Magic and Storms

Day 40: June 2, 2019

Destination: CDT Mile 763.4

Today’s Miles: 24.7

Start Location: CDT Mile 738.7

Trip Miles: 635.5

I made an effort to get going early this morning. It was cold and my tent was wet, but the hours between sunrise and 9:30/10am are precious hiking hours, I have learned. The snow is crisper to walk on, but more importantly, storms don’t tend to form during the morning hours, unless it is really going to be a bad weather day.

The day seemed a little grey - no real morning sunshine. My first task was to cross the Rio Vallecitos. There was no snow as I camped below 10,000 feet. I would cross the river in 3.5 miles and then start climbing up. Notes in Guthook mentioned a “log bridge” and that it was the only way to cross the river because it was “raging.” A log bridge sounded good to me! Of course, I hadn’t seen it yet....

I got to the river and my heart sank. I looked for other ways to cross, but it was too fast and deep. You see, I HATE crossing rivers by walking on single, slippery logs. The “bridge” was a big tree laying across the river. It had no bark and was wet from last night’s storm, so it was very slick. About three quarters of the way over, a smaller tree was draped over the top of the bridge tree, meaning I would have to step over that, or crawl. Under all of this, the river raged. There were lots of things stuck on the upstream side of the tree. It had formed a big strainer on the upstream end with its underwater branches. To fall into the water in the upstream end was to almost surely drown. We learn about these scenarios in the swift water rescue courses I have taken as part of my whitewater kayak training. Anyway, needless to say, I wasn’t excited about this “bridge.” But, it was truly the only option.

The side of the log bridge I started on.

Looking back at the log bridge from the other side.

I decided I would crawl on my hands and knees. My pack was heavy and the snowshoes on top didn’t help my balance. The water was icy snowmelt. The log was slippery. Why take a chance? So I crawled. It was ugly and I was nervous. Crossing the log that overlapped the larger tree was a little tricky, but once I dragged myself over that, I was home free! It was a really mental exercise looking at the rushing water below me, picturing myself slipping to the side and dipping in. I tried to just focus on my movements, which helped. When I stood up on the other side, my legs were shaking.

Sadly, while my crossing was successful, it was not without tragedy. I secured my belongings before crossing, but I forgot that Wilson was in my pocket. When I finished the crossing, he was no longer there! Poor Wilson! I assume that he fell into the icy water as I shimmied over the log. What started out as a joke, an attempt to pick up “trash,” and to maybe give a fellow hiker something lost, turned into a kind of mascot. I was sad that I had lost him. I hoped that I would have the opportunity to tell Wilson’s story, to find his hiking partner in Chama and explain what he’d been through. I know that sounds weird, but that’s how I felt. Maybe I’ll write his story here with pictures, if I have time.

After the log bridge, I started ascending in elevation. After a little while, the sun came out and shone brightly. It felt so good! The soggy, muddy ground slowly started to dry in places. I needed to dry my tent and sleeping bag out. I thought about stopping, but I really needed to keep making progress while the day was young. So I kept walking.

I went up over a hill and into the junction of two dirt roads. There were signs of campfires there, and when I looked up I saw a hybrid sedan heading my way. “This is weird,” I thought. A sedan on a New Mexico dirt road - this could be really bad, or really good. Turns out it was really good!

A young guy got out of the car and walked towards me with a big piece of white cardboard in his hands. As I got closer, he flipped it over. It said something like, “Trail Magic: cheeseburgers, beer, and soda, two miles ahead!” Hot diggety dog!! We chatted briefly and I hustled off the road back onto the trail and into the woods.

I hadn’t walked 50 feet when I stumbled on three elk near the trail. They trotted just far enough away and then watched me through the trees. They were enjoying a sunny glen and didn’t really want to leave, it seemed.

I pounded out that two-ish miles to Hopewell Lake, which had road access, a pavilion, a pit toilet, trash cans, and trail magic! I stopped to empty my trash at the pavilion, then bounded down the hill to the lakeside trail magic.

Houdini and I. I’m excited about that bratwurst!

Right as I got to the bottom of the hill, I slipped on some mud and skied a bit, then almost fell over. I awkwardly finished and righted myself, looking like an ice skater trying to stand after a bad encounter with Tonya Harding. I got a few cheers and walked over to the picnic table.

The trail magic engineer was a young guy with the trail name Houdini. He thru-hiked the PCT last year, and this was his first time doing trail magic. I was excited to be a part of this! With him were two friends and work colleagues from Outside Magazine in Santa Fe. They were not thru-hikers, and so being part of doing trail magic was new for them as well. The best part was, Houdini was a vegetarian, but he cooked me a big, juicy cheeseburger and a bratwurst! He had quite the spread of sides - potato salad, chips, cookies, soda, and brownies that one of the girls made. I wish I could resend the two girls’ names. I didn’t write them down at the time and I am writing this days later. They were super nice and good company. One of them had the New York Times crossword, which is something my wife and I like to do together occasionally.

I probably sat and talked with them for almost two hours. I tried to dry out my stuff, but not surprisingly, as soon as I got my tent and sleeping bag spread out to dry, the sun went away. In tent minutes it was sprinkling lightly. Of course it was! It’s what the mountains in New Mexico do apparently! A big dark cloud rolled in and it started to thunder. I finally said goodbye, remembering that I needed to cover some ground, and realizing storms were, yet again, be a factor in my afternoon.

I had so much fun talking with the trail magic trio. They were so kind, and it was fun hearing their young and fresh perspectives on things. Houdini was really hoping to surprise more hikers, but I was the only one who went through while he was there that day (I would later find out). Nevertheless, Houdini, if you ever see this, your trail magic meant a lot to me and really picked me up! Thank you again!

When I left Hopewell Lake I crossed highway 64, which is a bailout point for getting to Chama. There was no turning back now! It was Colorado or bust for me! I didn’t make it that far from the lake, though, before that earlier thunderstorm caught up to me.

The lightning got closer and it started to hail. I ended up ducking off the trail for about ten minutes, waiting to see if it would get worse. The hail stopped and only light rain continued. I walked on. I had trees on both sides of me, and the lightning was there, but the storm seemed to be moving to the other side of the mountain.

The rest of the day I spent post holing, snowshoeing a bit, walking through a lot of muddy rivulets, and dodging thunderstorms through the afternoon. Towards the end of the day I descended back below 10,000 feet into a lush green valley. I saw one lone elk, and then a group of five, grazing on the valley’s bountiful grass. Behind me, of course, was a thunderstorm rolling in. It looked more and more ominous, and when I started to hear it and felt the first drops of rain, I knew I was out of time. Slightly desperate, I rushed along the valley looking for a place to take cover and pitch camp. I finally dove between two trees beside the trail. In front of me was a drop off that lead down to a stream. This was really the first time I camped near water. I was out of time and it would have to do.

The storm rolled in as I cooked ramen in the vestibule of my tent. Everything felt damp and clammy. Just another night of thunderstorms in the New Mexico mountains. I was so grateful for the trail magic today - it really helped to lift my spirits. I wondered if Wilson has floated downstream, or gone to see the mountain stream equivalent of Davy Jones. As the rain finally cleared and I drifted off to sleep, an elk bugled and coyotes cried out their signature factory whistle, signaling to the pack that it was time to kill some donuts.

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