Soldierstone (CDT Day 48)

Soldierstone (CDT Day 48)

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The CDT cutting through a sub-alpine meadow in the foreground, the trees near the horizon where Soldierstone is hidden, and the Rocky Mountains, tall and beautiful in the background.

The tall meadow grasses brushed against my bare legs as I walked slowly, reverently, towards the granite blocks of Soldierstone. Soldierstone was described in Yogi’s Continental Divide Trail Guide as “the most unique, peaceful war memorial on the planet,” and the two veterans that were leaving the site when I arrived had both found the monument to be profoundly moving. I was thinking about those veterans when I stumbled onto the first of many Quote Stones:

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“… AND YOU WILL HEAR THE WAILING OF THE WOUNDED AND THE WHISPER OF DEATH.” Operation Brotherhood 1953. Philippine Civic Action Group-Vietnam (PHILCAGV) 1964-1970

… and as I read the inscription I did. I heard the wailing of the wounded in the howling of the wind and the whisper of death in the rustling of grasses in the meadow. It was ceaseless, it was inescapable, and it took my breath away. “Is this part of the tinnitus ringing in the ears of the combat vets I know?” I wondered.

I took a step back, letting my eyes drift away from the stone. The Rocky Mountains loomed, spectacular in the distance, and the vibrant green meadow surrounding me was peaceful and serene despite the wind. Nestled in among the meadows’ bright yellow dandelions I found another Quote Stone. This one was inscribed with a Vietnamese poem and the only English on the stone was, “FLOWERS FROM HELL.”

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This Vietnamese poem on this Quote Stone was written by Nguyen Chi Thien while interred in a N. Vietnamese reeducation camp. I would later learn the translation: “When dreams and wishes fail and don’t come true, they turn to stones and just sit there, stock-still. They weigh so heavy on my brain, my heart- I want to shrug them off but often can’t.”

Quote Stones were scattered like leaves around the central Soldierstone monument. Some were in English, many were not. I slowly walked through the quote stones as I circled closer to the monument in the center. I’d stopped at many monuments and memorials on my thru-hike, and would stop at many more, but this one was different. It wasn’t conveying names, numbers, and honors from a dispassionate distance… I wasn’t seeing this memorial, I was feeling it.

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“And how can men die better/ Than facing fearful odds/ For the ashes of their Fathers/ And the temples of their Gods?”

Soldierstone felt like it was made for soldiers, by soldiers. There was so much of it that I didn’t understand, that was going way, way over my head. I was glad that I was alone at Soldierstone… I would have felt like I was intruding if other veterans like H., who served in Vietnam, and her son, who served in Afghanistan, were still there. Hidden away from the world, Soldierstone felt like a very private place.

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Dead trees standing alongside the central Soldierstone, with a mix of forest, some live, some dead, fading into the backdrop of the mountains.

I walked through the Quote Stones as I would walk through a graveyard, slowly, reverently, and with respect. Amidst a stand of towering trees, now dead, was an ~10 foot tall stone monument topped with a 40 mm mortar, and surrounded by a three-sided stone wall (designed to represent an abandoned Southeast Asia outpost). This was the heart of Soldierstone. Whether it was the altitude (11,743 ft), the poetry, or the place, everything seemed to be taking on extra meaning, and was hitting me harder than usual. I’d been on the trail for over a month, constantly worrying about food, water, did I mention water, and shelter, but this monument was tapping into something much deeper.

I followed the stone wall to the gap/entrance at the northeast corner, entered the protection of the wall, and looked up at the central stone where 7 rectangular stones lay stacked on each other. “SOLDIERSTONE” was etched into the top stone in large, bold, black letters; “VIETNAM” was etched in the same bold black letters two stones below it, and “SACRIFICE” was etched into one of the lowest stones.

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SOLDIERSTONE
In Memory of LONG WARS LOST and the Soldiers of
VIETNAM
Nếu khóc than mà tôi có thể biến đổi được tiến trình sự việc,
Thì dóng lệ của tôi sẽ đổ xuống không ngừng cho dện ngàn thu.
Still in Death Lies Everyone and the Battle is Lost
SACRIFICE

Those three words, “SOLDIERSTONE”, “VIETNAM”, and “SACRIFICE” all hit me at once, as I walked towards the stone, and one man came to mind, my dad. In that moment Soldierstone took on a different meaning for me, it became about my dad. It was about the things he sacrificed, the things he lived through, the things he’d done, and the things he never talks about with anyone. I blinked back a tear, my dad was far away, and in this moment I really wanted to give him a hug.

As I moved closer to the North side of the monument, I read all the blocks more carefully, trying to understand the greater context. I had to read “Long Wars Lost” multiple times as it sunk in. Vietnam was a long war, with US involvement from 1957 until 1975, and according the Veterans Administration, “It was the first war in which the US failed to meet its objectives,” in other words, it was the first war we, as Americans, had lost. ~2.7 million of the ~8.7 million Americans that served during the Vietnam era (1964 – 1973) were deployed to Vietnam. More than 60,000 Americans were killed, and more than 150,000 Americans were wounded.  So many were so young, and had sacrificed so much for their country, but instead of returning to victory parades, praise, and glory, they returned to war protests, sneers, and a country inundated by images of a war that wasn’t all glamour, glitz, and glory; it was gritty, raw, and gory.

“I’m sorry,” I said, blinking back tears as I looked up at the monument. “I’m sorry we abandoned you, and left you to deal with this alone. I’m sorry that you were forgotten and that we are forgetting.” The wind dried my tears as they rolled down my cheeks. My dad was a Vietnam Combat vet, but I knew almost nothing about the Vietnam War. I hadn’t lived through Vietnam, I hadn’t learned about it in school, and it was a thing that people just didn’t talk about. “I’m failing you, all of you” I said, realizing that my ignorance was a form of forgetting, and that my generation was forgetting Vietnam. “I will stop, I will learn, and I will remember,” I vowed as I set my backpack down, put on my jacket, and prepared to start learning and remembering.

I walked slowly around the monument, reading the inscriptions that were in English, and looking at those in unfamiliar languages.

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The south side of the monument is inscribed with the word “VALOR” and three poems: 1) “like the fallen leaves of Autumn in unregimented ranks, unremembered soldiers rest… eternally…” 2) “If by weeping I could change the course of events, my tears would pour down ceaselessly for a thousand autumns.” 3) “The appointed time… to be born… to die, to love… to hate, of War… for Peace”

Soldierstone was important, and as I walked around the monument, I felt that more people needed to know about it.  Why didn’t all the hikers know about it? There was a sign in the little dirt parking area about 0.2 miles from the Soldierstone that indicated that the CDT was 0.4 miles from the lot, but the sign up at the CDT didn’t say anything about Soldierstone.

At the base of each of the 4 faces of the monument sat an olive green ammo can. After reading all of the inscriptions that were in English, I circled around the monument and looked at the contents of each can. Most of the cans had tributes left by previous visitors in them: spent shell casings, campaign service metals, coins, and patches. I was deeply moved by the monument, the quote stones, and tributes and wanted to leave some sort of symbol of my support for our veterans.

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“Aha,” I thought, “I can leave my ‘I Support Combat Vets’ patch here as a tribute. It would be perfect!” As I stood, and started to go get my patches, I thought about all the conversations I’d had with vets that had noticed that patch. For many vets I encountered, it was the first patch that they noticed, and in many cases, the most important. I don’t carry the “I Support Combat Vets” for me, I carry it for the veterans I know, and those I haven’t met yet. I sighed as I realized that I had a responsibility to use my patch wisely, and that leaving it at Soldierstone may have made me feel better, but that it was probably more important for me to continue carrying it as I was, smack dab in the middle of my patches for everyone, veterans and civilians alike, to see my support.

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A picture of the patches I have carried on all three of my thru-hikes (Appalachian Trail 2013, Pacific Crest Trail 2014, and Continental Divide Trail 2018) including a large black patch stating in bold yellow print, “I SUPPORT COMBAT VETS”, shown here on the summit of one of Colorado’s 14,000 footers.

Inside the ammo can on the South side of the monument was a log book as well as a pamphlet, which provided information about the making of the Soldierstone as well as context and translations of many of the surrounding Quote Stones. I picked up the pamphlet, sat down on the stoop of the East Side of the monument (which was in the shade and out of howling winds) and began to read…

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“SOLDIERSTONE MEMORIAL. INFORMATION BY REQUEST ONLY. FOREST SERVICE U.S. DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE,” and below an address that I have chosen not to disclose for reasons I will describe later, it continues, “NOT INTENDED FOR DISPLAY OR WIDE DISTRIBUTION.”

“Hmmm,” I thought, eyebrows raised and forehead crinkled, that’s unusual. “Not intended for display or wide distribution,” I’d never seen anything like that on a USFS pamphlet before.

Soldierstone was created by a retired U.S. army Lieutenant Colonel that served from 1962 to 1973, primarily with the soldiers and paramilitaries of Vietnam and Laos. When Soldierstone was erected in 1995 the Lt. Col. had asked for no publicity and no media stating, “Unfortunately, there is not enough distance from that tragic time for Americans to empathize with the proud pathos this small memorial represents.” He described the intent of Soldierstone in different ways in letters, as well as in drafts of a book he was writing to accompany the monument:

  • “It is to be an American Soldiers’ anonymous tribute to forgotten Soldiers.”
  • “SOLDIERSTONE is to be an American Soldiers’ Tribute to our forgotten allies.”
  • “A poignant reminder of our battlefield allies. It also asks of America a maturity to honor the defiant stands of soldiers in their seasons of death.”

As I continued to read the pamphlet I learned why there were no signs indicating the existence of Soldierstone on the CDT (also the Colorado Trail at that point). The creators of the monument had been concerned that the trail users might vandalize it. This realization deeply saddened me. The monument felt so important, so powerful, that I’d felt like every CDT hiker should take this detour out of respect not just to the forgotten soldiers and forgotten allies the monument was designed for, but to all the veterans of Long Wars Lost, and modern wars where the line between friend and foe, and winning and losing, can be complicated, and ambiguous at times…

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The beautiful mountains that provide the backdrop for Soldierstone and the sub-alpine meadow where the gray tower of Soldierstone, as well as a dried up tub for cattle water, can be spotted if you look closely.

The hidden nature of this monument was intentional. The people that created the site didn’t want it to be highly advertised, but preferred the location be spread by word-of-mouth, both to limit the risk of vandalism, and to minimize traffic through the fragile sub-alpine environment.

“Well, that explains a lot,” I sighed, my relationship with Soldierstone becoming more complicated by the minute. How was I going to write about my experience here, and convey the importance of this place while respecting the creators intent? In 1995 there still wasn’t enough distance for Americans to empathize with the proud pathos the memorial was meant to represent, was that still true in 2018?

When I walked into Soldierstone, I hadn’t known the creators intent, and hadn’t even realized that the memorial was specific to the Vietnam-era until I reached the ~10 foot tower at its center. The sentiments and quotes etched into the rocks at Soldierstone come from across the globe, across the centuries, and they feel timeless. (I have, ultimately, decided to share my story and experience of Soldierstone, while honoring the anonymity of the site location and the anonymity of its creators.)

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The inscription on this Quote Stone is in Chinese and is paired with English that states, “The Sacrifice… Stratagem Eleven”. The English translation is, “Sacrifice the Plum Tree for the Peach Tree.”

I sat there on the stoop, reading the translations of the quote stones in the pamphlet, thinking about war, the complexities of Vietnam, and my dad. Like many Vietnam Vets, my dad doesn’t talk about his experiences in Vietnam very often, only occasionally alluding to places and times, and memories he wishes he didn’t have. Memories of things he’s seen, heard, and done that remain vivid 50 years later, things that he cannot and will not forget. I wanted to call my dad, to check in and see how he was doing. I wanted him to explain this complicated place to me, to explain what it all meant. I wanted him to tell me that it was all OK, and that he was OK… I wanted it all to make sense, I wanted to share this place with him, I wanted to acknowledge the burden that I know he carries, without forcing him to relive memories he wishes he didn’t have.

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Soldiers, including my father, in Vietnam circa 1968 during Operation Big Money. Navy Photo by JOCS (Senior Chief Journalist) Ed Nelson courtesy of my dad. Dad is an army guy and says I should mention that, “The guy in the T-shirt, he’s a Navy guy.”

Instead of calling my dad, I stood up and walked among the Quote Stones, trying to reconcile my initial impressions of Soldierstone with the intent of its creators. Read together, stones 2 and 3 of Soldierstone said: In memory of Long Wars Lost and the soldiers of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Somewhere between 1.5 and 3.5 million Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian people died during the war, including both military and civilian casualties. According to the Lt. Col.’s sister, her brother created the monument because:

“He was impressed with a 10-year-old boy who had both legs blown off and crawled to the post to give a message to the Americans, which saved their lives… That experience just really impressed him so much – that so many people gave their lives, or jeopardized their lives. He just felt that they should be recognized.” https://www.military.com/memorial-day/mountaintop-mystery.html

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The inscription on this Quote Stone reads, “It is a worth thing to fight for one’s freedom; it is another sight finer to fight for another man’s.

Shortly before his death in 1995, the Lt. Col. wrote in a letter to the stonecutter that made Soldierstone possible:

“Many of them died because of my ‘push’ and drive. Yes, I believed in what we were trying to do; and fought as much for them as for us, carrying a false hope that they would ultimately benefit. But they paid the ultimate price. But I think they knew that I cared; and now, very largely because of your help, my promise to them has been kept and I can go to a ‘Soldier’s Peace’.” http://hiddencolorado.kunc.org/soldierstone/

I was unsettled, but I needed to make my own peace with this place. What happened in Vietnam isn’t a comfortable thing to think about, and neither is the way that we, as Americans, treated the Vietnam vets when they returned. Soldierstone wasn’t about being comfortable, it was about remembering, and acknowledging the complexities of war and the lives of the soldiers that fight them and the civilians caught in the middle of them.

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The final page of the USFS pamphlet states, “YOU ARE NOT FORGOTTEN”, and shows a black and white photograph with a traditional, ceremonial, salute to fallen soldiers: a pair of black combat boots in the foreground and rows of M16s planted in the ground covered with soldiers helmets (or jungle hats) fading off into the distance.

I returned to the monument at the heart of Soldierstone and read through some of the log book. My thoughts turned back to my dad and the vets that would come after me as I added my entry to the log book, heaved my pack onto my back, and walked back towards the trail.

Would this place have been able to bring some peace to my dad, like it had for some of the vets that visited, and for the Lt. Col that created it? I didn’t know. He was unlikely to get a chance to visit this remote place in the high mountains, and neither my words nor my pictures could do it justice. I wished that my dad was there so I could give him a hug and tell him that I loved him.

Halfway across the meadow I checked my mapping app to make sure that I was still on track and noticed that I had cell service. I couldn’t give my dad a hug, but I could call him and tell him that I loved him. Sheltering my phone from the wind, I dialed home. It rang a couple times before dad picked up:

“Hi Dad, I love you!”

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Spoiler Alert! :) My dad and mom met me near the end of my CDT thru-hike, and walked across the border with me. My mom snapped this photo of dad and I, hand in hand, patches flying, as we approached the Canadian border.


 

Notes:

I would later learn that there are 36 Quote Stones, each weighing 300 lbs, scattered around the central Soldierstone monument. I would also learn more about the other inscriptions on the central Soldierstone:

  • Stone 1 (top): SOLDIERSTONE
  •  Stone 2: In Memory of LONG WARS LOST and the Soldiers of
  • Stone 3: VIETNAM, LAOS and CAMBODIA
  • Stone 4: Translations of:
    • “If by weeping I could change the course of events, my tears would pour down ceaselessly for a thousand years.” In Vietnamese, Lao, English, and Cambodian
  • Stone 6: SACRIFICE, COURAGE, VALOR, HONOR
  • Stone 7: blank on all faces
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A Quote Stone inscribed with a Vietnamese proverb that translates to: “Who could say that “Heaven” is blind?” in the foreground, the South and East sides of the Soldierstone monument in the background.

References:

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Soldierstone in the background; in the foreground a Quote Stone in a combination of English and German reads, “Left behind in the Tonkin Delta. Died for France? Yes, died for France.”

Water, water, everywhere! (CDT Days 35-37)

I had water, but I walked down to the mountain spring to check it out anyway, almost as though I needed to make sure it was real. I leaned down scooped some up and splashed it on my face. It was cold and awesome.

Less than half a mile later a gushing, babbling brook cut across the trail. I looked at all the all the crystal clear pools of water tumbling down the hillside and burst into tears. It was real. There was water here. There was water everywhere here. I hadn’t realized how much the lack of water in New Mexico had been weighing on me until that moment.

After weeks baking in the desert hiking miles and miles to the nearest shade tree it feels surreal to suddenly find myself hiking through purple and green fields of wild irises, listening to the leaves of the Aspens rustling in the wind and getting startled nearly to death as herds of elk crash through the underbrush.

Clomp, clomp, clomp

The elk run down the hill

Clomp, clomp, clomp

I hear them still

There is just so much green! Who knew that New Mexico could be so lush?

P.S. there are still plenty of cattle. Also, I know that they’re is a gap of harsh desert Days missing from the blog right now, i’l try to fill in that gap, but in the meantime I’m going to start keeping these more current posts coming.

You Gotta Keep ‘Em Separated (CDT Days 10-12)

“6 miles, it’s only six miles to the next tree,” I murmured to myself trying to convince myself that it wasn’t that far. I only had to hike six miles through the unrelenting heat and blazing sun of the New Mexican desert before I’d get to a tree and some hope of shade, after the tree it would be another 14 miles to get to the next water (a cattle trough).

I popped open my chrome dome (a shiny silver desert umbrella), tied it to my pack, and adjusted it so that it would shade as much of my body as possible. I would try to create my own shade until I got to the mythical tree which I hoped was up ahead somewhere. This was definitely not the tree-covered landscape of New England where there is so much water it’s in the air. Here there wasn’t enough water to sustain even one tree, not one!

As the day wore on it got hotter and hotter and the landscape got more and more desolate. The trail was littered with the bones of creatures that had learned how unforgiving the desert could be. People started decorating the trail signs with bones and then making trail signs out of bones. Too much time in desert or maybe too much sun was giving us a wry sense of humor.

Although I’ve done desert hiking before (including ~700 miles of Mojave desert on my PCT thru-hike), the Chihuahuan desert in New Mexico was a whole new beast. The temperatures were in the low 100’s, but the real kicker was the abysmally low humidity ranging from 4% to 8%. The extremely low humidity meant I was going through a lot more water than I anticipated (1 or 2 liters more each day).

Eventually I made my way to the mythical shade tree and discovered that despite being a tree it didn’t provide much shade. Once again my chrome dome came to the rescue. I tied it to the tree to create some shade I could sit under and then checked in on my poor overworked feet.

In these extremely hot and dry conditions with 15-20 mile stretches between water lots of us were surprised to discover that our feet were developing blisters in places we’d never had blisters before: between the big toe and the next toe over and following down into the ball of the foot.

I ran into tons of hikers on the CDT that “never get blisters” yet all managed to get a variant of this blister, so I started calling it the “CDT special.” When I started developing the CDT Special I tried all the tricks I’d learned on my AT and PCT thru- hikes, but I couldn’t seem to prevent the blister on my right foot from growing, and I wasn’t able to prevent the one on my left foot from developing. I ended up taking a break for a couple of hours in the shade to pop the blister on my right foot, and let it air out before bandaging it up with lots of bacitracin and then hiking ever northward.

Later, I learned that the solution to this problem is toe socks, which keep your toes separated and keep the blisters from forming between them. I borrowed a pair from my friend Peru and didn’t have any more problems with blisters between my toes.

Labrador, pictured below, had the worst case of a CDT special I’d ever seen. To distract him from the pain of walking I made up a silly song about toes:

You gotta keep ’em separated

Yeah, yeah my toes are fine.

I used to feel 10, now I’m only feeling nine.

Yeah, yeah my toes are fine!

(During the peak heat of the day the desert is brutal, but everything is beautiful and awesome in the mornings and evenings when things are cooler.)

CDT Days 5-9: Rocking it!

“Is your pack full of rocks?” joked one of the other thru- hikers. At the time I could honestly say, “No, of course not.” However, less than 48 hours later, I was standing on the side of the CDT filling my pack with rocks.

Whenever I went for a walk or a hike as a kid I’d come home with my pockets full of interesting rocks I’d found along the way (If you ask my mom she’d probably tell you that the pockets of my jackets continued to be full of rocks well into college). After hiking thousands and thousands of miles and seeing millions and millions of rocks, I thought I’d been cured of my rock- collecting habits. I was wrong.

As I headed up into the mountains of New Mexico I started finding a weird type of volcanic rock that I’d never seen before. It reminded me of obsidian, but it was glassy white instead of black, and it had a slightly more fluid look to it. Some of it was translucent, some was blueish, and some off it had an orangey hue to it. Whatever it was it was clearly volcanic and it was something that I’d never seen before. Eventually I learned that it was a variety of chalcedony commonly referred to as agate. It was very cool, or at least looked like whitish molten rock that had been cooled quickly as it ran down the mountainsides ;)

I picked up a couple of small pieces that were particularly cool and interesting and suddenly found myself with rocks in my pockets.

As I continued my hike into Lordsburg I kept stumbling into veins of agate and found my eyes were constantly being drawn to the whitish rocks that were so different than any other volcanic rocks I’d ever seen before.

The desert temperatures were soaring with the first heat wave of the season, but I found the bubbly white veins of rock to be a pleasant distraction from the heat (especially on the up hills). The rock was definitely more bubbly as continued northwards and I wondered if that was because the rock there had cooled more quickly.

The sun was high in the midday sky when I discovered that the white rocks in trail had lost their fluid, glassy look, and were sparkling in the sun light instead.

I stooped down and picked up one of the sparkly rocks to look at it more closely. I erupted into a gigantic smile as I discovered that the rock was covered in small white crystals. My inner rockhound was unleashed as I looked up and realized that the entire hillside was sparkling with the kinds of crystals that I had dreamt of discovering (and spent countless hours searching for) as a kid.

“Oooh!” I exclaimed picking up a new rock and discovering more crystals, “Ahhh!” I exclaimed finding crystals with a more orangey tinge. Before I knew it both of my hands were full of small crystals and I was having trouble deciding which ones I should put down so I could pick up new ones.

My hands completely full, I stumbled onto a rock about the size of my fist that was covered in quartz crystals… “uh oh!” I didn’t have enough hands. My inner child froze with indecision, unwilling to put any crystals down, but equally unwilling to move on without picking up this cool new sparkling rock.

I took advantage of the sudden break in the excitement to do a little adulting. First, I put all the rocks and crystals down. I’d heard that rock collecting was allowed on public lands in New Mexico, but before filing my pack with rocks I wanted to double check. So I pulled up the New Mexico rockhounding guide on my phone as well as the basic BLM guidelines:

https://www.blm.gov/basic/rockhounding

Next I did a sanity check… how much time could I afford to spend looking for rocks? It was awfully hot and exposed on the hillside and I wouldn’t get another chance to get water until I got to Lordsburg… I was glad I’d carried extra water out from the water cache and figured that I shouldn’t spend more than an hour collecting rocks.

After a while I stopped searching for crystals and had to choose my favorites to load into my pack. It was so hard to choose, but one by one I wrapped each crystal-covered rock in my dirty laundry until I ran out of dirty laundry. When I hefted my pack onto my back it was about 10 lbs heavier.

“Leave it!” I admonished myself as I was impulsively drawn to each sparkling rock, “It is statistically unlikely that you’re going to find any crystals that are better than the ones already in your pack.” Besides it was getting hotter and hotter and I needed to focus on hiking up the hill.

About 10 minutes later, as I was struggling up the next hill I spotted a big crystal covered in dirt. “Statistically improbable,” I laughed as I bent down to brush it off and discovered a rock the size of a plate covered with large green and purple crystals each about the size of a quarter. It was the coolest rock that I’d ever seen in the wild.

All told I rolled into Lordsburg with about 15 pounds of awesome rocks in my pack and it turned out that the cool purple and green crystals were fluorite crystals (which glow purple under a black light as illustrated in the photo below).

CDT Days 2-4: There is no trail

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”

CDT Day 1: The Divide

CDT Day 1: The Divide

The continental divide trail (CDT) snakes it’s way through the United States (from Mexico to Canada) separating the East, whose waterways drain into the Atlantic Ocean, from the West, whose waterways drain into the Pacific Ocean. This dividing line runs through New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana.

Standing at the southern terminus of the CDT, looking onto the parched landscape of the Chihuahuan desert it was hard to imagine water flowing anywhere here, never mind Oceans brimming over with it. Looking North the dusty flat landscape was dotted with scrub and faded into hazy mountains. To the South was a barbed wire fence, old, rusty, and stretching from the eastern horizon to the western horizon. This unmarked, unmanned barbed wire fence was the border between the dusty desert of Mexico and the dusty desert of the USA.

There were 4 off us setting of on CDT hikes that morning. For the first 7ish miles we kept pace with each other sharing the excitement of the beginning of New Journeys together, but soon we parted ways as our bodies settled into their own unique rhythms and paces, and before long I had the desert to myself without another soul (or sole) in sight.

I was glad to be hiking through the desert in spring when the cacti were in bloom and lending some color to the otherwise bleak landscape. The towering cocotillo with their red flowers lent an other worldly atmosphere to the desert.

Despite it being spring it would be more than a hundreds miles before the trail would lead me to any natural water sources, so my first water stop would be a water cache maintained by the CDT about 14 miles from the start. We’d stopped on our way to the terminus to top off the water at one of those caches.

I swear the remaining 7 miles to the cache were all uphill in the scorching desert sun. A blistering heat that was desperately trying to share its blisters with my feet. Every couple of hours I’d stop, let my feet air out, and change the insoles of my shoes.

Pulling into the final mile before the cache I started making up lyrics to an old New Kid’s on the block song:

Oh oh oh oh oh, oh oh oh oh

Out in the desert, I’m hot stuff.

Out in the desert, having some fun

As long as the sun is shining,

I’m hot stuff.

It was only day one, but the silly little ditties had already begun :)

Cruising into the water cache I caught up with Root Beer and his friend Osito hanging out under a bush with a water jug recuperating. Although they headed out just a couple of minutes after I got there, I caught up with them as darkness descended and the desert began to cool.

I’d spent my last night on the PCT with Root Beer, so it somehow seemed fitting to stop and make camp with him on the first night of my CDT journey. I carefully avoided the cacti as I rolled out my sleeping pad and bag under the darkening desert skies and waited for the first stars to appear. My journey North to Canada had begun!!