Dispatches
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Blue Range

Summer 2021 Escape

Tuesday, August 17th, 2021: 2021 Trips, Blue Range, Hikes, Mogollon Rim, Regions, Road Trips, Southeast Arizona, Southwest New Mexico, Whites.

Part 1: Fat Basketball Players’ Retreat

My temporary living space is dominated by a desk, covered with piles of paper. Each pile represents one of the 6-8 major projects I’m juggling simultaneously. It’s the elephant in the house – I can’t ignore it, as long as I’m in that place I can’t avoid that desk and the obligations, demands, and arguments I’m embroiled in as I struggle to get my life back.

Suddenly there was an unexpected hiatus over at my real, empty, fire-damaged, long-under-repair house – a flooring crew was refinishing the wood floors, and no other work could go on for a couple of weeks – hence I was experiencing no demands from, or arguments with, the contractor. Instead of rejoicing I fell into a deep depression. I still had so much to do, and so many deadlines to meet, and that desk still dominated my living space, demanding that I spend every day working. I literally had to escape, to preserve my sanity.

The only real option was the funky alpine resort village 3 hours north of here, where I’ve always stayed in the cheap, fishing-themed motel. All their rooms were empty at midweek, but the new owners refuse to communicate directly with customers, requiring all reservations to be made online, 24 hours in advance, and it took me two days of calling and emailing and fruitlessly exploring other options to learn this. And by then it was the weekend and they were all booked up.

But I was temporarily flush with “funny money” from insurance, and finally, I located a much more expensive 2-bedroom vacation cabin that hadn’t been booked yet – apparently the last lodgings available in the area. And the property manager actually answered their phone and happily took my same-day reservation.

Fortunately, since I was still following my COVID shopping routine of stocking up on two weeks’ worth of food in advance, I didn’t have to shop. I just had to pack, and this would give me a chance to test my new high-performance camping cooler – one of the few items of fire-destroyed camping gear I’d been able to replace so far.

I called ahead and made a reservation for dinner at the only restaurant in town, and raced up the mostly empty highway through the long series of mountain ranges between here and there. I arrived just in time to check in before the office closed. My heart sank when I walked in the little cabin, saw the furniture, and felt the beds.

The beds consisted of super-soft, 4-inch thick memory foam on top of thin, soft mattresses. When you put pressure on the beds, you seemed to sink endlessly down into them, which is the worst thing possible for back pain. Who actually likes soft mattresses? Fat people? And the living room consisted of an overstuffed fake leather recliner and a futon couch, both of which seemed to be designed for 7-foot-tall basketball players. The ergonomics of this cabin were far worse than the cheap motel room, whose pillowy bed had triggered an episode of severe lower back pain the last time I’d come up here.

But I’d learned my lesson back then, and hoped to avoid back pain now by sleeping only on my stomach, and sitting only on the straight-backed wooden kitchen chairs. There was no wifi, but that was probably a good thing. And the restaurant was only a 10 minute walk away on the gravel roads. It was cool up here, so I changed into warmer clothes and strolled over, carrying my rain shell just in case.

Part 2: Day of the Fungids

The next day was Friday, and I was hoping to hit my favorite nearby trail before the weekend rush. In fact, I realized I should now be able to do the full loop for the first time, hiking up one route to the top and returning down the other. It totalled 17 miles, but involved less than 3,000′ of accumulated elevation gain.

I drove the shortcut, the rough backcountry road through alternating mixed-conifer forest and vast grassy meadows across the rolling, 9,000′ plateau to the trailhead, where I parked next to a new, lifted Toyota pickup where two college-age guys were preparing to start a backpack. They were both at least six inches taller than me. All I had to do was shoulder my pack and lock the vehicle, so I took off while they were still getting ready.

I crossed the big meadows around the mouth of the East Fork of the Little Colorado, and stopped after about a half mile, as usual, to stretch, and to tighten and secure my bootlaces. The young guys caught up and passed me there.

But, also as usual, I was full of energy at the start of this hike, and soon caught up with them again as the three of us climbed through the fantastic sandstone boulders that are the highlight of this trail.

Halfway up this first slope, we passed a party of two young couples who were camping in the forest below the trail – only two miles from the trailhead. Like on my last trip to these mountains, I was surprised to find so many young people “slackpacking” – hiking only a short distance to camp near a trailhead, something my generation would consider pointless.

I was on the young guys’ tail all the way to the big rock exposure at the top of the ridge, and passed them where they had stopped there to take in the view. I knew there was a second rock exposure farther on, also with a good view, and I never saw them again.

I remembered seeing a lot of mushrooms on my last visit here during monsoon season, but nothing like this time. Mushrooms were so plentiful they became the theme of the hike – especially the flamboyant Amanita muscaria. But the wildflowers came a close second.

From the big rock exposures at the top of the first ridge, the trail continues climbing the ridgeline through dense spruce forest with no views, so I kept racing upward. Near the point were I’d stopped and turned back on my first and longest previous hike here, I caught up with and passed a solo backpacker, another really tall guy, probably in his 40s. It made me wonder. I was doing this entire trail system as a day hike. There were no connecting trails, so why were so many people doing it as a backpack? It seemed at best only a one-night trip, which didn’t seem worth all the effort of backpacking. Sure, you could camp out at the crest, but there wasn’t any place to go from there except back down.

Shortly after passing the backpacker, I reached the burn scar near the top, where the east route becomes the west route.

This burn scar in spruce forest, at over 11,000′ elevation, is an eerie place, but during this abundant monsoon it was teeming with verdant shrubs and annual wildflowers, and water trickled down across the trail at many points.

Storms had been forecast for the whole weekend, but so far, although cloud cover came and went, I could see nothing menacing overhead. The temperature was perfect, which was probably lucky for me, as I was testing out a new pair of pants.

My regular pants were heavy cotton, and had been selected for thorn-resistance. But during this monsoon I’d suffered so much from waterlogged pants wicking moisture into my boots, so I’d spent some time researching both waterproof and thornproof pants.

REI and the other “hiker” brands don’t address this need at all – they assume their yuppie customers will stick to well-maintained trails or climb snowy peaks devoid of thorns. REI staff in Tucson actually admitted to me, to their chagrin, that despite being in the arid southwest, they get the same inventory as their counterparts in Seattle. My only recourse, as with my boots, was to research the hunting suppliers. That’s where I learned that thornproof and waterproof pants constitute part of the “upland” hunting wardrobe – applying to hunters of non-aquatic game birds like pheasant and grouse, because they have to bushwhack through thorny thickets, often during storms or in heavy morning dew.

I’d ordered an affordable but highly-rated pair of U.S.-made upland hunting pants, and so far my only problem with them was the lining. It hadn’t been clear from the product info that they were lined, and although the pants had zippable side vents from knee to hip, the lining would probably make them really hot on most summer days in our climate. So I was doubly glad it was cool today.

After a half mile or so, the trail left the burn scar and re-entered intact spruce forest. And suddenly I was facing a glue grouse, pacing back and forth on a fallen tree trunk only ten feet in front of me. I stopped and was able to get my camera out – another recent challenge in itself.

I’d broken the lens assembly on my previous camera, and had spent over a month trying to find a replacement, and a way to protect the new camera from similar accidents. Whereas in the past I’d carried the camera alternately on a wrist strap and in a pocket, I was now wearing it in a holster-type case on my belt, where I tried to remember to slip on the wrist strap before pulling out the camera.

The big bird – they’re the same size as the average chicken – cooperated by remaining on the log as I took a few pictures. Then it made a noise and another grouse exploded out of the bush at my feet, and they both took off. It was the animal highlight of my trip.

This segment of trail left the mature forest and climbed gently through tiny meadows and dense groves of spruce seedlings, until it reached its high point in a saddle below the actual peak, which is sacred to the Apaches and off-limits to Anglos. At this saddle, I’d been hoping for a view over the vast country to the west, which descends for hundreds of miles to the low desert around Phoenix. But it was densely forested, and in rare peeks between the surrounding tree trunks, all I could see was more high, densely forested mountains in the near distance. So I continued down onto the outlying ridge above the canyon of the West Fork.

That outlying ridge finally brought me to a narrow saddle with an open view to the southeast – so I at least had a new perspective on the ridge I’d climbed in the morning. I’d climbed so fast that it was still early in the day, and I realized that if I didn’t slow down, I’d be done with the hike by midafternoon. I didn’t want that – I wanted to spend more time up here in this special alpine forest that is so rare in our Southwest.

Past the narrow, semi-open saddle, the trail began switchbacking down the very steep side of the West Fork canyon. Eventually it reached the head of the drainage in a burn scar where spruce seedlings were returning and wild raspberries were abundant.

Past the burn scar at the head of the West Fork, the trail curved leftwards through intact spruce forest into a big side canyon, where it finally crossed a robust creek. This trail may lack the spectacular rock outcrops of the East Fork – although there are plenty of boulders in the West Fork forest – but it actually has more varied habitat.

As part of my “slowing down” plan, I was paying even more attention now to my surroundings – primarily plants, fungi, and butterflies. In the stretch of trail past the side creek I saw my first coral fungus.

I was surprised to be feeling pretty sore and weary. To get back to the vehicle, I had to continue on this trail to its junction with the “crossover” trail, a 3-1/2 mile link between the trailheads. So no matter how much farther it was to the junction, I would still have those 3-1/2 miles to cross over.

But before starting the hike, I’d glanced at the elevation profile for the crossover trail, and had concluded it would be all downhill from this side. So at least I had that in my favor.

Eventually I started encountering meadows, which encouraged me to believe the junction was near. Each one ended up giving false hope, but at least I could see the West Fork meandering scenically below.

Finally, crossing a grassy slope high above the little river, I spotted a person far ahead. Then suddenly a bird flushed out of the meadow ahead of the distant person and shot overhead and past me. It appeared to be a falcon, which would explain why it was on the ground. When I reached the people who had flushed the bird – a couple a little older than me – I was so excited about the bird that I forgot to ask them how much farther it was to the trail junction.

After the falcon incident, I couldn’t ignore the pain in my left foot and right ankle. The right ankle pain was exactly like what I’d had in my left ankle a couple of years earlier. I was limping on both feet again, just like last weekend, and not looking forward at all to the crossover hike. I was transitioning from excitement about my beautiful surroundings into a “got to just survive this” frame of mind.

Fortunately it was only about a half mile beyond the bird incident that I met a college-age couple who pointed to the crossover junction, only a hundred yards farther. There, I crossed the rushing West Fork on a crude log bridge, and to my surprise, faced a steep climb on the other side.

In fact, I’d completely misinterpreted the crossover elevation profile. This trail was like a rollercoaster, climbing and descending hundreds of rocky feet at a time, sometimes at up to a 40% grade, through deep forest and across vast rolling meadows, over and over again, for the entire 3-1/2 miles between trailheads. In my condition, it was like some sort of legendary trial.

One of the few benefits of the crossover was the abundance of coral fungi.

The anticipated storm didn’t hit until I arrived back in the village, and even then it was only scattered showers. I changed out of my heavy gear and limped over to the restaurant, where I’d made a reservation the previous evening. This time I had a steak and a glass of pinot noir.

Part 3: Couch Potato

Saturday was about resting and recovering and relishing my time away from the terrible pressure of home. I had plenty to read on my iPad, and throughout the day, I did some long slow stretching and iced my foot and ankle at intervals. I knew how to treat my foot, but the ankle really worried me. It was swollen and my boots tightened right on the pressure point, so no more hiking until it healed.

There was one seemingly identical cabin next to me, but the folks staying there were having a near-continual party in their tiny back yard with a large group of companions from elsewhere in the village. And of course, the larger cabin across the road had a barking dog – it’s impossible to get away from barking dogs in this era cursed with social media.

I found that the futon couch was actually more comfortable than the bed – but to use it as a bed would require opening it flat, which would call for some brute force that would risk triggering my back pain. So I was stuck with things as they were. I’d brought fixings for a simple dinner at home that night, and went to bed early.

Part 4: Short Hike on a Poor Trail

Sunday was departure day, but I didn’t want to just race back home. I didn’t want to leave at all, and I’d considered staying an extra night, but back home, the city was resurfacing the street where my house is located during the coming week, and on Monday morning I had to move my truck off the street into the driveway all the contractors were using, arranging to switch with them. To avoid getting the truck towed, if I stayed here another night, I’d have to leave really early in the morning.

I had a few hours before checking out to study the maps, and I figured if I could attach some padding over the swollen ankle, maybe I could stop along the way for a shorter hike. I identified a few possibilities along the Arizona-New Mexico border.

While packing, I put on all my hiking clothes, applied biomechanical taping to my foot and a felt pad over the swollen ankle, and finally slipped into my boots. I tried to walk across the floor, but there was no way I could walk in those boots with that ankle. Damn!

I took off all the hiking gear, and changed back into my driving shorts and t-shirt. My sneakers were so low cut that they didn’t bother the ankle – I finally realized it wasn’t any kind of a strain or sprain, it was just some kind of pressure- or friction-caused inflammation. And then it occurred to me to try my other pair of boots, which I’d brought as backup in case the primary pair got wet.

My primary boots are designed for maximum ankle support – the shaft or collar of the boot, around the ankle, is reinforced. This is the part that is apparently irritating my ankles on long hikes. The other pair of boots are cut below the swollen area, so when I tried them on, they didn’t even contact it. I realized I could probably stop for a hike after all, so I set aside all my hiking gear for quick access in the vehicle.

As usual, I took the scenic route through the mountains before connecting with the highway home. It seems shorter every time – it’s so beautiful you don’t want it to end.

Back on the highway, the first turnoff I tried was at a pass between Alpine and Luna. It was a forest road I’d always wondered about, that claimed to lead to a fire lookout. It turned out to be one of those actually scary mountain roads – steep, twisty, rocky and deeply eroded, and strictly one-lane, with a deadly dropoff at the edge. The trail I was optimistically looking for was probably impassable – maps showed it crossed a large burn scar, and it hadn’t been maintained since the big wildfire – and the trailhead was almost 6 miles back on this road. The road went up, and down, and around, very slowly, and the first couple of miles took me 10 minutes, so I found a wide spot in a bend and turned around. Then I encountered a big truck coming up, and had to back uphill to the turnaround place to let them pass.

The next possible hikes were off a prominent backcountry road between Reserve and Glenwood, and would be my first exploration of the legendary Blue Range Primitive Area and Wilderness. I’d always wanted to explore this area, but it was simultaneously too close to and too far from home to be convenient.

It was a glorious day, like my first day of hiking. This area was a couple thousand feet lower than the alpine region I’d just left, with parklike pinyon, juniper, and occasional ponderosa over rolling hills at the foot of higher ridges and mountains in the near distance. I had two trails to choose from. The first was represented by an unnamed kiosk and had clear tread that beckoned up a shallow canyon. But from the map it looked too easy and didn’t seem to offer views.

The next trail was listed as “cleared” by a trail crew two years earlier, and appeared to climb a low ridge for a mile or two. There was no real trailhead – I was looking carefully at the roadside as I drove slowly along, and just happened to notice one of those little “hiker” icons on a post at an overgrown turnout. There was no tread leading inward, only the vague, overgrown suggestion of an opening through the parklike forest. But when I took a few steps past the signpost, I glimpsed a faded wilderness sign on a pinyon pine far ahead. So I figured I would gear up and check it out.

It was well past lunchtime, and I decided to not only make a sandwich – utilizing my new cooler as a table – but to drink a beer as well, breaking my usual habit of not drinking until the evening. Nothing says vacation like drinking in midday, and especially before a hike!

This trail turned out to be mostly forgettable. No one besides trespass cattle had used it in ages, and the surface was my most hated local footing – a mix of embedded and loose volcanic cobbles that is maddening and dangerous to walk on. Marked frequently by cairns, the route climbed the ridge at a generally shallow grade, mostly exposed so despite the mild temperature I was sweating pretty bad. But I was determined to get as high as I could, in hope of some kind of view.

The main attraction of that view turned out to be behind me – the peak with the fire lookout at the end of that scary road I’d given up on the way here. It was about 5 miles away to the northwest, and was a pretty mountain with a complex mosaic of rocky slopes, forest, and meadows.

Marked only by its cairns, my route drifted in and out of a cleared corridor through the open scrub forest, suggesting that in some distant past there might’ve been a wagon trail. The path completely ended in dense chaparral at the top of the ridge, after only a couple of miles of hiking.

When trail workers reported this trail “cleared” two years ago, it was obvious that all they meant was that they’d checked it to the chaparral on top – there’d been no clearing required. And it seemed that nobody but me even cared.

On the way down I lost the trail at one point, where a false cairn beckoned me onto a game trail down a side drainage. After wasting 5 minutes on that sidetrack, I dismantled the fraudulent cairn and found the right track to continue back to my vehicle. By my standards it hadn’t been much of a hike, but at least I’d set foot in a new wilderness area and seen some new mountains.

I had a pleasant drive home as usual – apart from the minivan driver who wanted to race down the twistiest part of the highway, tailgating me dangerously, finally passing only to slow down in front of me on the straight part of the road as he drifted back and forth across the center line, probably texting on his smart phone. By that point I was relaxed enough not to care.

My home is always first and foremost a studio, an office, a workspace, so the only way I can take a break from work is to get away from home. This trip had been my first getaway – my first vacation – in almost two years. And it had been over two years since I’d visited those mountains. So on the drive home I was re-evaluating my relationship with that place, and my attitude toward it.

One problem I can see is that it has kind of an awkward combination of extreme beauty and overwhelming recreational culture. It’s kind of like a huge national park in which the visitors are widely dispersed instead of concentrated like they are in, for example, Yosemite or the Grand Canyon.

Despite its huge size, the area has historically far fewer hiking trails than the national forest in my backyard, and after the 2011 wildfire, only the half dozen most popular and easily accessed of those trails have been maintained. So all the hikers are concentrated on those few trails, none of which is particularly challenging. The trails in the large, rugged wilderness area at the south of the range have been abandoned and are essentially impassable, because that was the origin of the wildfire.

So for me, as a hiker looking for challenges and new discoveries, the area actually doesn’t seem to offer much.

But since the northern half of the range consists of those vast grassy meadows divided by hills and ridges with relatively open mixed-conifer forest, it suddenly occurred to me that off-trail hiking might be the solution. Maybe in the future I should just ignore the limited trail network and set off across country. I’m not sure how feasible that would really be, but it’s worth trying…

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