Sam Hughes has the sunburnt face of a man who’s experienced life big and lived in the desert for a long time. His wrinkles, infectious smile and the twinkle in his eye all overshadow the nearly missing nose, a recent casualty to skin cancer and the ever present cigarette that never seems to go out. At eighty-one, he’s the trail angel of Hachita New Mexico, and the only ride around to get to the start of the Continental Divide Trail at Crazy Cook.
That’s not a small order as it’s over thirty miles of four wheel drive dirt road before a hiker can even get to the border to start this 3,000 mile walk to Canada. Sam’s been doing it for twelve years now and revels in the people he’s met, bike riders on cross country races and tours and the yearly class of CDT hikers starting north in April and May, or the south bounders coming through in October and November. He charges for his service, but he earns every penny of it.
Driving into Hachita on the evening of April 11, we thought we might have driven into a preserved ghost town. No one was outside on the dirt streets and there were as many abandoned adobes as those still being lived in. Some were melting back into the soil, the most direct recycling of a building I’d ever seen. The steeple of Saint Catherine of Sienna Church stood tall on one end of town but the building itself was in ruins, smashed glass everywhere and the front doors agape, the entry befouled by cattle. The saint’s niche in the steeple was empty and it looked as if the town was going the same way.
Then we spotted Sam’s house and the prominent CDT sign on his gate and realized this was the place. His warm greeting smoothed the sadness we’d felt at seeing the town in it’s demise and we began to feel the heart still beating in this old place.
That evening Nancy and I sat in his small, cracked plaster walled living room, the outside mud bricks a foot or more thick, and were regaled by story after story from Sam, most of which I couldn’t paraphrase if I tried. These weren’t the stories of an old dotard you wanted to get through politely but were gripping, told with a Southwestern drawl that brought a color to the telling and we were rapt for hours.
We heard how the prosperous little town of Hachita had fallen on hard times in 1999 when the copper smelter was shut down and the mining operation transferred to South America and of how 12 years ago while Sam was talking to a friend in town a thirsty hiker had come up and asked for water. Sam drove him to the border and he’s been doing it ever since.
Sam is originally from Spokane Washington. His father was a Choctaw Indian who died when Sam was young and he ended up being raised by the Cree in British Columbia where he learned the tribal language, and most importantly, Indian sign language. He speaks “English, Cree, sign language, Mexican and just enough French and German to get me into trouble.”
He served in WWII on the Pacific Front and received a dishonorable discharge under honorable conditions. How’s that? Well, at fifteen he lied about his age and joined the Marines, fighting in several major Pacific battles before being “ratted out” by his older brother when the two met on one of the islands. He was bitter and put on a troop transport flight that only just made it off the runway before belly flopping into the lagoon. Sam was “a bit excited,” and thinking the plane was about to sink, jumped out of the hatch face first onto the coral reef. He tore himself to ribbons. He was shipped to several other islands in route to the States, but ended up being shelled on both. He was sure the Marine Command was trying to kill him.
A heavy equipment operator for years, Sam lived for a time in Texas where he caught the eye of Gonzala, a beautiful young Señorita who couldn’t hear or speak. His fluency in sign language made up for that and the two fell in love and were married and had four children all raised in Hachita, a town that was a town back then.
Outside of town is a large wildlife study area and he and Gonzala spent many evenings parked near watering holes, watching coyotes, pronghorn antelope and the occasional mountain lion come down for a drink. Hachita is small but the wilderness just beyond the town is huge.
The walls of the room where we sat were covered in pictures of his children and his gorgeous wife, who’s long, softly curled hair could have graced any movie star from the 1940s. She was beautiful. We were lucky enough to meet Sam’s daughter Dorothy, who was staying with her old dad for the week while she was dispatched locally by the New Mexico Department of Transportation. She was the image of her mother who passed away five years ago and the two clearly still miss her. Cleaning house and cooking for Sam for a few days was not a chore, but she was not happy that he still insisted on making that awful drive to the border.
The evening went by fast and Nancy and I camped in his yard only to be awakened at 4am when he drove off to meet the 5am train in Lordsburg to pick up another hiker who had flown the red eye to Tucson. She was a young woman from Michigan traveling alone and he didn’t want her having to wander the predawn streets.
They were back at 7am and we met Elinor, who hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2010, the Pacific Crest Trail in 2011 and was now attempting the CDT. She’s on a deadline to make it to grad school at the University of Idaho by early August. She’ll be studying environmental education and is spending her summers doing the field work.
We all loaded up and headed down the a long dirt road to Mexico. The Big Hatchet Mountains rose to the west and Mexico spread out, green to the east. The area over the border is a large Mennonite farm and they have transformed the desert. All it took was water. This was the first time I’d ever looked into Mexico to the east, but we were halfway down the boot heal of New Mexico, and the Border runs north to south here.
Border patrol agents passed us several times and the only other person we saw was Marian, a hiker from Woodland who had started the day before. He stepped out of a sandy wash looking a bit disheveled and thirsty when we stopped for Sam to check on one of the three water caches he stocks for us hikers. Marian’s trail name is MACTALL, and he is.
The ruts grew worse and then, eight miles from the monument, Sam’s truck slowed to a halt. It stalled out completely and we were in the middle of nowhere. The fuel pump had died and it couldn’t be reached as it was mounted in the fuel tank. Sam and I tried everything we could, from banging on the tank to priming the carb with raw gas. Nothing worked and after forty-five minutes, Sam insisted we head off on foot. He’d wait for the next border patrol agent to give him a ride home. He assured us he’d been here before.
With a good bit of trepidation at leaving him out we set off down the road. Walking was a relief after banging on his gas tank with a hammer, and in six miles or so we found a CDT sign directing us to the left onto a meagre trail and into the bush, straight toward Mexico. The actual trail lasted twenty feet before becoming a few foot prints and then nothing. From that point on we played the game of spotting the next CDT sign, usually visible on the horizon, sometimes not.
We’d heard that the CDT was a route not a trail but this was the first we’d experienced of it. The Pacific Crest Trail was a trail, all 2,600 miles of it. The CDT, even at the start, is just a direction, and a signpost in the distance and from what we’ve read, much of it has no signs at all.
After getting over the shock of having to actually navigate our way through the mesquite and greasewood, it became fun. We’d make our way to a sign and stop, all eyes trying to pick out the next small white sign with its dark blue CDT emblem somewhere on the horizon.
Eight miles from our breakdown, and just at lunch we came upon the monument, a large granite obelisk carved with a map of the trail and the words, “The Trail Unites Us.” Our little party, thoroughly united by our lonely surroundings, had lunch in the shade of a tin sun roof built just for this, then each of us stuck a foot through the barbwire and junk fence onto Mexican soil, turned around and headed to Canada.
We were in the Chihuahuan Desert, alive with blooms and little creatures camouflaged to look like rocks and with thorns that seemed to reach out and grab us as we made our way cross country. We stepped gingerly as the mesquite and ocotillo could puncture a car tire or impale a foot clad in trail runners. Several times we had to stop and use tweezers to extricate the little devils before we became permanently stapled to the inside of our shoes. Cattle crossed the open range and coyotes howled at the slim new moon at night. The plain extended for endless miles until it backed up on a far distant line of mesas and mountains and ended in a purple of overlapping ridges and sky. It’s a beautiful place.
On the first day, April 12, we hiked cross-country and on old jeep roads that took us around and through the Big Hatchet Range whose high point, Big Hatchet Peak, rises to a hight of 8,366 feet. By the end of that day we’d done twenty miles, eight more than planned and we were foot sore. Elinor had a big blister on the side of her heal and I was to develop one the next day under the ball of my left foot, the first blister I’ve had in fifteen years.
The second day was completely cross country under the sun protection of our silver mylar umbrellas. We dodged in and out of ocotillo forests trying not to shred our umbrellas on their first use. The sign posts of yesterday had been replaced by rock cairns usually with a 4x4 post protruding above the scrub. Unfortunately many of these had been knocked over. Cattle love anything standing for a scratching post, and we rebuilt sixteen of them as we hiked, finding many with our GPS systems, but failing to find many others.
As the afternoon wore on, the mornings light wind built and by evening it was howling. We camped near Highway 81 at one of Sam’s water caches on a sandy flat, but didn’t pitch tents as there were no rocks or anything else to anchor our lines and our little tent stakes would have been ripped out in the first gust. I stepped off my sleeping bag for a moment and it went air born over Nancy and lodged in a yucca. She saved it before I knew it was gone.
That night we heard no coyotes over the scream of the wind, and got very little sleep as the storms ferocity continued to grow, shaking us in our sleeping bags.
April 14, and at first light, my fitful sleep was shattered by a face full of sand and I sputtered awake. We were camped in Hatchet Gap, the low point between the Big Hatchets and the Little Hatchets and a dust storm was blowing right through that gap. We later learned it had closed the major interstates between Arizona and New Mexico for several hours. Dust was in the air and it only seemed to be getting worse, so we all roused quickly, packed up and hightailed it out, hiking fast for the relative protection of the Little Hatchets, where we could see clear air. No umbrellas today or we would have pulled a Mary Poppins and blown clean away. Looking back all that day, we could see a billowing cloud of dust pouring in from the Playas Valley to the west, and the air would remain hazy for several days.
Something more ominous than the dust however was blowing in from the mountains beyond the Playas, and that was a low ridge of clouds that caught up with us by the afternoon and the cold air mass that came with it chilled us in spite of our hiking pace. By evening we were socked in and cold and a light drizzle began to blow, a few more degrees lower and it would be sleet or snow.
Our plan had been to make it to Highway 9 and hitch into Hachita, as we had food stored at Sam’s place. We could see traffic on the road from a great distance but it was 6pm when we finally reached it and whatever after work rush hour there might have been had ended at 5:05pm. Two cars passed us in the first half hour, one of which had a load of workers, and we were getting cold. Pitching a tent in that wind and icy drizzle would have been a feet of engineering. Then Nancy had a brain storm and here’s the reason for hiking with others, three chilly but thinking people are better than one. Hachita had no cel service but Nancy just decided to give it a try anyway. She tried once, twice, and then said, “Third times the charm,” and got through to Sam, who put down whatever he was doing, got into his boat of an old Lincoln and dragged us out of the storm to a warm adobe and a night on his living room floor.
It was great to see him but we could feel his distress at the ordeal of his truck’s breakdown. The border patrol agents had delivered him to his door, however, the next day he had pulled his truck over twenty-five miles of ruts and it would cost quite a bit to be repaired. He was starting to feel his eighty-one years and thought maybe it was time to follow his daughter’s advice and quit this hiker nonsense. She’d been really upset when he was late returning from our run to the border. But he still spoke fondly of the hikers and bikers he’d helped for so many years and was proud of the stack of cards and mail he had from all over the world. At eighty-one, stopping all this foolishness might be the best thing for him. On the other hand it was clearly a big part of what got him out of bed in the morning, something he was proud of and cared about, something akin to the passion we hikers felt for the trail and a desert angel in an unlikely spot at the start or end of a very long walk.
If you would like to follow Nancy or my daily journals they are posted on www.Postholer.com/Nancy or Shroomer. A link at the bottom right will take you to an updated map showing our latest GPS Spot location.
"We all flow from one fountain Soul. All are expressions of one Love. God does not appear, and flow out, only from narrow chinks and round bored wells here and there in favored races and places, but He flows in grand undivided currents, shoreless and boundless over creeds and forms and all kinds of civilizations and peoples and beasts, saturating all and fountainizing all." John Muir - June 9, 1872