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Over the Top

Monday, June 28th, 2021: Chiricahuas, Hikes, Southeast Arizona.

Muggy Climb

As we shared the heat wave covering so much of the West, most of my hiking options had dwindled. But our monsoon seemed ready to break. Rain was forecast over much of the region for most of the next week, beginning Sunday, my weekend hiking day. Even if it didn’t rain, surely clouds would form in the afternoon, bringing shade and much cooler temperatures.

My favorite trails in our nearby mountains were still closed by the now-dying wildfire, so I was anxious to return to the range over in Arizona with lots of exposed rock pinnacles, cliffs, caves, and waterfalls.

When I hike, I always carry a bird’s-eye-view of the landscape in my mind’s eye. You can get an overhead perspective on terrain simply by climbing to the highest peak in the vicinity, but of course I also study maps in order to pick a trail. The visitor center in the Arizona range also has an amazing large-scale relief map made by hand out of layers of wood, the size of a pool table, that you can walk around to view from all directions.

With north at the top and south at the bottom, the crest of the range is L-shaped, with a dozen major ridges and canyon systems reaching outward from the L in all directions. The upper right angle of the L encloses the inner canyons and ridges, with the trails I can access coming from the northeast. I’d hiked along the crest many times now, with a view down into the eastern and western canyons, but I’d never gotten a view into the south side of the range. After last weekend’s big hike, I sat down and calculated distances for hikes that would take me into that new world. I thought I could do it in a 16-mile round trip, especially in cooling weather.

Driving a couple hours one-way to hike in Arizona makes the day complicated. Regardless of where I’m hiking, I try to get back home before dark, to warm up leftovers and have dinner around 7. Hiking within an hour of home, that means I have 9 hours to hike. Driving to Arizona, I only have 7 hours. But now, with no mask requirement and most people vaccinated, I could stop at the cafe at the entrance to the mountains, and have my favorite red chile pork burrito instead of driving home for a late dinner – as long as I could finish my hike before the cafe’s 5pm closing time.

But as soon as I drove west over the low pass into the basin at the northeast foot of the mountains, and rolled my window down, I knew the day was starting hot. When it reaches 80 by 9am at home, it will be 90 here. The sun was burning down from a clear sky, but that’s often the way it is in monsoon season. Clouds usually don’t form until the afternoon.

With my high-clearance 4wd Sidekick having clutch problems, I had to take the little truck and park it at the mouth of the access road, at about 5,800′, and walk a mile and a half up the loose rock to the trailhead, which is really hard on my foot and knee. I’d also forgotten that with the monsoon ready to break, humidity would be high so temperatures that would normally be bearable would feel a lot worse.

The 1,900′ climb to the mouth of the hanging canyon is normally a fairly easy hike, but in that muggy morning it was a miserable slog.

Creek Relief

Body and clothes drenched with sweat, I entered the hanging canyon above the dry waterfall hoping for some relief. I could see small, isolated clouds peeking out from behind the high ridges beyond. And the creek in the canyon bottom is always one of the coolest places in these mountains. Once I got down in there among the lush riparian vegetation, I found myself unconsciously slowing down and making frequent stops to take pictures.

After damaging my good camera beyond repair, I’d reverted to the old camera, which had a broken display. So now I had to use the tiny optical viewfinder, which was barely usable itself due to dust somehow getting inside it. My experience of taking photos was now sort of a reverse version of the old heavy, bulky, time-consuming 19th century view cameras. I had this tiny device that might take decent photos if I could finess it properly, but with no camera monitor, I wouldn’t find out until I got home and uploaded the images to my computer.

By the time I traversed the old-growth pine-and-fir forest out of the creekbed to the Forest Service cabin near the crest, clouds were growing over the head of the canyon, forming intermittant patches of shade in the forest. My boots were feeling loose so I stopped for lunch at the cabin and tightened them. I checked my watch and found it was taking me 50% longer than usual to hike this stretch of trail. I doubted I’d be able to reach my planned destination – the morning heat and humidity had just slowed me down too much. I would keep going, but I’d lost my enthusiasm for the day’s hike.

New World

I’d noticed during the drive in that the whole area seemed to be devoid of people. Even the campgrounds, usually occupied by escapees from Tucson and Phoenix, had been empty. This trail to the crest was typically only used to reach the falls overlook below the hanging canyon, but the falls was dry now.

When I reached the crest trail above the cabin, with my first view west, I encountered recent boot tracks. Hikers typically drive to the 9,000′ crest at the north end of the L and hike southward along the ridgetop, because it’s much easier than the 3,300′ climb I do to get up there. The crest trail just gains and loses a couple hundred feet here and there throughout its 6 to 7 mile length.

Hiking the crest southward, I saw isolated storm clouds growing in the distance and passed through stretches of shade, and I enjoyed a little breeze, but the sun was still hot when it emerged from a cloud. Finally, traversing down across the west slope of the highest peak, I passed from the heat of post-wildfire aspen thickets into cooler fir forest, and suddenly saw a hiker approaching me up the trail ahead.

He was a tall, lanky guy with a mustache, my age or a little older, wearing a sweaty t-shirt full of holes. “You’re the first person I’ve seen all day!” he exclaimed with exhuberance, stopping to chat. We described our day’s hikes – like most people, he’d driven to the crest instead of climbing up, and had spent the day exploring side trails on a loop around the peak.

He excitedly described how on a previous hike down into the creek where I’d found relief from the heat, he’d heard something in a tree above the trail, looked up, and saw a bear resting in the canopy. The bear was just shifting in its sleep – it wasn’t aware of him watching from below. But as he hiked around the tree, the bear woke up, shinnied down the tree trunk, and bounded off through the forest.

I congratulated him on his good fortune, and we wished each other a good day and continued off in opposite directions.

I was running out of time – I already knew I would miss the cafe’s closing time, and would have to drive home in the dark for a late night dinner. I probably wouldn’t get any farther than I had in the past – the saddle south of the peak, just a tiny clearing in the forest, with no further views.

But when I reached the saddle, the trail beyond looked so easy, I just had to keep going. And it took me only a third of a mile to break out of the forest into a whole new world.

To my surprise, it was a world of rock. On my left opened a long, steep-sided canyon lined with sheer rock outcrops, and behind my left shoulder, at the canyon’s head, rose cliffs that formed the south face of the peak of the range. Straight in front of me was a distinctive rocky peak, and the trail ahead snaked through boulders that continued for some distance and studded the forested slope above at my right. Flowering shrubs and annuals decorated the crevices between boulders, and burn scars on the slopes of the canyon glowed a florid green with Gambel oak.

I hiked down through the boulders to a broad saddle below the sharp peak where I could get a panoramic view of this new canyon. Amazing how much a hike could change in such a short distance! And now clouds were coming together to form a dark mass over the range. I might even get lucky and hit some rain on the way back.

Out of Time

Returning up the trail to the crest, the race was on. Yes, I was already too late for that burrito, but I still didn’t relish driving home in the dark and eating leftovers at 9pm. My foot was feeling vulnerable again, and most of the trail was rocky and hard to maintain traction or balance on, but I did my best, traversing the crest trail and thumping down through the hanging canyon. Fortunately the clouds had cooled everything off, so heat was no longer a problem.

Hurrying down the creekbed, I suddenly came upon a little mammal rushing across a patch of sandy soil and into its burrow. About 4 inches long, fat and seemingly headless and tailless, with glossy dark brown fur, I’d never seen anything like it. Because of the hole I immediately thought gopher, but I thought they were bigger?

Drops of rain began to fall as I picked my way down the rocks of the creekbed, but they were sparse and ended as I traversed back out to the overlook above the dry falls.

Misty Mountains

There, I faced a strange view over the interior of the range. The cliffs that circle it were obscured by white mist – a fine rain falling over a large area. The mist gradually cleared as I climbed downward thousands of feet, my body feeling sorer and sorer all the way, until finally, traversing the forest above the trailhead, a light rain resumed.

At the bottom of the switchbacks, my phone began vibrating angrily. This time, it wasn’t a text alert – it was a voice alert: Dust warning! Visibility can suddenly drop to zero! This was for drivers crossing the playa on the interstate, more than 30 miles away.

My knees were really hurting, especially the left which is often a problem, so past the trailhead, lurching down the rocky road, I had to stop and strap on my knee brace. And opening up the knee brace, I re-injured my sprained hand, which happens at least once a week now.

Windy Night

I reached my little truck at 5:30 Arizona time, and unhappily reset my watch an hour later to New Mexico time, already hungry and thinking about that late dinner 2 hours up the road. Feeling exhausted, I drove slowly down the gravel road through the winding valley to the mouth of the canyon at the edge of the mountains. Lo and behold, there were still people seated at the outside patio of the cafe, and servers running back and forth. I pulled up and walked over, asking if they were still serving. “Yes, we don’t close until 6!”

Hallelujah! I got to enjoy my burrito, and a cold IPA on draft, at the end of my hike, instead of a hungry 2-hour drive. What a day!

As I was eating, a wind gust hit the patio outside, the high branches of sycamores whipping and people grabbing their napkins. And as I approached the interstate, I could see plumes of dust rising in a line across the broad valley. The interstate itself was mostly dust-free, but tractor-trailer rigs had slowed down and were struggling with a stiff crosswind. One had blown off the interstate down a slope and was surrounded with flashing emergency vehicles as a huge tow truck tried to drag it back up onto the roadway.

After sunset, I drove through another dust storm on the road to Silver City. And as I approached home, long after sunset, I could see the last light reflected in pools of rainwater beside the highway, and at intersections near my temporary rental. I was looking forward to the week ahead.

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