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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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Summer Solstice 2018: Into the Burn

Wednesday, June 20th, 2018: Solstices, Summer 2018, Trips, Wildfire.

On the day before the solstice, I wanted to try a short hike on a new trail. But all of the nearby trails were closed due to extreme fire danger, so I drove east to the South Fork of the Little Colorado, an area I’d never visited. The trail started in the shade of a beautiful forest beside a tumbling stream, but as I hiked beyond the human infrastructure that fire crews defended aggressively, I emerged into the heart of the most intensely-burned zone of the 2011 Wallow Fire. It continues the theme of wildfire and habitat destruction from my previous post, but this was my first hike through this kind of devastation, and I was shocked at how little the habitat had recovered in seven years.

The Wallow Fire was the biggest wildfire in the history of the Southwest. It consumed 538,000 acres, or 840 square miles, of the best wildlife habitat in our region – an area more than twice as big as the county I grew up in back east.

It’s hard to believe it’s been 7 years – I can still remember the smoke plume and the choking pall that lay over us when the wind blew out of the northwest. The White Mountains of Arizona have been my favorite local getaway since I moved to New Mexico, and it broke my heart to know they were burning.

The fire was started by two campers who let their campfire get out of control. But that was just the proximal cause. Like all our really destructive wildfires, it was really caused by Western Civilization – European culture – and its Biblical mandate of man’s dominion over nature, inherited by “secular humanism” during the 18th century “Age of Enlightenment.” The machinery first invented during the Enlightenment has enabled us to replace most of the best habitat in North America with cities, reservoirs, industrial farms, and energy infrastructure, ultimately leading to global climate change. And that European drive to engineer our environment was behind the Forest Service’s policy of wildfire suppression, which resulted in disastrous buildups of forest fuel.

As I walked up the stark, sunny canyon past the skeletons of torched pines, it was easy to visualize the cool, shady forest that had been here seven years earlier. I tried to imagine what it would’ve been like in the midst of the inferno, with walls of flame pouring down toward the stream from the ridges above where the heat was most intense. Imagine being thrust into a furnace!

Wild animals, unlike civilized humans and their domesticated commensals, are resilient. They live lightly on the ground, adapting and migrating when necessary. Catastrophic change is a driver of evolution as well as of extinction. Many species are still hanging on here, but in the canyon I hiked – formerly a lush refuge of high water table, low temperatures and high humidity – they’re struggling in a much dryer environment with much fewer cool, wet refuges and much higher average temperatures, now that we’ve killed the great trees and their protective canopy.

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Summer Solstice 2018: From Flowers to Flames

Saturday, June 23rd, 2018: Solstices, Summer 2018, Trips, Wildfire.

I was heading home, but it was still morning, and I didn’t want to leave the mountains yet. I scanned my trail guide and found a trail that was kind of on my way, but also deeper into the mountains. And even the rather dryly worded Forest Service guide suggested it might be special.

But when I got there shortly before noon on this Friday, there were already four other vehicles at the trailhead, one of them parked so as to block half the parking area.

The trail followed a stream, the West Fork of the Black River, out of the high alpine meadows into its canyon, between steep slopes alternately forested and scarred by fires. Above the stream and the trail there was an old “railroad grade” – presumably the bed of a narrow-gauge track built to haul logs out of the forest in the 19th century. Now, this valley was a site for wildlife habitat restoration – the reintroduction of the endangered native Apache trout. As I walked through this lush protected area, I tried to imagine the scene more than a hundred years earlier, when crews of dozens of workers with heavy machinery were blasting and gouging away at the hillside above.

Despite the burn scars, the valley was a paradise of flowing water, lush vegetation, endless wildflowers, butterflies, and broken volcanic rock. My passing flushed two herons in a row out of the streamside vegetation. The first hikers I came upon were an elderly pair of naturalists poking their way through the thick riparian vegetation, wearing unfashionable khakis and those huge funny-looking hats they sell at REI. I later discovered they were the ones who’d blocked the parking area with their new SUV.

Then I came to the restoration area, where workers had built two small dams in a row to block invasive trout from swimming upstream. I passed three college students, two boys and a girl, returning up the trail, glowing with good cheer. I was feeling pretty good, too. On this trip, I’d been able to hike more than at any time in the past year. Hiking is my way of learning about nature, but it’s also my stress relief. Up until this trip, I’d been hit by one source of chronic pain after another, and I felt like I was losing control. Each time I began to recover from one disability, another would appear. This trip had been like a moment of grace in a long ordeal.

I came to a seep where water flowed out of the hillside and into the stream, and crossing it I glimpsed a tiny, fast-moving snake, smaller than a nightcrawler. I came upon recent trash left by other hikers, and stuffed it in my pocket. Then I came to a campsite in a grove on the bank of the stream.

It immediately seemed strange. This was the third time in the past two years I’d encountered backpackers camping next to a trail and within less than a mile of a trailhead – things nobody in my generation would’ve done. All these new-style backpackers are in their 20s. I wondered where they’d learned to backpack like this.

Four men, they were sitting in camp chairs carrying on an animated conversation, with a tent and two hammocks set up behind them, literally on the bank of the stream. Since I was passing so close I waved, but they ignored me. It was less than a mile from the trailhead, but I’d only intended to scout the trail and file it away for future reference, so I only continued a few hundred yards farther to a point where the floodplain opened out, then climbed up to the railroad grade to backtrack. On the way back, I encountered three more young people, high school aged, sitting in the shade of a fir tree eating sandwiches. An area both beautiful and popular.

When I got back to the truck, I checked the Forest Service trail guide. Sure enough, they tell people to camp out of sight of trails, and at least 200 yards from streams and bodies of water, to protect habitat and wildlife. I passed a small herd of elk out in the open meadows on the way to the paved road. I had to drive through a heavily used recreation area surrounding a big reservoir, and coming upon the RV dump site, I was faced with the deepest butt crack I’ve ever seen on a man wearing pants, on the backside of the maintenance guy bending over in his truck beside the road. Oh, the horrors.

I drove east through the rugged mountains with their swath of alpine forest along the highway that had been protected from the massive wildfire in 2011. A convoy of fat, leather-jacketed bikers suddenly thundered past on choppers with deafening pipes, their women holding on tight behind. I already knew that tough guys can’t prove their toughness without machines that go fast and make a lot of noise. I didn’t know they needed to prove that in the middle of an alpine forest, but we all have our insecurities.

When I regained a signal on my phone, I called the Forest Service office and reported the outlaw campers. After all, these selfish jerks were setting a bad example for all the other young people using this popular trail. Basically, what they’d done was carried their packs less than a mile from the trailhead, picked the most beautiful spot on the bank of the stream next to the trail, set up their gear and started partying, all before noon. They might’ve even arrived the previous afternoon, which would make it even worse. Apparently they intended to just sit there for the whole weekend, with everyone else walking past them. I call this new trend “slackpacking.”

In the meadow upstream from Luna Lake, a reservoir outside Alpine, I spotted between 50 and 100 elk grazing, the biggest herd I’d ever seen. Then, after crossing into New Mexico, coming down the grade between Luna and Reserve, I saw smoke rising from a wildfire somewhere up ahead.

South of Reserve, twisting and turning downhill through the forest, I caught glimpses of a helicopter spiraling above the column of smoke. Then I came to a stop behind a couple of other waiting vehicles. It was at the dirt-road turnoff for Pueblo Park recreation area, before the climb to Saliz Pass, where there’s an old burn scar. About a quarter mile ahead of us, white smoke was climbing steep forested slopes toward the west. There were some official vehicles milling around, and some utility trucks passed us, heading toward the smoke. We waited, and more vehicles arrived and lined up behind us.

I could see the fire growing up the slope. Suddenly a tower of black smoke rose up amidst the white – the fire had reached a vehicle, a cabin, or somebody’s fuel stash. A whole tree – maybe killed by bark beetles – turned into a bright red torch at the upper edge of the fire.

Then one of the official vehicles pulled out and led us in a convoy up the road toward the fire. This is the narrowest, twistiest part of the road, and we were driving close together, so it was hard to shoot any pictures without running off the road or hitting the vehicle in front of me. I glimpsed the silver flash of a small plane circling overhead. Suddenly we came upon a long line of pea-green trucks labeled as “Globe Hotshots,” “Payson Hotshots,” and others from locations in both New Mexico and Arizona, and then we were in the fire. Young men in bulky yellow suits worked alongside the road, amid ashes, smoke, glowing embers, and bursts of flame. Fire trucks hunkered on side trails behind old-growth ponderosa pines.

Out my side window, I caught glimpses of active burning, in a dense cloud of smoke up the steep western slope right above us. The forest up there was shrouded in billowing smoke. We passed the shaded gate of the Apache Plume Ranch, up in the middle of the burn area. The area around the gate had been protected from the flames, but I didn’t know what lay behind it in the steep forest – maybe whatever had caused that tower of black smoke.

Then we came out of it all, and we all continued in a convoy toward Glenwood, spread out at safe distances except for the jerk in the big old Buick that tailgated me all the way to town. Two college girls had died in a head-on collision on this dangerous stretch of road just a few months ago.

The gibbous moon was rising over the tall Mogollon Mountains east of us. The same moon was waiting over my house when I finally got home, at the end of another very long day. And as I drove over the final grade into Silver City, the next tune came up in the random shuffle in my truck, and Coltrane’s “Lush Life” was playing as I arrived home.

I normally honor the solstice by taking stock of my life and giving thanks for the lessons and benefits that have come to me in the past half-year. This time, I started the trip in pain and under considerable stress, and ended with an adventure. I can’t seem to avoid adventure – it’s the inevitable result of exploring the world, putting yourself out there to learn new things. As time goes by, and we civilized humans keep consuming the natural world, there’s less and less of it to explore and discover. Kids grow up in the city, lacking the freedom and immersion in nature that I used to take for granted. We raise generations of timid slackpackers. Forgetting what came before, many believe this to be progress.

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First Steps in the First Wilderness

Monday, March 4th, 2019: Trips, Wildfire.

Part 1: March

I didn’t move to the mountains of southwest New Mexico, near the Gila Wilderness, because I loved the landscape. I actually found it boring because unlike the mountains of my beloved desert, these mountains are heavily forested, and there’s very little exposed rock.

But it’d be a sin to live in a place surrounded by wild, undeveloped natural habitat and not take advantage of it. Gradually, I learned about local trails and special places from my new friends, and as my body started to fall apart and I could no longer handle the impact of running or the unnatural posture of cycling, I needed challenging hikes to maintain my cardio fitness and lower-body strength.

Paradoxically, the vast Gila Wilderness was one place I avoided from the beginning, because it encompasses the higher elevations of the Mogollon Mountains, and I could see that the peak trails were all forested in, without the long-distance vistas and sightlines that I enjoy in the desert. I respect forested habitat, but it’s a lot less interesting to me than open country with endless views.

Then our series of severe wildfires began, and in May 2012, the high core of the Mogollon Mountains was consumed. My hikes in other areas began to take on the theme of fire adaptation as I trekked through burn scars, but it took me a while to realize that now, I could probably venture into the Gila Wilderness and get the views I needed, because much of the forest had been killed off.

After the fire, it was many years before the Forest Service began to clear and reopen a few of the formerly vast network of wilderness trails. Hundreds of downed trees, so much erosion, required a tremendous effort to clear, and so far, seven years later, only a very few trails have been reopened, and even those are quickly re-damaged by erosion and deadfall within months after work crews leave.

This area is a longer drive from home – it takes me over an hour to reach a trailhead into the wilderness – but I could see from the maps that I could reach higher elevations on these trails than I could on the ones near home, so it would make a great weekend expedition.

After studying the Forest Service website and online topo maps, I picked a trail that could net me 3,000′ of elevation gain in 5 miles, and set out, on a beautiful day with blue skies, fluffy white clouds, and moderate wind.

The forest road to the trailhead was an adventure in itself, cut into the precipitous wall of a canyon, rising steeply into pinyon-juniper woodland. I entered the wilderness after less than half a mile of climbing, and traversed into a part of the canyon that had been burned intensely but now carried roaring meltwater from heavy winter snows, with added color from new grass, red boulders and carpets of rust-colored oak leaves. In the canyon bottom there were already many fallen snags blocking the trail, requiring frequent detours.

After two miles the trail turned north into a shady side canyon and began to climb more steeply along the tributary stream, below snow-patched eastern slopes. I stopped for a short lunch after another mile, then followed the trail up switchbacks in dense, unburned pine forest.

High on this eastern slope, the trail crossed the side canyon to climb steeply toward its southern shoulder. It was a hard slog that just went up and up without relenting, for about a half mile. And when it finally turned back north, it was even steeper. I was really laboring but I was determined to push myself and go the full 5 miles and 3,000′, which would be a milestone in my recovery.

The trail finally reached another turning point, and entered a forest of tall pines where the fire had blown rapidly through, killing sporadic trees but clearing all the undergrowth, leaving steep tan-colored slopes of dirt and gravel that were sterile-looking even seven years after the fire. I could see the skyline around me through the trees and felt I was approaching 9,000′ elevation, but I couldn’t tell where the trail went from here. After traversing this new slope for another quarter mile, past patches of snow, I reached a section of trail where snow had drifted across at a steep angle. I tried kicking steps for myself in the treacherous slope, but a few yards across I realized there was ice under the snow. If I slipped, I’d fall far and surely be injured.

I made my way back and looked for a detour, but the slopes above and below were equally daunting, consisting of gravel loosely embedded in dirt saturated from snowmelt. My recovering foot felt like it was nearing its limit for the day, so I decided to turn back. When I got home, I re-checked the topo maps and discovered I’d hiked over 8-1/2 miles round-trip and reached my goal of 3,000′ of cumulative elevation gain, despite having to turn back at the snowdrift.

In retrospect, I realized that I still hadn’t found the wildfire-cleared slopes and open-country views I’d been looking for, because naturally, the Forest Service had focused on clearing trails in less-burned areas where crews faced less damage to repair. Maybe if I’d been able to go farther, I would’ve entered the backcountry where the fire did more damage, but I have no idea when or if I’ll be able to do that.

Part 2: April

So…a month and a half later, I went back to finish what I’d started: climbing over the crest, for a view into the back country, with its high peaks.

During the intervening weeks, I’d been carefully, and very gradually, tackling higher elevations and longer distances, trying to take care of my foot while walking on difficult terrain: crusty snow, avalanche slopes, loose rock overgrown by deep grass.

On this return visit to the Gila Wilderness, my experience of the trail was very different. I found the lower part of the trail much harder than the upper part, which just goes to show that the state of your mind and body are as important as your external environment. I’d started the hike with a certain lack of confidence, but when I passed the point that had stopped me before, I felt liberated. I knew I was going to make it over the crest and into the burn scar of the big wildfire, where I’d get a view of the backcountry with the highest peaks of the range.

The creek’s roar was toned down by now. Deciduous trees in the canyon bottom wore spring’s bright green foliage, wildflowers were coming out, butterflies were swarming. The banks of the creek were blanketed in lurid green grasses and forbs, and the golden bunch grasses on the slopes above had already gone to seed.

There’d been another vehicle parked at the trailhead before me, and a Silver City couple had signed in to the trail log before me. I encountered them about a mile and a half in. When they saw me coming through the riparian forest, they began scrambling about, and when I emerged fully into their view, the hysterical barking began.

It was a man and woman in their 70s, and the two of them were hugging a Rottweiler and a Shepherd each, holding them upright, barely restraining the big dogs as they filled the canyon with their violent barking, jerking and straining against their elderly owners to get loose so they could attack me. “Sorry! Sorry!” the owners kept shouting, but the dogs were so loud and so agitated that there was no question of me answering, let alone stopping to have a conversation. So I smiled and shook my head and continued up the trail, and eventually the barking ceased behind me.

If dog owners assume strangers are afraid of their pets, why do they impose their pets on us like this? I actually never have a problem with the animals themselves – the scourge of pet ownership is mainly down to pet owners’ irresponsibility, and it really has become a scourge, as a result of social media. Now, it seems like irresponsible pet owners form the majority. Dog owners, in particular, selfishly impose their antisocial pets on the rest of us, self-righteously adopting abused “rescue” animals and neglecting to train them or take responsibility for their behavior in public. And over and over again, when I’m in nature looking for wildlife, what I find instead is out-of-control pets and thoughtless, neurotic owners.

I labored up the side canyon, the trail’s grade exceeding 40% in places, through mature, dark, unburned forest with looming lichen-encrusted boulders and outcrops. There, a small hawk, maybe a male Cooper’s, dropped improbably to a limb in the dense lower canopy to check me out. After that, the switchbacks at the canyon’s head, and the long traverse to the stark, sparsely burned upper forest. A quarter mile beyond where I’d stopped in early March, I came to the runoff from a spring perched above the trail. The trail switched back again and climbed through the upper edge of the unburned forest toward the sharp edge of an outlying ridge.

I was already above 9,000′, and when the trail rounded the edge of the ridge, I entered the burn scar and saw the back side of Sacaton Mountain, five miles away across Big Dry Canyon, still draped with snow. On the stark east-facing slope ahead of me, young firs and pines had already established themselves at the feet of the remaining fire-killed snags. From here, it was only a short climb to the actual crest, at 9,500′, where thickets of aspens had sprouted after the fire, but hadn’t leafed out yet this season. Through the thickets I glimpsed the peaks of the range laid out in the distance to the east, each carrying the last snowfields of winter.

I walked down the trail another half mile on the far side, just to get a sense of it, but I’d already reached my objective and didn’t want to lose more elevation that I’d just have to regain. Besides, this part of the trail seemed to be completely hemmed in by dense aspen thickets.

It was gusty up there and I often had to hold onto my hat. I had a really hard time with my footing on the way down, trying to maintain grip and balance on loose rocks and the thousands of broken, rolling fragments of branches from trees that had fallen across the trail since winter. Struggling down a steep slope, trying to keep weight off the chronically injured ball of my foot, using the muscles of my ankle and foot to leverage my stiff boot as a semi-rigid platform, I ended up walking the five plus miles back to the trailhead with a pretty unnatural gait. This seems to be the new normal – I’ll never be able to forget this chronic injury, and I’ll never be able to keep up with robust hikers on treacherous ground. And I knew that after I got home, I’d need to ice my foot and do contrast bathing for a couple days, to get rid of inflammation, before going out for another hike.

But I was elated the whole way back, and even more so on the drive home, as my accomplishment began to sink in. Careful study of the topo map, elevation profile, and a GPS coordinate I logged before turning back, would show that I hiked a little over ten miles round-trip but climbed over 3,700′, the most I’d climbed in one day in over 40 years, since I was in my 20s. All in all, it was one of the six biggest day hikes of my lifetime, although nowhere near my 6,234′ ascent of Volcan Atitlan in 1978 or my 18-1/2 mile traverse of Utah’s Boulder Mountain in 1990.

The pictures hint at, but don’t fully convey how spectacular it was up there on the crest. The human eye is so far superior to the camera and digital screens – I was reveling in the details of the snowpack on distant peaks, which barely shows up in the photos, and I could see the rectangles of pastures, cropfields and farms many miles away and many thousands of feet below, through narrow passes in the outer ridges, which are totally invisible in the high-resolution photos I took.

It was great to be able to stride along the ridgetop, seeing the vast landscape shift around me in three dimensions, because the forest had been burned away. But it was also great, and surprising, to see patches where the forest seemed to be regenerating way up there on the crest, with abundant young trees and seedlings, in exactly the same mix of the parent forest, without any intermediate “successional” vegetation. The old notion of ecological succession was clearly an oversimplification – or could the Forest Service be doing some re-seeding?

The trail I hiked continues on for another four plus miles, to the heart of the wilderness where it intersects with a bunch of other trails which haven’t yet been restored since the big fire. There seem to be plenty of springs along the way, even at high elevation, so it might make for a good backpacking trip, a further exploration of wildfire adaptation. No end of future challenges!

Part 3: May

Third time a charm? Or perhaps a rude awakening.

With the warm, dry days of May upon us, I was looking for a canyon hike this time. A chance to spend most of the day in the shade of riparian forest alongside a babbling brook. Like the previous hikes into our first wilderness area, this would end in a climb to the crest, but only if I felt like it after walking up the canyon bottom a few miles. And I didn’t expect to feel like it, because the last big hike, a thirteen-miler, had taken a lot out of me. I was beginning to suspect that I’d reached the limit of what my aging body was capable of, so this hike was intended to be more modest.

I was starting late, after 11am, but there was only one vehicle ahead of me at the trailhead, and a half mile up the trail, I ran into its owner, an older woman with a small dog, on her way out already.

What little information was available in advance suggested that at least the lower part of this canyon was somewhat developed, with a cabin and some sort of mine. And the first thing I noticed was the abundance of invasive species, from the countless dandelions that blanketed the trail to the noxious tree-of-heaven sprouting on the banks of the creek. All brought in by the horses and cattle of the pioneers.

But this canyon had a lot more water too – probably four times as much as the previous canyon, rushing down from snowfields on one of the highest peaks in the range.

And wildlife! I found myself wading through clouds of butterflies the whole way. Massive dumps of black bear scat fresh this morning, so I made sure to project plenty of noise to announce my presence.

The terrain a little more rugged, with huge boulders, cliffs, and pinnacles looming everywhere. A mile or so in, I came to the abandoned cabin, and a little later, the mine, and after that it was all wilderness.

The endorphins kicked in and I was feeling good enough to climb out of the canyon to the saddle on the crest, which had been the absolute farthest I’d planned to hike. It was a long, steep, virtually straight slog through mostly burned forest in a side canyon.

About a third of the way up, I suddenly heard barking from higher up the canyon ahead of me. Just three or four sharp barks, lower-pitched – nothing like a hunting hound or a coyote would make.

Normally, you hear a bark, you expect either hikers or hunters, but I knew I was the only human in this whole watershed. There’d been no footprints or hoofprints in the canyon bottom. Could it be wolves? I didn’t really even know whether wolves could bark.

I stood stock still and waited. After a few minutes, another bark, much closer, coming from the slope opposite me, where the view was blocked by trees. And another bark, already farther down the slope. Whatever it was, it was moving fast, covering twenty or thirty yards between barks, over steep, rocky terrain.

I kept waiting, but whatever it was, it was long gone.

A little farther, I came upon the bleached, scattered bones of a cow, strewn along the trail for a few hundred yards.

The view at the top of the saddle was blocked by post-fire saplings. Still feeling good, I continued on up the trail, without a map, not knowing where it went from here, but excited about gaining some more elevation. The end of the next ridge was blocked by a huge rock outcrop, but the trail dipped and went around it, so I kept going, traversing into a new side canyon, hoping to eventually top out on a new crest with a new view.

I came upon a section of trail very popular with elk, littered with piles of scat. But I knew I was pushing my body and would pay for it on the way back, so I finally stopped, in the midst of a stark burn scar with a spectacular view, and had a brief snack before turning back.

This trail didn’t deliver as much elevation gain as the previous wilderness hike, but it sure provided better footing! Despite being “unmaintained,” and blocked by countless deadfalls, the footing was mostly smooth dirt and dry leaves, which made my problem foot very happy.

After the long traverse down the side canyon, I felt relieved to be back in the canyon bottom, figuring a walk-in-the-park back to the trailhead. But this is where my body started giving out.

Hiking down the main canyon seemed to take forever, and I gradually lost most of the strength in my lower body, from hips to ankles, so that in some stretches I was stumbling every third step. I kept thinking “the cabin’s got to be around the next bend, and after that it’s only another mile or so.” But the canyon just kept twisting and turning, between its cliff walls.

I got to a deep swimming hole I’d spotted on the way in, and climbed down to it, thinking an ice-cold plunge might just be the ticket. But the rocks and banks beside the pool were swarming with ants!

Finally I reached the cabin. I was feeling just about dead, but I knew I had a climb ahead of me to get back out of the canyon. The final stretch was just a blur of aches and pains and fatigue, and after that I had about an hour’s drive back to town.

I’d worn long pants this time, to avoid the rash and sunburn I’d gotten when hiking in shorts. But when I rolled up my pant legs, back at the vehicle, to loosen my tight boots, I discovered my lower legs were again covered with an angry rash. What I’d thought was sunburn or an allergy was actually the infamous “hiker’s rash” or exercise-induced vasculitis, a poorly-known condition in which the circulatory function of your lower legs fails and your blood vessels become engorged and inflamed. Apparently it’s incurable – you just have to deal with it for the rest of your life.

So a rude awakening! After six months of striving for longer and longer hikes, it now seems I may be permanently limited to medium-distance treks. And that with a lightweight pack – who knows how much more restricted I’d be for backpacking? And my lower legs are just going to catch fire whenever I go out – no getting around that. All flesh is grass!

Part 4: June

When I returned, in pursuit of my first big hike after a few weeks off training, it was the height of springtime in the mountains. In my part of the world, late spring is our hottest and driest season, and it was forecast to reach 90 degrees today. It did get plenty hot out there, but as they say, and believe me it’s true, it’s a dry heat! And last winter’s snows ensured that the creek was running, the riparian corridor was a jungle, the wildflowers were rampant, the flies were annoying, and the birds were ecstatic!

Not to mention the wild strawberries that I feasted on for extra energy, and the poison ivy that crowded the trail in the canyon bottom. I tried to be careful, but I fear another nasty rash may show up on various inconvenient areas of my body in the week to come…

Part 5: Early July

When I returned to the high wilderness in July, our monsoon was officially late. Hot, dry weather had intensified since June, with maybe a slight, tantalizing drizzle once a week, in the middle of the night.

But clouds were forming, and thunderstorms were producing rain nearby. I hoped that if I headed over to the peaks in the west, I might get lucky. And while driving up the highway, I did see a few fluffy clouds floating over the peaks ahead.

The canyon was even more of a jungle than before, and there was still a little stream flow from winter’s snowmelt on the peaks. New flowers were blooming to add to those I’d found before, fresh bear scat littered the entire trail, and birds were busy as ever. Gnats were especially annoying, and my energy came and went throughout the hike, so that in some stretches I had to stop and rest frequently, while in others I just powered my way up the steepest grades. I’m starting to learn that I need to take plenty of high-energy snacks and gulp them down regularly, instead of relying on a meal from hours ago.

During the climb, dark clouds covered half the sky above me, while the other half showed patches of blue. I couldn’t tell whether storms were moving toward me or away, but it was all beautiful, and with frequent shade the air stayed cool. I felt better on the upper stretch of trail and decided to go all the way to the crest, because the payoff here is the views at the very top.

On the way down, I decided to investigate the spring located just below Holt Peak, which dominates this stretch of the trail. I’d always thought it unusual to find a spring near a peak, but it sits on a steep slope above the trail, and I could see a cast-concrete spring box up there and figured it might be piped, so I hadn’t actually investigated it before. This time, I traversed across the slope of loose rock and deep pine needles, and discovered it’s a natural spring that simply drips out of a shallow bank on the hillside.

Normally I’m very careful about treating groundwater. But with no sign that this mountaintop had ever been grazed by livestock, and little chance that backpackers had ever camped above this spring since the trail bypasses it for more obvious destinations, I decided to have a drink. It was ice-cold, and delicious! It suddenly occurred to me that this was my best hike yet in this wilderness. My body was holding up well, the weather was great – I was still holding out hope for a storm – and I was drinking from the mountain, an experience that is always precious.

Sure enough, as I dropped down into the big side canyon, the dark clouds moved over, and a few drops began to fall. And when I reached the bottom, and the junction with the main canyon, rain began to fall in earnest, lightning struck somewhere nearby, and long avalanches of thunder began, lasting and reverberating between the canyon walls for many minutes.

I stopped, pulled my military surplus poncho out of my pack, and replaced it with my hat. But then the rain stopped and I was left carrying the poncho down the canyon.

Finally, about halfway down the canyon, a long spell of rain began and I donned my poncho. Even after the rain stopped, twenty minutes later, the air was cool and I kept it on, hoping for more rain later.

Sure enough, just as I reached the wilderness boundary a half mile from the trailhead, it really started pouring! My dream came true…

Part 6: Late July

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

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

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Summer Solstice 2019

Tuesday, June 25th, 2019: Solstices, Summer 2019, Trips, 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: 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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