Dispatches
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Autumn Leaves

Monday, October 5th, 2020: Black Range, Chiricahuas, Hikes, Hillsboro, Holt, Little Dry, Mogollon Mountains, Nature, Pinos Altos Range, Plants, Southeast Arizona, Southwest New Mexico.

While dealing with the aftermath of my house fire, I was only able to do one hike per week, and I was sure I would lose conditioning and capacity. Hence after I got settled into temporary housing, I was really stoked to resume the routine I’d built up to over the past two years: three hikes a week averaging 22 miles and 6,000′ cumulative elevation gain.

But after the first week it was clear that I hadn’t actually lost any capacity. And between hikes, it gradually occurred to me that I’d been paying for all that hiking with a lot of inflammation and pain, and the time I was spending icing my joints afterward. So I decided to cut back and drop one of my 5-mile midweek hikes.

1: Longer Than Expected

The Sunday after that decision, I was still overwhelmed with chores and I didn’t feel like driving to one of my favorite trails in the high country, so I picked a hike close to town that involved chaining together three trails and two 9,000′ peaks. It would be a long hike that I’d never actually completed before. The part I’d done, to the first peak, was 12 miles round trip, and I had it in my head that adding the second peak would increase it to 14 miles. I’d regularly been doing 13 mile hikes, so I didn’t see any problems.

The hike starts by climbing gently for two miles up a beautiful canyon, then it enters mixed conifer forest, and it stays in forest, climbing steadily, the rest of the way. It has few views and no prominent features, but the forest is really nice and the trail is easy most of the way because the forest hasn’t burned recently.

However, somewhere between the two peaks, I realized I’d underestimated. The round trip mileage was going to be 16, not 14. My body was going to be thrashed. Should I turn back early?

I was feeling good, so I went the whole distance – the longest hike I’ve done in 30 years. I rested for a half hour on the picnic table below the vacant fire lookout, and as I was packing to return, a bearded guy about my age appeared from the opposite direction, having hiked the much shorter trail I used to do on Sundays. He sat down nearby and had a snack, and eventually asked me where I was headed.

“Back the way I came,” I said. “Do you know the trails around here?”

“Well, sort of.”

“I came up Little Cherry Creek, do you know that?”

“No.”

“It’s in a dip before you get to the Ben Lilly site. I take that to the CDT, to Black Peak, and then the spur trail from there. It’s about 8 miles one-way.”

“Well, the trail I hiked is really hard,” he said disgustedly.

“Yeah, I used to do that trail almost every week, before I started needing more distance.” I realized I was making him look pretty bad, so I added, “It’s a great trail, though, if you don’t have time for a longer hike.”

He looked away unhappily. I wished him a good day and set off on my 8-mile return hike.

As expected, I paid for it at the end, limping back to the car on a sore foot and a sore knee. But amazingly, since the trail was in such good shape, it only took me 6-1/2 hours to do 16 miles.

A pile of chores hit me during the following week, so I had no time for icing, and I skipped my midweek hike, figuring I’d done enough hiking for the week.

2: Thickets & Thorns

On the following Sunday, I set out for my favorite high-elevation hike, an hour’s drive west of town. My foot and knee felt fine at that point, and I was even more excited than usual about hitting the trail.

I was a little surprised to find the trailhead occupied, with a family all decked out in identical camouflage outfits milling around their SUV. As I got out, I yelled, “You guys going hunting?”

The father came over, wearing a midsize pack with a rifle pointing out of the top. He looked to be in his early 40’s, tall and strikingly handsome, and when he spoke, he immediately reminded me of the charismatic, good-looking Jewish intellectuals from the East Coast that had so intimidated me during my university years at the University of Chicago and Stanford. But he said they were from Cliff, the rural community that’s ground zero for the Cowboys for Trump movement!

He was super friendly, saying his son had a bear tag and they were headed for the “top” to glass for bear. “Holt Mountain?” I asked.

“Oh, no, we’re not going very far, just to where we can get a good view.”

“The Johnson Cabin trail?”

“I don’t know, where are you headed?”

“Holt Mountain, that’s why I asked.”

“No, no, we won’t be anywhere near you.”

I was left with lots of questions, but had no business prying. His kids looked to be no older than 10 – do they really issue bear tags to kids that young? And what was this suave, urbane guy doing in Cliff, and hunting predators, a practice I normally associate with arrogant assholes?

I always come prepared to hit the trail immediately after arriving, but as a family it was taking them forever to get ready, so I left them there and headed out.

Already, during the first half mile, everything felt very different. It was a cool fall day with clear skies, so that was nice, but my body felt better than ever. It felt like I’d developed hiking super powers. This is a long, hard trail with steep grades beginning about halfway, but I powered up every one of them without needing to rest. What had happened? I’d been hiking less during the past two months than at any time in the past two years, but here I was in better shape than ever.

Not needing to stop to catch my breath, I reached the little clearing at the bottom of the switchbacks almost an hour earlier than usual. I wasn’t conscious of hiking faster than usual, but obviously I was.

Then, on the long, steep traverse that is always the hardest part, I just walked steadily up it for the first time, whereas in the past, I’d always had to stop 3 or 4 times to catch my breath.

I reached the crest at 9,500′ an hour and a half ahead of time. During the past week, a friend from Santa Fe had said that his family was planning a hike to see aspens in their fall colors, and as I rounded a shoulder of this peak and saw the saddle up ahead, I realized that since I hike in aspens almost every week, their fall color isn’t all I get to see. Most busy city people only venture into nature to witness popular spectacles they discover through news media, like “superblooms” and “supermoons,” whereas I get to discover dozens of equally interesting and beautiful, but lesser known, seasonal phenomena all throughout the year.

The little grove of aspens in the saddle was blazing red and gold, but they were all small trees because they were part of early succession after the massive 2012 wildfire in these mountains. From up there, I could see bands of color striating distant peaks – all of them small trees in dense fire-recovery stands. Nothing like the towering, mature groves we used to admire in the High Sierra of California. In fact, since I moved to New Mexico and began hiking wildfire scars, I’ve come to see aspens not as beautiful members of mature forests, but as scrubby thickets colonizing burn areas. On these slopes, they alternated with the deeper red of maples as well as rust-colored oaks and ferns. The brown of the ferns actually covers the broadest expanse of these fire scars, and is attractive in its own right.

But it wasn’t just trees. From the beginning of my hike, deep in the canyon bottom, I’d been surrounded by fall color: flaming sumacs, golden oaks, burgundy poison ivy, rust-colored ferns, and a myriad of shrubs and tiny ground cover plants that created a mosaic of color, making even the predominant green seem more vibrant.

Since I’d reached the crest so early, and still felt so good, I hiked down the other side, planning to go much farther than usual. This trail already offers the most elevation gain of any, so I was really stoked. It actually continues all the way to the crest trail of the central range, for a total of 19 miles one-way – the rest of the trail is only used by backpackers. I was curious to see how far I would get, especially since the rest of the trail is choked with fallen logs and thorn scrub, including the nasty New Mexico locust.

It got harder and harder the farther I went, and only my new hiking super powers kept me going. The trail actually got more interesting, too, with more exposed rock and new views, but eventually I realized I’d better turn back if I wanted to get home before dark. Taking off my pack to log my position via GPS, I noticed the bandana I’d tied on to dry had been dragged off somewhere by thorns. It’s a nice one printed with the constellations so I hated to lose it, but on my return, I found it on the trail, back near the crest saddle.

White-tailed deer were everywhere, and red-tailed hawks soared through the tall firs and wheeled around summits. The hunting dad had mentioned a fire over in the Blue Range primitive area, to the northwest, and after returning to my vehicle and driving down out of the foothills, I could see the long plume and then a billowing cloud rising above the tallest peak of the range, dozens of miles away. When will this fire season ever end?

3: Fickle GPS

Getting ready to return to the crest hike east of town, I was still looking for interesting ways to make it longer. And in fact, I discovered that the crowd-sourced trail websites had increased their distance data for that trail. Whereas the Forest Service has always listed the one-way distance to the fire lookout on the peak as 5 miles, the trail websites had previously shown it as 4.8. Now, this had been updated to 11 miles round-trip – quite a discrepancy!

In fact, I could see from the notes below that a recent hiker’s GPS had measured it at 11.6 miles round-trip – an even bigger discrepancy.

This confirmed my earlier suspicions about the unreliability of not only crowd-sourced data, but of GPS data itself, particularly in a forested landscape with steep terrain. These crowd-sourced websites base all their information on data uploaded by hikers from consumer-grade satellite receivers. Consumer GPS keeps getting better, but it still needs a connection to the satellite to record data, and this is rarely available in mature forest or narrow canyons.

In any event, I was happy to update the distances I log for my hikes, because the longer distances are consistent with the longer times it takes me to complete some of these hikes. But I’ll continue to be skeptical. While the vast majority of people are being conditioned to place more trust in the latest technologies, there are many instances where we’re actually settling for less and less accuracy as time goes by. Digitally-recorded and reproduced music is less faithful to our sensory experience than analog, and remote sensing is always less accurate than direct experience. Many Forest Service distances were originally measured using a calibrated wheel rolled along the trail by a hiker – the most accurate method possible – but we prefer the most expensive, resource-consumptive methods now, calling it progress. Progress requires spending billions of dollars and tons of fossil fuels to manufacture and launch satellites into orbit, and additional billions and tons of natural resources to manufacture and distribute digital devices that proliferate toxic materials throughout our habitats.

When I got to the high pass, I stepped out into gale-force winds blowing chilled air under clear skies. All through the hike I kept putting on and taking off my windbreaker jacket and shade hat – the latter kept getting blown off during windy stretches. The wind was so strong in places that it literally blew me off the trail.

Whereas in the past I’ve regularly encountered some pretty bizarre people on this popular trail – all of them from big cities – on this hike I met two groups who seemed both pleasant and completely sane. Even with a more accurate distance in mind, I still found ways to make the trail longer than usual – especially because with my new hiking super powers I was making much better time than in the past.

Even more than in the previous hike, I found myself focusing on the smaller and subtler ways in which plants respond to the coming of winter. My dad’s first job working as a chemist was in Eastman Kodak’s Chicago photo lab in late 1940s. They had recently introduced “Kodacolor” film, and my dad became a photography enthusiast, which continued sporadically the rest of his life.

Back then, he returned home to the hills and hollows of the upper Ohio River Valley for a series of photographs he entered in a local contest. One of his first iconic photos was naturally of fall color in the canyon of one of the tributaries to the mighty Ohio. Scenes like that formed my original paradigm of seasonal foliage. Of course, it’s an old tradition for European families to venture out in the autumn to parts of the countryside known for their fall foliage, and after my mom moved us to her family home in Indiana, we took fall road trips to Brown County, Indiana’s most famous place for fall color. Unlike the rest of the state, the native forests of Brown County had been saved from development because they were too hilly to be cleared for farmland by the European settlers who stole this land from Native Americans.

In the American West, with its vast evergreen forests, fall color is much more restricted and subtle, but connoisseurs, like the friends I mentioned above, still make trips to the high mountains to see golden swaths of aspen groves on slopes near tree line on alpine peaks.

Most of our local aspen groves have burned recently in massive wildfires, and are now returning as low thickets, mixed in with gambel oak and New Mexico locust. The tapestry of color is far less dramatic than that of our hardwood forests back east, but it can still be glorious in its own way.

And along the trail, I find the changes in even tiny plants fascinating. This brief cooling season makes some plants visible that I wouldn’t have even noticed when they were green.

When I reached breaks in forest, or badly burned slopes where I had a broad view, I could see entire slopes in the distance covered with golden or rust-colored oaks and aspens, and it was even more obvious than usual that these slopes had been fully carpeted by conifers before the fire, so that there was now total “stand replacement” of evergreens by deciduous trees and shrubs, interspersed with narrow strips of surviving pine and fir forest in steep drainages and on ridgetops.

I’d been sporadically reading about fire ecology and the history of Western forests, and it suddenly hit me hard, for the first time, that I and many others had been mistaken in our sorrow over these “catastrophic” wildfires and the loss of so much forest.

Our notion of historic landscapes of continuous evergreen forest, as far as the eye can see, is largely an artificial construction, our misperception based on the failed Euro-American practice of wildfire suppression, which continues unabated due to our overdevelopment of the urban-wildland interface. Before the European invasion and conquest of North America, indigenous peoples had tended forests in collaboration with their ecosystem partners, resulting in much more complex and patchy habitat everywhere, which in turn yields optimum ecological diversity and productivity.

Now, conservationists praise science for developing more sustainable forestry practices, whereas scientists and foresters have – typically – willfully ignored indigenous wisdom, and are, as usual, belatedly appropriating the lessons native people offered us more than a century ago. It’s just another instance of the implicit racism and imperialism that permeate the Eurocentric institutions of science and academia.

4: Bleak Saddle

With my new hiking super powers, it finally occurred to me that I might be able to complete a hike that had frustrated me for the past year. It was over on the Arizona state line, but I’d already waited a month before taking the risk of driving over there again.

The trail was listed as a 17 mile round trip, but when I checked the map again I noticed that the actual crest was only a little over 8 miles from the trailhead. However, that trail had been the last I’d hiked over there, and I was getting really bored with it. Fortunately, there was another trail providing a short cut to the same destination. It required a 15 minute longer drive, because the trailhead was deeper in the mountains and a few hundred feet higher. And it was a real slog – the previous time I’d hiked it, last March, it had kicked my butt. The middle section was a virtually continuous 15% grade in loose volcanic rock.

But I figured that with my new powers I could make short work of it. And it would take roughly 4 miles off the round-trip distance to the crest, which should make it easy for me to complete this hike that had frustrated me so many times in only a year.

Unfortunately, our weather had been discouragingly hot and dry all month. Normally October is cool here, and often rainy – we’ve even had snow – but I don’t remember any rain since August, and most days at home, at 6,000′ elevation, were reaching the 80s. The high at the entrance to those mountains, a thousand feet lower, was forecast to approach 90. My hike would take me over 9,000′, but I was learning that without a cooling wind, radiant heating at high elevation could be just as punishing as air temperature in the valleys and basins below.

Facing a 2-1/4 hour drive to the trailhead, I’d have to get up early Sunday morning – a day when I usually like to sleep in. But I was motivated and set my alarm for 6, and after my usual Sunday chores, was able to hit the road by 8. I had a little over a half tank of gas, probably not enough to get me there and back, but I figured I’d buy gas at the truck stop on the Interstate, at the halfway point.

I should’ve known better. As often happens, there were lines at the pumps there. There was a big group of Black motorcycle cruisers who seemed to be having a party around two of the pumps, and other motorists were locking their vehicles at the pumps and going inside to grab a snack. The minimum wait for a pump seemed to be 15 minutes. So I took my chances and set off for the mountains.

There were two problems with this. First, if my gas gauge was accurate, I should have enough to get back here in the evening. But I knew it wasn’t – that was the first thing I’d learned about this vehicle. You could drive all day and the needle would barely reach halfway. Then in the next 20 miles it would drop rapidly toward empty.

The second problem was that I didn’t know of any gas stations anywhere near my destination. But I hadn’t really explored, and there might be something I wasn’t aware of. I decided to take the chance and worry about it later. After all, I had a premium AAA membership in case I ran out.

There’s a dramatic moment where the lonely highway tops a low pass and you get your first view of the mountains, and that moment provided my next worry. Although the air and sky were clear in front of the range, the interior was obscured by a heavy haze that looked like wildfire smoke. Great! Why hadn’t I checked for fires before leaving?

I kept driving, and fortunately, the haze gradually cleared, the closer I got. Maybe it was residual and had blown over from somewhere to the south, maybe from Mexico. Maybe it was even windblown dust – although there didn’t seem to be any wind here.

Making the turnoff toward the mountains, I found myself behind a very funky pickup truck going about 5 mph. The back window of the cab was broken out, and a fringe of plastic blew out of it in a failed attempt at patching the window. The front wheel of a bicycle hung over the side of the pickup bed, a guitar strapped to the handlbars, with the neck of the bare guitar extending a couple feet out into traffic. I couldn’t even identify the rest of the junk piled in the pickup bed, but it had a California license plate. I passed, giving it a wide berth, but about ten minutes up the road I saw the same truck racing up in my rearview mirror, and it passed me going 20 mph over the speed limit. When I reached town, it was parked outside the cafe and store.

Past the entrance, as the road twists through a shaded canopy of sycamores under towering cliffs, the speed limit drops to 15 and you can expect the occasional birder on the shoulder with binoculars or camera. However, today was obviously some kind of big birding event. Vehicles were parked everywhere, sometimes blocking traffic lanes, and crowds of birders massed beside the road, peering up into the canopy with their field glasses and huge, unwieldy cameras. Finally I got past them – they were all confined to the lower riparian area – and eventually, watching my gas gauge in despair as it rapidly approached empty, I reached the trailhead, a tiny creekside campground which was unoccupied.

It was only 10:15, and the shade of the riparian canopy still felt cool. Expecting a difficult ascent, I decided to summon my super powers and attempt as much of the trail as possible without stopping to rest. I wasn’t sure exactly how long it was, or what the cumulative elevation gain would be. I still don’t, because there’s only one source for trail mileages in this range – an amateur who publishes the online trail guide – and I’ve learned to doubt all published mileages. This guy uses GPS, which has been proven to significantly underestimate mileage in forested areas. But it’s easy to figure out from topo maps that the elevation gain is over 4,000′ (in the end, it turned out to be nearly 5,000′). And amazingly, I ended up doing the whole damn thing without a rest stop.

Sure, I had to stop to pee, to drink water, or to grab a snack from my pack. But even those stops were rare, and took only a few seconds. What’s more impressive, I didn’t even pant – I made a point of controlling my pace, breathing through my nose – until the last mile or so.

It’s a brutal trail, and not just during the initial shortcut. The second half is a continuous, steep, three-plus-mile traverse of a south-facing scree slope – a burn scar from the 2011 wildfire – at the angle of repose. The trail is just a bare strip along the slope – hardly any of it is flat – which is a strain on your entire lower body. And the scree is white volcanic tuff, so with that southern exposure you’ve got sunlight not only bearing down from above, but bouncing back at you from below, almost the entire distance. I got no help from the wind, so although the air temperature was mild, the radiant heating was fierce.

As on previous hikes this month, there was plenty of fall color, but with my determination to reach the crest, I wasn’t stopping to enjoy the little things. It’s one of those hikes that presents a series of false milestones – in this case, shoulder after shoulder after shoulder of secondary ridges that each seems to get you no closer to the crest. But each one presented a slightly different view of young aspen groves in gold tinged with red.

I’d memorized some features of the upper trail before heading out. I knew there was supposed to be a spring above the trail, just below the saddle. When I arrived there was a trickle of water crossing the trail, but I didn’t stop – I could sense the crest not too far ahead.

What an anti-climax! I was expecting a decent view, but the only views were of nearby ridges and low summits. The peak I’d been traversing presented an additional doable challenge, less than a half mile away, but after considering it seriously, I realized it would add another hour to my hike, make getting gas potentially harder, and ensure that I drove home in the dark, through deer-infested foothills.

The saddle itself was bleak. It, and most of the visible slopes around it, had been sterilized by the fire, so that not even aspens, oaks, or locusts were growing back. The trail guide said the peak above was “beautiful” and had “incredible” views, but I could see it was topped by an isolated grove of pines, so it didn’t really beckon me that strongly. I knew it would be just like all the other forested peaks I’d climbed in the Southwest. I’d never really loved these Southwestern mountains – they were just a temporary stand-in for my beloved Mojave Desert – and now it seemed like I was finally just sick of them.

So I spent only a few minutes up there, then strapped on my knee brace and started back down. Where the trickle of water crossed the trail, I began climbing toward its source, a low wall of striated black rock that clearly trapped groundwater draining from the peak, creating a perennial source of surface water. The trail guide said there was a catch basin above the rock bluff, but it had fallen into disrepair, so you needed to collect the runoff. I reached a point where water was dripping through a cleft in the rock, and set up my bottle to collect it. It was a pretty scenic spot, perched up a steep slope above a dramatic canyon. I carry a Steri-Pen for questionable water sources, but I couldn’t imagine that this was polluted. There hadn’t been livestock here in generations, if ever, this was clearly a rarely used trail, and I couldn’t imagine anyone camping on the peak above. The water was clear and had a neutral taste, so I waited ten minutes for my bottle to fill, had a good drink, and continued down the brutal traverse.

It wasn’t until I’d left the main trail for the shortcut, and dropped into some tiny, parklike basins, where widely spaced ponderosa pines provided dappled shade for deep bunchgrasses, that I regained my appreciation for these mountains. Humans just can’t help responding to parklike forest, especially in late afternoon in autumn, with a low angle sun accentuating colors and contrast.

I was entertained in this stretch by raucous groups of acorn woodpeckers, who at first seemed to be involved in a fracas, and later were clearly upset about me in their midst.

On the drive out of the mountains, I came upon the remnants of the birders, still at work in fading light. I stopped at the cafe to ask about gas, and found their outside patio teeming with unmasked diners. The chef makes the best burritos east of California, and in the crisp sunset light, I really longed to join them. How long it’d been since I’d been exposed to such a convivial scene! How I missed being able to hang out with friends and enjoy a beer and a meal!

Inside the store, the masked waiter said there was gas at Animas 15 miles away. They’d be closed now, but the pumps worked with your credit card 24 hours a day. I’d never been through Animas so it would be an adventure.

It turned out to be a long detour. The Animas Valley is vast, treeless except for what people have planted and irrigated around their homes, and seems to be perfectly flat – not my favorite landscape. The settlement itself is just a crossroads with a handful of businesses and a high school. The people live far out on the parched, featureless plain, dispersed in isolated ranch houses. So eerie. Returning north up the plain toward the Interstate, you pass through a seemingly endless Mormon community of dusty industrial farms where your speed is limited to 45. Finally you reach the stark playa, the Interstate and the railroad.

As predicted, I ended up driving home in the dark, where I encountered groups of deer standing in the middle of the highway waiting to be killed, and headlights in my mirror, people tailgating because I was driving too cautiously. But all in all, I’d finally reached that crest, it felt like a huge accomplishment, and I was still in a good mood when I got home.

5: Chopping Locust

I was due to return to the trail that takes me deeper and deeper into our legendary wilderness, but just before I left home, I remembered the vicious thorns – mainly the New Mexico locust that was filling in the burn scar in the farther reaches of the crest of the range. I decided to stop by my burned house and pick up my Dad’s machete.

As far as I could tell, he’d never used it. I believe he bought it mail order, from one of his dozens of catalogs, after he moved from the Oregon coast to his hometown in southeast Ohio and became an invalid. I have no idea why he thought he needed a machete when he couldn’t even walk without a shopping cart to hold onto – my best guess is that since Fox News and Rush Limbaugh had convinced him that mobs of young black men were planning a home invasion, he wanted to cover all his bases. In case he ran out of ammo for his many guns, the machete might be his last resort.

After inheriting it, I’d used it for years to trim my privet hedge, until I developed rotator cuff tears in both shoulders and had to get an electric hedge trimmer. I’d kept it sharp, and cutting those damn locusts could be both fun and rewarding. I’d just have to make sure not to chop myself in the process – a machete is a wicked tool.

Once I’d hiked down into the canyon, I discovered that autumn was still going strong in the mountains. That’s the thing about mountains – the topography results in a range of elevations and habitats that are timed to go off in sequence across a period of many weeks, from low canyon bottoms to high peaks and ridges. With the plants themselves on different schedules, our fall color can extend from September to December.

The last time I’d been here, it was the sumac, the oaks, the poison ivy, the aspens, and various high-elevation shrubs. The aspens had mostly dropped their leaves by now, but the maples were just peaking. The weather was mostly clear and calm, one of those chilly fall days when it’s hot in the sun and cold in the shade, but the continuous climb on treacherous footing had me sweating all day long.

We’d had 3-4 inches of snow in town the past Tuesday, and a hike to 9,000′ on Thursday had me trudging through patches up to 6″ deep. So here, where the extensive mountain mass tended to attract more precip, I was expecting even more snow cover. But on the crest at 9,500′, there were only a few scattered patches in shaded spots behind fallen logs, and they would melt soon. Miles beyond, I could see a few actual snow fields on the north slopes of distant peaks, but they were all above 10,000′.

On the back side of the crest saddle, where the trail entered the thicket of aspen and locust saplings, I pulled the machete out of my pack and began my rogue trail work in earnest. There were a lot of thorns and it was a tough job. I was determined to get just as far as I’d hiked on my last visit, climbing over dozens of logs, straining my shoulder, and ending up with a bloody hand. The extra time meant I’d have to drive home in the dark – so be it, I’d be grateful the next time, and would be able to hike faster and farther without all those locusts to slow me down.

As I returned down the canyon in early evening, the maple habitat in the lower stretch was even more glorious than it’d been in the morning. Every stop delayed my drive home, but as usual, I couldn’t help stopping repeatedly to take it in.

6: Ground-Truthing the Data

It was now the end of November. We were finally getting nightly freezes, into the 20s, but the sky was still mostly clear. This Sunday was expected to rise to the low 50s in town, but I knew that in the mountains, in shady canyons I’d freeze, whereas on a sunny ridge I’d be sweating.

I’d missed my midweek hike, so I was hoping for something long – 13-16 miles – with a lot of elevation gain. A return to the trail where I’d hacked all that locust would be perfect, because I could potentially add a mile or two to my previous one-way distance without all those thorns slowing me down. But when I checked the map, I could see that it still wouldn’t take me into significantly different terrain, or yield significantly new views. Once you get into the back country here, it’s all, unfortunately, much the same.

However, I couldn’t think of any more attractive options at this time, so I packed up and left town fairly early. It’s a one hour drive to the trailhead, so I had a lot of time to think, while gazing at the peaks I was slowly approaching. I began to consider the next trail to the south, the one I’d last hiked over a year ago, finally giving up on it because a jungly section in the canyon bottom took up so much time that you couldn’t reach interesting destinations on the upper trail.

My mind flipped back and forth between the options as I drove toward the mountains. My original destination would be a sure thing, but it’d only been a few weeks since I’d last been up there. Just before reaching the turnoff for the “jungly” trail, I made a snap decision and took it.

It’s a long drive on a couple of slow dirt roads through pinyon-juniper-oak foothills. I slowed to pass a father and son out hunting. When I finally got to the trailhead it was empty, but the log book showed regular visitors over the past couple of months, typically two or three parties per week. The most recent, a party of two, had claimed a 4-night hike, which was really encouraging. That indicated they’d hiked the entire trail, which meant it should be passable for me, despite the official trail condition report saying it was impassable beyond Windy Gap.

Like I said, I’d last hiked this over a year ago, but I’d hiked it three times so I retained a rough outline of it in memory. One thing about this trail is the scarcity of information online, which in turn indicates how little used it is, at least in the past decade of GPS data logging and sharing. Maybe people have been discouraged by the jungle in the canyon, or by the official claims of obstructions and poor tread. But I think another obstacle has been gross inaccuracy of GPS distance data for this trail, and the complete lack of online trip reports. This trail is an online mystery, despite leading to the most distinctive peak in the range.

I’d first heard of it back in 2008, at a party held by one of my neighbors. A couple hours after dark, her younger brother had shown up, saying he’d tried reaching the peak – supposedly a 9-mile one-way – with some younger friends, only to turn back when he realized it would take much longer than expected. He was a big guy, an athlete, but it was just too much for him. The others had continued, and he figured they might not get back until after midnight. He said it was a real killer, way too challenging for a day hike. But that was before the big wildfire.

As noted in other Dispatches, after a fire, these trails gradually turn into obstacle courses, first through erosion and then due to deadfall – the trunks of fire-killed trees – “logs” – fallen across the trail, sometimes up to three together, and as many as half a dozen every ten feet. It takes many years, sometimes decades, for all the fire-killed trunks to fall, and with each passing year, more fall. The Forest Service does very little trail clearing, mostly leaving it up to volunteers, and the volunteers are overwhelmed, so many trails are simply abandoned, depending on their popularity and other factors. High elevation trails are the hardest to clear because that’s where the continuous stands of big trees are.

Recently I’d been forced to come to grips with these abandoned trails – I just needed more distance than the cleared trails had to offer. The physical struggle to climb over, under, or around these obstacles was partly psychological. If you expect a good trail, you’re more likely to give up. But if you expect an obstacle course, you’re more likely to persevere.

Since the 2012 wildfire, I could only find one trip report for this trail – in 2017 – and two GPS data sets: one from 2017, charted on a site called HikeArizona, and the other anonymous, from AllTrails. The trip report, by a guy who hikes and blogs about New Mexico trails, only covered the early canyon-bottom section of the trail, since the guy lost the trail where it starts climbing the ridge. The HikeArizona route is a mystery – the only actual trip report on that site documented a young woman bushwhacking a completely different route, not shown, using 4wd roads to the south to access the peak from a different direction.

Another data set is embedded in Google Maps – strangely enough, because it’s the only trail mapped in this area, and Google Maps seldom shows forest trails. And it gets stranger: whereas the HikeArizona GPS route for this trail is wildly inaccurate, and the AllTrails GPS route omits most of the many switchbacks, the Google route is fairly accurate, but includes no distances.

The GPS distances shown on AllTrails and HikeArizona can’t be relied on, since they don’t include the switchbacks, but it’s also clear that they’re way off because even the easy parts of the trail take much longer to walk than they would if the logged distances were accurate. For example, the first real milestone on this trail, Windy Gap, the point where you get your first real view over into the next canyon, is logged by AllTrails and HikeArizona as 3.7 miles from the trailhead, but takes 2-1/2 hours to hike at top speed in the best conditions. And past Windy Gap, both crowdsourced sites deviate wildly from the actual route.

Once I got down into the canyon, I realized I’d forgotten how beautiful it is – much rockier than the canyon I usually hike to the north. That, in turn, makes it a more challenging hike and results in the narrow jungly section in the middle where fire-erosion debris and thickets make for slow going. Unlike in the canyon farther north, the stream here was running the entire distance, and with its many small waterfalls, made for a great soundtrack.

A mile or so in, I came to the first major obstruction, a huge pine trunk that I’d previously had to climb over – and somebody had cut a gap in it. Yay! Maybe a crew had been working on this trail, without yet entering it in the official list.

The farther you go, the more dramatic the canyon trail gets, as it climbs dozens of feet up and down to get around boulder falls, between overhanging cliffs. But more surprising at this time of year was the fall color! Peak color in this canyon seemed to be a month later than it’d been in the canyon to the north. The maples were hallucinatory, and in two days it would be December.

I didn’t find any more evidence of trail clearing, but the jungly section seemed much easier than before, just due to tread laid down by recent visitors. The only thing that really slowed me down was the need to stop and take off clothing as I climbed out of the canyon. I’d started in the 30s, but while climbing in sunlight, it felt like the 60s.

Each of these crest hikes, which have been partially cleared since the fire, features a prominent initial milestone: a high peak or saddle. The first time I hiked the trail, that was my destination. Subsequently, it became only the starting point for the additional mileage and elevation I was aiming for. Windy Gap was the first milestone on this hike. I’d made two forays beyond that last year, the first about a half mile, and the second to a second saddle nearly a mile beyond. Today I was hoping to use the second saddle as a starting point. Ignoring my previous experience with distances on this trail, I was relying on the GPS data, and hoping to reach the big peak, which the GPS data showed was only a little over 7 miles in. I’d been doing 15 mile round-trip hikes easily, so why not? The 360 degree views up there, at 10,658′, should be amazing!

I reached my previous milestone, the second saddle, by about 12:30. This was a little worrying. According to the GPS this would be only about 4 miles into the 7-mile hike. I should turn back at 1:30, which meant I had only an hour to do a further 6-mile round-trip on a trail the Forest Service claimed was impassable.

But I forged ahead, and soon discovered the trail was indeed abandoned. Confusingly, there was a handful of pink or orange ribbons, placed seemingly at random, that I used to confirm I was going in the right direction, but no actual trail work had been done, and even the ribbons soon disappeared.

I got around dozens of obstacles, and scratched my head a few times regarding which way to climb, but in general, I could always find some tread, even if it was no wider than an animal trail. There were definitely no human tracks, and it soon became evident that no humans had been this way in recent years. Not only were there no human prints in patches of bare dirt – only the occasional elk hoofprint – there were trees that had fallen long ago, with dense, rotten branches blocking the trail, that anyone passing would’ve had to break off. That party claiming the 4-night backpack had clearly been fantasizing.

I was climbing up the side of a broad bowl toward ridges that arced around the head of the canyon below, climbing toward high stands of aspen – some killed and fallen like matchsticks, others still thriving. The living aspens had been landmarks on previous hikes, especially when carrying their fall color, but all the foliage was gone now, at nearly 10,000′. Occasionally leaving my own cairns or rock arrows at questionable turns, I finally summitted a last group of switchbacks below the first ridgeline, and began a traverse that seemed endless, at a minimum 30% grade. It took me across talus slopes into the first big grove of fallen, bonelike aspens, where I encountered my most daunting obstacles.

Still, I kept going, nearly a mile on the long, steep traverse, until near the ridge top, I came to still more switchbacks. I checked my watch – I hadn’t even reached the midpoint of the arcing ridges, but I was well past my planned turnaround time to get back to the truck before dark. I could keep going, fighting the obstacles and scouting for trail, but that would force me into difficult route-finding in the dark through the jungle in the canyon bottom, which might add another half-hour to my return hike. And I now realized that the GPS data was so far off, it could take me another 3 hours to reach the peak. 7 miles to the peak! Hah! It was more like 7 miles to where I was now, and 10-11 miles to the peak.

This was no auspicious turnaround point. The trail wasn’t even level – I was just trying to maintain purchase on a steep slope, thousands of feet above the canyon, in a thicket of aspen and locust seedlings. But I figured I’d gone 7 miles and climbed well over 4,000′. My body was pretty thrashed from fighting the obstructions and the steep grades, and I had a 7-mile return hike with very steep descents and that rocky jungle/rollercoaster between cliffs in the canyon bottom. At least I had a clear satellite signal to log position on my own GPS message unit.

My legs were burning by the time I returned to the second saddle. Then I brought my knee up to straddle a big log in the trail, and screamed with pain. My inner thighs had caught fire with cramps, both of them, and I toppled to the ground on the other side of the big log. I tried to straighten my legs, but it only made it worse. I was screaming and rolling back and forth, there in the wilderness, high in the sky. I’d never felt such pain from cramps, and there seemed to be nothing I could do about it. I tried to get up to stretch, but the pain brought me back down. I tried to reach a leg up to stretch against the log, but every time I moved the cramps got worse.

Finally, lying on my stomach for I don’t know how many minutes, I was able to relax enough to carefully stand up. I began to hobble stiff-legged like Frankenstein, and gradually, with a hundred feet of walking across the saddle, the pain subsided. Then I did some stretching and drank some more water. I’d been drinking water regularly, but apparently not enough, and I was obviously short on electrolytes. Maybe I should start carrying some kind of electrolyte supplement in addition to water.

My legs recovered and I quickly descended into the canyon. Shortly after hitting the canyon bottom, with the sun beginning to set, I encountered another hiker just starting up the trail. It was a young guy carrying a smallish pack, but when I asked if he was doing an overnight, he said he just wanted to get somewhere with a view before dark, then he’d hike back out.

I told him he was shit out of luck, the sun would set before he’d reach the first saddle. I warned him not to get lost in the dark, but he said he had a couple of GPS units to keep him on the trail. Hah, good luck with that! But he was a nice guy and clearly wanted to chat. This was his first hike in the Gila – he’d just finished hiking in the San Mateos far to the northeast, in the recent burn scar. I recommended the next hike to the north, where the trail was much clearer and the accessible views better.

It’s interesting – before COVID the only other hikers I encountered on these trails were locals my age or older, but now, I seem to mainly run into twentysomethings from out of state. This guy was from Texas but clearly hadn’t grown up there – no accent.

I got through the jungle fairly easily, and reached the truck before dark, but as I started to drive out, a bright light flashed in my rearview mirror. Had the young guy given up and turned back right after meeting me? No, it was the full moon rising behind the mountains in the east, to light my way home.

  1. Jason Sexton says:

    Beautiful pics, Max! thanks for sharing your adventures.

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