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Monday, March 4th, 2019

First Steps in the First Wilderness

Monday, March 4th, 2019: Trips.

Part 1: March

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.

Part 2: April

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!

Part 3: May

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!

Part 4: June

When I returned, in pursuit of my first big hike after a few weeks off training, it was the height of springtime in the mountains. In my part of the world, late spring is our hottest and driest season, and it was forecast to reach 90 degrees today. It did get plenty hot out there, but as they say, and believe me it’s true, it’s a dry heat! And last winter’s snows ensured that the creek was running, the riparian corridor was a jungle, the wildflowers were rampant, the flies were annoying, and the birds were ecstatic!

Not to mention the wild strawberries that I feasted on for extra energy, and the poison ivy that crowded the trail in the canyon bottom. I tried to be careful, but I fear another nasty rash may show up on various inconvenient areas of my body in the week to come…

Part 5: July

When I returned to the high wilderness in July, our monsoon was officially late. Hot, dry weather had intensified since June, with maybe a slight, tantalizing drizzle once a week, in the middle of the night.

But clouds were forming, and thunderstorms were producing rain nearby. I hoped that if I headed over to the peaks in the west, I might get lucky. And while driving up the highway, I did see a few fluffy clouds floating over the peaks ahead.

The canyon was even more of a jungle than before, and there was still a little stream flow from winter’s snowmelt on the peaks. New flowers were blooming to add to those I’d found before, fresh bear scat littered the entire trail, and birds were busy as ever. Gnats were especially annoying, and my energy came and went throughout the hike, so that in some stretches I had to stop and rest frequently, while in others I just powered my way up the steepest grades. I’m starting to learn that I need to take plenty of high-energy snacks and gulp them down regularly, instead of relying on a meal from hours ago.

During the climb, dark clouds covered half the sky above me, while the other half showed patches of blue. I couldn’t tell whether storms were moving toward me or away, but it was all beautiful, and with frequent shade the air stayed cool. I felt better on the upper stretch of trail and decided to go all the way to the crest, because the payoff here is the views at the very top.

On the way down, I decided to investigate the spring located just below Holt Peak, which dominates this stretch of the trail. I’d always thought it unusual to find a spring near a peak, but it sits on a steep slope above the trail, and I could see a cast-concrete spring box up there and figured it might be piped, so I hadn’t actually investigated it before. This time, I traversed across the slope of loose rock and deep pine needles, and discovered it’s a natural spring that simply drips out of a shallow bank on the hillside.

Normally I’m very careful about treating groundwater. But with no sign that this mountaintop had ever been grazed by livestock, and little chance that backpackers had ever camped above this spring since the trail bypasses it for more obvious destinations, I decided to have a drink. It was ice-cold, and delicious! It suddenly occurred to me that this was my best hike yet in this wilderness. My body was holding up well, the weather was great – I was still holding out hope for a storm – and I was drinking from the mountain, an experience that is always precious.

Sure enough, as I dropped down into the big side canyon, the dark clouds moved over, and a few drops began to fall. And when I reached the bottom, and the junction with the main canyon, rain began to fall in earnest, lightning struck somewhere nearby, and long avalanches of thunder began, lasting and reverberating between the canyon walls for many minutes.

I stopped, pulled my military surplus poncho out of my pack, and replaced it with my hat. But then the rain stopped and I was left carrying the poncho down the canyon.

Finally, about halfway down the canyon, a long spell of rain began and I donned my poncho. Even after the rain stopped, twenty minutes later, the air was cool and I kept it on, hoping for more rain later.

Sure enough, just as I reached the wilderness boundary a half mile from the trailhead, it really started pouring! My dream came true…

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