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Black Range

Monsoon Canyon

Sunday, August 25th, 2019: Black Range, Hikes, Railroad, Southwest New Mexico.

I hadn’t been able to do a serious hike for the past three weeks, due to problems in both feet, a knee and a shin. So I needed a recovery hike on a well-maintained trail without any long, steep grades. This canyon, less than an hour from home and between 7,000′ and 9,000′ elevation, fit the bill.

While I was out of commission, our monsoon had been delivering some good rain. The flowers were outrageous, there were still red raspberries available, and a huge crop of rose hips would be ripe in a few more weeks.

My lower body felt so good that when I got to the steep part near the end of the trail, I wanted to keep going. But I’d already hiked farther than I’d planned – the round-trip would be almost 8 miles and over 1300′ – so I decided not to take any chances.

In addition to the wildlife I got pictures of, I saw two garter snakes and a bridled titmouse – first ever in the wild! And in the lower part of the canyon, I heard an invisible owl calling – in the middle of the afternoon!

The Arizona Sister is a big butterfly, like a swallowtail, and the dark band of color along the front of the wings is iridescent.

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Top of the Burned World

Monday, September 2nd, 2019: Black Range, Hikes, Hillsboro, Nature, Southwest New Mexico, Wildfire.

Wild Raspberries

In the third week of recovering from my latest foot problem, I was in a real quandary picking a big weekend hike. For a gradual recovery, I felt I still needed to avoid steep grades and keep the cumulative elevation gain under 2,000 feet. But last weekend’s hike had been almost 8 miles, so I figured I could do 10 or more this weekend.

But the logical choice, an area close to town, had been taken over by mountain bikers for a big annual race. And the areas over on the west side of the federal wilderness were just too steep.

One hike I’d considered in the past was to follow the crest trail of the Black Range north to one of the range’s highest peaks – about a five mile one-way with 2,000′ elevation gain. But I knew there was a fire lookout on top, and I assumed there was a forest road to the lookout. I believed this would be a popular trail, and I was leery of running into vehicles and some kind of a crowd up there.

In addition, we’d been having monsoon storms almost daily. That ridge had been mostly cleared of forest by the catastrophic wildfire in 2013, so I would be spending most of the day totally exposed. Without cloud cover it would be hot, but in a storm I’d run a real risk of being struck by lightning.

After deliberating a while, I decided to chance it. It was an hour drive from home, and maybe by the time I got there, the weather might be more predictable. There was another trail option in the same area if I had to give up the crest hike.

The highway hairpins its way to a pass above 8,000′, where there’s a scenic overlook and the crest trailhead. The sky was mostly clear when I arrived, with just a few little scattered cumulus clouds to the northwest. The temperature at that elevation was still in the 70s at 11am, but radiant heating in the thin air was pretty fierce, and I was sweating heavily within the first few hundred yards.

I ran into a pair of mountain bikers coming out, half a mile up the trail. Great – was this a harbinger of the traffic ahead?

I’d walked the first mile of this trail last year, so I knew it traversed the heart of the burn area. The slopes to north and south had been scorched to moonscape in large swaths, and although gambel oak and other scrub was filling in, there were clear views to east and west from this north-south trending ridge. And the views went on forever, into a haze more than a hundred miles away.

After a snowy winter, a hot spring, and weeks of monsoon rains, the wildflowers were spectacular. Birds were busy everywhere, some of them unknown to me. Whereas wild raspberries in the canyons had already mostly fallen or been eaten, there was a huge crop ripening up here, and by the end of the hike I’d eaten nearly a pint.

It turned out that the departing mountain bikers had only ridden the first mile or so of the trail, and they were the only humans I encountered throughout the long day. The grade of the trail was so steady that I had a hard time believing it climbed 2,000′ in 5 miles. It seemed the perfect hike for this stage in my recovery.

Elusive Spring

The peak is topped by a large grassy plateau at a little over 10,000′. And to my surprise, there was no road! The summit complex, consisting of tower and two cabins, was vacant. They must helicopter in materials, supplies, and some of their crews. And the lookout tower is tiny and would only accommodate one person in short shifts. I wondered if they even use it during a normal season.

After checking out the cabins and climbing to just below the boarded-up lookout for some 360 degree views of my world, I returned back down the trail. Just below the summit there was a junction with the northward continuation of the crest trail, and the sign mentioned a spring. I’d had such a wonderful experience with a mountaintop spring over on the west side, I figured I’d explore this one, if it wasn’t too far.

The trail took me down through lush, unburned forest to a small meadow where a signed spur trail led off to the spring. The sign said 1/2 mile to the spring, but the layout was confusing so I didn’t figure it out until returning, after I’d unsuccessfully tried to reach it.

The trail to the spring was almost invisible, but there were periodic cairns that enabled me to keep going. The cairns led down a steep, rough burn slope with many snags and fallen trunks, a deeply eroded surface with a lot of loose rock and bare dirt. There were some interesting rocks, but after taking me several hundred feet down the mountainside, the cairns led into a dense, dark aspen thicket on an even steeper slope, and I gave up the search. I just didn’t want to end up going another half mile and a few more hundred feet farther down, that I’d then have to climb back out of.

Flowers & Fungi

Most of these flowers – but not all – were familiar to me from other parts of these mountains. But for sheer numbers of wildflowers, this crest trail has them all beat!

Cat Calls

Most of the upper forest on the peak was defended from the wildfire, so while hiking this upper trail, you only get glimpses of the landscape from between old-growth fir and spruce.

But the glimpses you do get are stunning – you can really tell you’re more than a mile above the rest of the landscape. The mountainside is so steep it’s almost vertiginous.

Clouds had gathered during my hike, and much of the peak was shaded by forest anyway. Temperatures had stayed mild all day, and there was always a breeze up here on top of the world. At some point on the east slope of the peak, walking through dappled shade with a gentle wind rustling the aspen, I suddenly felt my chest filling with euphoria. I remembered feeling that way a couple days earlier, when hiking a much smaller peak in a similar situation, being up above the world in clean air, looking down across a vast wild landscape. I’m used to feeling happy in nature, but this was different – I was actually high, in both senses of the word. I wondered if it was because now, after the fire had cleared most of the trees out of the way, I finally had long sightlines just like I have in my beloved desert.

The feeling stayed with me all the way down. It felt like there’d been a sea change in the way I experienced nature. I had no adequate explanation – it was just there. Will it happen again?

Traversing the head of the last canyon on the west side of the crest, I heard a strange, haunting repeated cry from the patchily burned forest low on the opposite slope. At first I thought it was a bird, but the longer it continued, the more it sounded like a cat – probably a bobcat, either in heat or in distress. I heard it for nearly a half hour, until I rounded a shoulder of the ridge and passed out of hearing.

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Color Returns to the Mountains

Sunday, May 17th, 2020: Black Range, Hikes, Hillsboro, Southwest New Mexico.

Returning to the wilderness area around a 10,000′ peak, where the snow is finally gone and color has finally returned!

I chose this hike because it was going to be a hot day and I hoped it would be cooler up there. It’s also a north-south ridge and tends to be windy – I would turn a bend in the trail and literally go from calm and sweating in the 80s to a wind chill in the 50s, instantaneously. I had to hold onto my hat several times.

This is a fairly remote hike, but popular with city people driving from Las Cruces and El Paso. Most people are focused on reaching the fire lookout compound on the peak, partly because it used to be occupied by local celebrity author Philip Connors; I couldn’t care less about Connors and am much more interested in the wildlife. I skip the fire lookout and continue down the crest trail on the back side of the peak to a remote saddle, around which there are still some big old-growth trees that survived the 2013 fire.

I was hoping to explore more of the crest trail, but north of the saddle, it was completely obliterated by a big blowdown of mature conifers. I will be surprised if the Forest Service ever restores the trail system around here. The trails themselves, like the fire lookout, are simply aspects of more than a century of failed practices. A microcosm of our entire society.

On the back side of the peak, trying to climb over a fallen tree trunk, I lost my balance and fell backward, grabbing a locust seedling by mistake. My hand was pierced by its long thorns, but miraculously, didn’t bleed. Hiking back to the trailhead in a heavy wind, I noticed a beautiful butterfly darting around my legs. It suddenly dashed under my heel just as I put my weight down, and was crippled.

Driving down through the foothills, where the speed limit increases and I was forced off the road a few weeks earlier by a reckless driver, I watched carefully as vehicles emerged one by one from the blind curves ahead of me. Nearly all of them were driving too fast and cut the curves, crossing the double yellow line into my lane, and I leaned on my horn again and again – something which is strictly taboo in rural southwest New Mexico. I was relieved to get home safe, but I couldn’t stop thinking about that poor butterfly.

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Cities Burn, Max Hikes

Monday, June 1st, 2020: Black Range, Hikes, Sawyers, Southwest New Mexico.

Is denial a river in Egypt?

We depend on news media for information about the world outside our neighborhoods. But news media are businesses within the capitalist consumer economy. News media reflect the dominant worldview of our society. The information they deliver is driven by their business agenda and prioritized by the dominant values of society – the values of elites: Eurocentrism, anthropocentrism, individualism, statism, imperialism, competition, etc.

This is okay with most of us, because we share that dominant worldview and we accept those dominant values. It’s what we were taught in the schools.

But is our worldview accurate? What might it be leaving out?

What about our history? Do we absorb the news in context of our history as brutal conquerors and enslavers? Do we assume that the past is past, problems are solved and errors forgiven? The Native Americans whose land our ancestors stole, upon whom they perpetrated genocide – all that’s in the past, we Anglos are the natives now. The fact that our great cities sit on the land of indigenous people and our children are consuming their resources – that’s just the way things are, you can’t turn back the clock. Besides, Native Americans weren’t that great – scientists say they drove Pleistocene megafauna to extinction. Anyone defending them is just naively romanticizing the noble savage, and this land is better off in our hands.

Lincoln freed the slaves, the civil rights movement of the 60s ended segregation, one day a year we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. – shouldn’t that be good enough?

In the media worldview, we live in a democracy, so when people seem to threaten that, we call them fascists. But how many of us are really aware that the U.S. maintains a worldwide military empire, with over 600 bases in foreign countries on every continent, and we’re actually still at war in Afghanistan? We don’t get to vote on any aspect of our military or how it is used, so from the point of view of our warriors and their victims, the argument of fascism vs. democracy is largely irrelevant – in a military sense, the U.S. is not a peaceful democracy, it’s truly a violent empire.

Nor do we get to vote on the U.S. economic and industrial empire, or on the implementation of new technologies that determine our future. A billionaire like Elon Musk can surround the Earth with tens of thousands of satellites, disrupting the entire planet’s night sky, without any public dialog, and without even making the news headlines. No wonder we’re so often shocked by the news – our main source of information leaves us clueless.

We have a justice system – everyone has the right to a trial by a jury of his or her peers. Really? How many of us are aware that local prosecutors actually decide the fate of the accused in most cases, single-handedly imposing punishment on people whose guilt is never proven? As our prison populations spiral out of control, are we aware of restorative alternatives to punishment and incarceration which were developed and successfully implemented by societies we’ve conquered and replaced?

Come on Max, be realistic. We have to deal with things as they are.

Sure, our society has problems. But they can all be solved by electing the right president, and implementing the right technologies. Space exploration will solve everything – as we know from Star Trek and Star Wars, in space all races can live together in harmony. Earth is obviously the source of all our problems. Screw the Earth – let’s colonize Mars! After all, colonialism has worked well for us Europeans so far. Our generation may have screwed things up, but our kids will do it right.

My generation, the generation that came of age in the 60s, was supposedly enlightened. Funny how as they aged, they gravitated toward more and more affluent, whites-only jobs and neighborhoods. Choosing a community of peers, they ended up in bubbles surrounded by like-minded people, unaware of how others were living, thinking, or feeling. Their kids went to private schools – one of them even chose a college formerly known as “White-Man College” for its near-complete lack of minority students. My friends seldom considered that they were helping to make our society more segregated than ever. As a result, their families are doing great – they’re completely isolated from people of color and poor neighborhoods. But that’s okay, because they have their trusted national media to keep them well informed.

So they believe in progress, and unless the news tells them otherwise, they think everything’s fine in the world. No conflict, no segregation, no discrimination, no poverty, no frustration, no suffering. My generation even elected a Black president! Sure, he was a half-white lawyer from the suburbs, not a son of poverty from the ghetto, but it was progress, anyway, right? That’s the important thing, we’re moving forward, away from that past where we made all those mistakes.

In the rural Midwest, I grew up with Black classmates, and I went to college amid the vast Black ghettos of Chicago’s South Side. Unlike many of my friends, as an artist and musician needing cheap studio space, I lived in dangerous slums and barrios among poor Blacks and Latinos most of my adult life, where I had Black colleagues, bandmates, friends, and roommates. My old hometown of Oakland prides itself on some of the most successfully integrated neighborhoods in the world, but much of it is also segregated, with a history of racism and racial violence. My current hometown in the rural Southwest has only a handful of Black folks, but unlike almost all of my friends, I live now in an integrated, relatively egalitarian community, in a neighborhood that’s half Latino.

In poor ethnic neighborhoods of West Coast cities, I’ve had police helicopters and SWAT teams surround my house multiple times. I was falsely arrested and spent a night in a jail cell with poor Blacks and Latinos. The cops have seldom helped me and often hurt me, and I reject all our institutions of “justice” and “law enforcement” as simply the destructive, coercive mechanisms of social control employed by the imperialist ruling class.

But I’m not immune from denial. It took two years of hard work to recover from my chronic foot injury, and another 18 months to build to my current level of fitness. Yet after my foot started to hurt again on Saturday, and I swore to take a break from hiking, I got up on Sunday and went out for a hike anyway.

I rationalized it because when I got up, my foot no longer hurt. And it felt fine for most of my hike. I hadn’t forgotten yesterday’s pain – I planned to take it easier than usual. This meant hiking closer to 10 miles rather than 15, and keeping my elevation gain closer to 3,000′ rather than 4,000′.

I was targeting the southern segment of the crest trail that normally takes me north to a 10,000′ peak. This southern segment sees less traffic, and those who hike it usually only go as far as the 9,600′ southern peak, which is 3-1/2 miles one-way. I figured I’d try the trail past the peak, although it traverses the heart of the 2013 wildfire burn area and there was no information on whether it’d been cleared of logs.

As it turned out, nobody else uses the trail beyond the peak. It’s unmaintained and abandoned. It’s overgrown and blocked by deadfall and blowdown, and the farther you go, the less evidence there is that a trail ever existed. I managed to get about a mile and a half beyond the peak, fixing landmarks in my mind and cutting arrows in the dirt to help me find the way back, before I gave up and turned back. But at least I was able to get a view of the southern part of the range as it trails off and subsides into the low desert.

This part of the mountains lies outside the protected wilderness area, and I’d seen old cowpies along the trail from the start. In fact, the abandoned segment beyond the peak is now used only by cattle. I glimpsed a lone bull in the forest above me when I sidetracked off the trail to climb the peak. And on the way back, I passed three cows grazing in lush grass at 9,000′ on a steep forested slope below the trail.

The New Mexico locust whose dangerous thorns I’d been contending with in other high-elevation burn scars were now blooming, and I’d been informed by a local botanist friend that the flowers were edible, so I sampled some and found them pretty good, with just enough sweetness on top of the sour base. Hopefully they’ll hold their blooms until the wild strawberries are ready and I can combine them.

It wasn’t until the last mile that my foot began to hurt, and when it did, it was so bad I couldn’t put weight on the ball of my foot and had to limp the rest of the way to the vehicle. There, I examined a historical plaque that explains the name of this high pass.

Like our news media, the sign leaves out most of the story. Lt. Emory was part of the Army of the West. This army was an early agent of the imperialism in which our white, Eurocentric society has replaced native peoples. The story is far too complex for most of us to keep in mind – first the Spanish came and conquered the Indians of the Western Hemisphere, then they established European colonies, then we Anglo-Americans conquered parts of their colonies along with what natives were left. And now we consider ourselves natives. What’s past is done, right?

Another aspect of the complexity we deny is that science accompanies our violent conquests – Emory represented science in the Army of the West, and we credit the scientific discovery of this place to that violent conquest. We deny how these things go hand in hand. No pleasant urban neighborhoods with their galleries, theaters, pubs and nightclubs, coffeehouses and bookstores, without the militarized police and the hidden military empire, without the violent conquests, the capitalist oppression, the consumerist exploitation of distant rural communities and habitats.

But you probably know by now what I see. I see that our society is perpetually in a state of collapse. Our cities are parasitic enclaves grafted unsustainably onto land stolen from indigenous peoples. Our police, our military, our presidents will fight their way to their own demise, and good riddance.

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First Steps in the First Wilderness Part 11: Summer Solstice

Sunday, June 21st, 2020: Black Range, Hikes, Hillsboro, Southwest New Mexico.

The same day I was hit with the worst of my biannual back pain episodes, a lightning strike started a forest fire in one of my favorite hiking areas. While I was immobilized on pain meds, the fire grew to engulf the entire ridge, turning the beautiful north slope into a moonscape.

After two weeks the pain faded and I got back on my feet again, but, what with COVID-19, I wasn’t able to plan a solstice trip, or make any sort of plans for this special day. After another week of short walks and moderate strength training, I was anxious to find out if I’d lost any conditioning, so I returned to another one of my favorite trails, the ridge in the sky.

It was going to be a hot day and I hoped it would be cooler up there between 8,000′ and 10,000′. No such luck, but at the top, the trail passes through some shady groves of old-growth pine and fir, which provided some relief.

Despite the heat, the flowers were amazing, butterflies and other pollinators were everywhere, and it was great to be hiking again, on the longest day of the year. And I surprised myself by going up over the peak, down the back side, and returning the same way for 12-1/2 miles and 3,140′ of elevation. Not bad after 3 weeks off!

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