With our progress northwards blocked by the closure of Santa Fe National Forest, on Sunday afternoon we got a lift past the closed section of trail to Ghost Ranch. Our driver was UB, a local Navajo guy born and brought up in Cuba, New Mexico. Ghost Ranch is a Presbyterian retreat centre famous for its links with the artist Georgia O’Keeffe, but UB filled us in on its other claims to fame – dozens of movies have been filmed here, from City Slickers to No Country for Old Men to Cowboys & Aliens, all using its landscape of scrubby desert and towering red and white cliffs as a backdrop.
But unfortunately we arrived in the middle of a storm, with strong winds throwing rain in our faces as we reluctantly left the shelter of the retreat centre – so the camera remained safely tucked away in my waterproof pack liner. When we go back to complete the “missing link” of our hike, I will take photos of the beautiful scenery near the ranch!
As we plodded up a narrow twisting canyon and up onto a mesa, the sky got darker and darker, and thunder rumbled from some hills to the south. Undeterred, we continued on and got 5 miles under our belts before making camp amongst pine trees.
The next couple of days were clear and sunny, but due to the elevation – up to 11,000 feet – it was a good deal cooler than what we had got used to in the desert. The hiking was relatively easy, on forest roads and small paths through forest and meadows. Water sources improved and became more frequent: instead of stretches of 15 to 20 miles between water sources, requiring us to carry 3 to 4 litres at a time, we could now find water at intervals of no more than 10 miles, so we could carry less water and travel with lighter packs. Much easier on the feet! It was also a welcome change to be hiking through lush green meadows with wild flowers in bloom, and to see lots of elk .
Then on Wednesday morning we had a sighting of an animal we hoped we would see, but didn’t think we would see until we were much further north – a large black bear ambling across the trail about 30 metres in front of us. The thing to do with bears is to make lots of noise as you hike through bear country, as they will usually give humans a wide berth if they know you’re there. But neither of us can sing, and we don’t normally talk much while we’re hiking, so I really wasn’t sure how we were going to make lots of noise without annoying the hell out of each other!
Right on cue, enter just the person we needed – a hiker with the trail name Discovery. Loud in every possible way, he introduced himself as an all-American guy, born on the 4th of July, and as you can see from the photo he wears his identity with pride! He kept us entertained for miles with his conversation, and I’m pretty sure that any bears within a mile radius of us would have legged it out of the way long before they saw us!
Having pushed our pace for 3 days, clocking 23 or 24 miles a day, by Thursday morning we had just 16 miles to go to get to Cumbres Pass, where we hitched a lift down into Chama,12 miles away, to resupply and collect our box of snow equipment from the post office. So now we have our ice axes and our waterproof outer layers, and Neil has his crampons and I have my microspikes. Our packs feel very heavy, but we should be ready for anything the San Juan Mountains can throw at us!