Dispatches
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Wildfire

Summer Solstice 2019

Tuesday, June 25th, 2019: 2019 Trips, Hikes, Mogollon Rim, Nature, Regions, Road Trips, Southeast Arizona, Whites, Wildfire.

Climbing the Soup Bowl

For more than a decade, I’ve been driving past this mountain on my way west from my New Mexico home. When I’m westbound, it’s mostly hidden behind lower hills, and I only glimpse it over my right shoulder. When I’m driving eastward, on my way home, I first spot its distinctive steep-sided, flat-topped elephant shape far in the distance, across the high grasslands, standing off by itself, isolated from the rest of its volcanic range. I’m especially attracted to high plateaus, and I always wondered what it would be like to climb to the top.

During those early years, its steep slopes were draped in dense conifer forest, slashed here and there by the avalanche scars of black volcanic talus. Then, eight years ago, the state’s largest wildfire, started by careless campers, swept across from the main bulk of the range and destroyed virtually all the mountain’s forest. I was sickened, but as more of our southwestern mountains were deforested by wildfire, I got used to hiking in burn scars, and came to view it as a chance to learn about ecological adaptation. So I figured I’d eventually end up hiking this one.

The Spanish called it the Soup Bowl because its top features large bowl-like meadows above 10,000′ elevation. It’s actually the state’s third-highest mountain. Since the fire, the dead high-elevation forests all over this vast range have been filled in by virulent green thickets of ferns, aspens, and Gambel oak.

The local offices of the Forest Service make little attempt to keep their public information up to date, so I was unaware until I reached it that the fire lookout tower on the peak had been damaged and abandoned after the fire. But the trail has been cleared by the incredible effort of sawing through thousands of downed trees.

The first part of the trail, to the first bowl at 10,000′, was tightly hemmed in by aspen: mature stands unaffected by fire, and the young thickets that often replace burned conifer forest. It wasn’t until I’d climbed past the first grassy bowl, “Tool Box Meadow,” that I encountered the white skeleton forests of burned Engelmann spruce, and heard their eerie wailing. There was a constant gale-force wind blowing across the top of the mountain, and it triggered resonant frequencies in the high skeletal branches of the tall spruce snags. At first I thought it was a flock of birds crying off in the distance, then it moved closer and sounded more like a crowd of women wailing hysterically in pain and despair. It was my constant companion for the rest of my visit to the top of the Soup Bowl, and the longer it lasted, the more I wanted to get out of that place.

Although the abandoned lookout tower had been fenced off, other hikers had found a way under the fence, and I followed, intending to climb to the balcony for a better view. But the higher I climbed, the more the steel tower vibrated in the wind, and the harder I had to hold on to keep from getting blown off the steep stairs. That, plus the wailing forest below, really freaked me out, and when I was about two-thirds of the way up, I noticed the top of the stairs were blocked by a locked trap door, gave up and carefully climbed back down.

Adding to the weirdness on the mountain top was an abundance of trash from recent hikers along the trail, all of which I gathered and packed out. I’ve never seen anything like this on a trail in New Mexico, even near town. I get the feeling that in general, Arizonans may be more likely to trash their habitats than New Mexicans.

Hard Lessons in the Interior

The next agenda item on my trip was to penetrate the interior of the mountains, a vast area with no paved roads and some of the worst devastation from the 2011 wildfire. It’s the watershed of the Black River, which is apparently famous among trout fishermen, and I knew that in the middle of it was an unlikely bridge over the river, by which I hoped to reach my next destination, a remote alpine lodge at the south end of the mountains. Along the way I’d get a feel for the landscape and the condition of the forest.

I’d spent a couple of nights in a resort village tucked away on the north side of the range, and I was relieved to be getting away, because hundreds of motorcyclists were converging on the village for the weekend, in convoys of a dozen or more that thundered through the alpine forest, dominating the sensory environment for miles around.

It was a long, slow drive on a rough road, winding along ridges, down into shallow, well-watered canyons, and finally to the rim of the canyon of the Black River itself, which is about 800 feet deep here. Ever since I spotted this place on a map, I figured it must be one of the most remote locations in the state. You do encounter little traffic on these back roads, but whenever you pass a turnoff, you can generally expect to see a group of big RVs and/or horse trailers parked back in the woods. Along the river beside the bridge were several parked vehicles, presumably for fishermen.

Across the river, the road rises steeply, and continues rising, higher and higher and higher, surmounting ridge after ridge until you can hardly believe there could be more. This is the edge of the Bear Wallow Wilderness, where the fire originally started. The climb from the Black River to this high country is 2,500′.

Near the top, I decided to take a side trip in search of a short hike. The side road I chose wasn’t bad compared to our desert roads, but my little vehicle has such a stiff suspension I felt like I was riding in a jackhammer – even the smallest rock in the road launched me into the air with calamitous thuds and rattles. I doggedly followed the road to its end, Gobbler Point, where there was a trailhead that was completely blocked by a couple of big trucks with horse trailers. And on the way back, I leaned over in my seat to reach for my camera, and instantly felt like I was being sliced in half at the waist. My dreaded back condition had been triggered, I’d be crippled for who knows how long, and my vacation was essentially ruined.

I carry pain meds for just this kind of situation. Fortunately my vehicle has seats with good lumbar support, and I was able to drive to a pulloff where I took a couple of pills and very carefully laid down on the pine needles to do my spinal twist stretch. It didn’t help much, so I got a beer out of the cooler and had some lunch, trying not to think of what lay ahead of me. The lodge I’d made reservations at is truly in the middle of nowhere, with no services to speak of, and no cell phone reception. I’d be pretty much on my own for the next couple of days, while dealing with paralyzing levels of pain.

The road seemed even longer on the way out. When I finally made it to the lodge, I was dismayed to find a big biker rally in progress. The entire front of the lodge was teeming with bikers guzzling beer and scarfing down barbecue. I was pale, my entire body tense with pain, when I carefully stepped out of my vehicle and edged through the mass of bikers and up the steps, walking like I was balancing a crate of eggs on my head. Taking my time and pretending to be normal, I checked in and somehow managed to carry my stuff up the inside stairs to my room on the second floor. It turned out to be tiny, with no space to lay out my stuff, most of the room hogged by the small iron bed. And of course there was no seating with adequate lumbar support, so it was either stand up, or carefully lie down on the over-soft mattress. I realized that sleeping on the soft mattress in my previous lodging had actually triggered the episode of back pain. It had been six months since my last episode, and I’d gotten careless, spending a lot of time lying on my back, which I knew I shouldn’t have done. I truly am vulnerable!

My back was even worse now, so I took another pill and crawled stiffly into bed. It was early afternoon, and I was hoping to feel good enough in a few hours to go downstairs for dinner. But the meds hardly helped. The entire lodge complex seemed to be operated by a single person, a small but rugged-looking woman about my age, and I realized that if I was going to eat anything, it would have to be with her help. But there were no phones in the room, so I’d have to get myself downstairs somehow to talk to her.

It took a while. Even the slightest wrong move could literally bring me to my knees on the floor, and that happened several times. I had to walk like I was on eggshells, but holding myself together also had a tendency to trigger an excruciating spasm. Eventually, pale and distracted, I found myself in the dining room, where three tables were already occupied. I fumblingly tried to explain the situation to my host, and she said she used to have back trouble herself and would be happy to bring something to my room.

But of course, there was no place to eat in my room. I found a card table and a folding chair on the landing at the top of the stairs, and rediscovered that folding chairs have great lumbar support, so that’s where I ate, with the host lady marching up to check on me every five minutes or so.

Back in my room for the night, I spent hours trying to find a position that minimized the pain and allowed me to sleep, but eventually I did.

Traversing the Rim

Of course, my back was even worse in the morning, so I took a couple more pills first thing, and made it into the shower, hoping the heat would do my back some good. The heat and the pills made it possible for me to walk stiffly downstairs for breakfast, and later to very carefully haul my stuff back to the vehicle after checking out.

I figured my trip was cut short and I should just try to get back home. There was the familiar route, north from the lodge to the highway that continues southeast to Silver City, or there was the unfamiliar road due south, which is longer but is the route I’d been planning to take. In view of my condition I turned north.

But after ten minutes or so on the paved highway, in my nice comfortable car seat, I was feeling bummed about leaving the mountains and guilty about wimping out. I’d originally planned to do a big hike today, ten miles or more, in this high country along the famous Mogollon Rim. Maybe I could just drive to the trailhead and conduct an experiment. After all, walking is supposed to be good for your back!

The road to the trailhead was at least as bad as the one on which my episode had been triggered, the day before, and even longer. But I toughed it out. And at the trailhead, I somehow managed to change into my hiking clothes, attach the tape and felt I use to protect my chronically injured foot, and get my heavy hiking boots on. I carefully shouldered my pack and started down the trail. I figured that if I fell and became immobilized, at least I had a couple more pills and my GPS message device…

This rim trail was clearly unmaintained since the fire. It followed an old stock fence which likewise had been abandoned and often simply disappeared, both fence and trail. But I managed to keep figuring out where it went and rejoining it further on.

I went down a long hill, then up another, then down that, then up another, in and out of forest and raw clearings, always with a partial view off the rim to my left, screened by trees, over more wild, unknown country to the south. While temperatures were pushing 90 back home, up here it was in the low 70s, with an intermittent breeze. All told, I climbed four hills, detouring around fallen trees and losing and refinding the trail over and over, before finding myself in a saddle, facing impenetrable thickets and no more trail or fence. So I pushed my way a short distance through Gambel oak to the rim, sat on a rock and had lunch. The view south was dim with smoke, but I could just barely see the silhouette of the Pinaleno range, about 90 miles away, where I’d done several hikes earlier in the year.

Halfway back, I encountered a college-age couple dressed in the latest hiking fashions, and warned them that the trail ended only a mile further. Funny, in the Forest Service trail guide this is called a popular trail, and is shown to connect with other popular trails. The guide apparently hasn’t been updated since the 1990s, but they’re happy to give it out when you inquire.

Driving the Lost Road

Now that I’d experimented with my pain level by driving a back road and hiking a trail, I decided to experiment further by driving the unfamiliar road south. I had a sense it was daunting – long, steep, and full of hairpins – but again I felt guilty about taking the easy route.

This road turned out to be a revelation! Who knew there was so much remote, wild country tucked away in an area that looked small on the map? Far, far from any city, and with no apparent settlements or even ranches in 50 or 60 miles, as this road climbed down thousands of feet, then up thousands of feet again, over mountain range after mountain range I’d had no idea even existed. Along the way, there were dozens of signed turnoffs for campgrounds and trailheads, but few signs of people or vehicles. And every time the road crested a mountain, there was a scenic overlook.

About halfway down this road, I was suddenly tailgated by a big late-model truck, and I pulled over to let it pass. It was the college kids! They had given up on the trail even quicker than I had, and were racing to get back to the city, four or five hours away.

Enlightenment Now

In his best-selling book Enlightenment Now, the celebrity Harvard professor Steven Pinker promotes the notion that white Europeans have been making the world a better place ever since their “Age of Enlightenment” in the 18th century – otherwise known as the Industrial Revolution. A consummate urbanite, Pinker is totally oblivious to nature, ecology, and the services natural ecosystems provide. Hence he has no concern for the ecological impacts of industrial society, such as climate change – he believes that anything which enhances the urban, affluent Euro-American lifestyle is an unequivocal step forward for the species and its, preferably man-made, environments. And his thesis is particularly attractive to young people indoctrinated in our Eurocentric colleges and universities, and to the industrialists and tech industry entrepreneurs who are actually creating our future.

The end of my trip found me passing through a modern manifestation of Pinker’s Age of Enlightenment, which he would likely call one of humanity’s greatest achievements: one of the largest industrial sites on earth. The sun was going down, my back pain was getting worse, and I realized that I needed to find a place to stop for the night. Home was still three hours away and I wasn’t going to make it.

I pulled over to take another pill, and kept driving south. And just as the scenery was getting really spectacular, I caught a glimpse of an artificial mountain, a salmon-red tailings pile, looming far ahead. I knew I would pass the mine, and I’d even flown over it once not long ago. But nothing could prepare me for this.

It literally went on for about ten miles, just getting bigger and bigger, and although it was Sunday they were working full-bore, with huge trucks racing back and forth like ants across towering slopes, and clouds of dust rising like erupting volcanoes on either side. This symbol of man’s power to destroy nature must serve as an inspiration for new-age industrialists like Elon Musk, whose “gigafactory” wiped out a big swath of wildlife habitat in Nevada, and whose electrical technologies are dramatically increasing the demand for unsustainable mining of copper and other non-renewable metals.

The road twisted and turned and rose and fell through this nightmare landscape, then entered the processing area, and finally the company town. Then it dove into a deep, dark canyon and entered the old, original mining town, in which picturesque Victorian commercial buildings and tiny residential neighborhoods lined the slopes of side canyons along the San Francisco River. I took a wrong turn and ended up ascending a steep side street that reminded me of Los Angeles’ Silver Lake district, with expensive European cars parked outside well-maintained Spanish-style homes packed together like sardines.

Finally I arrived at the town’s only motel and pulled up outside the office, but it was unattended and there was no way to reach the owner. I would have to keep driving, another 45 miles south where I knew there were plenty of lodgings. I had just enough gas, and just enough light, to make it, to end this long day.

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Canyon of Chaos

Monday, August 5th, 2019: Hikes, Nature, Pinalenos, Southeast Arizona, 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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Top of the Burned World

Monday, September 2nd, 2019: Black Range, Hikes, Hillsboro, Nature, Southwest New Mexico, 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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Burned Ridge

Monday, January 27th, 2020: Chiricahuas, Hikes, Nature, Southeast Arizona, Wildfire.

With deep snow preventing access to my favorite local trails, I was desperate for something at lower elevation that would still give me a good workout. Around here, lower elevation mostly means further south, in the basin-and-range province where low desert basins surround isolated mountain ranges that rise anywhere from 2,000′ to 6,000′ above.

I’d visited the biggest of these southern ranges briefly when I first moved to this region, but I’d avoided it ever since because it’s world famous, developed for tourism, and sometimes crowded, despite its remoteness from cities.

But further research led me to an excellent amateur website providing information on hiking trails. Dozens of trails are listed, with conditions, distances, elevations, step-by-step descriptions, and topo maps – but thankfully, no photos. The more I studied, the more it seemed that, at least in winter, there might be some great opportunities to get away from the crowds and gain significant mileage and elevation, but without getting mired in deep snow.

This range gets up close to 10,000 feet on its crest, but many trails start at around 5,000′ – as opposed to my local trails which start anywhere between 6,500′ and 8,500′. At this latitude, north slopes hold deep snow at 8,000′ and above. So in the southern range, I’d have many options that could gain me 3,000′ without hitting deep snow.

It was a longer drive than my local hikes – an hour and a half just to get to the entrance of the range, and farther to the trailheads. But if I got up early on Sunday, I could hit the trail in late morning and still have 7 hours of light.

After turning off the Interstate onto the state road south, I began to notice that every third license plate I passed was Mexican. This highway leads north from a major border crossing. The Mexican drivers were all exercising caution, driving below the speed limit.

This range, like my home range in the Mojave Desert, is distinguished by its complex topography, with long canyons on all sides that lead up into broad interior basins that are hidden from the outside. Approaching from the northeast, I drove the paved road into the northeast basin, where most of the development is. I slowed down to pass the small settlement of vacation homes in the canyon’s mouth, then drove even more slowly along the rushing snowmelt creek between towering cliffs and pinnacles, along a narrow, forested floodplain dotted with sycamores, campgrounds, more vacation homes, and small, abandoned barns and pastures from pioneer days.

Despite the descriptions in the trail guide, I had a little trouble finding the trailhead – it wasn’t marked, but there was a wide spot beside the road just big enough for a small vehicle like mine, and after pulling over, I could barely see a trail sign partially hidden among gambel oak on the slope above.

The trail began by meandering gradually upwards across a rolling rocky upland shaded by a beautiful open forest of oak and juniper, interspersed with meadows of bunchgrass, beargrass, and yucca. Then it began climbing a steep ridge, where a small sign marked the wilderness area boundary. Most of the crest of the range lies within federal wilderness.

The trail climbed first the south side, then the north side of the ridge, where I began to encounter small patches of snow. The view started out good and just got better. I love snow, and despite trying to avoid it on the trail, I really enjoyed spotting distant snow-covered north slopes from this vantage point. And I saw plenty of birds, including two golden eagles.

Finally, climbing between a group of large granite boulders, I emerged onto a flat saddle five miles and 2,500′ above the trailhead. Much of the forest above this point was destroyed in a 2011 wildfire, but the web guide said this trail has been cleared for another couple of miles, so I planned to go as far as possible while still leaving enough time to get back to the vehicle before full dark.

Past the saddle, the trail climbed a fully exposed, badly burnt slope that continued to the crest. Much of this slope consisted of fine talus at the angle of repose, on which a slip would mean a fall of hundreds of feet to your certain death. The trail was good and the views exhilarating, but I was drenched in sweat here under full sunlight, and after less than a mile I decided to turn back.

Whereas the ascent had been fairly easy, loose rock on the trail made the descent exhausting for my problem ankle. I’d brought camping gear, but I was so filthy I couldn’t imagine going to bed without a shower. And there was still frost in the campgrounds along the creek, so I’d be making camp in the cold and dark, and waking to frost on my sleeping bag. I got back to the vehicle just before closing time at the tiny cafe and lodge at the mouth of the canyon, so I stopped there, got a room, and had an excellent burrito.

In the morning, I checked out the two tent-only campgrounds up the canyon, for future reference. Unfortunately, though the locations were beautiful, the campsites were right next to each other and none of them was designed for privacy. And I still need to get a tent…

The entire highway north was staked out by the state police that morning, and I was pulled over for driving 67 in a 60 mph zone. The trooper let me go without a warning when he found out I’d been hiking in the mountains.

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Troop of Coatis

Monday, February 10th, 2020: Chiricahuas, Hikes, Nature, Southeast Arizona, Wildfire.

After studying the trail guide for these mountains, I’d made a short list of trails I thought would be good in winter – lower elevations – vs. summer – higher elevations. But on closer study of one of the “summer” trails, despite averaging more than a thousand feet higher than the trails I’d hiked so far, it appeared to mostly avoid northern slopes where the deep snow is found. And the guide said it had been completely cleared of logs and brush by volunteers last year. Plus, it offered an overlook of the 400′ waterfall I’d glimpsed on my first visit.

Conveniently ignoring my past experience – that above 8,000′, deep snow can also be found on east and west slopes – I decided to give this “summer” trail a try, here in the midst of winter.

Getting to the trailhead itself is a challenge for most folks – you have to climb a mile and a half up a high-clearance, 4wd-only road barely wide enough for a single vehicle. Most people are advised to park below and walk the road. Driving it was slow but fun in my Sidekick. It climbed through a beautiful riparian forest of sycamore, oak, and conifers alongside a rushing snowmelt creek, dappled with sunlight and shade.

The trail began in unburned but open pine forest, and quickly rose into burn scar where long-thorned locust saplings and the hand-high briars of wild roses grabbed my shirt and pants and scratched the backs of my hands. Crisscrossing a steep slope on long switchbacks, I trudged awkwardly up stretches of hard snow crust where I had to kick footholds with my stiff boots.

Clouds were closing in, and a cold wind came and went. An hour of hiking got me to the waterfall overlook. The waterfall was barely flowing – last week’s cold spell had turned it into a spooky ice sculpture. And the overlook was a narrow, precarious gap in the chaparral that only revealed the top section of the falls.

The overlook was less than 2 miles from the trailhead. My target – should I be lucky enough to find my way clear of deep snow – was to hike to the end of this trail where it joined the Crest Trail, and from there make my way to the peak of the range, almost 2,000′ higher.

But my first challenge was a set of tight, steep switchbacks which climbed a steep north slope, and crossed patches of snow up to knee-deep, which were mostly crusty but occasionally gave way underfoot, toppling me sideways. The view was spectacular but my wishful thinking was fading fast.

Finally the trail crested another saddle and entered a partially-burned canyon. At first the way was level across a mostly open slope. But then I came to a maze of green branches, the crown of a seemingly healthy, mature Ponderosa pine than had fallen across the trail. And from there on, it got worse. Tree after living tree had toppled, just in the past few weeks, to make the trail virtually impassable.

Resolute, I climbed and crawled my way through for about a half mile, at which point I encountered a seemingly endless, intertwined pile of fallen trees. It was so extensive I couldn’t see a way to climb around it, so I gave up and turned back.

Why did all these living trees fall? After a bad fire, the soil is progressively destabilized as the roots of burned trees rot and crumble, soil and rocks erode without the support of soil biota and roots, and the dead snags fall. So the surviving trees lose much of their root support. Mature trees have grown as part of a fairly dense forest, losing their lower branches and becoming top-heavy, and without the collective windbreak of the trees that have died and fallen around them, the survivors are more isolated and vulnerable to the force and impact of wind. And inside the trees, invisible fungal infections can make both trunks and branches vulnerable to breakage. It’s a killer combo.

Cloud cover was now nearly complete – it looked like a storm was imminent – and the rising wind was harsh and cold. I made my way down at a steady pace, sinking and toppling occasionally in unstable snow. But before I left the snow behind, I heard voices, and crossing the next patch of snow I saw two people approaching.

The first was just a boy, barely out of his teens. I had spotted something at my feet and bent to turn over a tiny bird, smashed inexplicably into the snow. When I rose, I noticed the kid was wearing a fancy cowboy boot on one foot, and on the other, one of those open-toed plastic medical boots you get when you fracture your foot.

“Damn!” I exclaimed. “That’s hard core!”

He smiled and asked how much farther the overlook was, in a sweet country drawl. He said this was his first time – he used to hike these mountains from the other side. I told him there was an even better overlook higher up, but he shook his head, pointing to his partner who was struggling to catch up. “She’s from Florida. She’s not used to this.”

An underdressed woman who appeared twice his age, she caught up with us, looking down at my feet. “You’re wearing real hiking boots!” she muttered in dismay. I noticed she had on thin canvas sneakers. It reminded me of all the other times I’ve encountered woefully unprepared people out in nature.

I expected to find their vehicle near mine at the trailhead, but it wasn’t until I’d driven all the way to the main road that I saw it: a spotlessly clean late-model 4wd monster truck, lifted on huge off-road tires, with a Florida plate. Apparently the lady hadn’t been confident enough to actually take it on a 4wd road, or maybe she was afraid of getting it scratched. So they’d walked the road to the trailhead, adding 3 miles round-trip to their hike – no wonder she was dismayed.

Despite the letdown of the impassable trail, the payoff for my day’s labors finally arrived, just a short distance down the rough road from the trailhead, as I slowly approached a creek crossing. I suddenly spotted a small animal crouching to drink from the creek, stopped my vehicle, and realized it had to be a coati. I rolled down my window and scrabbled on the passenger seat for my camera. The coati was lithely bounding from stone to stone, ignoring me, and I shut off the engine and cranked up the emergency brake. Then I saw another farther up the bank. They were wandering back and forth, poking between the rocks, occasionally dipping to take a drink. I got my camera open and awkwardly leaned out the window to start shooting video, zooming in on them. Suddenly in the corner of my eye I sensed movement – more coatis were streaming down out of the forest above the road to my right.

When I glanced back, the original coatis had drifted left across the creek and were making their way up the opposite slope between the tall pines. The new coatis arrived at the creek and milled around drinking and foraging. There was a brief lull then more coatis streamed down from the right. I noticed the camera’s screen had turned black – it had shut itself off somehow. By the time I got it started again, a dozen coatis had crossed the creek and moved up the opposite slope, and more were moving down from the right. I figured at this point there’d been about 20 in the pack. The whole time, they completely ignored me and my vehicle – safety in numbers I guess.

Some were dark brown, others pale. At home I learned that females and their young move in packs called “troops,” numbering up to 25 individuals. They keep their tails raised so they’re more visible to others in the troop. They’re supposed make quite a noise as they root around in the dirt, but the tumbling creek drowned that out in my case.

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