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Mogollon Rim

Summer Solstice 2018: Into the Burn

Wednesday, June 20th, 2018: 2018 Trips, Hikes, Mogollon Rim, Nature, Regions, Road Trips, Southeast Arizona, Whites, Wildfire.

On the day before the solstice, I wanted to try a short hike on a new trail. But all of the nearby trails were closed due to extreme fire danger, so I drove east to the South Fork of the Little Colorado, an area I’d never visited. The trail started in the shade of a beautiful forest beside a tumbling stream, but as I hiked beyond the human infrastructure that fire crews defended aggressively, I emerged into the heart of the most intensely-burned zone of the 2011 Wallow Fire. It continues the theme of wildfire and habitat destruction from my previous post, but this was my first hike through this kind of devastation, and I was shocked at how little the habitat had recovered in seven years.

The Wallow Fire was the biggest wildfire in the history of the Southwest. It consumed 538,000 acres, or 840 square miles, of the best wildlife habitat in our region – an area more than twice as big as the county I grew up in back east.

It’s hard to believe it’s been 7 years – I can still remember the smoke plume and the choking pall that lay over us when the wind blew out of the northwest. The White Mountains of Arizona have been my favorite local getaway since I moved to New Mexico, and it broke my heart to know they were burning.

The fire was started by two campers who let their campfire get out of control. But that was just the proximal cause. Like all our really destructive wildfires, it was really caused by Western Civilization – European culture – and its Biblical mandate of man’s dominion over nature, inherited by “secular humanism” during the 18th century “Age of Enlightenment.” The machinery first invented during the Enlightenment has enabled us to replace most of the best habitat in North America with cities, reservoirs, industrial farms, and energy infrastructure, ultimately leading to global climate change. And that European drive to engineer our environment was behind the Forest Service’s policy of wildfire suppression, which resulted in disastrous buildups of forest fuel.

As I walked up the stark, sunny canyon past the skeletons of torched pines, it was easy to visualize the cool, shady forest that had been here seven years earlier. I tried to imagine what it would’ve been like in the midst of the inferno, with walls of flame pouring down toward the stream from the ridges above where the heat was most intense. Imagine being thrust into a furnace!

Wild animals, unlike civilized humans and their domesticated commensals, are resilient. They live lightly on the ground, adapting and migrating when necessary. Catastrophic change is a driver of evolution as well as of extinction. Many species are still hanging on here, but in the canyon I hiked – formerly a lush refuge of high water table, low temperatures and high humidity – they’re struggling in a much dryer environment with much fewer cool, wet refuges and much higher average temperatures, now that we’ve killed the great trees and their protective canopy.

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Summer Solstice 2018: Return to the Cloud Forest

Thursday, June 21st, 2018: 2018 Trips, Mogollon Rim, Regions, Road 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: 2018 Trips, Mogollon Rim, Nature, Regions, Road Trips, Wildfire.

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.


Summer Solstice 2019

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

Climbing the Soup Bowl

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hard Lessons in the Interior

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Traversing the Rim

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Driving the Lost Road

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

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

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

Enlightenment Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Summer 2021 Escape

Tuesday, August 17th, 2021: 2021 Trips, Blue Range, Hikes, Mogollon Rim, Regions, Road Trips, Southeast Arizona, Southwest New Mexico, Whites.

Part 1: Fat Basketball Players’ Retreat

My temporary living space is dominated by a desk, covered with piles of paper. Each pile represents one of the 6-8 major projects I’m juggling simultaneously. It’s the elephant in the house – I can’t ignore it, as long as I’m in that place I can’t avoid that desk and the obligations, demands, and arguments I’m embroiled in as I struggle to get my life back.

Suddenly there was an unexpected hiatus over at my real, empty, fire-damaged, long-under-repair house – a flooring crew was refinishing the wood floors, and no other work could go on for a couple of weeks – hence I was experiencing no demands from, or arguments with, the contractor. Instead of rejoicing I fell into a deep depression. I still had so much to do, and so many deadlines to meet, and that desk still dominated my living space, demanding that I spend every day working. I literally had to escape, to preserve my sanity.

The only real option was the funky alpine resort village 3 hours north of here, where I’ve always stayed in the cheap, fishing-themed motel. All their rooms were empty at midweek, but the new owners refuse to communicate directly with customers, requiring all reservations to be made online, 24 hours in advance, and it took me two days of calling and emailing and fruitlessly exploring other options to learn this. And by then it was the weekend and they were all booked up.

But I was temporarily flush with “funny money” from insurance, and finally, I located a much more expensive 2-bedroom vacation cabin that hadn’t been booked yet – apparently the last lodgings available in the area. And the property manager actually answered their phone and happily took my same-day reservation.

Fortunately, since I was still following my COVID shopping routine of stocking up on two weeks’ worth of food in advance, I didn’t have to shop. I just had to pack, and this would give me a chance to test my new high-performance camping cooler – one of the few items of fire-destroyed camping gear I’d been able to replace so far.

I called ahead and made a reservation for dinner at the only restaurant in town, and raced up the mostly empty highway through the long series of mountain ranges between here and there. I arrived just in time to check in before the office closed. My heart sank when I walked in the little cabin, saw the furniture, and felt the beds.

The beds consisted of super-soft, 4-inch thick memory foam on top of thin, soft mattresses. When you put pressure on the beds, you seemed to sink endlessly down into them, which is the worst thing possible for back pain. Who actually likes soft mattresses? Fat people? And the living room consisted of an overstuffed fake leather recliner and a futon couch, both of which seemed to be designed for 7-foot-tall basketball players. The ergonomics of this cabin were far worse than the cheap motel room, whose pillowy bed had triggered an episode of severe lower back pain the last time I’d come up here.

But I’d learned my lesson back then, and hoped to avoid back pain now by sleeping only on my stomach, and sitting only on the straight-backed wooden kitchen chairs. There was no wifi, but that was probably a good thing. And the restaurant was only a 10 minute walk away on the gravel roads. It was cool up here, so I changed into warmer clothes and strolled over, carrying my rain shell just in case.

Part 2: Day of the Fungids

The next day was Friday, and I was hoping to hit my favorite nearby trail before the weekend rush. In fact, I realized I should now be able to do the full loop for the first time, hiking up one route to the top and returning down the other. It totalled 17 miles, but involved less than 3,000′ of accumulated elevation gain.

I drove the shortcut, the rough backcountry road through alternating mixed-conifer forest and vast grassy meadows across the rolling, 9,000′ plateau to the trailhead, where I parked next to a new, lifted Toyota pickup where two college-age guys were preparing to start a backpack. They were both at least six inches taller than me. All I had to do was shoulder my pack and lock the vehicle, so I took off while they were still getting ready.

I crossed the big meadows around the mouth of the East Fork of the Little Colorado, and stopped after about a half mile, as usual, to stretch, and to tighten and secure my bootlaces. The young guys caught up and passed me there.

But, also as usual, I was full of energy at the start of this hike, and soon caught up with them again as the three of us climbed through the fantastic sandstone boulders that are the highlight of this trail.

Halfway up this first slope, we passed a party of two young couples who were camping in the forest below the trail – only two miles from the trailhead. Like on my last trip to these mountains, I was surprised to find so many young people “slackpacking” – hiking only a short distance to camp near a trailhead, something my generation would consider pointless.

I was on the young guys’ tail all the way to the big rock exposure at the top of the ridge, and passed them where they had stopped there to take in the view. I knew there was a second rock exposure farther on, also with a good view, and I never saw them again.

I remembered seeing a lot of mushrooms on my last visit here during monsoon season, but nothing like this time. Mushrooms were so plentiful they became the theme of the hike – especially the flamboyant Amanita muscaria. But the wildflowers came a close second.

From the big rock exposures at the top of the first ridge, the trail continues climbing the ridgeline through dense spruce forest with no views, so I kept racing upward. Near the point were I’d stopped and turned back on my first and longest previous hike here, I caught up with and passed a solo backpacker, another really tall guy, probably in his 40s. It made me wonder. I was doing this entire trail system as a day hike. There were no connecting trails, so why were so many people doing it as a backpack? It seemed at best only a one-night trip, which didn’t seem worth all the effort of backpacking. Sure, you could camp out at the crest, but there wasn’t any place to go from there except back down.

Shortly after passing the backpacker, I reached the burn scar near the top, where the east route becomes the west route.

This burn scar in spruce forest, at over 11,000′ elevation, is an eerie place, but during this abundant monsoon it was teeming with verdant shrubs and annual wildflowers, and water trickled down across the trail at many points.

Storms had been forecast for the whole weekend, but so far, although cloud cover came and went, I could see nothing menacing overhead. The temperature was perfect, which was probably lucky for me, as I was testing out a new pair of pants.

My regular pants were heavy cotton, and had been selected for thorn-resistance. But during this monsoon I’d suffered so much from waterlogged pants wicking moisture into my boots, so I’d spent some time researching both waterproof and thornproof pants.

REI and the other “hiker” brands don’t address this need at all – they assume their yuppie customers will stick to well-maintained trails or climb snowy peaks devoid of thorns. REI staff in Tucson actually admitted to me, to their chagrin, that despite being in the arid southwest, they get the same inventory as their counterparts in Seattle. My only recourse, as with my boots, was to research the hunting suppliers. That’s where I learned that thornproof and waterproof pants constitute part of the “upland” hunting wardrobe – applying to hunters of non-aquatic game birds like pheasant and grouse, because they have to bushwhack through thorny thickets, often during storms or in heavy morning dew.

I’d ordered an affordable but highly-rated pair of U.S.-made upland hunting pants, and so far my only problem with them was the lining. It hadn’t been clear from the product info that they were lined, and although the pants had zippable side vents from knee to hip, the lining would probably make them really hot on most summer days in our climate. So I was doubly glad it was cool today.

After a half mile or so, the trail left the burn scar and re-entered intact spruce forest. And suddenly I was facing a glue grouse, pacing back and forth on a fallen tree trunk only ten feet in front of me. I stopped and was able to get my camera out – another recent challenge in itself.

I’d broken the lens assembly on my previous camera, and had spent over a month trying to find a replacement, and a way to protect the new camera from similar accidents. Whereas in the past I’d carried the camera alternately on a wrist strap and in a pocket, I was now wearing it in a holster-type case on my belt, where I tried to remember to slip on the wrist strap before pulling out the camera.

The big bird – they’re the same size as the average chicken – cooperated by remaining on the log as I took a few pictures. Then it made a noise and another grouse exploded out of the bush at my feet, and they both took off. It was the animal highlight of my trip.

This segment of trail left the mature forest and climbed gently through tiny meadows and dense groves of spruce seedlings, until it reached its high point in a saddle below the actual peak, which is sacred to the Apaches and off-limits to Anglos. At this saddle, I’d been hoping for a view over the vast country to the west, which descends for hundreds of miles to the low desert around Phoenix. But it was densely forested, and in rare peeks between the surrounding tree trunks, all I could see was more high, densely forested mountains in the near distance. So I continued down onto the outlying ridge above the canyon of the West Fork.

That outlying ridge finally brought me to a narrow saddle with an open view to the southeast – so I at least had a new perspective on the ridge I’d climbed in the morning. I’d climbed so fast that it was still early in the day, and I realized that if I didn’t slow down, I’d be done with the hike by midafternoon. I didn’t want that – I wanted to spend more time up here in this special alpine forest that is so rare in our Southwest.

Past the narrow, semi-open saddle, the trail began switchbacking down the very steep side of the West Fork canyon. Eventually it reached the head of the drainage in a burn scar where spruce seedlings were returning and wild raspberries were abundant.

Past the burn scar at the head of the West Fork, the trail curved leftwards through intact spruce forest into a big side canyon, where it finally crossed a robust creek. This trail may lack the spectacular rock outcrops of the East Fork – although there are plenty of boulders in the West Fork forest – but it actually has more varied habitat.

As part of my “slowing down” plan, I was paying even more attention now to my surroundings – primarily plants, fungi, and butterflies. In the stretch of trail past the side creek I saw my first coral fungus.

I was surprised to be feeling pretty sore and weary. To get back to the vehicle, I had to continue on this trail to its junction with the “crossover” trail, a 3-1/2 mile link between the trailheads. So no matter how much farther it was to the junction, I would still have those 3-1/2 miles to cross over.

But before starting the hike, I’d glanced at the elevation profile for the crossover trail, and had concluded it would be all downhill from this side. So at least I had that in my favor.

Eventually I started encountering meadows, which encouraged me to believe the junction was near. Each one ended up giving false hope, but at least I could see the West Fork meandering scenically below.

Finally, crossing a grassy slope high above the little river, I spotted a person far ahead. Then suddenly a bird flushed out of the meadow ahead of the distant person and shot overhead and past me. It appeared to be a falcon, which would explain why it was on the ground. When I reached the people who had flushed the bird – a couple a little older than me – I was so excited about the bird that I forgot to ask them how much farther it was to the trail junction.

After the falcon incident, I couldn’t ignore the pain in my left foot and right ankle. The right ankle pain was exactly like what I’d had in my left ankle a couple of years earlier. I was limping on both feet again, just like last weekend, and not looking forward at all to the crossover hike. I was transitioning from excitement about my beautiful surroundings into a “got to just survive this” frame of mind.

Fortunately it was only about a half mile beyond the bird incident that I met a college-age couple who pointed to the crossover junction, only a hundred yards farther. There, I crossed the rushing West Fork on a crude log bridge, and to my surprise, faced a steep climb on the other side.

In fact, I’d completely misinterpreted the crossover elevation profile. This trail was like a rollercoaster, climbing and descending hundreds of rocky feet at a time, sometimes at up to a 40% grade, through deep forest and across vast rolling meadows, over and over again, for the entire 3-1/2 miles between trailheads. In my condition, it was like some sort of legendary trial.

One of the few benefits of the crossover was the abundance of coral fungi.

The anticipated storm didn’t hit until I arrived back in the village, and even then it was only scattered showers. I changed out of my heavy gear and limped over to the restaurant, where I’d made a reservation the previous evening. This time I had a steak and a glass of pinot noir.

Part 3: Couch Potato

Saturday was about resting and recovering and relishing my time away from the terrible pressure of home. I had plenty to read on my iPad, and throughout the day, I did some long slow stretching and iced my foot and ankle at intervals. I knew how to treat my foot, but the ankle really worried me. It was swollen and my boots tightened right on the pressure point, so no more hiking until it healed.

There was one seemingly identical cabin next to me, but the folks staying there were having a near-continual party in their tiny back yard with a large group of companions from elsewhere in the village. And of course, the larger cabin across the road had a barking dog – it’s impossible to get away from barking dogs in this era cursed with social media.

I found that the futon couch was actually more comfortable than the bed – but to use it as a bed would require opening it flat, which would call for some brute force that would risk triggering my back pain. So I was stuck with things as they were. I’d brought fixings for a simple dinner at home that night, and went to bed early.

Part 4: Short Hike on a Poor Trail

Sunday was departure day, but I didn’t want to just race back home. I didn’t want to leave at all, and I’d considered staying an extra night, but back home, the city was resurfacing the street where my house is located during the coming week, and on Monday morning I had to move my truck off the street into the driveway all the contractors were using, arranging to switch with them. To avoid getting the truck towed, if I stayed here another night, I’d have to leave really early in the morning.

I had a few hours before checking out to study the maps, and I figured if I could attach some padding over the swollen ankle, maybe I could stop along the way for a shorter hike. I identified a few possibilities along the Arizona-New Mexico border.

While packing, I put on all my hiking clothes, applied biomechanical taping to my foot and a felt pad over the swollen ankle, and finally slipped into my boots. I tried to walk across the floor, but there was no way I could walk in those boots with that ankle. Damn!

I took off all the hiking gear, and changed back into my driving shorts and t-shirt. My sneakers were so low cut that they didn’t bother the ankle – I finally realized it wasn’t any kind of a strain or sprain, it was just some kind of pressure- or friction-caused inflammation. And then it occurred to me to try my other pair of boots, which I’d brought as backup in case the primary pair got wet.

My primary boots are designed for maximum ankle support – the shaft or collar of the boot, around the ankle, is reinforced. This is the part that is apparently irritating my ankles on long hikes. The other pair of boots are cut below the swollen area, so when I tried them on, they didn’t even contact it. I realized I could probably stop for a hike after all, so I set aside all my hiking gear for quick access in the vehicle.

As usual, I took the scenic route through the mountains before connecting with the highway home. It seems shorter every time – it’s so beautiful you don’t want it to end.

Back on the highway, the first turnoff I tried was at a pass between Alpine and Luna. It was a forest road I’d always wondered about, that claimed to lead to a fire lookout. It turned out to be one of those actually scary mountain roads – steep, twisty, rocky and deeply eroded, and strictly one-lane, with a deadly dropoff at the edge. The trail I was optimistically looking for was probably impassable – maps showed it crossed a large burn scar, and it hadn’t been maintained since the big wildfire – and the trailhead was almost 6 miles back on this road. The road went up, and down, and around, very slowly, and the first couple of miles took me 10 minutes, so I found a wide spot in a bend and turned around. Then I encountered a big truck coming up, and had to back uphill to the turnaround place to let them pass.

The next possible hikes were off a prominent backcountry road between Reserve and Glenwood, and would be my first exploration of the legendary Blue Range Primitive Area and Wilderness. I’d always wanted to explore this area, but it was simultaneously too close to and too far from home to be convenient.

It was a glorious day, like my first day of hiking. This area was a couple thousand feet lower than the alpine region I’d just left, with parklike pinyon, juniper, and occasional ponderosa over rolling hills at the foot of higher ridges and mountains in the near distance. I had two trails to choose from. The first was represented by an unnamed kiosk and had clear tread that beckoned up a shallow canyon. But from the map it looked too easy and didn’t seem to offer views.

The next trail was listed as “cleared” by a trail crew two years earlier, and appeared to climb a low ridge for a mile or two. There was no real trailhead – I was looking carefully at the roadside as I drove slowly along, and just happened to notice one of those little “hiker” icons on a post at an overgrown turnout. There was no tread leading inward, only the vague, overgrown suggestion of an opening through the parklike forest. But when I took a few steps past the signpost, I glimpsed a faded wilderness sign on a pinyon pine far ahead. So I figured I would gear up and check it out.

It was well past lunchtime, and I decided to not only make a sandwich – utilizing my new cooler as a table – but to drink a beer as well, breaking my usual habit of not drinking until the evening. Nothing says vacation like drinking in midday, and especially before a hike!

This trail turned out to be mostly forgettable. No one besides trespass cattle had used it in ages, and the surface was my most hated local footing – a mix of embedded and loose volcanic cobbles that is maddening and dangerous to walk on. Marked frequently by cairns, the route climbed the ridge at a generally shallow grade, mostly exposed so despite the mild temperature I was sweating pretty bad. But I was determined to get as high as I could, in hope of some kind of view.

The main attraction of that view turned out to be behind me – the peak with the fire lookout at the end of that scary road I’d given up on the way here. It was about 5 miles away to the northwest, and was a pretty mountain with a complex mosaic of rocky slopes, forest, and meadows.

Marked only by its cairns, my route drifted in and out of a cleared corridor through the open scrub forest, suggesting that in some distant past there might’ve been a wagon trail. The path completely ended in dense chaparral at the top of the ridge, after only a couple of miles of hiking.

When trail workers reported this trail “cleared” two years ago, it was obvious that all they meant was that they’d checked it to the chaparral on top – there’d been no clearing required. And it seemed that nobody but me even cared.

On the way down I lost the trail at one point, where a false cairn beckoned me onto a game trail down a side drainage. After wasting 5 minutes on that sidetrack, I dismantled the fraudulent cairn and found the right track to continue back to my vehicle. By my standards it hadn’t been much of a hike, but at least I’d set foot in a new wilderness area and seen some new mountains.

I had a pleasant drive home as usual – apart from the minivan driver who wanted to race down the twistiest part of the highway, tailgating me dangerously, finally passing only to slow down in front of me on the straight part of the road as he drifted back and forth across the center line, probably texting on his smart phone. By that point I was relaxed enough not to care.

My home is always first and foremost a studio, an office, a workspace, so the only way I can take a break from work is to get away from home. This trip had been my first getaway – my first vacation – in almost two years. And it had been over two years since I’d visited those mountains. So on the drive home I was re-evaluating my relationship with that place, and my attitude toward it.

One problem I can see is that it has kind of an awkward combination of extreme beauty and overwhelming recreational culture. It’s kind of like a huge national park in which the visitors are widely dispersed instead of concentrated like they are in, for example, Yosemite or the Grand Canyon.

Despite its huge size, the area has historically far fewer hiking trails than the national forest in my backyard, and after the 2011 wildfire, only the half dozen most popular and easily accessed of those trails have been maintained. So all the hikers are concentrated on those few trails, none of which is particularly challenging. The trails in the large, rugged wilderness area at the south of the range have been abandoned and are essentially impassable, because that was the origin of the wildfire.

So for me, as a hiker looking for challenges and new discoveries, the area actually doesn’t seem to offer much.

But since the northern half of the range consists of those vast grassy meadows divided by hills and ridges with relatively open mixed-conifer forest, it suddenly occurred to me that off-trail hiking might be the solution. Maybe in the future I should just ignore the limited trail network and set off across country. I’m not sure how feasible that would really be, but it’s worth trying…

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