The Multitudes in a Mural: Continental Divide National Scenic Trail

By Jenny Gaeng

At the end of the road walk on Highway 90 is the Silver City Visitors’ Center. It’s classic New Mexico adobe. Stunningly intricate murals decorate the outer wall. They are the colors of a desert sunset: yellow, pink, and deep purple. Yucca and agave plants, meticulously crafted from tile and clay, dominate the foreground. Animals in the style of pictographs line the border: pronghorns, coyotes, lizards, and more.


Inside, there is a large wall sign with the blue insignia of the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail. Rebecca behind the desk will show you to the hiker box, a large plastic bin full of clothes, fuel canisters, and dehydrated food. She will give you the CDT log book to sign in.

If I flip back to April 2016, I can read my own name: Jenny, eager and scared. This was before the heat and snow and loose rock, before the sunsets and the endless stars, and before the other hikers assigned me the trail name Cloud.

Jenny on her 2016 CDT thruhike

Jenny on her 2016 CDT thruhike

Fast forward to December, 2017. I have been living in Silver City for ten months, working for CDTC as Gateway Community Coordinator. Silver City was our first Gateway town, designated in 2014. Once reliant on copper and silver mining, the town is looking to redefine itself – a future based on two sustainable pillars, the wilderness and the arts.

They are going to intersect here, at the Visitors’ Center. Five students from the local charter school are designing a mural for an empty wall. It will be entirely devoted to the CDT.

I ask the girls if they are familiar with the trail. Of course, they say. Aldo Leopold, locally referred to as the “hippie high school,” takes them on backpacking trips every year. They have been to Jordan Hot Springs, and speak enthusiastically of the beauty of the Middle Fork of the Gila River.

“The thing about the CDT,” I tell them, “is that it’s very long.” It will be hard to contain its multitudes in one mural, even one of this size.

That’s okay, they reply. They want to focus on New Mexico.

When people discuss the grandeur of the CDT, New Mexico is often overlooked. Even our official guidebook calls the northern terminus in Montana an “objectively prettier” ending. The stark rocks and muted colors of the desert hold a softer, subtler beauty.

So they decide to focus on one thing that’s scarce, but so crucial, to their ecosystem: water. Diana Ingalls Leyba, who runs the Youth Mural Program, asks me, “What’s one thing that only someone who has hiked the trail would know about?”

I pause. I don’t know what people might not know. “Cow troughs,” I say finally. “In New Mexico, we get a lot of our water from cow troughs.” I show them a picture of a giant tire, its liquid surface coated with a sheen of green algae.

The girls love this. They point excitedly to where a cow trough could go in the mural, between the Gila and the Rio Chama. They want to include a cow.

But cows aren’t the only ones looking for water in the desert. They want to include the other animals too: deer, elk, roadrunners, and the elusive Mexican Grey Wolf. They pepper me with eager questions about hiking the CDT, and I am surprised by the depth of their interest. They ask about gear, about making camp, about the different things you see and do in a day. This mural will not be just a map, but a window into life on the trail. They are determined to get it right.

I don’t know if cows will make it into the mural. I don’t know if any of my stories will become clay on a wall for all to see. After all, I am a traveler, and in two months I will be gone from this town. But these girls will stay, and the steadfast beauty of the CDT will take shape between their fingers. I think how remarkable it is, for a trail that traverses 3,100 miles and five states, to live in the hearts and minds of a tiny town in New Mexico. These girls may never see Montana. They may never hike beyond the Gila. But they are inspired to create something that will last just as long, hopefully, as the trail itself.

Rio Chama

Rio Chama

Jenny “Cloud” Gaeng is the former Gateway Community Coordinator for the Continental Divide Trail Coalition. She hails from Baltimore, Maryland, and has no intention of returning. She fell head over heels for the Rocky Mountains and decided to hike the Continental Divide Trail in 2016. That journey first led her from Mexico to Canada and then to the position of Gateway Community Coordinator. Jenny loves writing, her dog, and the feeling of weightlessness at the top of a mountain.