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Sky Island

Consuming the Final Frontier

Wednesday, May 30th, 2018: Sky Island, Trips, Wildfire.

Space vs. Earth

Some advocates of space exploration and colonization are also concerned about the damage caused by humans here on earth. Some of them believe we can give the earth a break by moving our civilization elsewhere. Others believe it’s too late to fix the earth’s problems, but now that we know better, we can move to another planet that’s in better shape, and start over, avoiding the mistakes of our ancestors.

Still other space nuts don’t care – they just want to hang out with all the cool aliens they’ve seen in Star Wars movies. Terrestrial life is passé – they’ve been there/done that on TV nature shows.

People who lack passion for either space or the earth may say “Why can’t we have both?” The answer is easy for the few of us who know where our resources come from. It takes big, energy-guzzling machines made on earth to study or explore space, and machines are non-renewable – every machine humans make comes out of a hole in the ground that used to be wildlife habitat. Space isn’t harmed by studying the earth, but the earth suffers when you study space.

Meanwhile, while living their lives as consumers, in cities far away from the ecological impacts of their consumer lifestyles, each generation of humans unknowingly destroys more of the earth. So-called “renewable energy” is a lie – solar and wind power equipment comes from nonrenewable mines, destroying nonrenewable habitat, and is manufactured and transported using fossil fuels. Wind farms and solar plants destroy habitat and harm and displace wildlife. Even if climate change were somehow stopped, or even reversed, the endless demand for consumer resources results in relentless industrial sprawl and conversion of wildlife habitat to toxic wasteland.

The next generation has no idea of what the earth was like for previous generations. If they experience rural environments at all, they view these now-degraded places as “nature,” just as city dwellers view their pocket parks full of imported vegetation as “nature.” In their ignorance of ecology, it looks fine to them – it has pretty flowers, and places to let their pets run off-leash – why should they worry about the loss of a few square miles halfway across the globe?

Sky Island on Fire

Returning home from a distant city, I decided on a whim to take a back road. The back road took me past a mountain range I’d flown over many times and had always been curious about. I knew there was a road to the top of it, where an astronomical observatory was maintained. In my homeward momentum, I drove past the turnoff, but a few miles farther, without making a conscious decision, I pulled over and checked my map. How far would it be? There were no services up there at all, but I had plenty of gas, a water bottle that was almost full, and a partial bag of trail mix.

This is the penultimate Southwestern “sky island” – an isolated mountain range that rises 7,000′ above the surrounding desert, allowing you to travel from the arid scrublands of Sonora to the alpine forests of the Canadian Rockies in just a dozen miles. It shelters species that have been isolated from their kin in other mountains since the last Ice Age, so that for those of us who love the earth, it’s a true frontier, a place with hidden wonders waiting to be discovered. But unlike most of these ranges, it has a paved road that goes nearly to the top.

A road that passes a Federal prison, at the northern foot of the mountains. A road that turned out to be perhaps the most dangerous paved road I’ve ever traveled. Narrow, and with more hairpins than any other I’ve seen. And you know those white lines they paint along the edge of the pavement? On this road, in many, many places, if you happen to cross that white line on the edge, your vehicle either disappears into a seemingly bottomless hole, or it falls hundreds of vertical feet down the side of the mountain. No shoulder and no guard rail, and in some places even that white line is crumbling.

The road’s so dangerous because this is one of the steepest mountain ranges I’ve ever been in. Even at the top, there are no large meadows or internal valleys. The paved road ends at 9,000′ elevation and turns to steep, twisting, washboarded dirt, and I followed it to its end. The entire mountain consists of precipitous slopes, with just a handful of small patches of grass on less steep slopes that are generously termed “flats.”

When I crested the first ridge it was all I could do to keep my truck on the road, because the views from this mountain range are mind-boggling in all directions. I could see the outline of the state prison way down there at the southern foot of the mountains, mirroring the federal prison on the north. But I was also surprised to enter a fresh burn area. At first I figured it to be a couple years old, but then I came to stands of slender fir, their blackened, drooping branches still holding charred needles. Later I passed slopes that were mostly clear except for big trunks white as bone, killed by a much older fire. The whole top of the mountain had burned in patches, at different times, and now, in springtime, the slopes were blanketed by virulently green ferns.

It was the day after Memorial Day. That’s one reason why I’d come up here – I figured all the vacationers would be gone by now. I had the mountain mostly to myself. I got to the small reservoir near the end of the dirt road, and the only people in the large campground there were a young couple taking a romantic stroll. Even the Forest Service information center was closed, but I did meet three kids playing blissfully in the forest outside the compound of staff housing. A tiny minority of children in our “advanced” society still get to experience a degraded form of what all our ancestors once enjoyed.

On the slopes above the road loomed rock outcrops and pinnacles, and throughout the shadowy forest rose the primeval shapes of lichen-encrusted boulders. Ribbons of water tumbled down from the peaks. Birds were everywhere, wildflowers were rampant. This magical range, isolated in the desert, is known to host the densest population of black bears in North America.

On the slopes that had been fully incinerated by the recent fire, it was easy to see why it happened: all the trees were spindly and had grown close together, a sign of generations of fire suppression by “experts” who were as ignorant of ecology as our city-dwelling consumers. This whole beautiful, damaged mountain range with deep-space telescopes on top, and mirrored prisons and a burning riverbed at its feet, was like a textbook case study of the cascading failures of Anglo-European society and its institutions.

Science vs. Nature

I only spent a few hours up there, so I’m by no means an expert. But I’ll try to summarize the story as it’s recorded by Forest Service ecologists and local historians.

For generations, white Americans stocked unsustainable herds of cattle on these slopes, overgrazing the forage and destabilizing the soil. They logged the old-growth timber while suppressing fires, encouraging dense stands of smaller-diameter trees. To get to the forage and timber, the road was built, and scientists – astrophysicists like media darling Neil deGrasse Tyson – began to covet that peak high in the desert sky as a site for the “world’s most advanced telescope,” to look deep into time and space to the beginnings of the universe itself. While Native Americans hold peaks sacred, white people see them as jumping-off points for their ambition to “conquer the cosmos.”

But environmentalists – that dying breed of obsolete earth-lovers – pointed out that the peak sheltered an endangered subspecies of squirrel, and a battle between scientists began. It became evident that astrophysicists are not conservationists. Different kinds of scientists have different values.

To most science buffs, this is inconceivable. At a time when science is under siege by right-wing fundamentalists and climate-change-deniers, scientists should close ranks! Science is science, and all science is good (except maybe those guys who work for Monsanto, and the oil companies, and pharma, plastics, the arms industry, those scientists who get paid lots of money to do nasty stuff that we don’t want to think of when we’re Marching for Science). Earth and space can live together in harmony – right?

Unsurprisingly, the astrophysicists – who by the nature of their empire-expanding work always have money and power on their side – won. A compromise was reached, because one thing you can never stop is “development” – i.e. replacing natural habitat with roads and buildings – and the astronomical observatory rose on the peak, with a few provisions to protect the squirrels.

It was then that the first fire hit, in 2004. Firefighters, being humans themselves, were naturally keen to protect the observatory, but not so much the habitat of the squirrels.

And last year, the second fire hit, spreading all over the mountaintop, decimating the squirrels. They are now expected to die out completely.

Consuming the Final Frontier

Squirrels are cute, and they’re also famous for burying nuts in the ground, to eat later. A little critical thinking might suggest that some of those nuts might germinate and grow into trees that would produce even more nuts. Like, the trees and the squirrels are working together in some kind of partnership. One will not survive without the other. That’s ecology – holistic thinking. Not so common in astrophysics, which like most science is reductive and mechanistic, treating nature as a machine which can be understood and controlled by breaking it down into its component parts.

The conifer forests at the top of these mountains, and the squirrels that are going extinct there, evolved together, along with thousands of other species – more than our science can ever identify and understand. But billionaires and popular media say we have to go to outer space to discover something new.

Meanwhile the sky islands – a unique frontier, one of a kind, that few people have ever experienced – are dying. The Forest Service, which as part of the federal government is one of our most conservative institutions, says that these high-elevation enclaves in the desert will be completely gone by the end of this century, due to climate change. Entire, incredibly rich and vibrant communities of sophisticated beings with their own priceless knowledge and wisdom, wiped off the face of the earth by our greed and ignorance.

Since conservative predictions are routinely being exceeded by reality, it’s likely that the magical sky islands will be gone in only a few decades. The scorched forests you see in my photos will not regenerate, nor will their squirrels return. It’s probably best not to take your kids out into nature. It will only depress them in the long run, and make them angry at the society that consumed their final frontier.

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The Perfect Sunset Hike

Wednesday, January 16th, 2019: Sky Island, Trips.

Driving on the Interstate, I saw the snow-capped mountain rising from the horizon, forty miles away. But I wasn’t going there.

I was going to the city to see if a spine specialist could figure out what was wrong with my right arm. Almost a year ago, as the rest of my body seemed to be getting better, the arm had started going haywire. Now, after x-rays, MRIs, and physical therapy, the local docs were stumped.

I’d resumed exercising, devising workarounds that allowed me to function, but the damn arm hurt every day, in all sorts of routine activities, and it woke me up at night, usually about once an hour.

The city doc said it had nothing to do with my spine. I’d have to see a shoulder specialist and get another MRI. Two more trips back to the city.

I dealt with the crowds, the traffic, the concrete, the filth. My town no longer recycles glass, so I took the accumulated bottles of the past year to the city recycling center, where a worker gave me a half-hour lecture about why glass is no longer recycled. He said that on street corners in the barrio, there are guys who collect glass and haul it to California, where they trade it for watered-down brandy.

I tried to do some shopping but failed as usual. In the age of Amazon, even in cities, brick-and-mortar stores no longer maintain useful inventories.

On Monday, one of my gym days, I did a strength-training workout in the fitness center of my hotel. Three younger guys, professional-looking, came in after me, did intense workouts, huffing and puffing, and left before I did. For young city people, it’s all about packing your workout into the shortest time possible, so you can spend more time doing your meaningless, soul-killing job.

On Tuesday, one of my hiking days, I thought of that snow-capped mountain. I researched the Forest Service website for a couple of hours and decided to take a detour on the way back home.

It was so good to leave the city, and get away from the outlying towns and their commuter traffic. Finally I was in the open desert.

Just before I turned off the highway, a weird military plane flew out of the pass I was headed for, at very low altitude. I watched it soar low across the desert basin, apparently aiming to crash into the mountains on the other side.

The pass immediately excited me. It was beautiful, full of golden granite boulders. Cattle grazed here and there, but I could see no buildings – just the boulder slopes with their junipers and oaks, and dry grasslands below.

It was mid-afternoon. The sky hung dark and low, threatening weather. Bring it on! I turned off toward the mountains, onto a deeply eroded dirt drive with mud and pools of water. There’d been a storm recently – hence the snow on the peaks – a storm that hadn’t reached us at home. I hadn’t brought a pack, but I had snacks and a water bottle. I suited up for any kind of weather I might meet and started up the trail.

Very narrow, it was one of the best-built trails I’ve hiked. It just went up and up, as steep as the steepest trail I hike at home. The Forest Service has three ratings – Easy, Moderate, and Difficult. This one was rated More Difficult. But it started more than a thousand feet lower than the trails I’m used to, so it was a breeze for me.

Fresh deer and bear sign everywhere. Tall grasses choking the trail. Manzanita, a beautiful shrub we don’t have at home. As I climbed the mountainside, heading toward the 9,000′ ridge high above, my views got better and better. After a while, the weird military plane – an A-10 Thunderbolt, nicknamed the “Warthog” – returned. They were introduced in the early 1970s and are used for killing people and destroying vehicles on the ground.

I really wanted to reach the big pines and the snow, but I had little hope. This trail started at 5,500′ and climbed to 8,500′ in five miles, but I only had time to hike half of it and return before dark. This was a south-facing slope, and at this latitude, I figured Ponderosa would grow no lower than 7,500′, with the snow line about the same, higher than I had time to hike.

It kept getting darker, and the temperature was probably in the high 40s to low 50s, but I was going fast and soon stripped down to my t-shirt. I climbed and I climbed, like going up rock steps, and after an hour and a half, I emerged into a grove of Ponderosa pine with patches of snow! Wow! I must’ve climbed nearly 2,000′ in 2-1/2 miles.

To be honest, I’d hiked longer than I’d planned, because I realized the sun was setting later now, and I’d probably still have plenty of light to get back. But I had to turn right around, no time to rest.

On the way up, my focus had been on the ridge towering above, silhouetted by a fringe of tall pines, with glimpses of snow in the shadows between them. But heading back down, I was looking straight out over the vast southern landscape, basins, peaks, and jagged ridges all the way to Old Mexico. I could see the state prison sprawling at the foot of the mountains to my right. I could see a ribbon of sparkling water straight ahead, 40 miles away, where the playa had flooded in the storm. I could see other snow-capped mountains even farther south and west, here near the Mexican border.

I suddenly saw something I’d missed hiking up, right beside the trail, an agave that had born fruit and died this past season, turning psychedelic colors I’d never seen before. I just stood and gaped at it for a while. How could this be real?

This was already one of my favorite hikes of all time. Everything just clicked. Despite the arm trouble, I was feeling better than I’d felt in years. I could hardly wait to come back and finish it later.

The clouds were breaking here and there. As I came down into the foothills with their golden boulders, the sun dropped below the cloud layer in the distant west and gilded everything around me. I realized I couldn’t have timed this hike better.

I drove to the nearest town in the dark and found a room. And in the morning, there were the snow-capped mountains, towering behind the town. It was hard to leave.

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In Search of the Lost Trail

Monday, April 8th, 2019: Sky Island, Trips.

After a ten-day hiking hiatus, I was anxious for a big weekend hike. And I wanted something more special than the boring dirt-floored forests we have near home. I wanted exposed rock!

I’d already checked out everything within an hour’s drive. I’d already pushed that radius out to two hours, exploring a suitable mountain range a couple hours away (see The Perfect Sunset Hike). Now, I continued that radius around in all directions, so that it encompassed a second range to the southwest. I spent hours studying the Forest Service website and various hiking websites that mapped and described trails, and trip logs from previous hikers that included photos. If I was going to drive that far, I wanted some idea of what I would find. I knew that most terrain would be just a copy of what I already had near home: forest and more forest. I wanted some variety!

I’d recently acquired a better exploring vehicle, a cheap little 4WD that could get me places my 2WD truck wouldn’t reach. So eventually I settled on a trail in the “Sunset Hike” mountains that would offer me a big hike, with plenty of distance and elevation, and plenty of rock.

The Forest Service website had a description of the trail. The hiking websites had topo maps showing the trail. It went up an outlying ridge on the west side of the major canyon on the range’s south face, a canyon I’d looked down into from above, when I first visited these mountains last year (see Consuming the Final Frontier). Detailed information was sparse, confusing and contradictory. There were no trip logs or photos, and every web page showed different figures for both distance and elevation. Trail length ranged from 5.3 to 6.5 miles, and elevation gain ranged from 3,700′ to 5,700′. Were any of these figures correct? Careful study of the topo maps showed that the actual elevation gain would be just over 4,000′.

Even if the lower mileage was accurate, the round trip would still be a bigger hike than I’d done in the past decade of joint failure and injury. It would take me up a canyon lined with cliffs and dramatic rock outcrops, from open desert through sparse pinyon-oak-juniper forest into the shady groves of mixed-conifer forest dominated by tall ponderosa pines, a tantalizing variety with endless views at every point. So I packed up and started driving west.

Two hours and change later, I was 45 miles from the nearest town, driving north up a desert plain toward an extremely remote state prison, the dark mountains looming behind with patches of snow near the crest. The prison had been a 19th century fort, established beside the major stream that ran down from the 10,700′ peak and out into the plain. The Forest Service said the trail had been built for, and used by, pack trains traveling back and forth between the fort and the crest of the range, more than a hundred years ago.

The Forest Service website instructed me to drive around the prison and through the staff housing, where I would find a locked gate blocking an old dirt road. I could supposedly get a key for this gate at the guardhouse.

Having driven up the plain to the prison, I was at the northern edge of a truly vast desert basin, between 4,000′ and 5,000′ in elevation, ranging from 20 to 30 miles wide and extending for over a hundred miles from north to south, all the way into Mexico. Bordering it on the east and west were various stark mountain ranges, and ahead of me, rising behind the prison, was the tallest of them, the penultimate sky island. And behind me, far out in the open basin, were a few green patches of isolated farms and ranches, irrigated with groundwater draining from the sky island.

It was a small prison, quiet and inactive on an early Sunday morning, and I followed a paved road right around the fence on the northeast, and immediately entered the staff housing, a tiny suburb of modest, identical suburban homes surrounded by kids’ bikes and toys, right outside the razor wire fence, the whole thing about as isolated as you could get from the rest of society.

A sign directed me through the housing to the Forest Service gate, which turned out to be wide open. The hiking websites had hinted that the Forest Service road might become impassable, and that I might need to walk some distance before reaching the actual trailhead, adding significantly to my overall distance. And in fact, before reaching the foot of the mountains, the dirt road turned out to be blocked by the creek, roaring and raging in flood from the winter’s heavy snows, from one to three feet deep and choked with boulders.

I could see from tracks that somebody in a hardcore Jeep had recently crossed, but my vehicle still had road tires and would’ve ended up shipwrecked, so I parked on the bank above the creek, loaded my pack, and scrambled upstream through the riparian forest looking for a place to cross. A hundred yards up, I found a log that someone had manhandled across a narrow spot between a couple of boulders, and I very carefully shimmied across, whitewater spraying my boots.

I’d started hiking at 9:30am, which is fairly early for these drive-to hikes. It was a beautiful spring day, mostly clear with scattered clouds. From the weather forecast in nearby towns, I’d expected temps in the 50s, but it felt warmer already. From the creek crossing, I walked east up the old road, opening and re-closing a stock gate, and finally turned left, making a dramatic entrance to the mouth of the canyon, with its boulder-choked creek roaring out through a dense, canopied riparian forest of oaks and sycamores. The first thing I saw ahead was the feathery, upraised tail of a whitetail buck, bouncing over a rise in the shaded tunnel of the road.

After hiking another half mile or so through the riparian forest, up the boulder-embedded, sandy roadway, climbing several hundred feet in the process, I eventually reached the trailhead, marked by a Forest Service sign. It’d taken me a half hour to get there from my vehicle, and checking topo maps I’d brought on my iPad, I could see I’d walked 1-1/2 miles from the creek crossing. The Forest Service sign showed the full trail distance as 7 miles, for an overall distance of 8-1/2 miles from where I parked.

I figured it was unlikely that I could hike 17 miles round-trip and get back in time to drive to Silver City before dark, so I needed to plan on how far to hike before turning back. Ideally I’d get back in time to drive to the nearest town, get an early dinner, and drive the two hours back to Silver City by about 7:30pm. So I figured I needed to be back at the vehicle by 4:30, giving me seven hours to hike. Halving that, I’d need to stop and turn back at about 1pm.

But in my eagerness to hike farther and higher, I forgot about the time difference – I was now in a time zone that was one hour behind Silver City – and I conveniently overlooked the fact that I still had a 45-minute drive back to town for dinner. And lastly, unless the hike turned into a major bummer, I was likely to keep going 30 minutes to an hour beyond my planned turn-back point. That would only be human nature.

The trail twisted and turned its way up the foot of the ridge, out in the open between granite boulders and dense shrubs, alternately appearing and disappearing. Sometimes I would find myself climbing through the dry, chest-high bunchgrass without any evidence of a trail, only to emerge on a ledge with a narrow path leading onward, looking more like a game or cattle trail than a hiking trail. But here and there were cairns, often only a single rock perched on a boulder. The old pack trail had seen a lot of use more than a century ago, by men riding horse or mule, but now seemed virtually abandoned by humans, and only used sporadically by game and livestock.

Still, I was grateful for what trail I did find, because the vegetation on this slope was largely chaparral – dense thickets of shrub that would’ve been a nightmare to bushwhack around. As I mentioned earlier, I’d expected temps in the 50s, dropping as I climbed higher. But on this exposed slope it felt close to 70 degrees at mid-morning, and I was sweating profusely from the start of the climb. I’d started at 5,150′ elevation, and once I reached 7,000′, I hoped to find cool, shady pine forest and easier footing for the remainder of the climb.

Whereas many of the trails I’ve hiked have been damaged by erosion and deadfall in the aftermath of wildfire, this trail just seemed abandoned and overgrown. There was lots of evidence of trail work from the distant past – rock berms to divert runoff or mark the turn of a switchback – but they, as well as the trail itself, were often buried deep under thick grass or shrubs. Still, I’ve gotten pretty good at reading the ground, and I managed to stay on the path until the trail crested out on a high shoulder overlooking the main canyon. Here there was lots of evidence of isolated sparking from the last wildfire that had mainly burned the upper slopes, thousands of feet above.

And here I really lost the trail.

When you lose a trail, you need to stop focusing in front of your feet and look around at the landscape holistically, as a tapestry that might hold barely visible clues. If there are shrubs or big trees around, where are the natural openings between them? Can you spot any disturbed or trampled vegetation, cairns or other man-made rock formations, patches of bare ground, saw-cut stumps or branches? Sometimes, off in the distance, you’ll sense just the barest hint of a path.

There on the shoulder of the ridge, there were lots of man-made rock piles scattered around, probably the remains of old campfires. A hill loomed above, but the shoulder I stood on was fairly level and there were big junipers for shade, and a lot of cow shit. Some kind of ancient cowboy campground and recent bovine resting place.

I circled the area and set off in every direction that looked promising, but after a half hour of careful searching, I never found the trail. I could see some challenging terrain ahead, sheer cliffs, and whenever I tried to traverse around the hill to get to the upper ridge, I ran into a wall of boulders. So finally I just scrambled up the hill, and on top, in the least intuitive place, I found the trail again, about a quarter mile from where it had disappeared.

This trail is switchback-crazy. There are switchbacks with sections only a half dozen feet long, following natural fracture zones in the rock. Zigging and zagging, climbing and climbing through sparse oak and juniper forest, I finally reached some thin stands of short ponderosa pine, many of which had burned in the big wildfire a few years ago. It was now my planned turn-around time, so I stopped to have lunch. Another item I hadn’t factored into my schedule for the day.

But this was no kind of a destination. I hadn’t reached the cool, shady mixed-conifer forest that I’d expected at this elevation. There were cliffs towering above me, and I figured I still hadn’t hiked half the trail. I just couldn’t stop here. Chances are I wasn’t going to make it back home tonight, in any event.

So I continued, around and up the next level of the ridge, and around and up the next level after that. Here, after staying on the east side of the ridge for a long time, the trail crossed back over to the west side, where I lost it again. This time, it only took me ten minutes to relocate it.

It kept climbing for a short distance then began going gently down, for the first time on this hike, which was something I wasn’t excited about. I’d saved some detailed topo maps on my iPad, and consulting them, I could see exactly where I was, at slightly less than 8,300′. Again, this was no kind of destination. The trail was getting ready for another major ascent of nearly a thousand feet, to the crest. I still hadn’t found the tall, shady pine forest I’d expected, but I’d climbed more than 3,000′ already, covering at least 6 miles one-way, and I really needed to turn back. I spent a few minutes stretching, in an attempt to ease my hip pain, then shouldered my pack and started down.

It was weird how elsewhere on this south side of the range, you would find dense forests of tall ponderosa pines at this elevation. But on this outlying ridge, it was all open terrain, dominated by scattered oak and juniper, in what the Forest Service calls a “transition zone” amounting to more than 3,000′ in elevational thickness. It may be that the exposed rock cliffs and outcrops I came here for create a microhabitat hostile to the establishment of true forest at these elevations.

Down hiking isn’t necessarily easier than climbing. In this overgrown terrain, the dry grasses concealed loose rocks the size of tennis balls that twisted my ankle and made me stumble repeatedly, so that I really had to concentrate with every step. Apparently my new boots have really good support, because I made it without injury.

I lost the trail twice more on the way down, in different places this time, adding another 20 minutes to my hiking time. I was wearing shorts for the first time this season, and my skin had some kind of allergic reaction to the grasses on the trail, so my shins and the sides of my lower legs were quickly covered with an angry red rash. And I’d failed to apply sunscreen at the beginning, and now my calves were burned pretty badly. But when I reached the trailhead, and worked my way carefully down the old road of water-polished boulders, in the late-afternoon shade of the riparian canopy, I felt better than I had at the end of other, shorter hikes in the past months. It seemed I was actually making progress.

I got to town at sunset, found a cheap motel room, and discovered that since it was Sunday night, almost all the restaurants were closed. So I found myself ordering dinner and a margarita in a cavernous, obviously unpopular new place where only one other table was occupied. But I was really dehydrated – I hadn’t taken enough water on my hike and ran out hours ago – and I started feeling nauseous shortly after my food arrived, so I had to pack it up for the next day.

In my room that night, I checked the maps carefully to verify my distance and elevation. It’s clear from the topo maps that I climbed 3,150′, but considering how many times I lost the trail and had to scout far and wide to find it, and considering how many dozens of short switchbacks there were, distance is hard to estimate. I had to have covered at least 12 miles round trip in 7-1/2 hours of hiking – that’s the minimum, based on the detailed topo map/elevation profiles on hiking websites, and including the cut-off part of the old road that I had to walk back and forth to the trailhead. But I’m used to averaging a mile every 24 minutes, even with frequent stops, on our steep trails at home, which would yield almost 19 miles for the day. Highly unlikely, so I’m just calling it 12 miles and 3,150′.

Physically, in terms of my fitness and conditioning, it was a resounding success. I’ve been doing weekly cardio workouts for almost 30 years, but nothing like what I’m trying to maintain now. When I lived in the city, I did 4-mile runs, with little elevation gain, or mountain bike rides with at most a thousand feet of elevation. Now I’m climbing up to three peaks per week, typically walking fast, totaling up to 20 miles and 4,000′ of elevation gain. It seems crazy. I don’t want to overdo it, but I believe it’s good for me, and at my age, I need to work hard just to maintain my ability to do the things I want to do. Because as you age past a certain point, your body’s natural tendency is to deteriorate, to rapidly lose strength and capacity. You can’t just sit at a desk for months and then go out and do a 20-mile hike, like you could when you were in your 20s. And hiking is much more rewarding than the running or biking ever was, because it connects me better with nature.

But this abandoned, overgrown trail, with little variation from bottom to top, was a hike I won’t be doing again, anytime soon. Just too much work for too little reward!

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Canyon of Chaos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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