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Monday, June 27th, 2022

Rainy Day in the Wilderness

Monday, June 27th, 2022: Hikes, Holt, Mogollon Mountains, Southwest New Mexico.

A long hiatus since the last hiking dispatch – more than two months – and even longer – three months – since I last ventured into our legendary wilderness area. I may explain elsewhere why I’ve lost most of my conditioning and am having to gradually rebuild my capacity. In the week prior to this Sunday, I’d done three easy hikes of up to about 4 miles and 800′ of elevation gain. All of those were on trails near town, heavily used by dog walkers, trail runners, and mountain bikers. I really wanted to dip my toes inside the wilderness, where I rarely encounter other people.

But finding a wilderness trail that would suit my recovery was a challenge. I maintain a 7-page list of regional hikes, and every wilderness hike on that list far exceeds my current capability. Doing a partial hike on any of my favorite trails would be frustrating, but I finally figured out something that would work: a partial hike of between 2 and 3 miles onto a spur trail that branched off one of my favorites. The spur trail led up over a saddle into one of the biggest canyon systems in the range, and I’d tried it last year, found that it disappeared into a jungle along a narrow creek, and decided it wasn’t worth pursuing. But the saddle itself provided a spectacular view over the big canyon, and would be a worthy destination for a short recovery hike.

I actually wasn’t confident of making it to the saddle, which would require almost 1,500′ of total climbing, but there was an intermediate spot I could use as an alternate destination if I ran out of steam. In any event, I’d get to spend time in wild habitat that would’ve changed dramatically in the weather we’d had since my last visit.

On the drive northwest from town, the mountains were almost completely hidden by rain clouds, which made me very happy. Even better, I drove through a nice little storm shortly before reaching the turnoff.

It was raining enough at the trailhead that I pulled on my poncho. The half mile of trail before the wilderness boundary was more damaged by erosion than I’d ever seen. Unusually, there’d been another vehicle parked at the trailhead, and past the boundary, on my way down into the first canyon, I encountered a lone woman returning from her morning hike. She wished me a good day and passed quickly without slowing. I stopped, turned, and said it was good to see another hiker who liked this kind of weather. “It’s just weather,” she muttered curtly without stopping or looking back.

She clearly wasn’t interested in socializing, but I continued to think about her as I continued. Short, slender, very fit, and 15-20 years younger than me, she’d been moving too fast for me to form a precise image, but she seemed to evoke several women I knew of who frequented this area. One was a hiker who lived nearby that I’d corresponded with and done another short recovery hike with years ago. Another was the “peak bagger” from Arizona that I’d tried to emulate on a difficult bushwhack last year. And a third was the trail runner whose enigmatic shoeprints I’d studied on another bushwhack three canyons to the south. I wished she’d given me an opportunity to talk more, but it occurred to me that she wasn’t prepared for wet weather – dressed lightly in a short-sleeved top and cycling-type shorts, she wasn’t even carrying a day pack, let alone a storm shell – and had likely cut her hike short for that reason.

I was surprised at how quickly only a week of rain had turned the canyon bottom into a jungle. Apparently there’d been enough groundwater to support the vegetation even before our premature monsoon. But despite today’s storm, streamflow was modest.

I was moving slower than usual, and having to take off the poncho when the rain stopped, shake it out, and repack it, only to need it again 15 minutes later when rain resumed. It was warm and humid enough that it just wasn’t comfortable to wear when I didn’t need it. But I would end up needing it a half dozen times by the end of the hike.

Having only hiked the spur trail once before, I’d forgotten how many switchbacks it has. The hike to the saddle is nothing but a series of about two dozen switchbacks, most of which don’t show up on trail maps. But I was grateful because they ensured a climb that was gentle enough for my physical condition. A friend had said my body would be eager to start climbing again, and I found that to be true – not only did I make it to the saddle, but I continued higher for a half mile to reach a better vantage point over the big canyon.

It was raining harder up there on the ridge, so the view was too hazy to savor. But it felt great anyway!

Since I wasn’t rushing to complete a marathon hike to a remote destination like so often before, I felt in no hurry on the way down, and was able to stop many times to appreciate the little things, and really enjoyed this hike as a result. It’s precious to be immersed in this arid habitat during such a wet period. But also, after being in regular touch with friends in distant cities, I was reminded again of how lucky I am to live in a place like this, where a huge mountain wilderness area, with a mostly intact ecosystem virtually free of invasive species, is only a short drive from my home. And because of its size and our low population density, I typically have it all to myself!

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