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The Rocks, My Teachers

Monday, January 17th, 2022: Hikes, Mogollon Mountains, Sapillo, Southwest New Mexico.

After last Sunday’s tantalizing views over a hidden canyon, this Sunday’s hike was the second choice in my short list of nearby, lower-elevation winter hikes. From a trailhead only a few miles east of the previous hike, the topo map showed this one climbing north from the valley of the same creek, at a little over 6,000′, to a large branching plateau near 8,000′. According to the map, the trail spent several miles up there meandering across the plateau, then dropped down its north slope into the canyon of another creek. I didn’t expect it to be a spectacular hike – the most I hoped for was some new views, decent mileage and accumulated elevation gain, and maybe an interesting canyon at the far end.

That was a big maybe, because it would be almost 9 miles from end to end, and I would only be able to hike the entire distance if the trail turned out to be in good condition, on a surface that allowed me to maintain my preferred rapid pace. As usual I was being optimistic – in the back of my mind was my previous experience that all uplands in the heart of the wilderness were covered with the dreaded volcanic cobbles.

The day was forecast to be partly cloudy with typical midwinter temperatures at 6,000′ – high twenties in the morning to mid-fifties in the afternoon. But the sky was almost completely clear as I left home. Google Maps claimed the direct route through the mountains is 15 minutes shorter than the roundabout route at lower elevation, so that’s the way I went. Google Maps failed miserably – the direct route was actually 15 minutes longer than the roundabout route, which I used to return in the evening. But it gave me a fine panoramic view over the southern edge of the wilderness.

Despite a total lack of wind, it felt pretty damn cold at the trailhead, which faced a low wall of crenelated cliffs across a meadow lined with frosted chamisa – the floodplain of the upper creek, which was dry in this stretch. By the time the trail led me back into a narrow tributary valley and the wilderness boundary, I’d had to dig a wool scarf out of my pack and wrap it around my face.

But I quickly warmed up, and began shedding outerwear, on the climb to the plateau. The first part of the climb, along the rim of an interior basin to my right, revealed occasional views of sheer cliffs of soft, partly compacted volcanic tuff. But it also revealed the dreaded volcanic cobbles, as bad as I’d encountered anywhere. And the trail, while not really steep, proceeded at a grade that could only be described as relentless, straight up an outlying ridge of the plateau, through open pinyon-juniper-oak forest that allowed only frustratingly partial views of the surrounding landscape. The forest cover meant that I could never see more than 100′ ahead of me, and always hoped I would reach the top of the plateau after another 100′ of climbing, only to face yet another 100′ of climbing.

After about 3 miles of climbing, I reached the top of the plateau, and the first of a series of reasons why this trail even existed – an abandoned corral, followed by an abandoned stock pond. The trail had been accompanied by an abandoned barbed wire fence for the past couple of miles, and I was to see that fence for the rest of the hike. Not my favorite wilderness experience.

From there, the trail proceeded across the gently rolling plateau, in and out of small stands of tall ponderosa pine and through long patches of snow up to 10″ deep, the ground lined with the difficult volcanic cobbles everywhere except for small patches of mud.

I was looking for the junction with a shorter trail that came in from the west. That junction would be 5.3 miles in from my trailhead, leaving less than 4 miles to the far end at the distant creek. But it was such slow walking that I was pretty sure I wouldn’t make it to the end. It seemed to take forever just to reach the junction.

What awaited me at the junction was not encouraging. Nobody else had hiked this trail since our snowfall 3 weeks ago, but shortly before reaching the junction I found boot tracks in the snow, and at the junction itself somebody had built a campfire in the trail literally at the foot of the trail sign. Like the on-trail campfire I’d found a few months ago, this one had trash on top of the coals – a sardine can, a melted plastic wrapper, and some crumpled foil.

I remember back in the Dotcom Boom when my idealistic young colleagues proclaimed “information wants to be free!” This is the result of that. People who haven’t been brought up in backpacking culture watch YouTube videos and learn about places and trails on social media, and anyone can buy the gear at Walmart or REI. But information without ethics is inevitably abusive and destructive. Freedom erodes accountability and hence responsibility, and the technologies which my colleagues hoped would liberate people instead became addictive and exploitative, leading to genocide and other societal abuses while turning a tiny minority of white men into billionaires.

Continuing past the junction, I passed the second abandoned corral and stock pond. Until a few decades ago when a citizens’ lawsuit finally forced the Forest Service to end ranching in the wilderness, this had been a rancher’s trail – and visually, it still was.

It’d taken me so long to reach the junction, there was no way I was going to reach trail’s end at the next creek. But I had about 45 minutes left before I had to turn back, so I continued on the main trail. That was when I began to encounter more work by the backcountry horsemen. Whoever is doing this recent trail “maintenance” seems to be in love with their chainsaw. They’re clear-cutting a corridor between 10 and 15 feet wide – much wider than someone on horseback should need – and leaving unsightly slash piles along the trail.

Maybe I’m encountering stuff like this because I’m hiking trails that are really better suited to equestrians. They don’t actually have to walk on the volcanic cobbles – they spend the entire day sitting on their horses’ backs, while the animals have to deal with the rocky ground, and with four feet, they probably find it easier than humans.

But the Forest Service doesn’t designate trails for hikers vs. equestrians – all trails are supposed to be mixed-use. And all upland trails in the Gila have this kind of surface – maybe that’s why horse-packing outfits are so popular here.

Lined with hacked-off limbs and sawed-off young trees, the trail continued out a northern branch of the plateau for another mile, before the path of destruction ended. I found myself in a patch of deep snow on the north rim of the plateau, with a view north over the main part of the wilderness, a view I’d never had before. Parts of it were even more rugged than I’d expected.

From there, the tread became almost invisible as I worked my way down a series of short switchbacks through dense pinyon-juniper-oak forest into the canyon of the unfamiliar creek. I soon ran out of time and had to turn back.

Now I had more than 7 miles of that terrible rocky surface to cross on the way back. I’d intentionally given myself enough time so I didn’t feel rushed, but since I’d sworn to approach those volcanic cobbles with a positive attitude, I decided to make a concerted effort to tackle them on their own terms – to figure out a way to walk that incredibly challenging ground with grace.

There was only one way to do it. I had to banish all urgency, and give the task all the time it required. But even more importantly, I had to clear my mind, stop thinking, and focus all my attention, not on the trail ahead, but on the ground directly in front of my feet – the length of my shortest stride, which on ground like this is 2 feet or less. At each step, I had to pinpoint and decide on exactly where to put each foot, before even lifting that foot off the ground.

I thought I’d done that before, but I learned that I actually hadn’t. Goal-oriented, highly motivated, brimming with energy, I’d always been scanning 6 to 10 feet ahead for major obstacles, assuming I could ignore lesser obstacles. That way of walking worked on every other kind of surface, but not on these volcanic rocks. Hence I’d always been twisting my ankles or stumbling on this kind of surface, cursing all the way.

Why had it been so hard for me to focus and concentrate? I recalled losing my sunglasses last week – and only a few days ago, buying a new furnace filter, setting it on the roof of my car while I unlocked the door, driving away and only realizing a half hour later, at home, that the new filter was lying along the roadside somewhere, miles away, battered and broken. This kind of thing has happened to me over and over again during the past few years, and why? Because trauma and frustration have left me in a perpetual state of distraction – always worried about problems I have to solve, always anxious about what will go wrong next – never present, never fully aware of my surroundings. Always distracted and literally absent-minded.

Gurus speak of mindfulness, but what I needed was a state of mindlessness. It was only when faced with these rocks that required me to stop thinking and focus on the ground before my feet, that I was able to banish that distraction and enter a state of mindless grace. And after a while, it began working. I found I no longer resented these rocks. I found I enjoyed the challenge. I felt I was getting good at it, I was mastering the rocks – and since that was a form of thinking, a form of distraction, that’s when I began to stumble again.

I had now learned my second lesson: humility and submission. We don’t master nature – she will always be our master. Wisdom comes when we submit to nature.

These rocks, that for years I believed to be my enemies, had become my teachers.

Of course, this kind of extreme focus and concentration has to be put in context like everything else. While doing it, you lose all consciousness of your broader surroundings. Gurus speak of becoming more present, but when taken to an extreme like this, you’re actually oblivious to your surroundings. You can’t see vegetation or wildlife, and you have no idea where you are in the landscape. To see anything except the ground at your feet, you have to come to a full stop. I wondered how the Apaches could hunt in this kind of habitat. You’d have to pick your vantage points, and the routes between them, and stop frequently along the way. There’d be no running to chase down a deer, like in that expensive, award-winning Hollywood production Last of the Mohicans.

Hiking became quite literally a form of meditation. Walking with more grace and more peacefulness the farther I went, I finally reached the southern end of the plateau and began descending, just as the sun was lowering to the long ridge north of town. It lit up the soft cliffs surrounding the interior basin, and there was just enough last light to briefly gild the rim of the side valley before I emerged into the chamisa.

I hoped I would remember the day’s lessons.

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Best Hike Ever!

Monday, January 10th, 2022: Mogollon Mountains, Sapillo, Southwest New Mexico.

Just kidding – not really the best hike ever, but with plenty of redeeming value. I finally realized I need a major attitude adjustment. I’ve been complaining way too much, and I need to start reacting to setbacks, hardship, crisis, and maybe even trauma as exciting opportunities.

This was the hike I’d planned to do last Sunday – top of my short list of lower-elevation winter hikes – but had been prevented by a snow-blocked highway. This time I took the long way around, to avoid the higher elevations, but unnecessarily as it turned out, since the direct route had been fully plowed in the past week.

I’m glad I took the longer route, though, since I’ve been avoiding that area since I moved here, and I’d completely forgotten how interesting it is. It’s a real slice of the Old West that is near my home but otherwise fairly remote, scenic, and off the tourist radar. The highway runs north up the upper floodplain of one of our two local rivers, then over a low divide into the smaller valley of a creek, which has been dammed to create a small lake for fishing and recreation.

Finding the trailhead and actually following this trail was going to be a gamble. According to the maps, it starts near where the highway crosses the creek downstream of the dam, enters the wilderness boundary and climbs high up the north slope above the creek. Once up there, it contours around a series of high shoulders to a point near the mouth of the creek, where it drops back down to the creek and follows it a short distance to where it flows into the wild river. The backcountry horsemen claim to have cleared it of logs and brush last spring.

Some sources said the initial access went through private land, where it could be blocked. The latest crowd-sourced maps showed it starting on the highway, but the latest online trip log, from Thanksgiving, simply said “This trail is not accessible any more.” But I’ve learned to take anonymous online information with a big grain of salt. If I found and could follow the trail, it would be my first venture on trails in the heart of the wilderness, and my first encounter with the river in its wildest stretch.

When I reached the short stretch of highway where the trail was supposed to begin, the only manmade thing I could see from my passing vehicle was a small, ancient, blank, unpainted plywood signboard nearly buried in high weeds 20 feet off the road. Beyond that I found a turnout, parked, and optimistically shouldered my pack. The creek trended west below a high south slope, so it would mostly be shaded from the low winter sun. The temperature now was well below freezing, so I dressed warmly but expected the temperature to reach the 50s in the afternoon.

I walked back the road to where I’d seen the old signboard, and noticed a faint, narrow track through the weeds, leading down onto the floodplain. I’d found the trailhead, but I knew it had to cross the creek in order to climb the north slope – would it really turn out to be “not accessible any more”?

One reason I’ve avoided trails in the heart of the wilderness is that most are canyon hikes involving from 50 to 100 river crossings. Hikers can only use these trails in warm weather, when they wear water shoes, gaiters, and shorts. My foot condition makes this impractical – they don’t make water shoes that are reinforced and accommodate prescription orthotics. My experience of canyon hikes had been limited to creeks which are major tributaries to the rivers, and in every case there had been stepping stones or logs allowing me to cross without too much anxiety around getting my boots wet or my feet frostbit.

I didn’t expect the trail in this creek bottom to be any different, nor did I expect it to be a bigger creek than those I’d dealt with elsewhere. And my reading of the maps had indicated there would only be one or two crossings before the trail left the floodplain. Hence my surprise when the first crossing was wide and deep and with no stones or logs.

It took me 5-10 minutes to find a place downstream with a couple of barely submerged rocks, and a couple of dead willows I could use as walking sticks. It was touch and go, but I made it across. I left the sticks beside the trail so I could use them on my return.

In the end, there were 9 crossings in a mile and a half, and as creeks do, it got wider and wider the farther down I went. I was losing a lot of time at these crossings, so I used the first sticks I found, usually rotten and awkwardly formed, and hoping this would be the last crossing, at each crossing I stopped and found new sticks, and left them on the far side for return use. I began to feel I was trapped down here in the freezing shade with this ever-widening creek – maybe the trail had been changed since the maps were made, and it never climbed out of the canyon?

The only recent prints I found in the snow or frozen mud of the trail were from horses and dogs – I figured that’s why there were no stepping stones or logs at crossings – equestrians don’t need them. So this must be primarily an equestrian trail. Eventually it left the creek and began to climb up an even darker side drainage, getting rockier as it climbed, with the awkward volcanic cobbles.

From my cursory reading of maps and trail descriptions I expected this to be slightly over 6 miles one-way. My destination, the mouth of the creek, was only 650′ lower than the trailhead. In climbing the north slope, the trail never gets higher than 500′ above the creek, but because it has to zigzag back and forth into deep side drainages, dropping and climbing hundreds of feet each time, the accumulated elevation gain is almost 3,500′. That made it a good candidate for me, although I’d always rather get that elevation climbing a peak.

When I reached the first shoulder, I wasn’t rewarded with much of a view. The peaks and ridges around me were all low, rounded, and uniformly forested. I’d passed rock outcrops and low cliffs on the way, but there wasn’t much of that visible from above. The next shoulder was much the same, and I was getting tired of all the up and down with apparently little reward.

While climbing over those shoulders, the trail had been trending away from the creek and its canyon. It wasn’t until the third shoulder that I regained a view over the canyon and into a significantly new landscape. To the northwest, peeking from behind the next shoulder, I glimpsed a much higher peak that I figured had to be Granny Mountain, one of the few higher peaks in the heart of the wilderness (the really high peaks are all at the western edge). Then, as I traversed down and across to yet another shoulder, a dramatic section of canyon opened on my left, to the south. The canyon wall here was composed of black rock cliffs that narrowed to an impressive slot canyon, where I could hear the creek roaring. The walls were so sheer and close together that you couldn’t see into the canyon from above.

Most of these shoulders featured broad grassy meadows, and when I found an abandoned wilderness sign, I reflected on the real vs. official histories of places like this. These meadows may have resulted from indigenous management. Whereas the myth of wilderness teaches environmentalists that white Anglo heroes like John Muir and Aldo Leopold saved these areas from destruction by eliminating human interference.

The reality is that indigenous people used this habitat sustainably for thousands of years, managing for both diversity and productivity. Then whites invaded, killed or otherwise relocated them, and, unaware that this natural abundance had been achieved by prudent native management, began overconsuming it, driving species to extinction. Conservationists like Muir and Leopold failed to recognize the indigenous role in natural habitats, believing the balance of nature could be restored in “parks” and “preserves” if we could remove all human impacts.

Wilderness – the raison d’être of these places where I hike – is a European colonial fiction. So now, instead of a culture in which every member is intimately aware of and dependent on the health of their local natural resources, we have a culture of urban consumers dependent on anonymous products from distant sources, surrounding isolated parks and preserves overseen – but seldom actively managed – by career bureaucrats and urban law courts, in which the natural diversity and resilience carefully achieved by local native users are gradually collapsing. And we congratulate ourselves on the “progress” achieved by our civilization and its white male heroes.

Down and up onto the next shoulder – the fourth so far – and I had yet another view, into a much broader new landscape that led to the high peaks I was familiar with in the far west. I could now see the gray deciduous forest down in the mouth of the creek, still far ahead, but even up here I felt like I’d penetrated deep in the wilderness.

I was getting pretty discouraged, because according to my original estimate of distance, I should’ve reached the creek mouth already. And I hadn’t anticipated so many intervening shoulders – so many ups, downs, and arounds, so many times shedding layers in the sun and pulling my sweater and gloves back on in the chilly shade. Now there was yet another high shoulder to get over before the trail began dropping toward the creek. The last thing I wanted to do was have to make those precarious stream crossings in the dark on the way back, but I was running out of time. Still, now that the mouth of the creek was almost in sight, how could I turn back?

And when I finally got within view of the riparian forest, from the final switchbacks dropping into the canyon, I could see it was largely made up of beautiful, venerable sycamores – one of my favorite trees.

Of course when I reached the floodplain, the first thing I encountered was another crossing point, with a creek that was now 20 feet wide. It took me longer than usual to find two sticks, 40 feet up the bank and 60 feet off the trail, but with quite a bit of anxiety I made it across. It would be no picnic hiking all the way back in wet boots with temperatures dropping to freezing again.

I passed an old junction with another trail coming in from the south, and another difficult creek crossing below cliffs. And eventually I saw the river junction up ahead in brilliant afternoon sunlight. But just before it was the biggest and gnarliest crossing of all – a rapids, with big loose rocks that were just too precarious to use as stepping stones. I’d brought the last pair of sticks with me, and spent a few minutes trying scout a route, but the flow was strong here, and it was just too dangerous. At least I’d seen the river, and that would have to be enough for now. It was time to hurry back.

That was when I realized I’d lost my expensive sunglasses, yet again. Somewhere up on the trail into the canyon, I remembered hanging them from the open neck of my sweater. They could’ve fallen off anywhere in the past mile.

I returned up the mostly shaded trail, scanning the ground carefully. I recrossed the creek at a sunny spot and trudged up the floodplain to the shady crossing before the climb out of the canyon. The banks were littered with limbs, which made it harder to search. I thought maybe the sunglasses had worked loose while I was seeking and breaking limbs on the far side, to use as walking sticks. So I crossed over and searched the bank, working my way back into the forest where I remembered finding sticks. I began scanning a clearing under a big sycamore, and amazingly, there they were, almost perfectly camouflaged in leaf litter dappled with shade.

The return hike was even more grueling, but I kept reminding myself that it’d been a great day, and all the hardship just made it a better adventure. If I had to cross the creek in the dark, so be it – it would make a better story!

I did come to hate those interminable shoulders, and it was pretty dark by the time I finally reached the creek again. And the first thing I discovered was that another hiker had followed me partway, and on their return, had selfishly used nearly all the sticks I’d so carefully saved, discarding them out of my reach on the opposite side. So now I had to find new sticks, and this time I picked ones I could carry with me and re-use. By the time I reached the last crossing, it was headlamp dark, the water level had risen to submerge my former stepping stones, and I could no longer see submerged rocks. So I found a spot where I could use a little midstream shoal and try to jump the far channel. The jump didn’t quite make it, and I did get my boot wet, but I grabbed a branch to haul myself up the bank, and I knew the vehicle was now within reach.

It was full dark when I got there. It’d taken me 8-1/2 hours – I knew it had to be farther than 12 miles round-trip. When I got home and plotted the route, I found it was closer to 15.

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Someone Else’s Playground

Monday, January 3rd, 2022: Hikes, Pinos Altos Range, Southwest New Mexico.

I have to start this Dispatch with several caveats.

First off, this was one of the most punishing and least rewarding hikes I’ve ever done.

Second, the pictures don’t really show what made it miserable. I had a friend – a young coder in the tech industry – who once told me that for his generation, if I didn’t get any pictures, whatever I was talking about simply didn’t happen. Most of my friends are urban professionals who would be really annoyed by much of what I experienced on this hike. Hence they’ve arranged their lives so they never encounter these kinds of people and their lifestyle, and may have a hard time imagining it.

Third, the title of this Dispatch was inspired by a song by my long-lost lover, bandmate, and loftmate, Francesca. She was my original partner in the Terra Incognita loft in San Francisco. Whereas we were temporarily together when we moved in, her “true love” was a classmate at CalArts, just north of Los Angeles. A few months after we moved in and recruited other artists and musicians, I met and fell in love with a student at the San Francisco Art Institute. At the same time, Francesca’s long-distance boyfriend dumped her, and her father cut off her allowance. Since the wheel of fortune seemed to be favoring me and punishing her, she started lashing out at me in various ways, and wrote “Someone Else’s Pocket” to express her feelings of helplessness in an environment where I was the authority figure. Ironically, she had to rely on me to put her lyrics to music.

We’d had a couple inches of snow in town yesterday, which partly melted in the afternoon. Since there would’ve been much more in the mountains, and snow always significantly limits my winter hiking choices, I’d made a short list of possible lower-elevation hikes. Sunday was forecast to be the coldest day we’ve had in many years, and I wasn’t even sure if it was a good idea to be hiking in such conditions. When I got up, it was 15 degrees outside and perfectly still under a crystal clear sky.

At the top of my short list was an unfamiliar trail in the heart of the wilderness due north of town. That trail stays below 8,000′, so I was hoping the snow there would be manageable. The trailhead can normally be accessed from town in about an hour’s drive, by two different paved highways. The longer route tops out at 6,500′, but the shorter, more direct route reaches 7,500′.

But after packing for the hike, I discovered that the door locks on both sides of my vehicle were frozen. We’d had high winds all day yesterday, and the snow had been preceded by rain – apparently water had blown into the locks and frozen. I didn’t have a blow drier, a torch, or anything I could use to warm the locks from the outside.

I was able to unlock and open the rear hatch, so I crawled through the vehicle, and found the inner door locks wouldn’t move, either. But since the two back seat doors have no external lock, I was able to unlock and open them from the inside. Should I simply crawl over the front seats and drive it anyway, accepting that the front doors wouldn’t work and I’d have to crawl in and out through the back? What if I had an accident on the icy/snowy roads, and ended up in a ditch? I’d have to hope I could crawl over the seats and get out that way. I hated to take the risk, but I equally hated to give up and stay at home.

For some reason, as I was driving across town, I decided to take the shorter, higher route. I suppose I wanted to test the abilities of my 4WD Sidekick and its expensive all-terrain tires. The snow got progressively deeper as the highway climbed to its first 7,000′ crest, and it had been plowed just wide enough for two vehicles to pass. I drove slowly and switched to 4WD when I saw the first patch of ice on the road.

There was literally no one else traveling until I reached the twistiest part through the dark forested mountains and suddenly saw a sheriff’s vehicle approaching me from around a blind turn. I lightly tapped the brakes and immediately began to slide sideways, narrowly missing the big SUV. That showed me how little grip I was going to have, so I slowed down even more and stopped using the brakes, using the accelerator and gear shift instead to control my speed.

I was encouraged to find clear stretches of asphalt where the road dipped below 7,000′ in the dark, narrow canyon, but at the end, where the road began winding and climbing steeply again, it was still plowed wide enough for two vehicles, but the pavement was entirely covered with frozen snow and ice. I kept going slowly and carefully for about a mile, but before reaching the highest point of the road, the plowed surface suddenly ended, with only a single pair of tire ruts continuing. The snow here was over a foot deep. If I encountered another vehicle I’d have to drive off into the deep snow, and my vehicle only has about 9 inches of ground clearance. I had to back up to the nearest bend, where there was just barely enough room to turn around.

When I reached the sharp turn at the canyon bottom, where a dirt forest road branches off, leading to the fire lookout on the peak above, I noticed out of the corner of my eye that the snow there had been packed down by vehicle tracks. I’d hiked down that road from the peak once and discovered the bottom stretch of it was lined with clearings and informal campsites. If my only other option was to go home and give up on hiking, why couldn’t I at least hike up that road? It was 7-1/2 miles to the lookout, with over 2,000′ of elevation gain. If I made it all the way, that would be a 15 mile round trip hike.

I figured I would drive up the rutted forest road a hundred yards or so, looking for a place where I could park without getting stuck in the snow. Almost immediately I found a big clearing in the mature pine forest above the road. There were no other vehicles, but oddly, there was a tent pitched under the trees, surrounded by a large collection of valuable camping gear, all covered with 8 inches of snow.

I crawled out the back of my vehicle and suited up for a subfreezing hike through the shade of the forest, where I began walking on the hard-packed, now-frozen snow in the tire tracks of vehicles that had been here yesterday. The forest was beautiful under the snow, but the slopes on both sides of the road had been driven over randomly by UTVs and big trucks yesterday, clearly in the afternoon after most of the snow had fallen. I hadn’t realized it, but apparently this was a traditional playground for my town’s off-road enthusiasts.

The road climbed back and forth over the gently rolling foothills of the peak, soon leaving the forest and entering the moonscape burn scar of the 2014 wildfire. Above me on the right rose stark snow-white slopes populated with standing snags stripped of bark like toothpicks. Below on my left I could gaze across the entire wilderness landscape, rumpled, snow-blanketed mountains stretching 40 miles to peaks and ridges on the northern horizon. I quickly warmed up and shed ski gloves and heavy fleece jacket. That would be another theme of the day, shedding layers in sunlight and putting them back on again in shade, over and over again. Shortly I came upon a big 4WD pickup truck that had slipped off the road into a ditch, gotten stuck, and been abandoned there.

I could easily spot the fire lookout high over my right shoulder, less than a mile away as the crow flies – but the access road heads east, in the opposite direction, for several miles before climbing to a high ridge and looping back to the lookout peak. And since it runs almost entirely through the burn scar, it’s fully exposed and I’d be getting sunlight reflected off the snow as well as from above. In cold weather I wear a small cap instead of my shade hat, so I had to dig out the sunscreen for the first time since last winter, plastering what little of my skin was uncovered.

After the first couple of miles most of the vehicle tracks ended and I had only two ruts left to walk in, left by two vehicles with completely different tread. The snow was now over a foot deep and I hadn’t even reached 8,000′.

Finally the road left the burn scar and began to climb through intact pine forest. At 8,500′ the snow was knee deep, and the winds yesterday had blown powder into the tire ruts, so it became harder and slower going. Since there was still hard pack under the powder, but I could never tell how deep it was, it was unstable footing and really hard on my hips and knees. But it was doable – without yesterday’s tire ruts I never would’ve been able to hike today.

In the back of my mind was all those vehicle tracks through the forest at the beginning of the road. Would the off-roaders come back today? Every now and then I stopped to listen, but the entire frosted landscape was silent and seemed to be at peace.

After I crossed the ridge, the southern basin-and-range landscape unfolded below on my left, 5,000′ lower, into an endless golden haze. The road follows the high ridge for a couple miles, then dips a few hundred feet to a small saddle, before climbing steeply across a north-facing slope the last mile and a half to the peak. On that last climb I’d be almost completely in shadow and it would be very cold. I toyed with the idea of turning back there – it would still be a decent day’s hike – but as usual I hated to turn back with a clear destination in sight. And I figured I had just enough time to reach the peak and return to the vehicle by sunset.

So I trudged on, climbing hundreds of vertical feet up that difficult snow-covered road, gradually feeling better as I finally neared the peak. My quads were cramping, so I spent my brief time up there doing some long slow stretches.

I was halfway down toward the saddle when I suddenly heard an angry engine growl from somewhere ahead. I scanned the high ridge and finally spotted two dark UTVs driving out of the ridgetop forest and down into the burn scar. Within minutes they reached me. They didn’t slow down, so I had to quickly step off into the knee-deep snow as they raced past – both closed-cab 4-seaters full of high school kids, with the windows rolled up. I waved, but most of them ignored me, one or two waving back as they bounced up the road.

I kept hiking down the road in the shadows, and after a few hundred yards heard more growling ahead of me. This time it was two giant open-cab, open-frame, homemade-looking UTVs designed for travel in deep snow or mud – with at least a couple feet of ground clearance, extra-wide tracks, and tires almost 4 feet in diameter – each driven by a middle-aged guy. They looked like something built for the apocalypse in somebody’s garage. A red-tailed hawk flushed from a snag by the road as they approached and soared out over the void. They slowed and I told them how impressed I was by their machines, and they thanked me before rolling on.

By now I could tell that whatever benefit I’d gotten from yesterday’s tire ruts was being eliminated by today’s UTVs. Because they were lightweight, they didn’t pack the snow down, and because they drove fast and bounced on soft springs, they spread the snow back over yesterday’s ruts and created wavelike softer and harder patterns that were really hard to walk in. If I’d known this I never would’ve started up the road, but now I was stuck, with another 6 miles to go.

Moving more slowly now, I passed the saddle and began trudging up hundreds of vertical feet to the high ridge. There I encountered a smaller open-frame UTV driven by an old guy with a ZZ Top beard. He didn’t look or slow down as he passed me, so I yelled “It’s like a freeway up here!” and he gave me a vague wave.

From then on, I could hear engines in the distance, all the time. With the snow tossed around by so much UTV traffic, the road was getting harder and harder to walk. But finally I reached the end of the ridge and began descending, although the snow was so unstable, going down really wasn’t much easier.

Suddenly I realized my cap was gone. That was a new cap, ordered from San Francisco! I looked all around, but I had no idea when I’d lost it, so I gave up and kept trudging down. Then I realized it was time for a drink of water, and when I unshouldered my back, the cap fell off it onto the road. It had slipped off the back of my head and was just perched on the sloped lid of my pack, with nothing but friction to hold it on.

Shortly after that I was passed by the high school kids’ UTVs, again racing past without slowing, forcing me off the road into deep snow. I was now out of the forest, crossing the burn scar, with the vast northern wilderness laid out to my right and the bald toothpick slopes rising on my left. Rounding a broad turn, I saw an unfamiliar open-topped UTV ahead, parked just off the road. There was a young guy standing on the side of the road scratching in the snow with a branch, and sitting in the UTV watching him was a beautiful young Native girl, with long braided hair parted down the middle like something out of a 19th century painting.

As I approached them I noticed writing in the bank of snow along the road: “Suck Me” followed by something I couldn’t read. “Suck Me!” I yelled, laughing. “So that’s the word of the day!” They both cracked up and I wished them more fun. The whole thing was finally becoming clear. This area really was a traditional playground for the local working class folks, who work hard to afford their expensive mechanical toys, and yesterday’s snow was an opportunity none of them could pass up. Today was their big day to celebrate.

Across the next long bend, I could hear an engine laboring and men yelling. I saw two pickup trucks pointing up a steep, shaded section of the road, one of them obviously stuck in the snow.

More young people. There was a couple sitting in the stuck truck, the guy revving the engine, spinning his tires, as two other guys tried to pull from the back with a nylon strap. The young guy had obviously been trying to impress his girl, driving up this steep road in the deep snow, and it backfired. I didn’t see how they were going to get it out – the other truck was no bigger and no better prepared for towing – but I wished them well.

Around another bend, and I came to another pair of trucks, one of them stuck, too. The young driver was obviously pissed – I asked him if they’d tried laying branches under the tires, but he just spat “I’ll get it out!”

Shortly after that, the two giant UTVs driven by the middle-aged guys overtook me going down, waving as they passed. The road was entering the foothills where it wasn’t so steep, and ahead I saw two big 4WD pickups parked on a rise beside the road, with middle-aged men and women standing around as their kids played in the snow. A younger man dragged two laughing tots on a sled down the road toward me.

“There’s two trucks driven by young guys stuck up there,” I said to one of the older men. “That’s why we stopped here,” he said, laughing. “You really need UTVs for that stuff.”

More UTVs passed me coming up the road. I started down through a small patch of forest with a clearing and corral, and saw two kids sledding and a big SUV parked by the corral. As I was passing them, more UTVs driven by older men raced up the road toward me and I dashed out of their way.

Shortly after that I heard another engine behind me. It was the big SUV from the corral, towing two kids sitting in inner tubes at the end of long lines. They were moving slow so I had to wait a long time, standing off the road in knee-deep snow, for them to pass.

Finally I approached the end of the burn scar and could see the forest below. Another open UTV approached me driven by an older Hispanic man with his wife. At least half the people I’d seen today were Hispanic, matching our local demographic. They stopped to ask me if I was okay and if I needed a ride or some water. Despite the fact that I was warmly dressed and carrying a backpack, everyone I’d met acted as if walking were a sign of something terribly wrong.

As I walked down the road into the gently rolling forest I could hear a lot more noise ahead, and vehicles parked off the road in the deep snow under the trees. A young woman raced up the road in a single-seat UTV with two smaller girls hanging on her back, asking me if I needed help. There was a big family party going on in a clearing under the trees on the right side of the road. There were no tents or RVs, but they’d set up tables and stoves and had a campfire going, and there were kids and dogs running around. The folks nearest me waved and smiled. A little farther down I passed an even bigger party on the left, with a roaring fire and half a dozen big pickup trucks parked randomly in the snow under the trees.

Then I saw another big party farther back in the trees, and another up ahead on my right. I was getting near the end. Suddenly an old pickup truck pulled alongside me, driven by an old long-haired guy wearing a cowboy hat who looked like a Mexican bandit out of an old movie. He couldn’t roll his passenger window down, but he frowned and used sign language to ask me if I was okay. I’d been picking up trash in the road so I couldn’t sign him back, but I yelled I was fine and after a while he drove on.

The young girl on the UTV passed me again and asked if I needed a ride or some water. I couldn’t count the offers for help I’d had so far. Most people were worried about me, and nobody could understand why I was walking.

Finally I reached the big clearing where my vehicle was parked. There was another big party going on there. The tent and all the camping gear had disappeared, and several more pickups surrounded the spot, with stoves set up on tables and campfires burning on the ground. This party was strictly young folks, and I could see tall liquor bottles in the cab of the nearest truck.

I smiled and waved yet again. My whole lower body was sore from 15 miles of walking in unstable snow. The temperature had climbed slightly above freezing at this elevation, and my door locks had melted free. Still, it was a stressful drive back through the mountains, because the traffic was now relentless and the shaded asphalt still bore long patches of ice and frozen snow. Even after sunset, people were streaming from town out into the mountains. At one point where the icy road topped a rise and the ice cleared, there was a Prius stopped in the opposite traffic lane, rightly afraid to go any farther. An out-of-state plate – a tourist learning about our conditions the hard way. They’d be lucky to get turned around and make it back out of the mountains.


The Hike That Almost Wasn’t

Monday, December 20th, 2021: Hikes, Little Dry, Mogollon Mountains, Southwest New Mexico.

This Sunday’s hike barely happened. I won’t bore you with the details, but Saturday was hard, I got up Sunday assuming I wouldn’t be hiking, and by the time I decided I might as well give it a try, I was almost two hours late getting to the trailhead.

Starting late, I should’ve done the hike near home, but my mind was still obsessed with that area over on the west side of the wilderness. Without the time for a serious exploration, I decided to hike the canyon-to-ridge trail that I’d previously given up on as too much trouble for too little payoff. If my body held up, I might be able to reach the junction at 9,000′ where another abandoned trail branched off into unknown territory. I didn’t expect to get much farther in the limited time I had, but at least I’d get a sense of the condition of that old trail.

It was another crystal clear day, just below freezing.

One reason I’ve avoided this trail is the condition of the canyon bottom. The canyon is narrow and very rocky, and would be spectacular if it weren’t choked with deadfall and post-wildfire thickets. All the crowd-sourced websites show the trail from the canyon to the ridge top as 3.8 miles, but they omit all the zigzags, switchbacks, and up and down sections required to avoid obstacles in the canyon bottom. And because of the towering cliffs and forest cover, I’m sure there are huge gaps in everyone’s GPS readings. The hike to ridge top takes a minimum of two hours, and I’m convinced it’s closer to 5 miles.

The saddle at 8,240′ is no place to linger. That’s where I hit the first patches of snow from our storm a couple weeks ago, and the north slope below the saddle was coated by a couple inches. The trail continues straight east up the next steep section of ridge then starts a series of six long switchbacks, none of which are shown on the maps, before traversing around a white conglomerate cliff into the bowl at the head of Little Dry Creek. There, you face the arc of ridges that top out at over 10,000′. I’d previously bushwhacked up to 9,800′ there, but now I was hoping to turn off onto the abandoned trail at about 9,100′. I was looking forward to getting above 9,000′ for the first time in months – usually the higher elevations are inaccessible this time of year due to deep snow.

There was virtually nothing left of the old trail, but I clambered over deadfall, followed gaps in the oak seedlings, and used occasional sections of tread maintained by elk, for a few hundred yards, reaching a level clearing on the shoulder of the next outlying ridge.

Beyond that clearing, a solid thicket of Gambel oak had completely obliterated the trail, but another couple hundred yards past the thicket, I could see the old trail crossing a wide talus slope. That’s one of the few good things about talus – as long as it stays clear of vegetation, it preserves trails.

Due north of me were some of the highest peaks in the range, and thousands of feet below me were the parallel canyons of Spruce and upper Big Dry Creeks, whose junction I’d bushwhacked to last July on another abandoned trail. It was a great view, but all that country was essentially inaccessible to humans now due to post-wildfire deadfall, blowdown, and regrowth.

Since I couldn’t get any farther, I had some extra time. I hung out there for a while, soaking up the views, eating a snack, and reminding myself not to rush the return hike. I hadn’t even expected to hike today, so it was sort of a free day anyway.

Unlike the other hikes I’d done recently, this return was almost all downhill. Not to say it was easy – in addition to the usual loose rocks, I faced that canyon obstacle course, which is equally hard going up and coming down. But I finally realized I just had to stop thinking of it as a trail, and treat it as a bushwhack. So much of hiking is in your mind, and your mental attitude.

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Unstoppable Urge

Monday, December 13th, 2021: Hikes, Mogollon, Mogollon Mountains, Southwest New Mexico.

Midway through the past week, I’d finally succumbed to another episode of severe back pain – a continuous level 7 on the pain scale – which was then added to the chronic foot inflammation and the burning sensation in my hip – which now seems to be connected to the back thing. I was virtually immobilized for a couple days due to a perfect storm of delays in the healthcare system, then spent another couple of days operating at half capacity on meds.

It takes a week or two for episodes like this to subside, so why would I even consider going for a hike only four days after onset?

Why does the Pope (blank) in the woods?

After all, walking is generally considered good for back pain, although not always in my experience.

Early Sunday morning, the edge-of-your-seat Formula 1 season ended with a bang, with two drivers equal on points, and the young challenger passing the much older 7-time world champion on the last lap, the young driver admitting he’d had a terrible leg cramp at the time. How could I wimp out of a hike when faced with an example like that?

The rational thing would’ve been to choose an easy hike close to home. But after four days of severe pain, I was hardly rational. Like a rampaging zombie, I followed a deep-seated urge to return to the area I’d been hiking for the past two weeks, and re-tackle the trail I’d previously sworn was too rocky and dangerous on my feet. But as usual, I did bring the meds, just in case.

After finally getting a little rain a couple days earlier, it was several degrees below freezing at home, under a crystal clear sky.

Remembering how upset I’d been about the terrible footing on this trail the first time I’d hiked it, I vowed to revisit it with a positive attitude and take the dreaded volcanic cobbles in stride, slowing my pace, increasing my concentration, and allowing extra time where needed.

But two miles in, after crossing the seemingly interminable rolling basin and starting up the rocky slope to the pass, I found something else to annoy me. At the trailhead, I’d read a recent log entry by the Back Country Horsemen, who proudly and excitedly proclaimed that they’d “cleared” about ten miles of trail. Of course, this trail had already been cleared recently by another volunteer group, and I’d found it in good shape in September. What I found was that the horsemen had unnecessarily mutilated beautiful and valuable wilderness habitat, cutting back or cutting down hundreds of trees and shrubs as far as 8′ off the trail, while ignoring thorny catclaw and locust seedlings that remained the only impediment to hikers.

On a day hike, this incredibly rocky trail is a lot of work for a small payoff. But the payoff still seems to be enough to keep drawing compulsive hikers like me – and of course the lazy back country horsemen, who let their pets do all the work.

Shortly after crossing over the pass into the backcountry, I came across the first pile of junk left by the horsemen – some kind of heavy, unidentifiable camping apparatus which had just been leaned against a tree beside the trail. I’ve been finding junk left in wilderness far too often lately, but this was so heavy I wasn’t excited about carrying it out. Why would they leave it in the first place?

With my determination to enjoy the hike, the segment to the high pine park seemed to go quicker than before. My back pain was there, but walking did seem to keep it manageable.

Unfortunately, while crossing the beautiful pine park I encountered the second pile of trash left by the horsemen – six 5-gallon collapsible plastic water carriers, all punctured in various ways, probably by a bear. Had they stupidly left them there full of water, thinking to make them available for future visitors? Several times on popular trails I’ve come across water bottles left for hikers, and it always seems like a well-intentioned but naive idea – leaving plastic waste that’s sure to attract wildlife. This was the worst example I’d ever seen.

From the pine park I dropped a few hundred feet to the junction where the horsemen had descended into and crossed the big canyon northwards toward the West Fork. As before, I passed the junction, continuing straight up the ridge above the canyon, through the burn scar of last summer’s fire, to the saddle where the trail begins descending into the heart of the big canyon, deep in the wilderness.

Following my unstoppable urge, I’d decided to try reaching the creek crossing down there – a fifteen-mile round trip with 3,500′ of accumulated elevation gain. Would my wrecked body endure it?

Starting down the trail into the canyon, I entered another world. The tread was narrow and very steep in sections, but I had long, dark volcanic cliffs to admire on the opposite side. The trail passed in and out of forest, scrub, and oak thickets, veering back into deep side canyons where recent post-fire erosion had created logjams and rock berms. It traversed the slope eastward for the better part of a mile, then began dropping hundreds of feet down into the canyon on long switchbacks. This was a north slope so it was holding a lot of moisture, and not just from last week’s rain. I had my sweater back on descending this shady slope, and the moist ground was frozen solid and covered with frost.

I reached the creek sooner than I expected, in a lush, damp, chilly green swale. The canyon was narrow here but I could see the trail continuing east onto a broad flood plain forested with ponderosa up to a hundred feet tall.

After last summer’s fire, the canyon bottom was a strange place. Lush with grass but lined with ashes and char, the floodplain, which was probably a great camping area before, was uneven from post-fire erosion and deposition, and the tall pines had been charred for dozens of feet up their trunks, some of them killed, others with surviving crowns. I was excited about reaching this place, but as usual, I’d pushed my available time and needed to rush back in order not to get lost in the dark.

Although in the past 3 months I’ve had to cut way back on my hiking, I seem to have somehow retained my conditioning, because the 800′ climb out of that canyon back to the ridge felt really easy. I’d put a fresh metatarsal pad on the orthotic for my sensitive foot, so it seemed to be doing better – you really need to keep up maintenance for a condition like this.

With little more than a week ’til the winter solstice, the sun was dropping rapidly, shadows were deepening, and I treasured what little light I could get going back along that exposed ridgeline toward the pine park.

I hadn’t planned on trying to pack those big water carriers out, but when I reached them I just couldn’t stand leaving them without a try. I had a plastic bag that, with a lot of forceful crushing, accommodated three of them and barely fit inside my pack. I crushed the other three and used my nylon strap to secure them on the outside of the pack. They hardly weighed anything.

After another mile and a half traversing toward the pass, I reached the weird heavy camping item. Yep, it was heavy – 12 to 15 pounds. But it had a handle, and I remembered the young Formula 1 driver who won the race with a leg cramp. So I began carrying it out.

The next three miles were just an ordeal, but I stuck to my determination to keep a positive attitude. There were places where stumbling or twisting on the incredibly rocky trail triggered my back and hip pain, and I ended up taking a pill, and then another an hour later, realizing it was ridiculous to suffer when I had the means to relieve it.

As on the previous Sunday’s hike, it was almost completely dark when I reached the trailhead, but my eyes had adjusted well and I only used my headlamp to unload and rearrange stuff in the vehicle. I left the weird rolled-up camping device at the trailhead – it seemed to have some sort of faded, vaguely official printing on it.

And since this trailhead is really remote, on roads I’m still unfamiliar with, it was a long slow drive home, but I was feeling pretty good about what I’d accomplished.

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