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Land of the Lost

Monday, October 25th, 2021: Blue Range, Hikes, Southwest New Mexico.

In my last Dispatch I said life was only going to get harder, and that was an understatement. But 14 months after the fire, I was finally back in my (still under construction) house, and this Sunday, I was determined to resume hiking.

With only one other hike during the past 5 weeks, and my sanity on a cliff’s edge, I didn’t want to pick something brutal. But I didn’t mind driving, so I decided to return to the area a little over an hour and a half away where I’d only done one short exploratory hike last summer. The accessible hikes there didn’t look challenging at all on the map – the one I was targeting today looked like a ten mile round trip with less than 2,000′ of elevation gain – a walk in the park. With the extra driving, I’d hit the trail late, and I figured on doing only a seven hour hike so I could get home before dark.

It’s an extremely “wild” area – an incredibly rugged range of lower mountains on the New Mexico-Arizona border with a small river draining through it. Like our other local mountains, it’s not a distinct range – it’s simply a lower-elevation section of the continuous mountains that run for hundreds of miles across the Southwest. The topography is so convoluted I can’t even make sense of it with a topo map.

From the New Mexico side, a graded gravel road leads into the heart of the area, lined with dirt pull-outs which all seem to be occupied by long-term RV dwellers, folks hiding out from the modern world.

It’s one of the twistiest roads I’ve ever seen, but fortunately my trailhead is only a ten minute drive from the already remote and lonesome highway.

The trail starts in parklike ponderosa forest, following the bank of a now-dry creek which obviously saw some big floods during our monsoon. I saw one boot track during the first hundred yards, but after that I saw no more sign of humans. The trail was being used only by cattle.

A quarter mile in, the creek was running and I ran into five skittish cows, one of which was a longhorn steer. They’d been fouling the creek pretty bad.

Eventually the trail crossed the creek, marked by cairns, and began climbing. It led out of the riparian forest into open pinyon-juniper-oak, where I stopped for a drink and a snack.

Under the tall pines, I’d had my sunglasses hooked on the front of my sweater, which I needed to take off, so I temporarily hung the sunglasses through a loop on the back of my pack. Then I flipped the lid of the pack open (covering the stashed sunglasses), took off my sweater, and stuffed it into the pack. Then I remembered I’d been carrying the sunglasses, and pulled out the sweater to check for them. Not there, so I began scanning the ground around my pack. Damn! This was the second time I’d lost those expensive sunglasses!

I picked up the pack and looked all around it, still not seeing them. So I left the pack and started back down the trail, watching closely on each side. I made it all the way back to the creek and never found them, so I gave up and began climbing again. Damn! All the stress had turned me into a basket case and I was making bad mistakes.

Halfway back to the pack I suddenly remembered where I’d put the sunglasses, and felt like an even bigger idiot. PTSD is no joke, and I’d unknowingly inaugurated the theme of the day: continually getting sidetracked.

Despite feeling like an idiot, I was really excited to be hiking again, especially in this brisk fall weather. It’d been freezing at home when I left town, but the sky was mostly clear with a forecast of 60s in the afternoon.

I was climbing a southern arm of a branching ridge that would eventually lead to my destination, and the first payoff came as I crossed over a small rise and found myself on the brink of a cliff, the head of a small box canyon lined with stratified white conglomerate.

From there, the trail climbed steeply up a south-facing slope toward the main ridge. Twice it dipped through small drainages lined with ponderosa forest, but mostly it was exposed, and the higher it climbed, the rockier it got. I spooked a couple of mule deer and ran into at least a dozen cattle coming down the trail. And as I climbed through the sunlight flies began to swarm my face, which surprised me considering the temperature couldn’t be higher than 60 at that point. Out with the old head net.

But that was a minor inconvenience compared to the trail surface. The final climb to the main ridge was lined with my nemesis, the ankle-wrenching “volcanic cobbles”. This is a surface you can’t avoid – as bad as it is on the trail, it’s even worse off the trail. This had been the surface on my first hike in this area, but for some reason – probably PTSD again – I’d come here in denial, expecting this trail to be different.

At the top, the trail entered more parklike ponderosa forest and began descending the shallow slope of a seemingly endless forested bowl. This area had been heavily grazed, and in the flat bottom of the bowl the trail led through an open gate into a primitive corral. A black calf stood staring at me to the left of the corral, and its mother stood staring on the right.

On the far side of the corral stood a big cairn. From the map I’d expected to find the junction of this trail with the main trail that came up from a campground 3 miles away, but there was only one trail leading on from the corral, and it seemed to be going the wrong direction, southwesterly toward the campground instead of northward up the ridge. Not having any other option, I started down the well-trampled trail, which followed a barbed-wire fence. It didn’t look promising, but maybe it would get better.

Like the previous section of trail, this one also had been used only by cattle. And suddenly it ended in an overgrazed clearing. I scouted around the edge of the clearing, and eventually found a little tread leading into the forest on the far side. I followed this, and it led down into a ravine. I kept going a few hundred yards, and then the tread ended under a juniper. I didn’t think my trail was supposed to go downward at this point, but for some reason I failed to check the map.

I headed back toward the corral, and a hundred yards from it I saw another trail branching off, with a cairn. I was now completely confused, but I followed the branch, and soon came to an old signpost, on the bank of a deep gully across from the corral. Now I understood. The trail I’d been following was indeed the trail from the campground, and this was the junction. But it still wasn’t clear where to go from here. A small gully led down from the north, and a much-trampled trail continued northeast through the forest. I couldn’t see any evidence that the gully had ever been a trail, so I started up the trampled trail.

This led into the small valley of a dry creek, and after a quarter of a mile it petered out. It was nothing but another cattle trail.

I finally decided to check my map. Fortunately I was never confused about directions – I had a watch, and my shadow showed which way was north. The map clearly showed that the hiking trail led due north from the junction at the corral, climbing straight up the next slope of the ridge.

On my way back to the junction, I glimpsed a gap sawn through a fallen log, a hundred feet away in the forest to the north. Finally, sign of a trail! I returned to the junction and sighted up the little gully toward the log gap. Apparently the gully had been the trail at one point, so I started up it.

I was actually trying this trail because the Forest Service website had a map showing “cleared trails” in this area, and as I recalled, this trail was listed as having been cleared only two years ago. But that clearly wasn’t true. I’d hiked trails near home that had been abandoned for almost a decade and were in much better shape than this.

I was beginning to confirm a suspicion about this area. There’s almost no information on the hiking trails here – they’re simply omitted from most topo maps, and none of them is featured on the crowd-sourced hiking websites. The Forest Service map I looked at shows an extensive network of trails, but there are no descriptions available anywhere, and no record of anyone ever hiking here. From a hiker’s point of view, this area is Terra Incognita – which has a certain attraction to me.

The trail had been easy to follow to the corral, but from here on it barely existed. If I hadn’t already spent the past year bushwhacking and routefinding, I simply wouldn’t have been able to get any farther without GPS. And I suspect that even GPS wouldn’t show these trails.

There was no tread past the log gap, but I saw a blaze on a ponderosa up ahead. Past that I simply climbed straight up the gentle slope, where the ponderosa forest ended and pinyon-juniper-oak resumed. From the trail I’d hiked last summer I knew the way would sometimes be hinted at by a “corridor” through the open woodland, but an open woodland is full of natural corridors, so it can be impossible to figure out which are man-made.

Across clearings, I followed what seemed to be hints of bare ground, but there was precious little bare ground among the hard-to-walk-on volcanic cobbles. Suddenly I came upon an old dry-rotted tree branch laid between two rocks perpendicular to my path. This is the kind of thing trail-builders use to control erosion, but here it was set up on level ground. I could only interpret it as some unfamiliar kind of trail marker.

In addition to the perpendicular tree branches, I sometimes found small, almost random-looking cairns, which encouraged me to keep going. I was getting higher on the ridge, so I sometimes had views of the surrounding landscape. It remained confusing, but I did recognize the peak I’d seen from the other trail, with a fire lookout on top.

I often found myself without any clear path forward, and had to stop and scout around for clues, so it was slow going. I had little hope of reaching my destination now, and was starting to despair. This whole place was overgrazed and littered with cowshit, and clearly wasn’t maintained for hikers. And my pants were collecting the nasty burrs of cosmos, which carpeted the ground nearly waist-high.

Midway up the ridge, I was following a little stretch of tread when I reached a dead end below a bank dense with vegetation. I turned left and spotted a big cairn in a clearing up a short slope, so I headed up that way, although there was no trail visible. Then I had to spend some time scouting which way to continue.

The perpendicular branches seemed the most consistent trail markers, but they were often so primitive they were easy to miss, and there was seldom any other sign of a trail nearby.

Nevertheless, I eventually found myself heading toward a distinctive, conical, rock-topped peak. I assumed this was my destination – I recalled there was another trail junction on the lower slope of this peak, with branches leading east and west. So now I was motivated to keep going.

Several false starts later, I reached the base of the peak, and immediately, instead of a junction, found a clear trail that appeared to traverse through ponderosa and fir forest around the peak to the northeast. This was not at all what I’d expected, but it was such a clear trail I followed it anyway. I was now close to 8,000′, which was about the highest I would get in this area.

The trail still didn’t show any recent use, but it was such a relief to be on an easy trail that I kept going until it curved around to the north, clearly skirting the side of the peak. Finally I got my map out again, and found that my destination was still farther ahead. On the north side of the rocky peak, there lay a long series of saddles that formed a bridge to the base of a higher ridge, where hopefully I would find my junction.

I was now officially out of time. It had taken me so long to find my way here, if I turned back now, I still wouldn’t get home before dark. But I was so tantalizingly close, there was no way I could turn back yet. I just had to reach that junction. On the other hand, I was beginning to suspect my original estimate of distance and elevation for this hike was way off.

Now knowing how to interpret the signs, I was doing pretty well until I reached the base of the high ridge. There I was stumped by a small clearing with no apparent way forward. I found the remains of an ancient campfire, and after 15 minutes of scouting finally decided to climb over some deadfall and continue up through dense forest. Another corridor opened up, and another, and suddenly I came upon the junction signpost. It showed my overall one-way distance as 7 miles – two miles farther than expected – and made even farther by all the sidetracks and false leads.

It now appeared I couldn’t get back home before 8:30 – but I didn’t care. I felt great, and I was so pleased to get here that I didn’t even really want to head back.

Despite being at the base of a ridge, less than 8,000′ in elevation, the junction was sort of on the rim of the whole area, but although I was able to get occasional long views, trees generally got in the way.

I expected the return hike to be easier now I knew the way, but it was just as hard to routefind in reverse. I got lost several times, pursuing sidetracks down open hillsides and tight gullies, adding hundreds of yards and dozens of vertical feet to my hike. I stopped a lot to take pictures, but walked fast in between, despite the perilous footing on the rocks, and it took exactly two hours to reach the corral.

There I could see what had happened to the old trail – it had been cut by a deep erosional gully, like a little canyon, right next to the corral.

Next to the corral were two cows and two calves, all black. When they saw me, they stupidly ran into the corral, where they panicked and proceeded to run in frantic circles, until one cow and her calf jumped over the fence. The other cow seemed to believe her calf couldn’t make it over, so the two of them kept circling, as I stood still next to the open gate. The cow finally got up the courage to rush out the gate, and the calf followed.

I continued up out of the bowl, and at the top, again lost the trail and made a false turn. I was headed down the wrong ridge in the setting sunlight when I suddenly realized I was lost, turned back, and easily found the right trail. It could’ve been a bad scene after sundown, miles from my vehicle in unfamiliar forest…

But it got worse. When I finally reached the creek bottom, the trail ended at the bank and everything looked unfamiliar. I knew this had to be the right creek, but there was simply no trail, and no marked creek crossing. I scouted around for several minutes, and finally crossed the creek and climbed the opposite bank, where I found myself in another primitive corral, which I’d never seen before. It was getting dark and now I was really worried. Where the hell was I?

I crossed the corral and kept going down the left bank of the creek, but there was simply no trail here. I could see a narrow cattle trail on the opposite bank, so I dropped into the creek and climbed up the steep bank. I continued down the creek on the cattle trail, completely confused, and suddenly came upon the original trail, cutting down the slope from above. Ahead, I could see a cairn marking the creek crossing I’d taken this morning. Like so many times today, cattle trails had led me off my hiking trail, but I’d finally found it again.

On the long drive back in the dark, I devoted myself to putting together a recipe for the easy but delicious dinner I was going to cook when I got home. And the next day, when I calculated the actual mileage and elevation for my hike, I found that including all the sidetracks and mistakes, the distance and elevation gain had been 50% more than expected. So despite the frustration and stress, I was pleased with that as well.

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