Leaving the Sands motel from Grants we walked towards the next section of trail and stopped at a local coffee spot The CoCo Bean cafe, which, oddly was out of espresso beans. What kind of coffee shop runs out of espresso beans?
Passing a church a very kind woman on her way inside waved to me insisting that I come in. I explained that I had water and food after resupplying but she insisted I come in. So I did. We chatted for a few moments and she explained that as a “trail town” they were supposed to be friendly to hikers and offer any help. All this was very charming and I explained that while I was all set to head out of town I would tell others that the church offered help 🙂
Twisted, Shadow, Mouse and I caught up with Bear Sweatz and Tuff Broad on the road walk out of town and the six of us ambled up the highway past the Western New Mexico Correctional Facility and then off to the right was the trail head. After a few minute break we climbed up nice trail to the top of a broad mesa where a brass bell was attached to a trail marker. After a long walk across the mesa we climbed gradually and all met up again a few hours later at a cattle trough that was recently turned on and filled. We passed another water cache maintained by Carol Mumm and proceeded up the Mt Taylor summit alternate – a 3000’ climb over 3 miles to the peak. Twisted and I made it up first and were joined by Bear and Tuff about 25 minutes later. Getting late, we hiked down the north side one more mile where we had a view of the fire tower and communications equipment used by the forest service on another peak. We’d done 21 miles so we called it good and camped under some trees nearby. We’d found out later that Shadow and Mouse camped near the water cache and would climb Mt. Taylor the next morning.
The next day we hiked up near and around the fire tower and communications gear and slowly descended via a series of dirt roads and made our way to excellent water and took a short break with Bear and Tuff at American Canyon Spring. More road walking led us further down the mountain where we joined a short stretch of trail and stopped for a good hour and a half break at a giant tractor tire filled with water. Tuff and Bear joined us and as we were leaving Shadow and Mouse joined everyone at the tire. 13 more miles of hiking over mostly rough road littered with volcanic rock led us past a series of ancient volcanic cones. After more than 26 miles on the day we did a dry camp leaving us four miles from water in the morning.
In the morning we hiked the four miles to a trail junction then hiked about a half mile off trail down a canyon and old mining road to another spring. Once again Bear joined us shortly after arriving and we chatted while filling water and eating a snack. Hiking back up we passed “the kids:” Nimbles, Dirt Bag, and 50, now joined by a forth hiker named Constantine. We all fist-bumped as we passed. They dropped down the water and Twisted and I rejoined the trail which was a nice stretch through a recently manicured section of juniper and small oaks. We hiked through an eerie stretch of fire damaged forest and took a break where a solo local hiker who was out doing her geo-cache thingy and stopped to chat with us. Missing my dog Buddy, I was less interested in her chatter than I was getting some dog-love from her pooch as I let the very thirsty mutt lick my face for salt! Another section of nice trail led us to the edge of the giant mesa we’d been hiking, and a broad view opened up before us filled with more odd volcanic cone shapes but now, colored cliffs, arroyos and new landscape. I dropped the two miles to the valley floor and came to (you guessed it by now, right?), another dirt road and an intersection to a concrete cattle trough filled with good water. I filled up but still didn’t see Twisted who, not fully accustomed to high desert heat and hiking, tends to take more breaks in the heat of the day than I do. I walked back to the road and sat under a tree. After a few minutes he caught up and headed to the water. I dozed off in the 90+ degree weather, protected in just a bit of shade. Bear and Tuff Broad passed about 20 minutes later and after Twisted rejoined, he partook in the shade break as well.
We headed out on well marked trail up and down a few deep arroyos – huge “canyons” of sand, if you will, cut by dramatic water events. We saw yet another series of trail markings: wooden stakes sharpened at the top and painted white. With each passing mile of New Mexico I marvel at the diversity of the landscape and the randomness of the way the trail is marked. Or not. Dropping into a giant sandy wash, we climbed up the other side and the land changed again, this time transforming into a series of odd sandstone shapes marked by rock cairns. Getting late, we hiked along a fence line for several miles and ducked around a fence, then climbed a short, steep cliff side up to a rock shelf perched just below a higher cliff wall. This area offered up a fantastic view of where we’d just come from along with several enormous buttes of rock. We decided we had to stop here and camp for the night and we both admitted this was the first kick-ass camp spot we had. Now in territory I was more familiar with (in a broad sense), I pointed out the Sandia mountains and the glow of Albuquerque to the south east as we were treated to a beautiful sunset. Coyotes howled away in their frenzied feeding craziness as they snacked on the abundant rabbits scattered in the valley below us.
Camping on the cliff shelf was another dry night. What I mean by this is we didn’t camp directly next to a water source, so before we camp for the night we have to consider how much we’ll need to cook and drink for the night, but also how far the water source will be the next day and how much extra water to have for that morning stretch. With six miles to go in the morning to reach water, we set off early again. I tend to not need a whole lot of water in these situations when we’re within 5-10 miles of water as the temperatures are cool and we can hike 10 miles by 10 am if necessary. So with six miles to water I had a little less than one liter. Sounds scary to most, but water needs are personal and water management is a skill acquired with thousands of miles of trail hiking. I’m also well versed in high desert travel living in the Four Corners for nearly 15 years.
Twisted was hiking a bit in front of me and I stopped briefly and was caught by 50. I learned that he is also from Seattle and we had a nice chat over a few miles until we reached a surprise water cache from the Trujillo family who live in Cuba, NM. Nimbles, Constantine and Dirt Bag joined shortly thereafter and we enjoyed bottled water, sodas, snacks, apples and more. They also set up a solar shower, complete with a wooden palate to stand on to keep your feet off the sand! This was Twisted and I’s first true Trail Magic – unexpected help, food, water, etc. from complete strangers. The Trujillo’s had a trail journal that we all signed and we learned that they stop by and restock things every 4-5 days or so. We’d also learned that Micky, the owner of the Save-Way supermarket in Cuba and whom we’d meet later, donates considerably to the resources at this surprise cache.
Moving along once more we came upon the water source we’d been expecting, which was a large metal tank completely dry. I found a spigot with a hose attached and found when turned on, water came up from the well. I reattached the hose which led to a float valve in the tank when I saw one of the cows that were standing nearby wander up to the tank. I could tell she was a nursing mother by how full her udders looked. She looked at me and I could tell what she was thinking: WATER. I jiggered with everything and turned on the water, hoping I was doing the right thing by beginning to fill this dry tank. I checked my resources about this source and found that the tank was full a week before. I guessed that someone had accidentally, or without much thought, turned off the water leaving the tank water to be drank by the cows and the remainder evaporated from the heat. Slowly filling, the mother eyed the water and Twisted and I, joined now by Nimbles, backed away to give her room. She arched her neck and reached into the tank, scooping up mouthfuls of water. We walked away as other cows joined her in quenching their thirst. A quarter mile later I noticed a water main and lifted a metal cover to see a valve below. I guessed that the rancher leaves the water off in the winter, turning it on again in the spring/summer to keep the tank full for the cattle.
Another wild landscape opened up over the next several miles with shelves of sandstone, reminding me of the slickrock of Moab, Utah. Hiking along with Constantine and Nimbles we covered a lot of ground before dropped to a spring hidden in an alcove with a small Pueblo-era ruin nearby. After another break Twisted and I set off again cross a broad flat a few miles long before a hard, physical climb 500 feet up a wild cliff line of very soft rock and hardened mud formations (can you tell I gave up on my geology major while in college!).
We topped out at 7pm, took a five minute break and walked along this high mesa with another incredible view. We stopped after a few minutes and another pristine camp spot with another fantastic view. The mileage on this day put us nine miles from the town of Cuba, and we would camp talking about the eggs, bacon, french toast and coffee we would gorge immediately upon arriving in town. That we did. Shortly after 6 am we were hiking again, hit the highway after a few miles on dirt road, put music on and earbuds in and walked like hell. Reaching the Cuban Cafe, I stopped to take photos I had passed dozens of times over 20 years ago.
After filling up – and some complimentary ice cream from our waitress – we stopped at the Del Prado Motel which was another old flop, but had what we required in terms of two beds and a clean bathroom – and a good price tag! The young crew showed up an hour later, Tuff and Bear after that, and Shadow and Mouse a few hours later. We socialized, ran errands, and took some well earned rest and discussed the next stretch to Ghost Ranch, then Chama. With Colorado closer and closer, there are some nerves in the air talking about snow, the San Juan mountains, what snow gear to bring and what to expect. Many folks are looking at social media where a lot of chatter about conditions. A small handful of hikers are hitting the mountains now, and there is some feedback available – but little clarity. With everyone knowing that I’ve lived and played for years in the San Juans, I’ve been cautiously answering everyone’s questions about what to expect. I feel prepared myself, but mountains are what they are: unpredictable, always changing, filled with risk. As we all consider what’s coming soon, I remind myself of all of this and prepare to respect what lies ahead.