Dispatches
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Pinos Altos Range

Be Careful What You Wish For!

Monday, July 15th, 2019: Hikes, Pinos Altos Range, Southwest New Mexico.

Five years ago, before I was crippled by joint problems, my cardio routine consisted of one or two 4-mile weekday hikes within 15 minutes of home, plus a 5-7 mile hike a half hour away on the weekend. But when I finally began recovering, it inspired me so much that I became a lot more ambitious, and it’s getting harder and harder to find hikes that challenge me – and don’t bore me.

So I’m driving farther now, even for the midweek hikes. Every other weekend I’ll drive an hour or two away, hoping to get into some canyons and ridges with exposed rock. Our lower-elevation pinyon-juniper-oak forests tend to get monotonous, as do the mixed-conifer-and-Gambel-oak forests at higher elevation.

But last weekend I’d done one of the farther hikes, so this weekend I was condemned to something closer to home. I decided to try a route I’d never done before, using part of the famous national trail system to get to the highest peak near town. I’d climbed that peak many times from the opposite direction, but the topo map for this alternate route showed numerous ups and downs that would give me even more cumulative elevation gain. And the trail would take me across the north face of the Twin Sisters, a distinctive formation on our local skyline.

Our monsoon still hadn’t really kicked in, but by hiking in mountains I had managed to get into some rain in two of my last three hikes. Today, however, the forecast gave only 20% chance of rain, which is generally hopeless, and there were only a few sparse clouds over the mountains and clear skies over open country. It was supposed to be a little cooler, with a high of 89, but by the time I found the trailhead it was sweltering. I passed several people on their way out, having sensibly started much earlier in the cool of the morning.

But I had an attitude about hiking in heat. Thirty years ago I’d accompanied wildlife biologists on field trips in the Mojave Desert, and in the middle of summer, with temperatures 10 degrees hotter than it ever gets here in New Mexico, we would start a hike at 11am and climb rugged mountains off-trail all day in full sun, only returning to camp after sunset. And just a few years ago I did a backpacking trip there involving strenuous climbing, in temperatures pushing 100 degrees. So I viewed our local heat as no impediment at all.

I was hoping for some shade, though. I’d studied Google satellite view and it looked like maybe two-thirds of the hike would be in pine forest, with maybe some sparse cover throughout the remainder. But the reality was disappointing.

A large proportion of the national trail turned out to utilize old forest roads, so there was a wide corridor where trees had been cleared, hence no shade. And the middle section of the trail traversed a rolling plateau with my most hated surface: embedded volcanic projectiles, roughly rounded and pitted rocks ranging from tennis ball to bowling ball size, embedded in hard clay. This is a common feature of our local mountains that I’ve learned to avoid whenever possible. The rocks can’t be cleared by trail workers, so all they do is remove the vegetation around them and call it a trail – and walking over this unevenly cobbled surface is slow, perilous, and hell on your feet and leg joints.

The trail began with a steep climb, and the lack of shade meant that I was drenched with sweat within a few minutes past the trailhead. Crossing the plateau was a true ordeal. I hadn’t been able to figure out how long this trail was before starting it – I hoped to reach the 9,000′ peak, but there was a possibility it might be too far for a day hike. And the first third of the trail turned out to be twice as long as expected. I was not optimistic, but I wanted to at least reach the Twin Sisters, about two-thirds of the way to the peak.

There was a small patch of dark clouds hanging over the peak, so I silently let myself hope for some weather. And by the time I was traversing the north face of the Sisters, clouds were providing periodic shade over the trail, and I started praying out loud. “Clouds!” I shouted. “Storm! Lightning! Thunder! Rain! Bring it on!”

Past the Sisters, the trail finally entered a continuous forest of tall pines that provided blessed shade. And thunder started cracking and rolling up ahead of me, on the far side of the mountains. I dug some snacks out of my pack for lunch and began hiking faster, eating enroute.

This forested part of the trail traversed the west side of a long, narrow canyon to the drainage at its head, then turned out the east side of the canyon to a switchback that began climbing to the peak. It was getting close to the time when I should turn back, in order to get back to town at a reasonable hour, but I was tantalizingly close to my original goal, the dark clouds moving over were energizing me, and I was moving fast. Just before I reached the point on the trail where I had turned back, months ago, coming from the other direction, little drops of rain started to fall. My prayers had been answered!

It was only a sparse rain at first, and most of the time these little rains are short-lived, so I kept climbing without donning my poncho. But within minutes it was raining harder and I suited up. I was climbing fast, and I was halfway up the switchbacks to the peak when a downpour began rattling the hood of my heavy rubberized poncho like machine gun fire. The lightning and thunder were getting close, with long echoes of thunder rolling out in all directions from the clouds directly above. We’re often sternly warned against hiking in thunderstorms, but I figured my rubberized poncho would protect me from lightning strikes. The rain was so loud on the poncho’s hood that I looked more closely around me, and suddenly realized there was hail mixed with the rain.

I had a vague idea of where I was, and had started to hope I might actually reach the peak, regardless of how late it might make my return. I was getting so close! But the storm had moved directly over me. The wind whipped the hail against me from all sides. My feet were drenched in my supposedly water-resistant Goretex boots, and I would have to hike all the way back in them. Even my shirt felt soaking wet, inside my poncho.

Being inside the storm was so exhilarating that I kept climbing, onto the last switchback before the peak. Then I noticed that the trail ahead had turned into a stream, a flood pouring down the mountain toward me. Hail was piling up around the bases of the rocks and pines. The lightning and thunder were continuous, all around. I finally gave up and turned around, and even then, I had to walk above the trail because it was all flooded. With the wind against my poncho, I felt a continuous flow of water into the tops of my boots, and I tried to hold the front and back of the poncho away from my legs, but the wind pushed it back. The temperature had dropped from the high 80s to the low 50s, maybe even the 40s, up here near 9,000′, and I was wearing a light, soaking wet shirt and shorts. I wasn’t really worried, because thunderstorms are short-lived and I still had snacks for energy and mobility to generate body heat, but I knew I was in for hours of discomfort.

The farther I walked, returning down the trail, the less violent the storm became, until it was just a gentle drizzle. But then the wind picked up, whipping the tall pines, just as I entered a burn area where there were dead trunks, snags, still standing. The trees and snags were creaking in the wind, and before long I encountered a big one that had just blown down across the trail ahead.

By the time I started back across the north face of the Sisters, the rain had stopped, but enough cloud cover remained to shade the trail and keep the temperatures down. My wet feet were getting really sore from picking my way over the volcanic cobbles, and I still had a few miles to go, so I popped a pain pill that gradually improved my attitude. As it turned out, when I got home and checked the official point-to-point mileage for the national trail, this was a 15-mile round trip hike, the longest I’d done in decades. And despite the wet feet, I was feeling better, nearing the end of the trail, than I had towards the end of some recent 10-mile hikes. The progress of my recovery seemed almost miraculous.

By the time I rounded the final peak and began to descend toward the trailhead, I could see the storm dumping a few miles to the west. My storm, the storm I’d prayed for and been blessed with!

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Burned Ridge

Monday, September 21st, 2020: Hikes, Nature, Pinos Altos Range, Plants, Southwest New Mexico, Wildfire.

I first started hiking the six-mile-long ridge north of town ten or twelve years ago, but only the first couple of miles – I wasn’t doing longer hikes back then. It was never one of my favorite hikes; there were higher peaks closer to town, there wasn’t much exposed rock, and the rare views through the forest up there merely showed more forested hills.

But during the past two years, as I started challenging myself, measuring and logging distance and elevation, I wondered what it would be like to hike the entire ridge. Maps showed something called a “lake” at the west end of the ridge, near the top, more than six miles from the trailhead on the highway. That made no sense – lakes don’t form near the tops of ridges, in this latitude, at that elevation, in the arid Southwest.

But the “lake” gave me a mystery to explore, and on contour maps I could see that the trail had enough ups and downs to give me a significant overall elevation gain, so in December 2018, I tried to hike the distance. I was just starting to build capacity and only made a little over five miles, frustratingly close, before I ran out of time, only five days from the shortest day of the year, and had to turn back.

Five months later I finally made it. The “lake” turned out to be a turbid stock pond excavated out of a small forested plateau and filled naturally by annual precipitation, permanently muddy due to electrically charged particles of clay in suspension. It didn’t invite you to take a dip, but it was sufficiently incongruous, up there in the Southwestern sky, that it made the fairly grueling, twelve-plus-mile roundtrip ridge hike worthwhile.

Like with all my repeated hikes, I came to know it in sections. The initial ascent up and across the eastern shoulders, past a broad exposure of unusual white rock to an old burn scar, colonized by dense ferns, that offered a view east toward the “moonscape” of a more recent wildfire around the peak of the range. The meandering traverse of the steep north slope, shaded and densely forested with fir, which always seemed damp no matter how dry the season was. The punishing climb to the high point of the ridge, actually a narrow, rocky, mile-long “plateau” of parklike pine forest. Then began a rollercoaster of steep ups and downs, in which pine forest alternated with rocky sections of agave and mountain mahogany, that lasted another couple of miles and ended at the pond.

I hiked it again in April of this year. Then in June, I was rushed to the hospital with severe back pain, and a few days later, lightning started a wildfire in one of the little canyons below the ridge. I first saw the smoke from a hill in town, a few blocks up my street. The fire quickly climbed to the ridge, and strangely, as far as I could tell from the wildfire website, spread east along the opposite slope, probably a trick of the wind. I was pretty dismayed, on top of the pain I was feeling. What would happen to this familiar habitat near home?

The fire jumped to the east end of the ridge, where the trail begins, and they closed the highway. It turned out to be closed for the next month, as firefighters surrounded the fire and barely kept it from crossing the road, where it would’ve had miles of unbroken forest fuel dotted with occupied cabins. The perimeter was still pretty big, and the fire kept running out onto secondary ridges. When I was able to hike again, I targeted peaks that would give me a closer view.

Finally they reopened the highway and I drove around the eastern edge of the fire. All access to the ridge was off limits, and helicopters were still filling up at roadside “pumpkins” and sailing off to make drops in remote drainages. Several miles past the ridge, I found a barely passable back road and eventually got a limited view. The entire north slope of the ridge, which was where the trail mostly traversed, seemed devastated. Based on recent experience, I doubted the trail would be usable any time soon. And that dense, humid forest, with its ferns, mosses, and wildflowers. Gone for decades, maybe forever.

Since my house fire, I’ve been driving at least an hour away for my Sunday hikes, but this weekend I just didn’t feel like driving. In addition to the burned ridge hike, there was another nearby possibility that I decided on. But since it was only about ten minutes farther to the ridge trailhead, I figured I would check on the slim chance that the burned trail might be open. I didn’t expect it to be clear of fallen trees or erosion from monsoon rains, but I’d take a quick look before returning to hike the other trail.

At the trailhead, I was surprised to see nothing but the usual post-fire warnings. I was so curious to see conditions in the forest, I hoisted my pack and set out.

At mid-morning it was cool, in the low 60s, with a forecast high in the low 70s – a perfect fall day for hiking. I knew from my earlier drive that the forest on this first section had burned patchily, with roughly half the trees killed. But they were still standing, and the trail was as clear as ever. The gentle slope at the beginning was gold with pine needles, but they were all needles that had been killed by the fire and were continuing to drop from limbs above.

As I climbed toward the shoulders of the ridge, I found logs that had been recently cut, and clear tread on the trail. I realized that during “mopup,” firefighters had used this trail to monitor the fire, hence they’d had to keep the trail open. I hadn’t thought of that, and it made me hopeful about the rest of the hike.

As usual, I was hoping to be the first, or one of the first, to hike this trail since the big event. There were only two human footprints preceding me since the last rain, a couple weeks ago: a big man and a small woman. In the first couple of miles, destruction was patchy. I was impressed to see trees whose vegetation had been killed almost to the top, but still retained a small crown of green. The slope of ferns had been completely burned off, but smaller ferns had sprouted over much of it.

There was a lot of green, but it was mostly new growth since the fire – annual wildflowers and thickets of fast-growing thorny locust. It wasn’t until two miles in that I hit a badly burned section of north slope. Whereas before, the trees still bore their dead needles or leaves, here they were only black skeletons. Every now and then I came upon a tree that had burned down to nearly nothing, or the empty tunnels left in the ground when even the roots of the tree are consumed. The soil had been burned off the steep slopes and loose sediment was washing downhill, cutting away sections of trail. I stubbed my toes, slipped, and stumbled over and over again, and fell a couple of times.

My favorite tree on this hike was the one on the high plateau that had lost its trunk and grown a new trunk from a lateral branch. I was afraid it’d burned, but on reaching the top I found it safe, only sixty feet from the edge of destruction. The ridgetop was like that in many places – a sharp line between total destruction and intact habitat.

Looking at slopes from a distance, I could see that the fire had made linear “runs” like long fingers of black up and down steep slopes. Thinking of the chemical and physical phenomena of fire it always seems strange to think of it as an active “thing” – something seemingly alive that can move across the landscape with a will of its own – whereas a physicist or chemist would view it as a series of discrete microscopic and macroscopic events and interactions between forces, particles, living and dead organic tissue, cells and structures. The fire is just the visible, tactile sensation of what’s going on invisibly. How can it be something big and continuous that moves across a landscape? But it does.

I found myself focusing in on the details – the varying effects of fire on different plants. Many gambel oaks looked like they were wearing their “fall foliage” – brown leaves – while actually their foliage had all been killed by fire that wasn’t intense enough to incinerate the leaves. These trees were re-sprouting from root stock around the base. The core blades of agaves mostly survived while the outer ring burned. Many trees seemed completely dead until you noticed a few surviving branchlets at the very top. I realized this had uniformly been a ground fire rather than a crown fire. In many places, the duff and organic matter in the soil had burned but the bark of the pines had barely been singed. In other places, slopes where the dominant vegetation had been mountain mahogany, everything was charred and skeletal and even the rocks were blackened.

There was much less shade after the fire, and I was surprised that it felt like the 80s up on the ridge top – far from the cool fall day I’d expected.

The footprints of the big man and the small woman ended on the high part of the ridge, less than four miles in. The well-maintained trail ended there, too – apparently even firefighters hadn’t gone any farther. But I knew the trail well even if it was invisible to others.

Eventually, moving in and out of burn scars and intact habitat, but always with evidence of spot fires that consumed isolated trees in the midst of green, I reached the plateau and the pond. The parklike forest around it was mostly intact. The water level was down, and individual small trees had burned right up to the edge.

I found a pistol, apparently left by a hunter, and a motion-sensor camera someone had set up on a tree trunk. The other access to this place is via a short hike up from a remote forest road – a lot more driving, a lot less walking.

I was sore all over, and the hike back was a real slog. But considering that I’d been hiking and working out much less during the past month, I felt in pretty good condition. Apparently I can take it easier in the future and still stay in shape.

I took the pistol back with me. I’ve used a fair variety of guns, ever since childhood, but this was a new model with a plastic stock. I couldn’t figure it out and even thought it might be an air gun at first. It was holstered, and I stashed it in my pack. At home I looked it up and found that it’s an expensive sidearm, highly rated for both target shooting and personal defense. I took it to the sheriff’s office the next morning. They seemed pretty freaked out, detaining me and checking my ID in the system while a senior deputy took the gun outside to check it for ammo. Then they let me go without any further fuss, after taking my cell number in case the owner was offering a reward.

I also found online that one other person had logged a hike on the ridge trail after the fire – ironically, the day before me – but he’d only gone four miles. The big male footprints were explained, and I kept my distinction of first to complete the trail since the fire.

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Autumn Leaves

Monday, October 5th, 2020: Black Range, Chiricahuas, Hikes, Hillsboro, Holt, Mogollon Mountains, Nature, Pinos Altos Range, Plants, Southeast Arizona, Southwest New Mexico.

While dealing with the aftermath of my house fire, I was only able to do one hike per week, and I was sure I would lose conditioning and capacity. Hence after I got settled into temporary housing, I was really stoked to resume the routine I’d built up to over the past two years: three hikes a week averaging 22 miles and 6,000′ cumulative elevation gain.

But after the first week it was clear that I hadn’t actually lost any capacity. And between hikes, it gradually occurred to me that I’d been paying for all that hiking with a lot of inflammation and pain, and the time I was spending icing my joints afterward. So I decided to cut back and drop one of my 5-mile midweek hikes.

1: Longer Than Expected

The Sunday after that decision, I was still overwhelmed with chores and I didn’t feel like driving to one of my favorite trails in the high country, so I picked a hike close to town that involved chaining together three trails and two 9,000′ peaks. It would be a long hike that I’d never actually completed before. The part I’d done, to the first peak, was 12 miles round trip, and I had it in my head that adding the second peak would increase it to 14 miles. I’d regularly been doing 13 mile hikes, so I didn’t see any problems.

The hike starts by climbing gently for two miles up a beautiful canyon, then it enters mixed conifer forest, and it stays in forest, climbing steadily, the rest of the way. It has few views and no prominent features, but the forest is really nice and the trail is easy most of the way because the forest hasn’t burned recently.

However, somewhere between the two peaks, I realized I’d underestimated. The round trip mileage was going to be 16, not 14. My body was going to be thrashed. Should I turn back early?

I was feeling good, so I went the whole distance – the longest hike I’ve done in 30 years. I rested for a half hour on the picnic table below the vacant fire lookout, and as I was packing to return, a bearded guy about my age appeared from the opposite direction, having hiked the much shorter trail I used to do on Sundays. He sat down nearby and had a snack, and eventually asked me where I was headed.

“Back the way I came,” I said. “Do you know the trails around here?”

“Well, sort of.”

“I came up Little Cherry Creek, do you know that?”

“No.”

“It’s in a dip before you get to the Ben Lilly site. I take that to the CDT, to Black Peak, and then the spur trail from there. It’s about 8 miles one-way.”

“Well, the trail I hiked is really hard,” he said disgustedly.

“Yeah, I used to do that trail almost every week, before I started needing more distance.” I realized I was making him look pretty bad, so I added, “It’s a great trail, though, if you don’t have time for a longer hike.”

He looked away unhappily. I wished him a good day and set off on my 8-mile return hike.

As expected, I paid for it at the end, limping back to the car on a sore foot and a sore knee. But amazingly, since the trail was in such good shape, it only took me 6-1/2 hours to do 16 miles.

A pile of chores hit me during the following week, so I had no time for icing, and I skipped my midweek hike, figuring I’d done enough hiking for the week.

2: Thickets & Thorns

On the following Sunday, I set out for my favorite high-elevation hike, an hour’s drive west of town. My foot and knee felt fine at that point, and I was even more excited than usual about hitting the trail.

I was a little surprised to find the trailhead occupied, with a family all decked out in identical camouflage outfits milling around their SUV. As I got out, I yelled, “You guys going hunting?”

The father came over, wearing a midsize pack with a rifle pointing out of the top. He looked to be in his early 40’s, tall and strikingly handsome, and when he spoke, he immediately reminded me of the charismatic, good-looking Jewish intellectuals from the East Coast that had so intimidated me during my university years at the University of Chicago and Stanford. But he said they were from Cliff, the rural community that’s ground zero for the Cowboys for Trump movement!

He was super friendly, saying his son had a bear tag and they were headed for the “top” to glass for bear. “Holt Mountain?” I asked.

“Oh, no, we’re not going very far, just to where we can get a good view.”

“The Johnson Cabin trail?”

“I don’t know, where are you headed?”

“Holt Mountain, that’s why I asked.”

“No, no, we won’t be anywhere near you.”

I was left with lots of questions, but had no business prying. His kids looked to be no older than 10 – do they really issue bear tags to kids that young? And what was this suave, urbane guy doing in Cliff, and hunting predators, a practice I normally associate with arrogant assholes?

I always come prepared to hit the trail immediately after arriving, but as a family it was taking them forever to get ready, so I left them there and headed out.

Already, during the first half mile, everything felt very different. It was a cool fall day with clear skies, so that was nice, but my body felt better than ever. It felt like I’d developed hiking super powers. This is a long, hard trail with steep grades beginning about halfway, but I powered up every one of them without needing to rest. What had happened? I’d been hiking less during the past two months than at any time in the past two years, but here I was in better shape than ever.

Not needing to stop to catch my breath, I reached the little clearing at the bottom of the switchbacks almost an hour earlier than usual. I wasn’t conscious of hiking faster than usual, but obviously I was.

Then, on the long, steep traverse that is always the hardest part, I just walked steadily up it for the first time, whereas in the past, I’d always had to stop 3 or 4 times to catch my breath.

I reached the crest at 9,500′ an hour and a half ahead of time. During the past week, a friend from Santa Fe had said that his family was planning a hike to see aspens in their fall colors, and as I rounded a shoulder of this peak and saw the saddle up ahead, I realized that since I hike in aspens almost every week, their fall color isn’t all I get to see. Most busy city people only venture into nature to witness popular spectacles they discover through news media, like “superblooms” and “supermoons,” whereas I get to discover dozens of equally interesting and beautiful, but lesser known, seasonal phenomena all throughout the year.

The little grove of aspens in the saddle was blazing red and gold, but they were all small trees because they were part of early succession after the massive 2012 wildfire in these mountains. From up there, I could see bands of color striating distant peaks – all of them small trees in dense fire-recovery stands. Nothing like the towering, mature groves we used to admire in the High Sierra of California. In fact, since I moved to New Mexico and began hiking wildfire scars, I’ve come to see aspens not as beautiful members of mature forests, but as scrubby thickets colonizing burn areas. On these slopes, they alternated with the deeper red of maples as well as rust-colored oaks and ferns. The brown of the ferns actually covers the broadest expanse of these fire scars, and is attractive in its own right.

But it wasn’t just trees. From the beginning of my hike, deep in the canyon bottom, I’d been surrounded by fall color: flaming sumacs, golden oaks, burgundy poison ivy, rust-colored ferns, and a myriad of shrubs and tiny ground cover plants that created a mosaic of color, making even the predominant green seem more vibrant.

Since I’d reached the crest so early, and still felt so good, I hiked down the other side, planning to go much farther than usual. This trail already offers the most elevation gain of any, so I was really stoked. It actually continues all the way to the crest trail of the central range, for a total of 19 miles one-way – the rest of the trail is only used by backpackers. I was curious to see how far I would get, especially since the rest of the trail is choked with fallen logs and thorn scrub, including the nasty New Mexico locust.

It got harder and harder the farther I went, and only my new hiking super powers kept me going. The trail actually got more interesting, too, with more exposed rock and new views, but eventually I realized I’d better turn back if I wanted to get home before dark. Taking off my pack to log my position via GPS, I noticed the bandana I’d tied on to dry had been dragged off somewhere by thorns. It’s a nice one printed with the constellations so I hated to lose it, but on my return, I found it on the trail, back near the crest saddle.

White-tailed deer were everywhere, and red-tailed hawks soared through the tall firs and wheeled around summits. The hunting dad had mentioned a fire over in the Blue Range primitive area, to the northwest, and after returning to my vehicle and driving down out of the foothills, I could see the long plume and then a billowing cloud rising above the tallest peak of the range, dozens of miles away. When will this fire season ever end?

3: Fickle GPS

Getting ready to return to the crest hike east of town, I was still looking for interesting ways to make it longer. And in fact, I discovered that the crowd-sourced trail websites had increased their distance data for that trail. Whereas the Forest Service has always listed the one-way distance to the fire lookout on the peak as 5 miles, the trail websites had previously shown it as 4.8. Now, this had been updated to 11 miles round-trip – quite a discrepancy!

In fact, I could see from the notes below that a recent hiker’s GPS had measured it at 11.6 miles round-trip – an even bigger discrepancy.

This confirmed my earlier suspicions about the unreliability of not only crowd-sourced data, but of GPS data itself, particularly in a forested landscape with steep terrain. These crowd-sourced websites base all their information on data uploaded by hikers from consumer-grade satellite receivers. Consumer GPS keeps getting better, but it still needs a connection to the satellite to record data, and this is rarely available in mature forest or narrow canyons.

In any event, I was happy to update the distances I log for my hikes, because the longer distances are consistent with the longer times it takes me to complete some of these hikes. But I’ll continue to be skeptical. While the vast majority of people are being conditioned to place more trust in the latest technologies, there are many instances where we’re actually settling for less and less accuracy as time goes by. Digitally-recorded and reproduced music is less faithful to our sensory experience than analog, and remote sensing is always less accurate than direct experience. Many Forest Service distances were originally measured using a calibrated wheel rolled along the trail by a hiker – the most accurate method possible – but we prefer the most expensive, resource-consumptive methods now, calling it progress. Progress requires spending billions of dollars and tons of fossil fuels to manufacture and launch satellites into orbit, and additional billions and tons of natural resources to manufacture and distribute digital devices that proliferate toxic materials throughout our habitats.

When I got to the high pass, I stepped out into gale-force winds blowing chilled air under clear skies. All through the hike I kept putting on and taking off my windbreaker jacket and shade hat – the latter kept getting blown off during windy stretches. The wind was so strong in places that it literally blew me off the trail.

Whereas in the past I’ve regularly encountered some pretty bizarre people on this popular trail – all of them from big cities – on this hike I met two groups who seemed both pleasant and completely sane. Even with a more accurate distance in mind, I still found ways to make the trail longer than usual – especially because with my new hiking super powers I was making much better time than in the past.

Even more than in the previous hike, I found myself focusing on the smaller and subtler ways in which plants respond to the coming of winter. My dad’s first job working as a chemist was in Eastman Kodak’s Chicago photo lab in late 1940s. They had recently introduced “Kodacolor” film, and my dad became a photography enthusiast, which continued sporadically the rest of his life.

Back then, he returned home to the hills and hollows of the upper Ohio River Valley for a series of photographs he entered in a local contest. One of his first iconic photos was naturally of fall color in the canyon of one of the tributaries to the mighty Ohio. Scenes like that formed my original paradigm of seasonal foliage. Of course, it’s an old tradition for European families to venture out in the autumn to parts of the countryside known for their fall foliage, and after my mom moved us to her family home in Indiana, we took fall road trips to Brown County, Indiana’s most famous place for fall color. Unlike the rest of the state, the native forests of Brown County had been saved from development because they were too hilly to be cleared for farmland by the European settlers who stole this land from Native Americans.

In the American West, with its vast evergreen forests, fall color is much more restricted and subtle, but connoisseurs, like the friends I mentioned above, still make trips to the high mountains to see golden swaths of aspen groves on slopes near tree line on alpine peaks.

Most of our local aspen groves have burned recently in massive wildfires, and are now returning as low thickets, mixed in with gambel oak and New Mexico locust. The tapestry of color is far less dramatic than that of our hardwood forests back east, but it can still be glorious in its own way.

And along the trail, I find the changes in even tiny plants fascinating. This brief cooling season makes some plants visible that I wouldn’t have even noticed when they were green.

When I reached breaks in forest, or badly burned slopes where I had a broad view, I could see entire slopes in the distance covered with golden or rust-colored oaks and aspens, and it was even more obvious than usual that these slopes had been fully carpeted by conifers before the fire, so that there was now total “stand replacement” of evergreens by deciduous trees and shrubs, interspersed with narrow strips of surviving pine and fir forest in steep drainages and on ridgetops.

I’d been sporadically reading about fire ecology and the history of Western forests, and it suddenly hit me hard, for the first time, that I and many others had been mistaken in our sorrow over these “catastrophic” wildfires and the loss of so much forest.

Our notion of historic landscapes of continuous evergreen forest, as far as the eye can see, is largely an artificial construction, our misperception based on the failed Euro-American practice of wildfire suppression, which continues unabated due to our overdevelopment of the urban-wildland interface. Before the European invasion and conquest of North America, indigenous peoples had tended forests in collaboration with their ecosystem partners, resulting in much more complex and patchy habitat everywhere, which in turn yields optimum ecological diversity and productivity.

Now, conservationists praise science for developing more sustainable forestry practices, whereas scientists and foresters have – typically – willfully ignored indigenous wisdom, and are, as usual, belatedly appropriating the lessons native people offered us more than a century ago. It’s just another instance of the implicit racism and imperialism that permeate the Eurocentric institutions of science and academia.

4: Bleak Saddle

With my new hiking super powers, it finally occurred to me that I might be able to complete a hike that had frustrated me for the past year. It was over on the Arizona state line, but I’d already waited a month before taking the risk of driving over there again.

The trail was listed as a 17 mile round trip, but when I checked the map again I noticed that the actual crest was only a little over 8 miles from the trailhead. However, that trail had been the last I’d hiked over there, and I was getting really bored with it. Fortunately, there was another trail providing a short cut to the same destination. It required a 15 minute longer drive, because the trailhead was deeper in the mountains and a few hundred feet higher. And it was a real slog – the previous time I’d hiked it, last March, it had kicked my butt. The middle section was a virtually continuous 15% grade in loose volcanic rock.

But I figured that with my new powers I could make short work of it. And it would take roughly 4 miles off the round-trip distance to the crest, which should make it easy for me to complete this hike that had frustrated me so many times in only a year.

Unfortunately, our weather had been discouragingly hot and dry all month. Normally October is cool here, and often rainy – we’ve even had snow – but I don’t remember any rain since August, and most days at home, at 6,000′ elevation, were reaching the 80s. The high at the entrance to those mountains, a thousand feet lower, was forecast to approach 90. My hike would take me over 9,000′, but I was learning that without a cooling wind, radiant heating at high elevation could be just as punishing as air temperature in the valleys and basins below.

Facing a 2-1/4 hour drive to the trailhead, I’d have to get up early Sunday morning – a day when I usually like to sleep in. But I was motivated and set my alarm for 6, and after my usual Sunday chores, was able to hit the road by 8. I had a little over a half tank of gas, probably not enough to get me there and back, but I figured I’d buy gas at the truck stop on the Interstate, at the halfway point.

I should’ve known better. As often happens, there were lines at the pumps there. There was a big group of Black motorcycle cruisers who seemed to be having a party around two of the pumps, and other motorists were locking their vehicles at the pumps and going inside to grab a snack. The minimum wait for a pump seemed to be 15 minutes. So I took my chances and set off for the mountains.

There were two problems with this. First, if my gas gauge was accurate, I should have enough to get back here in the evening. But I knew it wasn’t – that was the first thing I’d learned about this vehicle. You could drive all day and the needle would barely reach halfway. Then in the next 20 miles it would drop rapidly toward empty.

The second problem was that I didn’t know of any gas stations anywhere near my destination. But I hadn’t really explored, and there might be something I wasn’t aware of. I decided to take the chance and worry about it later. After all, I had a premium AAA membership in case I ran out.

There’s a dramatic moment where the lonely highway tops a low pass and you get your first view of the mountains, and that moment provided my next worry. Although the air and sky were clear in front of the range, the interior was obscured by a heavy haze that looked like wildfire smoke. Great! Why hadn’t I checked for fires before leaving?

I kept driving, and fortunately, the haze gradually cleared, the closer I got. Maybe it was residual and had blown over from somewhere to the south, maybe from Mexico. Maybe it was even windblown dust – although there didn’t seem to be any wind here.

Making the turnoff toward the mountains, I found myself behind a very funky pickup truck going about 5 mph. The back window of the cab was broken out, and a fringe of plastic blew out of it in a failed attempt at patching the window. The front wheel of a bicycle hung over the side of the pickup bed, a guitar strapped to the handlbars, with the neck of the bare guitar extending a couple feet out into traffic. I couldn’t even identify the rest of the junk piled in the pickup bed, but it had a California license plate. I passed, giving it a wide berth, but about ten minutes up the road I saw the same truck racing up in my rearview mirror, and it passed me going 20 mph over the speed limit. When I reached town, it was parked outside the cafe and store.

Past the entrance, as the road twists through a shaded canopy of sycamores under towering cliffs, the speed limit drops to 15 and you can expect the occasional birder on the shoulder with binoculars or camera. However, today was obviously some kind of big birding event. Vehicles were parked everywhere, sometimes blocking traffic lanes, and crowds of birders massed beside the road, peering up into the canopy with their field glasses and huge, unwieldy cameras. Finally I got past them – they were all confined to the lower riparian area – and eventually, watching my gas gauge in despair as it rapidly approached empty, I reached the trailhead, a tiny creekside campground which was unoccupied.

It was only 10:15, and the shade of the riparian canopy still felt cool. Expecting a difficult ascent, I decided to summon my super powers and attempt as much of the trail as possible without stopping to rest. I wasn’t sure exactly how long it was, or what the cumulative elevation gain would be. I still don’t, because there’s only one source for trail mileages in this range – an amateur who publishes the online trail guide – and I’ve learned to doubt all published mileages. This guy uses GPS, which has been proven to significantly underestimate mileage in forested areas. But it’s easy to figure out from topo maps that the elevation gain is over 4,000′ (in the end, it turned out to be nearly 5,000′). And amazingly, I ended up doing the whole damn thing without a rest stop.

Sure, I had to stop to pee, to drink water, or to grab a snack from my pack. But even those stops were rare, and took only a few seconds. What’s more impressive, I didn’t even pant – I made a point of controlling my pace, breathing through my nose – until the last mile or so.

It’s a brutal trail, and not just during the initial shortcut. The second half is a continuous, steep, three-plus-mile traverse of a south-facing scree slope – a burn scar from the 2011 wildfire – at the angle of repose. The trail is just a bare strip along the slope – hardly any of it is flat – which is a strain on your entire lower body. And the scree is white volcanic tuff, so with that southern exposure you’ve got sunlight not only bearing down from above, but bouncing back at you from below, almost the entire distance. I got no help from the wind, so although the air temperature was mild, the radiant heating was fierce.

As on previous hikes this month, there was plenty of fall color, but with my determination to reach the crest, I wasn’t stopping to enjoy the little things. It’s one of those hikes that presents a series of false milestones – in this case, shoulder after shoulder after shoulder of secondary ridges that each seems to get you no closer to the crest. But each one presented a slightly different view of young aspen groves in gold tinged with red.

I’d memorized some features of the upper trail before heading out. I knew there was supposed to be a spring above the trail, just below the saddle. When I arrived there was a trickle of water crossing the trail, but I didn’t stop – I could sense the crest not too far ahead.

What an anti-climax! I was expecting a decent view, but the only views were of nearby ridges and low summits. The peak I’d been traversing presented an additional doable challenge, less than a half mile away, but after considering it seriously, I realized it would add another hour to my hike, make getting gas potentially harder, and ensure that I drove home in the dark, through deer-infested foothills.

The saddle itself was bleak. It, and most of the visible slopes around it, had been sterilized by the fire, so that not even aspens, oaks, or locusts were growing back. The trail guide said the peak above was “beautiful” and had “incredible” views, but I could see it was topped by an isolated grove of pines, so it didn’t really beckon me that strongly. I knew it would be just like all the other forested peaks I’d climbed in the Southwest. I’d never really loved these Southwestern mountains – they were just a temporary stand-in for my beloved Mojave Desert – and now it seemed like I was finally just sick of them.

So I spent only a few minutes up there, then strapped on my knee brace and started back down. Where the trickle of water crossed the trail, I began climbing toward its source, a low wall of striated black rock that clearly trapped groundwater draining from the peak, creating a perennial source of surface water. The trail guide said there was a catch basin above the rock bluff, but it had fallen into disrepair, so you needed to collect the runoff. I reached a point where water was dripping through a cleft in the rock, and set up my bottle to collect it. It was a pretty scenic spot, perched up a steep slope above a dramatic canyon. I carry a Steri-Pen for questionable water sources, but I couldn’t imagine that this was polluted. There hadn’t been livestock here in generations, if ever, this was clearly a rarely used trail, and I couldn’t imagine anyone camping on the peak above. The water was clear and had a neutral taste, so I waited ten minutes for my bottle to fill, had a good drink, and continued down the brutal traverse.

It wasn’t until I’d left the main trail for the shortcut, and dropped into some tiny, parklike basins, where widely spaced ponderosa pines provided dappled shade for deep bunchgrasses, that I regained my appreciation for these mountains. Humans just can’t help responding to parklike forest, especially in late afternoon in autumn, with a low angle sun accentuating colors and contrast.

I was entertained in this stretch by raucous groups of acorn woodpeckers, who at first seemed to be involved in a fracas, and later were clearly upset about me in their midst.

On the drive out of the mountains, I came upon the remnants of the birders, still at work in fading light. I stopped at the cafe to ask about gas, and found their outside patio teeming with unmasked diners. The chef makes the best burritos east of California, and in the crisp sunset light, I really longed to join them. How long it’d been since I’d been exposed to such a convivial scene! How I missed being able to hang out with friends and enjoy a beer and a meal!

Inside the store, the masked waiter said there was gas at Animas 15 miles away. They’d be closed now, but the pumps worked with your credit card 24 hours a day. I’d never been through Animas so it would be an adventure.

It turned out to be a long detour. The Animas Valley is vast, treeless except for what people have planted and irrigated around their homes, and seems to be perfectly flat – not my favorite landscape. The settlement itself is just a crossroads with a handful of businesses and a high school. The people live far out on the parched, featureless plain, dispersed in isolated ranch houses. So eerie. Returning north up the plain toward the Interstate, you pass through a seemingly endless Mormon community of dusty industrial farms where your speed is limited to 45. Finally you reach the stark playa, the Interstate and the railroad.

As predicted, I ended up driving home in the dark, where I encountered groups of deer standing in the middle of the highway waiting to be killed, and headlights in my mirror, people tailgating because I was driving too cautiously. But all in all, I’d finally reached that crest, it felt like a huge accomplishment, and I was still in a good mood when I got home.

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