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Tantalus & Sisyphus Go For a Hike

Monday, April 11th, 2022: Hikes, Pinos Altos Range, Southwest New Mexico.

As usual, this Sunday’s hike was conceived with complicated and conflicting desires. I was still reeling from last weekend’s accident, so I didn’t want to drive far and risk returning in the dark. I was worried about the recurring pain in my hip, so I didn’t want as much climbing and rough surfaces as usual. But to give my hip a break, I’d skipped my short midweek hike and was also reluctant to wimp out and do an easy hike on the weekend.

I ended up targeting a trail about 45 minutes from town that I’d had on my list as a lower-elevation winter hike, but hadn’t tried yet, since it didn’t seem to offer as much elevation gain as I usually craved. I’d already located the trailhead along the highway east of town that goes up a rural valley toward remote recreation areas, and I’d observed from the faint tread that this trail is little used. It climbs up a series of canyons to the crest of the low forested mountains that trend from east to west north of town, where maps show that it meets the Continental Divide Trail and ends at a forest road I’d spotted from a crest hike last year. I wanted to try for the CDT junction 8-1/2 miles in, but that would be a 17 mile round trip with nearly 3,000′ of elevation gain, and I didn’t know if my hip was ready for it.

Online maps disagree as to the exact route of this trail. I vaguely remembered reading an online account of a partial hike that said it was confusing and hard to follow and there was a corral or cabin in one of the canyon bottoms. But in my usual hurry to hit the road I failed to bring a map, trusting on my routefinding skills.

The day was forecast to be clear with a high of nearly 80 in town. It was in the low 50s as I left home, but when I reached the trailhead I took my sweater off.

The first thing I encountered was a confusion of trails up a broad, dry floodplain forested with large, old pinyon, juniper, and oak and rumpled with flash flood debris. I just assumed the trails would all converge upstream and took the most direct routes. After a quarter mile they did converge and began climbing the left slope. But that slope turned out to be laced with a dense network of intersecting trails, like the diagonal grid of a chain-link fence, and they all showed heavy use, so it was initially hard to figure out which to take. Most were clearly animal trails, but I saw no cowshit so I was initially mystified.

But I did begin to notice human footprints, and was soon able to pick out the hiking trail from the animal trails. Then, when the trail dipped back into the canyon bottom, I found clearings of disturbed ground covered with piles of horseshit. Horses are not generally allowed to range free, so I figured this must be a rare enclave of feral horses.

The trail began climbing steeply, and two miles in from the trailhead I came to a stock gate in a narrow saddle marking the watershed between this canyon and the next. The gate had been left open by the recent hikers who had left their footprints on the trail, so I reclosed it. We think of hikers as environmentally sensitive people, but this hike would yield ample evidence they can be as insensitive and irresponsible as your average urban consumer.

Through the gate and over the saddle I got my first and only view into the next canyon. The trail was heading down the north slope of a small, densely forested basin, at the far end of which I could glimpse some kind of small grassy clearing. The trail quickly deteriorated into a very steep, rocky erosional gully, in which I slowly and carefully tried to avoid stumbling down a couple hundred vertical feet through dense scrub. I began seeing cowshit, and at the bottom of the basin I entered a thoroughy trampled and overgrazed area with a fence, corral, and a small, muddy water hole. From there I followed a broad cattle trail to a running stream trampled by cattle and choked with algae, and another stock gate. I was pleased and surprised to see so much water in the canyon, but in general, this was turning into a fairly depressing hike.

Past the gate, the trail became a vehicle track. I kept following it through forest and out into a big grassy meadow, but I was worried that like much of the CDT, this trail would turn out to follow a road the rest of the way.

At the upper end of the meadow lay a cabin and a series of old but intact corrals and sheds. The cabin looked maintained and its door was tightly wired shut so I didn’t try to get in. But I could see through a window screen that it was clean and fully furnished inside. I later learned that it’s still used by the family that ranches the canyon.

Beyond the cabin the trail continued to follow an old road, back and forth across the algae-choked creek and its trampled, overgrazed banks, until it finally began to climb a steep, rocky slope and narrowed into a real hiking trail again. The footprints of three other recent hikers continued there, but they were dominated by the hoofprints of cattle.

We didn’t really get that much snow over the winter, so I was surprised to find more water draining from the slopes into the creek here than I’d seen anywhere else in our region.

Continuing up the canyon, I finally emerged into a stretch with more exposed bedrock and clearer running water. I came upon a crumpled piece of toilet paper on the trail, and continuing, saw a scatter of toilet paper on the ground at the foot of rock outcrops above the trail. These recent hikers were truly jerks, failing to carry out their paper waste, leaving it to be scattered by animals and found by later visitors.

I was now in a stretch of canyon lined with huge boulders, cliffs, and impressive rock outcrops, but immersed in dense forest, I could only catch glimpses through the tall ponderosas, oaks, and alders.

Four or five miles in, I came to a junction with a trail that led into the next canyon south. My trail so far had been fairly clear of logs but showed no sign of recent maintenance. But beyond the junction, I encountered a few shrubs along the trail that had been recently chopped. That isolated trail work only lasted a few hundred yards, so I figured the crew had come up the side trail from the other canyon and only worked a short distance in this one.

Flies – the size of house flies – had been visiting me occasionally all the way up the trail, but had never become a nuisance, in contrast to the small flies or gnats that had plagued me in Arizona recently. I associate these larger flies with livestock and was relieved not to need my head net.

The rock formations just became more and more spectacular the farther I climbed up this long canyon, but remained tantalizingly hidden. I figured I’d gone well over 6 miles at this point and was still stuck in the canyon bottom. When would I start climbing to the crest? My hip wasn’t bad yet, but I didn’t want to reach a tipping point where my return hike would become really painful.

As much as I hate perpetuating colonial culture, I couldn’t help mixing up the myths of Sisyphus and Tantalus, kings who were punished by the gods in ways that resonated with my situation. Not that I really think I’m being punished – the life of all true seekers is hard as we refuse to fit into the dominant mold of our culture, rejecting the career, the steady job, the marriage, the kids, and the endless upward climb of consumerism. But today I felt continually tantalized by brief glimpses of majestic rock formations, and condemned to an endless climb.

The last couple of miles were especially hard as I sensed the crest getting near. The canyon narrowed and seemed shallower. I was now in the upper elevation mixed conifer forest with firs and tall old-growth Gambel oaks. My hip was beginning to complain, but surely I was nearing the top?

I wasn’t. The trail turned left, then right, and just kept traversing up a gradual slope, and trapped in the dense forest I had no way of orienting myself in the landscape. Human footprints had ended much earlier – the recent hikers had only gone about four miles in – but cattle were using this trail all the way up. At this point they were the only users. Nor had there been any maintenance in a long time – I found logs that had lain across the trail for at least a decade.

Eventually, instead of cliffs and rock formations, I began to glimpse blue sky through the trees above, and believed I was nearing the top. But after a few more turns and long traverses, I found myself again in the bottom of a narrow, rocky canyon. There I found a rusted, empty water trough half-buried in debris. And after crossing the canyon bottom again, I faced the steepest trail I’d seen yet. Surely this must be the final climb? I’d been hiking for five hours, which would normally take me more than ten miles. But coming this far, I just had to see where the steep trail led.

It turned out to be one of the steepest trails I’d ever climbed. I estimated the grade at 35%, and to prove I don’t normally exaggerate, when I got home I measured it on a topo map and found the average grade is actually 36% on that stretch.

But nearing the top of the steep stretch, I suddenly emerged into a zone of strong wind, and was convinced I was nearing the crest, where wind would strengthen due to the funnel effect. And after traversing an overgrown burn scar, I finally came upon a fence and the dirt forest road. I’d seen no sign of the CDT junction – I’d misinterpreted the topo maps.

I was now behind schedule, my hip was hurting, and this overgrown burn scar offered little in the way of views and was no place to hang out. But I knew I’d achieved a serious hike and was proud of myself. Knowing the descent would be even harder on my hip, I took a pain pill and began the long slog back, most of which would mercifully be downhill.

Before reaching the overgrazed canyon bottom, I did finally encounter some small flies, but they never became bad. I’m always intrigued by the ecology of things like this. Why are they localized, and locally a problem?

The day had gotten windier, and I realized that despite its frustrations, the wind and shade of this hike had been an escape from our spring heat wave in town.

I reached the trailhead 9-1/2 hours after I started. I’d made a lot of brief stops, but it had to have been a long hike. When I plotted and profiled it back home on a topo map, I found it had totalled 17.3 miles, with 2,932′ of accumulated elevation gain. Coincidentally, the forest road where I turned around is only a quarter mile from the point I reached last year on a 19-mile hike from much closer to town. So I was only a quarter mile from connecting the two hikes.

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