I stood stood on the CDT, beside a cairn, scanning the horizon and looking for the next cairn, or any sign of where the CDT might be headed. I’d already looked at my apps and maps and knew the general direction that the CDT should be taking, but I also knew that somewhere hiding out there in the desert scrub was a cairn that would help keep me to the trail much more precisely than my general estimations.
The trail for the first 14 or so miles had been pretty clear and obvious to follow (although truth be told within the first 5 miles I found myself going along a slightly different trail than the other folks on the same shuttle as me), but somewhere between the first water cache and the second water cache the trail petered out and disappeared.
Now it seemed like a trail would briefly coalesce around each cairn, then as soon as the trail dipped down into gully it would fragment and splinter into 3 or 4 trails as people took different lines up and out of the gully. The trail would disappear entirely once we emerged from the gully and entered the open desert on the other side.
“Aha!” I exclaimed as I spotted the wooden post standing about 5 feet tall in the middle of the cairn way, way off in the distance. None of the natural desert vegetation or elements in the area created straight edges like fence posts or cairns. Since there were no other human made objects in sight, I was pretty sure that what I was looking at had to be the post marking the CDT.
Now that I verified my heading I set off. Although the trail seemed well defined as the trail headed into the first ditch, I resighted the distant cairn that I was headed for, picked my line and memorized the intermediate landmarks that I would look for and orient by as I came out of the ditch.
Sure enough when I got to the bottom of the ditch (a long dry stream bed) the trail disappeared into a jumble of sandy gullies. I chose what looked like the best scrabble out the other side, oriented to what I thought was my line and then checked to see where my landmarks were.
“Woot!” I came out of the streambed almost perfectly aligned with the cacti I’d chosen as my landmarks.
Although the first couple of times the trail disappeared it had been unnerving and disorienting, it didn’t take long for me to adapt my experience going cairn go cairn above treeline in the rocky, dark, wet, foggy, snowy/rainy mountains in New England to going cairn to cairn in the sandy, bright, hot, and arid desert of New Mexico.
One of the differences between the cairns I was used to and those on the southern stretch of the CDT was that the cairn posts in NM were often topped with a white or light-colored rock… As these cairns became spaced further and further apart, the white rocks on top of the posts suddenly started to make lot more sense… it was much easier to see the white spot out of plane with the desert than it was to see the dark straight pole in the dark background.
I found that I enjoyed the challenge and freedom of plotting my own course through the desert and having the opportunity to optimize my route for me. Besides, having to figure out the best path distracted me from how hot, dry, dusty, and foreign the New Mexico desert was to me.
Now, pretty much every time the trail of the CDT disappears and I find myself plotting my own cross- country course I think of a scene from the Matrix movie where Neo asks the child prodigy how he bends the spoon with his mind and I replace the word spoon with trail:
“Do not try to find the trail. That is impossible. Instead only try to realize the truth… There is no trail”