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Monday, September 21st, 2020

Hiking Through Trauma

Tuesday, September 1st, 2020: Black Range, Chiricahuas, Hikes, Hillsboro, Holt, Mogollon Mountains, Nature, Southeast Arizona, Southwest New Mexico, Wildfire.

First Sunday

My house fire occurred on a Monday morning. My neighbors were wonderful as usual, but the aftermath was an ongoing series of crises that fell on my shoulders alone. By Sunday I was a wreck.

I headed for the trail in the high mountains to the northwest, the trail where I can get 4,000′ of elevation gain and an expansive view of the tallest peaks. We were still in a drought and heat wave at home, but I was hoping for rain or at least cloud cover up in the mountains.

It’s an hour’s drive from my temporary accommodations to the trailhead. Suffering from PTSD, my heart fell when I rounded a bend, got a view of the canyons and peaks I’d be climbing, and saw smoke from a wildfire back in the wilderness near where I was headed. My first thought was that the trail would be closed by firefighting equipment.

I turned off and drove up the dirt road into the foothills. I passed a truck and encountered an older couple walking beside the road. They said they lived down in the valley and I asked them about the fire. They said the Forest Service was aware of it but wasn’t doing anything. That was both good and bad news. I could get to the trail but didn’t know if I could hike it safely.

The couple dismissed my concerns. “If you see smoke ahead, just turn around and hike out!” said the woman. This was the only trail this side of town that would kick my ass, which in my damaged state I mistakenly thought I needed, so I didn’t want to give it up. What pathetic animals we humans are!

The sun blazed down in the canyon, and the humidity turned out to be as bad as I’d ever experienced. My clothes were all drenched with sweat at the halfway point, so I stopped for lunch and hung my shirt and bandanna headband over branches, hoping they’d dry a little.

On the climb, a thunderhead finally began to develop in the east, moving over the crest. It chilled the alpine air but failed to drop any rain. From the little knob on the shoulder of the peak, I could finally see the fire, a few miles due east. It was one drainage away near the head of the biggest canyon in this part of the mountains, and its smoke was beginning to pour north over the ridge into a smaller side canyon.

I took a picture of myself up there, as usual, but I look too miserable to include it in this Dispatch.

On the way back to town I saw a serious storm in the east, and it turned out we’d finally gotten a little rain back home.

Second Sunday

The second week after my house fire was just as hard as the first, with more delays, contractors screwing up, daily arguments with insurance, and no hope of temporary housing. Constantly in reactive mode, I had no time to think about where I was going for my Sunday hike, so I just continued the cycle of west followed by east.

Walnut trees in the canyon, where the winding road approaches the crest, were heavily infested with tent caterpillars. I’d seen lesser infestations last year, but this was pretty creepy.

Maximum humidity again, with most of the day up there in the sky fully exposed to sun, so it was a pretty tough slog. When I got up on the crest I could see heavy smoke obscuring the lowlands to the east. I assumed it was from the California fires.

The long views from the crest are one highlight of this hike; the other is the old-growth fir forest, grassy meadows and fern dells on the back side of the peak. But this time I explored a new trail from the saddle behind the peak, and found a beautiful shrub swarmed by big orange and black tachinid flies – really impressive pollinators.

Third Sunday

The third week after my house fire was just as traumatic as the fire itself, because I had another apparent brush with death during oral surgery. And my trials at home continued, with only one encouraging break: I found temporary housing.

As the weekend approached, in rare moments of forethought I imagined driving two hours over to the Range of Canyons for a Sunday hike. It was looking like possible rain on the weekend, which would be the only thing that would make that trip bearable, since it’s a thousand feet lower and correspondingly hotter over there.

Unfortunately on the drive over, I jinxed myself by mentioning rain to a friend on the phone. So the day turned out to be rainless, as humid as the previous Sundays, but mercifully a little cooler due to continuous cloud cover.

The trail itself doesn’t have much to recommend it – the payoff view is too far for a round trip day hike, especially when you subtract the four hours of driving there and back. But despite the drought, I was surprised by the variety of unfamiliar flowers – most of them tiny – which don’t seem to grow across the border in New Mexico.

I also saw several white-tail deer, and a big hawk I flushed from undergrowth in the forest near the trailhead. It flew heavily off carrying some long, slender prey animal, and all I saw clearly was its tail, dark brown with broad, pale, clearly marked bands.

The hike felt harder than usual. I’d gone from 6 workouts per week down to one – my big Sunday hike – and I’d lost a lot of weight, all of it muscle mass. Probably 5-10 pounds, which is a lot for a little guy with no body fat. I’d tightened my belt and my pants were still threatening to fall off. From 22 miles and 6,000′ of hiking per week down to 12 miles and 3,000′. I was surely losing the conditioning I’d worked so hard to build up during the past two years of recovery from disabilities.

Despite the difficult week, this hike finally succeeded in calming me down a little, in preparation for more crisis and trauma in the week ahead.

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Burned Ridge

Monday, September 21st, 2020: Hikes, Nature, Pinos Altos Range, Plants, Southwest New Mexico, Wildfire.

I first started hiking the six-mile-long ridge north of town ten or twelve years ago, but only the first couple of miles – I wasn’t doing longer hikes back then. It was never one of my favorite hikes; there were higher peaks closer to town, there wasn’t much exposed rock, and the rare views through the forest up there merely showed more forested hills.

But during the past two years, as I started challenging myself, measuring and logging distance and elevation, I wondered what it would be like to hike the entire ridge. Maps showed something called a “lake” at the west end of the ridge, near the top, more than six miles from the trailhead on the highway. That made no sense – lakes don’t form near the tops of ridges, in this latitude, at that elevation, in the arid Southwest.

But the “lake” gave me a mystery to explore, and on contour maps I could see that the trail had enough ups and downs to give me a significant overall elevation gain, so in December 2018, I tried to hike the distance. I was just starting to build capacity and only made a little over five miles, frustratingly close, before I ran out of time, only five days from the shortest day of the year, and had to turn back.

Five months later I finally made it. The “lake” turned out to be a turbid stock pond excavated out of a small forested plateau and filled naturally by annual precipitation, permanently muddy due to electrically charged particles of clay in suspension. It didn’t invite you to take a dip, but it was sufficiently incongruous, up there in the Southwestern sky, that it made the fairly grueling, twelve-plus-mile roundtrip ridge hike worthwhile.

Like with all my repeated hikes, I came to know it in sections. The initial ascent up and across the eastern shoulders, past a broad exposure of unusual white rock to an old burn scar, colonized by dense ferns, that offered a view east toward the “moonscape” of a more recent wildfire around the peak of the range. The meandering traverse of the steep north slope, shaded and densely forested with fir, which always seemed damp no matter how dry the season was. The punishing climb to the high point of the ridge, actually a narrow, rocky, mile-long “plateau” of parklike pine forest. Then began a rollercoaster of steep ups and downs, in which pine forest alternated with rocky sections of agave and mountain mahogany, that lasted another couple of miles and ended at the pond.

I hiked it again in April of this year. Then in June, I was rushed to the hospital with severe back pain, and a few days later, lightning started a wildfire in one of the little canyons below the ridge. I first saw the smoke from a hill in town, a few blocks up my street. The fire quickly climbed to the ridge, and strangely, as far as I could tell from the wildfire website, spread east along the opposite slope, probably a trick of the wind. I was pretty dismayed, on top of the pain I was feeling. What would happen to this familiar habitat near home?

The fire jumped to the east end of the ridge, where the trail begins, and they closed the highway. It turned out to be closed for the next month, as firefighters surrounded the fire and barely kept it from crossing the road, where it would’ve had miles of unbroken forest fuel dotted with occupied cabins. The perimeter was still pretty big, and the fire kept running out onto secondary ridges. When I was able to hike again, I targeted peaks that would give me a closer view.

Finally they reopened the highway and I drove around the eastern edge of the fire. All access to the ridge was off limits, and helicopters were still filling up at roadside “pumpkins” and sailing off to make drops in remote drainages. Several miles past the ridge, I found a barely passable back road and eventually got a limited view. The entire north slope of the ridge, which was where the trail mostly traversed, seemed devastated. Based on recent experience, I doubted the trail would be usable any time soon. And that dense, humid forest, with its ferns, mosses, and wildflowers. Gone for decades, maybe forever.

Since my house fire, I’ve been driving at least an hour away for my Sunday hikes, but this weekend I just didn’t feel like driving. In addition to the burned ridge hike, there was another nearby possibility that I decided on. But since it was only about ten minutes farther to the ridge trailhead, I figured I would check on the slim chance that the burned trail might be open. I didn’t expect it to be clear of fallen trees or erosion from monsoon rains, but I’d take a quick look before returning to hike the other trail.

At the trailhead, I was surprised to see nothing but the usual post-fire warnings. I was so curious to see conditions in the forest, I hoisted my pack and set out.

At mid-morning it was cool, in the low 60s, with a forecast high in the low 70s – a perfect fall day for hiking. I knew from my earlier drive that the forest on this first section had burned patchily, with roughly half the trees killed. But they were still standing, and the trail was as clear as ever. The gentle slope at the beginning was gold with pine needles, but they were all needles that had been killed by the fire and were continuing to drop from limbs above.

As I climbed toward the shoulders of the ridge, I found logs that had been recently cut, and clear tread on the trail. I realized that during “mopup,” firefighters had used this trail to monitor the fire, hence they’d had to keep the trail open. I hadn’t thought of that, and it made me hopeful about the rest of the hike.

As usual, I was hoping to be the first, or one of the first, to hike this trail since the big event. There were only two human footprints preceding me since the last rain, a couple weeks ago: a big man and a small woman. In the first couple of miles, destruction was patchy. I was impressed to see trees whose vegetation had been killed almost to the top, but still retained a small crown of green. The slope of ferns had been completely burned off, but smaller ferns had sprouted over much of it.

There was a lot of green, but it was mostly new growth since the fire – annual wildflowers and thickets of fast-growing thorny locust. It wasn’t until two miles in that I hit a badly burned section of north slope. Whereas before, the trees still bore their dead needles or leaves, here they were only black skeletons. Every now and then I came upon a tree that had burned down to nearly nothing, or the empty tunnels left in the ground when even the roots of the tree are consumed. The soil had been burned off the steep slopes and loose sediment was washing downhill, cutting away sections of trail. I stubbed my toes, slipped, and stumbled over and over again, and fell a couple of times.

My favorite tree on this hike was the one on the high plateau that had lost its trunk and grown a new trunk from a lateral branch. I was afraid it’d burned, but on reaching the top I found it safe, only sixty feet from the edge of destruction. The ridgetop was like that in many places – a sharp line between total destruction and intact habitat.

Looking at slopes from a distance, I could see that the fire had made linear “runs” like long fingers of black up and down steep slopes. Thinking of the chemical and physical phenomena of fire it always seems strange to think of it as an active “thing” – something seemingly alive that can move across the landscape with a will of its own – whereas a physicist or chemist would view it as a series of discrete microscopic and macroscopic events and interactions between forces, particles, living and dead organic tissue, cells and structures. The fire is just the visible, tactile sensation of what’s going on invisibly. How can it be something big and continuous that moves across a landscape? But it does.

I found myself focusing in on the details – the varying effects of fire on different plants. Many gambel oaks looked like they were wearing their “fall foliage” – brown leaves – while actually their foliage had all been killed by fire that wasn’t intense enough to incinerate the leaves. These trees were re-sprouting from root stock around the base. The core blades of agaves mostly survived while the outer ring burned. Many trees seemed completely dead until you noticed a few surviving branchlets at the very top. I realized this had uniformly been a ground fire rather than a crown fire. In many places, the duff and organic matter in the soil had burned but the bark of the pines had barely been singed. In other places, slopes where the dominant vegetation had been mountain mahogany, everything was charred and skeletal and even the rocks were blackened.

There was much less shade after the fire, and I was surprised that it felt like the 80s up on the ridge top – far from the cool fall day I’d expected.

The footprints of the big man and the small woman ended on the high part of the ridge, less than four miles in. The well-maintained trail ended there, too – apparently even firefighters hadn’t gone any farther. But I knew the trail well even if it was invisible to others.

Eventually, moving in and out of burn scars and intact habitat, but always with evidence of spot fires that consumed isolated trees in the midst of green, I reached the plateau and the pond. The parklike forest around it was mostly intact. The water level was down, and individual small trees had burned right up to the edge.

I found a pistol, apparently left by a hunter, and a motion-sensor camera someone had set up on a tree trunk. The other access to this place is via a short hike up from a remote forest road – a lot more driving, a lot less walking.

I was sore all over, and the hike back was a real slog. But considering that I’d been hiking and working out much less during the past month, I felt in pretty good condition. Apparently I can take it easier in the future and still stay in shape.

I took the pistol back with me. I’ve used a fair variety of guns, ever since childhood, but this was a new model with a plastic stock. I couldn’t figure it out and even thought it might be an air gun at first. It was holstered, and I stashed it in my pack. At home I looked it up and found that it’s an expensive sidearm, highly rated for both target shooting and personal defense. I took it to the sheriff’s office the next morning. They seemed pretty freaked out, detaining me and checking my ID in the system while a senior deputy took the gun outside to check it for ammo. Then they let me go without any further fuss, after taking my cell number in case the owner was offering a reward.

I also found online that one other person had logged a hike on the ridge trail after the fire – ironically, the day before me – but he’d only gone four miles. The big male footprints were explained, and I kept my distinction of first to complete the trail since the fire.

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