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Cloud Forest of the Southwest

Monday, August 3rd, 2015: Places.

Mount Baldy summit in the far distance

Coming from the Pacific Coast, with decades of experience in the Cascades, the Sierra Nevada, the Mojave and Great Basin deserts, and the mountains and canyons of the Colorado Plateau, when I moved to southwest New Mexico, I was moving a long way to the southeast. To get back to those lands I still loved, I had to travel in a northwesterly direction. There’s only one highway that does that, and it passes through the White Mountains of Arizona.

I loved the drive from the very beginning: over high desert plateaus, down into deep river canyons and up over high mountain passes, up and down, up and down, until you reach the White Mountains and begin following vast, lush alpine meadows, often with herds of grazing elk, between a maze of steep, dark forested ridges, finally emerging onto the endless open plateau of north-central Arizona.

One winter night, flying from Albuquerque to San Diego under a full moon, I looked out the window to my left and saw what appeared to be volcanic cones floating like islands in a sea of white – huge, perfectly flat expanses of white, like photographs of the moon’s surface, but this had to be snow. I knew we were over eastern Arizona – where could there be this much snow?

The following winter, I decided to try the Apache-owned ski area in the White Mountains, and discovered that these mountains are simply a maze of volcanic ridges and cones sitting on a huge alpine plateau, with big alpine meadows in between. The plateau and the meadows average 8,500′ elevation, and there are no prominent peaks or deep canyons, so from the northern plateau, the entire range just looks like a slightly raised area of rolling forested uplands.

But I had never seen such huge alpine meadows, going on for miles, and there was a lot of exposed rock: pinnacles and rimrock on the steep slopes of the forested ridges, black volcanic cliffs forming the shallow canyons of streams. And along the northern edge of the mountains, those iconic cinder cones. All of it covered with a blanket of snow through the winter, like a massive cake.

I returned for skiing a couple more times, and then, in the summer of 2011, the White Mountains were set on fire by careless campers. Much of the time, I was downwind and breathed the smoke of those millions of dying Ponderosa pines. In the end, more than half of the forest burned. I was reluctant to make that drive again, but eventually I did, and began to pay attention, year by year, the impacts and adaptations of people, plants, animals, and landscape. It’s a story that will unfold for generations.

As July came to an end this year, I submitted my new album of music, a year and a half in the making, to the popular digital venues, and was forced to wait for another week while the album made its way through their systems. I’d been housebound too long and needed a getaway. On impulse, I booked a cheap motel room in the White Mountains, thinking I might do a hike. And on Sunday morning, I left the trailhead for the summit of the range, Mount Baldy.

It was one of the most beautiful hikes I’ve ever done.

It begins beside, and rises above, the east fork of the Little Colorado River, and climbs across a high ridge to the head of the west fork near the summit of Mount Baldy, the source of this storied river that flows 340 miles across the rugged volcanic and sculpted sandstone plateau of northern Arizona into one of the deepest arms of the Grand Canyon.

Two things made this hike special for me. One was the unique high-canopied alpine spruce-fir-aspen forest, lush at the height of the monsoon season with ferns and fungus and moss. And the other was the rocks: moss- and lichen-covered boulders, pinnacles and cliffs in a seemingly infinite variety of fantastic shapes, striped with light and shadow beneath the high forest canopy, and sometimes cropping out at ridge top to provide breath-taking views across the entire range, with its serpentine ridges, brilliant green meadows and blue lakes, all the way to the horizon and the curvature of the planet. And of course, the monsoon sky with its ranks of blossoming cumulous clouds.

On my way up, crossing one of these ridge top outcrops, I met an athletic young Apache man who had hiked up the west fork and was returning down this way to complete a 17-mile loop. It was his first time, and he was stoked like me. All we could talk about was the beauty of the mountain and sky.

I had hoped for rain even before starting this hike; I’d packed my rain shell and a plastic tarp to cover my pack or hunker down under in a downpour. I fantasized about lightning dancing on the ridges and thunder pounding the forest and torrents leaping off the rocks, all around me. Rain was forecast; clouds massed and darkened, then broke up.

I saw many woodpeckers, but the biggest wildlife I encountered was a pair of blue grouse, near the top of the trail. It wasn’t until the next day, turning onto the main highway out of the mountains, that I had to slow behind a truck because a large herd of bighorn sheep had started to cross the road. I could see them bouncing around on the pavement up ahead, reluctant to leave the road. Finally they all poured across and leapt, one by one, over a 5-foot wire fence into the big meadow to the north. An hour later, driving across another huge meadow, I spotted dozens of elk grazing at the foot of the opposite slope.

Thanks to Jim Andre and Katy Belt for plant identifications.

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