Dispatches
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Far From Home

Sunday, November 8th, 2020: Hikes, Nature, Pinalenos, Plants, Rocks, Southeast Arizona.

The days were getting cooler. About time – it was the second week of November! Last night we had a high wind advisory, so before leaving for my Sunday hike, I drove into town to check my burned house for fallen limbs. Sure enough, the small elm that leaned over the burned back corner had dropped a limb on my patio.

It had rained a little last night, but the sky had mostly cleared as I drove west. I’d decided to try a new trail, over across the state line, that I’d avoided in the past. I wasn’t sure why. The range was supposed to have the densest black bear population in the country, and this trail went up Bear Canyon. But black bears are shy – I was actually hoping to see one.

It’s hunting season and that area, although far from any town, is popular, so I was also expecting to run into hunters.

The two hour drive passes through some of the loneliest country in the West.

The approach is up a beautiful valley strewn with boulders, between two mountain ranges – the tall one I was hoping to climb, and a lower, drier range that reminds me of my favorite mountains in the Mojave. Golden granite boulders, cliffs, and pinnacles. Balancing rocks. Lots of them.

I wasn’t sure about finding the trailhead, but finding the turnoff was easy. And sure enough, the road to the trailhead was almost completely blocked by a group of hunters with several big trucks and a tent already set up. I waved and carefully passed them onto a badly eroded 4wd track that I pursued for another hundred yards before pulling off and parking.

It took me a while to find the trail – there was no marker, but after one false start, I backtracked and discovered a crude cairn. The trail turned out to be used and maintained primarily by cattle, until it started climbing out of the canyon onto the ridge, where it became a narrow footpath, sometimes hard to follow. I was the first person to use it in a long while.

Aside from the granite, I like the trails on this side of the mountain because they take you from high-desert Sonoran habitat up into mixed conifer forest – and the two ecosystems intermingle in a broad elevational band, in a really interesting way. This side of the mountains shows no evidence of having burned, but the habitat is really complex. I wonder if this is the way all our Southwestern mountains were before wildfire suppression?

It was a big climb – over 4,000′ in 6 miles – and it exposed me to a cold west wind most of the way. Once I reached the crest it was freezing cold, but still mostly sunny. I took a side trip up the little peak which is known for ladybugs in warmer weather, but today was far too cold for them.

The trail continues past the ladybug peak to connect with the scary road that climbs these mountains from the north side. On the way, I got a view north – to Safford, the “city of the plain” – and west, to the highest peaks of the range.

On the way down, I lost my footing in soft dirt trying to bypass a fallen log, and had a bad fall. The wind was brutal and I was starting to get a chill, so I put on all my warm clothing. Then I passed a young guy who was wearing shorts – but unlike me, he was still climbing and generating body heat.

I’d been impressed by the trail going up, but coming back down it seemed a lot rockier and more difficult. Once again, I was fooled by the time change. The sun was setting earlier than I expected.

Near the bottom, I heard footsteps behind me. It was the young guy from the crest. I asked him about his hike, and where he was from – he was from Indiana, like me! He said he’d gone stir crazy, trapped in Indianapolis by COVID, and had decided to take a solo three-week road trip around the west. He was working remotely and hiking as much as possible. He said he just can’t get enough of the West. I sensed that his days in the flatlands of Indiana are numbered. I don’t know how people can stand living in a place with no mountains…

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