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Solstices

Lost on the Winter Solstice

Thursday, December 22nd, 2011: Solstices, Trips.

More than twenty years ago, after losing my home in the Loma Prieta earthquake, I began regularly observing the winter and summer solstices, as my personal, private holidays.

The solstices were important events for some, but not all, traditional societies. Highly organized agricultural societies seem to have based their planting schedules on observations of the solar cycle, but nomadic hunters and foragers may have had less need for such predictive measurements. And of course, in equatorial regions the solar cycles have very different significance.

Almost all of my solstice observations have been dedicated retreats in a special, remote place, usually in the mountains where I can observe the sunrise and sunset from a high place. From experience, I learned that the character of the summer and winter solstices is very different. The summer solstice is a time of thanks for abundance, whereas the winter solstice is the very cusp of the seasonal cycle, a critical time when we want and need the days to change from shorter to longer, to re-start the cycle of food production in our habitat. The longest night is an opportunity to share in this great change, an opportunity for a difficult but rewarding vigil. But in addition, both solstices provide formal punctuations for my year, regular times when I can ritually sum up and review the year’s experiences and get a sense of where I’m at in my life.

Most of my winter solstice experiences have included such a vigil, in seclusion, but a few have been thwarted due to pressing circumstances. This year, financial constraints and family obligations forced me to attempt a solstice observation while visiting family in the Midwest. There are no mountains here, most winter days are overcast, and there’s virtually no public land outside the cities.

Unable to come up with a better plan, I borrowed a car and drove from the city to the small town where I grew up. I knew from other recent visits that there wasn’t anything left there for me, but I couldn’t think of anywhere else to go.

I drove through the gutted downtown, where historic buildings had collapsed or been demolished and replaced with vacant lots. I turned onto Main Street, where ancient shade trees had recently been cut down so the street could be widened, facilitating through traffic. Now you can see from one end to the other, and the town might as well not be there.

I made my way out into the countryside, toward the farms which my Carson ancestors had settled more than 130 years ago. The sky was a uniform mass of clouds; you couldn’t even tell in which direction the sun might’ve risen. Along the highway, old farmhouses had been replaced by new trophy homes surrounded by landscaped grounds and artificial lakes. I came to a tree-lined bend in the river and found that it had been short-cut by a flood-control channel where muddy water rushed between stark banks.

In fact, a few years ago I had visited the mastermind behind the flood-control project, my high school biology teacher. I listened in bewilderment and later witnessed the terrible devastation where giant machines had cleansed 15 miles of river of its shoals and fallen trees, degrading it from natural habitat to man-made drain.

It’s common in the midwest for riparian corridors to retain the last of the ancient forest that covered this land before the European invasion. The trees prevent streambank erosion, and riverside bottomlands flood regularly and often escaped clearing for farmland.

After my senior year of high school, I had lived on the farm beside the river, and my friends and I had discovered a tiny island in the river, hidden back in the woods, which we had claimed as our own, crossing over the shallow channel on a fallen log, building a lean-to and stocking it with canned food. Later, on visits home from college, I would go back there to see how the island was doing. Sometimes the river was in full flood, the forest was deep in muddy water and the island gone from sight.

I stopped the car on the shoulder of the gravel road and made my way through the mud of the recently flooded woods, avoiding thorn scrub and vines and stepping over logs and around standing water until I came to the poor damaged river. It was still running high and muddy. I smelled rotting wood and saw piles of logs left by the cutting and dredging machines. I felt myself drawn further into the dark woods, and then I saw flashes of emerald green. The smell of rotting wood was also the smell of life starting over.

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Summer Solstice Between Fires

Monday, June 24th, 2013: Solstices.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Summer Solstice 2016

Tuesday, June 21st, 2016: Solstices, Trips.

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Summer Solstice 2018: Into the Burn

Wednesday, June 20th, 2018: Solstices, Summer 2018, Trips.

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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Summer Solstice 2018: Return to the Cloud Forest

Thursday, June 21st, 2018: Solstices, Summer 2018, Trips.

Woot! Longest hike since my foot injury, over a year ago – 6 miles round trip, with about 800′ elevation gain.

First time I visited this magical place was during monsoon season, three months before my hip surgery in 2015. See the dispatch from that trip for the difference between wet and dry. Back then, despite my disability, I made it almost all the way to the top, twice as far and twice as high, using a walking stick.

This time, it was a hard slog climbing to 10,000′. It really hit home how much heart and lung capacity I’ve lost to my disabilities. Despite it being a Thursday, and very dry, I ran into a lot more people on the trail this time – two other groups of 3 or 4 each, all in their 20s. I also saw the smoke plume from a new wildfire, about 40 miles to the east, continuing on the theme of yesterday’s dispatch.

One young man who said he’d hiked this trail about 8 times saw his buddy holding up his phone to take a picture. “Dude, you can’t capture this with a camera!” I laughed. “That’s totally right!” We all need to spend more time in places like this, with infinite views, to stretch our eye muscles. I’ve been doing that for decades in the Mojave Desert, to counteract the damage done by living in the city and staring at screens. It works. You can actually see the curvature of the earth from this trail, but you can’t capture it with a camera.

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Summer Solstice 2018: From Flowers to Flames

Saturday, June 23rd, 2018: Solstices, Summer 2018, Trips.

I was heading home, but it was still morning, and I didn’t want to leave the mountains yet. I scanned my trail guide and found a trail that was kind of on my way, but also deeper into the mountains. And even the rather dryly worded Forest Service guide suggested it might be special.

But when I got there shortly before noon on this Friday, there were already four other vehicles at the trailhead, one of them parked so as to block half the parking area.

The trail followed a stream, the West Fork of the Black River, out of the high alpine meadows into its canyon, between steep slopes alternately forested and scarred by fires. Above the stream and the trail there was an old “railroad grade” – presumably the bed of a narrow-gauge track built to haul logs out of the forest in the 19th century. Now, this valley was a site for wildlife habitat restoration – the reintroduction of the endangered native Apache trout. As I walked through this lush protected area, I tried to imagine the scene more than a hundred years earlier, when crews of dozens of workers with heavy machinery were blasting and gouging away at the hillside above.

Despite the burn scars, the valley was a paradise of flowing water, lush vegetation, endless wildflowers, butterflies, and broken volcanic rock. My passing flushed two herons in a row out of the streamside vegetation. The first hikers I came upon were an elderly pair of naturalists poking their way through the thick riparian vegetation, wearing unfashionable khakis and those huge funny-looking hats they sell at REI. I later discovered they were the ones who’d blocked the parking area with their new SUV.

Then I came to the restoration area, where workers had built two small dams in a row to block invasive trout from swimming upstream. I passed three college students, two boys and a girl, returning up the trail, glowing with good cheer. I was feeling pretty good, too. On this trip, I’d been able to hike more than at any time in the past year. Hiking is my way of learning about nature, but it’s also my stress relief. Up until this trip, I’d been hit by one source of chronic pain after another, and I felt like I was losing control. Each time I began to recover from one disability, another would appear. This trip had been like a moment of grace in a long ordeal.

I came to a seep where water flowed out of the hillside and into the stream, and crossing it I glimpsed a tiny, fast-moving snake, smaller than a nightcrawler. I came upon recent trash left by other hikers, and stuffed it in my pocket. Then I came to a campsite in a grove on the bank of the stream.

It immediately seemed strange. This was the third time in the past two years I’d encountered backpackers camping next to a trail and within less than a mile of a trailhead – things nobody in my generation would’ve done. All these new-style backpackers are in their 20s. I wondered where they’d learned to backpack like this.

Four men, they were sitting in camp chairs carrying on an animated conversation, with a tent and two hammocks set up behind them, literally on the bank of the stream. Since I was passing so close I waved, but they ignored me. It was less than a mile from the trailhead, but I’d only intended to scout the trail and file it away for future reference, so I only continued a few hundred yards farther to a point where the floodplain opened out, then climbed up to the railroad grade to backtrack. On the way back, I encountered three more young people, high school aged, sitting in the shade of a fir tree eating sandwiches. An area both beautiful and popular.

When I got back to the truck, I checked the Forest Service trail guide. Sure enough, they tell people to camp out of sight of trails, and at least 200 yards from streams and bodies of water, to protect habitat and wildlife. I passed a small herd of elk out in the open meadows on the way to the paved road. I had to drive through a heavily used recreation area surrounding a big reservoir, and coming upon the RV dump site, I was faced with the deepest butt crack I’ve ever seen on a man wearing pants, on the backside of the maintenance guy bending over in his truck beside the road. Oh, the horrors.

I drove east through the rugged mountains with their swath of alpine forest along the highway that had been protected from the massive wildfire in 2011. A convoy of fat, leather-jacketed bikers suddenly thundered past on choppers with deafening pipes, their women holding on tight behind. I already knew that tough guys can’t prove their toughness without machines that go fast and make a lot of noise. I didn’t know they needed to prove that in the middle of an alpine forest, but we all have our insecurities.

When I regained a signal on my phone, I called the Forest Service office and reported the outlaw campers. After all, these selfish jerks were setting a bad example for all the other young people using this popular trail. Basically, what they’d done was carried their packs less than a mile from the trailhead, picked the most beautiful spot on the bank of the stream next to the trail, set up their gear and started partying, all before noon. They might’ve even arrived the previous afternoon, which would make it even worse. Apparently they intended to just sit there for the whole weekend, with everyone else walking past them. I call this new trend “slackpacking.”

In the meadow upstream from Luna Lake, a reservoir outside Alpine, I spotted between 50 and 100 elk grazing, the biggest herd I’d ever seen. Then, after crossing into New Mexico, coming down the grade between Luna and Reserve, I saw smoke rising from a wildfire somewhere up ahead.

South of Reserve, twisting and turning downhill through the forest, I caught glimpses of a helicopter spiraling above the column of smoke. Then I came to a stop behind a couple of other waiting vehicles. It was at the dirt-road turnoff for Pueblo Park recreation area, before the climb to Saliz Pass, where there’s an old burn scar. About a quarter mile ahead of us, white smoke was climbing steep forested slopes toward the west. There were some official vehicles milling around, and some utility trucks passed us, heading toward the smoke. We waited, and more vehicles arrived and lined up behind us.

I could see the fire growing up the slope. Suddenly a tower of black smoke rose up amidst the white – the fire had reached a vehicle, a cabin, or somebody’s fuel stash. A whole tree – maybe killed by bark beetles – turned into a bright red torch at the upper edge of the fire.

Then one of the official vehicles pulled out and led us in a convoy up the road toward the fire. This is the narrowest, twistiest part of the road, and we were driving close together, so it was hard to shoot any pictures without running off the road or hitting the vehicle in front of me. I glimpsed the silver flash of a small plane circling overhead. Suddenly we came upon a long line of pea-green trucks labeled as “Globe Hotshots,” “Payson Hotshots,” and others from locations in both New Mexico and Arizona, and then we were in the fire. Young men in bulky yellow suits worked alongside the road, amid ashes, smoke, glowing embers, and bursts of flame. Fire trucks hunkered on side trails behind old-growth ponderosa pines.

Out my side window, I caught glimpses of active burning, in a dense cloud of smoke up the steep western slope right above us. The forest up there was shrouded in billowing smoke. We passed the shaded gate of the Apache Plume Ranch, up in the middle of the burn area. The area around the gate had been protected from the flames, but I didn’t know what lay behind it in the steep forest – maybe whatever had caused that tower of black smoke.

Then we came out of it all, and we all continued in a convoy toward Glenwood, spread out at safe distances except for the jerk in the big old Buick that tailgated me all the way to town. Two college girls had died in a head-on collision on this dangerous stretch of road just a few months ago.

The gibbous moon was rising over the tall Mogollon Mountains east of us. The same moon was waiting over my house when I finally got home, at the end of another very long day. And as I drove over the final grade into Silver City, the next tune came up in the random shuffle in my truck, and Coltrane’s “Lush Life” was playing as I arrived home.

I normally honor the solstice by taking stock of my life and giving thanks for the lessons and benefits that have come to me in the past half-year. This time, I started the trip in pain and under considerable stress, and ended with an adventure. I can’t seem to avoid adventure – it’s the inevitable result of exploring the world, putting yourself out there to learn new things. As time goes by, and we civilized humans keep consuming the natural world, there’s less and less of it to explore and discover. Kids grow up in the city, lacking the freedom and immersion in nature that I used to take for granted. We raise generations of timid slackpackers. Forgetting what came before, many believe this to be progress.

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