The wrong way down

I got to the top of the downclimb where I’d last seen Motown disappear over the edge, her final remark being “when I said it’s okay, I meant it looks do-able…” quite what that meant i had no idea. It had taken me a while to get to where she’d begun descending the cliff we had found ourselves perched upon and as I neared the edge I was initially pleased to see her still on the rock but at the same time horrified at what she was attempting – a 40ft vertical downclimb with a loose and awful runout into an impossibly steep gully that ended some 1500ft below, mellower ground being off to the right and not necessarily in the fall line.

I felt massively responsible, it was my route choice that had lead us to this spot. We’d had some luck hiking the actual divide to get onto snow free high ground and, aside from a steep and exciting rock scramble onto a knife edge ridge, we were feeling pleased with ourselves for creating alternative routes through the San Juans and avoiding excessive danger on banked snow. 

That luck had evidently now run out and we’d come unstuck descending from the divide to Squaw Pass, both the map and GPS failing to note the steepness of the terrain on the western flank of this mountain. One side was totally vertical for some 1000ft, the other (that we were descending) was not many degrees off 50*. 

As I peered over the edge I smiled and asked if she was okay, she grunted something back to me about always wanting to try rock climbing and continued her descent. This is not somewhere I’d have chosen to go down but, as she was nearly at the bottom I guess I had to follow suit. 

I was wearing my Scarpa mountain boots and, not for the first time since packing them out, i was very pleased to be carrying their excessive weight and size. By the time I started descending Motown was already at the bottom and was already calling words of encouragement for foot placements, I managed the first few moves with ease but them came stuck some 10ft above the ground. I decided to jettison my pack into a bush below and, in doing so, knocked Motown’s pack from its perch and sent it cartwheeling down the mountain. It bounced and rolled, tommahawking down the mountain before it flew in several high and graceful arcs, eventually smashing into a car sized boulder, her axe making an enormous “kerFLUNK!” sound as it hit. I’m sure it only took fractions of a second but it felt like we were watching that pack fall for an age. I’m sure it felt much worse for Motown.

Free of my pack and keen to redeem myself by finding her various possessions that had flown in every direction I finished off the downclimb and focused and scrambling down to her pack some 50ft below. It was remarkably unharmed by its journey. Water bottles and clif bars located, we high fived, took photos and began the next stage of our descent. We were still seemingly right on top of our destination with no clear way down except through some impenetrable woodland and snowfields to the north.

Needless to say we eventually made it down and after spending the next hour and a half sliding and smashing our way through snow and prickly brush and even scrambling down a gorge and descending another cliff by way of a fallen tree we emerged onto the valley floor, extatic to see some actual trail and open ground. We had just taken three hours to cover only two miles. We were exhausted, bleeding, sweaty and resolutely FILTHY. 
We walked down to the river Squaw and spent a happy hour dipping ourselves into the freezing river and taking advantage of the now late afternoon sun to do a little laundry, every now and then one of us remarking on the stupidity of the descent we’d taken, the mountain looking wholly unclimable from where we’d descended. 

As we lay there in the sun, a 400lb brown bear silently walked out of the woods and began to cross the meadow some 100ft down the valley. It looked like a juvinile, maybe 3 or 4 years old, it had a deeply tan coat that was almost orange in color. As we were down wind of it it was completely unaware of our presence but it began to run as it got out into the open ground. There was a playfulness to its movements, almost like it was running for pleasure rather than fear, it bounded through the water and, after inspecting a few bushes for early season berries, it made it’s way up the slope and into the woods, easily climbing over the jumble of dead trees that seems to litter every forest here.

 I watched it into the woods until I could see it no more. I was dirty, hungry, exhausted and still a long way from the trail, having just completed what I hope to be one of the gnarlyest and toughest descents of my life. Despite all of this, in that moment I was as contented and happy as I could ever be, knowing that had I not been through all of that to be at this exact place at this exact time, I would never have been able to watch the bear.

Bizarrely, that’s a deal I would take time and time again. Hiking is hard. At times it’s f!@#*ing hard. The highs can be precipitously high and the lows cavernously low and sometimes you can experience many such moments in a day. I have laid down under the stars and experienced such joy that i almost contemplated ending my life as in that moment I was unable to perceive ever being so happy again, I have hiked across ridges laughing with tears of joy streaming down my face at the sheer overwhelming  beauty of the world. I have also sat on a rock and cried like a child after stubbing a toe, I have literally smashed trekking poles to pieces and I have screamed at the trees until my throat was raw. Although you might think that on these days it’s not worth it, trust me when i say it’s ALWAYS worth it. I suppose that’s the reason I am out here, to experience life at its most raw and unfiltered, in all it’s precipitous highs and cavernous lows. If the balance ever tips the other way you can bank that I will be on the first plane home but as long as there is air in my lungs and strength in my legs, I think will keep at this for some time to come…

A Day in the life

My alarm goes off at 5 am, A brutal and noisy intrusion into the stillness of the early morning. If the nights rest has been good, I wake easily. Other days I am fumbling for the snooze button for those precious few extra minutes, having been kept from rest by cold or pain. The few hours before dawn are often the coldest and my body seems to sleep lightly in these hours, my head tucked deep into the giant red quilt I made hastily before leaving.

I endeavor to keep a tidy tent but occasional night fumbling can send things into a world of chaos, my few possessions rummaged through at night in panicked search of a headlight to ward off some advancing animal or to inspect what sounds alot like expensive fabric being gnawed through by sharp, rodent teeth. You awake easily when you sleep outside, almost like you are still listening acutely despite your sleeping state. 

I eventually peel back the quilt and, if I’m worried about falling back asleep I’ll undo the valve on my air matress, if not I’ll enjoy those few moments of comfort as I begin to pack things away. I try not to leave the tent until my quilt is stuffed away, my pad deflated and rolled up and things generally ready to be packed into my backpack – a custom built 40L roll top made for myself in the days before leaving, one of three being tested on this trail this year. It’s doing very well. I like the patina of age and miles that show on it already – a few puncture wounds from the desert and an ingrained filth that tells of its long, hard and dusty journey through the New Mexican state.

Something happens to me when I go on a long hike: I become extremely regular. From the moment I awake I am fighting the urge to go and vacate my bowels immediately. This can be very inconvenient and sometimes adds unwanted excitement to my morning routines – Have you ever tried bending over and digging an 8inch deep hole with a tent stake in the early morning light whilst trying not to soil yourself? It’s a fun game that you nearly always win. The penalty for failure is, frankly, severe.

Enough about that. 

If I’m not too desperate I’ll have put my pot on to boil water for coffee and when I come back it will be bubbling nicely. Otherwise the pot goes on whilst I take down the tent, packing each item into its set place in my pack. I can and do do this in the dark. If it’s raining the tent comes down last, that way I can keep the bulk of my things dry as i eat breakfast, and then lastly stow the wet tent on the outside of my pack.m

Breakfast is a changeable affair but largely it’s two Peanut Butter tortilla wraps with fresh coffee, I gain a good 800 calories here with the added bonus of a largely indestructible breakfast item. Second breakfast,  to be consumed within the first hour of hiking, is a packet of Pop tarts, some 400 calories of crumbly sugar coated goo. I will only eat the chocolate schmores flavour, they seem trail hardy and robust and not too sickly. Nutritionally I’m sure they’re pretty moot, but at this point I just need sugar. I’m about to drag my tired aching joints over 20-30 miles of mountainous desert terrain. Fuel goes in, miles go out.

Once upright and packed up I ready my pack for the day ahead. Theres normally at this point at least 10 items scattered on the floor awaiting use. A toothbrush and toothpaste, sunscreen, the maps for the day, my lunch items and my snacks, a baseball cap and sunglasses. The night before I get my snacks ready – Normally two bars of some kind and a half pound sack of trail mix, a homemade mix of nuts, raisins and M&Ms that I can devour at handfuls throughout the day. My hand never goes into the big bag, I decant from big bag to small bag the evening before. This way my somewhat grubby hiker hands don’t pullute this most precious resource. I can and do eat literal sacks of this stuff.

Now I’m ready and it’s time to shoulder my pack with a heave and a groan and set off in hopefully the right direction. This sounds daft but I have gone the wrong way on more than one occasion.

My destination for the day may be some 25 miles away but right now all I am thinking about is water. If I haven’t camped right by a source  I will probably have only a litre or two to get me to the next. I’m not normally worried, I can hike 10 mi in the cool of the morning on just a litre. Once 11am hits things start hotting up and, if I’m running short there will be an urgency to my step. It’s all about water. Everything is dictated by it. I hope I’ll get there soon. 
It’s always a good idea to take a break at water, that way you can “camel up” and drink freely while you rest and filter more for the rest of the day. A good way to take advantage of water without having to physically carry it.  Some days you are carrying water for 20+ miles but normally there are options sooner. These might not be what you, at home, might consider palatable sources (a few cow troughs come to mind!) but they are my lifeline. It’s amazing what you’ll drink when you have no other choice. This isn’t a choice, it’s a necessity that you will quickly die without, so I’ll remove the floating, dead, jellified lizard and drink long and deep, thankful that whilst this water may have had a dead lizard in it (or three!) just moments ago,that it’s otherwise cold and clear and at least not got cow shit in it. Those are the options, generally speaking. Dead animals, funky algae growth, cow shit and piss or, occasionally, crystal clear well water that brings a tear to the eye with its taste and clarity.

I will normally walk for 3 hours before my first break (or to wherever water is) until I eat lunch some 5 hours after starting walking. I should, on a good day, have put down some 12-15 miles by now, leaving a casual 3-4 hours to walk in the afternoon at whatever pace I choose to get the day’s  miles in.

Lunch. I’m a big fan of lunch. My mainstay is cheese. Cheese and crackers, cheese and bread, cheese and tortillas, but always cheese. Basically the cracker is just a vessel for me to get cheese into my face without feeling guilty about eating just cheese on its own. Luckily most cheeses in America are of an industrial grade that makes them mostly inert and quite trail hardy (you must always double bag) I go for pepper jack with jalapeƱos to find something with some actual flavour. 

I will aim to drink, where possible, a litre of water at every major break in the day and at lunch I mix powdered lemonade which is, you guessed it, another load more sugar. This serves two purposes, one being that I have never got bored of the flavour and the sugar is an absolute treat and two to cover up the taste of cow shit.

I take all breaks with my shoes and socks off, an important ritual that helps with the surprise development of blister (holy hell! how did I not feel that!) amongst other things.

It’s also good to air your feet and attempt to dry/de-dust your socks. This dust gets everywhere and the stuff that’s filtered through shoe and sock is the finest. Attempts are made to tape and bandage various wounds but the heat and the pounding of walking is guaranteed to cause most remedies to fail. If you can find a rock to elevate the feet on even better. I use my backpack lying down, straps facing up, as a back rest and a section of folding foam as a butt pad. It’s almost my most treasured item and 4oz I am oh so happy to carry!

So now it’s the afternoon miles. These always take longer than the morning miles as impromtu breaks happen more often as the pressure of milage is off and I am generally more tired. I stuff ibuprofen into my face every 3-4 hours throughout the day, not for its analgesic qualities but to control the inflammation of various struggling tissue groups in my left knee, an injury I aggregated inattentively losing my footing some weeks ago.

I check my trail mix, if I’ve a load left I’ll wait until a flat easy stretch and try to Polish it off. This stuff is heavy and densely caloried, you don’t want to build up an excess nor do you want to eat it when walking  uphill whilstout of breath as you will surely die choking. 

Depending on the next few water sources I will endeavour to camp either at water or halfway between two sources. 6-10 miles away is the optimum for the morning as 3L will get me through the night and to the next source. 

Sometimes if I camp beyond water I will fill up everything to capacity, just so I can have a luxurious abundance of water, a camp wash or possible laundry (this is, again, very relative, I put water into a zip lock, insert socks or underpants (never both together you animal!) And agitate until the water looks gross whilst intermittently wringing them out) this is a good practice for socks and the weight is good training for the masisve snow gear weights i will have to carry through the San Juans in Colorado. I’m quite a big guy and the load I carry is proportionately very small compared to my size so slinging a gallon and a half into the pack and walking for another hour is nothing too strenuous, although not something I will recreationally pursue. 

I like these last miles of the day. Once I have water I can camp anywhere and I like the absorption of looking for the perfect spot: flat, sheltered from wind, away from critter tracks and hopefully beautifully located. 

Occasionally I will listen to music if I am especially tired but, for me, the alienation from my surroundings this provides is generally too much, preferring instead to let the chatter of the forest or the wind in the grass lead me through these final miles. If I am listening to music it will almost always be at the end of the day as I utilise beats and rhythm to motivate stubborn and sore limbs. It’s a remarkable remedy. 

Once I find a camp, the tent goes up first. Always. The sleeping pad is inflated (personal record is 12 breaths), the sleeping bag hung out to air, my pack emptied into a semi organised pile and then I will sit. If water needs to be got it can be hung to filter before the erection of the tent, otherwise this time is my own. I read, write my journal, analyse and pick at my feet, wash, figure out the bear danger and work out how far I should cook from my tent so as i dont make myself smell any more delicous (never as far as you’d think but always the opposing direction to the water, if nearby). Whilst cooking, I look at the following days walk, analysing water, milage and elevation, scanning the maps for route alternates and potential issues.

Dinner. Mmmmmm. I try and keep this varied week on week. Alot of hikers eat just Ramen noodles, a packet noodle that costs mere cents and can supply 140% of your rda of sodium in two packets. I eat these on occasion and they’ve got me many thousands of miles.

There are many options available: couscous, quinoa, Mac and cheese, pasta sides, rice sides etc. All can be cooked by boiling the water, adding the product, bringing back to the boil and then letting sit. I have a pot cosy made out if shiny bubble wrap for this. I have alot of time out here, but I will eat it crunchy if I’m hungry! 

Add to this either beef jerry, salami, a good glug of olive oil or grated Italian cheese and you have a 1000kcal pot. Nomnomnom. 

Washing up is done with a finger and some water, the pan scraped clean first and the liquid drunk to a) avoid making your campsite smell like dinner and b) to maximise calories. I’m a grey water drinker. Yep. That’s me. 

During dinner I drink another litre of lemonade (mmmmmm lemonade) and afterwards I graze on cookies and chewy sweet candies for desert.

Now everything not directly in use gets packed into my pack.  Food bag, stove and anything smelly or chewable gets stuffed in and packed away, propped up in the tent door. I brush my teeth and now it’s time to ease my aching body into the tent and experience the wonderful feeling of lying down, for the first time in the day my body and spine wonderfully relaxed and uncompressed. The feeling is exquisite and I can ride the high to sleep. Sometimes I’ll lie there debating picking up my kindle, knowing if I pick it up I will be asleep within minutes. I enjoy the feeling of just lying there, thinking about potentially reading. Most of the time I flick my headlight off , roll over and pass into a deep and untroubled slumber. 

I need my rest. In just eight or so hours I will get up and do it all over again. 

The pursuit of purity.

Hello all! I’m walking into Grant’s, NM and typing this to try and get my head away from the throbbing in my feet, the heat from the road and the infernal logistics of trying to be a pedestrian in a town built exclusively to service interstate 40. From where I walk into town (right by a dirty Mcdonald’s!) to the motel where I hope to sleep is 3 miles. All of this is on unshouldered highway  with 2 or 3 lanes of fast moving traffic in each direction. Those three miles in this journey of three thousand, I can almost guarantee, will be risky, scary and entirely forgettable.

There are trail purists that will aim to get complete and continuous footsteps from one border to another and good on them. I have aimed to do this on each of my previous hikes and ALWAYS I have failed somewhere near the end, be it for logistics, fire, river crossing or some other unforseen circumstance. Initially the gap bothers me but after some time I cease to care. I spent 5 months walking the PCT and because I had to miss 13 miles owing to a fire closure, does that make the other 2662 miles that I walked invalid? 

I love to look at a map, or even a GLOBE, and think of all the land I have covered on foot since my 21st birthday, some 9000 miles and counting now. It gives me more satisfaction than anything else I could have spent that time and money doing.

However, these trips come at a cost. My friendships and relationships back home, wherever that home is, are continously put on hold. As a result I can feel lonely and isolated but, being out here has taught me to deal with that too. That’s a cost I can cope with.

Last year two PCT hikers were killed in the name of purity,  mown down on a highway trying to walk around a fire closure. This seems to me to be an unjustifiable cost for the sake of maintaining a continous path. Not all roads are unwalkable, some, like the one I’m  on now, are lovely, some, however, are definitly not built for pedestrian travel and pose a risk to both pedestrian and driver.

 I would like to keep hiking until I die and, when that time comes, I am happy to die being eaten by a bear, being mauled until pulpy by a mountain lion or falling into some yawning chasm. If that happens, it will have been on my terms, at a location where I chose to spend my time because of its beauty and wonder, a place that has moulded and guided not just my life, but even the lives of those I have met over he years. I’d obviously be horrified to die under such circumstances, I, like most people, would like to live forever.  But to die in the pursuit of beauty has a rather nicer ring to it than getting blutered flat by some inattentive truck driver. 

I have hiked highways, hell, the Te Araroa in NZ was almost all road walking. I know exactly how it feels to walk on a hot, paved road, being intimidated by trucks and vehicles that don’t know how scary it is to be passed at high speed with inches to spare, walking for miles and miles with no access to fresh water through endless trash and accompanied only by the stench of rotting road kill. I must have close to 800 miles of road walking behind me and, do you know what? I don’t specifically remember any of it! So, with that in mind, if anyone wants to give a ride from the north end of grants to the motel six then please get in touch, I’ll be the tall smelly hiker in the once-blue shorts with a half eaten McDonald’s in one hand and with his thumb out. 

The journey out

My head smashed off the ceiling of the truck for the third time in as many minutes, the leaf spring suspension in the rear doing nothing to dampen the savage ruts and channels on this road to the Mexican border. To Radar, our driver, a wild eyed man with thousand yard eyes and a chest length Beard and well worn cowboy hat, this was just another day at work, shuttling prospective hikers to the border post down in the Bootheel of new Mexico. A dozen or so would need rescuing within the first few days over the season, just a little less than 10%. This area was unforgiving and seemingly affected people at random, regardless of experience or due care taken. 

After almost 90 minutes, with Radar driving, by his accounts, quite carefully, my spine felt truly compressed and my body ached head to toe. This was the last 3 hours of couped up travel in 36. I needed the hike to stretch my legs.  My parting words to Radar where short. “I don’t care how sick I am, I’m walking all the way back to Lordsburg. I’d have to be on the verge if death to get back in that truck, but thank you for the ride.”

The border post was unremarkable. A concrete monolith surrounded by desert brush, a lean to for shade and a information board about the trail. I hopped across the fence into Mexico, had a wee through the barbed wire (international pissing) took some dumb photos at the start marker, and then began. 

When is a good time to start a 3000 mile walk? Is it now? Or now? Fuck it. I’m off. 

Holy hell it was hot. Due to some logistical mishaps we’d been dropped off at noon, when the sun was at its highest and the temperature beginning to soar. The heat surrounded you, came up through the soles of your shoes and scorched your throat, my solar umbrella doing a little to shield me from above but somehow magnifying the heat radiating up from below.

Starting a journey of this length is strange in many ways, I was a 12 hour flight, 14 hour train ride and 3 hour bump fest 4×4 drive from home. What the hell was I doing? I new no one, no one knew I was coming, and for alot of personal reasons I found it hard to bring my mind into the present and forget about the last 8 months at home. It had been a shitter of a year and I was either about to have a massive breakdown in the desert, or walk all the way to Canada.  How was this going to play out? You roll the dice. No one knows if they’ll make it. Injury aside there is a huge mental game in pitching yourself against such an idiotic undertaking. You are signing yourself up to be in pain, discomfort and hardship for at least 5 months. 

As I set off with Mexico to my rear and the vast flat desert plains in front of me, the first miles ticked by and my spirit began to swell. I remember how to do this. And for the first time in months I begin to think i can walk all the way to Canada.  If I don’t, fuck it. It’s my journey and it’s worth the money to try.  The rewards for success will far outweigh the costs of a potential failure. 

So I walk. That first day I made it fourteen miles, it took me about six hours. It was tough as all hell in the heat but my body felt good.
I found a bike abandoned by a boarder hopper,  a cheap steel affair that had gone as far is it could before, I’m assuming, a puncture or mechanical failure forced the rider to abandon their steed and continue on foot. This area was rife with drug cartels and boarder jumpers,  the fence not really an obstacle but the searing desert heat the real deterrent. Many try, I’m sure many succeed. Some unlucky souls don’t. 

I slept under the stars that night, some of the best I have ever seen. The troubles of the last few months beginning to melt away, the cloud lifting from over my head. I awoke at 4 am, determined to skip the heat of the day. Those few hours around dawn the desert comes to life, it’s 20 degrees C already but it’s comfortable hiking, slowly the sun comes up and with it the birds and critters start whooping and hollering, this is their time, the rest of the day is too hot for such activity. How the desert can sustain such life I have no idea,  it’s a hard living out here and it shows in the visible ribs of the Jackrabbits. I wouldn’t see a natural spring for 200 miles, everything man made and pumped from wells. Sticky green cow water. Delicious and nutritious. 

To describe each day of this trail would take too long and might not make such interesting reading. Instead,  I’m much more interested in the overall affect that this mode of life has on me and my thoughts and that’s what I will attempt to put forward in this blog. From the rambling to the profound, with this phone handy I can blog on trail and publish in town. I do not guarantee this will happen with any regularity. Most of this will be unfiltered and full of typos. If the odd profanity slips in, then please don’t take offence. This life of a hiker is raw and unfiltered, I hiked with a 63 year old doctor who I heard swear 8 times in one loud, long expletive aimed mostly towards his umbrella, but also at the quasi ridiculous situation we found ourselves in. This was, I imagine, quite exceptional for him but, then, everything gets magnified here. The result? We all stink, we are hungrier than you can imagine, we can drink, we can party and we have the foulest mouths in America. Why? Because this is hard as hell and our whole beings are morphing into the anti-citizen. 

What am I talking about? It’s gone a bit wobbly. That will happen. I’m in a town called Pie Town, sitting mostly consumed by a sofa, with new shoes on my feet and a whole day ahead of me in which all I have to do Is walk to the post office and stuff my face with, you guessed it, PIE! 

I strained my knee not paying attention to the gravel road I was walking on, lost in my map and thoughts of the future, when my left foot slipped down a drainage channel cut into the side of the road. Great. Initially, at the start if this hike i had top of knee pain that then moved to the bottom, then the rear. I’d hiked through this and it was now feeling good. This slip caused me to do some horrid sideways hyper extension that initially was painless but built throughout the day to an occasional collapsing limp. Shit. This could be a problem. 

I hobbled and waddled the next 70 miles fuelled by an excess of ibuprofen and the thought of new shoes in Pie Town. The road walk on gravel tracks was rough, my shoes wafer thin at the pressure points and blisters multiplying by the hour. Oh, I’d also got pretty wild tendinitis in the ligament above my big toe, because I couldn’t tighten my shoe to inflame this, my heels blistered as my shoes were loose. Win some. Lose some. Hike on.

So I’m here now at mile 423, I got in yesterday after 15 miles before 11am yesterday. I awoke to a few inches of snow and hiked out wearing all my clothes, if it rained I’d be in trouble. Luckily the snow bounced off and I was kept warm by hiking hard. Must get my rain pants forwarded to me soon. This elevation is no joke. 

There are holes in this story, a few hundred miles of experience that will come across at another time. But for now life is good. The problems I left behind still exist and are very real for those still at home. My thoughts are there often. I’d be there if I could but for now, my soul needs this. 

It is a remarkable medicine. 

I lost my spork and also my knife so had to use my tent stakes as chop sticks. Chop stakes? 

Days without human contact… 4

Just one blister pic… to set the scene

This is cow water, the spring that fed it had three putrified dead lizards in it, but no cow piss or poop and wasn’t green and warm but clear and cold. I elected for the lizard water… mmmmmmm lizard water.

Gila cliff dwellings. Old, high and cool.

Hummingbird!

that tape stayed on for 140 miles, hurt like hell to pull it off!

The Gila (hee-lah) river. The trail Crossed this 200+times in 60 miles.

There was a hermit lived near here and had done for 18 years on a quest from Jesus. Nice place. 

This is a rare CDT sign, even rarer considering I wasn’t actually on the CDT at the time!

I didn’t see anyone for 5 days… went kinda crazy.

Pre dawn hiking into Silver city

Finally pulling out of the desert, good times and greener hills await!

Pretty cactus. 

Setting off from the border, not seen the guy behind me since! His name is Thomas. He must be in Colorado by now… I hope!

Desert sunrise.

Best campsite for 100 miles. So shady! Kudos for Mike Turner tents for the sweet setup. Watch this space.

I’ll maybe one day regret not taking a more serious picture.