What does it mean to ride the 3,300-mile spine of the Continental Divide, from the Canadian to Mexican border across the United States? Very few people can say, but Kurt Refsnider can now count himself among them. In his fourth installment from the Continental Divide Trail, Kurt writes about the final miles through a geologist’s lens and how New Mexico held just as much resistance as it did enchantment.
Progress through New Mexico was certain to be relatively easy, or at least I had convinced myself of as much as I labored through hundreds of downed trees south of Wolf Creek Pass in southern Colorado. But a week into New Mexico, I found myself struggling and having covered a scant 200 miles. An abrupt shift in the weather after weeks of vividly cloudless skies ushered in moisture-laden air, days of rain, and concomitant show-stopping mud. Successive afternoons of racing storms exhausted my legs. And, an apparent giardia infection further diminished my energy. So much for a smooth passage through the Land of Enchantment; it felt like these final weeks into the desert were putting up the most resistance yet, although I know better than to really think that nature proactively tries to resist our pursuits in any way.
Most of my miles through Colorado during the preceding month had been absolutely delightful: wonderful trails, rendezvous with friends, and alpine vistas combined to make my heart sing. The Continental Divide Trail (CDT) is contiguous with long sections of the Colorado Trail (CT), much of which is comparatively heavily traveled. I had eagerly awaited that increase in traffic after the hundreds and hundreds of miles of faint, raw singletrack along the northern half of the CDT. All of that had worn me down physically, and although little about riding on the Colorado Trail is easy per se, the miles indeed passed by a little more rapidly and with a bit less effort.
My energy levels in Colorado weren’t especially high, but my stoke sure was, so much so that I even looped back on my route in the San Juan Mountains to ride some “extra” and new-to-me miles of CDT/CT near Creede. It was easy to convince Scott Morris to join me for that, too, as that was also a section he had never ridden, and it fed right into a 3,500’ descent to Creede. It was an absolute treat to get to share ample laughter and some stunning above-treeline trail with him, especially since he was the visionary behind the first “CDT Bike” route back in 2014.
My arrival to the Tusas Mountains in northernmost New Mexico coincided with near-record levels of atmospheric moisture. I rode late into the night to get as far south as I could before the rain arrived, clambering over more miles of deadfall before reaching the less rugged singletrack to the south that meanders through high meadows, aspen groves, and shallow canyons for an incredible 90+ miles. But, anyone who has spent much time riding in New Mexico likely knows about the show-stopping nature of its widespread clay-rich soil. There’s no point in even trying to ride through this impassible gumbo – doing so wreaks havoc on bikes and trails alike. I ended up dropping off the CDT to take shelter for a few days in my friend Lee’s dirt-floored log cabin. It was the perfect place to seek refuge as I watched storm after storm move through. I didn’t have much food to spare on the five-day push between Creede and Abiqui, but my body relished sleeping for 12+ hours for each of my three nights there.
My return to the trail was greeted by a frosty bluebird morning, but rumbling thunderheads billowed upward a few hours later and I spent the rest of the day riding as hard as I could, trying to get across the last of the shale ridgelines before the latest round of downpours made the trail, once again, unrideable. Late in the afternoon, lightning flashed as I paralleled a curtain of heavy rain just a half-mile downslope. I hadn’t ridden that hard since starting this CDT journey, but the effort got me off the ridgeline and down into the tall ponderosa pines before the storm hit. It took but a few minutes for the mud to cake up on my tires, so I hopped off, found a flat spot to camp, and set up my tarp. There’s just no point in fighting that mud.
The following days delivered more of the same, getting chased by storms past the volcanic buttes in the Cabezon area with the one and only Bailey Newbrey (proprietor of Sincere Cycles in Santa Fe) and then dodging more storms as I climbed over the extinct stratovolcano that is Mount Taylor. By the time I reached Grants, my legs were empty, my gut was increasingly displeased, my appetite had vanished, and I was very glad to pick up some meds to treat what seemed to be a mild case of giardia.
South of Grants, I headed toward the Gila country, a vast, rugged, quiet, and magical region for which I was both excited and nervous. My energy rebounded, my stomach recovered, the daily storms relented, and I was back to relishing everything no matter how ridiculously difficult the trail became. I slowly traversed the Gila over five days, often following a trail that was only marginally discernable aside from the occasional set of rotting waterbars. Bumping along at 4 mph was the norm on this circuitous route over the Mangus and Tularosa Mountains, past O Bar O and Pelona Mountains, across broad expanses of golden prairie, and along the crest of the Black Range.
This landscape is the story of volcanism, of pediplanation, and of stream incision driven by the Rio Grande Rift to the east and Basin and Range extension to the south; in other words, it’s a dreamy place for a geomorphologist through which to push and pedal a bike for days, and each high point offers a new vista for further unraveling that story.
Nearing Silver City, the enigmatic character known as Cjell Monē materialized on the trail one morning, grinning widely. I chased his wheel all day, grateful for the company, conversation, and wave of energy he carried as he railed the descents and laughed in front of me on a homegrown full-suspension rig. He easily convinced me to take a much-needed day off at Monē Bikes HQ before the final few days of desert riding to the border.
Those last 170 miles of the CDT were surreal, the end literally coming into sight after nearly three months on the trail. The trail continued to feel deserted; I had only seen a mere handful of backpackers and other cyclists since southern Colorado. The unexpectedly hot afternoons baked my depleted body in a way forgotten since southern Wyoming. The trail, faint at times, dropped off the final high ridgeline, out of the last ponderosas, and then wove sinuously among spiny ocotillo, cat claw, and yucca. And those desert evenings, oh how lovely they were. There’s a richness to the late-day light in New Mexico, a unique warmth that radiates from the sky and landscape alike as the sun sinks toward the horizon. That light is a loving embrace unlike any I’ve felt in other parts of the world.
I spent the final night atop a pass in the Big Hatchet Mountains reflecting and returning to weeks and mountain ranges much farther north. Cliff bands hundreds of feet tall rose above me, composed of late Paleozoic carbonate rocks just like the towering reefs of the Rocky Mountain Front I had negotiated during the first days of my ride in Montana. Now, 3,300 miles later, I found myself at another arbitrary border cutting across the same ancient bedrock.
In the morning, I smiled as I lazily pedaled the last ten miles to the southern terminus of the CDT. Two final miles of singletrack led to a loosely-strung barbed wire fence at the border. I coasted to a stop and gazed farther south as the continental divide continued on, undeterred by the lines we’ve drawn on maps. A gate in the fence stood ajar, beckoning for me to also continue south. Another time, perhaps. My body was exhausted, my heart was full, and I was overwhelmed by an enormous sense of relief. Very, very few of the miles came easily, and quite a few days were among the most demanding I’ve ever had on the bike. The enormous amount of hike-a-bike (and bike-on-the-back) on the CDT is difficult to articulate, and the first month of the trail alone had me at least as fatigued as did the toughest bikepacking races I’ve done. But crossing the country on seemingly endless backcountry singletrack while being so immersed in ever-changing landscapes—that’s exactly what I sought, and I couldn’t have asked for anything more from the experience.