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Longest Hike on the Longest Day

Monday, June 21st, 2021: Black Range, Hikes, Hillsboro, Southwest New Mexico.

Shrinking Options

It was the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, the turning in the arc of the sun’s orbit. The solstices used to be sacred to me – my personal holidays, on which I tried to go somewhere elevated for my little rituals, often making a 3-day road-and-camping trip out of it. But life’s gotten progressively harder, and the past year’s been the hardest of all, with the solstices catching me unprepared.

Our heat wave continued, with a high of 99 forecast here in town, at 6,000′. I was used to hiking through the hottest weeks of summer, seeking shaded canyons and forests and the high-elevation crest trails where you could usually depend on a breeze, but this heat was a little extreme.

Miraculously, the solstice fell on a Sunday this year, and the least I could do was go for a solstice hike. I was also trying to get back on track after a month-long hiatus – a stressful month during which I’d missed my main form of stress relief – and last Sunday’s hike had been aborted due to smoke from the big wildfire in the wilderness to the north.

The problem was that all but one of our nearby high-elevation trails was closed because of the fire. And that one open trail was exposed to full sun for most of its distance. The only well-shaded trail near town was the last one I’d hiked, a month ago, so I wasn’t keen to hit it again. And the more scenic trails over the border in Arizona were lower elevation and would be ten degrees hotter – not an option at all.

As usual, when resuming after a break, I was torn between taking it easy on myself and gradually working up to my pre-break level, or challenging myself to try to compensate for the time off. The trail I was forced to take, the exposed crest trail, offered two levels of effort. I could hike over the 10,000′ peak and down the back side to the first saddle, returning for a round-trip distance of 13.5 miles and accumulated elevation gain of 3,200′. Or I could fight my way through blowdown and deadfall on the abandoned section of trail to the second saddle, for 15.5 miles and 3,500′. My current target for these Sunday hikes is 14-16 miles and 4,000′-5,000′ elevation gain, but considering the heat and the month off, I figured I’d be content with the easier option.

Hot Climb

I loaded my drinking water reservoir with ice and packed the little cooler with ice to cool an extra water bottle in the truck for the end of the day. On the drive to the pass I was surprised to find little traffic, and the shaded mountain picnic areas empty. Apparently everyone was staying home with the air conditioning on full blast.

Smoke from the distant fire had laid a low blanket of haze over southwest New Mexico, but so widely dispersed you could barely smell it. At 9am it was already hot at the 8,200′ trailhead, and the air was absolutely still. On hot days I unconsciously speed up to get past the exposed section of trail and reach the shaded part, and within a half mile of the trailhead I caught up with, and passed, a young couple and their dog. So far, I wasn’t feeling any loss of conditioning from my month off.

After another half mile I passed another couple, only a little younger than me, returning down the trail. I said they were smart to be leaving early, but the man bragged that unlike me, they’d gotten an early start this morning. Since it’s a 5-1/2 mile hike to the peak, to make it all the way they would’ve had to start their hike at 4am – so they likely hadn’t gone all the way. Those were the only people I saw all day on this popular trail.

It was such a relief to finally reach patches of forest after the first 3 miles, stepping out of the sun’s radiant heating into shade that felt 20 degrees cooler. This trail is normally one of the best for wildflowers and berries at this time of year, but the heat wave had accelerated the bloom and I’d missed most of it. One thing I hadn’t missed was butterflies – the mountainsides were swarming with them, especially the big yellow-and-black swallowtails.

Before 11:30am, still walking fast, I crossed over the peak and headed down the crest trail on the back side without stopping.

Thorny Descent

Two or three years ago I met a rare Forest Service trail crew clearing deadfall from the burned back side trail, but the successional thickets of locust and aspen are quick to overwhelm the trail. So I had a certain amount of bushwhacking to do to reach the first saddle. In fact, it was so overgrown, it was obvious that despite the trail crew’s work, no one besides me is using this crest trail anymore.

This is when I admit I had a hidden agenda. Trail work in the Southwest is typically done in April, and back in May, before my hiking hiatus, I’d checked out the latest map of cleared trails, and was surprised to see that the previously abandoned stretch of trail beyond the saddle was marked as cleared. This section is 2.5 miles long and ends at a junction of four trails in a saddle I’d reached more than a decade ago, where I’d encountered a “cinnamon bear” – a black bear with a patch of red fur.

If the trail to the junction was really clear now, I could hike it much faster. It would turn this hot day into an unprecedented marathon, but I’d get to see new ground and new perspectives on the range, and what was usually an anticlimactic, incomplete hike would finally get a real destination.

The Hard Part

I wasn’t too surprised when I reached the first saddle and discovered that the next section of trail hadn’t been cleared after all. The Forest Service map turned out to be in error. The initial hundred yards was still blocked by a big blowdown of old-growth ponderosa pine trees that had to be laboriously climbed over, followed by a broad, shallow bowl filled with soil loosened and crisscrossed by giant fallen Douglas firs.

But since I’d been hiking fast, the day was still young, and my body felt great, happy to be put to work again. I made my way down through the blowdown maze, then across the bottom of the drainage onto the traverse of a steep, narrow canyon, where smaller-diameter deadfall filled in by thorny locust creates a more dense obstacle course for the next mile, up to the second saddle, which is as far as I’d ever gotten in my available time.

As on the descent from the peak, the only tracks on this section of trail were from animals. I came upon a fairly recent pile of black scat which looked like mountain lion, then a large four-toed track that didn’t look like anything familiar. The piles of black scat became regular, and I realized it was probably from a bear instead. Bear scat can take many forms depending on what they’re eating, and since unlike a lion they eat continuously, they also poop frequently.

When I reached the second saddle, it was still relatively early, and I still felt good. Clouds were forming over the mountains and I was getting periods of shade. It actually felt cooler than it had in the morning.

A stretch of daunting deadfall blocked the unexplored trail head, but I figured I could at least go a little ways and see how bad it was.

New Ground

It didn’t seem too bad. Past the initial deadfall, a good section of trail continued for a quarter mile, curving into a narrow drainage and through a tight gap between dramatic rock outcrops. Any exposed rock improves my mood, so I kept going, despite feeling a little uneasy about the return hike. I knew I’d already hiked farther than at any time in the past 30 years. How was this possible, after taking a month off?

I kept encountering stretches of thorn thickets and deadfall to fight through, but never very long. The trail snaked through an even larger and more dramatic rock outcrop, which seemed like a reward for the effort I was putting in. And I came around a bend and a new canyon opened up in front of me, which I suddenly realized must be the one with the trail junction saddle. Unbelievable! I was actually going to hike the full distance, and this would turn into one of the longest hikes I’d ever done.

Unfortunately, after turning that corner I entered a seemingly endless, straight, steep traverse hemmed in by thorny locust and Gambel oak, like an overgrown green corridor that paralleled a fairly new stretch of barbed wire fence. Not the most scenic or pleasant way to finish an out-hike, but since I’d come this far I simply had to reach that junction.

At the bottom, when I finally emerged from the thicket into the broad clearing, all those long-ago memories flooded back. It was an ugly place, but I felt a sense of miraculous accomplishment. And my body felt fine. Clouds had filled the sky and were getting darker, and I anticipated no problems on the return hike. I might even get some soothing rain!

The previous visit to this saddle had taken place three years before the fire, and I could now see how the fire had taken a bite out of the forest on the east side. On that previous hike, I’d explored a few hundred yards down into that now-destroyed old-growth fir forest, spooking a hidden flock of big birds roosting in the lower branches that created a calamatous thrashing when I approached. I’d figured it was either turkeys or band-tailed pigeons. And then I’d encountered that bear browsing in a stand of ferns as I left the saddle. A blast from a magical past.

I took off my pack and sat for a while on a log left by backpackers at a fire ring, adding some hydration supplement to my water bottle. On such a long hike in hot weather I was likely to run short of water and get leg cramps, so better safe than sorry.

Taking a Fall

The hike back to the second saddle went fairly quickly, and I still loved those rock outcrops which created welcome breaks in the forest cover. With my solstice rituals interrupted it was easy to forget what day it was, but on that return hike I suddenly realized that my previous visit to that junction saddle had also occurred on the summer solstice, back in 2010. Unbelievable! I’d unconsciously returned to the same place on the same day of the year, but by a much longer and more arduous route this time.

Just past the second saddle is a really tricky maze of small-diameter deadfall that you have to slowly and cautiously clamber over and through using all four limbs. Midway through the maze my back foot got caught under a branch and the weight of my pack toppled me onto a pile of small logs with protruding dagger-like broken branches, one of which drove into my shin.

This is something I’ve always feared, and it hurt like hell, but I wear tough pants and heavy socks pulled up to my knees. No blood appeared immediately on the outside of my pants, so I just tried to ignore it, got up, and kept going.

Costly Mistake

By the time I reached the first saddle I was starting to get tired. I figured I’d gone 12 miles and still had over 6 miles to go. I laid down on pine needles and gazed at the darkening clouds overhead. Thunder was rolling from all directions, every few minutes, and I occasionally felt isolated raindrops on my face.

After ten minutes I got up, and suddenly noticed the flap over the pocket of my pack was loose. Back at the junction saddle, after taking out the hydration supplement, I’d forgotten to cinch that flap shut. My heart sank, because that pocket holds hundreds of dollars worth of stuff, including my GPS message device.

Sure enough, something was missing – my emergency bottle of prescription pain meds, recently renewed. I was sure it’d fallen out when I took that painful fall, a mile back near the second saddle. I could tell my doctor I’d lost it, but in the hysteria of our current War on Drugs, regularly encouraged by alarmist stories in both liberal and conservative media, it would put me under suspicion of abuse and put him in danger of criminal prosecution. And the highly restrictive law would probably require me to wait a couple of months before renewing anyway.

Now I was in trouble. I was already returning from a record hike, but going back to retrieve that bottle would make it the longest hike I’d ever done. And that was the hardest, most dangerous stretch of trail.

With thunder crashing all around, I retrieved a lightweight summer rain shell from my pack. I hung the pack from a branch and unfolded my rainproof poncho to cover it. Then I started back down through the maze of blowdown, deadfall, and thorny locust. I was so glad to be hiking in a long-sleeved shirt and thorn-resistant long pants, unlike most white folks who wear shorts and t-shirts on these trails. I used to be one of those, often going shirtless in hope of getting a tan, until I realized I was seriously risking cancer.

Knowing I had to do this, I’d switched into full survival mode, so my emotions were on hold, my mind and senses sharpened. Lighter without the pack, I could move faster, but was even more cautious than usual, knowing an injury now would really screw me up.

Sure enough, after fighting my way back down that narrow canyon, I found the bottle hiding under crisscrossing branches just below the trail, at the exact spot where I fell.

Challenging Bypass

Fighting my way back up to the first saddle and shouldering my pack, I took the fairly easy decision not to climb back up the peak as usual. There’s a bypass trail that circles the southwest side of the peak, returning to the main trail about a thousand feet lower. I’d been told it had been cleared two or three years ago, but I’d explored the first third of it last year and found it still pretty overgrown, with little or no tread. It wouldn’t be easy, and it wouldn’t shorten my return hike, but it would save me the thousand foot climb.

I’d felt more light rain and heard frequent thunder during the retrieval hike, but now the storm had moved west, where I could still hear thunder far in the distance, as I picked my way through thickets and deadfall, traversing the steep flank of the peak on the bypass trail. There was so little actual tread across the steep slopes of loose dirt that at one point I put my foot down and it just dropped out from under me, and I slammed down on my side, grabbing a root to stop my slide. Air temperature had stabilized in the low 80s, and a strong wind was rising out of the west.

Home Stretch

The bypass trail joins the peak trail at a long, exposed north-south saddle, like a bridge between mountains, and there the west wind was so fierce my hat was blowing off despite the tight chin strap. I just had to carry it. That wind would continue to get stronger, all the way back home. What a day of weather!

I could see occasional bolts of lighting in the west, and suddenly noticed a plume of smoke rising, about where the highway to town approaches the big copper mine. Would my way back home be blocked?

My joints were starting to feel a little sore, but not as badly as on much shorter hikes, during the period when I was starting to build capacity three years ago. I thought about my previous longest hike, the “survival hike” we’d been forced into in the middle of the night, at similar elevation on my aboriginal skills course in August 1990. We’d walked 18.5 miles that night, and I’d been so depleted and sore that I spent three days resting afterwards. I was 38 at the time, and had thought myself in good shape, but now I realized I hadn’t prepared myself with any cardio conditioning back then. Despite being much older, I’m in much better shape now, with much more capacity.

Highway Home

There was almost no traffic on the highway back to town, so I wondered if I’d find the road closed by wildfire. It was eerie driving the empty road through that fierce wind. The fire turned out to be in low forested hills about a half mile north of the highway, and I only saw one emergency vehicle parked at the mouth of a dirt road with its lights flashing.

Amazingly, I arrived home feeling no more sore or exhausted than usual. My old computer and iPad are no longer capable of accessing the hiking websites with trail data, so I’ll have to walk over to the library to find out exactly how far I hiked and how much elevation I got, but I figure it had to be over 21 miles and 3,000′.

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