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Hiking Through Trauma

Tuesday, September 1st, 2020: Black Range, Chiricahuas, Hikes, Hillsboro, Holt, Mogollon Mountains, Nature, Southeast Arizona, Southwest New Mexico, Wildfire.

First Sunday

My house fire occurred on a Monday morning. My neighbors were wonderful as usual, but the aftermath was an ongoing series of crises that fell on my shoulders alone. By Sunday I was a wreck.

I headed for the trail in the high mountains to the northwest, the trail where I can get 4,000′ of elevation gain and an expansive view of the tallest peaks. We were still in a drought and heat wave at home, but I was hoping for rain or at least cloud cover up in the mountains.

It’s an hour’s drive from my temporary accommodations to the trailhead. Suffering from PTSD, my heart fell when I rounded a bend, got a view of the canyons and peaks I’d be climbing, and saw smoke from a wildfire back in the wilderness near where I was headed. My first thought was that the trail would be closed by firefighting equipment.

I turned off and drove up the dirt road into the foothills. I passed a truck and encountered an older couple walking beside the road. They said they lived down in the valley and I asked them about the fire. They said the Forest Service was aware of it but wasn’t doing anything. That was both good and bad news. I could get to the trail but didn’t know if I could hike it safely.

The couple dismissed my concerns. “If you see smoke ahead, just turn around and hike out!” said the woman. This was the only trail this side of town that would kick my ass, which in my damaged state I mistakenly thought I needed, so I didn’t want to give it up. What pathetic animals we humans are!

The sun blazed down in the canyon, and the humidity turned out to be as bad as I’d ever experienced. My clothes were all drenched with sweat at the halfway point, so I stopped for lunch and hung my shirt and bandanna headband over branches, hoping they’d dry a little.

On the climb, a thunderhead finally began to develop in the east, moving over the crest. It chilled the alpine air but failed to drop any rain. From the little knob on the shoulder of the peak, I could finally see the fire, a few miles due east. It was one drainage away near the head of the biggest canyon in this part of the mountains, and its smoke was beginning to pour north over the ridge into a smaller side canyon.

I took a picture of myself up there, as usual, but I look too miserable to include it in this Dispatch.

On the way back to town I saw a serious storm in the east, and it turned out we’d finally gotten a little rain back home.

Second Sunday

The second week after my house fire was just as hard as the first, with more delays, contractors screwing up, daily arguments with insurance, and no hope of temporary housing. Constantly in reactive mode, I had no time to think about where I was going for my Sunday hike, so I just continued the cycle of west followed by east.

Walnut trees in the canyon, where the winding road approaches the crest, were heavily infested with tent caterpillars. I’d seen lesser infestations last year, but this was pretty creepy.

Maximum humidity again, with most of the day up there in the sky fully exposed to sun, so it was a pretty tough slog. When I got up on the crest I could see heavy smoke obscuring the lowlands to the east. I assumed it was from the California fires.

The long views from the crest are one highlight of this hike; the other is the old-growth fir forest, grassy meadows and fern dells on the back side of the peak. But this time I explored a new trail from the saddle behind the peak, and found a beautiful shrub swarmed by big orange and black tachinid flies – really impressive pollinators.

Third Sunday

The third week after my house fire was just as traumatic as the fire itself, because I had another apparent brush with death during oral surgery. And my trials at home continued, with only one encouraging break: I found temporary housing.

As the weekend approached, in rare moments of forethought I imagined driving two hours over to the Range of Canyons for a Sunday hike. It was looking like possible rain on the weekend, which would be the only thing that would make that trip bearable, since it’s a thousand feet lower and correspondingly hotter over there.

Unfortunately on the drive over, I jinxed myself by mentioning rain to a friend on the phone. So the day turned out to be rainless, as humid as the previous Sundays, but mercifully a little cooler due to continuous cloud cover.

The trail itself doesn’t have much to recommend it – the payoff view is too far for a round trip day hike, especially when you subtract the four hours of driving there and back. But despite the drought, I was surprised by the variety of unfamiliar flowers – most of them tiny – which don’t seem to grow across the border in New Mexico.

I also saw several white-tail deer, and a big hawk I flushed from undergrowth in the forest near the trailhead. It flew heavily off carrying some long, slender prey animal, and all I saw clearly was its tail, dark brown with broad, pale, clearly marked bands.

The hike felt harder than usual. I’d gone from 6 workouts per week down to one – my big Sunday hike – and I’d lost a lot of weight, all of it muscle mass. Probably 5-10 pounds, which is a lot for a little guy with no body fat. I’d tightened my belt and my pants were still threatening to fall off. From 22 miles and 6,000′ of hiking per week down to 12 miles and 3,000′. I was surely losing the conditioning I’d worked so hard to build up during the past two years of recovery from disabilities.

Despite the difficult week, this hike finally succeeded in calming me down a little, in preparation for more crisis and trauma in the week ahead.

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