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Jackpot! A Hike to Remember

Monday, October 26th, 2020: Chiricahuas, Hikes, Nature, Plants, Southeast Arizona.

Since last Sunday’s underwhelming hike, my chronically injured foot had become inflamed, and I’d skipped my midweek hike, replaced the metatarsal pad on that orthotic, and conscientiously iced and contrast bathed the foot until it calmed down. And, I’d had a very stressful week trying to finish, for my insurance adjuster, my inventory of “items lost” in the fire – describing in excruciating detail the thousands of priceless things, full of life stories, that had been burned in my basement – things I’d already been reminded of week after week for the past three months.

On Friday, I’d sent off an inventory with glaring omissions, the product of desperation and PTSD, which I then spent additional desperate hours racing to correct. I needed a good hike. But I was still really tired of the hikes near home, so I did a little more research and discovered that a trail over on the Arizona line, that’d been blocked to me last winter, had been cleared by volunteers in September.

I was especially interested in this trail because it led to a different part of the crest of the range, and might allow me to climb the highest peak. After last week’s hike I wasn’t expecting it to be particularly scenic, although the early segment did overlook the 365′ high waterfall – which I was sure would be dry now, after our prolonged drought.

We were due for our first storm of the season on Tuesday, and clouds were already blowing over from the west. The day’s high, at the foot of the mountains, was forecast to each 80, and after last week’s experience with radiant heating at high elevation, I didn’t think I’d need any winter clothing. But I packed my chilly-weather gear as usual, because in the mountains you never know.

One challenge with this trail is that the trailhead lies at the end of a very nasty 1-1/2 mile 4wd road lined with sharp rocks and boulders, constraining my vehicle to a literal crawl. While planning the hike at home, I’d struggled to find ways to extend the distance and elevation to match other recent hikes, and after I’d already driven most of this difficult road, I realized I should’ve just parked at the bottom and walked the road – that would’ve given me the extra distance and elevation I craved. Oh well, next time. It’s just another example of how absent-minded I’ve become since my fire.

After parking at the trailhead and starting up, I glanced back at my vehicle and suddenly noticed a snag – a dead tree – with its top leaning over the left side of my vehicle, held up only by the limb of another tree. The snag itself was rotten and its trunk sagged. What were the chances it would fall on my vehicle while I was hiking? Based on the position, I was pretty sure it would just cause cosmetic damage. Due to the slow drive, I was already getting a late start. I decided to trust the universe, although I know a certain risk-averse friend who will chastise me yet again for taking unnecessary risks.

At 10:30am the morning was chilly but partly sunny and calm as I worked my way up the long, shallow canyon toward the switchbacks that led to the falls overlook. I had my shirt buttoned up, but didn’t need a sweater or jacket. When I reached the overlook, I noticed a little trail that led out along a narrow ridge, and discovered something I’d missed on my first visit. If you held onto the branches of shrubs, you could scramble out onto the edge of a cliff and get a full frontal view of the falls. I was surprised to see a trickle of water still running over the falls, and the foliage around it was amazing! I couldn’t figure out what those red trees were – I didn’t see them anywhere else.

From the overlook, the main trail switchbacks steeply up to the mouth of a “hanging” canyon, where I’d been stopped last winter by a big blowdown of living pines. The crew had cleared them all, and I made my way quickly up the canyon, along a trail that dips toward the creek in the bottom, which was still running. Golden aspen saplings carpeted the opposite slope above.

I had a vague notion that the trail would cross the creek, but instead, it entered a narrow, rocky gulch and followed the creek for quite a distance. It was one of the prettiest places I’d yet seen in these mountains, singing with the sound of water and painted with a riot of fall color. Maybe I’d underestimated this trail!

Finally the trail climbed above the creek, and after a few more gentle switchbacks I spotted the cabin ahead through the trees. I knew there was a cabin, used by trail crews and locked, but I had no idea it’d be so pretty. It’s always a shock to see a house way up in the mountains, miles from any road.

From there, it was a short walk to the saddle where this trail ended in its junction with the main crest trail. But just before I reached the saddle, I began to hear a roaring like a freight train. I looked up, and saw the tops of tall pines bending in a gale force wind. I walked directly from calm air in the canyon to a hurricane on the saddle, and it was easy to see why. I’d crossed the watershed, and now had a view more than a hundred miles to the west, with nothing to stop that west wind.

I dropped my pack and hauled out my sweater, windbreaker, and knit cap, and packed away my straw shade hat. The cloud cover was nearly complete, air temperature was probably in the 50s, and wind chill brutal, but I was now plenty warm. From here, the crest trail led south toward the peak of the range, traversing a steep slope whose forest had been completely burned off. In fact, most of the slopes I could see had been cleared by the 2011 wildfire, but like all burn scars in these Southwestern mountains, they were being patchily colonized by ferns, oaks, and aspens, so the old carpet of green was now a coat of many colors. And the lack of forest meant that I had a truly spectacular view west for the entire distance of the traverse, out over a long canyon to a broad plain and many far blue ranges I couldn’t identify.

The wind continued throughout the traverse – it was like being a fly on a wall, bearing the full brunt – but I love all kinds of weather and this was exhilarating at the end of an unusually hot, dry October. One of my favorite things in the world is to walk along a ridge with endless views across the landscape below. It’s a luxury that comes at the cost of the effort of climbing up there – it’s the payoff.

I’d been seeing fresh boot tracks – the ubiquitous Merrell Moabs – in the dirt of the crest trail, and halfway along the traverse, I passed a college-age couple returning, dressed in shorts and short-sleeved shirts – ah, the optimism of youth! They seemed to be having a great time, though. I hadn’t seen their tracks on the lower trail, so I figured they’d started from the crest trailhead, farther north, which is reached by a very long forest road and eliminates the need for a climb.

The next saddle, at the base of the peak, was aglow with fall color and offered three choices of trail. I’d planned to hike the peak, and since the trail guide showed the peak trail continuing down the back side, I figured I’d use that to add distance, looping around on a lower trail to return to the saddle and gain some more elevation.

In general, trails in this range are much better maintained than our trails near home, but the short trail to the peak was almost shockingly good. To my frustration, forest on top was intact, so there were no views, and after exploring a few hundred yards, I couldn’t find the extension of the trail down the back side. So I had to return the way I’d come.

Back at the junction, I took the western fork, which I believed dropped a few hundred feet to another junction saddle behind the peak. It turned out to be mostly forested, but with enough breaks to keep the western view in sight. It was quite rocky and really a beautiful stretch of trail, adding over a mile one-way to my hike. Despite the cloud cover, the colors of isolated trees and patches of foliage seemed to be intensifying as the sun sank lower in the southwest. I was realizing this was by far the best hike I’d found in this range – finally!

The hour was getting late and it was time to head back the way I’d come. I was really craving a red chile pork burrito at the cafe at the entrance to the mountains – it’d been so long since I’d had good Mexican food! But they close at 6, and it was almost 3, and I had a 6 or 7 mile hike back down to the trailhead. And from there, that mile and a half of road from hell – which took at least 15 minutes. And after that, the long dirt road down the main canyon, with its 15mph speed limit and blind curves hiding oblivious birders.

But the biggest obstacle to my burrito was COVID. According to the guidelines, if I interacted with anyone here, I’d need to self-quarantine and get tested back home. All that for a burrito? I was sorely tempted, because I live alone, have no social life anyway, and no pressing plans to go out while at home. Hell, I’d probably even get a room at the Lodge, since otherwise I’d be driving home in the dark, tired and sleepy after that burrito.

All the way back along the howling traverse with its glorious western vista. And finally to the first saddle, with its apocalyptic gale. A few yards down the trail past the saddle, I stepped out of the wind, and the freight train sound fell away. The temperature increased about 20 degrees and I packed away my outerwear and strapped on my knee brace for the long descent.

Approaching the cabin, I flushed a hawk out of the lower branches, but it stopped on a snag nearby and ignored me.

My vulnerable foot doesn’t like to be rushed. But in the end, it was the beauty of this place that slowed me down the most. Once I was in the canyon bottom, the streamside foliage stopped me again and again.

At the falls overlook, I had to clamber out on that cliff again, because the light had been bad for pictures in the morning. And the farther I went down the trail, the more wonder I found in little things.

By the time I got to the vehicle, it was 5:45. No way was I going to get that burrito. It took me 20 minutes to drive the 1-1/2 mile 4wd road. It was 6:30 by the time I reached the cafe. I tried the door but it was locked. There was nothing for it but to drive the two hours home in the dark and warm up some leftovers.

It was worth it.

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