Dispatches
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Be Careful What You Wish For!

Monday, July 15th, 2019: Trips.

Five years ago, before I was crippled by joint problems, my cardio routine consisted of one or two 4-mile weekday hikes within 15 minutes of home, plus a 5-7 mile hike a half hour away on the weekend. But when I finally began recovering, it inspired me so much that I became a lot more ambitious, and it’s getting harder and harder to find hikes that challenge me – and don’t bore me.

So I’m driving farther now, even for the midweek hikes. Every other weekend I’ll drive an hour or two away, hoping to get into some canyons and ridges with exposed rock. Our lower-elevation pinyon-juniper-oak forests tend to get monotonous, as do the mixed-conifer-and-Gambel-oak forests at higher elevation.

But last weekend I’d done one of the farther hikes, so this weekend I was condemned to something closer to home. I decided to try a route I’d never done before, using part of the famous national trail system to get to the highest peak near town. I’d climbed that peak many times from the opposite direction, but the topo map for this alternate route showed numerous ups and downs that would give me even more cumulative elevation gain. And the trail would take me across the north face of the Twin Sisters, a distinctive formation on our local skyline.

Our monsoon still hadn’t really kicked in, but by hiking in mountains I had managed to get into some rain in two of my last three hikes. Today, however, the forecast gave only 20% chance of rain, which is generally hopeless, and there were only a few sparse clouds over the mountains and clear skies over open country. It was supposed to be a little cooler, with a high of 89, but by the time I found the trailhead it was sweltering. I passed several people on their way out, having sensibly started much earlier in the cool of the morning.

But I had an attitude about hiking in heat. Thirty years ago I’d accompanied wildlife biologists on field trips in the Mojave Desert, and in the middle of summer, with temperatures 10 degrees hotter than it ever gets here in New Mexico, we would start a hike at 11am and climb rugged mountains off-trail all day in full sun, only returning to camp after sunset. And just a few years ago I did a backpacking trip there involving strenuous climbing, in temperatures pushing 100 degrees. So I viewed our local heat as no impediment at all.

I was hoping for some shade, though. I’d studied Google satellite view and it looked like maybe two-thirds of the hike would be in pine forest, with maybe some sparse cover throughout the remainder. But the reality was disappointing.

A large proportion of the national trail turned out to utilize old forest roads, so there was a wide corridor where trees had been cleared, hence no shade. And the middle section of the trail traversed a rolling plateau with my most hated surface: embedded volcanic projectiles, roughly rounded and pitted rocks ranging from tennis ball to bowling ball size, embedded in hard clay. This is a common feature of our local mountains that I’ve learned to avoid whenever possible. The rocks can’t be cleared by trail workers, so all they do is remove the vegetation around them and call it a trail – and walking over this unevenly cobbled surface is slow, perilous, and hell on your feet and leg joints.

The trail began with a steep climb, and the lack of shade meant that I was drenched with sweat within a few minutes past the trailhead. Crossing the plateau was a true ordeal. I hadn’t been able to figure out how long this trail was before starting it – I hoped to reach the 9,000′ peak, but there was a possibility it might be too far for a day hike. And the first third of the trail turned out to be twice as long as expected. I was not optimistic, but I wanted to at least reach the Twin Sisters, about two-thirds of the way to the peak.

There was a small patch of dark clouds hanging over the peak, so I silently let myself hope for some weather. And by the time I was traversing the north face of the Sisters, clouds were providing periodic shade over the trail, and I started praying out loud. “Clouds!” I shouted. “Storm! Lightning! Thunder! Rain! Bring it on!”

Past the Sisters, the trail finally entered a continuous forest of tall pines that provided blessed shade. And thunder started cracking and rolling up ahead of me, on the far side of the mountains. I dug some snacks out of my pack for lunch and began hiking faster, eating enroute.

This forested part of the trail traversed the west side of a long, narrow canyon to the drainage at its head, then turned out the east side of the canyon to a switchback that began climbing to the peak. It was getting close to the time when I should turn back, in order to get back to town at a reasonable hour, but I was tantalizingly close to my original goal, the dark clouds moving over were energizing me, and I was moving fast. Just before I reached the point on the trail where I had turned back, months ago, coming from the other direction, little drops of rain started to fall. My prayers had been answered!

It was only a sparse rain at first, and most of the time these little rains are short-lived, so I kept climbing without donning my poncho. But within minutes it was raining harder and I suited up. I was climbing fast, and I was halfway up the switchbacks to the peak when a downpour began rattling the hood of my heavy rubberized poncho like machine gun fire. The lightning and thunder were getting close, with long echoes of thunder rolling out in all directions from the clouds directly above. We’re often sternly warned against hiking in thunderstorms, but I figured my rubberized poncho would protect me from lightning strikes. The rain was so loud on the poncho’s hood that I looked more closely around me, and suddenly realized there was hail mixed with the rain.

I had a vague idea of where I was, and had started to hope I might actually reach the peak, regardless of how late it might make my return. I was getting so close! But the storm had moved directly over me. The wind whipped the hail against me from all sides. My feet were drenched in my supposedly water-resistant Goretex boots, and I would have to hike all the way back in them. Even my shirt felt soaking wet, inside my poncho.

Being inside the storm was so exhilarating that I kept climbing, onto the last switchback before the peak. Then I noticed that the trail ahead had turned into a stream, a flood pouring down the mountain toward me. Hail was piling up around the bases of the rocks and pines. The lightning and thunder were continuous, all around. I finally gave up and turned around, and even then, I had to walk above the trail because it was all flooded. With the wind against my poncho, I felt a continuous flow of water into the tops of my boots, and I tried to hold the front and back of the poncho away from my legs, but the wind pushed it back. The temperature had dropped from the high 80s to the low 50s, maybe even the 40s, up here near 9,000′, and I was wearing a light, soaking wet shirt and shorts. I wasn’t really worried, because thunderstorms are short-lived and I still had snacks for energy and mobility to generate body heat, but I knew I was in for hours of discomfort.

The farther I walked, returning down the trail, the less violent the storm became, until it was just a gentle drizzle. But then the wind picked up, whipping the tall pines, just as I entered a burn area where there were dead trunks, snags, still standing. The trees and snags were creaking in the wind, and before long I encountered a big one that had just blown down across the trail ahead.

By the time I started back across the north face of the Sisters, the rain had stopped, but enough cloud cover remained to shade the trail and keep the temperatures down. My wet feet were getting really sore from picking my way over the volcanic cobbles, and I still had a few miles to go, so I popped a pain pill that gradually improved my attitude. As it turned out, when I got home and checked the official point-to-point mileage for the national trail, this was a 15-mile round trip hike, the longest I’d done in decades. And despite the wet feet, I was feeling better, nearing the end of the trail, than I had towards the end of some recent 10-mile hikes. The progress of my recovery seemed almost miraculous.

By the time I rounded the final peak and began to descend toward the trailhead, I could see the storm dumping a few miles to the west. My storm, the storm I’d prayed for and been blessed with!

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