Dispatches
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Getting Away

Monday, July 27th, 2020: Chiricahuas, Hikes, Southeast Arizona.

As Sunday approached, I’d been having trouble with chronic conditions in both my foot and my knee. I’d been using treatments that had always been effective on both conditions. The foot seemed to deteriorate with distance, whereas the knee was sensitive to elevation, so I figured I should do a little shorter hike with a little less elevation gain.

Our monsoon had started, so canyon hikes where flooding was a possibility were out of the question. I was all set to hike a peak in the Black Range, 7 miles round trip and less than 2,000′ of elevation gain, but something snapped when I got in the Sidekick.

I had to get away. I’d refrained from leaving my local area since lockdown began, last March. The Chiricahuas were an hour and a half and two counties away, across the Arizona border. But despite being across the border, the Portal area, in the northeast Chiricahuas, was more New Mexico than Arizona. The only paved road into that canyon was from the tiny unincorporated settlement of Rodeo, NM. And if I tanked up with gas, I could drive from my house to the trailhead and back without getting out of the vehicle, without interacting with strangers. Surely I could do that safely, just this once?

The Silver Peak hike entailed over 3,000′ of elevation gain, but was less than 9 miles round trip, and as I recalled the trail was in good condition and would be easier on my foot. Miraculously, on this beautiful monsoon Sunday, there was hardly any traffic into Portal, and the trailhead for this, the most popular trail in the entire range, was deserted. I wouldn’t see another soul the entire day.

Wildlife was reveling in the wet conditions. A hepatic tanager barely missed darting against my vehicle as I crossed the bridge over the mouth of Cave Creek. A big rattlesnake greeted me a hundred yards past the trailhead. Hawks and falcons swooped from ridge to ridge. Whitetail deer bounded through the trees from bottom to top of the peak. In the rockier drainages, water from recent rains was trickling down to the trail.

Despite this area being 1,000′ lower than my home, temperatures were mild, but humidity was high and my shirt was soon drenched with sweat. I figured I’d wait until I neared the peak, and rinse it out in runoff, but the higher I went, the less surface water I found.

Since this hike gains more elevation in less distance than any of the trails back home, it’s a relentless slog, and gets harder near the top. There must be a hundred switchbacks, many of them only a few yards long. Often stopping to catch my breath, sometimes after only a short rise gained. Always a relief to see the sky through the trees when you’re approaching the ridgeline.

Thunder clouds were growing, and I felt a few sprinkles near the top. Ladybugs covered most of the peak. From up there, I could see exactly where it was raining hard: over the encircling crest, to the west and south – although it also seeming to be pouring back toward home, way across the plains in the far northeast.

I took off my sweat-soaked shirt and bandanna, hung them over bushes, and sat down against the little shed below the ruined fire lookout. It had recently been vandalized. After a half hour my things were no drier, so I decided to hike down shirtless.

I hiked in and out of light rain and brief openings of sunlight. Finally, as I rounded the shoulder of the mountain and entered the Portal basin, the clouds pulled back and I was in full sun. A mile from the trailhead, I found a little waterfall and a pool of clear water to rinse out my shirt. That kept me cool all the way back to the vehicle.

Unfortunately for my foot, I realized that the last half-mile of the trail is the worst of our surfaces, a combination of loose and embedded rock, averaging fist-sized. This is probably one thing that will always trigger inflammation and limit my hikes – despite my stiff-soled hunting boots, prescription orthotics, and the biomechanical tape and felt I carefully apply before each trip. I recently read an online rant by an older hiker, complaining that big wildfires had removed soil and conifer duff from our trails, making them rockier, but I suspect these Southwest trails have always been tougher than trails farther north and east, or on the coasts.

Nearing the trailhead I encountered a group of three horses wandering through the dense oak forest near the paved road. One of them approached me, hoping for a handout, but I spread my empty hands and apologized. Sidekick was still alone at the trailhead. While hanging my shirt up to dry and loosening my bootlaces, I watched one of the horses rolling happily in the dust nearby.

Driving home, I could see a very dark sky ahead, and approaching town, I entered the rain. I’d been lucky, nothing had gone wrong, and maybe now I’d be content to stay near home for a while!

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