It’s 111 miles to Pie Town from Doc Campbell’s Outpost, the general store in the middle of nowhere New Mexico where we’ve whittled away most of the morning charging our electronics, eating ice cream, washing our socks from the spigot, utilizing the free wifi, and lounging in various states of repose on the porch, on picnic tables, on a rectangle of warm yellow grass. I’ve been hiking with Boat and Cloudbuster on and off since Lordsburg and none of us are in a rush to put our heavy packs back on and return to the trail. We’re each loaded up with six days worth of food because not all miles are created equal and the miles ahead, lore has it, are of the slow-going kind.
As it does, morning becomes early afternoon. I’ve taken up residence on a sliver of lawn next to the porch. Beside me, a colony of ants are busy at work, crawling in frenzied circles atop an apple core. A rebellious few peel off from the swarm, scramble up and over my thigh. I brush them off, roll onto my stomach. Jason texts me a picture of a planet in transit across the sun. “Zoom in,” he writes. “That tiny black dot is Mercury.”
“Another hour?” Boat says from the picnic table, pecking away at his phone.
“Sounds good,” I say, and go back to mine.
It’s three o’clock by the time we finally shoulder our monstrous packs and set off on the two-lane highway that is, in true CDT fashion, also the trail. The sun blazes high and fierce and the blacktop broils under my feet. This is the longest stretch between resupply stops so far, and after only one mile, my body aches beneath the weight of six days worth of food and a liter of water on my back. I tighten my hip belt but then it’s hard to breathe. I loosen it and the load slams down on my shoulders. A black SUV barrels towards me on the road and I step into the tall grass on the shoulder to let it pass.
“Car front!” I crane my neck and yell to Boat and Cloudbuster behind me, their bodies slumped forward, feet dragging along the pavement. Leaving town is rarely an easy feat.
After a few more miles, we come to a small parking lot where the trail breaks off from the road and rambles upwards through rolling hills splayed out along the horizon. Smoke from a distant forest fire rests atop the ridgelines. Juniper shadows unfurl in the late afternoon light. We’re climbing for the first time in a while. My legs feel strong, new muscles turning on, others welcoming the respite.
We reach a saddle and then it’s down, down, down into a verdant slot canyon where we slosh through streams and everything smells damp and alive. I scramble up and over boulders which soon become small rocks, the small rocks turn to sand, then the canyon walls part and I’m standing in a clearing of soft light and leaves and it is nothing short of magical.
“You guys!” I turn around and say. Boat and Cloudbuster stand beside me and we stare up at a wall of red-orange spires rising massive and triumphant, unabashedly phallic. Below, silty water roars through the middle fork of the Gila River and it is settled–tonight we camp here.
We wake before dawn, watch the sky change colors above the canyon walls while we pack up our things, eat breakfast, filter water for coffee. And if the coffee hasn’t kicked in yet then this first crossing of the Gila should do the trick. I step into the river, plunge my trekking poles into the bottom.
“Holy crap!” I gasp and laugh. It is so, so cold.
We wade through the frigid knee-high water and continue on across a jumbled expanse of slate-colored pebbles, scanning the landscape for a cairn to mark the trail. Cloudbuster spots the heap of stones and Boat and I follow him up and over the river’s berm, then we bushwhack through thick thorny brush, cursing as it slices our arms and legs, battle-wounds criss-crossed into our skin.
We repeat this process until nightfall. Slosh through the river, stumble through sand/rocks/shoulder-high reeds, get lost, find the trail, over and over, ad infinitum. And again the next day, until the rain begins, then thunder, lightning, howling wind, quarter-sized balls of hail. We decide to call it early–it’s four in the afternoon–and set off into the trees to find spots for the night.
Boat and Cloudbuster get their tents up while I scour the ground for real estate. At this point, any semblance of flatness will do. The temperature is dropping, my agitation is growing, and finally I find a lumpy patch of grass shrouded beneath the cover of deadfall. I heave the broken logs aside, then go about the Herculean task of attempting to set up a double-walled shelter in the driving rain without getting the inside wet. It’s not going too well–my hands are numb, I’m shivering like crazy, and my goddamnmotherfucking stakes won’t go into the ground.
“Aargh!” I pick up a rock and chuck it at a tree. Miss by a long shot.
“Aaaaaaaargh!” Then another. Miss again.
“Tick Tock?” Boat pokes his head out of his tent. “Need some help?”
“Oh, uh, sorry, no thanks. I’m alright. Ugh, sorry,” I say, and return to the task at hand.
It’s still raining when I wake up in my damp sleeping bag at dawn. Still raining when I shove all of my wet belongings into my wet pack. I hike alone for most of the day–cold, damp, hungry. I ate too much food in my tent last afternoon/evening/night and now I have to ration what’s left to make it to the next town. I’ve been keeping count of the number of times we’ve crossed the Gila just for fun, but now the tallies are a distraction from the misery. I repeat the number in my head until the next crossing: 89, 89, 89…132, 132, 132…200, 200, 200. (Grand total=241 crossings!!)
The sun comes out in the middle of the day and we stop to eat lunch in a grassy clearing, spread our tents and sleeping bags out around us like a yard sale to dry. When the sky darkens again we pack up quickly, start hiking again as the rain comes down in sheets. Soon the trail veers off from the river and begins to climb out of the canyon. It’s a gradual ascent but with every switchback my body produces a little more warmth, and for this I am grateful. Then finally–finally!!–we crest the final switchback and we’re out of the Gila for good. We each let out a little whoop. The sky responds with a clap of thunder. We continue on in the unrelenting rain.
I fall behind Boat and Cloudbuster. Watch as their Gore-Tex clad silhouettes shrink in the distance, and then they disappear completely and I am the last human left on earth. The temperature’s dropping fast and I’m shivering uncontrollably now. My tent and sleeping bag are only half-dry. Me, not at all. I need to get out of the rain, warm up, dry out. I begin to panic and tears well up in my throat but I push them back down. Not now, not now, not now. And then, like some desert mirage, a structure appears on the horizon. I walk faster, faster, until I’m almost jogging and it’s clear that the desert mirage is no mirage at all, but a glorious enclosed four-walled outhouse on the edge of an empty trailhead parking lot.
I get to the privy and find Boat and Cloudbuster inside, the door propped open for air. They’ve set their stoves up beside them, boiling water for their meals. They’ll sleep in this one, and I can have the adjoining one to myself if I want. And will I join them for dinner? Of course, I smile. Let me change out of these wet clothes first, I say through chattering teeth.
I step back into the rain, walk into the bathroom next door. Shut the heavy door behind me and flip the lock. I set my pack on the ground and peel off my soaking layers, put on my dry wool leggings, long sleeve shirt, down jacket, beanie, socks. I close the toilet seat lid and sit on top of it, still shivering, but slightly less so. The tears well up in my throat again and this time I let them come, spilling warm and wet down my cheeks. I am dry. I am safe. I am the last human left on earth. I am a tiny black dot. I am Mercury in transit across the sun.