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Saturday, June 23rd, 2018

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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