Dispatches
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Monday, August 30th, 2021

Cloudbursts & Torrents, Thunderclaps & Gunshots

Monday, August 2nd, 2021: Chiricahuas, Hikes, Southeast Arizona.

At this point, we can all expect Max’s next hike to be an adventure. But some more than others.

It’s August already, so I can go ahead and admit that this is one of our best monsoons ever. Meaning that every week, I spend hours cleaning and reconditioning my gear after sweating in high humidity and getting soaked in yet another thunderstorm.

It was finally time to head back to Arizona. My last experience of chaining together both maintained and abandoned trails hadn’t worked out, so this Sunday I wanted to stick to good trails. There were really only two trailhead options over there, and I’d hiked my favorite in June. The remaining trail definitely wasn’t my favorite – it involved a very steep initial climb and a long, high traverse that was completely exposed, ending at a bleak saddle. But the day was forecast to be mostly cloudy – which probably meant storms – and I figured I could vary this hike by extending it a mile or two onto a part of the crest trail I hadn’t hit before. The upper part of the hike would have absolutely no protection from storms, but I should be used to that by now. And if I returned early enough, there’d be a red chile pork burrito and a local IPA waiting for me at the village cafe.

I made good time on the highways, and there were only a few small cumulus clouds shifting over the range amid a crystal blue sky. But I knew that would change.

The first trail zigzags up a densely forested canyon bottom, crossing and recrossing a creek which was running strong from the past month of good rain. With few or no stepping stones, crossings are tricky, and I fell once – fortunately backward onto the rocky bank instead of into the water. The clouds were coming together and darkening overhead as I finally began the steep climb out of the canyon, through dense oak scrub. It was a good time for wildflowers, butterflies, fungi, and slime molds.

It wasn’t hot, but as usual it was so humid my shirt was soaked by the time I reached the forested upper slopes. A glance back at the northern part of the range showed rain already falling only a few miles away. The humidity slowed me down so that it took almost two hours to climb the first three miles and 2,000′, and when I moved onto the second trail in the chain and entered the pine “park” at the halfway point of the day’s hike, the sky ahead was low and dark. I realized the storm would hit me on the exposed traverse.

The arms of the storm were surrounding me as I began the traverse up the side of the long, deep canyon – three thousand vertical feet between crest and bottom. Near the beginning I suddenly saw a familiar pattern beside the trail ahead – a diamondback rattlesnake. It was full-grown, its body extended toward me, and its head was covered by vegetation only a couple of feet from my forward boot. Not a good position. I backed up just as the snake snapped back into its defensive coil and began to rattle.

I couldn’t pass it on the trail, so I had to climb up the steep, brush-choked bank of loose gravel at the side, hoping I wouldn’t slip and fall right on top of the snake.

It was shortly after that that the storm hit, and I had to dig out my poncho. Rain quickly became torrential, and since there was no place to shelter, I just had to keep climbing through it. This was the heaviest storm I’d been out in this year. I had to keep my eyes glued to the trail, but lightning seemed to be striking on the ridges far above – the time between strikes and thunderclaps was reassuringly long.

It was raining so hard on this steep slope that each little gully quickly became a torrent I had to carefully step over, and bigger drainages had been reshaped into temporary banks of debris that were more treacherous than usual. I kept telling myself the storm would move away soon, but it dumped on me for almost an hour – two miles of climbing – before moving off east down the canyon.

I’d passed the switchback that bypasses a big rock outcrop, and was crossing the short but coarse talus slope when I realized my feet were soaked and it was time to change socks. The oversize fragments of talus provided a good changing bench. That delayed me another 20 minutes – again, I wasn’t going to reach my planned destination for the day.

On the final stretch before the bleak saddle, where a ghost forest of fire-killed ponderosa dots the slope, I heard a raptor shrieking, and assumed it was hundreds of yards away on the opposite slope. But it kept up its cry of alarm several times a minute, and scanning the nearby trees, I found it only about 50 feet away. As I kept hiking, it kept moving to perches near me – it must’ve had a nest in a rock outcrop near the trail.

By the time I reached the saddle at 9,300′, I was already pushing my schedule – the time I needed to return to the vehicle in order to get that burrito and beer. But I’d been here twice before already – I just had to venture farther on this hike, even if only to the junction with the crest trail, less than half a mile farther. That would give me a view into the next big watershed, justifying the day’s effort and discomfort.

There was a trail, but just barely. It started out through a vast stand of chest-high ferns, with just the barest trace of tread hidden among them. Of course they were all wet from the storm, and although my pants were soaked already, I knew all that additional water would soak right through my boots so my temporarily dry feet would be wet again soon.

As short as it was, it was an interesting trail. Past the ferns it climbed across a bare, dramatic rock outcrop, then through a tunnel of aspen seedlings, emerging above an old, broken concrete springbox where it met the crest trail.

Whenever I encounter a structure like this, many miles and thousands of vertical feet from the nearest road, I can’t help thinking of the poor equines that had to carry those bags of cement mix.

I followed the crest trail down to the next saddle, which overlooked the big canyon I’d hiked into in June. I was filling in my mental map of the range.

On the way back, the hawk rejoined me in the same place, crying its regular warnings. I was in a hurry now. I’d used up time I barely had and was still hoping to reach the cafe just before closing.

I pounded down that steep slope, ignoring my wet, worn-out feet and joints, as if my body were 50 years younger. I was timing myself and making much better time going downhill. Three miles later and 2,000′ lower, when I reached the pine park, I was right on time, but storm clouds were forming again.

A mile down the next, steepest trail, my right knee reached a crisis stage. It hurt to walk on and it was impossible to lift it to step over a fallen log. I’d never had trouble with that knee before, but I dug the knee brace out of my pack, strapped it on, and continued. It started to rain again under a mostly clear sky, but only lightly, and it stopped before I reached the canyon bottom.

I checked my watch again, and then it hit me. I’d made a really stupid mistake. I’d forgotten about the time difference – something I’d never done before, on dozens of trips. There’d been no need to hurry, because I’d cut my hike unneccesarily short, and I had plenty of time. I could’ve continued on that crest trail as originally planned. I slowed down, and brutally chastised myself, cursing my stupidity. All that work and pain, and I could’ve gone even farther without even rushing!

But I soon had more to think about – before I even reached the first creek crossing I came under another downpour. Now my right little toe was killing me – that fast descent in wet boots had raised a blister – and I could hear the creek roaring ahead.

Although I had to keep my head down in the heavy rain, crossing the flooded creek turned out to be fairly easy. I didn’t have time to think, I wanted to reach the vehicle and change into dry clothes, so I just crossed the damn creek in any way I could.

Just as I got fully naked in the half-open vehicle – in an empty overflow parking lot big enough for 12 cars, at the end of a very rough dead-end road way back in the mountains – an elderly couple in a Prius drove up and parked right next to me. I stared at them, hoping they’d get the message I needed some privacy, but they just smiled and waved as I laboriously pulled on my dry clothes.

A half hour later, I was sitting in the cafe enjoying my early dinner, among staff and diners blissfully maskless, when a dozen middle-aged fully-masked men and women, dressed like generic naturalists, burst rapidly through the tiny dining room and disappeared into the back, where as far as I knew there was only the kitchen and a restroom. They never reappeared.

After the big meal and the beer, I really wanted to book a room at the lodge. But I had yet another busy week ahead of me, so I hit the road at 7 pm New Mexico time.

The clouds were glorious. The sun had just set by the time I hit the highway north to Silver City, with no cars ahead of or behind me.

But I was wrong. Less than a quarter mile up the highway a big SUV filled my rearview, and it passed me, “SHERIFF” painted across the back. Then a rock hit my windshield and cracked it.

The sheriff’s car slammed to a stop ahead and whipped a U-turn, parking on the opposite shoulder, so I pulled onto the right shoulder, rolled my window down, and waved. The deputy came over and I showed him my windshield.

He said he was on a call – shots had been fired between vehicles on the highway ahead. But he spent about 15 minutes photographing my windshield and all my cards, and gave me a number to call. He was all amped up, and I wished him well. He told me to be careful, but didn’t stop me from driving on.

A little ways up the road the convoy appeared – a half dozen vehicles with lights flashing, speeding toward me – city police, county sheriff, state highway patrol. Past them, as it got dark, a half dozen more light-flashing law enforcement vehicles streamed past, one after the other. Finally, ten miles outside of town, there was a roadblock – but only on the opposite lane. I never found out what had happened, but I was kind of a nervous wreck by the time I dealt with my wet gear, showered, and climbed into bed.

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Another Easy Hike

Monday, August 9th, 2021: Hikes, Nature, Pinos Altos Range, Plants, Southwest New Mexico.

After last Sunday’s soggy, painful descent from a downpour and long drive through a major law enforcement operation, I needed an easy hike near home. My fallback involved three trails chained together: a 4-mile up a lush canyon, another 2 miles ascending a peak on the Continental Divide Trail, followed by a 2-mile ridge hike to another peak. Round-trip distance would be 16 miles, all of it on well-maintained trails, with accumulated elevation gain of 3,500′ – less than I normally aim for.

It’s close enough to town that I almost always encounter other hikers, most of them venturing no farther than the head of the initial canyon.

Our monsoon wildflowers were spectacular as usual – as I hiked, I catalogued the species I’d seen already and eagerly watched for new ones.

I passed two parties in the first two miles, but saw no one else until I was about halfway between the two peaks, up on the 9,000′ ridge. There I encountered a trail runner, an athletic guy now in his 40s whom I’d seen occasionally ever since I moved here. He used to be a technical mountain biker, and I was glad to see him off his machine and onto his feet.

At the second peak, I stopped only briefly. It was still early, I still had plenty of energy, and if I went straight back for the 16-mile round trip, I’d get home much earlier than usual. So I decided to add some mileage.

The best way to extend my hike seemed to be to return to the first peak and take the CDT farther north. I didn’t think it would add much elevation – it just snakes northeastward along a slightly lower ridge – but it goes through a burn scar so I should have some views over the landscape.

From the junction at the first peak, this unfamiliar section of trail traversed several hundred feet down an outlying ridge to a fire road. Much of it was on the edge of the burn scar and was overgrown with locust, but some shrubbier stretches had wild raspberries.

From the fire road, the trail enters a “moonscape” burn scar which has been taken over by shrubs and annuals, traversing the south side of a ridge, occasionally passing through surviving stands of pine and fir. I was planning to hike about two miles on this section of trail, so my final round-trip distance would be 20 miles. A lot of miles, but all of them on good trail. And later, back home, I would calculate that the ups and downs of this traverse would add 1,200′ of elevation to my hike, yielding a total of 4,700′ for the day – not too shabby!

Crossing the burn scar, every time I stopped I saw a dark cloud growing over the first peak, now a mile away on my right. Rain had not been forecast for today, but I knew that storms often form over the mountains even when it’s dry in town. In reality, during this monsoon, every time I hike, I get a storm.

The blister on my toe from last Sunday was still healing. I’d made a felt ring around it which had kept it from hurting so far, but as I watched the storm grow nearby, I realized that if my feet got wet again, the 10-mile hike back to my vehicle could become very painful.

I stopped after 45 minutes on the new trail – my measure of the two mile distance – and sure enough, shortly after I turned around, the storm hit me.

Rain poured down, lightning flashed and thunder crashed, and while the poncho kept my upper body and pack dry, my pants and boots were soon soaked. As always, I had spare socks, but I’d have to wait until the rain stopped to change. And it didn’t stop until 45 minutes later, when I was on my way down from the first peak.

By that point my toe was so bad every step felt like a nail driving into it, and my pants were so soaked it felt like I was carrying 5-pound weights on each leg. I had to pour the water out of each boot, and as in the past, used my spare bandannas to dry my feet and sponge water out of the boot linings.

I had spare felt in my pack and made another blister protector. But my pants and boots held so much residual water that after another mile of hiking the second pair of socks was soaked and my poor toe was on fire again. Now, after 15 miles of hiking, the chronic injury in the ball of my other foot had been triggered, so I was limping on two painful feet, and still had 5 miles and 2,000′ to descend. I had no recourse but to pop a pain pill. Like most of my monsoon hikes so far, this “easy” hike was turning into quite an ordeal.

Two miles farther along the pain in my toe was so bad I had to stop again, take off my boots, wring the water out of my second pair of socks, and apply a dry piece of felt to the toe. That enabled me to limp the remaining 3 miles to the vehicle – and fortunately from there it was only a 20 minute drive home!

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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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The Longest Day

Monday, August 23rd, 2021: Hikes, Holt, Mogollon Mountains, Southwest New Mexico.

Insomnia Saturday night…only 3 or 4 hours of sleep. When my alarm went off at 6 am, I had no faith in my ability to get back to sleep, so I got up and prepared for my Sunday hike. I felt half dead, and figured I’d just go as far as I could, and stop for a nap along the trail if I ran out of steam.

I’d already decided to take the trail I’d hiked most frequently and used to consider my favorite. How things have changed in only two years! When I first hiked this trail, the 10 miles to the crest and back was two miles too far. Now, 15 miles doesn’t seem far enough.

Last time I’d been over here, I’d discovered a trail crew had cut a path through the many deadfall and blowdown logs that’d accumulated since the last trail work in 2019. I wondered if they’d continued up on the ridge, where the trail snakes along the crest into the heart of the range, and where I’d been exploring farther and farther over the past year, bushwhacking over deadfall and through thickets of thorny locust. If they’d cleared that part of the trail, I might be able to make it all the way to the junction saddle. That would be pretty cool.

I wore my new “upland hunting” pants, in case of rain. The day started out cool, but the lining in the damn pants ensured that I immediately overheated down in the humid jungle of the canyon bottom. And the flies – gnats, really – swarmed me from the beginning, so I quickly got tired of swatting and donned my head net.

Two and a half miles in, not far from where I’d encountered a rattler on my last visit, I was forcing my way through the jungle when I spotted a rattlesnake tail receding across the trail right in front of me. It disappeared under the dense vegetation on my left, rattling weakly. I started pushing through the equally dense vegetation on my right, but that triggered a second rattle. There were two snakes, one on each side!

I retreated out of the thicket and found a broken limb that made a good walking staff. I returned to the snake spot and began probing ahead through the vegetation on both sides of the trail. No response. I crossed the jungly patch and passed a small tree. More rattling on my left. After peering into the vegetation below the tree, I finally spotted the snake, coiled in the shadows. Interesting. I wondered if this was the snake I’d encountered nearby, weeks earlier. And now it had a mate.

I left a small stick across the trail to remind me of the location when I returned in the afternoon. And I used the staff to probe for snakes while crossing thickets up ahead.

The thickets, the hot pants, the humidity, and the snake factor were all slowing me down. I had to stop regularly to rinse my sweaty head net and hat in the creek. I knew I wouldn’t get very far in these lined pants. I planned to stop at the base of the switchbacks, about 3-1/2 miles into the hike, and take them off. Beyond that, I’d be climbing out of the canyon bottom, and the trail would be mostly clear until the crest.

The pant legs are cut super wide, and zip up to the knee, so you can, with a certain amount of struggling, get them on and off while wearing boots. So I climbed the mountain in my skivvies, which felt great! Once the pants were rolled up in my pack, I realized I should never start a hike wearing them. I should simply always bring them along, and switch pants when the going gets wet.

Highlights of the ascent were giant, beautiful fungi, and a Montezuma quail – my first! That quail simply refused to fly away – it kept hiding behind clumps of bunch grass only a few feet off the trail, where it kept bobbing its head up briefly to see what I was doing.

Just past the spring below the peak, the steep trail through the forest was blocked by a rope hanging from a ponderosa branch, about 20 feet above. Tied to it were 3 large carabiners, and there was another long rope wrapped separately around the tree trunk. Someone had obviously been camping at the spring, and had constructed this elaborate setup to lift their food out of reach of bears. But they’d walked away without it. This was the second time this summer I’d come upon things left attached to trees in the wilderness – a bad trend of careless forest users. I pulled both ropes down, coiled them up, and stashed them in my pack to carry out.

I was really happy to find that the recent trail crew had cut a path through the dozens of logs blocking the trail along the crest. Despite my slow ascent, I was now determined to head for the distant saddle. I figured if the trail ahead continued to be passable, I had just enough time to reach it.

But what I found was perplexing – and much harder.

Past the saddle at 9,500′, a wide swath had been cleared through the thickets of aspen and locust, continuing down through the stand of fir that’d been blocked by dozens of deadfall aspen. On the other side, an eerie 8-foot-wide swath of trail had been completely cleared, like a firebreak, for a few hundred yards. Then it stopped, and the old path continued through locust thorns. My bare legs were soon bleeding from multiple scratches and I had to stop and pull my hot upland pants back on. Fortunately there was a good breeze blowing across the crest.

That’s when I realized I’d left my snake staff a mile or so behind – and I noticed I’d also lost the splint I wear to keep my trigger thumb at bay. This is only one of several health problems that have accumulated since the house fire, and I haven’t had time to treat properly. It has to be special-ordered and takes up to a week to replace, but over time the fit gets loose, and I wasn’t surprised it’d fallen off. It’s just hard living without it.

Descending the ridge, I discovered the trail crew had indeed cut through all the logs across the trail, but except for that short “firebreak”, they hadn’t done anything about the thorny locust overgrowing the trail and often completely blocking it.

I fought my way down and across to the farthest point I’d reached in the past, and kept going past that. The locust thorns just kept getting worse, to the point where you couldn’t even see a trail ahead.

Then suddenly another “firebreak” appeared – a several hundred yard clear swath, isolated in the middle of nowhere. It was welcome but didn’t make sense. Why would they clear these isolated stretches and do nothing with the rest of the trail?

It was taking much longer than expected and I was running out of time. I kept misreading the landforms ahead, thinking I was almost there, and that’s what drew me forward, despite how difficult it was.

Finally the trail switched to the opposite side of the ridge, and I could see what had to be the junction saddle, much farther ahead and hundreds of feet lower. I’d come too far to stop, so I kept going, through a broad burn scar choked with thorns.

I came to a forested rock outcrop, behind which, but much lower, I could sense the saddle. The vague trail continued down a deeply eroded bowl, then abruptly stopped at a big blowdown which was completely overgrown. Massive trees had fallen every which way across the trail, and locust had grown up between them, forming an impassable wall. The trail crew’s work ended here, only a few hundred yards from the saddle. It was amazing to get so close and be unable to go any farther!

Still, from the rock outcrop, I had a great view across the spectacular, almost inaccessible big canyon I’d fought my way into earlier this year.

I was now way behind schedule. I try to get home by 7 to warm up leftovers for dinner, but it was now looking like, despite getting an early start, I’d be 30 minutes to an hour late. I’d been wondering all day if I’d get any rain to further test the new pants, and working my way back up the ridgeline, I could see rain falling from heavy clouds a few miles to the north. An occasional crash of thunder reached me, but the storm didn’t seem to be moving my way.

It took just as long to fight my way back up that ridge as it had to fight down it – exacerbated by the 1,500′ climb. Fortunately my insomnia hadn’t caught up with me – I still had plenty of energy. And even wearing those hot pants, the ridgetop breeze and sporadic cloud shadows kept me relatively cool.

Finally I crossed the 9,500′ saddle and began my descent. Since walking too fast was regularly causing me pain, I paced myself. Halfway down the switchbacks I stopped at the big boulder pile to fill my water bottle. I happened to glance down, and there was my thumb splint! Out of the dozens of places where I stopped on this hike, I’d lost it here, and by accident, found it here hours later!

When I reached the canyon bottom, the swarms of flies found me. I picked up another branch to probe for rattlesnakes, but when I reached the spot where they’d been in the morning, didn’t find any.

It was only a few hundred yards farther that the familiar rattling started. There was a huge rattlesnake a few yards away, in rocks above the trail on my right. I photographed it and continued, but another rattling started immediately, below the trail on my left. There were two of them – they must be the same pair, on opposite sides of the trail, just as before! I’d never encountered this many rattlesnakes before – as much as I hike, I usually only see two or three a year.

I wasn’t walking slow, but I was really going to be late. I realized I wouldn’t get home until after 8, and I’d be exhausted.

The sun had just set by the time I reached the vehicle, but it was still plenty light out. I offloaded my gear into the right places and dug my iPad out of hiding so I’d have music on the hour-plus drive. Finally I got into the driver’s seat, belted up, and felt my shirt pocket for my sunglasses. They weren’t there!

I checked all around the front seat and in my duffel bag. I got out and looked under the seats. Nothing. I freaked out. I’d paid $150 for those, out of desperation, on my recent trip to Indianapolis. I’d tried cheap sunglasses from the drugstore in Silver City but they hurt my ears. I’d looked at REI in Phoenix, enroute, but they only had a half dozen pairs on display, all over $200. Sunglasses are surprisingly hard to find if you don’t live in an affluent neighborhood in a huge metropolitan area.

I got out of the vehicle, opened the rear door, and scanned the ground all around. Then I trudged up toward the trailhead. I knew I’d been wearing them on the hike back – maybe I’d absentmindedly dropped them near the trailhead. But I’d left the vehicle running – first I’d have to go back, turn it off, and lock up.

It was on the walk back to the vehicle that I spotted my sunglasses sitting on the corner of the rear bumper, behind where the rear door hinges open. That was a place where I never would’ve set them consciously or intentionally. There was simply no reason for them to be there. I guess the insomnia was finally catching up with me – not to mention the lingering PTSD, which often makes me feel like an idiot.

I was treated to a spectacular cloud show, amid occasional sparse showers, on the drive home.

I got back at 8:30. I was too tired to eat, so I just swallowed a shot of protein supplement and took a quick shower. I’d hiked over 16 miles and climbed over 5,000′, but it had taken me 10-1/2 hours.

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My Favorite Trail?

Monday, August 30th, 2021: Hikes, Mogollon Mountains, Rain, Southwest New Mexico.

I was hankering to get back to my favorite trail, the rollercoaster hike that takes me across two rocky canyons and the rolling plateau in between, with spectacular views at almost every point. The weather was forecast to be warm but not hot, with the potential for some afternoon cloud cover, if not a bit of rain.

Descending into the first canyon, the first thing I noticed was the flies. They were everywhere today, not just in the humid canyon bottom. I decided to try ignoring them at first.

Halfway down I came upon one of the most beautiful snakes I’ve ever seen, lounging right on the trail. I grew up obsessed with snakes, and despite decades of forgetfullness I figured it for a kingsnake or milk snake. Back home I would identify it as an Arizona/Sonoran Mountain Kingsnake – my first.

The creek had been dry on my last visit, three weeks into the monsoon. Now it was roaring, and I had to find a stick to stabilize my crossing over flooded steppingstones. One of my boots got wet, but I figured it would dry out soon. The crossing was precarious enough that as I continued the hike I scouted for a pair of sticks to use on my return, and left them along the trail where I could easily spot them later.

There had been two city vehicles at the trailhead –  first time I’d seen anyone else there – and only a mile into the trail I saw two men about my age camping on the bank of the creek. Now I knew I had the rest of the trail to myself.

Despite the mild temperature and the steep north slope being in shade, it was humid enough that I was drenched with sweat on the long climb out of the canyon, and the flies gave me no peace. After one had flown up my nose and another down my throat, I finally gave up and pulled on my head net. It was hard wearing it while sweating so much, and I still hoped the flies would fade away at higher elevations, but no such luck – they stayed with me all day.

I was trying to maintain a steady, relentless pace, because I wanted to go farther than before, to the bottom of the third canyon. The only place where it’s possible to go fast is the middle rise of the plateau between first and second canyons. I hadn’t seen any human tracks on the climb up, but suddenly on that middle rise I found a recently trampled annual plant. After that I looked closely for tracks but could only spot animal sign, until I finally neared the far edge of the plateau, climbing out of the last deep hollow toward the saddle above the West Fork. There I found a track that at first looked like a boot print, but which I eventually realized was from a big bear.

I started down into the deep canyon of the West Fork, with the long, talus-striped wall of Lookout Mountain towering above on the opposite side. It was slower going than before due to additional deadfall, and the steep, rocky trail was as treacherous as ever.

One of the points you most look forward to on this hike is after that brutal descent, entering the parklike ponderosa pine forest at the bottom of the trail, above the west bank of the West Fork. I’d been a little worried about crossing the West Fork, but easily found two sticks and adequate steppingstones. As before, I left the sticks where I could find them on my return.

After all our recent rain, the less-maintained trail beyond the creek turned out to be densely overgrown. Clearly nobody but me was using this trail. Most people only walked the first mile, to the first creek, and no one except me had climbed to the plateau this summer, let alone penetrated all the way to the West Fork.

As I fought my way up the steep traverse across the base of Lookout Mountain, it was starting to dawn on me that despite this being my favorite trail, it was damn hard, and damn slow going. I’d been imagining the extension to the third creek just in terms of miles and elevation, but what with the steep and rocky trail, the humidity, the flies, and the chance of rain, it became an excessively long, slow ordeal.

Eventually I reached the farthest point I’d hiked to in the past – the saddle where the traverse begins descending into the third canyon. I was pretty much spent, but I just had to go a little farther, to make this day’s hike worthwhile.

In the end, I descended far enough to see into the third canyon. There was a storm building over it, and the canyon itself turned out to be rockier and a little prettier than I’d expected. I got to a point where the trail skirted a cliff edge that gave a good view both upstream and down. It was time to turn back, but I was glad I’d achieved that new view.

The rain caught me on the way back, just as I reached the saddle below Lookout Mountain. It came down pretty hard, but huddling under a small juniper, it took me 15 minutes to change into my new rain pants, by which time the rain had ended. Such is our weather. However, I was glad I had those pants on while pushing through the wet vegetation that overgrew the trail.

As I returned toward and across the West Fork, the storm spread north and west over the second canyon. I always want to stop and hang out in the parklike forest on the west bank, but I’d had to make so many stops I was now behind schedule.

It started to rain again just as I was starting to climb that brutal slope out of the canyon. So I switched hats and prepared to don my poncho, only for the rain to stop again. But the flies were relentless.

I was so worn out, and sweating so bad, it seemed to take forever to climb that slope. I was literally stopping about every hundred feet to catch my breath. What an incredible relief to reach the saddle and start back across the plateau!

The storm dispersed as I headed west. I was now moving as fast as I could, and continuing to work up a sweat even when going downhill. The long switchbacks into the first canyon seemed interminable, and I had to keep wiping sweat out of my eyes, through the head net, which drove the flies nuts.

Nearing the first creek, I grabbed the two sticks I’d left in the morning. But after the day’s rain over the head of the canyon, the creek had risen over all the stepping stones. I tried to add more but the creek was just too wide and deep now. I’d simply have to try crossing barefoot – something really dangerous for my foot condition.

Using the sticks to stabilize myself, I stepped across very slowly through the rushing flood waters, across the rocky creek bottom, feeling carefully with each step for footing that wouldn’t put weight on the ball of my left foot. I finally made it across and immediately sat down on the rough rocks of the bank to dry my feet and pull my boots back on. The whole process had taken another 15 minutes – I calculated that over an hour of my hike had been used up in stops like this. It was turning into a 9-1/2 hour hike, almost as long as my “longest hike”, despite only being 14 miles total.

The blister on my little toe had returned, slowing me down even more. The sun was just setting as I reached the vehicle. I wouldn’t get home until 8:30. Fortunately I had a frozen burrito left, to warm up in the microwave…

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