Dispatches Tagline

Closer to the Sun

Monday, July 13th, 2020: Black Range, Hikes, Hillsboro, Southwest New Mexico.

A heat wave across the entire Southwest had brought us record high temperatures, compounding the stress of our already unusually hot pre-monsoon in May and June. Our monsoon rains were delayed for at least three weeks, and the entire landscape was super dry.

During the week, I’d continued my afternoon hikes near town, because although it was in the high 90s at home, it always felt cooler in the forest. Now, on the weekend, I was hoping to find lower temperatures on the crest, 2,000′ to 4,000′ higher. And if not cooler temperatures, at least a breeze.

On the narrow highway winding up the canyon toward the pass, I was approaching a blind, shaded curve when I suddenly realized a tree had fallen across the road, and there was a log blocking half of my lane. I slowed and carefully drove around it. There was no cell signal here, so I continued to the pass, and after ten minutes of fumbling with automated directory assistance, managed to reach the local office of the state police.

A young woman answered, and I told her about the log blocking the highway near Emory Pass.

“What mile marker?” she asked.

“I have no idea, but it was just east of the Iron Creek Campground.”

“Sir, what was the mile marker?”

“Ma’am, I was driving and I didn’t have a cell signal until I reached the pass. But you can find it on any map, it was between Iron Creek Campground and Emory Pass.”

“Sir, I need the mile marker.” Silence. The signal was broken.

I shouldered my pack and locked the Sidekick. It felt just as hot up here as at home. I wondered how far I would get. I’d filled my 3 liters of water bottles with all the ice cubes in my freezer, but I knew they’d all be melted before I got halfway through the day. At least they’d be cooler than the air.

The first half of the hike is totally exposed, through the burn scar, so I raced up the trail, sweating profusely, aiming for the shady forest around the peak. In a minor miracle, a cloud mass was growing outward from the 10,000′ peak, and halfway through the hike, it covered me with blissful shade that lasted for most of the rest of the day. In the shade, it felt like the low 80s; whenever the sun hit me it felt like the high 90s.

The flowers were less spectacular than a month earlier, and the big butterflies had been replaced by swarms of little butterflies. When I reached the trail junction at the peak, in its rain forest-like habitat of old-growth firs, lush grass and tall ferns, I noticed something out of the corner of my eye. It was a buck deer, youngish, lying down in the shade of the firs, about 40 feet away. He watched me without moving – he’d found the perfect resting place on a hot day and wasn’t anxious to give it up.

I hiked down the back side of the peak to a saddle 1,000′ lower, where the trail is blocked by a massive blowdown. I hung out there for a half hour or so, then did a leisurely climb back up the slope. The buck was still there, two hours later, but now he was surrounded by a flock of wild turkeys. As I stood watching, the tom turkey fanned out his tail in a display for the ladies, while the buck watched in seeming amusement. Peaceable kingdom on a hot day!

Driving down from the pass, I came upon a group of tourists, with two vehicles stopped in another blind curve of the oncoming traffic lane, doing something with their two vehicles, oblivious to the fact that they were blocking a state highway. I passed them and cautiously approached the bend where the tree had fallen across the road. The log was still there in the eastbound lane, eight hours later. But farther on, closer to town, the state police had set up a speed trap. Just in case you survived the log in the road, they were there to write you a ticket.

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