Total Miles: 1914.5
I never thought much about the stars. Not until I shared a tent with my Dad in the wilderness. He would gaze idly at the night sky, pointing out constellations, shooting stars, planets, and the Milky Way. His awe of what hung above our heads was infectious.
As the years have passed, those memories have faded into the background only waiting to be pulled back into the present at the right moment. With so many nights spent under the stars, a thru-hike ought to be the perfect time to call upon such memories, and regularly at that. But the reality is that much of this experience is about expedience, so much so that it can feel as though there’s precious little time for sitting in awe of both the sky and of the earth. Making room for that kind of observation requires a conscious effort, and it’s that effort that in many ways is why we’re out here in the first place.
The morning began with our reintroduction to coffee, something that for as much as we love it when in town we’d decided to leave out of our daily trail menu to save both time and fuel. With the dawn of a new and final state, however, it was high time for a change of pace and to reacquaint ourselves with a morning pick-me-up from the comfort of our sleeping bags.
Packing up from our camp among the aspens, we soon passed a junction for one of the more popular alternates—a trail leading to Ghost Ranch, the former studio and home of artist Georgia O’Keeffe. Tucked into the badlands, the colorful banded rock formations surrounding Ghost Ranch figured prominently in much of O’Keeffe’s work and we’d looked forward to seeing it for ourselves.
Covid-19 had other plans. In light of the pandemic, the Ranch had stopped accepting resupply packages and had gone so far as to close the trail that passed through its property. It would have to wait for another visit.
Turning away from the Ghost Ranch alternate, the trail began a lengthy though gradual descent from grassy highlands and into an entirely different landscape. Gone were the aspens and their golden foliage, and in their place, stands of Ponderosa pine littered the forest floor with a bedding of their long needles. Between their paneled orangish-red trunks, the forest felt open when only hours earlier it had been thick with undergrowth.
Amid that transition, we stumbled into what has been the most elusive of sights: other people! Richard and Kelsey have been hiking large swaths of the trail since early August, with the goal of creating a docu-series about exploring the CDT, from aspects as varied as its stewardship, its natural and geologic history, and the complex web of land management issues at its core. Together with their film crew, Eric and Greg, we walked the rest of the morning single file, getting along as if this wasn’t the first time we’d met one another.
Saying our goodbyes on the heels of lunch, it was time to shove off into an increasingly hot afternoon and the heart of a 27-mile waterless stretch that had begun only 7 miles earlier. By the time we’d dipped below 7,000 feet for the first time in what felt like months, even the Ponderosa pines had disappeared in favor of drier, gnarled sage brush, the occasional cacti, and white sandy trail that ensured we would be cooked equally well from below as from above.
Taking shelter from the afternoon sun behind a stand of spindly evergreens, the next challenge would be to climb up onto a mesa overlooking the very valley in which we currently sat. The masterpiece of abstract impressionist artwork that is the salt stain on the back of my shirt would soon be complete.
With the hard work behind us, and the weight of the water we’d carried gradually declining, the trail evolved into a nearly flat stroll for miles all within a matter of feet from the rim of the mesa. Somewhere across the sprawling valley, tucked well into one of the many distance canyons was Ghost Ranch.
As the evening light faded for good, we found a spot amongst the trees to call home for the night. Washing a day’s worth of dust from my legs and feet, I turned off my headlamp to look up at the millions of tiny headlamps shining back at me from a star-filled New Mexico sky. They’ve been there each night, and it’s only now that I’ve stopped to truly take them in. Had he been here, my Dad surely would have been the one to make me pause sooner, to open my eyes to what I’d been missing.