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First Steps in the First Wilderness Part 10: May

Sunday, May 10th, 2020: Hikes, Holt, Mogollon Mountains, Southwest New Mexico.

The last time I’d done my favorite hike, at the end of March, there’d been patches of snow two feet deep above 9,000′ elevation. But since then, the entire West had been hammered by a heat wave for weeks, and almost all the snow had melted from our mountaintops.

The heat had finally subsided this weekend, and today the forecast in town, at 6,000′, was cloudy with a high of 79. As I drove north toward the mountains, the sky above was clear, with scattered clouds in the west. And when I left the highway to take the dirt road to the trailhead, I could see a small mass of cumulus clouds peeking from behind the canyon I would be hiking up. I was hoping for some weather, but didn’t really expect any, since no rain had been forecast.

The canyon bottom was sweltering, and sweat poured off me. The stream was almost dried up, but as I’d expected, the heavy snowmelt had resulted in a big hatch-out of flies and gnats, and they were swarming in my face. I’d picked up a cheap “head net” earlier in the week, and pulled it down over my hat to keep the bugs away. What a relief! The bugs had never been this bad before, but I’d spent years waving my hands in front of my face in early summer, trying to keep them away.

When I reached the first viewpoint on the trail, 1500 feet above the canyon bottom, I could see tendrils of rain trailing from heavier clouds in the west. A strong wind was rising and the temperature was dropping fast. Soon it had dropped almost 30 degrees and I pulled on my sweater.

Climbing higher, I finally heard some thunder, far off to the northwest. And when I reached the crest, I could see more dark clouds and rain along the skyline to the east, only a few miles away.

I’d gotten an early start and was hoping to continue following the trail down the other side of the mountain, a mile or so beyond where I usually stop. But it was slow going because it entered the burn area and many dead trees had fallen since the Forest Service had cleared the trail last year. After a half mile I had to turn back – just too many logs to climb over.

I’d descended almost 500′ in that half mile, and as I trudged back up to the saddle, it started to rain. Yay! I quickly unpacked my cheap poncho and pulled it over me and my pack. It wasn’t a hard rain, but it continued for about 15 minutes, so the poncho was well worth it.

I knew this hike would be a milestone for me – the first time in more than 40 years (since I was 26) that I’d climbed over 4,000′ in a day. I felt like I could’ve done even more if I’d had more time.

On the way back down, I was lucky to spot another painted redstart, a bird I’d first seen last weekend. It was much farther away this time, and moving fast, but I recognized it by the white bands on its wings and the white underside of its tail.

On the way back home, I could see rain falling south of town, and shortly after I got home, while I was eating leftovers for dinner, I could hear the rattle of rain on my metal porch roof. Apart from the snowmelt, it’s been a very dry spring, so this rain was really welcome!

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