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Southeast Arizona

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 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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In Search of the Lost Trail

Monday, April 8th, 2019: Hikes, Pinalenos, Southeast Arizona.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And here I really lost the trail.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Summer Solstice 2019

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

Climbing the Soup Bowl

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hard Lessons in the Interior

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Traversing the Rim

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Driving the Lost Road

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

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

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

Enlightenment Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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