New Mexico, 52 miles, NM 35 to Caledonia Trailhead
Ken Haag knew his CDT assignment would kick his butt. The five-day section through New Mexico’s Gila National Forest and Aldo Leopold Wilderness is known for its poor signage, downed trees, and scarce water. And with Truth or Consequences (the nearest town) a four-hour drive from the trailhead, he realized he couldn’t count on help should anything go awry. By the time Haag, a pharmaceutical sales rep and former Army captain, joined team members Matt Feeney, Steve Taranowski, and Jason Childre at a remote ranger station, he’d steeled himself for the worst.
The first few miles were gravy. The late May weather was mild, the mountain forest thick and fragrant, and the trail faint but discernible. But beyond 10,015-foot Reed’s Peak, the CDT’s high point in New Mexico, the hike turned hellish. Haag’s team entered a vast burn where jackstrawed piles of downed trees littered the landscape. Scrambling over, under, and around them was "like tackling a military obstacle course," Haag says. Carrying nine liters of water apiece, they staggered under 60-pound loads. At first, they counted each downed tree out loud to pass the time. At 300, Haag kept track in his head. Two days, 25 miles, and 600 uprooted stumps later, they arrived at their vehicle, exhausted and amazed at how trail-less the CDT can be. "These mountains are positively beautiful," says Haag, "but this section is in terrible shape." The few markers they spotted were broken or fallen, and the deadfall in the Aldo Leopold Wilderness was almost impassable. "If they’re going to call it a trail," says Haag, "then it needs to be a trail."
Through the ordeal, Haag gained three new friends; the team is planning annual backpacking reunions. Even better, he reports, "I can tell my grandkids I helped map the CDT."
Idaho/Montana, 65 miles, Bannack Pass to Bannock Pass
Downed trees weren’t a problem for Dwight Worthington, but he gave up trying to count the wildlife he spotted along his team’s five-day segment from Idaho’s Bannack Pass to Montana’s Bannock Pass. "Plus, we had good views, nice campsites, and no one on the trail," says Worthington. His wife, Marita, and friend Darrel Wharton joined the team, along with three llamas, two horses, and two dogs.
Thanks to the pack animals, which each hauled about 60 pounds of food and gear, "we ate pretty good," admits Worthington. They also helped alert the team to the presence of wildlife: Camped near Deadman Lake (at 8,000 feet on day one), they followed the llamas’ gaze to a big bull moose. Later, they watched 300 elk grazing along the Montana border, and spied a lone bull frolicking in the snow. Worthington even glimpsed a wolf above Tex Creek.
Dwight and Marita have llama-packed Idaho’s backcountry for 23 years, but mapping their favorite wilderness presented fresh challenges. "It was fun not knowing exactly where the trail went and having to search for it," Worthington says. In the end, the rewards far exceeded the effort. The team enjoyed clear skies and big mountain vistas. They skimmed grassy ridgelines and sat atop the Divide. They gazed over a sea of snowcapped peaks and basked in complete solitude. And they paused longer than usual to appreciate a stirring view when the morning sun lit up the granite faces above their third camp. "A long mountain hike is like drinking a good aged wine," says Worthington. "You don’t hurry it."