Continental Divide Trail -- Pie Town, New Mexico

A visit to a fire watch tower, a town famous for its pies and a bit about food, this week in Walk About Martinez.


For several days after leaving the lush beauty of the Gila River we slowly gained altitude  and the terrain transformed.  Dry grassy hills and prairies that seemed to go on for ever, became forested slopes.  Juniper and pinion pine transitioned to ponderosa and Douglas fir, and the warmth of that river valley turned cold at night.  We found our water bottles frozen nearly solid in the mornings.  We were climbing Mangas Mountain, at 9,596 feet, the highest point so far in New Mexico on the Continental Divide Trail.

We hiked primarily on dusty dirt roads with a few sections of real trail thrown in so our feet wouldn’t absolutely die on us. Roads are hard to walk with a pack, and the CDT is known for having almost a thousand miles of dirt and paved roads as part of the experience.  On a trail your foot falls at all angles.  Even rocks can act as a kind of massage therapy to the bottom of your feet on a real trail, but a road is the same foot strike at every step.  Over the course of a day, tens of thousands of steps and with the weight of a pack, it can be brutal.  

Water was also an issue and we had to look carefully for any directions on our maps so as not to miss the infrequent watering holes.  Sometimes this was a solar windmill or an old fashioned wind driven windmill, and as long as it was pumping and pulling up fresh well water, we felt blessed.  Once we had to dip into a large steel cow tank that was open on top.  Debris floated on the surface and we were dismayed until I filled a bottle from the water beneath and it came up crystal clear and delicious after being filtered for bio organisms.  We haven’t had to resort to the muddy water of cow ponds, called “tanks” on all the maps here in NM.  We did use one that was properly fenced for cattle, and from which the water was clear.  Water is an issue all across this arid state.

We were planning on a visit to the Mangas Mountain fire tower, and ten miles or so before the summit, we hit real trail.  What a joy to our feet even though the grade was steep at times.  On reaching the summit, however, we couldn’t see the fire tower.  Now how could you hide a 50 foot fire tower?  But we couldn’t see it.  We hunted through the woods and the tall trees simply blocked all views.  We scrambled through the undergrowth back and forth over the summit and almost gave up, backtracking on a dirt road, when we finally saw it poking up between the trees.  We’d been within feet of it for twenty minutes and a lot of scrambling, but couldn’t see the fire tower for the trees.

At its base were several boxes containing five gallon jugs of water, courtesy of the fire watch.  Climbing the steep and scary steps we gave a holler and a wooden hatch in the floor opened and Dave Wheatfill, the Forest Service Fire Watch, invited us in for a full tour of how a fire watch is manned.  The view was spectacular.  Three hundred and sixty degrees, windows on all sides, a bed on one wall and a radio on the other.  In the center was an old siting instrument that gave accurate bearings that could be transferred to a pull down wall map for triangulating with several other fire watches in the area.  Built in 1935, it was incredible to see this antique and yet very effective technology still in use.  We learned how to take a bearing and Dave was friendly and outgoing, and clearly loved to share his world in the sky.  It was as if we were perched in a giant eagles aerie with one of the most spectacular views imaginable.  Some of the fire towers in California are no longer used and can be rented for weekends in the woods.  That may be in my future.

We tanked up on water and headed down the back side of Mangas Mountain toward Pie Town, and the “Toaster House” a day and a half away.  The miles went fast, if not so comfortably, as the entire hike was on dirt roads from this point.  

Each morning we woke to a clear blue sky, but by 10am the first puffy cloud would form.  By the afternoon we could see rain falling for the bigger cumulus clouds.  It didn’t seem to hit the ground, merely giving the threat of weather.  By mid afternoon of that second day, however, the clouds were thick and we could hear thunder in the distance.  Walking into Pie Town we donned our raincoats and popped our umbrellas, even though the little bit of precipitation would probably have dried as soon as it hit us.  

Pie Town was a mix of old log cabins and newer structures, and the Toaster House was a bit of both.  We never did meet Nita, the woman who owned it and had raised five children in it, but we saw her open hearted nature everywhere we turned.  Signs welcoming hikers and cyclists were on every door.  Since 1982 she has left the house as a do-it-yourself hiker hostel.  Furnished with an old wood range for heat and cooking, and with two bedrooms and a large loft, a washing machine and shower, it was all we could ask for and more.  We decided we’d walked enough and took a zero day here to rest our weary dogs and to just take in the wonderful funky feel of the town.  

Down the street from the Toaster House was a large yellow tank truck painted to look like a school bus, only this was a sanitation company’s truck and it was named the Stool Bus and painted all over in double entendres.  Hilarious.  

We met Jay Dee and Kerry from British Columbia who were on a seven month bike tour of the US and Canada.  Retired teachers who’ve been adventuring for years now on the PCT and other trails as well as across continents on bikes.  They stayed in the Toaster House with us and I’m hoping to see them in Martinez in the fall on the way to their finish in San Diego.

We also met Eric who is a prior Pacific Crest Trail and Appalachian Trail thru hiker, long time English teacher in the Czech Republic and all around fascinating guy and exteremely fast hiker.  The basic athletic level of folks thru hiking or riding is amazing.

A quarter of a mile up Hwy 60 was one of two pie shops in town, the Good Pie Cafe.  We had a great breakfast the next morning and overheard a conversation at another table in which a woman with diabetes was talking about a no sugar, no flour diet she was on.  Michael the owner and chef was also talking about living without flour and sugar, as a new way of life for him.  Now this is in a pie shop mind you, and it’s a way of life I began for myself just a year and a quarter ago.

Over the course of the day and long into the evening, Mike and I talked about our “food journey” and what had brought us to such a radical way of eating in a world filled with flour and sugar.  

I’ve struggled with my weight since I was a soldier in 1973, and food was unlimited.  I’d been to “goal weight” at Weight Watchers several times and had tried almost every diet I could find over forty years, with no lasting success.  When I hiked the Pacific Crest Trail two years ago, I ate mac and cheese every other night.  Lipton Sides and other empty carb meals made up my day for 2,600 miles.  By the end of the summer I was down to a high school weight I hadn’t seen since I was a kid.  I felt great, but within 4 months I’d gained almost all of it back.   My eating was out of control, as it always has been.  When I finished a plate of pasta I was hungrier than I had been when I started. 

With more backpacking on the horizon I finally hit a bottom around my eating habits and with a little help from my friends entered a 12 step food program that defined abstinence as no flour, no sugar, weighed and measured meals, three meals a day and no snacking.  That was draconian!  And yet, in less than three months I’d lost all the weight gain and more, and was eating huge meals of meat, or veggie protein, potatoes and rice and huge servings of salad and cooked veggies and fruit for desert.  I felt great.

Within a week or so the craving for sugar had gone away and as long as I don’t eat pasta or bread, I don’t crave them.  I eat plenty of grains, but in their whole or rolled forms.  With the help of a sponsor and many others, I’ve been abstinent for over a year now.  It’s the first time in my life I’ve been truly junk food free. 

My hike of the CDT is being done with foods I’ve dried myself, as it’s almost impossible to find beef jerky made without sugar.  I’m culturing yogurt on trail for my daily breakfast which consist of rolled grains, nuts, dried fruit, all of which is soaked overnight, and fresh yogurt made from whole powdered milk.  Lunches and dinners are a one pot mix of all the ingredients I’d normally have, only dried into rice and shrimp curry and about ten other dishes I’ve designed, none of which need cooking.  

The surprising things are that the meals are delicious, and for the first time in my hiking life, I don’t get hungry between meals.  On the PCT I ate bars and chips and crackers on the hour, every hour as all that junk was so empty it just gave a quick blast of energy and was gone.  My meals on trail this time give me six hours and more of energy that doesn’t flag.  That was an incredible discovery.  I don’t need to snack, unheard of on trail or when climbing mountains.

Well, when I heard Michael talking about my way of eating I was amazed.  Here in Pie Town was a kindred spirit.  An old tall ship sailor and many more things, Michael is a large man who has also struggled with his weight for many years.  Five months ago he went to the little town of Truth or Consequences and met a Tibetan Lama.  The lama advised him to see an Ayurvedic medical practitioner who after evaluating him told him to stop eating flour and sugar and monitor his portions.  The same program as mine.  In four months he’s lost over forty pounds and is having to punch new holes in his belt which is six inches shorter.  

Months after hiking the PCT and losing my weight, my blood pressure had still been high, cholesterol high, triglycerides not good, and my medical practitioner was talking statins as the next step, a drug I didn’t want to take.  

Four months before I left to hike the CDT she’d set up my blood tests, but I procrastinated, simply not wanting the bad news again.  I finally had the blood tests, several weeks before I left and got a phone message the next day from an elated Elaine, that my cholesterol had plummeted, my triglycerides were perfect and everything had normalized, for the first time in many years.  That gave me the courage to check my blood pressure just after a five day trip to LA during which I had forgotten my blood pressure pills.  It was low!  For the first time in twenty years it was low.  All this from no flour, no sugar for a year.  

Michael has found the same thing.  He’s come off his pain medications and believes the anti inflammatory nature of his diet is responsible for that. 

We spent much of the evening talking about our eating and how it’s changed our lives, but I also heard a good many stories about the town and its 50 or so inhabitants.  So how did it become Pie Town?  Michael had two versions of where the pies came from.  One involved the Dust Bowl and Highway 60, the first coast to coast highway in America.  As refugees fled Oklahoma and Texas in the ‘20s they had to get their old “Grapes of Wrath” trucks over the Continental Divide right here in Pie Town.  The climb caused many to break down, and some stayed.  One family broke down with a truck load of flour and apples and started making pies on the side of the road for travelers and the stop became famous for pies.  

Another story refutes the Dust Bowl beginnings claiming it was because of the Mexican bean pies sold to the cattle drovers who rode this country’s last great cattle drives, down the middle of what is now Hwy 60.  Either story is great and worthy of the town’s heritage.

After our zero day, we had to finish with breakfast at the Good Pie Cafe where Michael took us into his “pie room” and showed us a poster on the wall of Muhammad Ali, triumphant, standing over Sonny Liston after his knock out in the first round.  Under the poster were three pages of quotes by the Dalai Lama on the nature of compassion.  That’s the dichotomy of humanity.  Both aspects have their place in our natures, and the struggle for balance takes most of our lives, and it’s always a struggle from within.


“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion.  If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”  Dalai Lama, from Michael’s wall.


If you would like to follow our daily journals, Google: Postholer.com/Shroomer or Postholer.com/Nancy.  An interactive map of the CDT on the bottom right of our journal pages will show you our current GPS Spot location.  View it through Google earth and you can see where we’re camped for that night.  


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