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Hiker in the Storm

Monday, August 8th, 2022: Hikes, Holt, Mogollon Mountains, Southwest New Mexico.

This Sunday’s weather was forecast to be partly cloudy and warm. I’d been having such a hard time climbing – my lung capacity didn’t seem to be recovering – I felt I needed to keep pushing, forcing myself to climb higher on each new hike. And getting up in the higher elevations would help with the heat. Maybe I’d even get some rain.

With the wildfire closures, the only nearby hike I hadn’t tackled yet was my old favorite, which climbs to the shoulder of a 9,700′ peak and continues down a ridge to a saddle with dramatic rock outcrops. It would involve between 4,000′ and 5,000′ of accumulated elevation gain, depending on how far I got.

But first I had to get through the jungle in the canyon bottom, which occupied 2-1/2 miles of the hike. It was as overgrown as I’d expected, a riot of flowers, flies, and waist-high growth with heavy dew, completely covering the trail, soaking my canvas pants. As usual, I was drenched with sweat from the beginning, but in the sections where the creek was flowing above ground, I could wet my hat and head net for a little evaporative cooling.

And I’d worn waterproof boots, so my feet stayed dry.

The long climb to the 9,500′ crest was difficult and slow. I’m beginning to suspect the damage to my lungs was permanent, and I may never regain the ability to climb steadily at my normal walking pace.

I stopped at the spring below the peak, to rinse out my hat and head net. I’d been glad to see no recent cattle sign so far, but unfortunately found a big cowpie near the spring less than a day old. The beast was apparently hanging out in the high country – avoiding the Forest Service’s recent attempt at removal.

Far above the spring, just as I turned the corner into the interior and got my first view of a storm building over the wilderness, it began to rain. I first pulled on my poncho, then when I reached the saddle with its little surviving stand of pines and aspens, I changed into my waterproof and thornproof hunting pants.

Last fall’s trail crew had cleared most of the logs across this trail, but from here on, the main challenge was thorny locust, and they’d done nothing about that. I’d chopped about a half mile of locust with my machete a couple of years ago, but it’s fast growing, and if I wanted to continue I’d just have to fight my way through it.

I knew there would be little reward – after the slow climb to the crest, I knew I didn’t have enough time to reach the rocky saddle, and the intervening trail would just be a thorny jungle with no view and no landmarks. But I still wanted to give my lungs a workout, so I fought my way through the thorns for another mile or so, stopping at an arbitrary point on a traverse just below the crest of the ridge. Through an opening in the locust, I spotted something far down the canyon, a hazy spot that might or might not be smoke.

I watched it long enough to see it drift and change. Yes, there was a little fire down there, apparently a lightning strike. But the whole landscape was saturated, and another big storm was building over the mountains – surely this would burn out quickly?

After I began the hike back up the ridge, the vegetation was so dense that I didn’t get another view of the little fire. But it was soon raining again, and I knew I didn’t have to worry.

At the saddle, I trudged up the little rise that gives a view over the peaks of the range. The northern half of the interior was getting hammered by rain, and another storm was forming outside the mountains in the south.

Lightning and thunder were bombarding me from all sides up there, and the first part of the descent is totally exposed, so I wasted no time descending. The rain fell harder, blowing sideways, but I knew it would move on soon.

After the rain moved on, the air was so chilled I regretted leaving my sweater at home. But as it turned out, the hike down the long switchbacks and through the canyon bottom jungle went much faster than the climb up, and hiking kept me warm.

In the canyon bottom, I was really glad of the waterproof pants now that all that waist-high vegetation was soaked from the rain. Unable to see the rocks in the trail, I was constantly slipping and stumbling. And my third rain of the day began during the last stretch before the climb out of the canyon. I’d been accompanied by the sound of thunder continuously since reaching the crest hours ago.

Driving out of the mountains, and looking back at where I’d come from, I could see storms getting bigger both east and west, over Arizona. And back home, I’d no sooner parked in my driveway than it began to pour.

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Art File

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2022: Fire, Restoration Projects, Stories, Trouble.

Shed in the Hills

I’ve described before how the rising cost of living in California had driven me relentlessly from larger lodgings, where I originally had room for art and music studios, into smaller and smaller places, finally ending up in a tiny studio apartment with all my creative work and equipment far away in storage. It wasn’t until I moved to this remote small town in New Mexico that I could afford enough space to get all my work and gear together, and it still took me years to pull a lifetime of art and music out of boxes and set up studio space to continue that work after the dismal hiatus of struggling to survive in California.

Part of that process was finding a readily accessible way to store my thousands of works on paper and canvas – by me and others. For a decade and a half most of those paintings and drawings had been packed away in boxes, portfolio cases, and mailing tubes and stashed in various basements or garages. I needed a big flat file.

I was registered on an online community forum maintained by a couple of older men, 60s hippies who were fixtures in the local progressive subculture. At the end of July 2008, I posted my need for a file, and immediately got a response from one of those guys. It turned out his ex-girlfriend had left him a big flat file made by a local cabinetmaker from local pinewood. But it was stored in a shed way out in the mountains, an hour’s drive from town, and he didn’t have a vehicle that could move it.

So I bought it from him and drove him out there in my pickup truck. It took all day – we had to stop first at a rural settlement on the river to pick up a key, then we slowly drove for miles, winding back into the hills on a rough, narrow gravel road, finally reaching the shed. The file was so heavy that we had to remove all the drawers first to lift it into the truck.

But of course, once I got it home, I was faced with how to get this big wooden box into my house by myself.

First, I borrowed a dolly from a neighbor, and improvised a ramp from a sheet of plywood so I could roll the cabinet off the truck. Then I had to take my front door off the hinges and unscrew all the weatherstripping from the jamb in order to just barely scrape the file through the doorway.

Once I’d walked the awkward thing past my vestibule, put it back on the dolly, and rolled it into place, I could carefully reinstall all the drawers into their ball-bearing slides.

The cabinetmaker had put a huge amount of work into this file – precisely cutting, planing, and joining the pine planks for the sides, building the drawers from scratch, cutting perfect rabbet joints at all the corners. But for some reason he had neglected to finish it, leaving it topless, so John had given me a heavy sheet of particle board to put over it. I covered this with a Mexican blanket so it wouldn’t look so shabby in my living room.

After the Fire

Just as it was hugely liberating and inspiring to get my music, instruments, and recording gear out of storage after all those years, it was a revelation to rediscover my art. And soon I began a new series of work, filling the drawers of the file to the brim.

But my house fire in August 2020 put another stop to my creative work. I had to quickly remove those thousands of art works, re-pack them in boxes and portfolio cases, and move them back into storage.

Contractors moved all my furnishings out of the house in preparation for interior cleaning and repairs – all except for the file, which was too much of a hassle. It wasn’t until almost a year later, when the flooring subcontractor prepared to refinish my oak floors, that we absolutely had to get the flat file out of the house. So I again removed the drawers, took off the house’s front door and weatherstripping, and with a couple of young construction workers muscled the big thing out of the house and into a tight space in the already nearly full casita in back, in between my bed frame, fridge, and gas range.

In the process, one side of the cabinet was chipped. I salvaged the wedge-shaped piece of wood and quickly stashed it somewhere I thought it would be safe and retrievable, for however far away in the future it would take to fix this thing and get it back in the house.

Working Around It

The flat file and its separate drawers were now taking up space in the casita, along with most of the other furnishings of my house. I had moved back into and was camping out in the main house, but it was now the middle of winter, and I needed at least one room of that casita as a workshop, to start completing the interior of the house and make repairs to items like the flat file.

I cleared out the workshop as much as possible, but the flat file cabinet had to stay there while I put in the wiring – it was too big to fit through the casita’s other doors. So I worked around it, moving it from place to place as needed.

Repairing the Chip

Finally, at the end of March, I was ready to start fixing up the flat file. But by now I’d completely forgotten where I put that missing wood chip. I looked everywhere but couldn’t find it – I would simply have to fabricate a new piece and glue it in. But how to match the original knotty pine? Knotty pine is no longer available, especially here.

Fortunately I had an old piece of scrap pine hanging around that had similar grain and color.

Refinishing the File Cabinet

The body of the file was quite worn, not to mention smoke damaged. But getting the old finish off took two days of heavy sanding, and in the process I discovered it had never been sanded to begin with – the surface was extremely rough under the finish the cabinetmaker had applied.

Like many things around here, it was paradoxical – the unfinished, imperfect product of a lot of obsessive labor.

I also found out early that sanding in the workshop raised far too much dust, and applying the finish indoors generated too many fumes. So I rolled the cabinet outside on my new dolly and applied three coats of polyurethane, sanding between each coat, covering it with plastic every night and uncovering it every morning.

Making Feet & Corner Guards

The base of the cabinet was the crudest part of it – inconsistent with the rest of the thing, the base was made out of rough, construction-grade two-by-fours. I wasn’t going to have that sliding around on my newly refinished oak floors, so I had to make feet, to which I would attach protective felt. I made these out of scraps of oak from another project, plus I cut corner guards to protect the vulnerable bottom edges of the cabinet, where the chip had come off earlier.

Moving It Back Into the House

Like a fool I was determined to get the cabinet back into the house by myself, and it did not go well – after taking off door and weatherstripping again, there was still only about 1/16″ clearance between the sides of the cabinet and the door jamb, and I ended up scratching up my new finish in a few places. But those were easily repaired.

Installing the Feet & Corner Guards

Reinforcing the Cabinet

I spent weeks puzzling over how to make a top for this cabinet. It would have to span over a yard of open space without warping, and there was no room to add bracing within the existing cabinet – the top would have to be framed above the existing front, sides, and back.

Plywood wouldn’t do – it should be solid wood – equivalent, if not superior, in quality to the expertly joined sides. But I didn’t have access to a broad selection of cabinet-grade wood – our local lumber yard only stocks a limited selection of “project boards” in poplar and oak up to 12″ wide. And I didn’t have the tools or setup to match the joinery of the sides.

Meanwhile, I realized that the top would need to be removable! A fixed top would prevent access to the drawer slides inside the cabinet, and they are mechanical parts that can wear out and break and need to be replaced. I decided to make the top hinged at the back with a continuous piano hinge.

A removable top added even more complexity to a project that just seemed to keep growing. And whereas a fixed top would reinforce the whole cabinet, a removable top would place stress on a structure that didn’t seem to have enough bracing as is. The top front crosspiece was so flimsy you could bend it up and down with one hand.

So I cut a couple of oak boards as cross braces for the body of the cabinet – they would just barely fit above the top drawer, and would stabilize the cross member in front, as well as to prevent warping of the sides. They would also need to be removable to facilitate getting your whole body inside the cabinet to work on the slides!

Building a Top for the File

We didn’t have any cabinet-grade wood panels available locally to cover the entire top, but I finally figured out a way to combine two different woods without more expensive tools. In addition to the oak boards, the lumber yard had a few 24″x48″ cabinet-grade pieces of birch plywood with a nice surface grain, and I was lucky to find two pieces that were book-matched.

I used the oak as edge binding and to join the two pieces of plywood down the center. I still didn’t have long clamps, but I managed to get enough pressure using bungee cords, and a doweling jig, to get reasonably fine joinery.

Being all hardwood, the top ended up really heavy.

Installing the New Top

Once I’d decided to hinge the top, I worried for weeks about how to align the hinge. Both the cabinet and the top were really heavy pieces, and the hinge would need to be attached with the top open, in such a manner that the top would be aligned with the cabinet when closed.

And the fit was not perfect – the original cabinetmaker hadn’t cut the sides perfectly straight, and I hadn’t thought to plane them earlier. Ultimately, searching online, I found adhesive-backed felt tape to line the interface between top, sides, and front. This would help keep dust out. I ordered it the week before I left for Indiana, and it was waiting for me 6 weeks later when I got back from the hospital.

To align the hinge properly was extremely complicated and took three tries, drilling a few holes at first, mounting a few screws, setting the whole heavy thing upright, relocating some holes and screws, lowering, removing and reattaching, etc.

And finally, I discovered that my house floor is uneven, and the cabinet flexes as it’s moved around the floor, so that in some positions, the hinged top is out of alignment, whereas in other positions it’s perfectly aligned. So I gave up and accepted imperfection.

I also realized that the cheap piano hinge from our local Ace is not really sturdy enough for the weight of this top. But it took me so long to install it, I’ll leave it as is for now, letting the next owner worry about that.

Refinishing the Drawers

I kept thinking I was almost done, until I realized the drawers still needed to be sanded and refinished – all 8 of them.

First I had to remove the wooden pulls – they were originally unfinished, and I decided to spray paint them black.

Refinishing the drawers took over a week, partly because I first sealed them with Danish oil to deepen the color, and I had to wait a day and sand between each coat. I had to keep moving them from place to place after each of the 4 coats, to keep them from running and sticking together, and to keep them free of dust from another project I was starting in the shop.

Installing the Drawers

Finally the drawers were ready! I assumed the project was done – what a huge relief! The last big piece of furniture repaired and restored to my house, almost two years after the fire!

I carefully carried each drawer from the casita, up onto the back porch, through the kitchen, and into the living room. When they were all there, I started by inserting the bottom drawer into its slides. These drawers have always been a tight fit, needing several firm pushes to get all the way in. But after the second firm push, one of the drawer slides exploded and ball bearings shot out across the floor.

I wasn’t finished after all. And thank god I’d made that top removable!

So I order a new set of slides for the bottom drawer, and waited another week for it to arrive. And meanwhile, I finally found that missing chip from the side of the cabinet. It was in the bottom of one of the drawers. If only I’d found it months ago, I would’ve saved a couple days of work fabricating a new patch, and the cabinet would’ve ended up looking better. So it goes.

But how to prop up the hinged top so I could work inside the cabinet? I hadn’t included that in my design yet, and there wasn’t much room to work with inside the cabinet. After a few days of design experimentation, I came up with the solution you see below, which works great.

I knew I had to prop the “lid” of the cabinet up in some way. This could be done either with a metal rod – like on the hood of your car – or with a wooden dowel, or a wooden “strut” with a rectangular cross-section. I wanted to avoid metal, which would come with its own challenges. Initially I figured a rectangular strut would be best, because I could attach it to either the underside of the lid or the top of the cabinet with a hinge. But the hinge would have to have a flush profile when the lid is closed, and mortising to achieve that would add work.

Also, I’d need to design some kind of socket to secure the loose end of the strut. Ultimately I realized a removable dowel would be the most elegant solution with my limited resources. I could easily fit an upper socket into a corner inside the lid so it would be flush. The lower socket would simply be a hole cut into the front cross-member of the cabinet, with a metal plate on the underside forming the bottom of the socket. When not in use, the dowel strut could sit in brackets attached to the middle cross member of the cabinet – a neat solution that would keep it inside the cabinet without interfering with the top drawer. I would make these brackets by carefully bending metal mending straps that I already had in my collection of surplus hardware.

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Long Walk For a Shallow Dip

Monday, August 1st, 2022: Hikes, Mogollon, Mogollon Mountains, Southwest New Mexico.

We’d been getting regular cloud cover and occasional rain in town, so I expected fairly good summer hiking weather. Like last weekend, I hoped I might even get some cooling rain in the mountains.

On the drive north, the sky was clear to the west, but there were broad, high clouds over the mountains on my right. And I was excited to get a little rain on the windshield as I headed toward them, but it didn’t last.

I knew just what hike I wanted to do, but I was a little worried when I crossed the river on the highway – it was in flood, 4 times its normal flow. To get to the trailhead, I had to drive across one of its perennial tributaries. Would that be in flood too?

But when I got there, emerging from a shady sycamore grove, the creek’s flow was normal.

This is one of the only two major perennial streams in our mountains that isn’t called a river. The trail begins near the creek downstream, and climbs over several ridges to meet the creek again deep in the wilderness. I’d only been there once before, briefly. It was a hike of over 15 miles round trip, the most I’d done since my illness. If I could make it all the way, I would deserve a dip in the creek!

On the long approach up a rolling basin, I was distracted again and again by wildflowers. The morning temperature was in the 60s, but the humidity is so high now, I was soon drenched with sweat again.

Finally I reached the steep climb to the pass, and now I was really sweating! On past visits I’d found these seemingly endless, exposed switchbacks the most daunting part of the hike, but now I didn’t mind them so much. At least I was getting an occasional breeze.

Beyond the pass you enter the backcountry, a land of deep canyons, burn scars, multicolored layers of rock and dramatic formations, with the crest of the range on your horizon. I’d always thought of this next section of trail as a seemingly endless traverse without much elevation gain, but this time I experienced it completely differently – as an endless series of steep erosional gullies lined with loose rocks. Just goes to show how much our experiences depend on psychology.

The reward at the end is the ponderosa pine “park” – a small, shady, grassy plateau before the trail becomes a ridge hike. But today, I’d been plagued by flies all along that traverse, and as expected the flies were even worse in the park. So I just rushed through it to the descent to the ridge.

On the ridge you are high above the canyon of the creek, with spectacular views to left and right. In the first saddle below the park was my first decision point – the junction with a trail that could be my short cut to the creek. I stood there a while trying to make up my mind. Although the temperature was probably only in the 70s, I was dripping with sweat and really wanted that creek, but I also wanted this hike to be an improvement on last week, with more mileage and/or elevation, and if I took this shortcut it would end up almost identical to last week’s hike.

So ultimately I decided to keep going up the ridge to the next creek crossing.

About another mile along the ridge, the trail begins descending steeply into the canyon, through burn scar regrowth, across erosional gullies, over more fractured white rock, much of it exposed with spectacular views of high peaks and multicolored cliffs of volcanic rock on the opposite side. I kept pushing the head net up from my face, thinking the flies were gone, only to have them return in swarms, dive bombing my eyes and nose.

When I reached the creek, deep in the wilderness, it looked completely different – narrower, choked with vegetation, its bed rearranged by floods. And the flies were terrible. There was no swimming hole, only a shallow channel choked with rocks, but all I could think about was shedding my damp, stinky clothes and getting in, somehow.

I found a channel between rocks that was deep enough to lie back in, and rinsed out my shirt, hat, and head net. The water wasn’t actually cold, but it felt marvelous after that sweaty hike! And while I was wet from the creek water, the flies briefly left me alone.

It’d taken me a long time to reach that crossing – a walk of close to 8 miles – and I knew the hike back would seem truly endless. But first I had to climb out of the canyon, about 800 vertical feet, and I had to take it slow – my lungs were still struggling, and I wanted to preserve the memory of that dip in the water and not get overheated.

Clouds had been massing over the crest in the distance – it looked like there might even be a storm elsewhere in the range. But not here. I knew the temperature couldn’t be above the low 80s, but it felt like the high 90s with all that humidity.

Finally I left the ridge and climbed to the pine park, where the flies swarmed me with a vengeance. And from there forwards, the trail really felt unfamiliar. The “traverse” back to the pass and the open country beyond the mountains felt even more endless than usual, and the rock-lined erosional gullies were harder to descend than they’d been to ascend. With my compromised foot and hip, I had to take it slowly and carefully.

And despite the approach of evening, it didn’t get any cooler. Over the pass, down the endless switchbacks to the foot of the mountains, and then the two-mile slog out the rolling basin, the sun burning down on me all the way. Dark clouds were moving out from the crest of the range, but that dip in the creek was only a distant memory by now!

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Hike of Many Chapters

Monday, July 25th, 2022: Hikes, Mogollon Mountains, Rain, Southwest New Mexico.

I always assumed this is my favorite hike because of the views – especially the view of the first canyon, lined with spectacular rock formations. And because it takes me to a place that feels remote, wild, liberated from the cramped, petty world of men.

But today, on my return hike, I realized that one reason why it feels so remote, is that the route passes through a dozen distinct habitats, topographically different and memorable places, each of which is like a chapter in the story.

I didn’t photograph all of these places today, since I’ve photographed them all abundantly many times before on previous hikes. Like it or not, this dispatch is more textual than visual.

I’ve also noted, after previous hikes, that this is one of the most difficult hikes I do. Since I’m currently weakened, recovering from illness, I didn’t know how far I would get. The hardest part is the climb out of the second canyon. Before tackling this trail, I mostly stuck to peak hikes, where you do all the work on the morning ascent and are rewarded by an easier afternoon descent. It still surprises me that I’m willing to descend that brutally steep and rocky trail early in the day, knowing I’ll have to climb back up it later, when the day is potentially hotter.

Our monsoon seemed to be returning after a hiatus, but this morning was still clear, sunny, and hot. I wore my waterproof boots and carried the waterproof hunting pants in my pack, hoping to get some rain later, but I was already drenched with sweat within the first mile.

Like other trails on the west side of our wilderness, this one starts by descending into a canyon, traversing down its west wall for about a mile up canyon. These canyons have steeper walls than most – sheer cliffs in some places – and the mostly exposed traverse through pinyon, juniper, and scrub oak forms the first chapter of the hike. As you traverse up canyon and descend toward the creek, more of the view ahead is revealed.

At the bottom you enter the riparian forest, with ponderosa pine forming the canopy and dense scrub willow lining the creek. In this very narrow canyon there’s no floodplain, and after crossing on stepping stones to the east bank, the trail continues upstream through the lush riparian forest for another third of a mile.

The third chapter consists of the thousand-foot climb up the eastern wall of the canyon, on a series of long switchbacks that progressively reveal more and more of the spectacular rock formations farther up the canyon. The slope above and below the switchbacks is often sheer, so the view is vertiginous.

At the top of the switchbacks, the trail cuts east into a shallow hanging valley lined with evocative rock formations. In pinyon-juniper-oak forest again, you work your way up to the head of this hidden valley, where finally you emerge onto a sort sort of saddle with a small rocky peak looming above.

The climb to that peak, on dozens of short switchbacks in loose rock at an average grade of 30%, is one of the hardest parts of the hike. Fortunately, it’s only 400 vertical feet! But when you get up there you have the most expansive views of the entire route: north to the crest of the range, east to the heart of the wilderness, west to the mountains of Arizona. This little peak forms the western edge of the rolling plateau you cross to reach the second canyon.

But even this central plateau is divided into distinct, memorable chapters. First, the long, mostly level walk on a surface of shattered white rock, winding between low scrub oak and manzanita and open patches of short ponderosa, mostly exposed with 360 degree views, feeling like you’re up in the sky although the elevation is only 7,200′.

Then you descend on ledges into a hidden valley, a couple hundred feet deep, where you cross a long patch of soft red soil, enter a dense ponderosa forest, and eventually begin climbing up a chaotic, deeply eroded slope which forms the next, and ugliest chapter of the hike.

That slope takes you to the rim of the second canyon, where you face the impossibly steep wall of Lookout Mountain, a long, nearly level ridge whose western wall consists mostly of 2,000′ tall talus slopes.

From this trail, Lookout Mountain is your theatrical backdrop as you begin to descend more than a thousand feet, in stages, into the second canyon.

The first stage is down the gully of a dry, vegetation-choked hanging drainage that you can’t see out of. This gets tighter and tighter, finally leading to a patch of shady mixed-conifer forest with such a shallow slope that it feels like a plateau.

The trail skirts this ledge and begins the final descent into the second canyon, which you dread, knowing you’ll have to climb up it on the way back. This part of the trail consists of loose rock with an average grade of 30%, zigzagging back and forth through a mixture of scrub oak and ponderosa along which you judge your progress by peeking through gaps in the forest at the wall of Lookout Mountain across the canyon.

Finally, again peering down through gaps in the forest and scrub, you spot more level ground below – the shady pine and fir forest above the elevated floodplain of the second creek. This is a huge relief!

That forest steps its way down to the grassy meadows of the elevated floodplain, where Lookout Mountain looms above at its full 2,000′ height, and you can barely hear the creek flowing below.

The trail continues steeply down to the willow thicket lining the creek. I was so hot and sweaty at this point I was looking forward to stripping down and taking a dip, but the wide creek is too shallow at this point, and when I took off my boots and socks, I realized that I had to keep the biomechanical tape and felt on my left foot and ankle – I’d need them on the return hike, and I wasn’t carrying spares. So all I could do was soak and rinse out my sweat-drenched hat and shirt and hope those would cool me a little.

Plus, monsoon clouds had been gradually building over the wilderness, stirring up cool breezes over the creek. So I spent the better part of an hour creekside, vowing to add spare tape and felt to my pack so I could immerse myself on future hot-weather hikes.

By the time I faced the brutal climb out of the second canyon, clouds had extended over it, giving me welcome shade. But in my compromised physical condition, it was still brutal and seemed to take forever – up the precipitous, rocky, seemingly endless switchbacks, up the claustrophobic, vegetation-choked drainage, and on the final climb in loose dirt at a 40% grade to the saddle at the top, where you face the steep descent on the chaotic eroded slope into the shallow hidden valley. Reaching that saddle felt like a major step forward in my recovery! I might not be able to hike as fast as I could a few months ago, but I could plod my way up the steepest slopes.

From there on, I had alternating sunlight and cloud shadow. Hoping for rain, all I got was occasional breezes and the sound of distant thunder from the east.

After crossing the plateau of white rock and scrub, I reached the little peak with the expansive view west, where I could see storms forming far away. Down another steep slope in loose rock, and out the hanging valley to the start of the switchbacks that descend back into the first canyon. It was a long descent, getting hotter the closer I got to the creek, simply due to reduction in elevation and the hothouse microclimate of the narrow canyon bottom.

The final traverse out of the first canyon seemed especially hot and endless. It wasn’t until an hour later, as I drove up the hill entering town, that I finally encountered rain, and by the time I got home it was a downpour.

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Hot, Slow Climb Into the Sky

Monday, July 18th, 2022: Chiricahuas, Hikes, Southeast Arizona.

I was half inclined not to hike this Sunday. I hadn’t felt good on Saturday, and Sunday was forecast to be hot, reaching the low 90s in town.

I’d just finished repairing my deer-damaged 4wd Sidekick the day before. It seemed okay, but most of my favorite hikes involve long drives without a cell phone connection, and after an impact like that I wasn’t sure I wanted to immediately put it to the test.

There are typically two ways to get away from the heat: elevation and shade. But all the high-elevation hikes within an hour of town are either closed due to fire or involve long approaches through hot, overgrown low-elevation canyons.

Finally I realized that my best option actually involved the longest drive. One of the coolest places I know is a hanging canyon ranging from 8,500′-9,000′ down on the Arizona border, with a shady old-growth forest at its head. And most of the drive there retains full cell coverage and AAA road service would be available if the Sidekick broke down.

It was counterintuitive because if it was in the low 90s here, it would be 100 degrees at the entrance to that range, which is 1,000′ lower. But the trailhead is actually even higher than here – 6,500′ – and I would get there early enough so the climb to the canyon should be bearable.

The drive was a real leap of faith in my vehicle and my repair job. Not only did it start with 1-1/2 hours of high-speed, high-temperature driving, but it ended with a thousand-foot climb up the incredibly rough, rocky, high-clearance 4wd-only road to the trailhead, which few people besides me are willing to risk anymore. But the Sidekick performed perfectly.

I was drenched with sweat within the first half mile of the gradual climb up the first canyon. Our early monsoon rains had ensured that the trail was more overgrown by vegetation than ever, and I saw no evidence that anyone else had used it in the past month. Except bears! I found a continuous trail of fresh scat all the way up.

When I reached the switchbacks that take you to the high pass into the hanging canyon, I found a real puzzle. I was already fighting my way through thickets of thorny locust when I came upon big branches of elderberry that had been torn down, so that they blocked the trail and had to be climbed around. Dozens of mature branches, a dozen feet long and over 2″ thick, had been violently broken off, far back from the trail, requiring a long reach and a lot of strength. More strength in many cases than a human would have – and there was no sign humans had used this trail during the growing season, and why would a human pull down vegetation to block a trail anyway? It could only be bears, but bears don’t eat elderberries – all the berry clumps on the branches were intact.

Another surprise occurred when I reached out my thumb to touch a herbaceous leaf that reminded me of mint. I recoiled in pain at the lightest touch – it was stinging nettle! I’d never encountered stinging nettle in this region, but suddenly it seemed to be everywhere on this trail.

Wikipedia says stinging nettle is only native to the Old World, which is patently false. My aboriginal survival course in southeast Utah had included a lesson in how to cook and eat the native species. But in the more than 3 decades since then, I’d forgotten about them. On this trail, it was literally impossible to avoid touching them, so I was plagued by stings throughout the day. Why had they all sprung up suddenly this season, in this place, for the first time?

My lungs have turned out to be the slowest part of me to recover from their near-fatal crisis 2 months ago. Drenched with sweat, with little forest cover, I had to stop over, and over, and over again on the way up to the high pass, to catch my breath. When I finally crossed into the hanging canyon, and made the long traverse to the creek, it was loudly rushing, but it was no shadier and no cooler down there. The many crossings of the rocky, log-choked gully have always been a slow passage. As beautiful as it was, a riot of wildflower color, I found myself trudging and yearning to reach the upper end where the trail enters the shady forest.

I couldn’t believe how hard it was for me to hike uphill. The slightest grade just wore me out. Would I ever recover the capacity I had before the illness?

I stopped at the Forest Service cabin, just below the crest, to rest in the shade of the big pines and firs. The trail to the crest is 4 miles, gaining 2,750 vertical feet. It’s always been a difficult, slow trail, but today it was taking me 3-1/2 hours to hike those 4 miles – painfully slow.

Somehow, leaving the cabin, I got a second wind. I couldn’t climb any faster, but I’d trained myself to walk at half my usual pace, which enabled me to go farther without stopping to rest. And the saddle at the crest trail junction, with its long view toward Mexico, was carpeted with yellow flowers. A young couple was coming back up the crest trail – like most people, they’d done the long, slow drive to the alpine campground several miles north, so they could do the easy crest hike, which involves little elevation change.

I’d started this hike not knowing how far I would get. But from the junction, it was an easy hike north through shady forest to the next saddle, so I continued that way.

I typically pick my turnaround point based on my planned end time minus my actual starting time, divided by two. Closer to home, I usually have 9 hours to hike in summer, but over here, 8 hours is usually the most I have, in order to reach the cafe before closing time.

But when I reached the saddle where I’d planned to end my hike, I realized that whereas the ascent was slow, the descent would be much quicker, because it was only climbing that was hard for me now. That might give me extra time to climb the 9,700′ peak above the saddle.

It’s not much of a peak – the original south side forest burned by the 2011 wildfire has been replaced by aspen thickets, so there’s barely a view. But the remaining forest makes for a nice shady spot to lie in the grass, and the minimal view of distant peaks peeking above the young aspens reminds you that you’re high in the sky.

A variety of birds were passing through, there was a nice breeze, and monsoon clouds were forming all around, occasionally drifting over the sun and providing even more cooling shade. My clothes were so drenched with sweat from the hot climb that they wouldn’t dry out until long after the hike, but I’d learned to ignore that minor discomfort, whenever my body had a chance to temporarily cool off.

In the past, I’d always tried to hike as far as possible, so I was left with no margin on the return and had to descend way too fast, which was hard on my joints. But today I felt I had enough time to return slower than usual. Hah! My joints still didn’t like it at all.

The flies had been with me all the way up, but on the return they became much more aggressive – maybe because of the rising heat – so I finally pulled on my head net. And the stinging nettles seemed to be jumping out at me at every turn.

But I got back to the vehicle with plenty of time to reach the cafe, for that beer, that burrito, and that room for the night. Amazingly, despite how hard and slow it had been, I’d hiked over 10 miles and climbed almost 3,300′, which represented a significant improvement from last weekend. Maybe I really was recovering!

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