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Monday, December 16th, 2019

The Perfect Sunset Hike

Wednesday, January 16th, 2019: Hikes, Pinalenos, Southeast Arizona.

Driving on the Interstate, I saw the snow-capped mountain rising from the horizon, forty miles away. But I wasn’t going there.

I was going to the city to see if a spine specialist could figure out what was wrong with my right arm. Almost a year ago, as the rest of my body seemed to be getting better, the arm had started going haywire. Now, after x-rays, MRIs, and physical therapy, the local docs were stumped.

I’d resumed exercising, devising workarounds that allowed me to function, but the damn arm hurt every day, in all sorts of routine activities, and it woke me up at night, usually about once an hour.

The city doc said it had nothing to do with my spine. I’d have to see a shoulder specialist and get another MRI. Two more trips back to the city.

I dealt with the crowds, the traffic, the concrete, the filth. My town no longer recycles glass, so I took the accumulated bottles of the past year to the city recycling center, where a worker gave me a half-hour lecture about why glass is no longer recycled. He said that on street corners in the barrio, there are guys who collect glass and haul it to California, where they trade it for watered-down brandy.

I tried to do some shopping but failed as usual. In the age of Amazon, even in cities, brick-and-mortar stores no longer maintain useful inventories.

On Monday, one of my gym days, I did a strength-training workout in the fitness center of my hotel. Three younger guys, professional-looking, came in after me, did intense workouts, huffing and puffing, and left before I did. For young city people, it’s all about packing your workout into the shortest time possible, so you can spend more time doing your meaningless, soul-killing job.

On Tuesday, one of my hiking days, I thought of that snow-capped mountain. I researched the Forest Service website for a couple of hours and decided to take a detour on the way back home.

It was so good to leave the city, and get away from the outlying towns and their commuter traffic. Finally I was in the open desert.

Just before I turned off the highway, a weird military plane flew out of the pass I was headed for, at very low altitude. I watched it soar low across the desert basin, apparently aiming to crash into the mountains on the other side.

The pass immediately excited me. It was beautiful, full of golden granite boulders. Cattle grazed here and there, but I could see no buildings – just the boulder slopes with their junipers and oaks, and dry grasslands below.

It was mid-afternoon. The sky hung dark and low, threatening weather. Bring it on! I turned off toward the mountains, onto a deeply eroded dirt drive with mud and pools of water. There’d been a storm recently – hence the snow on the peaks – a storm that hadn’t reached us at home. I hadn’t brought a pack, but I had snacks and a water bottle. I suited up for any kind of weather I might meet and started up the trail.

Very narrow, it was one of the best-built trails I’ve hiked. It just went up and up, as steep as the steepest trail I hike at home. The Forest Service has three ratings – Easy, Moderate, and Difficult. This one was rated More Difficult. But it started more than a thousand feet lower than the trails I’m used to, so it was a breeze for me.

Fresh deer and bear sign everywhere. Tall grasses choking the trail. Manzanita, a beautiful shrub we don’t have at home. As I climbed the mountainside, heading toward the 9,000′ ridge high above, my views got better and better. After a while, the weird military plane – an A-10 Thunderbolt, nicknamed the “Warthog” – returned. They were introduced in the early 1970s and are used for killing people and destroying vehicles on the ground.

I really wanted to reach the big pines and the snow, but I had little hope. This trail started at 5,500′ and climbed to 8,500′ in five miles, but I only had time to hike half of it and return before dark. This was a south-facing slope, and at this latitude, I figured Ponderosa would grow no lower than 7,500′, with the snow line about the same, higher than I had time to hike.

It kept getting darker, and the temperature was probably in the high 40s to low 50s, but I was going fast and soon stripped down to my t-shirt. I climbed and I climbed, like going up rock steps, and after an hour and a half, I emerged into a grove of Ponderosa pine with patches of snow! Wow! I must’ve climbed nearly 2,000′ in 2-1/2 miles.

To be honest, I’d hiked longer than I’d planned, because I realized the sun was setting later now, and I’d probably still have plenty of light to get back. But I had to turn right around, no time to rest.

On the way up, my focus had been on the ridge towering above, silhouetted by a fringe of tall pines, with glimpses of snow in the shadows between them. But heading back down, I was looking straight out over the vast southern landscape, basins, peaks, and jagged ridges all the way to Old Mexico. I could see the state prison sprawling at the foot of the mountains to my right. I could see a ribbon of sparkling water straight ahead, 40 miles away, where the playa had flooded in the storm. I could see other snow-capped mountains even farther south and west, here near the Mexican border.

I suddenly saw something I’d missed hiking up, right beside the trail, an agave that had born fruit and died this past season, turning psychedelic colors I’d never seen before. I just stood and gaped at it for a while. How could this be real?

This was already one of my favorite hikes of all time. Everything just clicked. Despite the arm trouble, I was feeling better than I’d felt in years. I could hardly wait to come back and finish it later.

The clouds were breaking here and there. As I came down into the foothills with their golden boulders, the sun dropped below the cloud layer in the distant west and gilded everything around me. I realized I couldn’t have timed this hike better.

I drove to the nearest town in the dark and found a room. And in the morning, there were the snow-capped mountains, towering behind the town. It was hard to leave.

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First Steps in the First Wilderness Part 1: March

Monday, March 4th, 2019: Hikes, Holt, Mogollon Mountains, Southwest New Mexico.

I didn’t move to the mountains of southwest New Mexico, near the Gila Wilderness, because I loved the landscape. I actually found it boring because unlike the mountains of my beloved desert, these mountains are heavily forested, and there’s very little exposed rock.

But it’d be a sin to live in a place surrounded by wild, undeveloped natural habitat and not take advantage of it. Gradually, I learned about local trails and special places from my new friends, and as my body started to fall apart and I could no longer handle the impact of running or the unnatural posture of cycling, I needed challenging hikes to maintain my cardio fitness and lower-body strength.

Paradoxically, the vast Gila Wilderness was one place I avoided from the beginning, because it encompasses the higher elevations of the Mogollon Mountains, and I could see that the peak trails were all forested in, without the long-distance vistas and sightlines that I enjoy in the desert. I respect forested habitat, but it’s a lot less interesting to me than open country with endless views.

Then our series of severe wildfires began, and in May 2012, the high core of the Mogollon Mountains was consumed. My hikes in other areas began to take on the theme of fire adaptation as I trekked through burn scars, but it took me a while to realize that now, I could probably venture into the Gila Wilderness and get the views I needed, because much of the forest had been killed off.

After the fire, it was many years before the Forest Service began to clear and reopen a few of the formerly vast network of wilderness trails. Hundreds of downed trees, so much erosion, required a tremendous effort to clear, and so far, seven years later, only a very few trails have been reopened, and even those are quickly re-damaged by erosion and deadfall within months after work crews leave.

This area is a longer drive from home – it takes me over an hour to reach a trailhead into the wilderness – but I could see from the maps that I could reach higher elevations on these trails than I could on the ones near home, so it would make a great weekend expedition.

After studying the Forest Service website and online topo maps, I picked a trail that could net me 3,000′ of elevation gain in 5 miles, and set out, on a beautiful day with blue skies, fluffy white clouds, and moderate wind.

The forest road to the trailhead was an adventure in itself, cut into the precipitous wall of a canyon, rising steeply into pinyon-juniper woodland. I entered the wilderness after less than half a mile of climbing, and traversed into a part of the canyon that had been burned intensely but now carried roaring meltwater from heavy winter snows, with added color from new grass, red boulders and carpets of rust-colored oak leaves. In the canyon bottom there were already many fallen snags blocking the trail, requiring frequent detours.

After two miles the trail turned north into a shady side canyon and began to climb more steeply along the tributary stream, below snow-patched eastern slopes. I stopped for a short lunch after another mile, then followed the trail up switchbacks in dense, unburned pine forest.

High on this eastern slope, the trail crossed the side canyon to climb steeply toward its southern shoulder. It was a hard slog that just went up and up without relenting, for about a half mile. And when it finally turned back north, it was even steeper. I was really laboring but I was determined to push myself and go the full 5 miles and 3,000′, which would be a milestone in my recovery.

The trail finally reached another turning point, and entered a forest of tall pines where the fire had blown rapidly through, killing sporadic trees but clearing all the undergrowth, leaving steep tan-colored slopes of dirt and gravel that were sterile-looking even seven years after the fire. I could see the skyline around me through the trees and felt I was approaching 9,000′ elevation, but I couldn’t tell where the trail went from here. After traversing this new slope for another quarter mile, past patches of snow, I reached a section of trail where snow had drifted across at a steep angle. I tried kicking steps for myself in the treacherous slope, but a few yards across I realized there was ice under the snow. If I slipped, I’d fall far and surely be injured.

I made my way back and looked for a detour, but the slopes above and below were equally daunting, consisting of gravel loosely embedded in dirt saturated from snowmelt. My recovering foot felt like it was nearing its limit for the day, so I decided to turn back. When I got home, I re-checked the topo maps and discovered I’d hiked over 8-1/2 miles round-trip and reached my goal of 3,000′ of cumulative elevation gain, despite having to turn back at the snowdrift.

In retrospect, I realized that I still hadn’t found the wildfire-cleared slopes and open-country views I’d been looking for, because naturally, the Forest Service had focused on clearing trails in less-burned areas where crews faced less damage to repair. Maybe if I’d been able to go farther, I would’ve entered the backcountry where the fire did more damage, but I have no idea when or if I’ll be able to do that.

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In Search of the Lost Trail

Monday, April 8th, 2019: Hikes, Pinalenos, Southeast Arizona.

After a ten-day hiking hiatus, I was anxious for a big weekend hike. And I wanted something more special than the boring dirt-floored forests we have near home. I wanted exposed rock!

I’d already checked out everything within an hour’s drive. I’d already pushed that radius out to two hours, exploring a suitable mountain range a couple hours away (see The Perfect Sunset Hike). Now, I continued that radius around in all directions, so that it encompassed a second range to the southwest. I spent hours studying the Forest Service website and various hiking websites that mapped and described trails, and trip logs from previous hikers that included photos. If I was going to drive that far, I wanted some idea of what I would find. I knew that most terrain would be just a copy of what I already had near home: forest and more forest. I wanted some variety!

I’d recently acquired a better exploring vehicle, a cheap little 4WD that could get me places my 2WD truck wouldn’t reach. So eventually I settled on a trail in the “Sunset Hike” mountains that would offer me a big hike, with plenty of distance and elevation, and plenty of rock.

The Forest Service website had a description of the trail. The hiking websites had topo maps showing the trail. It went up an outlying ridge on the west side of the major canyon on the range’s south face, a canyon I’d looked down into from above, when I first visited these mountains last year (see Consuming the Final Frontier). Detailed information was sparse, confusing and contradictory. There were no trip logs or photos, and every web page showed different figures for both distance and elevation. Trail length ranged from 5.3 to 6.5 miles, and elevation gain ranged from 3,700′ to 5,700′. Were any of these figures correct? Careful study of the topo maps showed that the actual elevation gain would be just over 4,000′.

Even if the lower mileage was accurate, the round trip would still be a bigger hike than I’d done in the past decade of joint failure and injury. It would take me up a canyon lined with cliffs and dramatic rock outcrops, from open desert through sparse pinyon-oak-juniper forest into the shady groves of mixed-conifer forest dominated by tall ponderosa pines, a tantalizing variety with endless views at every point. So I packed up and started driving west.

Two hours and change later, I was 45 miles from the nearest town, driving north up a desert plain toward an extremely remote state prison, the dark mountains looming behind with patches of snow near the crest. The prison had been a 19th century fort, established beside the major stream that ran down from the 10,700′ peak and out into the plain. The Forest Service said the trail had been built for, and used by, pack trains traveling back and forth between the fort and the crest of the range, more than a hundred years ago.

The Forest Service website instructed me to drive around the prison and through the staff housing, where I would find a locked gate blocking an old dirt road. I could supposedly get a key for this gate at the guardhouse.

Having driven up the plain to the prison, I was at the northern edge of a truly vast desert basin, between 4,000′ and 5,000′ in elevation, ranging from 20 to 30 miles wide and extending for over a hundred miles from north to south, all the way into Mexico. Bordering it on the east and west were various stark mountain ranges, and ahead of me, rising behind the prison, was the tallest of them, the penultimate sky island. And behind me, far out in the open basin, were a few green patches of isolated farms and ranches, irrigated with groundwater draining from the sky island.

It was a small prison, quiet and inactive on an early Sunday morning, and I followed a paved road right around the fence on the northeast, and immediately entered the staff housing, a tiny suburb of modest, identical suburban homes surrounded by kids’ bikes and toys, right outside the razor wire fence, the whole thing about as isolated as you could get from the rest of society.

A sign directed me through the housing to the Forest Service gate, which turned out to be wide open. The hiking websites had hinted that the Forest Service road might become impassable, and that I might need to walk some distance before reaching the actual trailhead, adding significantly to my overall distance. And in fact, before reaching the foot of the mountains, the dirt road turned out to be blocked by the creek, roaring and raging in flood from the winter’s heavy snows, from one to three feet deep and choked with boulders.

I could see from tracks that somebody in a hardcore Jeep had recently crossed, but my vehicle still had road tires and would’ve ended up shipwrecked, so I parked on the bank above the creek, loaded my pack, and scrambled upstream through the riparian forest looking for a place to cross. A hundred yards up, I found a log that someone had manhandled across a narrow spot between a couple of boulders, and I very carefully shimmied across, whitewater spraying my boots.

I’d started hiking at 9:30am, which is fairly early for these drive-to hikes. It was a beautiful spring day, mostly clear with scattered clouds. From the weather forecast in nearby towns, I’d expected temps in the 50s, but it felt warmer already. From the creek crossing, I walked east up the old road, opening and re-closing a stock gate, and finally turned left, making a dramatic entrance to the mouth of the canyon, with its boulder-choked creek roaring out through a dense, canopied riparian forest of oaks and sycamores. The first thing I saw ahead was the feathery, upraised tail of a whitetail buck, bouncing over a rise in the shaded tunnel of the road.

After hiking another half mile or so through the riparian forest, up the boulder-embedded, sandy roadway, climbing several hundred feet in the process, I eventually reached the trailhead, marked by a Forest Service sign. It’d taken me a half hour to get there from my vehicle, and checking topo maps I’d brought on my iPad, I could see I’d walked 1-1/2 miles from the creek crossing. The Forest Service sign showed the full trail distance as 7 miles, for an overall distance of 8-1/2 miles from where I parked.

I figured it was unlikely that I could hike 17 miles round-trip and get back in time to drive to Silver City before dark, so I needed to plan on how far to hike before turning back. Ideally I’d get back in time to drive to the nearest town, get an early dinner, and drive the two hours back to Silver City by about 7:30pm. So I figured I needed to be back at the vehicle by 4:30, giving me seven hours to hike. Halving that, I’d need to stop and turn back at about 1pm.

But in my eagerness to hike farther and higher, I forgot about the time difference – I was now in a time zone that was one hour behind Silver City – and I conveniently overlooked the fact that I still had a 45-minute drive back to town for dinner. And lastly, unless the hike turned into a major bummer, I was likely to keep going 30 minutes to an hour beyond my planned turn-back point. That would only be human nature.

The trail twisted and turned its way up the foot of the ridge, out in the open between granite boulders and dense shrubs, alternately appearing and disappearing. Sometimes I would find myself climbing through the dry, chest-high bunchgrass without any evidence of a trail, only to emerge on a ledge with a narrow path leading onward, looking more like a game or cattle trail than a hiking trail. But here and there were cairns, often only a single rock perched on a boulder. The old pack trail had seen a lot of use more than a century ago, by men riding horse or mule, but now seemed virtually abandoned by humans, and only used sporadically by game and livestock.

Still, I was grateful for what trail I did find, because the vegetation on this slope was largely chaparral – dense thickets of shrub that would’ve been a nightmare to bushwhack around. As I mentioned earlier, I’d expected temps in the 50s, dropping as I climbed higher. But on this exposed slope it felt close to 70 degrees at mid-morning, and I was sweating profusely from the start of the climb. I’d started at 5,150′ elevation, and once I reached 7,000′, I hoped to find cool, shady pine forest and easier footing for the remainder of the climb.

Whereas many of the trails I’ve hiked have been damaged by erosion and deadfall in the aftermath of wildfire, this trail just seemed abandoned and overgrown. There was lots of evidence of trail work from the distant past – rock berms to divert runoff or mark the turn of a switchback – but they, as well as the trail itself, were often buried deep under thick grass or shrubs. Still, I’ve gotten pretty good at reading the ground, and I managed to stay on the path until the trail crested out on a high shoulder overlooking the main canyon. Here there was lots of evidence of isolated sparking from the last wildfire that had mainly burned the upper slopes, thousands of feet above.

And here I really lost the trail.

When you lose a trail, you need to stop focusing in front of your feet and look around at the landscape holistically, as a tapestry that might hold barely visible clues. If there are shrubs or big trees around, where are the natural openings between them? Can you spot any disturbed or trampled vegetation, cairns or other man-made rock formations, patches of bare ground, saw-cut stumps or branches? Sometimes, off in the distance, you’ll sense just the barest hint of a path.

There on the shoulder of the ridge, there were lots of man-made rock piles scattered around, probably the remains of old campfires. A hill loomed above, but the shoulder I stood on was fairly level and there were big junipers for shade, and a lot of cow shit. Some kind of ancient cowboy campground and recent bovine resting place.

I circled the area and set off in every direction that looked promising, but after a half hour of careful searching, I never found the trail. I could see some challenging terrain ahead, sheer cliffs, and whenever I tried to traverse around the hill to get to the upper ridge, I ran into a wall of boulders. So finally I just scrambled up the hill, and on top, in the least intuitive place, I found the trail again, about a quarter mile from where it had disappeared.

This trail is switchback-crazy. There are switchbacks with sections only a half dozen feet long, following natural fracture zones in the rock. Zigging and zagging, climbing and climbing through sparse oak and juniper forest, I finally reached some thin stands of short ponderosa pine, many of which had burned in the big wildfire a few years ago. It was now my planned turn-around time, so I stopped to have lunch. Another item I hadn’t factored into my schedule for the day.

But this was no kind of a destination. I hadn’t reached the cool, shady mixed-conifer forest that I’d expected at this elevation. There were cliffs towering above me, and I figured I still hadn’t hiked half the trail. I just couldn’t stop here. Chances are I wasn’t going to make it back home tonight, in any event.

So I continued, around and up the next level of the ridge, and around and up the next level after that. Here, after staying on the east side of the ridge for a long time, the trail crossed back over to the west side, where I lost it again. This time, it only took me ten minutes to relocate it.

It kept climbing for a short distance then began going gently down, for the first time on this hike, which was something I wasn’t excited about. I’d saved some detailed topo maps on my iPad, and consulting them, I could see exactly where I was, at slightly less than 8,300′. Again, this was no kind of destination. The trail was getting ready for another major ascent of nearly a thousand feet, to the crest. I still hadn’t found the tall, shady pine forest I’d expected, but I’d climbed more than 3,000′ already, covering at least 6 miles one-way, and I really needed to turn back. I spent a few minutes stretching, in an attempt to ease my hip pain, then shouldered my pack and started down.

It was weird how elsewhere on this south side of the range, you would find dense forests of tall ponderosa pines at this elevation. But on this outlying ridge, it was all open terrain, dominated by scattered oak and juniper, in what the Forest Service calls a “transition zone” amounting to more than 3,000′ in elevational thickness. It may be that the exposed rock cliffs and outcrops I came here for create a microhabitat hostile to the establishment of true forest at these elevations.

Down hiking isn’t necessarily easier than climbing. In this overgrown terrain, the dry grasses concealed loose rocks the size of tennis balls that twisted my ankle and made me stumble repeatedly, so that I really had to concentrate with every step. Apparently my new boots have really good support, because I made it without injury.

I lost the trail twice more on the way down, in different places this time, adding another 20 minutes to my hiking time. I was wearing shorts for the first time this season, and my skin had some kind of allergic reaction to the grasses on the trail, so my shins and the sides of my lower legs were quickly covered with an angry red rash. And I’d failed to apply sunscreen at the beginning, and now my calves were burned pretty badly. But when I reached the trailhead, and worked my way carefully down the old road of water-polished boulders, in the late-afternoon shade of the riparian canopy, I felt better than I had at the end of other, shorter hikes in the past months. It seemed I was actually making progress.

I got to town at sunset, found a cheap motel room, and discovered that since it was Sunday night, almost all the restaurants were closed. So I found myself ordering dinner and a margarita in a cavernous, obviously unpopular new place where only one other table was occupied. But I was really dehydrated – I hadn’t taken enough water on my hike and ran out hours ago – and I started feeling nauseous shortly after my food arrived, so I had to pack it up for the next day.

In my room that night, I checked the maps carefully to verify my distance and elevation. It’s clear from the topo maps that I climbed 3,150′, but considering how many times I lost the trail and had to scout far and wide to find it, and considering how many dozens of short switchbacks there were, distance is hard to estimate. I had to have covered at least 12 miles round trip in 7-1/2 hours of hiking – that’s the minimum, based on the detailed topo map/elevation profiles on hiking websites, and including the cut-off part of the old road that I had to walk back and forth to the trailhead. But I’m used to averaging a mile every 24 minutes, even with frequent stops, on our steep trails at home, which would yield almost 19 miles for the day. Highly unlikely, so I’m just calling it 12 miles and 3,150′.

Physically, in terms of my fitness and conditioning, it was a resounding success. I’ve been doing weekly cardio workouts for almost 30 years, but nothing like what I’m trying to maintain now. When I lived in the city, I did 4-mile runs, with little elevation gain, or mountain bike rides with at most a thousand feet of elevation. Now I’m climbing up to three peaks per week, typically walking fast, totaling up to 20 miles and 4,000′ of elevation gain. It seems crazy. I don’t want to overdo it, but I believe it’s good for me, and at my age, I need to work hard just to maintain my ability to do the things I want to do. Because as you age past a certain point, your body’s natural tendency is to deteriorate, to rapidly lose strength and capacity. You can’t just sit at a desk for months and then go out and do a 20-mile hike, like you could when you were in your 20s. And hiking is much more rewarding than the running or biking ever was, because it connects me better with nature.

But this abandoned, overgrown trail, with little variation from bottom to top, was a hike I won’t be doing again, anytime soon. Just too much work for too little reward!

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First Steps in the First Wilderness Part 2: April

Monday, April 22nd, 2019: Hikes, Holt, Mogollon Mountains, Nature, Southwest New Mexico, Wildfire.

So…a month and a half later, I went back to finish what I’d started: climbing over the crest, for a view into the back country, with its high peaks.

During the intervening weeks, I’d been carefully, and very gradually, tackling higher elevations and longer distances, trying to take care of my foot while walking on difficult terrain: crusty snow, avalanche slopes, loose rock overgrown by deep grass.

On this return visit to the Gila Wilderness, my experience of the trail was very different. I found the lower part of the trail much harder than the upper part, which just goes to show that the state of your mind and body are as important as your external environment. I’d started the hike with a certain lack of confidence, but when I passed the point that had stopped me before, I felt liberated. I knew I was going to make it over the crest and into the burn scar of the big wildfire, where I’d get a view of the backcountry with the highest peaks of the range.

The creek’s roar was toned down by now. Deciduous trees in the canyon bottom wore spring’s bright green foliage, wildflowers were coming out, butterflies were swarming. The banks of the creek were blanketed in lurid green grasses and forbs, and the golden bunch grasses on the slopes above had already gone to seed.

There’d been another vehicle parked at the trailhead before me, and a Silver City couple had signed in to the trail log before me. I encountered them about a mile and a half in. When they saw me coming through the riparian forest, they began scrambling about, and when I emerged fully into their view, the hysterical barking began.

It was a man and woman in their 70s, and the two of them were hugging a Rottweiler and a Shepherd each, holding them upright, barely restraining the big dogs as they filled the canyon with their violent barking, jerking and straining against their elderly owners to get loose so they could attack me. “Sorry! Sorry!” the owners kept shouting, but the dogs were so loud and so agitated that there was no question of me answering, let alone stopping to have a conversation. So I smiled and shook my head and continued up the trail, and eventually the barking ceased behind me.

If dog owners assume strangers are afraid of their pets, why do they impose their pets on us like this? I actually never have a problem with the animals themselves – the scourge of pet ownership is mainly down to pet owners’ irresponsibility, and it really has become a scourge, as a result of social media. Now, it seems like irresponsible pet owners form the majority. Dog owners, in particular, selfishly impose their antisocial pets on the rest of us, self-righteously adopting abused “rescue” animals and neglecting to train them or take responsibility for their behavior in public. And over and over again, when I’m in nature looking for wildlife, what I find instead is out-of-control pets and thoughtless, neurotic owners.

I labored up the side canyon, the trail’s grade exceeding 40% in places, through mature, dark, unburned forest with looming lichen-encrusted boulders and outcrops. There, a small hawk, maybe a male Cooper’s, dropped improbably to a limb in the dense lower canopy to check me out. After that, the switchbacks at the canyon’s head, and the long traverse to the stark, sparsely burned upper forest. A quarter mile beyond where I’d stopped in early March, I came to the runoff from a spring perched above the trail. The trail switched back again and climbed through the upper edge of the unburned forest toward the sharp edge of an outlying ridge.

I was already above 9,000′, and when the trail rounded the edge of the ridge, I entered the burn scar and saw the back side of Sacaton Mountain, five miles away across Big Dry Canyon, still draped with snow. On the stark east-facing slope ahead of me, young firs and pines had already established themselves at the feet of the remaining fire-killed snags. From here, it was only a short climb to the actual crest, at 9,500′, where thickets of aspens had sprouted after the fire, but hadn’t leafed out yet this season. Through the thickets I glimpsed the peaks of the range laid out in the distance to the east, each carrying the last snowfields of winter.

I walked down the trail another half mile on the far side, just to get a sense of it, but I’d already reached my objective and didn’t want to lose more elevation that I’d just have to regain. Besides, this part of the trail seemed to be completely hemmed in by dense aspen thickets.

It was gusty up there and I often had to hold onto my hat. I had a really hard time with my footing on the way down, trying to maintain grip and balance on loose rocks and the thousands of broken, rolling fragments of branches from trees that had fallen across the trail since winter. Struggling down a steep slope, trying to keep weight off the chronically injured ball of my foot, using the muscles of my ankle and foot to leverage my stiff boot as a semi-rigid platform, I ended up walking the five plus miles back to the trailhead with a pretty unnatural gait. This seems to be the new normal – I’ll never be able to forget this chronic injury, and I’ll never be able to keep up with robust hikers on treacherous ground. And I knew that after I got home, I’d need to ice my foot and do contrast bathing for a couple days, to get rid of inflammation, before going out for another hike.

But I was elated the whole way back, and even more so on the drive home, as my accomplishment began to sink in. Careful study of the topo map, elevation profile, and a GPS coordinate I logged before turning back, would show that I hiked a little over ten miles round-trip but climbed over 3,700′, the most I’d climbed in one day in over 40 years, since I was in my 20s. All in all, it was one of the six biggest day hikes of my lifetime, although nowhere near my 6,234′ ascent of Volcan Atitlan in 1978 or my 18-1/2 mile traverse of Utah’s Boulder Mountain in 1990.

The pictures hint at, but don’t fully convey how spectacular it was up there on the crest. The human eye is so far superior to the camera and digital screens – I was reveling in the details of the snowpack on distant peaks, which barely shows up in the photos, and I could see the rectangles of pastures, cropfields and farms many miles away and many thousands of feet below, through narrow passes in the outer ridges, which are totally invisible in the high-resolution photos I took.

It was great to be able to stride along the ridgetop, seeing the vast landscape shift around me in three dimensions, because the forest had been burned away. But it was also great, and surprising, to see patches where the forest seemed to be regenerating way up there on the crest, with abundant young trees and seedlings, in exactly the same mix of the parent forest, without any intermediate “successional” vegetation. The old notion of ecological succession was clearly an oversimplification – or could the Forest Service be doing some re-seeding?

The trail I hiked continues on for another four plus miles, to the heart of the wilderness where it intersects with a bunch of other trails which haven’t yet been restored since the big fire. There seem to be plenty of springs along the way, even at high elevation, so it might make for a good backpacking trip, a further exploration of wildfire adaptation. No end of future challenges!

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First Steps in the First Wilderness Part 3: May

Monday, May 6th, 2019: Hikes, Little Dry, Mogollon Mountains, Southwest New Mexico.

 

Third time a charm? Or perhaps a rude awakening.

With the warm, dry days of May upon us, I was looking for a canyon hike this time. A chance to spend most of the day in the shade of riparian forest alongside a babbling brook. Like the previous hikes into our first wilderness area, this would end in a climb to the crest, but only if I felt like it after walking up the canyon bottom a few miles. And I didn’t expect to feel like it, because the last big hike, a thirteen-miler, had taken a lot out of me. I was beginning to suspect that I’d reached the limit of what my aging body was capable of, so this hike was intended to be more modest.

I was starting late, after 11am, but there was only one vehicle ahead of me at the trailhead, and a half mile up the trail, I ran into its owner, an older woman with a small dog, on her way out already.

What little information was available in advance suggested that at least the lower part of this canyon was somewhat developed, with a cabin and some sort of mine. And the first thing I noticed was the abundance of invasive species, from the countless dandelions that blanketed the trail to the noxious tree-of-heaven sprouting on the banks of the creek. All brought in by the horses and cattle of the pioneers.

But this canyon had a lot more water too – probably four times as much as the previous canyon, rushing down from snowfields on one of the highest peaks in the range.

And wildlife! I found myself wading through clouds of butterflies the whole way. Massive dumps of black bear scat fresh this morning, so I made sure to project plenty of noise to announce my presence.

The terrain a little more rugged, with huge boulders, cliffs, and pinnacles looming everywhere. A mile or so in, I came to the abandoned cabin, and a little later, the mine, and after that it was all wilderness.

The endorphins kicked in and I was feeling good enough to climb out of the canyon to the saddle on the crest, which had been the absolute farthest I’d planned to hike. It was a long, steep, virtually straight slog through mostly burned forest in a side canyon.

About a third of the way up, I suddenly heard barking from higher up the canyon ahead of me. Just three or four sharp barks, lower-pitched – nothing like a hunting hound or a coyote would make.

Normally, you hear a bark, you expect either hikers or hunters, but I knew I was the only human in this whole watershed. There’d been no footprints or hoofprints in the canyon bottom. Could it be wolves? I didn’t really even know whether wolves could bark.

I stood stock still and waited. After a few minutes, another bark, much closer, coming from the slope opposite me, where the view was blocked by trees. And another bark, already farther down the slope. Whatever it was, it was moving fast, covering twenty or thirty yards between barks, over steep, rocky terrain.

I kept waiting, but whatever it was, it was long gone.

A little farther, I came upon the bleached, scattered bones of a cow, strewn along the trail for a few hundred yards.

The view at the top of the saddle was blocked by post-fire saplings. Still feeling good, I continued on up the trail, without a map, not knowing where it went from here, but excited about gaining some more elevation. The end of the next ridge was blocked by a huge rock outcrop, but the trail dipped and went around it, so I kept going, traversing into a new side canyon, hoping to eventually top out on a new crest with a new view.

I came upon a section of trail very popular with elk, littered with piles of scat. But I knew I was pushing my body and would pay for it on the way back, so I finally stopped, in the midst of a stark burn scar with a spectacular view, and had a brief snack before turning back.

This trail didn’t deliver as much elevation gain as the previous wilderness hike, but it sure provided better footing! Despite being “unmaintained,” and blocked by countless deadfalls, the footing was mostly smooth dirt and dry leaves, which made my problem foot very happy.

After the long traverse down the side canyon, I felt relieved to be back in the canyon bottom, figuring a walk-in-the-park back to the trailhead. But this is where my body started giving out.

Hiking down the main canyon seemed to take forever, and I gradually lost most of the strength in my lower body, from hips to ankles, so that in some stretches I was stumbling every third step. I kept thinking “the cabin’s got to be around the next bend, and after that it’s only another mile or so.” But the canyon just kept twisting and turning, between its cliff walls.

I got to a deep swimming hole I’d spotted on the way in, and climbed down to it, thinking an ice-cold plunge might just be the ticket. But the rocks and banks beside the pool were swarming with ants!

Finally I reached the cabin. I was feeling just about dead, but I knew I had a climb ahead of me to get back out of the canyon. The final stretch was just a blur of aches and pains and fatigue, and after that I had about an hour’s drive back to town.

I’d worn long pants this time, to avoid the rash and sunburn I’d gotten when hiking in shorts. But when I rolled up my pant legs, back at the vehicle, to loosen my tight boots, I discovered my lower legs were again covered with an angry rash. What I’d thought was sunburn or an allergy was actually the infamous “hiker’s rash” or exercise-induced vasculitis, a poorly-known condition in which the circulatory function of your lower legs fails and your blood vessels become engorged and inflamed. Apparently it’s incurable – you just have to deal with it for the rest of your life.

So a rude awakening! After six months of striving for longer and longer hikes, it now seems I may be permanently limited to medium-distance treks. And that with a lightweight pack – who knows how much more restricted I’d be for backpacking? And my lower legs are just going to catch fire whenever I go out – no getting around that. All flesh is grass!

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