Honey Badger was the first to arrive at the foothills of the Gila National Forest. Driving his new Mazda hatchback on dirt roads near Bear Mountain, he searched for the symbol which identified the Continental Divide Trail. It wasn’t until he doubled back did he see the sign hidden in the trees. La Plata reached Silver City after sunset and also passed by the trail head, eventually finding Honey Badger’s camp at 9:30 PM. What the two men didn’t realize was they had just entered a CDT black hole.
The next day began with camp coffee then into town for breakfast. They immediately spotted a busy donut shop where they munched on burritos and an enormous bear claw. The day’s plan was simply to find the Little Walnut Rd trail head and hike six miles to the other car. The morning was mild and sunny, the trail meandered among tall Ponderosa pine interspersed with cacti undergrowth. Trail symbols were faithfully followed at all junctions and turns but several hours passed with no end in sight. La Plata became concerned about his dwindling water supply. Honey Badger repeatedly unfolded and folded a map the size of a twin bed mattress.
The two men saw their last marker as the trail faded away near a well used dirt road. They spent a couple of hours looking for the trail ahead with pointless side trips in the increasing heat. The addled hikers returned to the road and flagged down a passing truck. The helpful driver informed them their car was four miles down the road. Six miles in this “Gila Triangle” took seven and a half hours.
The beaten down boys made a well deserved trip to town for burgers and beers. In fact Silver City was hosting a Blues and Bikers festival this Memorial weekend. The distinctive sound of Harley Davidson motorcycles mixed with the smell of fried food and the riffs of a blues guitar blasting from amplifiers. As they explored the streets of historic old town, Honey Badger and La Plata found a local hike and bike shop. There they learned they had been on the “new” CDT and had parked at the “old” CDT. The locals assured them the section planned for tomorrow would present no problem.
Another pleasant day dawned. Car camp coffee then on to an inviting adobe restaurant for eggs, bacon, pancake, etc. The refocused trekkers left a car at the Arrastre trail head north of town and headed southbound from a sign indicating 7.5 miles to Little Walnut Rd.
When the trail markers became less frequent La Plata and Honey Badger consulted their maps. They saw an unmarked side trail drop down towards an intriguing monastery and made the incorrect assumption it was the CDT. The extra walk cost approximately 45 minutes but the wayward hikers saw impressive woodwork and stonework at the quiet sanctuary. More than four hours after leaving the Arrastre grinding rocks they reached the previous night’s campsite.
The afternoon trip to Silver City was kicked off by an amusing stop at the visitor center. Inside, the men became the target of attention of a large jovial woman whose ancestors built the bank and mercantile on main street. On her recommendation they followed a shaded promenade along a tranquil creek to the Little Toad Creek brewery. After fueling up on pub grub and ale, they camped near the Arrastre site and hiked northbound toward Signal Mountain in the cool evening air. On their return in the fading twilight, La Plata made an error at a junction costing the pair an extra mile of walking.
The third day was also clear and sunny. La Plata made coffee while Honey Badger tried to extricate himself from his unsatisfactory bed in the hatchback. The intrepid travelers decided to head north to the Gila cliff dwellings and hot springs for some low intensity recreation. A curvy, scenic drive led to a remote pueblo site built into large caves used for centuries by the native people. The enchantment of the area was magnified for the two visitors as they contemplated the lives of people walking these hills a thousand years ago.
Their wonder and delight continued at the nearby Gila hot springs. Operated by an outspoken couple decked out in worn western wear, they wrangled and corralled their guests like a herd of unruly cattle. The two dusty hikers soaked in the three relaxing pools then finished with a jolting dunk in the Middle Fork Gila River.
Once again the pair found themselves having an early dinner at the mediocre Little Toad Creek brewery. They took a stroll to the park where the Blues and Bikers festival was in full swing before driving back to the original Bear Mtn trail head. There was a shared curiosity about the elusive portal between OLD and NEW CDT so a second evening walkabout was undertaken. Evidence was found where old trail markers were removed from trees but after an hour they came upon several unmarked routes leading to the unknown. The undaunted duo returned to their final camp satisfied they had found plenty of inscrutable adventure in southern New Mexico.
POSTSCRIPT: After all the effort to follow the official CDT route, the section hikers ran into a thru hiker who told them hikers actually prefer the unofficial Gila River route because water is reliable and the scenery is more memorable. Before going their separate ways, Honey Badger and La Plata vowed to return to NM to unlock the mysteries of the divide trail in the Aldo Leopold Wilderness.