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Summer Solstice Between Fires

Monday, June 24th, 2013: Hikes, Mogollon Mountains, Nature, Southwest New Mexico, Whitewater, Wildfire.

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With no plans for the day, I got up before dawn and climbed the slope of Boston Hill to deliver my sunrise prayer. Silhouetted against the glow of the eastern horizon, the smoke of the Silver Fire, burning its way through the ponderosa pine forest of the Black Range, trailed away toward the south. And the sun rose precisely behind the base of the smoke plume, setting the theme for this solstice.

This is our third year of apocalyptic wildfires. First, in 2011, the monstrous Wallow Fire, caused by careless campers, consumed most of the vast White Mountains forest in Arizona, one of my favorite nearby retreats, and the Horseshoe Fire, blamed on illegal immigrants, torched the Chiricahua Mountains forest southwest of here. Then in 2012 the Whitewater-Baldy fire, started by lightning, burned the 300,000 acre heart of the high Mogollon Mountains just north of us, and still, a year later, all trails in that area remain closed.

I had spent my first New Mexico summer solstice on Whitewater Creek, and last year’s maps had shown the fire burning down the steep canyon slope all the way to the creek and stopping there. I decided to venture into the closed area by taking the back way in, dropping into the middle of the canyon from a high ridge, to see how things really fared down there.

Picking my way down the steep trail over sharp, loose rocks, I noticed individual scorched junipers and pinyons on this, the north slope, but here most of the vegetation was intact, whereas far across the canyon on the opposite slope, large swaths of forest had been browned by the fire. The walls of Whitewater Canyon consist largely of cliffs, pinnacles, and talus slopes, but ponderosa forest can cling to surprisingly steep slopes, and I was glad to see about half the forest still green.

When I finally neared the treetops of the riparian canopy I could hear the creek down there roaring over rocks, and I saw that here and there, individual trees in the canyon bottom had burnt. The opposite slope was ash-covered and cleared of undergrowth, and charred or half-burnt logs and branches were scattered amidst the luxuriant creekside vegetation. Lower Whitewater Creek has always been full of small trout, but I didn’t see a fish anywhere, not even a minnow.

Finding a place to bathe and hang out in the shade is tricky here; long stretches of the creek are shallow and gravelly, and the fire had reduced coverage of the canopy. I worked my way upstream until I found a narrow spot between low, overhanging cliffs where there was a large flat rock next to a small pool fed by a tiny waterfall. It would be shaded till mid-afternoon when I would move upstream a few yards. June is our hottest month, and I didn’t plan to hike out until just before sunset, hoping to be in shade on the way up.

A more peaceful day would be hard to imagine. The only minor hardship was the gnats and flies which would swarm me any time I moved. As long as I sat or lay still, they would lose interest in me and gradually drift away. All day long, I bathed, snacked, drank purified water from the creek, read a book about African pygmies, watched birds in the canopy overhead and butterflies and dragonflies flitting above the creek, listening to the never-ending song of water on stone. Whereas in the past, there were always other hikers or equestrians in this popular canyon, the trail closures ensured that I was completely alone. Imagine going an entire day without any human sound, not even an airplane!

Sunlight waned and returned above as high, thin clouds formed and dispersed. Finally, after 7 pm, I packed up and started back. It was a hard slog, and I was torn between hurrying to reach the ridgetop by sunset, and taking it easier to enjoy the last golden light on the canyon walls. About a third of the way up, I saw the moon, almost full and bright as a new coin, rising from the head of the canyon.

Then, when I was far enough up to see the golden mesa fanning out below the mouth of the canyon, I also saw smoke spreading from another wildfire along the rugged horizon way over in Arizona, somewhere north of Clifton and Morenci. When I finally reached the top, I saw the sun setting into the smoke of this fire, so that burning forests both opened and closed this longest day.

I drove a narrow, twisting, and empty road down from the mountain under spectacular crimson clouds in a deepening blue sky, and the big moon shed a soft light on the hills and canyons around me as I found my long way back home in the night.

 

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Cloud Forest of the Southwest

Monday, August 3rd, 2015: Hikes, Southeast Arizona, Whites.

Mount Baldy summit in the far distance

Coming from the Pacific Coast, with decades of experience in the Cascades, the Sierra Nevada, the Mojave and Great Basin deserts, and the mountains and canyons of the Colorado Plateau, when I moved to southwest New Mexico, I was moving a long way to the southeast. To get back to those lands I still loved, I had to travel in a northwesterly direction. There’s only one highway that does that, and it passes through the White Mountains of Arizona.

I loved the drive from the very beginning: over high desert plateaus, down into deep river canyons and up over high mountain passes, up and down, up and down, until you reach the White Mountains and begin following vast, lush alpine meadows, often with herds of grazing elk, between a maze of steep, dark forested ridges, finally emerging onto the endless open plateau of north-central Arizona.

One winter night, flying from Albuquerque to San Diego under a full moon, I looked out the window to my left and saw what appeared to be volcanic cones floating like islands in a sea of white – huge, perfectly flat expanses of white, like photographs of the moon’s surface, but this had to be snow. I knew we were over eastern Arizona – where could there be this much snow?

The following winter, I decided to try the Apache-owned ski area in the White Mountains, and discovered that these mountains are simply a maze of volcanic ridges and cones sitting on a huge alpine plateau, with big alpine meadows in between. The plateau and the meadows average 8,500′ elevation, and there are no prominent peaks or deep canyons, so from the northern plateau, the entire range just looks like a slightly raised area of rolling forested uplands.

But I had never seen such huge alpine meadows, going on for miles, and there was a lot of exposed rock: pinnacles and rimrock on the steep slopes of the forested ridges, black volcanic cliffs forming the shallow canyons of streams. And along the northern edge of the mountains, those iconic cinder cones. All of it covered with a blanket of snow through the winter, like a massive cake.

I returned for skiing a couple more times, and then, in the summer of 2011, the White Mountains were set on fire by careless campers. Much of the time, I was downwind and breathed the smoke of those millions of dying Ponderosa pines. In the end, more than half of the forest burned. I was reluctant to make that drive again, but eventually I did, and began to pay attention, year by year, the impacts and adaptations of people, plants, animals, and landscape. It’s a story that will unfold for generations.

As July came to an end this year, I submitted my new album of music, a year and a half in the making, to the popular digital venues, and was forced to wait for another week while the album made its way through their systems. I’d been housebound too long and needed a getaway. On impulse, I booked a cheap motel room in the White Mountains, thinking I might do a hike. And on Sunday morning, I left the trailhead for the summit of the range, Mount Baldy.

It was one of the most beautiful hikes I’ve ever done.

It begins beside, and rises above, the east fork of the Little Colorado River, and climbs across a high ridge to the head of the west fork near the summit of Mount Baldy, the source of this storied river that flows 340 miles across the rugged volcanic and sculpted sandstone plateau of northern Arizona into one of the deepest arms of the Grand Canyon.

Two things made this hike special for me. One was the unique high-canopied alpine spruce-fir-aspen forest, lush at the height of the monsoon season with ferns and fungus and moss. And the other was the rocks: moss- and lichen-covered boulders, pinnacles and cliffs in a seemingly infinite variety of fantastic shapes, striped with light and shadow beneath the high forest canopy, and sometimes cropping out at ridge top to provide breath-taking views across the entire range, with its serpentine ridges, brilliant green meadows and blue lakes, all the way to the horizon and the curvature of the planet. And of course, the monsoon sky with its ranks of blossoming cumulous clouds.

On my way up, crossing one of these ridge top outcrops, I met an athletic young Apache man who had hiked up the west fork and was returning down this way to complete a 17-mile loop. It was his first time, and he was stoked like me. All we could talk about was the beauty of the mountain and sky.

I had hoped for rain even before starting this hike; I’d packed my rain shell and a plastic tarp to cover my pack or hunker down under in a downpour. I fantasized about lightning dancing on the ridges and thunder pounding the forest and torrents leaping off the rocks, all around me. Rain was forecast; clouds massed and darkened, then broke up.

I saw many woodpeckers, but the biggest wildlife I encountered was a pair of blue grouse, near the top of the trail. It wasn’t until the next day, turning onto the main highway out of the mountains, that I had to slow behind a truck because a large herd of bighorn sheep had started to cross the road. I could see them bouncing around on the pavement up ahead, reluctant to leave the road. Finally they all poured across and leapt, one by one, over a 5-foot wire fence into the big meadow to the north. An hour later, driving across another huge meadow, I spotted dozens of elk grazing at the foot of the opposite slope.

Thanks to Jim Andre and Katy Belt for plant identifications.

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Summer Solstice 2016

Tuesday, June 21st, 2016: Hikes.

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Summer Solstice 2018: Into the Burn

Wednesday, June 20th, 2018: 2018 Trips, Hikes, Mogollon Rim, Nature, Regions, Road Trips, Southeast Arizona, Whites, 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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The Perfect Sunset Hike

Wednesday, January 16th, 2019: Hikes, Pinalenos, Southeast Arizona.

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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