January 21st – January 27th, 2020
Las Cruces, NM – Silver City, NM
The night had been very quiet, and I slept well. It had been warm also, or at least warm compared to my trip so far. Not once did I feel the nip of winter on my exposed hands or face. When I got up to make coffee I didn’t feel the need to rush back into bed to wait for the water to boil. I could be comfortable being up and it felt great. It’s a overcast day and the forecast is calling for rain (initially I wrote snow which is incorrect, but that is just how used to it I have become). It’s an exciting day today because I am meeting up with friends from home. More than two years ago they sold their home in Squamish, bought a van and hit the road. Since they have travelled some amazing places and certainly see more of this continent than I have. They are on instagram as @homeasweroam and our first day caravanning would be a town day because of the forecasted rain.
I head into the nearby town of Las Cruces where there is road work happening that causes me to take a longer route than planned to the aquatic centre. The crew, and most the people I see are predominantly Mexican, and I drive by billboards for banks depicting rich old white people and statements about protecting their interest. It seems outright racist, but I’m not very surprised. If I didn’t know better I would have thought I was in Mexico already. I mean for a long time is was, and then the Spanish moved in followed by the ‘Americans’ both of whom put a lot of effort into destroying the cultures that already lived in this land. Being aware of this my whiteness makes me a little uncomfortable. Anyways, I head into the aquatic centre where I can shower for $1, the cheapest non-free shower I have ever paid for. I opt for the family room where there are private locking bathrooms. The room is more spacious than my van complete with a power outlet and wifi. By now it had begun raining and I feel like I could spend all day in this bathroom, but I don’t. I shower rather quickly, and then head over the the laundry mat to meet my friends.
It’s still raining out so Logan (who I met working at the brew pub in Squamish back in 2010) is inside batch cooking. They are in a large, fully camperized Dodge van with all the amenities. Kira (who I also met at the new pub) and I chat up a tornado inside the laundry mat while our clothes wash and dry. After we head to a cafe where we spend the rest of the afternoon puttering on the internet and mostly chatting. We cover a lot of topics, but especially our mixed feelings about social media. We share a feeling of rejection on the platform, and most notably within the vanlife community. We are both average looking women in our mid-thirties frustrated that bikini clad women in perfect vans parked in perfect locations are getting all the attention. Meanwhile we are ACTUALLY on the road travelling full time with tons of incredibly experience to share, but no one wants to hear it. They want the fantasy and glamour of vanlife on their feeds instead.
Night falls and we head out of town to BLM land where we park up, and chat a few more hours. The rain had stopped and we stood outside enjoying the stars until the clouds came back and then retired to our respective vans. Logan had made himself sparce through the day by keeping busy in the van. He doesn’t really bother with social media and I’m sure he’s happier for it. Both of us probably would be also, but without it we would never have met up on the road. And besides, it’s a pretty normal thing to want to be seen and valued.
Our first full day as a caravan would be a memorable one. I woke naturally before 7am feeling alert and excited. It was cloudy, but promised to clear up so I sat gazing at the mountains while I enjoyed my coffee and completed writing up stories from the week before. Eventually everyone roused, and before long the three of us were standing around chatting with the couple in the van next to us. I forgot how enjoyable standing around in a parking lot talking about travel and vanlife with others can be. We all took turns playing fetch with Frank while Holly waited in her van. Her and Frank had met earlier in the morning and she did surprisingly well with Frank. She’s not always great with other dogs and requires constant monitoring unlike Frank who keeps himself out of trouble (hence why she was now in the van).
After a slow morning we roll out and head East. The pass smelt of sulphur before passing through a huge missile range. I pull up to a border patrol checkpoint and the man asks ‘Are you a citizen?’ to which I reply ‘Of Canada, yes.” He asks if I am with the van ahead (Kira and Logan), and then wished me a nice day and I continue on into the park. We are at white Sands National Park and it is incredible. The sky was blue accented with clouds and the sun shone brightly on the white, gypsum sand. We drive through the park and the paved road turn to ‘dirt’, but it’s sand and as white as snow. I find the berms of sand from plowing the road humorous, and we settle into a large open lot with picnic stations.
While we prepare and then eat food the dogs pass out in the sun looking as relaxed at ever. The previous days rain made the sand a little sticky, and my feet are so happy to be exposed to the sun and sand which apparently stays cool year round. It’s certainly not hot out, but to me it feels like summer. In the parking lot there is a large puddle of water and I get an idea for van photos and switch into photoshoot mode. The results of which I am very pleased with, and then we move down the road to the Alkali Flat trailhead for a hike.
The hike was a 5 mile loop taking us out into the sand dunes rolling up and down until finally we came to a large flat expanse. A sign read ‘Danger: unexploded munitions keep out’ and we most certainly listened. Shadows lengthened as we walked bringing more and more depth to the surrounding whiteness. Logan and I talked about thru-hiking which he would like to do someday while Kira and I took countless photos and videos. Frank and Holly had a great time together, and we arrive back to our vans before sunset could begin. After a quick snack we sat on top of the dunes next to the parking lot and watched the sunset. Cotton candy colours filled the sky and the dunes with their gentle glow appeared a lot warmer than the sand which was now rather cold.
As sunset was winding down we left the park and headed west to the BLM area we had camped the night before. We parked in the same lot as before and spent the evening standing around outside chatting with the couple in the van next to us. The same couple from North Carolina who we had been visiting with that morning.
Waking early I stood outside and watched as a band of pink lit up the horizon. The air was crisp, and with a potentially long day ahead our caravan rolled out at 9am. After stopping in Las Cruces to fill up we headed west along the freeway. Travel was quick and the border patrol check point waved me through without any questions. In a way this bothered me because I felt the only reason was because I was a white girl from Canada, and they are clearly looking for ‘illegal’ Mexicans. In Demming we took a break at the travel/gas stop where I had the most delicious Fanta from Mexico with spicy chilli & lime rolled tortilla chips. They were just enough spicy to get my lip sweating but not so spicy I couldn’t finish the bag. From Demming we headed north to Silver City and then the road got interesting.
Heading into the Gila National Forest the road was windy and narrow, the first 18 miles of which didn’t even have a dividing line. Delivery vehicles passed us driving like maniacs, and I was glad we weren’t the ones driving a bus. Along the way we passed the CDT (continental divide trail), and a couple campsites where flooded creeks flowed over the entrance so we continued on. The narrow, windy road climbed up and over ridges then directly down the other side with many tight hairpin curves. Travel was extremely slow and nerve wracking, making it hard to enjoy the sweeping views from the high points..
By the time we arrived at the (free) Grapevine BLM campground we were all tired of driving and the brakes on our vans cried out for a rest. Now mid afternoon it was warm and sunny so we got ourselves situated, and then sat out in the sun enjoying the warmth. The dogs had a great time playing fetch and Holly took herself for a swim in the creek next to camp which soon flowed into the Gila River. There was only one other person at the site who was at the far end and out of our sight.
As the day winded down I started a fire with the wood I had been hauling around since Moab and we all enjoyed it’s warmth as the night grew cold. With the moon nearly new the stars shined bright and clear, the night calm and dark. As usual I was the last one sitting by the fire.
Night time temperatures had dipped below freezing, so after making coffee I crawled back into bed to enjoy the warmth under the blankets. As the sun rose it hit the back of my van, and I opened the back doors to enjoy the solar rays from bed. Frank was pleased with this decision as we enjoyed a slow and lazy morning. We decided we would chill in camp all day and before I knew what was happening I was busy at work cleaning my van. First I took out all the blankets, swept out the bed area and then shook the dust out of the blankets before making the bed. Then I put away my bed extension, cleaned out my kitchen cupboard, swept out the rest of my van, and shook out my floor rugs. It felt great to get my van clean and all my chores were done before noon, even with so much lingering in bed.
By the time I was done cleaning the day had become warm and we lounged around in the sun, myself in my hammock which had not been used for awhile. It was a welcome change to be so comfortable hanging around outside. After awhile leisuring in the sun the 5 of us went for a walk. We walked to the end of the campground, the road further was flooded with a swollen fork of the Gila so we headed up a narrow canyon. Travel was slow as we worked our way along the stream crossing back and forth over the creek. We admired the odd yuca, cacti or baby tree clinging to the crumble walls of the canyon. In the shadowiest bends were deposits of ice, and soon we decided it was too much effort to continue so we headed back to camp for dinner.
It had been a wonderful restful, yet slightly productive day, and now we all sat around a camp fire while the dogs were curled up in bed. Once again the stars were amazingly bright and our only wish was that the large metal fire ring wasn’t blocking so much of the flames warmth.
We got a early start today to check out the Gila Cliff dwellings. After a quick stop on the way at Doc Campbells post to download trail information we popped into the visitor centre. There was a small museum and we learned about the water levels on the nearby trails as many of them follow forks of the Gila crossing back and forth. Then in a very excited state we finally arrive at the start of the trail to the cliff dwellings. A volunteer ranger gave us the lowdown and rules of conduct before allowing us passage past the gate. We followed the trail up the canyon and then up to the dwellings. Along the way I read aloud the information from the pamphlet I picked up at the trailhead. The trail was short and soon we were at the incredible dwelling site. It’s hard for me to describe these dwellings so instead I will insert a few photos. Apparently the site contains over 40 rooms some of which it is unknown what they were used for. There are a few pictographs and even corn cobs dating back 700 years to when the site was abandoned.
I would love to live in stone cliff dwellings even if it meant climbing back up with water each day. After dawdling through the dwellings we headed down to the vans and then moved trailheads to enjoy lunch. On the way we stopped at short trail to see more pictographs and another small cave dwellings.
After lunch we headed up the middle fork Gila river crossing the freezing cold river several times before coming to the Lightfeather hot springs. They were very hot and shallow, so we continued on over a couple more crossings. Then a huge excitement erupted and several javelinas were running away from us. It appeared to be a small family and they were incredibly cute and fluffy looking. We had been moving slowly taking off our shoes for each crossing and had reached our turn around time and started back. On our way we stopped at the springs for a foot soak which was a treat to my freezing feet. We arrived back to the vans in time for the pups to lay out in the sun and dry their coats before heading to camp at a nearby trailhead.
7am came early and it was a cold morning. Logan, Frank and I were off for a big adventure and the cold kept us moving quickly. We walked through open landscape as pastel colours painted the sky then descended into Little Bear Canyon. We followed the windy canyon walls, the creek almost negligible as we worked our way towards the middle fork of the Gila River. We joined the Gila up stream from where we had walked the day before and at the junction there was a large open area where many people could have camped. Here we had a quick snack and then changed into the shoes we brought for crossing the river to save time and protect our feet.
We crossed the Gila for our first time that morning, it was still freezing out and the river was very cold. The crossing was wide and my feet stung by the time I got to the other side. Only 14 more crossings until we reached our destination up stream I thought. The Jordan hot springs, which we were informed was actually deep enough to soak in and I was very much looking forward to the warmth already. We headed up the wide canyon crossing the river again, and again each time my feet pained from the cold. The canyon walls were tall and heavily fractured eroding to look like hoodoos. Tall trees filled the valley floor, but there were no birds yet, only one javelina sighting in the distance. On the fourth crossing of the morning I made a silly mistake hopping onto a rock under to water to save my shins from the cold. The rock toppled over and as quick as I could realize what was happening I was sitting in the freezing river. My fleece and puffy (luckily synthetic were soaked up to my waist and water had gone up my sleeve to my elbow, my pants entirely soaked. I climbed out of the river onto the frozen ground and couldn’t help but laugh off my situation. For a second I considered heading back and then continued on to the next crossing. Occasionally sun hit the trail and we revelled in the warmth but mostly we exited each crossing onto frozen ground, our feet numb trying not to slip on the ice. Certainly not the most ideal time to do this hike but with the promise of hot water we remained joyous about the experience.
As we continued the crossings became more frequent and our feet no longer had time to warm before the next. The last couple crossings came half way up my thighs and felt the coldest. Then finally we saw steaming water coming out of the forest flowing towards us. We headed up the small creek to find a pool of warm water. I soaked my freezing, tender feet for a moment. Sand kept getting into my shoes, and in their frozen state I hadn’t noticed the wear it was causing. My feet now warmed I prepared to soak my entire body, but before I could get in I started to itch. My ankles are red and white, almost purple in parts and slightly swollen. I had seen a small amount of poison ivy in the canyon, but it never overhung the trail. I worried that the spring had caused the reaction and we had come all this way for nothing. I soaked my legs again but the reaction didn’t spread. Logan decided to commit his entire body and before long I was also in the spring.
The water is clear and warm, but not hot. It’s more like a warm bath which is slightly disappointing, but after the coldness of all the crossings was a nice relief. We soaked for more than an hour hesitant to get out into the cool air. Unfortunately the time came to head back and I have no choice. For the return trip I decide to wear my proper running shoes to protect my feet from sand and wear which also allowed me to cross the river a little quicker. The 15 crossings on the return trip seem to go faster and before we knew it we were back at the camp area sitting the sun for another snack. On the return trip up Little Bear Canyon I was surprised by how much climbing we actually had to do, and then we are back out in the open. The frozen ground which had made for quick movement on the way in was now thawed and had turned into slick mud. The mud caked to our shoes making them heavy and slowing us a little.
We arrive back to my van after our 24km hike and headed towards the Gila River Hotsprings Campground to meet Kira and Holly. We all share a site and the $8 each it totally worth parking next to the river and soaking in the actually hot, hot springs. I eat a quick snack and then get into the built tub flowing with a natural source. I soak for 2 hours feeling completely warm to my core, and then climb into bed tired and satisfied from an awesome day. It had been our longest hike this trip and I was glad to feel my body was healing.
I woke up early again eager to get into the hot springs. I am the first one up and the hot water source had been left open all night making the spring incredibly hot. I don’t mind though, and sit half emerged sipping coffee and enjoying a audio book. Not long after settling into the sprng snow starts to fall. Fluffy flakes feel refreshing on my skin sitting in the hot water. The snow intensifies, and I watch it fall with the flowing river beyond. I want to stay here forever, but I can’t afford that, and temperatures are about to plummet so we want to get somewhere warmer. After awhile Kira joins me in the tub and we soak while chatting. Eventually it’s time to dry up and prepare for a driving day. We roll out at check out time and start our return trip down the narrow, windy road.
The road makes me nervous, but the return trip isn’t as bad as the way in. The descents aren’t as steep or windy on the way out and Truck finds it much easier. I stop for a quick walk on a section of the CDT (continental divide trail) and then meet Kira and Logan in Silver City. We load up on groceries and I am excited to have some produce on hand again. The town is rather colourful with aesthetic old building, murals and hippies about. We make our stay quick, unloading garbage and recycling then start toward the town of Lordsburg where we set up camp in another section the Gila National Forest. It’s a little windy, but the sun is shining bright and we are parked right next to the CDT. Perfect for a morning walk.
Distance Travelled: 588km
Thank you for reading my stories!
If you are interested in more updates I am on Facebook as ‘Tideline to Alpine Photography and Adventure’ and on Instagram @tidelinetoalpine. I also have a podcast about backpacking with dogs called ‘WALK 9 Radio’ which you can find on iTunes, Spotify and many more.