Picking my way through a giant lava flow. Camping at cliff’s edge on a mesa. Lots of road walking. Uber can’t beat 50c for 20 miles. A pie-eating, crazy-averting and very quirky experience in Pie Town.
I’d organized for the local transportation company to give me a ride to the edge of town at 7:30 a.m. This section has a LOT of road walking, like about 70 of the next 85 miles and I wasn’t really looking forward to it, so the ride to the edge of town would save me from 4 additional miles of road walking as my hotel was 4 miles from where the route leaves town.
After eating an underwhelming breakfast at the Comfort Inn (geez those ‘continental breakfast’ offerings at the chain hotels are bad!), I jumped on the shuttle bus for my ride. The driver explained to me that it was 50c for a ride anywhere in town, great, I paid my fare and we were on our way.
We got chatting and the driver asked me what I was doing going to the ‘edge of town’ and I told her about the CDT and where the route went south of Grants. Then the greatest thing happened, she said that technically her permit area allowed her to drive anywhere in the county, and her county’s edge was at the trailhead I was going to, but only after 20 miles of road walking. She must have felt like a drive, because she offered to drive me all the way there, for the bargain price of 50c! Ha. I did tip her, but wow, Uber (if it ever makes it to small town NM) will have a hard time breaking into this market!
The trail is a funny place, it’s very day-by-day in mind-set. The night prior I consult my maps, plan my water sources, decide on some options for mileage points to setup camp etc. So, there I was… a day ahead of schedule, standing next to my backpack in the middle of a deserted parking lot and definitely feeling a little disoriented. I got over it quickly however as my feet screamed THANK YOU up to my brain for rolling with the lucky break.
The first 8 miles today is a place I’ve really been looking forward to hiking, the Zuni-Acoma Trail in the El Malpais National Monument. Malpais is a Spanish word for ‘badlands’ and describes this area perfectly, as it’s a giant lava flow. There’s a lot you can read online about the geology of the area, but basically, this area of NM has seen some monstrous volcanic activity over the past 100,000 years and this flow is a result of a long history of volcanic eruptions. If you believe my bus driver, Mt Taylor at one time was higher than present day Mt Everest. I don’t know about that, but there’s a massive field of lava and I was going to walk 8 miles across it.
Sidenote: While i’m on Mt Taylor I have to apologize to you all for the mis-information last post! Mt Taylor definitely isn’t the highest peak in NM, not even close. I don’t know where I got that idea in my head. Perhaps I read somewhere that it was the highest peak on the CDT in NM? But it isn’t even on the official trail, it was an alternate I took that deviated from the main trail. I thought it would be cool to climb the highest NM peak, ha, glad I went to the effort! Although it was a great view and nice hike. Anyway, thank you very much to Lee Herron for the correction. I really do take pride in posting accurate accounts of my journey, so I apologise for the bad info. I’ve gone back to the post and corrected it. Thanks Lee and sorry to all!
The crossing was really neat. The ‘trail’ was a series of cairns across a gnarly landscape of twisted and contorted lava formations. I took my time picking my way though it and really enjoyed the game of hide-and-go-seek with the cairns. Definitely a fun experience and unlike anything I’ve ever hiked through before, although it was pretty slow going. Mount Taylor in the background really helped the imagination picture how this giant lava field came to be. Like most days on this trail, I had the whole giant playground to myself. Wow! I came out the other end of the flow wearing a giant smile. I love the variety on the CDT, it really is wonderful.
I’d called Carole Mumm, a local trail angel, before I left Grants and knew she and her husband Hugo maintain a water cache at this trailhead. Her instructions to me were, “look under a juniper tree in the traffic circle”. Water cache to me has always meant a bunch of gallon sized water jugs from which I can fill my water bottles, usually all tied together with a chain or octopus strap so they don’t blow away in the wind. I was so surprised by what I found here: deep under a juniper tree was a large plastic tote, which I discovered only trash in. Hmm? Then I moved it out of the way and discovered a metal container underneath it with a CDT sticker on it. I opened the lid I discovered a hidden and still chilled stash of neatly organized 500ml water bottles, like a whole trove of them. Ha! Not at all what I was expecting, but kind of fit with the hide-and-go-seek theme of the day so far. Thank you Mumm family, without this water it would have been a very heavy water carry!
I lay in the parking lot drinking water and eating a late lunch before continuing on my way. After 2 miles of highway walking I opted to take an alternate for the next 4 miles up onto a mesa that apparently had great views of the lava flow from the rim trail. Gaining the mesa was a little rough, basically a cross-country bushwack up a steep gully. The route did pass by the La Ventana arch though which was cool, the arch is one of the largest in the state.
I found a great flat spot to camp right at cliff’s edge overlooking the lava flow and ‘The Narrows’, a narrow band of terrain the highway runs through between the mesa’s edge and the lava flow. It was really fun to look out over the lava flow i’d just spent the day picking my way through. The sunset was spectacular and as light gave way to dark I could see the lights of Grants behind me in the distance. Ahhhhhhh! Loving life.
Loving life came to a screaming halt when I realized that i’d left my spoon in my hotel room in Grants. Argh, i’m such an idiot! I still had cell reception and Mum happened to video call me right as I was trying to slurp my dinner of Chicken with Dumplings from its mountain house package. She was kind enough to show me the soup she was cooking and the big spoon she was stirring it with, geez, thanks Mum. When I hung up I had a text from WiseMan and I texted him back with the news of the lost spoon. He kindly sent me back a photo of his spoon drawer, and then followed up with his fork drawer. What sympathetic people I’ve surrounded myself with in this world. Thanks guys!
I broke camp at first light and was on my way early. To Mum and WiseMan: granola and blueberries in milk is easily slurpable, so i’m sure not missing that spoon, not for one second.
The trail continued along the rim trail for the first mile before dropping back down to the highway at the end of The Narrows. Beautiful soft morning light and more great views of the lava flow definitely the highlight of the day.
The trailhead for the rim trail i’d been on had a privy and trash cans! Woohoo! I’d read on my maps last night that it is also the site for drug deals: “someone flies a plane overhead, drops a package, and someone else drives by and picks it up…” No planes or cars around so I took the opportunity to use the privy (no cat hole for this girl today, oh the luxury!) and throw out yesterday’s accumulated trash.
The next 5 miles was a highway walk. I always find the trash on the side of roads so interesting. Firstly, there’s an awful lot of it, don’t people care that littering is a crime and is a terrible thing to do to the environment? Secondly, is it really that hard to keep it in your car? Thirdly, why would you find the need to throw out coat hangers while driving, I found 3 on this stretch of road in different places? And finally, there’s a LOT of beer cans and beer case boxes, 100:1 beer cans to water bottles, i’m guessing people driving home from work and not wanting their partner or boss to find a beer can in the car? This morning there was a dead elk on the side of the road too, I could smell it a long way away as the wind was blowing towards me, when I got up next to it a big truck was barreling towards me so I had to step right next to the poor thing, I wanted to puke, I felt so ill. Have I mentioned before in my posts how much I adore road walking?
My first water source for the day was about 6 miles in, a solar powered well in the middle of a cow pasture by the side of the highway. Well water can be fantastic when it’s piped, it’s always so disappointing to get to a cattle trough to find the pipe dry and your only option a slime covered, bug infested, cow slobber-filled pool of water. Today the sun was shining and the pipe was delivering some lovely cold clear water, lucky me!
The next 10 or so miles followed dirt, then sand roads up Sand Canyon. There were hunting guys driving around in their ATVs and big trucks sporting camouflage gear and big guns. I know that may sound scary, it would have to me 5 months ago, but I’ve really learned to appreciate these guys. It’s actually really nice to know, particularly in these long waterless stretches of desert, that if something goes awry, like you get injured/lost/run out of water, that someone would eventually come along that could help. Most hunters that pass me stop to say hi, enquire as to why i’m out there wandering along all alone in the middle of nowhere, and almost always check to see if I need water or food or anything. Thank you hunters. In return I ask them what they’re hunting and I tell them where I last spotted that animal, although confession time, I never tell them about nearby elk, I really like that animal and can’t bring myself to be complicit in murdering one of those majestic creatures.
Mid-afternoon I actually got a TRAIL for 3 miles through Armijo Canyon! Woah, cool. Then it was back to a road for the long straight 30+ mile walk to Pie Town along the ‘Pie Town Road’. I walked a mile before a truck of hunters came along, sick of road walking and with pie awaiting in pie town I stuck out my thumb and was in Pie Town in time for dinner, yum!
The lady at the pie shop was so kind, she said she was driving a Great Divide (GD) cyclist that was in earlier to a nearby town to get some supplies and did I want to come along to get anything? The only things I needed were a new spoon and a new chapstick with a high SPF content and that I could probably make do with a plastic spoon from here and my low SPF chapstick/ SPF50 suncream combo. Another patron visiting from Albuquerque overheard the conversation and piped in that she had a new one she’d only used once or twice and jumped up to go get it from her car. Why are people SO NICE to us smelly dirty hikers? It’s my own stupid fault that i didn’t plan properly and bring enough chapstick for this stretch, I knew there was nothing to buy in Pie Town except Pie. The generosity just constantly amazes me. As odd as small town America has been at times, it’s really quite refreshing to be in a place where things move slowly and people make time to talk to each other, even and especially complete strangers, and genuinely care to help each other out.
Rest Day in Pie Town
Pie Town is a very quirky place. It has 4 pie shops, 4 churches of various denominations, a post office, a windmill museum, and then the private homes of its residents. No other businesses although the remnants of a few abandoned ones like a mercantile store and 2 gas stations.
But the prize of the quirky goes to the Toaster House. Yes, the Toaster House. You’re hardly going to believe this story! As you’ve read in my posts, trail angels are incredibly amazing and giving folks. Nita raised her 5 (I think) kids in their family home in Pie Town and when the kids grew up and moved on, she opened her home to CDT hikers and GD bikers, then at some point she moved to a new place a little ways out of town but left her home open to hikers and bikers! That’s right, she maintains this property for the exclusive use of us hiking and biking wanderers. She just asks that you leave a donation and/or do some chores around the house. Can you believe that!!!??? It’s truly incredible.
But back to quirky, it’s one of the oddest homes I’ve even spent time in. The fence is lined with toasters, yep, kitchen toasters. The only sound system is a tape player and there is a whole shelf of tapes available for your listening pleasure, if you can remember how to insert a cassette tape the right way into the machine. There is a shoe cemetery of sorts hanging on the deck outside. The deck is furnished with chairs taken from inside old vans and cars. The toilet doesn’t work but there is an outhouse. And there is stuff laying around, everywhere, inside and out, everywhere.
When I got there Joe, the GD biker, was there. Apparently there had been some drama earlier in the afternoon. The story I heard was that Celina, the local homeless crazy lady, had been squatting at the house and was there when Joe turned up. Local rumor is that she had been in a mental institution and since being released had driven her car into the porch of a local business, or something along those lines. Joe and I decided to both sleep in beds up in the ‘Penthouse’ incase of a midnight intrusion. We both had our pepper spray out and he even had a gun, so we slept soundly despite the fact the home has no locks on the doors.
Even though i’d only put in 2 days on the trail since Grants I took a zero here because the package i’d sent myself from Grants was locked in the post office until Monday morning at 8 a.m. My resupply box from Katie however was waiting for me at the Toaster House, thanks Katie!
I said farewell to Joe in the morning and headed up to one of the pie shops for breakfast. I walked in and a few locals were there scattered around one of only 3 tables in the establishment. I went to pull up a chair at one of the vacant tables and they all looked at me quizzically and told me to pull up a seat at their table. I guess we dine together here in Pie Town! Ha.
After my communal breakfast with the locals I headed back to the Toaster House, donated my pair of lava flow shredded shoes to the shoe wall, and did a load of laundry. I had just come in from hanging my laundry outside when a lady entered the house and introduced herself as Celina, eeek!!!! Do I be nice so she doesn’t go psycho on me, but risk her staying, or do I ask her to leave so she doesn’t stay and risk her going psycho on me? I went for a middle-ground, I told her I was aware who she was and that Nita told me that she may be by and that we had a full house of hikers tonight and that there wasn’t room for her. At first she seemed to be saying she would stay anyway, but I repeated myself in a few different ways and eventually she turned around and left. Yikes! I was kind of freaked out so I tried to call Nita, but of course there’s no cell service in Pie Town, other than at the crest of the hill in the middle of the main street. I scattered some of my stuff around on various beds to make it look like more hikers were there, left a note on the kitchen counter “Hi BC, we’re out eating PIE, back a little later!” and headed up to town to try to get in touch with Nita.
I relayed the story to Nita and she said she’d come into town to give her ‘town tour’ and discuss Celina. While i was out I ate a slice of pie from each of the 3 pie shops in town, the other one was shut is the reason I didn’t make it 4. Nita joined me and told me that Celina was harmless and she didn’t know why the town was gossiping about her in that way. Apparently she isn’t crazy, but had separated from her husband and had no where to live for a few weeks. She did drive her car into a local pie shop, but she had just gotten her license and it was an accident. She’s also welcome to stay at the house apparently. I told Nita I would feel awkward if she turned up while I was still there, Nita agreed and said she’s go look for her the next day.
Nita’s town tour was awesome! Although there’s not much to the town in distance, there’s a lot in history and Nita knows it all. The highlight of the tour was a trip a couple of miles out of town to an enormous dish that’s part of the Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA) network. According to the information on the security fence it’s one of 10 antennas spread across the US to allow astronomers to study celestial objects. We got there with impeccable timing because soon after we arrived the dish moved from pointing at something directly above it to something at 45 degree angle. I felt like Jodie Foster in the movie Contact! Thanks for the tour Nita, and for everything you do for the hiker/biker community!
I was extremely relieved to see movement when I got back to the Toaster House. Joe had returned with a bike issue and Tugboat had hiked into town too! I’d seen Tugboat last at Ghost Ranch, so it was great to see him again.Yay! Joe set up fort with me upstairs in the Penthouse again, so I knew i’d sleep well should the not-crazy lady arrive and turn out to be a crazy lady after all. We had a nice evening comparing maps and talking trail routes vs road routes. I’ve seen no GD bikers on the CDT trail, and it’s because their route sticks to small roads, while the hiker route mostly sticks to trails, many of which are closed to bikes.
I love the long-distance hiker/biker community. There’s an instant camaraderie amongst us, there’s no weird small talk or uncertainties, no conversational topics off limits, no airs and graces. In fact, it’s like you’ve known each other for years, you discuss things you’d only normally talk about with your nearest and dearest friends. Within knowing some of my trail family less than a day I’ve shared a tent with them, discussed the details of bowel movements and had very deep and honest meaning-of-life discussions. It’s really a different kind of relationship to anything I’ve experienced, the closest is probably in basecamp on mountaineering trips, but even then there’s a still a bit of a relationship break-in period and there’s certainly more showmanship of achievements and abilities.
While I was in town I also had the privilege to vote in my first US federal election via a mail-in ballot. What an odd election it has been to debut participating in the US political landscape. There’s enough political opinion flooding the news and social media right now, so that’s all i’m going to say about that.
Thanks for reading.