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Far From Home

Sunday, November 8th, 2020: Hikes, Nature, Pinalenos, Plants, Rocks, Southeast Arizona.

The days were getting cooler. About time – it was the second week of November! Last night we had a high wind advisory, so before leaving for my Sunday hike, I drove into town to check my burned house for fallen limbs. Sure enough, the small elm that leaned over the burned back corner had dropped a limb on my patio.

It had rained a little last night, but the sky had mostly cleared as I drove west. I’d decided to try a new trail, over across the state line, that I’d avoided in the past. I wasn’t sure why. The range was supposed to have the densest black bear population in the country, and this trail went up Bear Canyon. But black bears are shy – I was actually hoping to see one.

It’s hunting season and that area, although far from any town, is popular, so I was also expecting to run into hunters.

The two hour drive passes through some of the loneliest country in the West.

The approach is up a beautiful valley strewn with boulders, between two mountain ranges – the tall one I was hoping to climb, and a lower, drier range that reminds me of my favorite mountains in the Mojave. Golden granite boulders, cliffs, and pinnacles. Balancing rocks. Lots of them.

I wasn’t sure about finding the trailhead, but finding the turnoff was easy. And sure enough, the road to the trailhead was almost completely blocked by a group of hunters with several big trucks and a tent already set up. I waved and carefully passed them onto a badly eroded 4wd track that I pursued for another hundred yards before pulling off and parking.

It took me a while to find the trail – there was no marker, but after one false start, I backtracked and discovered a crude cairn. The trail turned out to be used and maintained primarily by cattle, until it started climbing out of the canyon onto the ridge, where it became a narrow footpath, sometimes hard to follow. I was the first person to use it in a long while.

Aside from the granite, I like the trails on this side of the mountain because they take you from high-desert Sonoran habitat up into mixed conifer forest – and the two ecosystems intermingle in a broad elevational band, in a really interesting way. This side of the mountains shows no evidence of having burned, but the habitat is really complex. I wonder if this is the way all our Southwestern mountains were before wildfire suppression?

It was a big climb – over 4,000′ in 6 miles – and it exposed me to a cold west wind most of the way. Once I reached the crest it was freezing cold, but still mostly sunny. I took a side trip up the little peak which is known for ladybugs in warmer weather, but today was far too cold for them.

The trail continues past the ladybug peak to connect with the scary road that climbs these mountains from the north side. On the way, I got a view north – to Safford, the “city of the plain” – and west, to the highest peaks of the range.

On the way down, I lost my footing in soft dirt trying to bypass a fallen log, and had a bad fall. The wind was brutal and I was starting to get a chill, so I put on all my warm clothing. Then I passed a young guy who was wearing shorts – but unlike me, he was still climbing and generating body heat.

I’d been impressed by the trail going up, but coming back down it seemed a lot rockier and more difficult. Once again, I was fooled by the time change. The sun was setting earlier than I expected.

Near the bottom, I heard footsteps behind me. It was the young guy from the crest. I asked him about his hike, and where he was from – he was from Indiana, like me! He said he’d gone stir crazy, trapped in Indianapolis by COVID, and had decided to take a solo three-week road trip around the west. He was working remotely and hiking as much as possible. He said he just can’t get enough of the West. I sensed that his days in the flatlands of Indiana are numbered. I don’t know how people can stand living in a place with no mountains…

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Jackpot! A Hike to Remember

Monday, October 26th, 2020: Chiricahuas, Hikes, Nature, Plants, Southeast Arizona.

Since last Sunday’s underwhelming hike, my chronically injured foot had become inflamed, and I’d skipped my midweek hike, replaced the metatarsal pad on that orthotic, and conscientiously iced and contrast bathed the foot until it calmed down. And, I’d had a very stressful week trying to finish, for my insurance adjuster, my inventory of “items lost” in the fire – describing in excruciating detail the thousands of priceless things, full of life stories, that had been burned in my basement – things I’d already been reminded of week after week for the past three months.

On Friday, I’d sent off an inventory with glaring omissions, the product of desperation and PTSD, which I then spent additional desperate hours racing to correct. I needed a good hike. But I was still really tired of the hikes near home, so I did a little more research and discovered that a trail over on the Arizona line, that’d been blocked to me last winter, had been cleared by volunteers in September.

I was especially interested in this trail because it led to a different part of the crest of the range, and might allow me to climb the highest peak. After last week’s hike I wasn’t expecting it to be particularly scenic, although the early segment did overlook the 365′ high waterfall – which I was sure would be dry now, after our prolonged drought.

We were due for our first storm of the season on Tuesday, and clouds were already blowing over from the west. The day’s high, at the foot of the mountains, was forecast to each 80, and after last week’s experience with radiant heating at high elevation, I didn’t think I’d need any winter clothing. But I packed my chilly-weather gear as usual, because in the mountains you never know.

One challenge with this trail is that the trailhead lies at the end of a very nasty 1-1/2 mile 4wd road lined with sharp rocks and boulders, constraining my vehicle to a literal crawl. While planning the hike at home, I’d struggled to find ways to extend the distance and elevation to match other recent hikes, and after I’d already driven most of this difficult road, I realized I should’ve just parked at the bottom and walked the road – that would’ve given me the extra distance and elevation I craved. Oh well, next time. It’s just another example of how absent-minded I’ve become since my fire.

After parking at the trailhead and starting up, I glanced back at my vehicle and suddenly noticed a snag – a dead tree – with its top leaning over the left side of my vehicle, held up only by the limb of another tree. The snag itself was rotten and its trunk sagged. What were the chances it would fall on my vehicle while I was hiking? Based on the position, I was pretty sure it would just cause cosmetic damage. Due to the slow drive, I was already getting a late start. I decided to trust the universe, although I know a certain risk-averse friend who will chastise me yet again for taking unnecessary risks.

At 10:30am the morning was chilly but partly sunny and calm as I worked my way up the long, shallow canyon toward the switchbacks that led to the falls overlook. I had my shirt buttoned up, but didn’t need a sweater or jacket. When I reached the overlook, I noticed a little trail that led out along a narrow ridge, and discovered something I’d missed on my first visit. If you held onto the branches of shrubs, you could scramble out onto the edge of a cliff and get a full frontal view of the falls. I was surprised to see a trickle of water still running over the falls, and the foliage around it was amazing! I couldn’t figure out what those red trees were – I didn’t see them anywhere else.

From the overlook, the main trail switchbacks steeply up to the mouth of a “hanging” canyon, where I’d been stopped last winter by a big blowdown of living pines. The crew had cleared them all, and I made my way quickly up the canyon, along a trail that dips toward the creek in the bottom, which was still running. Golden aspen saplings carpeted the opposite slope above.

I had a vague notion that the trail would cross the creek, but instead, it entered a narrow, rocky gulch and followed the creek for quite a distance. It was one of the prettiest places I’d yet seen in these mountains, singing with the sound of water and painted with a riot of fall color. Maybe I’d underestimated this trail!

Finally the trail climbed above the creek, and after a few more gentle switchbacks I spotted the cabin ahead through the trees. I knew there was a cabin, used by trail crews and locked, but I had no idea it’d be so pretty. It’s always a shock to see a house way up in the mountains, miles from any road.

From there, it was a short walk to the saddle where this trail ended in its junction with the main crest trail. But just before I reached the saddle, I began to hear a roaring like a freight train. I looked up, and saw the tops of tall pines bending in a gale force wind. I walked directly from calm air in the canyon to a hurricane on the saddle, and it was easy to see why. I’d crossed the watershed, and now had a view more than a hundred miles to the west, with nothing to stop that west wind.

I dropped my pack and hauled out my sweater, windbreaker, and knit cap, and packed away my straw shade hat. The cloud cover was nearly complete, air temperature was probably in the 50s, and wind chill brutal, but I was now plenty warm. From here, the crest trail led south toward the peak of the range, traversing a steep slope whose forest had been completely burned off. In fact, most of the slopes I could see had been cleared by the 2011 wildfire, but like all burn scars in these Southwestern mountains, they were being patchily colonized by ferns, oaks, and aspens, so the old carpet of green was now a coat of many colors. And the lack of forest meant that I had a truly spectacular view west for the entire distance of the traverse, out over a long canyon to a broad plain and many far blue ranges I couldn’t identify.

The wind continued throughout the traverse – it was like being a fly on a wall, bearing the full brunt – but I love all kinds of weather and this was exhilarating at the end of an unusually hot, dry October. One of my favorite things in the world is to walk along a ridge with endless views across the landscape below. It’s a luxury that comes at the cost of the effort of climbing up there – it’s the payoff.

I’d been seeing fresh boot tracks – the ubiquitous Merrell Moabs – in the dirt of the crest trail, and halfway along the traverse, I passed a college-age couple returning, dressed in shorts and short-sleeved shirts – ah, the optimism of youth! They seemed to be having a great time, though. I hadn’t seen their tracks on the lower trail, so I figured they’d started from the crest trailhead, farther north, which is reached by a very long forest road and eliminates the need for a climb.

The next saddle, at the base of the peak, was aglow with fall color and offered three choices of trail. I’d planned to hike the peak, and since the trail guide showed the peak trail continuing down the back side, I figured I’d use that to add distance, looping around on a lower trail to return to the saddle and gain some more elevation.

In general, trails in this range are much better maintained than our trails near home, but the short trail to the peak was almost shockingly good. To my frustration, forest on top was intact, so there were no views, and after exploring a few hundred yards, I couldn’t find the extension of the trail down the back side. So I had to return the way I’d come.

Back at the junction, I took the western fork, which I believed dropped a few hundred feet to another junction saddle behind the peak. It turned out to be mostly forested, but with enough breaks to keep the western view in sight. It was quite rocky and really a beautiful stretch of trail, adding over a mile one-way to my hike. Despite the cloud cover, the colors of isolated trees and patches of foliage seemed to be intensifying as the sun sank lower in the southwest. I was realizing this was by far the best hike I’d found in this range – finally!

The hour was getting late and it was time to head back the way I’d come. I was really craving a red chile pork burrito at the cafe at the entrance to the mountains – it’d been so long since I’d had good Mexican food! But they close at 6, and it was almost 3, and I had a 6 or 7 mile hike back down to the trailhead. And from there, that mile and a half of road from hell – which took at least 15 minutes. And after that, the long dirt road down the main canyon, with its 15mph speed limit and blind curves hiding oblivious birders.

But the biggest obstacle to my burrito was COVID. According to the guidelines, if I interacted with anyone here, I’d need to self-quarantine and get tested back home. All that for a burrito? I was sorely tempted, because I live alone, have no social life anyway, and no pressing plans to go out while at home. Hell, I’d probably even get a room at the Lodge, since otherwise I’d be driving home in the dark, tired and sleepy after that burrito.

All the way back along the howling traverse with its glorious western vista. And finally to the first saddle, with its apocalyptic gale. A few yards down the trail past the saddle, I stepped out of the wind, and the freight train sound fell away. The temperature increased about 20 degrees and I packed away my outerwear and strapped on my knee brace for the long descent.

Approaching the cabin, I flushed a hawk out of the lower branches, but it stopped on a snag nearby and ignored me.

My vulnerable foot doesn’t like to be rushed. But in the end, it was the beauty of this place that slowed me down the most. Once I was in the canyon bottom, the streamside foliage stopped me again and again.

At the falls overlook, I had to clamber out on that cliff again, because the light had been bad for pictures in the morning. And the farther I went down the trail, the more wonder I found in little things.

By the time I got to the vehicle, it was 5:45. No way was I going to get that burrito. It took me 20 minutes to drive the 1-1/2 mile 4wd road. It was 6:30 by the time I reached the cafe. I tried the door but it was locked. There was nothing for it but to drive the two hours home in the dark and warm up some leftovers.

It was worth it.

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Autumn Leaves

Monday, October 5th, 2020: Black Range, Chiricahuas, Hikes, Hillsboro, Holt, Mogollon Mountains, Nature, Pinos Altos Range, Plants, Southeast Arizona, Southwest New Mexico.

While dealing with the aftermath of my house fire, I was only able to do one hike per week, and I was sure I would lose conditioning and capacity. Hence after I got settled into temporary housing, I was really stoked to resume the routine I’d built up to over the past two years: three hikes a week averaging 22 miles and 6,000′ cumulative elevation gain.

But after the first week it was clear that I hadn’t actually lost any capacity. And between hikes, it gradually occurred to me that I’d been paying for all that hiking with a lot of inflammation and pain, and the time I was spending icing my joints afterward. So I decided to cut back and drop one of my 5-mile midweek hikes.

1: Longer Than Expected

The Sunday after that decision, I was still overwhelmed with chores and I didn’t feel like driving to one of my favorite trails in the high country, so I picked a hike close to town that involved chaining together three trails and two 9,000′ peaks. It would be a long hike that I’d never actually completed before. The part I’d done, to the first peak, was 12 miles round trip, and I had it in my head that adding the second peak would increase it to 14 miles. I’d regularly been doing 13 mile hikes, so I didn’t see any problems.

The hike starts by climbing gently for two miles up a beautiful canyon, then it enters mixed conifer forest, and it stays in forest, climbing steadily, the rest of the way. It has few views and no prominent features, but the forest is really nice and the trail is easy most of the way because the forest hasn’t burned recently.

However, somewhere between the two peaks, I realized I’d underestimated. The round trip mileage was going to be 16, not 14. My body was going to be thrashed. Should I turn back early?

I was feeling good, so I went the whole distance – the longest hike I’ve done in 30 years. I rested for a half hour on the picnic table below the vacant fire lookout, and as I was packing to return, a bearded guy about my age appeared from the opposite direction, having hiked the much shorter trail I used to do on Sundays. He sat down nearby and had a snack, and eventually asked me where I was headed.

“Back the way I came,” I said. “Do you know the trails around here?”

“Well, sort of.”

“I came up Little Cherry Creek, do you know that?”

“No.”

“It’s in a dip before you get to the Ben Lilly site. I take that to the CDT, to Black Peak, and then the spur trail from there. It’s about 8 miles one-way.”

“Well, the trail I hiked is really hard,” he said disgustedly.

“Yeah, I used to do that trail almost every week, before I started needing more distance.” I realized I was making him look pretty bad, so I added, “It’s a great trail, though, if you don’t have time for a longer hike.”

He looked away unhappily. I wished him a good day and set off on my 8-mile return hike.

As expected, I paid for it at the end, limping back to the car on a sore foot and a sore knee. But amazingly, since the trail was in such good shape, it only took me 6-1/2 hours to do 16 miles.

A pile of chores hit me during the following week, so I had no time for icing, and I skipped my midweek hike, figuring I’d done enough hiking for the week.

2: Thickets & Thorns

On the following Sunday, I set out for my favorite high-elevation hike, an hour’s drive west of town. My foot and knee felt fine at that point, and I was even more excited than usual about hitting the trail.

I was a little surprised to find the trailhead occupied, with a family all decked out in identical camouflage outfits milling around their SUV. As I got out, I yelled, “You guys going hunting?”

The father came over, wearing a midsize pack with a rifle pointing out of the top. He looked to be in his early 40’s, tall and strikingly handsome, and when he spoke, he immediately reminded me of the charismatic, good-looking Jewish intellectuals from the East Coast that had so intimidated me during my university years at the University of Chicago and Stanford. But he said they were from Cliff, the rural community that’s ground zero for the Cowboys for Trump movement!

He was super friendly, saying his son had a bear tag and they were headed for the “top” to glass for bear. “Holt Mountain?” I asked.

“Oh, no, we’re not going very far, just to where we can get a good view.”

“The Johnson Cabin trail?”

“I don’t know, where are you headed?”

“Holt Mountain, that’s why I asked.”

“No, no, we won’t be anywhere near you.”

I was left with lots of questions, but had no business prying. His kids looked to be no older than 10 – do they really issue bear tags to kids that young? And what was this suave, urbane guy doing in Cliff, and hunting predators, a practice I normally associate with arrogant assholes?

I always come prepared to hit the trail immediately after arriving, but as a family it was taking them forever to get ready, so I left them there and headed out.

Already, during the first half mile, everything felt very different. It was a cool fall day with clear skies, so that was nice, but my body felt better than ever. It felt like I’d developed hiking super powers. This is a long, hard trail with steep grades beginning about halfway, but I powered up every one of them without needing to rest. What had happened? I’d been hiking less during the past two months than at any time in the past two years, but here I was in better shape than ever.

Not needing to stop to catch my breath, I reached the little clearing at the bottom of the switchbacks almost an hour earlier than usual. I wasn’t conscious of hiking faster than usual, but obviously I was.

Then, on the long, steep traverse that is always the hardest part, I just walked steadily up it for the first time, whereas in the past, I’d always had to stop 3 or 4 times to catch my breath.

I reached the crest at 9,500′ an hour and a half ahead of time. During the past week, a friend from Santa Fe had said that his family was planning a hike to see aspens in their fall colors, and as I rounded a shoulder of this peak and saw the saddle up ahead, I realized that since I hike in aspens almost every week, their fall color isn’t all I get to see. Most busy city people only venture into nature to witness popular spectacles they discover through news media, like “superblooms” and “supermoons,” whereas I get to discover dozens of equally interesting and beautiful, but lesser known, seasonal phenomena all throughout the year.

The little grove of aspens in the saddle was blazing red and gold, but they were all small trees because they were part of early succession after the massive 2012 wildfire in these mountains. From up there, I could see bands of color striating distant peaks – all of them small trees in dense fire-recovery stands. Nothing like the towering, mature groves we used to admire in the High Sierra of California. In fact, since I moved to New Mexico and began hiking wildfire scars, I’ve come to see aspens not as beautiful members of mature forests, but as scrubby thickets colonizing burn areas. On these slopes, they alternated with the deeper red of maples as well as rust-colored oaks and ferns. The brown of the ferns actually covers the broadest expanse of these fire scars, and is attractive in its own right.

But it wasn’t just trees. From the beginning of my hike, deep in the canyon bottom, I’d been surrounded by fall color: flaming sumacs, golden oaks, burgundy poison ivy, rust-colored ferns, and a myriad of shrubs and tiny ground cover plants that created a mosaic of color, making even the predominant green seem more vibrant.

Since I’d reached the crest so early, and still felt so good, I hiked down the other side, planning to go much farther than usual. This trail already offers the most elevation gain of any, so I was really stoked. It actually continues all the way to the crest trail of the central range, for a total of 19 miles one-way – the rest of the trail is only used by backpackers. I was curious to see how far I would get, especially since the rest of the trail is choked with fallen logs and thorn scrub, including the nasty New Mexico locust.

It got harder and harder the farther I went, and only my new hiking super powers kept me going. The trail actually got more interesting, too, with more exposed rock and new views, but eventually I realized I’d better turn back if I wanted to get home before dark. Taking off my pack to log my position via GPS, I noticed the bandana I’d tied on to dry had been dragged off somewhere by thorns. It’s a nice one printed with the constellations so I hated to lose it, but on my return, I found it on the trail, back near the crest saddle.

White-tailed deer were everywhere, and red-tailed hawks soared through the tall firs and wheeled around summits. The hunting dad had mentioned a fire over in the Blue Range primitive area, to the northwest, and after returning to my vehicle and driving down out of the foothills, I could see the long plume and then a billowing cloud rising above the tallest peak of the range, dozens of miles away. When will this fire season ever end?

3: Fickle GPS

Getting ready to return to the crest hike east of town, I was still looking for interesting ways to make it longer. And in fact, I discovered that the crowd-sourced trail websites had increased their distance data for that trail. Whereas the Forest Service has always listed the one-way distance to the fire lookout on the peak as 5 miles, the trail websites had previously shown it as 4.8. Now, this had been updated to 11 miles round-trip – quite a discrepancy!

In fact, I could see from the notes below that a recent hiker’s GPS had measured it at 11.6 miles round-trip – an even bigger discrepancy.

This confirmed my earlier suspicions about the unreliability of not only crowd-sourced data, but of GPS data itself, particularly in a forested landscape with steep terrain. These crowd-sourced websites base all their information on data uploaded by hikers from consumer-grade satellite receivers. Consumer GPS keeps getting better, but it still needs a connection to the satellite to record data, and this is rarely available in mature forest or narrow canyons.

In any event, I was happy to update the distances I log for my hikes, because the longer distances are consistent with the longer times it takes me to complete some of these hikes. But I’ll continue to be skeptical. While the vast majority of people are being conditioned to place more trust in the latest technologies, there are many instances where we’re actually settling for less and less accuracy as time goes by. Digitally-recorded and reproduced music is less faithful to our sensory experience than analog, and remote sensing is always less accurate than direct experience. Many Forest Service distances were originally measured using a calibrated wheel rolled along the trail by a hiker – the most accurate method possible – but we prefer the most expensive, resource-consumptive methods now, calling it progress. Progress requires spending billions of dollars and tons of fossil fuels to manufacture and launch satellites into orbit, and additional billions and tons of natural resources to manufacture and distribute digital devices that proliferate toxic materials throughout our habitats.

When I got to the high pass, I stepped out into gale-force winds blowing chilled air under clear skies. All through the hike I kept putting on and taking off my windbreaker jacket and shade hat – the latter kept getting blown off during windy stretches. The wind was so strong in places that it literally blew me off the trail.

Whereas in the past I’ve regularly encountered some pretty bizarre people on this popular trail – all of them from big cities – on this hike I met two groups who seemed both pleasant and completely sane. Even with a more accurate distance in mind, I still found ways to make the trail longer than usual – especially because with my new hiking super powers I was making much better time than in the past.

Even more than in the previous hike, I found myself focusing on the smaller and subtler ways in which plants respond to the coming of winter. My dad’s first job working as a chemist was in Eastman Kodak’s Chicago photo lab in late 1940s. They had recently introduced “Kodacolor” film, and my dad became a photography enthusiast, which continued sporadically the rest of his life.

Back then, he returned home to the hills and hollows of the upper Ohio River Valley for a series of photographs he entered in a local contest. One of his first iconic photos was naturally of fall color in the canyon of one of the tributaries to the mighty Ohio. Scenes like that formed my original paradigm of seasonal foliage. Of course, it’s an old tradition for European families to venture out in the autumn to parts of the countryside known for their fall foliage, and after my mom moved us to her family home in Indiana, we took fall road trips to Brown County, Indiana’s most famous place for fall color. Unlike the rest of the state, the native forests of Brown County had been saved from development because they were too hilly to be cleared for farmland by the European settlers who stole this land from Native Americans.

In the American West, with its vast evergreen forests, fall color is much more restricted and subtle, but connoisseurs, like the friends I mentioned above, still make trips to the high mountains to see golden swaths of aspen groves on slopes near tree line on alpine peaks.

Most of our local aspen groves have burned recently in massive wildfires, and are now returning as low thickets, mixed in with gambel oak and New Mexico locust. The tapestry of color is far less dramatic than that of our hardwood forests back east, but it can still be glorious in its own way.

And along the trail, I find the changes in even tiny plants fascinating. This brief cooling season makes some plants visible that I wouldn’t have even noticed when they were green.

When I reached breaks in forest, or badly burned slopes where I had a broad view, I could see entire slopes in the distance covered with golden or rust-colored oaks and aspens, and it was even more obvious than usual that these slopes had been fully carpeted by conifers before the fire, so that there was now total “stand replacement” of evergreens by deciduous trees and shrubs, interspersed with narrow strips of surviving pine and fir forest in steep drainages and on ridgetops.

I’d been sporadically reading about fire ecology and the history of Western forests, and it suddenly hit me hard, for the first time, that I and many others had been mistaken in our sorrow over these “catastrophic” wildfires and the loss of so much forest.

Our notion of historic landscapes of continuous evergreen forest, as far as the eye can see, is largely an artificial construction, our misperception based on the failed Euro-American practice of wildfire suppression, which continues unabated due to our overdevelopment of the urban-wildland interface. Before the European invasion and conquest of North America, indigenous peoples had tended forests in collaboration with their ecosystem partners, resulting in much more complex and patchy habitat everywhere, which in turn yields optimum ecological diversity and productivity.

Now, conservationists praise science for developing more sustainable forestry practices, whereas scientists and foresters have – typically – willfully ignored indigenous wisdom, and are, as usual, belatedly appropriating the lessons native people offered us more than a century ago. It’s just another instance of the implicit racism and imperialism that permeate the Eurocentric institutions of science and academia.

4: Bleak Saddle

With my new hiking super powers, it finally occurred to me that I might be able to complete a hike that had frustrated me for the past year. It was over on the Arizona state line, but I’d already waited a month before taking the risk of driving over there again.

The trail was listed as a 17 mile round trip, but when I checked the map again I noticed that the actual crest was only a little over 8 miles from the trailhead. However, that trail had been the last I’d hiked over there, and I was getting really bored with it. Fortunately, there was another trail providing a short cut to the same destination. It required a 15 minute longer drive, because the trailhead was deeper in the mountains and a few hundred feet higher. And it was a real slog – the previous time I’d hiked it, last March, it had kicked my butt. The middle section was a virtually continuous 15% grade in loose volcanic rock.

But I figured that with my new powers I could make short work of it. And it would take roughly 4 miles off the round-trip distance to the crest, which should make it easy for me to complete this hike that had frustrated me so many times in only a year.

Unfortunately, our weather had been discouragingly hot and dry all month. Normally October is cool here, and often rainy – we’ve even had snow – but I don’t remember any rain since August, and most days at home, at 6,000′ elevation, were reaching the 80s. The high at the entrance to those mountains, a thousand feet lower, was forecast to approach 90. My hike would take me over 9,000′, but I was learning that without a cooling wind, radiant heating at high elevation could be just as punishing as air temperature in the valleys and basins below.

Facing a 2-1/4 hour drive to the trailhead, I’d have to get up early Sunday morning – a day when I usually like to sleep in. But I was motivated and set my alarm for 6, and after my usual Sunday chores, was able to hit the road by 8. I had a little over a half tank of gas, probably not enough to get me there and back, but I figured I’d buy gas at the truck stop on the Interstate, at the halfway point.

I should’ve known better. As often happens, there were lines at the pumps there. There was a big group of Black motorcycle cruisers who seemed to be having a party around two of the pumps, and other motorists were locking their vehicles at the pumps and going inside to grab a snack. The minimum wait for a pump seemed to be 15 minutes. So I took my chances and set off for the mountains.

There were two problems with this. First, if my gas gauge was accurate, I should have enough to get back here in the evening. But I knew it wasn’t – that was the first thing I’d learned about this vehicle. You could drive all day and the needle would barely reach halfway. Then in the next 20 miles it would drop rapidly toward empty.

The second problem was that I didn’t know of any gas stations anywhere near my destination. But I hadn’t really explored, and there might be something I wasn’t aware of. I decided to take the chance and worry about it later. After all, I had a premium AAA membership in case I ran out.

There’s a dramatic moment where the lonely highway tops a low pass and you get your first view of the mountains, and that moment provided my next worry. Although the air and sky were clear in front of the range, the interior was obscured by a heavy haze that looked like wildfire smoke. Great! Why hadn’t I checked for fires before leaving?

I kept driving, and fortunately, the haze gradually cleared, the closer I got. Maybe it was residual and had blown over from somewhere to the south, maybe from Mexico. Maybe it was even windblown dust – although there didn’t seem to be any wind here.

Making the turnoff toward the mountains, I found myself behind a very funky pickup truck going about 5 mph. The back window of the cab was broken out, and a fringe of plastic blew out of it in a failed attempt at patching the window. The front wheel of a bicycle hung over the side of the pickup bed, a guitar strapped to the handlbars, with the neck of the bare guitar extending a couple feet out into traffic. I couldn’t even identify the rest of the junk piled in the pickup bed, but it had a California license plate. I passed, giving it a wide berth, but about ten minutes up the road I saw the same truck racing up in my rearview mirror, and it passed me going 20 mph over the speed limit. When I reached town, it was parked outside the cafe and store.

Past the entrance, as the road twists through a shaded canopy of sycamores under towering cliffs, the speed limit drops to 15 and you can expect the occasional birder on the shoulder with binoculars or camera. However, today was obviously some kind of big birding event. Vehicles were parked everywhere, sometimes blocking traffic lanes, and crowds of birders massed beside the road, peering up into the canopy with their field glasses and huge, unwieldy cameras. Finally I got past them – they were all confined to the lower riparian area – and eventually, watching my gas gauge in despair as it rapidly approached empty, I reached the trailhead, a tiny creekside campground which was unoccupied.

It was only 10:15, and the shade of the riparian canopy still felt cool. Expecting a difficult ascent, I decided to summon my super powers and attempt as much of the trail as possible without stopping to rest. I wasn’t sure exactly how long it was, or what the cumulative elevation gain would be. I still don’t, because there’s only one source for trail mileages in this range – an amateur who publishes the online trail guide – and I’ve learned to doubt all published mileages. This guy uses GPS, which has been proven to significantly underestimate mileage in forested areas. But it’s easy to figure out from topo maps that the elevation gain is over 4,000′ (in the end, it turned out to be nearly 5,000′). And amazingly, I ended up doing the whole damn thing without a rest stop.

Sure, I had to stop to pee, to drink water, or to grab a snack from my pack. But even those stops were rare, and took only a few seconds. What’s more impressive, I didn’t even pant – I made a point of controlling my pace, breathing through my nose – until the last mile or so.

It’s a brutal trail, and not just during the initial shortcut. The second half is a continuous, steep, three-plus-mile traverse of a south-facing scree slope – a burn scar from the 2011 wildfire – at the angle of repose. The trail is just a bare strip along the slope – hardly any of it is flat – which is a strain on your entire lower body. And the scree is white volcanic tuff, so with that southern exposure you’ve got sunlight not only bearing down from above, but bouncing back at you from below, almost the entire distance. I got no help from the wind, so although the air temperature was mild, the radiant heating was fierce.

As on previous hikes this month, there was plenty of fall color, but with my determination to reach the crest, I wasn’t stopping to enjoy the little things. It’s one of those hikes that presents a series of false milestones – in this case, shoulder after shoulder after shoulder of secondary ridges that each seems to get you no closer to the crest. But each one presented a slightly different view of young aspen groves in gold tinged with red.

I’d memorized some features of the upper trail before heading out. I knew there was supposed to be a spring above the trail, just below the saddle. When I arrived there was a trickle of water crossing the trail, but I didn’t stop – I could sense the crest not too far ahead.

What an anti-climax! I was expecting a decent view, but the only views were of nearby ridges and low summits. The peak I’d been traversing presented an additional doable challenge, less than a half mile away, but after considering it seriously, I realized it would add another hour to my hike, make getting gas potentially harder, and ensure that I drove home in the dark, through deer-infested foothills.

The saddle itself was bleak. It, and most of the visible slopes around it, had been sterilized by the fire, so that not even aspens, oaks, or locusts were growing back. The trail guide said the peak above was “beautiful” and had “incredible” views, but I could see it was topped by an isolated grove of pines, so it didn’t really beckon me that strongly. I knew it would be just like all the other forested peaks I’d climbed in the Southwest. I’d never really loved these Southwestern mountains – they were just a temporary stand-in for my beloved Mojave Desert – and now it seemed like I was finally just sick of them.

So I spent only a few minutes up there, then strapped on my knee brace and started back down. Where the trickle of water crossed the trail, I began climbing toward its source, a low wall of striated black rock that clearly trapped groundwater draining from the peak, creating a perennial source of surface water. The trail guide said there was a catch basin above the rock bluff, but it had fallen into disrepair, so you needed to collect the runoff. I reached a point where water was dripping through a cleft in the rock, and set up my bottle to collect it. It was a pretty scenic spot, perched up a steep slope above a dramatic canyon. I carry a Steri-Pen for questionable water sources, but I couldn’t imagine that this was polluted. There hadn’t been livestock here in generations, if ever, this was clearly a rarely used trail, and I couldn’t imagine anyone camping on the peak above. The water was clear and had a neutral taste, so I waited ten minutes for my bottle to fill, had a good drink, and continued down the brutal traverse.

It wasn’t until I’d left the main trail for the shortcut, and dropped into some tiny, parklike basins, where widely spaced ponderosa pines provided dappled shade for deep bunchgrasses, that I regained my appreciation for these mountains. Humans just can’t help responding to parklike forest, especially in late afternoon in autumn, with a low angle sun accentuating colors and contrast.

I was entertained in this stretch by raucous groups of acorn woodpeckers, who at first seemed to be involved in a fracas, and later were clearly upset about me in their midst.

On the drive out of the mountains, I came upon the remnants of the birders, still at work in fading light. I stopped at the cafe to ask about gas, and found their outside patio teeming with unmasked diners. The chef makes the best burritos east of California, and in the crisp sunset light, I really longed to join them. How long it’d been since I’d been exposed to such a convivial scene! How I missed being able to hang out with friends and enjoy a beer and a meal!

Inside the store, the masked waiter said there was gas at Animas 15 miles away. They’d be closed now, but the pumps worked with your credit card 24 hours a day. I’d never been through Animas so it would be an adventure.

It turned out to be a long detour. The Animas Valley is vast, treeless except for what people have planted and irrigated around their homes, and seems to be perfectly flat – not my favorite landscape. The settlement itself is just a crossroads with a handful of businesses and a high school. The people live far out on the parched, featureless plain, dispersed in isolated ranch houses. So eerie. Returning north up the plain toward the Interstate, you pass through a seemingly endless Mormon community of dusty industrial farms where your speed is limited to 45. Finally you reach the stark playa, the Interstate and the railroad.

As predicted, I ended up driving home in the dark, where I encountered groups of deer standing in the middle of the highway waiting to be killed, and headlights in my mirror, people tailgating because I was driving too cautiously. But all in all, I’d finally reached that crest, it felt like a huge accomplishment, and I was still in a good mood when I got home.

5: Chopping Locust

I was due to return to the trail that takes me deeper and deeper into our legendary wilderness, but just before I left home, I remembered the vicious thorns – mainly the New Mexico locust that was filling in the burn scar in the farther reaches of the crest of the range. I decided to stop by my burned house and pick up my Dad’s machete.

As far as I could tell, he’d never used it. I believe he bought it mail order, from one of his dozens of catalogs, after he moved from the Oregon coast to his hometown in southeast Ohio and became an invalid. I have no idea why he thought he needed a machete when he couldn’t even walk without a shopping cart to hold onto – my best guess is that since Fox News and Rush Limbaugh had convinced him that mobs of young black men were planning a home invasion, he wanted to cover all his bases. In case he ran out of ammo for his many guns, the machete might be his last resort.

After inheriting it, I’d used it for years to trim my privet hedge, until I developed rotator cuff tears in both shoulders and had to get an electric hedge trimmer. I’d kept it sharp, and cutting those damn locusts could be both fun and rewarding. I’d just have to make sure not to chop myself in the process – a machete is a wicked tool.

Once I’d hiked down into the canyon, I discovered that autumn was still going strong in the mountains. That’s the thing about mountains – the topography results in a range of elevations and habitats that are timed to go off in sequence across a period of many weeks, from low canyon bottoms to high peaks and ridges. With the plants themselves on different schedules, our fall color can extend from September to December.

The last time I’d been here, it was the sumac, the oaks, the poison ivy, the aspens, and various high-elevation shrubs. The aspens had mostly dropped their leaves by now, but the maples were just peaking. The weather was mostly clear and calm, one of those chilly fall days when it’s hot in the sun and cold in the shade, but the continuous climb on treacherous footing had me sweating all day long.

We’d had 3-4 inches of snow in town the past Tuesday, and a hike to 9,000′ on Thursday had me trudging through patches up to 6″ deep. So here, where the extensive mountain mass tended to attract more precip, I was expecting even more snow cover. But on the crest at 9,500′, there were only a few scattered patches in shaded spots behind fallen logs, and they would melt soon. Miles beyond, I could see a few actual snow fields on the north slopes of distant peaks, but they were all above 10,000′.

On the back side of the crest saddle, where the trail entered the thicket of aspen and locust saplings, I pulled the machete out of my pack and began my rogue trail work in earnest. There were a lot of thorns and it was a tough job. I was determined to get just as far as I’d hiked on my last visit, climbing over dozens of logs, straining my shoulder, and ending up with a bloody hand. The extra time meant I’d have to drive home in the dark – so be it, I’d be grateful the next time, and would be able to hike faster and farther without all those locusts to slow me down.

As I returned down the canyon in early evening, the maple habitat in the lower stretch was even more glorious than it’d been in the morning. Every stop delayed my drive home, but as usual, I couldn’t help stopping repeatedly to take it in.

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Burned Ridge

Monday, September 21st, 2020: Hikes, Nature, Pinos Altos Range, Plants, Southwest New Mexico, Wildfire.

I first started hiking the six-mile-long ridge north of town ten or twelve years ago, but only the first couple of miles – I wasn’t doing longer hikes back then. It was never one of my favorite hikes; there were higher peaks closer to town, there wasn’t much exposed rock, and the rare views through the forest up there merely showed more forested hills.

But during the past two years, as I started challenging myself, measuring and logging distance and elevation, I wondered what it would be like to hike the entire ridge. Maps showed something called a “lake” at the west end of the ridge, near the top, more than six miles from the trailhead on the highway. That made no sense – lakes don’t form near the tops of ridges, in this latitude, at that elevation, in the arid Southwest.

But the “lake” gave me a mystery to explore, and on contour maps I could see that the trail had enough ups and downs to give me a significant overall elevation gain, so in December 2018, I tried to hike the distance. I was just starting to build capacity and only made a little over five miles, frustratingly close, before I ran out of time, only five days from the shortest day of the year, and had to turn back.

Five months later I finally made it. The “lake” turned out to be a turbid stock pond excavated out of a small forested plateau and filled naturally by annual precipitation, permanently muddy due to electrically charged particles of clay in suspension. It didn’t invite you to take a dip, but it was sufficiently incongruous, up there in the Southwestern sky, that it made the fairly grueling, twelve-plus-mile roundtrip ridge hike worthwhile.

Like with all my repeated hikes, I came to know it in sections. The initial ascent up and across the eastern shoulders, past a broad exposure of unusual white rock to an old burn scar, colonized by dense ferns, that offered a view east toward the “moonscape” of a more recent wildfire around the peak of the range. The meandering traverse of the steep north slope, shaded and densely forested with fir, which always seemed damp no matter how dry the season was. The punishing climb to the high point of the ridge, actually a narrow, rocky, mile-long “plateau” of parklike pine forest. Then began a rollercoaster of steep ups and downs, in which pine forest alternated with rocky sections of agave and mountain mahogany, that lasted another couple of miles and ended at the pond.

I hiked it again in April of this year. Then in June, I was rushed to the hospital with severe back pain, and a few days later, lightning started a wildfire in one of the little canyons below the ridge. I first saw the smoke from a hill in town, a few blocks up my street. The fire quickly climbed to the ridge, and strangely, as far as I could tell from the wildfire website, spread east along the opposite slope, probably a trick of the wind. I was pretty dismayed, on top of the pain I was feeling. What would happen to this familiar habitat near home?

The fire jumped to the east end of the ridge, where the trail begins, and they closed the highway. It turned out to be closed for the next month, as firefighters surrounded the fire and barely kept it from crossing the road, where it would’ve had miles of unbroken forest fuel dotted with occupied cabins. The perimeter was still pretty big, and the fire kept running out onto secondary ridges. When I was able to hike again, I targeted peaks that would give me a closer view.

Finally they reopened the highway and I drove around the eastern edge of the fire. All access to the ridge was off limits, and helicopters were still filling up at roadside “pumpkins” and sailing off to make drops in remote drainages. Several miles past the ridge, I found a barely passable back road and eventually got a limited view. The entire north slope of the ridge, which was where the trail mostly traversed, seemed devastated. Based on recent experience, I doubted the trail would be usable any time soon. And that dense, humid forest, with its ferns, mosses, and wildflowers. Gone for decades, maybe forever.

Since my house fire, I’ve been driving at least an hour away for my Sunday hikes, but this weekend I just didn’t feel like driving. In addition to the burned ridge hike, there was another nearby possibility that I decided on. But since it was only about ten minutes farther to the ridge trailhead, I figured I would check on the slim chance that the burned trail might be open. I didn’t expect it to be clear of fallen trees or erosion from monsoon rains, but I’d take a quick look before returning to hike the other trail.

At the trailhead, I was surprised to see nothing but the usual post-fire warnings. I was so curious to see conditions in the forest, I hoisted my pack and set out.

At mid-morning it was cool, in the low 60s, with a forecast high in the low 70s – a perfect fall day for hiking. I knew from my earlier drive that the forest on this first section had burned patchily, with roughly half the trees killed. But they were still standing, and the trail was as clear as ever. The gentle slope at the beginning was gold with pine needles, but they were all needles that had been killed by the fire and were continuing to drop from limbs above.

As I climbed toward the shoulders of the ridge, I found logs that had been recently cut, and clear tread on the trail. I realized that during “mopup,” firefighters had used this trail to monitor the fire, hence they’d had to keep the trail open. I hadn’t thought of that, and it made me hopeful about the rest of the hike.

As usual, I was hoping to be the first, or one of the first, to hike this trail since the big event. There were only two human footprints preceding me since the last rain, a couple weeks ago: a big man and a small woman. In the first couple of miles, destruction was patchy. I was impressed to see trees whose vegetation had been killed almost to the top, but still retained a small crown of green. The slope of ferns had been completely burned off, but smaller ferns had sprouted over much of it.

There was a lot of green, but it was mostly new growth since the fire – annual wildflowers and thickets of fast-growing thorny locust. It wasn’t until two miles in that I hit a badly burned section of north slope. Whereas before, the trees still bore their dead needles or leaves, here they were only black skeletons. Every now and then I came upon a tree that had burned down to nearly nothing, or the empty tunnels left in the ground when even the roots of the tree are consumed. The soil had been burned off the steep slopes and loose sediment was washing downhill, cutting away sections of trail. I stubbed my toes, slipped, and stumbled over and over again, and fell a couple of times.

My favorite tree on this hike was the one on the high plateau that had lost its trunk and grown a new trunk from a lateral branch. I was afraid it’d burned, but on reaching the top I found it safe, only sixty feet from the edge of destruction. The ridgetop was like that in many places – a sharp line between total destruction and intact habitat.

Looking at slopes from a distance, I could see that the fire had made linear “runs” like long fingers of black up and down steep slopes. Thinking of the chemical and physical phenomena of fire it always seems strange to think of it as an active “thing” – something seemingly alive that can move across the landscape with a will of its own – whereas a physicist or chemist would view it as a series of discrete microscopic and macroscopic events and interactions between forces, particles, living and dead organic tissue, cells and structures. The fire is just the visible, tactile sensation of what’s going on invisibly. How can it be something big and continuous that moves across a landscape? But it does.

I found myself focusing in on the details – the varying effects of fire on different plants. Many gambel oaks looked like they were wearing their “fall foliage” – brown leaves – while actually their foliage had all been killed by fire that wasn’t intense enough to incinerate the leaves. These trees were re-sprouting from root stock around the base. The core blades of agaves mostly survived while the outer ring burned. Many trees seemed completely dead until you noticed a few surviving branchlets at the very top. I realized this had uniformly been a ground fire rather than a crown fire. In many places, the duff and organic matter in the soil had burned but the bark of the pines had barely been singed. In other places, slopes where the dominant vegetation had been mountain mahogany, everything was charred and skeletal and even the rocks were blackened.

There was much less shade after the fire, and I was surprised that it felt like the 80s up on the ridge top – far from the cool fall day I’d expected.

The footprints of the big man and the small woman ended on the high part of the ridge, less than four miles in. The well-maintained trail ended there, too – apparently even firefighters hadn’t gone any farther. But I knew the trail well even if it was invisible to others.

Eventually, moving in and out of burn scars and intact habitat, but always with evidence of spot fires that consumed isolated trees in the midst of green, I reached the plateau and the pond. The parklike forest around it was mostly intact. The water level was down, and individual small trees had burned right up to the edge.

I found a pistol, apparently left by a hunter, and a motion-sensor camera someone had set up on a tree trunk. The other access to this place is via a short hike up from a remote forest road – a lot more driving, a lot less walking.

I was sore all over, and the hike back was a real slog. But considering that I’d been hiking and working out much less during the past month, I felt in pretty good condition. Apparently I can take it easier in the future and still stay in shape.

I took the pistol back with me. I’ve used a fair variety of guns, ever since childhood, but this was a new model with a plastic stock. I couldn’t figure it out and even thought it might be an air gun at first. It was holstered, and I stashed it in my pack. At home I looked it up and found that it’s an expensive sidearm, highly rated for both target shooting and personal defense. I took it to the sheriff’s office the next morning. They seemed pretty freaked out, detaining me and checking my ID in the system while a senior deputy took the gun outside to check it for ammo. Then they let me go without any further fuss, after taking my cell number in case the owner was offering a reward.

I also found online that one other person had logged a hike on the ridge trail after the fire – ironically, the day before me – but he’d only gone four miles. The big male footprints were explained, and I kept my distinction of first to complete the trail since the fire.

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Hiking Through Trauma

Tuesday, September 1st, 2020: Black Range, Chiricahuas, Hikes, Hillsboro, Holt, Mogollon Mountains, Nature, Southeast Arizona, Southwest New Mexico, Wildfire.

First Sunday

My house fire occurred on a Monday morning. My neighbors were wonderful as usual, but the aftermath was an ongoing series of crises that fell on my shoulders alone. By Sunday I was a wreck.

I headed for the trail in the high mountains to the northwest, the trail where I can get 4,000′ of elevation gain and an expansive view of the tallest peaks. We were still in a drought and heat wave at home, but I was hoping for rain or at least cloud cover up in the mountains.

It’s an hour’s drive from my temporary accommodations to the trailhead. Suffering from PTSD, my heart fell when I rounded a bend, got a view of the canyons and peaks I’d be climbing, and saw smoke from a wildfire back in the wilderness near where I was headed. My first thought was that the trail would be closed by firefighting equipment.

I turned off and drove up the dirt road into the foothills. I passed a truck and encountered an older couple walking beside the road. They said they lived down in the valley and I asked them about the fire. They said the Forest Service was aware of it but wasn’t doing anything. That was both good and bad news. I could get to the trail but didn’t know if I could hike it safely.

The couple dismissed my concerns. “If you see smoke ahead, just turn around and hike out!” said the woman. This was the only trail this side of town that would kick my ass, which in my damaged state I mistakenly thought I needed, so I didn’t want to give it up. What pathetic animals we humans are!

The sun blazed down in the canyon, and the humidity turned out to be as bad as I’d ever experienced. My clothes were all drenched with sweat at the halfway point, so I stopped for lunch and hung my shirt and bandanna headband over branches, hoping they’d dry a little.

On the climb, a thunderhead finally began to develop in the east, moving over the crest. It chilled the alpine air but failed to drop any rain. From the little knob on the shoulder of the peak, I could finally see the fire, a few miles due east. It was one drainage away near the head of the biggest canyon in this part of the mountains, and its smoke was beginning to pour north over the ridge into a smaller side canyon.

I took a picture of myself up there, as usual, but I look too miserable to include it in this Dispatch.

On the way back to town I saw a serious storm in the east, and it turned out we’d finally gotten a little rain back home.

Second Sunday

The second week after my house fire was just as hard as the first, with more delays, contractors screwing up, daily arguments with insurance, and no hope of temporary housing. Constantly in reactive mode, I had no time to think about where I was going for my Sunday hike, so I just continued the cycle of west followed by east.

Walnut trees in the canyon, where the winding road approaches the crest, were heavily infested with tent caterpillars. I’d seen lesser infestations last year, but this was pretty creepy.

Maximum humidity again, with most of the day up there in the sky fully exposed to sun, so it was a pretty tough slog. When I got up on the crest I could see heavy smoke obscuring the lowlands to the east. I assumed it was from the California fires.

The long views from the crest are one highlight of this hike; the other is the old-growth fir forest, grassy meadows and fern dells on the back side of the peak. But this time I explored a new trail from the saddle behind the peak, and found a beautiful shrub swarmed by big orange and black tachinid flies – really impressive pollinators.

Third Sunday

The third week after my house fire was just as traumatic as the fire itself, because I had another apparent brush with death during oral surgery. And my trials at home continued, with only one encouraging break: I found temporary housing.

As the weekend approached, in rare moments of forethought I imagined driving two hours over to the Range of Canyons for a Sunday hike. It was looking like possible rain on the weekend, which would be the only thing that would make that trip bearable, since it’s a thousand feet lower and correspondingly hotter over there.

Unfortunately on the drive over, I jinxed myself by mentioning rain to a friend on the phone. So the day turned out to be rainless, as humid as the previous Sundays, but mercifully a little cooler due to continuous cloud cover.

The trail itself doesn’t have much to recommend it – the payoff view is too far for a round trip day hike, especially when you subtract the four hours of driving there and back. But despite the drought, I was surprised by the variety of unfamiliar flowers – most of them tiny – which don’t seem to grow across the border in New Mexico.

I also saw several white-tail deer, and a big hawk I flushed from undergrowth in the forest near the trailhead. It flew heavily off carrying some long, slender prey animal, and all I saw clearly was its tail, dark brown with broad, pale, clearly marked bands.

The hike felt harder than usual. I’d gone from 6 workouts per week down to one – my big Sunday hike – and I’d lost a lot of weight, all of it muscle mass. Probably 5-10 pounds, which is a lot for a little guy with no body fat. I’d tightened my belt and my pants were still threatening to fall off. From 22 miles and 6,000′ of hiking per week down to 12 miles and 3,000′. I was surely losing the conditioning I’d worked so hard to build up during the past two years of recovery from disabilities.

Despite the difficult week, this hike finally succeeded in calming me down a little, in preparation for more crisis and trauma in the week ahead.

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