Dispatches
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Monday, October 25th, 2021

Turning of the Season

Tuesday, October 5th, 2021: Chiricahuas, Hikes, Southeast Arizona.

Two weeks without hiking! Life was only going to get harder in the weeks to come. I just had to get away for a day – maybe to that “range of canyons” on the Arizona border.

Like so many times before, I swore I would do an easy hike – from the first, most popular trailhead, a 9-mile out-and-back peak climb with 3,100′ elevation gain. Only a half-day hike, leaving me time for another short hike if I felt like it, an early burrito and beer, and a reasonable drive home before dark.

Since my last hike, our weather had flipped from monsoon heat to fall chill. Everyone agreed that this monsoon had been our best in over a decade. But most people had only experienced it in town, in the form of flooded streets, rain and hail on windows, pets frightened by thunder. I’d experienced it deep in the wilderness, soaking wet from sweat, dew, or cloudbursts, struggling through rampant vegetation, with lightning striking nearby. In this new cooler, drier regime, I found myself looking forward to winter.

At a thousand feet lower than home, the weather at my destination was forecast to be mild and partly cloudy, with no chance of rain.

I got an early start, but by the time I reached the trailhead, the parking area was filled with half a dozen vehicles. I checked the time. There was another hike I’d really been hoping to do here, but had decided would just take too long to get me home at a decent hour. It involved a slow drive up a rough 4wd road to the trailhead, and a 15-mile out-and-back, extending the last hike I’d done there, to the farthest southwest peak in the range. If I could fit it in, it would yield views over completely new terrain.

I did the math in my head. My goal would be to return to the cafe for burrito and beer before the 6pm closing time. I was early enough that I should be able to drive that 4wd road and reach the actual trailhead with enough time for an 8-1/2 hour hike, which on decent trails would yield at least 17 miles. 15 seemed totally doable, so I drove deep into the mountains and started up the 4wd road through rolling oak and juniper forest.

Someone had left the cattle gate open. The rocky road was bone-rattlingly bad as usual – I had to creep between 5 and 10 mph, switching into 4wd at the high-clearance part. I passed a parked pickup truck, and a half mile later, a second. Damn, what a busy day here.

But nobody besides me had made it all the way to the trailhead. Plenty of water was coming down the unnamed creek, from our wet monsoon and last week’s heavy rains. I set out up the trail, and within the first half mile met two bear hunters.

They were young guys, probably early 30s, tall and fit. One looked like an urban professional, the other seemed more like a skilled tradesman. I said there always seemed to be a lot of bear sign around here, but they pointed to a tall Gambel oak nearby and said there were no acorns to speak of, the bears were likely to be someplace else. They wished me a good hike and I continued past them up the trail.

This north slope was saturated with moisture, and the creek poured noisily through its rocky gully. Where the trail led across meadows, the grass stood chest-high.

Partway up the switchbacks to the waterfall overlook, in burn scar overgrown with oak and scrub, I came upon tall shrubs I’d seen before, bearing, to my surprise, what looked like black raspberries. They were thimbleberries, Rubus parviflorus, but I didn’t know it at the time. I tried one – slightly sweet, but mostly bitter. I tried another. All in all, not enough flavor to make them appealing, and I wondered idly if they might even be poisonous.

I continued climbing the steeper and steeper slope past the overlook to the high entrance to the hanging canyon. I was intending to make short work of this first part of the hike, where most of my elevation would be gained, so I could focus more on the crest part of the hike, which consisted of long traverses with only a few hundred feet of up and down, and those spectacular views. But I’d forgotten how steep this first part is.

And in the hanging canyon, the section along the creek is always slow as you work your way back and forth over boulders and through dense vegetation. That creek bottom is the coldest place I know in the Southwest, so I pulled on my sweater. Fall had already started to color the riparian foliage down there.

I met a forty-something backpacker coming down the creek. He said he’d driven to the campground on the crest and had spent a couple of nights along the crest trail. I should’ve asked him how he was planning to get back to his vehicle after dropping thousands of feet on this trail. But I was already running late.

Up out of the congested canyon bottom and into the old growth fir forest on the upper slope. I stopped at the Forest Service cabin to drink water and dig out snacks for lunch, and surprised two middle-aged day hikers, guys who looked like professionals from a big city, who were resting in the grass before returning down the trail. I’d never seen so many hikers in these mountains.

By the time I reached the crest trail junction in the high saddle, where intact forest ends at the burn scar, I’d used up almost 3 hours to go less than 4 miles. My goal for the day was looking unlikely, but I would go as far as I could.

The crest trail goes much faster, and at 9,000′, it was in transition from the last of the monsoon flowers to the beginning of fall color. Butterflies, mostly smaller ones, were swarming all over the trail ahead, but it was chilly up there and I had to pull on my sweater again. That would turn into a theme of the day – getting chilled, pulling on my sweater, getting sweaty, taking it off again.

On this good trail, I walked fast up to the junction below the summit of the range, and turned downhill to the west from there, traversing across a steep, burned north slope into more fir forest where the trail becomes slow again across talus partly buried under damp soil, moss, and lichen. I was seeing where the mountains stored moisture in a wet monsoon, and where the vegetation was responding to it.

From the forested saddle west of the high peak, I entered a new watershed, which I’d only just discovered on my last hike here. I’d found it to be a wonderland of rocks, and this is where today’s hike really began for me.

The time it had taken to reach this point proved that I’d miscalculated the distance to today’s goal. Whereas I’d believed it to be about 7-1/2 miles one-way, it was now looking like between 8 and 9, and much of that was always going to be slow. I was now hiking out a rugged, exposed ridgeline with lots of ups and downs, and at every little saddle along the way, I could spot the fire lookout on the peak I was heading for, and it didn’t seem to be getting any closer.

But what a trail! This ridge was interrupted regularly by rock outcrops through which the trail builders had threaded a narrow track, taking advantage of natural gaps in the rock. I would look at a wall of rock ahead and expect the trail to bypass it, but it climbed and zigzagged through instead, and there were often fields of wildflowers before and behind.

In the short saddles between outcrops, the trail got harder and harder to follow, but eventually I always came upon some sort of minimal cairn, sometimes just a single rock perched on a stump or boulder. I didn’t bring a map and was expecting the trail to cross over the ridge into a new watershed earlier, but it became obvious that I’d reach that part only after traversing the modest peak – 9,440′ Raspberry Peak – at the end of this ridge. And I ran out of time at the saddle just before the trail’s turning point. Checking the map later, I would find I’d gotten with two-thirds of a mile of my original destination, but the lookout tower due west of me still appeared no closer.

If I’d known how close I was, I might’ve been tempted to continue. But the lure of that beer and burrito was strong, and I’d already had too many experiences of driving home in the dark, hungry and exhausted, desperately needing a shower and too tired to eat when I finally arrived after bedtime.

I felt I’d timed my turnaround well, allowing a little less time for the return because it’s mostly downhill. So I didn’t rush back – in fact, I took time to enjoy the views, rocks, flowers, and butterflies, stopping often for photos. With the cooling weather, aspens were beginning to turn, yielding isolated patches of gold widely separated across the vast slopes.

I was dragging my feet a little before leaving the big, rocky southern canyon and crossing the watershed north. From the little forested saddle below the summit, I began picking my way faster through the buried talus. Heavier clouds had formed just west of the crest, and I wondered if I would get any rain.

From the trail junction below the summit, the good, smooth trail went fast, and I soon turned my back on those top-of-the-world crest views to drop into the hanging canyon. It struck me that despite running into 5 people along the lower trail, I hadn’t seen anyone on the crest. It was Sunday afternoon, and the weekend visitors were probably well on their way back to Tucson by now.

After working my way down the overgrown creek bottom, when I reached the rim of the hanging canyon and regained the broad view over the interior basin to the northeast, I realized my time was getting tight. My left knee was starting to hurt, so I dug out and strapped on my knee brace, which makes me feel a little like a “bionic man”. With the knee brace, I can pound my way down steep slopes with relative impunity.

The farther I went, the tighter my time was looking. I figured if I kept up the pace to the trailhead, I might just have enough time to reach the cafe. With the changing of the season, the sun was lower now and the last part of the trail was in shade. I was chilly but still drenched with sweat from the effort of hiking fast – not my favorite combination.

Finally I reached the vehicle, stashed my gear, and began driving down the rough road. Despite its violent bouncing and rattling, my vehicle wears good all-terrain tires, and I knew it could handle a little abuse, so I drove it much harder and faster than usual, watching the time as I went. When I reached the graded gravel road, I really started speeding. It was going to be super close.

In the end, I reached the cafe about 5 minutes before closing. There was only one other party in the tiny dining room, an elderly couple. This county is one of Arizona’s worst COVID hot spots, and the lodge website features a dire virus warning from a local doctor, but no one was masked, not even the staff. I ordered my beer and asked if they had a room available. It would be great to finish dinner, take a shower, and get a good night’s sleep before driving back early in the morning. Yes! They had a room.

Whenever I run into a backpacker, I envy them. And whenever I pass an empty campsite returning from one of these hikes, I yearn to pull over and stay the night. I’ve replaced much of the camping gear destroyed in last year’s house fire, but while working 6 days a week to get my house habitable I just don’t have the time or energy for camping or backpacking yet. That day will come.

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Land of the Lost

Monday, October 25th, 2021: Blue Range, Hikes, Southwest New Mexico.

In my last Dispatch I said life was only going to get harder, and that was an understatement. But 14 months after the fire, I was finally back in my (still under construction) house, and this Sunday, I was determined to resume hiking.

With only one other hike during the past 5 weeks, and my sanity on a cliff’s edge, I didn’t want to pick something brutal. But I didn’t mind driving, so I decided to return to the area a little over an hour and a half away where I’d only done one short exploratory hike last summer. The accessible hikes there didn’t look challenging at all on the map – the one I was targeting today looked like a ten mile round trip with less than 2,000′ of elevation gain – a walk in the park. With the extra driving, I’d hit the trail late, and I figured on doing only a seven hour hike so I could get home before dark.

It’s an extremely “wild” area – an incredibly rugged range of lower mountains on the New Mexico-Arizona border with a small river draining through it. Like our other local mountains, it’s not a distinct range – it’s simply a lower-elevation section of the continuous mountains that run for hundreds of miles across the Southwest. The topography is so convoluted I can’t even make sense of it with a topo map.

From the New Mexico side, a graded gravel road leads into the heart of the area, lined with dirt pull-outs which all seem to be occupied by long-term RV dwellers, folks hiding out from the modern world.

It’s one of the twistiest roads I’ve ever seen, but fortunately my trailhead is only a ten minute drive from the already remote and lonesome highway.

The trail starts in parklike ponderosa forest, following the bank of a now-dry creek which obviously saw some big floods during our monsoon. I saw one boot track during the first hundred yards, but after that I saw no more sign of humans. The trail was being used only by cattle.

A quarter mile in, the creek was running and I ran into five skittish cows, one of which was a longhorn steer. They’d been fouling the creek pretty bad.

Eventually the trail crossed the creek, marked by cairns, and began climbing. It led out of the riparian forest into open pinyon-juniper-oak, where I stopped for a drink and a snack.

Under the tall pines, I’d had my sunglasses hooked on the front of my sweater, which I needed to take off, so I temporarily hung the sunglasses through a loop on the back of my pack. Then I flipped the lid of the pack open (covering the stashed sunglasses), took off my sweater, and stuffed it into the pack. Then I remembered I’d been carrying the sunglasses, and pulled out the sweater to check for them. Not there, so I began scanning the ground around my pack. Damn! This was the second time I’d lost those expensive sunglasses!

I picked up the pack and looked all around it, still not seeing them. So I left the pack and started back down the trail, watching closely on each side. I made it all the way back to the creek and never found them, so I gave up and began climbing again. Damn! All the stress had turned me into a basket case and I was making bad mistakes.

Halfway back to the pack I suddenly remembered where I’d put the sunglasses, and felt like an even bigger idiot. PTSD is no joke, and I’d unknowingly inaugurated the theme of the day: continually getting sidetracked.

Despite feeling like an idiot, I was really excited to be hiking again, especially in this brisk fall weather. It’d been freezing at home when I left town, but the sky was mostly clear with a forecast of 60s in the afternoon.

I was climbing a southern arm of a branching ridge that would eventually lead to my destination, and the first payoff came as I crossed over a small rise and found myself on the brink of a cliff, the head of a small box canyon lined with stratified white conglomerate.

From there, the trail climbed steeply up a south-facing slope toward the main ridge. Twice it dipped through small drainages lined with ponderosa forest, but mostly it was exposed, and the higher it climbed, the rockier it got. I spooked a couple of mule deer and ran into at least a dozen cattle coming down the trail. And as I climbed through the sunlight flies began to swarm my face, which surprised me considering the temperature couldn’t be higher than 60 at that point. Out with the old head net.

But that was a minor inconvenience compared to the trail surface. The final climb to the main ridge was lined with my nemesis, the ankle-wrenching “volcanic cobbles”. This is a surface you can’t avoid – as bad as it is on the trail, it’s even worse off the trail. This had been the surface on my first hike in this area, but for some reason – probably PTSD again – I’d come here in denial, expecting this trail to be different.

At the top, the trail entered more parklike ponderosa forest and began descending the shallow slope of a seemingly endless forested bowl. This area had been heavily grazed, and in the flat bottom of the bowl the trail led through an open gate into a primitive corral. A black calf stood staring at me to the left of the corral, and its mother stood staring on the right.

On the far side of the corral stood a big cairn. From the map I’d expected to find the junction of this trail with the main trail that came up from a campground 3 miles away, but there was only one trail leading on from the corral, and it seemed to be going the wrong direction, southwesterly toward the campground instead of northward up the ridge. Not having any other option, I started down the well-trampled trail, which followed a barbed-wire fence. It didn’t look promising, but maybe it would get better.

Like the previous section of trail, this one also had been used only by cattle. And suddenly it ended in an overgrazed clearing. I scouted around the edge of the clearing, and eventually found a little tread leading into the forest on the far side. I followed this, and it led down into a ravine. I kept going a few hundred yards, and then the tread ended under a juniper. I didn’t think my trail was supposed to go downward at this point, but for some reason I failed to check the map.

I headed back toward the corral, and a hundred yards from it I saw another trail branching off, with a cairn. I was now completely confused, but I followed the branch, and soon came to an old signpost, on the bank of a deep gully across from the corral. Now I understood. The trail I’d been following was indeed the trail from the campground, and this was the junction. But it still wasn’t clear where to go from here. A small gully led down from the north, and a much-trampled trail continued northeast through the forest. I couldn’t see any evidence that the gully had ever been a trail, so I started up the trampled trail.

This led into the small valley of a dry creek, and after a quarter of a mile it petered out. It was nothing but another cattle trail.

I finally decided to check my map. Fortunately I was never confused about directions – I had a watch, and my shadow showed which way was north. The map clearly showed that the hiking trail led due north from the junction at the corral, climbing straight up the next slope of the ridge.

On my way back to the junction, I glimpsed a gap sawn through a fallen log, a hundred feet away in the forest to the north. Finally, sign of a trail! I returned to the junction and sighted up the little gully toward the log gap. Apparently the gully had been the trail at one point, so I started up it.

I was actually trying this trail because the Forest Service website had a map showing “cleared trails” in this area, and as I recalled, this trail was listed as having been cleared only two years ago. But that clearly wasn’t true. I’d hiked trails near home that had been abandoned for almost a decade and were in much better shape than this.

I was beginning to confirm a suspicion about this area. There’s almost no information on the hiking trails here – they’re simply omitted from most topo maps, and none of them is featured on the crowd-sourced hiking websites. The Forest Service map I looked at shows an extensive network of trails, but there are no descriptions available anywhere, and no record of anyone ever hiking here. From a hiker’s point of view, this area is Terra Incognita – which has a certain attraction to me.

The trail had been easy to follow to the corral, but from here on it barely existed. If I hadn’t already spent the past year bushwhacking and routefinding, I simply wouldn’t have been able to get any farther without GPS. And I suspect that even GPS wouldn’t show these trails.

There was no tread past the log gap, but I saw a blaze on a ponderosa up ahead. Past that I simply climbed straight up the gentle slope, where the ponderosa forest ended and pinyon-juniper-oak resumed. From the trail I’d hiked last summer I knew the way would sometimes be hinted at by a “corridor” through the open woodland, but an open woodland is full of natural corridors, so it can be impossible to figure out which are man-made.

Across clearings, I followed what seemed to be hints of bare ground, but there was precious little bare ground among the hard-to-walk-on volcanic cobbles. Suddenly I came upon an old dry-rotted tree branch laid between two rocks perpendicular to my path. This is the kind of thing trail-builders use to control erosion, but here it was set up on level ground. I could only interpret it as some unfamiliar kind of trail marker.

In addition to the perpendicular tree branches, I sometimes found small, almost random-looking cairns, which encouraged me to keep going. I was getting higher on the ridge, so I sometimes had views of the surrounding landscape. It remained confusing, but I did recognize the peak I’d seen from the other trail, with a fire lookout on top.

I often found myself without any clear path forward, and had to stop and scout around for clues, so it was slow going. I had little hope of reaching my destination now, and was starting to despair. This whole place was overgrazed and littered with cowshit, and clearly wasn’t maintained for hikers. And my pants were collecting the nasty burrs of cosmos, which carpeted the ground nearly waist-high.

Midway up the ridge, I was following a little stretch of tread when I reached a dead end below a bank dense with vegetation. I turned left and spotted a big cairn in a clearing up a short slope, so I headed up that way, although there was no trail visible. Then I had to spend some time scouting which way to continue.

The perpendicular branches seemed the most consistent trail markers, but they were often so primitive they were easy to miss, and there was seldom any other sign of a trail nearby.

Nevertheless, I eventually found myself heading toward a distinctive, conical, rock-topped peak. I assumed this was my destination – I recalled there was another trail junction on the lower slope of this peak, with branches leading east and west. So now I was motivated to keep going.

Several false starts later, I reached the base of the peak, and immediately, instead of a junction, found a clear trail that appeared to traverse through ponderosa and fir forest around the peak to the northeast. This was not at all what I’d expected, but it was such a clear trail I followed it anyway. I was now close to 8,000′, which was about the highest I would get in this area.

The trail still didn’t show any recent use, but it was such a relief to be on an easy trail that I kept going until it curved around to the north, clearly skirting the side of the peak. Finally I got my map out again, and found that my destination was still farther ahead. On the north side of the rocky peak, there lay a long series of saddles that formed a bridge to the base of a higher ridge, where hopefully I would find my junction.

I was now officially out of time. It had taken me so long to find my way here, if I turned back now, I still wouldn’t get home before dark. But I was so tantalizingly close, there was no way I could turn back yet. I just had to reach that junction. On the other hand, I was beginning to suspect my original estimate of distance and elevation for this hike was way off.

Now knowing how to interpret the signs, I was doing pretty well until I reached the base of the high ridge. There I was stumped by a small clearing with no apparent way forward. I found the remains of an ancient campfire, and after 15 minutes of scouting finally decided to climb over some deadfall and continue up through dense forest. Another corridor opened up, and another, and suddenly I came upon the junction signpost. It showed my overall one-way distance as 7 miles – two miles farther than expected – and made even farther by all the sidetracks and false leads.

It now appeared I couldn’t get back home before 8:30 – but I didn’t care. I felt great, and I was so pleased to get here that I didn’t even really want to head back.

Despite being at the base of a ridge, less than 8,000′ in elevation, the junction was sort of on the rim of the whole area, but although I was able to get occasional long views, trees generally got in the way.

I expected the return hike to be easier now I knew the way, but it was just as hard to routefind in reverse. I got lost several times, pursuing sidetracks down open hillsides and tight gullies, adding hundreds of yards and dozens of vertical feet to my hike. I stopped a lot to take pictures, but walked fast in between, despite the perilous footing on the rocks, and it took exactly two hours to reach the corral.

There I could see what had happened to the old trail – it had been cut by a deep erosional gully, like a little canyon, right next to the corral.

Next to the corral were two cows and two calves, all black. When they saw me, they stupidly ran into the corral, where they panicked and proceeded to run in frantic circles, until one cow and her calf jumped over the fence. The other cow seemed to believe her calf couldn’t make it over, so the two of them kept circling, as I stood still next to the open gate. The cow finally got up the courage to rush out the gate, and the calf followed.

I continued up out of the bowl, and at the top, again lost the trail and made a false turn. I was headed down the wrong ridge in the setting sunlight when I suddenly realized I was lost, turned back, and easily found the right trail. It could’ve been a bad scene after sundown, miles from my vehicle in unfamiliar forest…

But it got worse. When I finally reached the creek bottom, the trail ended at the bank and everything looked unfamiliar. I knew this had to be the right creek, but there was simply no trail, and no marked creek crossing. I scouted around for several minutes, and finally crossed the creek and climbed the opposite bank, where I found myself in another primitive corral, which I’d never seen before. It was getting dark and now I was really worried. Where the hell was I?

I crossed the corral and kept going down the left bank of the creek, but there was simply no trail here. I could see a narrow cattle trail on the opposite bank, so I dropped into the creek and climbed up the steep bank. I continued down the creek on the cattle trail, completely confused, and suddenly came upon the original trail, cutting down the slope from above. Ahead, I could see a cairn marking the creek crossing I’d taken this morning. Like so many times today, cattle trails had led me off my hiking trail, but I’d finally found it again.

On the long drive back in the dark, I devoted myself to putting together a recipe for the easy but delicious dinner I was going to cook when I got home. And the next day, when I calculated the actual mileage and elevation for my hike, I found that including all the sidetracks and mistakes, the distance and elevation gain had been 50% more than expected. So despite the frustration and stress, I was pleased with that as well.

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