Dispatches Tagline

The Big Rain

Monday, September 16th, 2019: Sky Island, Trips.

This was our longest storm of the monsoon season; a vast, low cloud layer had covered the region, and rain fell intermittently all weekend. Without lightning and thunder, it was more like a winter rain.

Early Sunday morning, I decided to drive back across the state line to the Sky Island, to finish one of the hikes I’d never had time to finish before. The time difference, gaining an hour, was in my favor. I’d end the hike around sundown, but there’s a small campground at the trailhead, and I figured it would be empty due to the weather. So I loaded my vehicle with camping gear.

Unexpectedly, the rains had brought wildlife onto the highways. Shortly after I left town, a quail ran under my vehicle, and on the road to the Sky Island, a small bird dove suddenly out of the sky to hit my front bumper. Returning in the evening, I rounded a bend to surprise a large snake coiled in the middle of the road, and shortly after that, was barely able to miss a flock of two dozen turkeys running down the road en masse.

I was returning in the evening because when I got to the trailhead that morning, I discovered I’d forgotten my sleeping bag. What’s more, I’d forgotten my hiking orthotics, so on this steep hike I had to use my street orthotics, which aren’t as protective.

Overnight rains had drenched the thick vegetation that covers the trail, so that within a few hundred yards my boots and pants were soaked to the knees. The trailhead temperature was in the 60s, but the clouds parted, and after a little climbing, all my clothes were soaked from head to toe with either rainwater or sweat.

The clouds closed in again in afternoon, with sporadic drizzle, and on the upper slope the temperature dropped into the 50s. This is a well-maintained trail because it climbs through intact forest that was missed by the big wildfires on the crest, but for the same reason, once I entered the pine forest, I had no views. All I could glimpse between breaks in the trees was low clouds.

I’d never seen so many deer – white-tails – in any forest before.

The top of the trail, which I’d often fantasized about, was anti-climactic, because it just ended at the paved crest highway, with all the slopes and views hidden in cloud. Dripping wet, I trudged the five-plus miles and 3,000 vertical feet back down the trail.



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Treasure the Relationships That Don’t Last

Wednesday, September 11th, 2019: Musings, Society.

(Note: None of the couples shown in these photos are still together…but their relationships made all of our lives richer)

The Problem of Marriage

Can you be single and happy? Our society doesn’t seem to think so.

A recent article in The Atlantic Monthly is subtitled: “A course at Northwestern University teaches students about what makes a healthy relationship.”

The first sentence of the article begins: “Research shows that practically every dimension of life happiness is influenced by the quality of one’s marriage….”

The article never questions the institution of marriage in our society – the author takes it for granted that young adults are going to get married. The primary focus of the Northwestern course is to enable students to marry successfully. What they teach is, in a nutshell: figure out who you are first, then find someone who shares your worldview.

It’s good to see someone in national media talking about worldviews, after I worked for years to clarify what they are, and to convince people of their importance. But how accurate are the worldviews of 18-year-olds? Wouldn’t it be better to partner with someone whose worldview is radically different, someone you could learn from?

And what about happiness? What do we mean by that? If we mean contentment and self-satisfaction, isn’t it more important to learn, to grow, to change, to see the world clearly for what it is – which can result in discomfort, even pain?

Statistics show that roughly half of adult Americans are unmarried, and 40-50% of marriages end in divorce. These statistics are mirrored among my own friends and family. Should we conclude that up to 75% of Americans are unhappy, mainly because they failed to achieve a lasting marriage? As someone who is single late in life, has never been married, and has no ambition to be married, should I consider myself a miserable failure, or just totally irrelevant?

Actually, I suspect that many of my married friends might consider me a failure for those very reasons. As a young adult, I spent years single and celibate, and felt little peer pressure to find a partner, but when I reached my 40s and found myself between relationships, I came under more and more criticism of my choices and behavior. Friends pressured me to “put myself out there,” to find a compatible partner and avoid the tragic fate of being “old and alone.”

In our society, young adults are expected to find a partner, make a long-term commitment, live together, get married, and form a nuclear family. Everything from our legal and economic systems to our architecture are based on that. Our housing industry creates privacy for isolated units of consumers, with locked apartments for single people and childless couples, and the holy grail, the fortress of the single-family home, designed for the nuclear family.

The social norm of marriage is part of our culture’s overall plan for our lives: establish a career, get married, make a home, and have children. A failure in any of those is a failure in life, condemning us to unhappiness. Conversely, those who succeed in all four are encouraged to look down on the rest of us. And they often do, like smug children who are rewarded for following the rules.

Marriage is considered so essential to happiness and fulfillment in our society that biracial couples, gays, and lesbians have fought for decades for the legal right to marry. To those who’ve been denied this right, marriage is a precious accomplishment.

Each time I came to the end of a relationship, friends called it a failure and blamed it on some personal inadequacy I needed to overcome via soul-searching, therapy, or some other form of “personal growth.” The assumption, shared by the instructors of the Northwestern course, was that these short-term relationships were just the trial runs, preliminary to the real thing. If I could overcome my own problems, I would ultimately find and keep a life partner, and that partnership would become the foundation for my happiness.

The Atlantic article is yet another example of how national media encourage conformity to social norms that few of us question. And it highlights our society’s bias against aging without a partner. As we age, the pressure gets worse, and self-satisfied conformists smugly condemn us single elders as miserable failures.

Is this fair?

Seeing Only Failure

I began life in a nuclear family, but my parents separated and divorced while I was still a child. Then my mom moved my brother and me in with her parents, and the rest of my childhood and youth were spent in a traditional, multi-generational extended family.

But my grandparents and most of the families in our neighborhood had stable marriages, and the overwhelming message from media and the society around me was that you met your personal needs by finding a partner and pairing off. Marriage would be the ultimate result of that, and it would in turn satisfy your duty to society when you and your spouse produced offspring. Unmarried adults were oddballs, objects of suspicion.

My personal needs were abundant. I was turned on by girls from my earliest memories, but I was undersize and sickly as a child, so I was harassed and bullied by other kids. I needed companionship and comfort as much or more than most.

I became an adolescent as our country entered the Vietnam War, and my generation was inspired by what has come to be known as “the Counterculture.” Many friends in my peer group agreed that marriage was an obsolete institution of a failed society. Only conformists got married. Freed from society’s shackles, we nonconformists would love honestly, equally, and respectfully, and if we fell out of love, we’d simply part ways, hopefully as friends. Liberated by “The Pill,” we also resisted having kids, partly because we didn’t feel mature or stable enough, and partly because we believed our parents’ generation had screwed things up so badly that we didn’t want to take the chance of bringing kids into such a damaged world.

Although I’ve seen much more of life since then, and have acquired much deeper insights, my adolescent introduction to relationships via the Counterculture bore abundant fruit. Beginning in high school, I’ve had a long series of intimate relationships, most of which were monogamous and lasted from two to six years. Several involved living together, either in a private apartment or group home.

As the Northwestern University course recommends, my first long-term girlfriend and I did share worldviews. But as the instructors of the course should know, our 18-year-old worldviews could form no stable basis for a long-term relationship, especially in the volatile world we found ourselves in. We were unformed adults, wildly romantic, naive and ignorant. We thought we were Aragorn and Arwen from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. The best that could happen was that our worldviews would change radically as we explored the world, exercising critical thinking, gaining experience, knowledge, and wisdom for decades to come. The chances of our relationship lasting through those changes was minimal. It would certainly be unfair to both of us to try to “work it out” as we both turned into different people, and it would seem unfair to society as well, especially if we’d had kids, only to separate and divorce like my parents.

My high school sweetheart and I rejected marriage, in keeping with the Counterculture, believing our bond was deeper and more sacred because we respected each other as distinct individuals. But we grew apart, and eventually broke up. And a decade later, as I turned 30, both I and society had changed in many ways. The Counterculture was seen to have failed – its critique of the Establishment may have been valid, but it hadn’t offered any viable alternatives. The world had gotten scarier – with everything from economic recessions to serial killers and nuclear meltdowns – and the future looked a lot less hopeful. And I had gone from a timid, uptight, naive, and ignorant small-town prodigy to the ambitious, aggressive leader of a big-city bohemian post-punk enclave.

My fourth girlfriend was a young professional woman from an elite college, who proudly considered herself a feminist. By the standards of the Northwestern course we appeared misfits from the start. I was immersed in my bohemian milieu, living in a communal loft in the midst of an industrial slum, experimenting with art, music, and drugs, while she was part of the newly-minted yuppie class, a compulsive shopper, living in a luxurious, frilly apartment in an upscale neighborhood. And she made it clear on our first date that she had a life plan, and getting married and having children were her primary goals. I was honest in my rejection of both, yet we fell in love and spent two rewarding years together, learning from each other, after which she married, had kids, divorced, and eventually remarried after her kids were grown up.

A decade later, when I met my seventh girlfriend, the world and I had continued to change. Some of my friends were getting married and buying houses. My long-secure day job was imploding. I’d achieved national recognition as a musician and bandleader, but I’d also become a serious outdoorsman, falling in love with the desert wilderness, studying aboriginal survival skills, dreaming of going “back to nature.” My new lover was much younger, nearly as unformed as I was two decades earlier, and I was her first really “mature” and caring partner. But whereas she wasn’t much interested in marriage, she did announce on our first date that she planned to have at least one kid.

Despite our differences, we also had a fulfilling relationship for almost two years, and I ended up loving her so deeply that she changed my whole vision of life. Toward the end of our time together I told her I wanted to work toward marriage, and if that happened, would like to have children with her. It was a momentous, scary prospect that put butterflies in my stomach. A few months later, she left me for a man her own age.

Three of my long-term relationships, including that one, have ended in anger and pain, resulting in lasting grief and disillusionment and the criticism of my peers. There were long periods of celibacy between some of them. And ultimately, after the tenth relationship ended traumatically, years went by without one, until I found myself “old and alone.” Was there really something terribly wrong with me, as some friends had suggested?

I always paid close attention to my friends’ relationships. A few of them were never alone – they were always either dating, with ever-changing partners, or in some kind of relationship. Some were more like me – holding onto a relationship for a while, going through a more or less difficult breakup, then being single for a while before finding someone new. A few of my friends achieved stable long-term relationships. Some got married, often for economic reasons. Some of those had kids, while others stayed childless.

But from earliest adulthood, I always had a few peers who were perennially celibate and frustrated, apparently due to low self-esteem. Some of them self-medicated with drugs or alcohol. Some of them had an occasional one-night stand that left them even more miserable. Those of us who regularly got laid, and those of us who were mostly in relationships, always pitied them, and if we couldn’t sustain a relationship very long ourselves, we always feared we’d end up like them. The Counterculture slogans of free love and open relationships had long been forgotten. Instead of being liberated, we were paranoid of being left alone in a world that made relationships ever harder to form and sustain.

It got worse as we got older, and more of my peers got married and had kids. The older I got, the more I saw how the solitary among us were pitied, and the more difficult it became to be single, because I felt inferior, and I was afraid it was finally all over for me – I’d never have another girlfriend, never find a life partner, let alone my mythical soulmate.

When I made perhaps the most radical move of my life – the move from the San Francisco Bay Area, where I’d spent thirty years, to a remote small town in the least populous corner of New Mexico – I’d been single, celibate, lonely, and depressed, for five years. Frankly, one thing that encouraged me to settle here is that on my first visit, I met more attractive single women than I’d met in all those years of loneliness in the crowded megalopolis.

I spent the first few years flirting with and getting to know all of those women, and the more I got to know them, the less interested I was. They all dropped away eventually, and I found myself lonely and depressed again in my new home.

Finding Myself

Before moving to New Mexico, during a long period of unemployment, I’d started a project to finally figure out who I was and what I was supposed to be doing here on Earth. I studied ecology and anthropology, and tried to make sense of powerful visions that I’d had throughout life, visions that seemed “spiritual” for want of a better word.

Venturing into the past, and into the spiritual realm, and trying to envision the future, made me aware of alternate interpretations of time – the diverse phenomena of motion and change. Our technocentric culture is ruled by the linear time defined by our machines – the strictly ordered forward progression from past to present to future, in standard increments of seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, and years. Alienated from nature, our way of life perpetually creates problems, so we envision the forward march of time representing “progress” from the problems we created in the past to the imagined solutions of the future, and we want each generation’s life to be better than the previous.

Traditional societies, which depend more directly on nature for their sustenance, tend to seek stability and sustainability rather than change and progress, because to thrive, they must stay within the finite limits of resources in their local habitats. Thus they experience time in the repeating cycles of nature: the solar day and night, phases of the moon, seasons and harvests, and the longer cycles of drought, fire, flood, and human generations. Instead of associating their past with problems and their future with solutions, they honor their past and work to make sure the future will be just as good. This may be called cyclical time.

With their deep communal memories of cyclical time, oral cultures move through a landscape teeming with potential phenomena from both past and future, so unlike us, they’re prepared to adapt to surprises. Thus they may also visualize time as a lake, in which the surface is our present consciousness, and the depths represent the continuum of experience, past and future. I experienced a powerful vision of that simultaneous time once, with loved ones from my past, as well as strangers from my future, rising briefly from the depths, only to plunge back down into the darkness again.

To make up for the lack of attractive single women in my life, I had added a few images of past girlfriends to the walls of my house, and I’d put together “scrapbooks” to memorialize our relationships. Unconsciously, I was manifesting simultaneous time. One of the unexpected consequences of aging, and my new phase of life, was that I could truly live in the past, present, and future simultaneously.

As I observed my family, friends, and acquaintances in this new light, reflecting on their experiences and relationships and comparing them to mine, I suddenly realized that despite coming of age in the Counterculture, I’d been made to feel inferior as a celibate single person, and when a relationship ended, society had made me feel worse about the breakup.

But now, reflecting on the long series of romantic relationships I’d experienced, which felt just as present and real as anything in my current life, I felt like I’d achieved more, in some ways, than people who’d married young and maintained stable lifelong marriages.

I began to see the pain and trauma I’d experienced in a few of my relationships, and in some of our breakups, as priceless inspiration for some of my best art, music, and writing. All of those relationships, from first to last, were physically and emotionally rewarding. In all of them we professed profound love for each other and shared countless moments of warm caring and tenderness. None of my relationships were abusive. I’ve loved deeply and intensely and have been loved deeply back, year after year.

By spending at least a year – a full round of the seasons – in each of those relationships, we’d gotten to know each other in the context of natural cycles, in cyclical time. And now, all of those partners are still with me every day, in my growing awareness of simultaneous time. Most of them are still friends, though we may never see each other again – and I still feel the love we shared as a daily part of my life, every bit as real as the pain and frustration of chronic injuries and disabilities that come with aging.

I compare this new awareness with the previous belief, reinforced by my closest friends, that as each relationship ended, it became a failure, proving there was something wrong with me that had to be fixed, either through soul-searching, therapy, or some other form of “personal growth.”

The revelation of this past year is that contrary to the assumptions of the Atlantic article and many of my friends, happiness can result from a long life of “failed” relationships. Far from failing in my ultimate state of singlehood, I’ve achieved deeply loving relationships with not just one, but many diverse partners, in which we lived adventurous and fulfilling lives together. Sure, there was plenty of discomfort, distrust, anger, pain, and trauma. But as an artist, rather than seeing these as evidence of an inadequacy that needed to be “fixed,” I now see them as precious raw material for my creative work.

It turns out that being an artist has determined the course of all my relationships. I’ve always had personal passions, goals, and projects that have either competed with, deferred, or replaced relationships. Some of those things I could do with a partner around, but many took me places where my partner couldn’t follow. I’ve used long periods of solitude to take chances, explore dangerous places, and get a lot of work done. Some have called me selfish. It looks like I’ve been unable to let go of my ego, unable to lose myself in something bigger, whether a one-on-one relationship or a community where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

That’s partly true, but hardly anything in life is ever that simple. Like most artists, I’ve had to have a “day job,” conscientiously giving decades of my life to other people’s projects and the collaborative work of teams. I started a harvest festival as a gift to a community I wasn’t even part of, and have spent 13 years volunteering to make it happen.

And while in relationships, I’ve sincerely tried, and sometimes succeeded, in giving selflessly to those I loved. You can ask any of my ex-girlfriends about that.

My newfound contentment and appreciation of my past relationships doesn’t mean that I want to restart any of them! On the contrary – our paths diverged for good reason. We are all different people now, and what brought us together originally is no longer there.

Not the Only Way

Is marriage really essential to happiness?

What about the broader notion of “partners for life?”

The nuclear family?

Are any and all of those valid goals for young adults?

Are married people successes, and single people failures? And should solitary elders regret their failure to maintain permanent relationships?

The Northwestern University course maintains that a marriage can be successful if you first figure out who you are, then find someone who shares your worldview. But in a society as patently dysfunctional as ours, and as I certainly learned, finding out who you are is a lifelong project. If you’re really diligent about examining both the world and yourself, your worldview is guaranteed to change. What are the chances of your partner making the same changes, and continuing to share your changing worldview along the way?

We should never forget that we’re animals. The survival of our communities depends on at least some of us reproducing, and reproduction requires partnership. Many of us are clearly driven by biology to find partners we can reproduce with, without even thinking about it. Most of my peers did think about it, though, at the time when we were becoming adults, and we put off having kids until very late, if ever.

Anthropologists like a teacher of the course at Northwestern should be aware that marriage in our sense is the exception, not the rule, across the incredible diversity of human societies. In many, if not most indigenous societies, men and women pair up opportunistically, stay together as long as it works, then drift apart. They may have children together, but those children are raised by the community, not by a stable “nuclear family” in a private fortress home. The lives of both parents and children take place in the context of a small, intimate confederation of people of all ages and genders who work together to take care of each other, rather than in the context of atomized families that live isolated from each other in private homes like ours. Traditional societies tend to lack the stigmatization of single people that our society perpetuates.

The evidence shows that marriage is no sure path to selflessness. Many or most marriages have a dominant partner and lead to oppression or divorce. From my point of view, it isn’t just biology that drives people to get married and/or form permanent partnerships – it’s also insecurity – the fear of being on their own and taking risks. They seek safety and security, whether real or an illusion.

My Quest

Whereas some of my girlfriends and peers started adulthood with a conventional life plan, like getting married and having kids, I left my family home in the midst of a cultural revolution in which all the rules were supposed to be broken. For years I’d been told I had great talent and potential, and college was supposed to be an opportunity for me to explore that potential, and forge a new life path. But my family wasn’t rich, so like most of us I was forced to set aside my dreams in favor of developing a practical career.

Years later, when my first serious relationship ended and my time in the ivory tower drew to a close, it was like waking up from a coma. I found a magical world around me, waiting to be explored, and I started on my lifelong quest for experience, knowledge, and wisdom. That ultimately made it impossible for me to sustain a relationship, and it’s still ongoing. Death will be just another phase of it.

My quest has taught me different senses of time, different interpretations of what we call past, present, and future: living and loving in both cyclical and simultaneous time.

It’s showed me how extended families, in cooperative communities, can provide better caring and child-rearing than the nuclear family. How parenting can be uncoupled from romantic partnerships. How group living situations can be more supportive than the private home.

It has taught me not to wish for or expect a life partnership. On my quest, I’ve experienced love and caring in dazzling richness and diversity, and feel better for it. I treasure the moments, and no longer regret that they couldn’t last.

By falling in love with women who were radically different from me – and clearly incompatible – I learned new things and discovered new worlds, I gained wisdom and had memorable experiences that made my life richer.

Unlike most married people, who are constrained by the jealousy of their spouses, I don’t have to dismiss, forget, or deny my past relationships – I can continue to celebrate them.

Healthy communities need parents and children. I feel for my friends who are parents, and for their children, who, like the rest of us, struggle to deal with the dysfunctional society they’ve been brought into. I also feel for my aging single friends, who should treasure the moments of real connection they’ve had, no matter how few or far between.

My quest can be seen as the height of selfishness, but I continue to share what I’ve learned with anyone who will listen. My art, and what I’ve learned from my quest, are my gift to my community. It’s who I am, like it or not.

I’m not your type, you’re not my kind,
and love that’s born of this encounter
surely won’t endure the future;
and we know that love is blind.

But that’s no reason not to try!
but if we tried a thousand years
we could never get it right,
we could never get it better.

And now these days that get us nowhere,
these days of stormy weather,
these are the good old days,
these are the times we will remember!

(From “Tiare’s Theme,” a song I wrote in my 20s, after a breakup)


First Steps in the First Wilderness Part 7: Early September

Monday, September 9th, 2019: First Steps in the First Wilderness, Trips, Wildfire.

Pretty good monsoon rains so far; weather cool from previous day’s storm. Vegetation in the canyons even thicker, obscuring the trail in many places. This was a recovery hike for me, gradually recovering capacity after yet another chronic pain setback. Hiking out, I ran into a couple in their 70s who were planning to camp at the spring near the top of the mountain and explore the back country during the next couple of days.

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The Craft of Art

Saturday, September 7th, 2019: Arts, Musings.

I spent my childhood and youth mastering classical figurative drawing and painting, and as a young adult, I created large-scale figurative paintings and polyptichs from imagination, relying on my academic mastery of human anatomy and three-dimensional rendering. But after that, I turned my back on painting, realism, and major art projects, and for the past 37 years, I’d turned out hundreds and hundreds of spontaneous, simplistic, abstracted drawings on paper, most of which took me on average a half hour to complete.

In recent years, admiring classical works in museums, and reflecting on my earlier efforts, I began to crave a bigger challenge, to carry forward the progress I’d made as a young artist. When I made the change from polyptich paintings to drawings 37 years ago, I had consciously conceived my drawings as components of larger installations, and the new work would extend that idea. My most ambitious visual art project ever was conceived in March 2018 and begun in February 2019. Six months later, after many interruptions, I’ve finished planning, drawing, and preparing the surfaces, and am ready to start transferring my drawings to them.

The prep work, which has taken 23 days – again, with many interruptions – reminds me of when I was an art student at the University of Chicago’s Midway Studios, laboriously preparing stone slabs for lithography. Both processes are essentially medieval.

This project is intended to be a prototype for a future series of works, likely to be executed in oil paint on wood. Unlike in art school or in the Middle Ages, I haven’t had anyone to show me how to do things – I’ve done a lot of online research but have had to rely mostly on trial and error to find the best methods. I haven’t had access to a proper studio or a workshop for the prep work, which has made the process extra difficult and time-consuming, as I’ve had to constantly move the art panels, supplies, and tools in and out of my house, through the kitchen, from the porch where I did the “messy” work to my music studio which is being used as a drawing, drying, and storage area.

Here are views of the some of the stages in the process.

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Top of the Burned World

Monday, September 2nd, 2019: Trips, Wildfire.

Wild Raspberries

In the third week of recovering from my latest foot problem, I was in a real quandary picking a big weekend hike. For a gradual recovery, I felt I still needed to avoid steep grades and keep the cumulative elevation gain under 2,000 feet. But last weekend’s hike had been almost 8 miles, so I figured I could do 10 or more this weekend.

But the logical choice, an area close to town, had been taken over by mountain bikers for a big annual race. And the areas over on the west side of the federal wilderness were just too steep.

One hike I’d considered in the past was to follow the crest trail of the Black Range north to one of the range’s highest peaks – about a five mile one-way with 2,000′ elevation gain. But I knew there was a fire lookout on top, and I assumed there was a forest road to the lookout. I believed this would be a popular trail, and I was leery of running into vehicles and some kind of a crowd up there.

In addition, we’d been having monsoon storms almost daily. That ridge had been mostly cleared of forest by the catastrophic wildfire in 2013, so I would be spending most of the day totally exposed. Without cloud cover it would be hot, but in a storm I’d run a real risk of being struck by lightning.

After deliberating a while, I decided to chance it. It was an hour drive from home, and maybe by the time I got there, the weather might be more predictable. There was another trail option in the same area if I had to give up the crest hike.

The highway hairpins its way to a pass above 8,000′, where there’s a scenic overlook and the crest trailhead. The sky was mostly clear when I arrived, with just a few little scattered cumulus clouds to the northwest. The temperature at that elevation was still in the 70s at 11am, but radiant heating in the thin air was pretty fierce, and I was sweating heavily within the first few hundred yards.

I ran into a pair of mountain bikers coming out, half a mile up the trail. Great – was this a harbinger of the traffic ahead?

I’d walked the first mile of this trail last year, so I knew it traversed the heart of the burn area. The slopes to north and south had been scorched to moonscape in large swaths, and although gambel oak and other scrub was filling in, there were clear views to east and west from this north-south trending ridge. And the views went on forever, into a haze more than a hundred miles away.

After a snowy winter, a hot spring, and weeks of monsoon rains, the wildflowers were spectacular. Birds were busy everywhere, some of them unknown to me. Whereas wild raspberries in the canyons had already mostly fallen or been eaten, there was a huge crop ripening up here, and by the end of the hike I’d eaten nearly a pint.

It turned out that the departing mountain bikers had only ridden the first mile or so of the trail, and they were the only humans I encountered throughout the long day. The grade of the trail was so steady that I had a hard time believing it climbed 2,000′ in 5 miles. It seemed the perfect hike for this stage in my recovery.

Elusive Spring

The peak is topped by a large grassy plateau at a little over 10,000′. And to my surprise, there was no road! The summit complex, consisting of tower and two cabins, was vacant. They must helicopter in materials, supplies, and some of their crews. And the lookout tower is tiny and would only accommodate one person in short shifts. I wondered if they even use it during a normal season.

After checking out the cabins and climbing to just below the boarded-up lookout for some 360 degree views of my world, I returned back down the trail. Just below the summit there was a junction with the northward continuation of the crest trail, and the sign mentioned a spring. I’d had such a wonderful experience with a mountaintop spring over on the west side, I figured I’d explore this one, if it wasn’t too far.

The trail took me down through lush, unburned forest to a small meadow where a signed spur trail led off to the spring. The sign said 1/2 mile to the spring, but the layout was confusing so I didn’t figure it out until returning, after I’d unsuccessfully tried to reach it.

The trail to the spring was almost invisible, but there were periodic cairns that enabled me to keep going. The cairns led down a steep, rough burn slope with many snags and fallen trunks, a deeply eroded surface with a lot of loose rock and bare dirt. There were some interesting rocks, but after taking me several hundred feet down the mountainside, the cairns led into a dense, dark aspen thicket on an even steeper slope, and I gave up the search. I just didn’t want to end up going another half mile and a few more hundred feet farther down, that I’d then have to climb back out of.

Flowers & Fungi

Most of these flowers – but not all – were familiar to me from other parts of these mountains. But for sheer numbers of wildflowers, this crest trail has them all beat!

Cat Calls

Most of the upper forest on the peak was defended from the wildfire, so while hiking this upper trail, you only get glimpses of the landscape from between old-growth fir and spruce.

But the glimpses you do get are stunning – you can really tell you’re more than a mile above the rest of the landscape. The mountainside is so steep it’s almost vertiginous.

Clouds had gathered during my hike, and much of the peak was shaded by forest anyway. Temperatures had stayed mild all day, and there was always a breeze up here on top of the world. At some point on the east slope of the peak, walking through dappled shade with a gentle wind rustling the aspen, I suddenly felt my chest filling with euphoria. I remembered feeling that way a couple days earlier, when hiking a much smaller peak in a similar situation, being up above the world in clean air, looking down across a vast wild landscape. I’m used to feeling happy in nature, but this was different – I was actually high, in both senses of the word. I wondered if it was because now, after the fire had cleared most of the trees out of the way, I finally had long sightlines just like I have in my beloved desert.

The feeling stayed with me all the way down. It felt like there’d been a sea change in the way I experienced nature. I had no adequate explanation – it was just there. Will it happen again?

Traversing the head of the last canyon on the west side of the crest, I heard a strange, haunting repeated cry from the patchily burned forest low on the opposite slope. At first I thought it was a bird, but the longer it continued, the more it sounded like a cat – probably a bobcat, either in heat or in distress. I heard it for nearly a half hour, until I rounded a shoulder of the ridge and passed out of hearing.

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Monsoon Canyon

Sunday, August 25th, 2019: Trips.

I hadn’t been able to do a serious hike for the past three weeks, due to problems in both feet, a knee and a shin. So I needed a recovery hike on a well-maintained trail without any long, steep grades. This canyon, less than an hour from home and between 7,000′ and 9,000′ elevation, fit the bill.

While I was out of commission, our monsoon had been delivering some good rain. The flowers were outrageous, there were still red raspberries available, and a huge crop of rose hips would be ripe in a few more weeks.

My lower body felt so good that when I got to the steep part near the end of the trail, I wanted to keep going. But I’d already hiked farther than I’d planned – the round-trip would be almost 8 miles and over 1300′ – so I decided not to take any chances.

In addition to the wildlife I got pictures of, I saw two garter snakes and a bridled titmouse – first ever in the wild! And in the lower part of the canyon, I heard an invisible owl calling – in the middle of the afternoon!

The Arizona Sister is a big butterfly, like a swallowtail, and the dark band of color along the front of the wings is iridescent.

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A Life in Business Cards

Friday, August 9th, 2019: Arts, Dance, Music, Musings, Society.

We all collect business cards. A few of them are creative. Most of them are boring.

Here’s a random sample of cards from the 1970s through the 2000s – including a few of my own – that suggest some of the eclectic worlds my life path has intersected with, and the differing ways in which people from those worlds introduce themselves to strangers.


Canyon of Chaos

Monday, August 5th, 2019: Sky Island, Trips, Wildfire.

I was still bored with the hikes near home, and I kept dreaming about the canyon hike beyond the state line to the west, that climbed 4,000′ from high desert to alpine habitat atop the Sky Island. I’d expected that to be a good warm-weather hike, with its shady canopy in the canyon bottom and cooler temps during the climb to higher elevations.

On my previous visit the road to the canyon had been impassable where it crossed the creek out on the bajada, a mile from the actual mouth of the canyon. But that was in early spring with snow still melting on the peaks, and I assumed the creek would be lower now, and I’d be able to drive to the upper part of the road, where I knew there were some good campsites at the mouth of the canyon. I figured that if I left home in mid-afternoon, I’d be making camp around sundown in cooler temps, and could get an early start the next morning to beat the heat.

I could see a lot of weather ahead during the two-hour drive west across endless arid basins. On the final approach, driving over a spectacular pass between mountain ranges, I surprised two roadrunners crossing the highway. From the top of the pass, you look west across the north end of a vast, virtually flat valley with scattered farms and ranches, to low north-south mountain ranges on the far side. Where the road bottoms out in this valley there is a turnoff that heads north to a state prison on a gentle slope at the foot of the Sky Island.

This is big country; you can see everything from many miles away, and the rocky, forested wall of the Sky Island mountain range looms high above. Finally arriving at the prison, I drove around the fence and through the staff housing like before, but on the west side, the gate to the Forest Service road was padlocked.

I returned to the prison entrance and parked outside the Administration building, where the Forest Service website had said to ask for a key. But it was closed on Saturday, so I tried the Visitation building across the street. Inside, I had to walk through a metal detector before reaching a window. Two uniformed ladies behind it seemed surprised to see me. They had no idea about the creek, the road, or the gate I was talking about, but one of them asked me if I had noticed the newly constructed gate beside the highway just before the prison entrance. She said they had bulldozed a new road there because of problems with vandals along the old road.

I found the new gate and turned onto the new road, which was just a poorly graded gash across the bajada. There were cattle all over the road, and I had to threaten them by revving my engine to get them to move away. I could see this new road would quickly become impassable after a little monsoon erosion, and I wondered if the Forest Service even knew that their trailheads were at risk of becoming inaccessible over here.

Up and down, around and around, over the exposed rocks and through the rough-dried mud of this heavily grazed, mesquite-riddled rangeland, I finally got to the National Forest boundary near the foot of the mountains. A redtail hawk soared overhead. When I reached the creek crossing, I could hear the creek roaring off to my left, but the roadway, which followed an abandoned dry creek bed above the active one, looked okay at first. But as I walked ahead to be sure, I came upon a boulder pile, the remains of heavy flash-flood erosion, that would require more than twice the ground clearance I have in my vehicle. In fact, I didn’t think any vehicle, apart from maybe a military Humvee, would be able to cross here.

Clouds were threatening rain, and there was no place to camp in the mesquite thicket along the lower part of the road. I explored off the road a bit, hoping to find a clearing I could use, but there was nothing doing. I did find some prehistoric bedrock mortars from the Old Ones, which was encouraging, but the ground was thick with ants. I decided on Plan B, a cheap motel in the nearest town, which would enable me to explore the big valley south of the mountain range.

The road down the valley starts out in some very lonely ranching country. But the first thing I encountered was a large elementary school, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, and the second thing I encountered was a beautiful pronghorn antelope, grazing on the shoulder of the road. My passing vehicle didn’t bother it at all.

I had mixed feelings about my decision after finding that the last third of the road to town was crossed by sharp seams every dozen feet, which made the drive pretty violent – BAM, BAM, BAM for at least ten miles. The valley there is heavily populated, and I couldn’t understand how people live with a road like this.

But after a steak dinner and a good night’s sleep, I found the road easier to take when returning north the next day. One highlight of this road, if you could call it that, is the NatureSweet tomato complex in the middle of the valley, more than two miles of continuous greenhouse, possibly the largest such facility in the world. I didn’t know there was that much glass on earth!

Back at the creek crossing near the foot of the mountains, I was surprised to find two vehicles already parked. I’d wrongly figured that the heat would keep people away this time of year. I pulled off at the only remaining spot and prepared for my all-day hike. It was only 9am but it was already pretty warm, and I had a mile of open country to cross before reaching the mouth of the canyon with its shady canopy.

Where the road abruptly enters the canyon, suddenly enfolded by the foothills, it’s deeply eroded – basically just a rolling, boulder-strewn gulley – but I could see that someone had driven some kind of 4wd vehicle over it recently, having crossed the creek, where they would’ve needed at least 18″ ground clearance. What the hell had they been driving? Rounding a bend, I surprised a couple of white-tailed deer, the buck wearing a tall, feather-duster tail like one I’d seen last year near home.

I reached the clearing beside the creek where the old road turns away to climb toward the ridge trailhead. I could see the white and green sections of 6″ diameter PVC pipe across the creek, propped up on stands, which used to supply water for the prison. I heard a voice and noticed there was an old guy sitting in a folding chair, reading a book, back in the shade of the clearing. Since I’d never actually taken the canyon trail, I asked him if the road led to the canyon trailhead. He didn’t seem to know what I was talking about, but he recommended hiking to the waterfall, which I had read about. I knew the waterfall turnoff was only a mile up the canyon, but he claimed it was “a long way” and easy to miss.

What the old guy referred to is a small waterfall in a side drainage, a mile from the trailhead, which has been enhanced by a metal catwalk like the more famous Catwalk near my home. It seems to be the most popular destination in this canyon, but I had little interest in it this time around – my goal was the high country, five miles away and 4,000′ above.

I reached the trailhead for the ridge trail I’d hiked before, and found largely abandoned. That abandoned trail has a nice Forest Service sign, but the creek trail, which has a number and a detailed description on the Forest Service website, has no sign, and no formal trailhead. What, me worry? I was blithely strolling up the old road in the sun-dappled shade of the canopy, looking forward to my canyon morning, when I suddenly spotted a black bear crossing the road about 60 feet ahead of me. I talked to the bear to make sure it knew about me, but it ignored me completely and plodded on into the streamside undergrowth. After a while I continued on up the road, but it soon ended in a deep ravine that had been cut by erosion out of the steep western slope of the canyon.

This is probably a good point to admit that I was poorly informed about this hike in general. I’d read the Forest Service website trail description, I’d studied the trail map available on the Arizona hiking website, and I’d read two or three fairly recent trip logs. It seemed like a very straightforward trail – it just followed the creek a few miles then climbed a section of switchbacks which continued to the crest – so I hadn’t brought the map with me.

What I hadn’t paid enough attention to was the dates of the recent hikes on this trail. It turned out they had all been done prior to the 2017 wildfire on the crest of the range. Because since the fire, as I began to discover a mile or so up the trail, the entire canyon bottom had been filled with flood debris – an unfathomable tonnage of boulders, tree trunks, and smashed, twisted, and broken piping from the prison’s ambitious but long-abandoned water system. Whenever I ventured away from the canyon bottom, I could see floodwaters had reached as high as 50′ above the current streambed, lodging debris high in trees far up the slopes. It was hard to imagine the Biblical scale of those floods. Had they occurred during spring rains on top of snowmelt, or during violent monsoon storms? In any event, there was little left of the old road – which had to be the trail, since there was clearly no other way up the canyon – and I soon got sidetracked and found myself lost, crisscrossing the chaos of giant piles of boulders and logs, with the stream raging somewhere below.

I wasted more than an hour on this, meanwhile crossing and re-crossing the stream on boulder steppingstones. Somewhere in there I noticed a faded pink ribbon on a branch, which sometimes indicates a trail. I followed two or three of these ribbons but they just led me to dead ends deeper in the maze.

Finally from amid my latest pile of debris I spotted what looked like a continuation of the old road, high on the opposite bank above the stream, so I fought my way over there and scrambled up. Sure enough, it was an intact section of the old road. I followed it for a few hundred yards, encountering an abandoned cabin I’d read about in one of those trip logs. And shortly afterwards, the road ended again on the brink of monumental chaos – what appeared to be a giant glacial moraine that had recently engulfed and killed an entire riparian forest in some catastrophic debris flow of unimaginable scale.

I just stood there in awe, shaking my head, wondering what the living hell I’d gotten myself into. I was already battered and drenched with sweat from my morning’s exertions. It was almost noon.

Choked by the chaos of debris, the dead forest still stood, its brown foliage indicating that this catastrophe had occurred recently, during the current growing season. I assumed from the surrounding landscape that this was the junction of Grant and Post Creeks, and I vaguely remembered – in error, as it turned out – that the trail turned east here to ascend Grant Creek, leaving Post Creek to continue due north by itself. But how was I to find any evidence of the trail, which had to be buried somewhere dozens of feet beneath this vast field of boulders and logs, out of which crushed and twisted sections of steel and PVC pipe protruded like veins from a severed limb?

Already on the point of giving up, I managed to climb across the moraine with less trouble than I expected. It was perhaps a hundred yards across at the junction. I searched for evidence of the trail on the other side, but there was none. So I made my way up the moraine until I came to some shade near the outer edge. There I had lunch and glumly studied the shadows in the forest below. I could see more piping over there in the trees – maybe I’d find the trail over there?

Sure enough, no sooner had I entered the forest than I spotted another pink ribbon on a branch. It seemed to indicate some sort of primitive trail that in most places was simply a steep erosion channel through the forest. Alongside it, big clumps of debris had been caught up in the trees during the massive floods. I was surrounded by the ghosts of apocalypse.

More ribbons led me forward, until this “trail” finally rejoined the moraine and Grant Creek beyond it, out in the open again. The last pink ribbon seemed to indicate that I should cross the creek here, to find a trail continuation on the other side. But it meant climbing back over the boulder pile. And midway there, I found another monument to the power of the massive floods: a trio of giant Ponderosa pines, still living, with the trunk of an equally huge pine lodged across them to create an accidental dam.

With no more pink ribbons in view on the opposite bank of the creek – nothing but another forested slope too steep to climb – I clambered back on top of the seemingly endless moraine. And from there, beyond a northward curve of the canyon, I spotted something completely unexpected, that none of the maps, trail descriptions or trip logs had mentioned: a towering, spectacular waterfall.

As impressed as I was by the waterfall, it was also disheartening. It blocked my way even more permanently than the debris pile below, so there was clearly something wrong with my belief that the trail led up this canyon to a set of switchbacks. Unless I could find those switchbacks somewhere at the base of the slopes to either side of the waterfall.

But after another hour or so of exploring and scrambling up the very steep slopes on what always turned out to be dead-end game trails, I realized I was beaten. It wasn’t even that late in the day, but without a map, I had no idea where else to look for the trail. This upper part of the mountainside consists primarily of cliffs, so there wasn’t even an obvious place to start looking.

Clambering perilously back over the moraine, I found the pink-ribboned trail that had brought me there, and decided to follow it back down the canyon as far as possible. It quickly led me back out onto the lower part of the moraine, at the junction of creeks, and from there I crossed and climbed up onto the orphaned segment of the old road.

My way back down the canyon was easier, though, because now I knew that the old road had stuck to the west side in this upper stretch, and when the road itself was eroded away, I carefully traversed the steep, loose dirt of the slope high above the raging creek until the road reappeared ahead.

Halfway down the canyon, I heard thunder behind me, and looked up to see a mass of dark clouds above the ridge to the west. I figured I was okay as long as it stayed over there. But if the storm drifted over the head of my canyon, there could be trouble. A flash flood would block my way back to my vehicle, at least until it had run out. In the worst case, there could be another apocalyptic reshuffling of the canyon, with me in it.

When I finally emerged from the mouth of the canyon, with the big valley stretching below me to the far horizon, I looked back to see that rain had indeed engulfed the head of Grant Creek, several miles up the canyon below the crest of the range. I still had a mile to go to the creek crossing, and the flood waters from that rain would surely beat me there. I was likely to get cut off!

My chronic foot injury doesn’t allow me to run a mile, so I just kept striding down the old road. About halfway to the crossing the road rose above the bajada and I heard a roaring, like a locomotive, off in the direction of the creek. It was in flood! What would I find at the crossing?

But when I got there, the creek looked the same as it had in the morning, 7 hours ago. I crossed easily, and from my vehicle, I looked back to see that the storm over the mountains had already cleared. I realized that although my original plan of climbing to the crest had failed, I had discovered a beautiful, unexpected waterfall, and I’d been lucky to escape a storm. My body was thrashed from all that climbing over logs and boulders, but maybe it had been worth it after all.

In recent years, I’ve hiked many burn scars high up on peaks and ridges. On this trip, I was challenged to experience the damage caused by erosion and flooding down below, after the alpine forests that hold the mountains together are burned off of the heights. I have the feeling that my education is just beginning…

As I’ve said over and over, the monsoon is the best season of the year here in the Southwest, and the sky rewarded me with an endless pageant on the drive home. The icing on the cake was my discovery that we’d had a good storm there while I was gone.

A quick check of the trail map on the Arizona hiking website revealed that despite my delusion, the actual trail doesn’t turn east up the Grant Creek canyon. It continues due north along Post Creek, and the switchbacks start about halfway up, on the east bank about a mile beyond the junction. Since most of the erosional damage seems to have occurred on Grant Creek, I might well have been able to relocate the trail and proceed to the crest if I’d simply brought a map with me. Maybe next time…

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First Steps in the First Wilderness Part 6: Late July

Monday, July 29th, 2019: First Steps in the First Wilderness, Trips, Wildfire.

When I started this familiar hike in late morning, there was not a cloud in the sky over the entire mountain range. By the time I reached the peak in mid-afternoon, cumulus clouds were massing over the center of the range. As I returned down the canyon, a dark ceiling hung overhead, thunder was rolling behind me, and a light rain was falling. And as I drove toward home in early evening, most of the clouds had dispersed.

The canyon bottom was even more of a jungle than before. I wondered how thick it can get by the end of monsoon season!

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Protected: Canyon Tuesday

Thursday, July 25th, 2019: Trips.

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