Section 5: Douglas to Columbus
Today we headed into uncharted territory! With no clear idea of what we would find, we left the county road to follow a vague set of directions we'd pieced together over the last several days.
Were we scared of what's ahead? Yes.
This time Kris wouldn't be able to follow us in the car so he'd have to drive to the other side of the valley and hope that we'd come through eventually. We left him at a cow gate and headed down a narrow dirt road for about half a mile. We needed to turn off onto a different road (clearly marked on our map) but either we were idiots or it no longer existed. We stood at the turn off, frustrated by the nonexistent road, frustrated by each other, frustrated at the thought of the long day ahead. When a road proves unreliable we resort to navigating by compass and topo maps. Having to navigate by compass and move cross country would slow us to a snail’s pace and we had to meet Kris by dark.
Is this even possible?
But Kris was already long gone, driving away from us along the narrow dirt roads, and we had no option but to suck it up, buttercup!
Very slowly, very grudgingly we began to pick our way up into the mountains.
A faint roadbed resurfaced occasionally just long enough to trap us into relaxing, only for us to lose the path again and have to reorient all over. Is this crazy?
The brown volcanic rock shifted constantly beneath our feet as we climbed to a pass between two rugged peaks. Scruby creosote bushes pushed us back until we forced our way forward. Several barbed wire fences blocked our progress and we flung our backpacks over and followed their trajectory. Still we had no idea what is public vs private property out here. At least we were moving away from the Diamond A Ranch and toward Playas Valley.
Up and over the last high point and down into a drainage that funneled us into the outskirts of Playas Valley. It took the entire morning to cover a third of the total distance for the day. We finally met a road at a water trough that was overflowing with beautiful clear water. The trough was huge, the size of a small swimming pool. A wooden board floated on top like a flotation device, three birds sat on top bobbing to the motion of the ripples.
Cows stood nearby confused by our sudden appearance. Each step that we took towards them prompted the herd to run ahead in a panic only to stop a few feet later. We continued down the road in this fashion, the cows growing increasingly confused as to why we were following them. Their dusty trails zigzagged through old gnarled trees. A little adobe shack with a tin roof hid in the grove. We peered through its shattered windows at an old wood stove and shabby walls with Spanish words scribbled in charcoal: Lo achaca - tyaris victims - gueriendo - la ochenta - comida y sin - pero no se.
Who found shelter way out here?
The cow road spit us out onto a wide dirt road carving through the flat vast expanse of the Playas Valley. So far we hadn't seen a single person or vehicle, which we were grateful for given the questionable legality of our presence. A truck rumbled by while we were sitting on the side of the road and we tensed up as it approached, worried that it was a rancher coming to chase us away.
Would they stop?
A man and woman with cowboy hats peered out at us from the cab, chuckling and waving as they went by. Phew. Ok for now. A mile later we were forced to climb a gate padlocked shut along our road with a stern sign declaring: private road, no trespassing, violators will be prosecuted. Oops.
We left our private road and found the next obstacle, an enormous fenced off area with at least five signs plastered all over the chain length fence. The signs here were even more intimidating, warning that this was a restricted area and that we were being monitored by video camera. This was frightening enough to stop us in our tracks for at least fifteen minutes as we deliberated. GoogleMaps had routed us through this area but clearly the road no longer or had never existed. We nervously followed the perimeter of the fence line, hopping a different gate with a no trespassing sign and putting all our energy into praying that no one would see us.
The fence line ended and we started bushwhacking, trying to speed up as much as possible in the rocky terrain. We had wasted a lot of time throughout the day route finding and it was already getting dark. At some point Claire’s cell service kicked in accompanied by a cheerful text from Kris letting us know that he had just arrived at our meetup. We were still several miles away. Shoot. We followed larger and larger trails through the bushes until we found the road, where we were finally able to pick up the pace. Apparently Kris was wandering down trying to find us and we kept shouting out greetings hoping we could hear each other. Complete silence on both our ends briefly convinced us that we had somehow ended up in different places but we held out hope and finally, finally!, saw the flash of his headlamp. Thank God! We were hungry, cold and bone tired.
During his wait, Kris had made friends with a Border Patrol agent parked at the top of the pass right next to him. Another chatty, super friendly guy. He shared a ton of interesting info that Kris relayed on the drive back to town.
What info did he have for us?
Drug smuggling in this area is mostly driven by small family operations as most cartels have transitioned into the more profitable human smuggling. Last night BP had chased a group of drug smugglers up the mountain and today the agent was worn out. He told Kris they usually carry several hundred pounds of marijuana, which they will drop when pursued. According to him, they are often on PCP or similar while crossing and it is extremely difficult to apprehend them on foot. He also shared the reason we all have cell service out here: there is a secret military base in Playas Valley. At one point Border Patrol couldn’t access the entire area because the SEAL team was training for their mission to assassinate Osama Bin Laden. We suspect that the creepy fence line with all the surveillance equipment that we had passed earlier in the day was part of the base. The intensity of the day and our relief at being done produced a giddy adrenaline that kept us energetically word-vomiting on the long drive to town. We are glad to be through the main chunk of the New Mexico bootheel.