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Welcome to Mexico!

Monday, February 22nd, 2021: Chiricahuas, Hikes, Southeast Arizona.

Last time I returned from the Chiricahuas, near sunset, I was driving up through the low pass through the Peloncillos when I glanced left at a small hollow in the granite cliffs and saw a stone man. The light was just right to highlight this small pinnacle with a spherical top. So this morning, on my way back, I stopped to photograph it. Unfortunately the light was wrong, but now I saw it had a companion on the left.

Our mountains had received a lot of snow last week, and I’d already fought my way through 14″ of powder to 7,400′ on my shorter midweek hike. So for today’s long day hike, I was looking for a trail that stayed well below 8,000′ and avoided north slopes. During earlier researches I’d seen that I could chain together three trails in the Chiricahuas to get plenty of distance at lower elevation, but I hadn’t tried that yet because it didn’t offer enough elevation gain to suit me. Today might be the right time.

It starts in the most famous part of the range: South Fork Canyon, which is ground zero for birders. This canyon suffered major erosion and debris flows after the 2011 Horseshoe 2 fire, so the bottom was full of logs, piles of pale rock, and erratic boulders carried down from above.

But much of the riparian forest is intact. I was strolling rapidly through the shade along a winding trail lined with leaf litter when I heard a rustling in the vegetation above the trail at my right. I stopped and turned and saw a sight so amazing that I was pretty much paralyzed.

A smallish hawk with a high-contrast banded tail – probably a Cooper’s – launched laboriously off the slope, only about 6′ above ground, carrying a full-grown reddish squirrel – probably the Mexican fox squirrel endemic to this range – dangling by its shoulders from the hawk’s claws, so that the hawk and its prey were both facing the same direction. The squirrel wasn’t struggling so it was probably either dead already or in shock.

The hawk continued slowly, carrying its prize past me at a distance of only about 8′, and steadily off into the distance between the trunks of the riparian forest. The weight of that hawk is virtually the same as the weight of a squirrel. That would be like me carrying someone my own weight, while flapping my wings.

I stared off into the distance for a minute or two, then continued following the newly re-routed trail upstream for two miles. Then I turned left onto a branch trail that climbed the steep eastern ridge out of the canyon. At a saddle where the trail crosses the crest is an outcrop of amazing bright red rock, probably volcanic tuff or conglomerate like most of the rock in this region.

Past the red rock saddle the trail enters a new landscape, hidden from below, surrounding a sort of hanging canyon. The 2011 fire made short, narrow runs into this canyon from the east, so the current vegetation is a mosaic. The whole area feels close, intimate, and shady.

After crossing the canyon, the trail switchbacks up to a higher saddle which represents a divide between the interior and exterior of the range. I’d seen footprints ahead of me on the trail going into this canyon, but I left them behind as I climbed, and as usual I was the first to complete this trail this season.

When I reached the high saddle at the divide, my cell phone made the incoming message sound. “Welcome!” said the text from Verizon. “You are now in Mexico. The following rates apply…”

I was a few miles southeast of where I’d previously hiked in this range, and from that saddle, my view was south, and what I saw really was the mountains of Mexico. My phone was now connected to a tower somewhere over the border.

The guy who monopolizes trail information for this range had reported this trail in “good” condition. But the next trail I planned to take, southwest from this saddle, was reported to be in “bad” condition. I’d already had to climb around a couple of badly eroded sections on the climb out of the canyon, so I was curious about what I would find ahead on the next trail.

The first challenge was finding the trail. Searching through the scrub in the saddle, I eventually came upon two old wooden signposts, with a dry-rotted, illegible trail sign at their feet. Ahead was a narrow gap between two shrubs that might be the trail.

In the event, this trail turned out to be really easy to follow. It lacked the big washouts of the earlier trail. Its only drawback was that it now seemed to be used only by game; most of it was narrow and banked, rather than flat, crossing loose gravel on steep slopes, which was made it hard on my vulnerable foot.

Traversing around the outside of a ridge, it eventually climbed to a still higher saddle which gave me a broad view of Horseshoe Canyon, a major canyon on the south side of the range, and Sentinal Peak, the southernmost peak in the range. And I saw more of Mexico.

I kept traversing past the saddle until I felt my time was up and I had to turn back. I figured I’d gone at least 7 miles already.

It was a long slog back. On the way up, I’d felt like this trail was in better shape than most, but with my sensitive foot, they all feel worse going down. According to the years-old GPS data of the trail guy, I hiked less than 14 miles round trip. But I was walking fast during the entire hike, and even discounting short breaks, it took me an hour longer than a 16-mile hike with similar elevation that I did last summer. So go figure.

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