January 28th – February 3rd, 2020
Silver City, NM – Vail, AZ
I woke early, too early in my opinion. The night dark, and the stars brights as the wind drove straight into my back doors. The loud pounding must of woke me as it slipped in through the gaps in the door seals with a chill. I laid there unable to sleep, dreading our early morning hike. The clock read 5am, so I pulled Frank closer. As bold shades of orange and peach began to illuminate the horizon to the west I made coffee which I enjoyed from bed listening to an audiobook. I packed the night before for our hike, and was now just waiting for our planned meeting time.
7am finally came and I met Logan outside our vans. It was now daylight, the sky filled with pastels. Logan pointed out a surveillance blimp patrolling the US/Mexico border and then we started towards the trail. We headed northbound on the CDT and began climbing. Frank and Holly were as excited for our adventure as was I (now that it was happening). Ignoring the damage done by cows open grazing the forest was incredibly beautiful.
I don’t know what most plants are here, and without access to the internet I had no way of knowing. Instead I just admired the variety of vegetation. Many kinds of trees, a type of Juniper being the gnarliest. Logan says it’s a alligator Juniper, and from the bark that would make sense. Compared to home the trees are short and round, more like giant bushes. And then there are plenty of different bushes in the spaces between, and cacti. Cholo cacti rise overhead, and the prickly pear look healthy. In a few spots there are also some clusters of barrel shaped cacti, and I find excitement in spotting them. I am amazed by the variety of plants and while I long to learn about them I enjoy them all the same, even without a name.
Knowing to follow the path of Altra prints (a type of show common on long trails) the trail is easy to follow, and I am surprised we see as many blazes as we do. Most of them are shiny, and surely placed during the summer of 2018 when the CDT coalition undertook a massive effort to blaze the trail. As we climb I am breathing hard to keep up with Logans long legs, but given the elevation I am impressed with how well I am actually doing. As we gain the upper ridge tall pines appear and small patches of snow dot the forest. We pass the foundation and chimney of a ruined building and then find ourselves standing on the summit of Jacks Peak a short way off the CDT. There are around a dozen or so towers filling the small summit area and a couple men working. I assume there are for cell phones, but I don’t really know. We have a quick snack and then head down.
We make great time on the descent discussing food and hiking. We can see out over southern New Mexico. Small mountains rising up from the desert floor, and in the distance even bigger mountains blocking our view any further. I had been a beautiful morning, and a great workout. When we get back to the van Frank falls asleep in the sun, and I make myself breakfast. The summit had been almost 500m higher than our camp which was at 1950m and my lungs felt as good as they have the entire trip. Rolling out of camp we head southwest to Lordsburg where we fill up on gas and then Kira and I spend several hours sitting outside McDs trying to get as much done as possible on wifi before taking off.
We continue west on I-10 and then head south on the 80 along the New Mexico/Arizona border before eventually entering Arizona. The area was exactly what one might imagine as desert. Bright, flat, and sparsely vegetated with short plants. Not exactly inviting, but as we drive it becomes more mountainous. There are many sheriffs and border patrol around. One is dragging tires in the ditch so they can tell if ‘illegal’ immigrants walk through. I tear up and am overwhelmed with emotion. The amount of effort, and resources being spent to be so cruel to fellow humans makes me sick and I feel a pang of remorse spending any money in this country. Helping to fund this cruelty. The road takes us into the mountains and trees tower over. Water is flowing parallel to the road and my jaw drops at the beauty around us. A sign reads ‘smuggling and illegal immigration happens in this area’ (or something like that), and I think to myself that if I see anyone I will help them. I don’t feel any danger being here. Well certainly not from the surely hungry, desperate and weather worn individuals simply trying to survive in this world.
Finally we arrive in camp, a location Kira and Logan have stayed before and I immediately start collecting firewood. Logan joins in and then rearranged the rocks to ensure we enjoy the most warmth possible. We sit around the fire eating dinner and mostly talking about birds. We hear a strange repetitive call. A owl, but we can’t quite pin down exactly which one. Then Logan hears a noise in the bush and I head over with my brighter light. It is a skunk, and thankfully it is across the creek now moving away from camp. Logan spots eyes in a tree and beckons me over with my bright light hoping to see a owl. As I move towards it we realize it is a racoon. It’s big, fluffy and coloured differently than I am used to. That’s because it’s not actually a Racoon, it’s a Ringtail ‘cat’, a relative of the Racoon (Logan and I do not agree on this matter). Then it starts coming down the tree and we run away giggling, and only a little scared it was coming for us. It had been a long day, so we put out the fire and retire to our vans where we can avoid any further animal encounters in the dark.
I woke up at a decent hour, made coffee and then curled up in bed again with my computer to begin writing. Travelling with friends had distracted me from writing, and I had several days to catch up on. As the day warmed I moved from bed to a chair outside and continued writing. I enjoyed this very much; sitting outside writing for hours. The day was cool, but not cold and the sun filtered through the tree tops. Meanwhile, Frank was content to lay in a sunny pile of leaves. I enjoyed a second cup of coffee with brunch, a fried bagel topped with avocado and sautéed kale. I continued to write into the afternoon while also partaking in play with Frank and chatting with my friends. I had hoped to write from the comfort of my hammock but shortly after sitting in it I heard a rip and fell through onto the ground. It was a sad moment, but luckily my head didn’t smash onto the rock behind me and I didn’t have my computer with me when it happened.
Finally I found myself caught up, and then we all set off from camp for a walk. We crossed the creek that ran by camp and then headed upstream. The forest was open and easy to move through, occasionally following cow trails and the stream bed. The stream bed was filled with colourful rocks, most notably in all shades of purple and occasional dark greens of the most friable stones. The combination of trees and cacti continued to inspire delight. We wandered until meeting a narrow trail which we followed for awhile before looping back to camp.
It had been an enjoyable and casual day. I always prefer not driving and it felt good to finally spend the better part of the day writing. By the time we arrived back to camp the many guests of the neighbouring party were beginning to arrive. The thought of a party nearby was beginning to cause me anxiety; imagining the worst even though we had been invited. None of us were much for partying, but appreciated the invite nonetheless. We had prepared to have a large fire of our own which we set to work lighting. After awhile the birthday girl came over to give Frank treats, and let us know that most people wouldn’t be staying the night which came as a relief.
I fixed myself supper and then settled in by the fire. The night grew chilly and we enjoyed the warmth of our fire. The party next door was surprisingly chill much to our relief, and we found ourselves outside later than usual. We had found wood that burned clean and warm, and the conversation carried us into the night.
I woke up tired after a restless night of disturbing dreams, and didn’t feel much like doing anything. And so I didn’t. I stayed in bed cozy with Frank half asleep listening to another book. It wasn’t until Frank asked to get up that I bothered to do the same. From there I took the morning slow. I had intended to go walking but chose to listen to my needs for more rest. Waking in the night in a panic is not a common occurrence, but the agitated feelings always linger into the next day.
After breakfast I sat out in the sun to think about the rest of my trip. I realized I only have 8 weeks left before I want to be back in Canada, and so much I still want to see and do. Being sick for much of my trip so far made the time feel uneventful and the looming deadline was rather stressful. Looking over maps I made a tentative plan for my route back to Canada and for how long I would spend in each area. With this task done I set to work cleaning my van which entailed sweeping out as much sand as I could and remaking the bed. I also spent some time doing repairs. First I attempted to velcro the two pieces of my mattress together to keep a gap from forming in the night. Time will tell if it sticks or not. After, I re-glued my glasses which have been broken for more than a year. This ended being a horribly stressful task and I nearly broke down in to tears with frustration for not only needing glasses, but having a more costly prescription due to really bad double vision, and the fact that when my glasses break it is often a long time until I can replace them. This pair had been broken since I was on the PCT and they remained broken because I chose to repair my van, and then travel rather than buy new ones. My horrible vision continues to degrade and even with glasses I rarely see clearly which makes me appreciate photography even more. Taking photos allows me to see clearly landscapes that I never see as crisp with my own eyes.
Mid-afternoon Logan and I took off for an adventure. Their van is low and not made for rugged road, but I am always happy for a backroad drive so we head deeper into the mountains up steep windy roads. As we climbed the views reached farther and became more incredible. Perhaps it’s because I am reminded of the PCT but being in the mountains and looking down to the desert floor (as I call it) always makes my heart swell. We pass a van load of birders on the way up which is a good sign for Logan, and then shortly before parking we see a large flock of Wild Turkeys.
After parking we head up hill, but my intended route is covered in snow and the drive had taken longer than imagined so we take a shorter trail to a viewpoint. The trail went through burnt forest, the ground soft and crumbly but the views increasingly spectacular. I step carelessly and the trail falls way underfoot and my often sore hip smashed into a rock. I laugh and then pick myself up and continue. After a couple kilometres we reach a old fire lookout with near 360’ views. We can see down to places we will soon visit and the peak we will do the next day. It was incredible and at nearly 2700m I was surprised to not struggle more. A hawk puts on a great show for us and Logan spots a few more common birds, but not the one he was hoping to see. Realizing the day is getting on we loop down to the road and take it back to the van. The return trip feels quicker but with a stop to collect wood still takes an hour.
It had been cold so high up in the mountains, and spending the night by the fire once again was a great way to end the day.
It was another early day for hiking, but as we were also leaving camp today we roll out together stopping at the developed campground to use the outhouse and get water. On the way to the trail head we all do a short trail to a view point of the mountains surrounding this aesthetic valley before Logan and I take the dogs on a big hike. It’s a little chilly, but soon we are in the sun and the trail climbs steady uphill. Gentle at first and then it get a little steeper. The path is narrow and drop away quickly which makes me a little nervous at times considering how many times I have fallen over lately.
We are heading up Silver Peak in the Coronado forest; the trails climbs more than 900m to the summit at 2441m. I lead the way hiking as fast as I can maintain without needing to catch my breath and within 2 hours we are on the summit. It’s neat how at home the trees get small as you climb, but down here the base has smaller trees and then tall pines further up the mountain. The views from the summit are incredible and it feels so good to be able to push myself again. We take time to enjoy the surrounding views and cram some food into our empty bellies. Neither of us eat in the morning, but I had at least enjoyed coffee before setting out. Unfortunately we must least the summit, but before starting our descent we check out the other peak where there was once a fire lookout. It appear most people go there as the ‘summit’ but I get the impression it’s not the ‘true’ summit and the geologic markers had confirmed my suspicion.
We make quick work of the descent and by the time we get to the lower reaches the day is hot. The dogs are waddling behind us, tongues out and we have done our job tiring them our before hitting the road. We also spend some time at the visitor centre on wifi, and eating before starting our days drive. I am sad to leave this place, but the cold is coming and we have decided to keep moving.
We drive to the town of Douglas, AZ along the Mexican border where we shower at the pool and resupply. I go nuts in the produce department buying everything I want including some finds I have never tried before such as Guava and Cactus. Everything is so much cheaper than in Canada; $0.58 avocados… I grab a half dozen of varying ripeness. I get sucked into the isles and load up on so staples filling my cupboards to the max. I stand out in the store as a white girl, and notice most of the Mexican men wont make eye contact with me. I assume it must be a cultural thing. The women are all far more dressed up than I am, and in clothes far tighter than I would enjoy. It takes me an hour to shop because there are so many neat items I have never seen before, and yes I usually have this much fun grocery shopping. It is one of the only times I ever spend money and I like to make the most of the experience.
It’s dark when we leave the store and we head out of town towards White Water Draw to spend the night. I spot a border patrol vehicle towing a caged trailer. The cage is not for animals. Intense sadness overwhelms me as I imagine children filling the cage. I fight tears for the entire drive and feel completed dejected. Growing up poor and now living off a income below the poverty line I’ve never identified with the label of privileged. Being in southern New Mexico and Arizona has changed that, and never have I ever felt more the privilege of my skin colour.
I had drank several beers the night before not realizing their strength so I am a little ‘off’ feeling when I wake up. I spend the morning lazily filing away my groceries and trying to settle myself. The sun warms the day quickly and then Kira and I take the dogs for a stroll to find Logan around the playa. We are the youngest people around, but in their excitement the senior birders all seem a little younger than their years. The excitement is contagious, and we chat with some interesting people. Logan tells us about birds and I admire the beauty of many water and shore birds. Logan sets up his scope and I get to observe a large flock of cranes. They migrate here for winter from as far as Siberia and are one of my favourite families of birds. I must admit that I have always wanted to learn about birds and this time travelling with @homeasweroam has been just the push I needed to start learning, and watching more closely. On our way back to the vans we stop at the barn structure to watch the owls trying to sleep. Logan sets up his scope again and it is as if they are right in front of my face. Amazing!
After lunch we set off towards Cochise Stronghold passing yet again another border patrol check point. The road wasn’t busy and the handful of uniformed men seemed to be having a jovial time hanging out together. One of them left the group to ask a couple quick questions and then waved us through. I could see the our destination nearly an hour before we arrived. A band of solid rocks jutting out from the range of melting mountain from which they were contained.
Frank began to pant from the heat in the cab as we pulled up the highway and headed towards the mountains. We arrived early afternoon and selected a large, sunny spot sectioned away from other campers. The day was warm and we all piled into the sun to soak up some much desired warmth. We lazed around the rest of the day, but kept catching whiffs of a pungent stench. We swore it must be a skunk and tied the dogs up as a precaution. Later we would learn about a plant called Skunkbush that had been giving off the stench.
As the sun set behind the mountains the day cooled quickly, so we layered up and then started a fire. There was ample downed wood around which was very dry, and soon we had a hot, roaring blaze. I made myself a huge serving of veggies and prickly pear cacti with chilis and smoked jalapeño I had purchased in Hatch, NM. The cactus soaked up the heat of the peppers and became insanely spicy. It took me awhile to get through my meal, nose sniffling and throat burning. Then satisfied with a full belly I scooped hot coals from the fire and placed them under my chair. A wonderful warmth now came from below and in front, it had been a superb day.
Frank and I left camp today at 8am and headed down the dirt road towards the developed campsite. It was a couple kilometres, but there was very little traffic on the road so it made for quick travel. I was surprised by how many houses there were along the way, and the multiple river crossings than flowed over the road. I guess considering the water is seasonal and rather shallow it doesn’t make sense to build bridges. The campground charged $20 per night, the sites very close to each other and didn’t have potable water. This explained why it was mostly empty and so many people had pulled into the free area around us the night before. To me paying $20 to have less privacy, less sun and an outhouse didn’t make sense. I used the bathrooms at the campground and then started towards the Cochise Trail.
The Cochise trail followed a creek up stream in a lush valley full of boulders most of which were too small to bother climbing or were far beyond my abilities. It took an hour of walking from camp to finally shake off the sleepy haze I had woken into. As the trail climbed up and into a mountain fold I admired the beauty around me. Sun shining off ancient granitic rocks stained with chartreuse lichens were backdropped by green slops. Bushy tress rose over head, the ground dotted with cacti, and I was surprised by just how much water there was. I guess this explains why the natives had used it a stronghold in the final days of their freedom from captivity in the white man’s system.
I could tell Frank was a tired as I was and adjusted my hiking plan accordingly. I had intended to hike up and over the Cochise Divide down to the other side then turn around going over it again and then back to camp. Instead we hiked to the top of the divide, had a snack and then turned back to camp shaving more than 5km, a descent and climb off our day. As we descended back towards camp the day was now getting warm and Frank stopped frequently to drink from the stream we were following, each time I waited patiently for him to get his fill. Instead of following the road I tried to take a trail that was listen on my map but I needed up in a neighbourhood being blocked by fences and private property signs. It seemed like the trail no longer existed, and annoyed I ended up on the main road back to camp.
We strolled though the large free camping area on our way to our site. Along the way we met a dog I swear could have been Franks sister. She seemed about the same age, was the same size, same pattern and similar temperament only she was less interested in people. It blew my mind and that of her owner, but I didn’t bother to stop and chat with them. They were of the type of dudes I tend to avoid, drifting vagrants in tattered clothing. A colourful version of the street kids that migrate west from Quebec each summer hitching and riding trains. They may very well have been nice people, but I know there is potential for trouble in crowds like that and I prefer to keep to myself.
Back at camp I devoured a huge salad and then enjoyed lounging in the sun. It was the warmest day I had experienced so far, but as the wind picked up and the sun set it was once again cool. For dinner I enjoyed more spicy cactus this time cut with rice I had seasoned with lime and cumin. We sat around the fire for several hours before settling into out respective homes.
With a windstorm and freezing temperatures we decided to leave our spot amongst the Dragoon mountains and head towards the warmest place we could find nearby within a reasonable distance. We didn’t linger in the morning and were on the road at a decent time heading into Benson, AZ. I had grown frustrated with always needed to stop my adventures in order to find a wifi in towns, and decided that I would for the first time in a very long time get a SIM card for my phone with the accompanying luxuries of texting, calling and most importantly data. For more than 6 years I have lived in a van without any data, always finding free wifi in town, but lately I have been struggling to keep up with everything I wanted to share and decided that the money spend on a pre-paid plan would almost balance the money I wouldn’t be spending in cafes.
My time at the cellular dealer took awhile and was frustrating, but eventually I was free and could finish the rest of my town chores. I picked up more fuel for my stove, and canned food to mix into Frank kibble then headed over to the laundry mat. While doing laundry I first called my mom who was very happy to hear my voice, and then set to work in a flurry of tasks. I posted week 8 of my blog (only a little late), a instagram post and submitted a entry for a upcoming episode of Women on the Road about love. I, of course, gushed about Frank and how much vanlife had brought us together. Frank was tired from our previous days hike and didn’t mind chilling in the van with me. With laundry clean, and chores done we all headed out of town westward and found a quiet place to park up for the night.
The day was chilly and the wind had a cold bite so instead of visiting we all spent the evening curled up in our vans. With my new access to the internet I continued ticking off my long list of online chores, responding to emails, and chatting with friends. It felt good to be online in my own home, but I better watch out because my data isn’t unlimited…
Distance Travelled: 497km
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.