After finishing at the Canadian border last Monday, we had one final piece of unfinished business. Back in May when we were hiking through New Mexico, we arrived in the small town of Cuba to find that the next section of trail through the Santa Fe National Forest was closed because of fire risk. The CDT Coalition were strongly advising hikers not to walk around the closed section on the road, and laid on a shuttle to take hikers to Ghost Ranch, north of the closed section.
Ever since we started planning this hike, our goal was to do “continuous footprints” all the way from the Mexican border to the Canadian border. So we took the shuttle, but promised ourselves we would return to New Mexico at the end of our hike to fill in the missing link.
So after saying a sad goodbye to Mithrandir and his daughter Arwen in East Glacier on Wednesday night, we embarked on the long long journey back down to New Mexico. A train to Whitefish and a comfortable night in a hotel was followed by a gruelling 44 hours hopping between Greyhound buses.
The first leg to Missoula was pleasant enough, with views of the Divide away to the east. A short layover in Missoula was spent enjoying craft ciders in a cider bar – not a patch on our own west country cider, but still pretty good! Then it was back on the bus to try and get some sleep, before changing bus in the small hours in Billings, Montana. More cramped dozing, then as darkness faded the alarm on my phone went off to warn of our imminent arrival in Buffalo, Wyoming – and I awoke to find the world outside the bus window had turned white. Low rolling hills were covered with fresh snow, making us very glad we weren’t up on the Divide!
About nine hours later we arrived in Denver, and after crawling through heavy traffic we were told that our next bus was running late. As we were due to arrive in Santa Fe, New Mexico at 2.30am we didn’t mind too much! So we ventured out to a bar, through huge crowds of excited people – the Denver Rockies baseball team were playing at home that evening, and the city’s Oktoberfest was in full swing.
We finally left Denver at midnight, and after another uncomfortable night’s dozing we were dropped off at a gas station outside Santa Fe on Saturday morning. A hitch into town, a good breakfast with plenty of coffee (we were flagging a bit by now!), and then we realised that because it was the weekend, the local buses we were planning on taking back to the trail at Ghost Ranch wouldn’t be running. Rather than waste a day, we decided to hitch. And this is when we were reminded what a good place New Mexico can be – easy hitching and friendly locals made us feel glad to be back.
So after a decent night’s sleep in Espanola, we finally reached our destination, Ghost Ranch, at midday Sunday. When we hiked north from here in May, it was a wet and blustery day, but as we set off south on Sunday it was hot and windy. After the bad weather we had at the end of our hike in Montana, it felt great to be hiking in the sun again!
But as we made our way through desert washes and scrubby bushes, our rucksacks felt really heavy. We only had two days of food, but as we were carrying all our warm clothing and waterproofs from Montana, our base weights were far heavier than they needed to be. And when we ended up on a long dusty gravel road, we remembered just how painful New Mexico roadwalks could be!
So it was a relief when after 15 miles, we entered a pine forest and stopped to cook dinner near to a tiny creek. As it was a warm night, we decided to cowboy camp rather than put our tent up, and fell asleep to the sound of insects chirping.
We knew the next day would be a tough one, with 25 miles of hiking and 7500 feet of ascent to get us up and over a big mountain. So we were on our way by 7am, heading up through pine forest interspersed with golden aspens. It was a hard day’s walk, and we were glad it was cloudy and cool rather than hot sunshine!
By the time we got to the top of the mountain, it was 5.30pm and the sky was an ominous dark grey. As we followed the trail across open meadows, we heard the unmistakable sounds of elks bugling – a high-pitched whistling call uttered by bull elks during the rut.
We pitched our tent amongst trees at the edge of a meadow just as it was getting dark. As we sat on a fallen tree eating our noodles in the dark, it was eerie to listen to the bugling all around us – some elks had a very musical call which was lovely to listen to, while another began with a few musical notes but ended with a sound like a donkey braying. They all seemed to be making the most of the echoes!
It rained hard that night, and it was still cold and damp when we set off in the morning on our last 13 miles into Cuba.
The sense of anti-climax was acute, with no more hills to climb, and with most of the trail on forestry road then on tarmac. At last we popped out onto the main road near where we had caught the shuttle to Ghost Ranch all those months ago, and our line of footprints from Mexico to Canada was complete.
And then there was nothing left to do but go and get some coffee, and begin the painful process of making the transition back to “normal” life.