighteen years. It was full circle, in a way; I’d not been to Albuquerque, New Mexico in eighteen years and then I got on that plane, realized what I was carrying and checking in was the entirety of my life now, my home, my livelihood and hope for survival. What was I looking for? There’s been a voice inside me for so many years, probably all my life, and I tried to let it live, find its place in the world, and the place still eluded me. Maybe the wilderness held out an answer somewhere.

It’s like when people take acid for the first time, hearing that they’d never be the same after the trip; and really that’s the appeal: Change at all costs. I got on that plane and didn’t look back. The desert waited for me. I would listen to its heart, decipher what the wind spoke and hear the voice of the land. Maybe it knew things I didn’t.

So I get off in Albuquerque - there was no space to think about the fear. You just commit yourself so deeply that it’s too late to reconsider; that’s the key. I’d done that, all bridges burned behind me. Within a week or so a bus was taking me south - and we were turned off the road at one point so some officers could come aboard, in this age of paranoia, and ask us where we were born; were we citizens? I’m not so proud to admit it these days, I wanted to say, but yeah. Then I was off in Lordsburg. I’d booked a hotel in advance and now I had no time to enjoy it, getting in at 2 a.m. and planning on getting an early start on the CDT.

I’d only planned to follow the CDT through New Mexico and as it turned out the trip was a lot shorter than that on account of water shortages. But I was alone in the desert, finally, and I wrote phrases in my journal like “I don’t know what it is that drives me, why I cannot be contented”. I communed with nature and wove it into poetry: “Bird of prey smells my wildness, respectfully hovers…” There were grasshoppers of a kind I’d never seen before, big and black, some of them in mated pairs. Everything about the landscape had thorns in all conceivable sizes. You’d scan ahead to see the thinnest portion of it and that’d be your path.

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There was no “trail”, per se, and I was utterly reliant on my phone, the GPS and app, for navigation, which became a problem soon enough as I wasn’t streetwise about technology and didn’t know how to conserve battery life; it would dip down to a quarter after just a couple days. Only later would I hear tips like bring it to bed with you on those cold nights so the battery won’t run itself down trying to keep itself warm (this was October). But, combination of lost phone charge and these dry urns I ran into, fed from windmills and sometimes intended for cows to drink out of (and covered in a layer of scum and algae - my faith in my water filter was tested).

First morning, at dawn, I was awoken by the sounds of coyotes howling from all corners of the world. It sounded like the rising war cry of a tribe of Plains Indians - which, coming out of a dream as I was, I actually thought was true for a few frenzied seconds there…

Some of the cow gates were difficult - V-shaped and narrow; wide enough for your body alone, maybe, but not enough to allow a full pack through without being poked by barbs. Everything strapped to the outside of my pack - sleeping bag, bed roll and tent bag - got holes thanks to these gates. As did my puffy jacket.

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The wind started whipping shortly after that rousing coyote call. It didn’t let up for the remainder of my trek south. My Big Agnes tent got her great test that night, contesting the wind, as I made camp in an arroyo where the tough scrub and low trees cut it a little. I awoke virtually every hour all night. But as it was getting dark at 6 p.m. and not lightening until at least twelve hours later, this still added up to a good night’s sleep in the end.

The following day, rain and occasional hail abetted the driving wind. After all my concerns about finding and purifying water out here in the desert, to end up contesting with this instead..! In my frantic haste I got lost a couple times, once ending up on the wrong side of a cattle fence. The extreme weather forced me to cut my trek short a day and reach lodging.

My next stop was to be Silver City, but water scarcity forced or at least convinced me to turn around before I was halfway there…

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I at last had to give up the chase - here, anyway - and go back. ‘It’s all right’, I consoled myself. ‘Soon I’ll be in Arizona and maybe there’ll be a more clearly outlined trail there; and anyway, I’m trail-wise now’. So I packed in it with no feeling like I was abandoning the overall quest - which had always been more inner than outer, the landscapes and survival mode and all the uprooting being catalysts for an inwardly-spacious experience that I was only beginning to dip into…