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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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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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Closer to the Sun

Monday, July 13th, 2020: Black Range, Hikes, Hillsboro, Southwest New Mexico.

A heat wave across the entire Southwest had brought us record high temperatures, compounding the stress of our already unusually hot pre-monsoon in May and June. Our monsoon rains were delayed for at least three weeks, and the entire landscape was super dry.

During the week, I’d continued my afternoon hikes near town, because although it was in the high 90s at home, it always felt cooler in the forest. Now, on the weekend, I was hoping to find lower temperatures on the crest, 2,000′ to 4,000′ higher. And if not cooler temperatures, at least a breeze.

On the narrow highway winding up the canyon toward the pass, I was approaching a blind, shaded curve when I suddenly realized a tree had fallen across the road, and there was a log blocking half of my lane. I slowed and carefully drove around it. There was no cell signal here, so I continued to the pass, and after ten minutes of fumbling with automated directory assistance, managed to reach the local office of the state police.

A young woman answered, and I told her about the log blocking the highway near Emory Pass.

“What mile marker?” she asked.

“I have no idea, but it was just east of the Iron Creek Campground.”

“Sir, what was the mile marker?”

“Ma’am, I was driving and I didn’t have a cell signal until I reached the pass. But you can find it on any map, it was between Iron Creek Campground and Emory Pass.”

“Sir, I need the mile marker.” Silence. The signal was broken.

I shouldered my pack and locked the Sidekick. It felt just as hot up here as at home. I wondered how far I would get. I’d filled my 3 liters of water bottles with all the ice cubes in my freezer, but I knew they’d all be melted before I got halfway through the day. At least they’d be cooler than the air.

The first half of the hike is totally exposed, through the burn scar, so I raced up the trail, sweating profusely, aiming for the shady forest around the peak. In a minor miracle, a cloud mass was growing outward from the 10,000′ peak, and halfway through the hike, it covered me with blissful shade that lasted for most of the rest of the day. In the shade, it felt like the low 80s; whenever the sun hit me it felt like the high 90s.

The flowers were less spectacular than a month earlier, and the big butterflies had been replaced by swarms of little butterflies. When I reached the trail junction at the peak, in its rain forest-like habitat of old-growth firs, lush grass and tall ferns, I noticed something out of the corner of my eye. It was a buck deer, youngish, lying down in the shade of the firs, about 40 feet away. He watched me without moving – he’d found the perfect resting place on a hot day and wasn’t anxious to give it up.

I hiked down the back side of the peak to a saddle 1,000′ lower, where the trail is blocked by a massive blowdown. I hung out there for a half hour or so, then did a leisurely climb back up the slope. The buck was still there, two hours later, but now he was surrounded by a flock of wild turkeys. As I stood watching, the tom turkey fanned out his tail in a display for the ladies, while the buck watched in seeming amusement. Peaceable kingdom on a hot day!

Driving down from the pass, I came upon a group of tourists, with two vehicles stopped in another blind curve of the oncoming traffic lane, doing something with their two vehicles, oblivious to the fact that they were blocking a state highway. I passed them and cautiously approached the bend where the tree had fallen across the road. The log was still there in the eastbound lane, eight hours later. But farther on, closer to town, the state police had set up a speed trap. Just in case you survived the log in the road, they were there to write you a ticket.

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