Dispatches
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Twelve Years After

Monday, February 19th, 2024: Hikes, Mogollon Mountains, Southwest New Mexico, Whitewater.

The trail up the main canyon on the west side of our high mountains, the canyon that drains the highest peaks of the range, has been catastrophically washed out and inaccessible since the mega-wildfire turned the upper slopes into a moonscape twelve years ago.

While looking for another snow-free low-elevation hike for this Sunday, I thought of one that leads to that abandoned trail. So I checked the trail maintenance log, and to my surprise, discovered that the canyon trail was cleared last fall, to 3-1/2 miles beyond the junction. Even better, a trail up a major side canyon was cleared to about the same distance. Long-abandoned trails in the heart of the wilderness are opening up – at least until the next wildfire or erosion event.

The frost on the windshield was fairly light when I started on Sunday morning. The sky was mostly clear and the high in town was forecast to reach 60. It takes an hour and fifteen minutes to reach the trailhead, perched on a spectacular mesa high above the mouth of the canyon.

I’ve only hiked the trail into the canyon twice in seventeen years – it’s too short and involves too little elevation gain to make the drive worthwhile for a day hike. But it’s a popular trail so I was surprised to find the trailhead parking empty.

When I surmounted the first outlying ridge and could see up-canyon, I realized this two-mile trail into the canyon is actually a spectacular hike in itself – because this is one of the most dramatic canyons in the range, lined with cliffs and studded with monumental, colorful rock outcrops.

Halfway between the trailhead and the canyon bottom, the trail swerves back into a deep side canyon. I was to learn that with all the snow we’ve received, every side canyon now hosts a running stream.

Climbing back out of the side canyon, you find yourself traversing the north slope of the main canyon below isolated outcrops, with the creek roaring far below. Across the canyon on your right loom nearly sheer cliffs. Eventually you encounter switchbacks that take you down toward the creek.

I’d expected the creek to be in flood, and I wasn’t wrong. The newly cleared trail up the side canyon is a little over a mile beyond the junction, past a big washout that had stopped me in the past. Sure enough, last fall’s trail crew had cleared a path across the washout, but when I reached the mouth of the side canyon, about thirty feet of icy, foot-deep water separated me from the opposite trail. I would have to continue up the main canyon.

Now I was in view of the rock towers on the high ridge between the two canyons. And in a third of a mile I expected to reach another trail that comes down the north slope at my left. The upper part of that trail is an abandoned mine road that had long been washed out and buried in debris – I’d descended it two or three times shortly after moving here, to reach a swimming hole in the creek. But now, when I reached the biggest washout, I discovered someone had recently brought a Caterpillar down the road, clearing it and filling the washout in the trail.

Past that road, the trail climbs higher and higher above the creek, meeting the wilderness boundary after another third of a mile. Now the canyon was beyond spectacular – but clouds were darkening the sky overhead. I began noticing how much work had once been put into building this trail, across talus slopes, rock faces, and slopes of loose dirt. I’d never seen a trail anywhere in this region that had been built like this – with dry-stone retaining walls up to fifteen feet tall supporting terraces up to 80 feet long, and walkways across gullies reinforced with one-inch rebar and heavy wire mesh. By contrast, our recent trail crew had only been able to clear a temporary path that would wash out at dozens of gullies in the next heavy rain.

Eventually, the trail began dropping toward the canyon bottom.

In the canyon bottom, I found some recent deadfall blocking the trail – the first I’d encountered today. Here, at about 6,200 feet elevation, shade had kept snow from melting, and I found the very recent tracks of two hikers and a dog. They ended at the first creek crossing in the entire distance of this trail so far – where I would have to stop as well. The trail crew had stopped here, but the old, abandoned trail continues for another ten miles, climbing to the 10,000 foot crest just below the highest peak in the range. From the highest parts of the trail, I could just glimpse that crest, its deforested, snow-blanketed slopes glittering in occasional sunlight.

The clouds gradually broke up as I headed back, and sunlight brightened the colors of lichen on the outcrops above me.

Past the flooded junction with the side canyon trail, the trail enters the shade of the canyon’s nearly sheer south wall. And I began noticing how big the sycamores grow here along one of the range’s few perennial streams.

Reaching the junction with the trail out of the canyon, even after climbing the switchbacks I was still mostly in shade from the south wall. But when I reached the deep side canyon with its spectacular rock bluffs, I finally found myself on a west-facing slope, catching some warming rays from the setting sun.

Past the side canyon, I was in the home stretch, and once I’d climbed the opposite side I was back in the last of the sunlight. It’d taken me almost 8 hours to go less than twelve miles, but I’d gone slowly, stopping often to admire the view and take pictures, and that newly cleared trail had involved a lot of careful scrambling. I’m looking forward to returning when the creek’s low to explore that side canyon trail!

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Danger and Discovery

Monday, February 12th, 2024: Hikes, Southwest New Mexico, Summit Mountains.

Even before Saturday, all the high elevation trails had been blocked by deep snow. But on Saturday it snowed lightly on and off for about 16 hours, leaving up to four inches here in town, at 6,000 feet. Yet daily highs were ranging from the 40s to the 50s throughout the region, meaning creeks would be flooded with runoff and most low-elevation trails would be muddy.

Before going to bed Saturday night, I finally decided to explore a mountainous area over on the Arizona border that I’d been eyeing from a distance for years. It ranges from 4,000 to a little below 7,000 feet, but it features dramatic rocky peaks, with no hiking trails but a network of old mining and ranching roads. It’s more than an hour and a half drive to get there, and it would be a shot in the dark – I didn’t know what kind of surface to expect, and the roads and the ground might be too muddy now.

The only info I could find online was a trip report on Peakbagger from a guy who tried to climb two of the most dramatic peaks. He failed, but dropped his phone near the top of one peak and had to return the next day to retrieve it. His report mainly consists of complaining about the lost phone, but it includes a GPS route from the nearest road that might be useful.

But getting out of town turned out to be the biggest challenge of the day. Both driver- and passenger-side door locks were frozen, and the de-icer I’d bought earlier didn’t work. I had to climb through from the rear hatch to start the engine and the heater, and it took 35 minutes to warm up the interior enough to free the locks and melt the frost off the windows.

I anticipated ice on the highway, and sure enough, immediately outside of town the surface turned to pure ice. I switched into high-range 4wd, but was still limited to 35 mph – at that speed I could feel my all-terrain tires begin to slip. Big pickups and tractor-trailer rigs passed me going 45 – I guess the extra weight and tire surface helps. The ice lasted half the distance south through the low mountains, and it was a tense drive.

By the time I left the mountains for the vast alluvial plain, dropping below 6,000 feet, I was running so late I knew this would be more of a road trip than a hike. But as I drove north toward the new country, the rocky peaks emerged from the horizon, tantalizing me.

The dirt road that led to them was the first surprise. The first part of it leads north up a rough wash and clearly floods and washes out after a heavy monsoon rain. It’s only after the first couple of miles that the road climbs out of the wash and spends the rest of its time up on ridges, on surfaces that range from gravel to packed dirt. This is lonely country; I was the only driver on this road, all day.

My second surprise came when I checked the map again and discovered this area lies within my county. The longest route across the county I grew up in in Indiana takes less than a half hour; that this remote area is an hour and a half from my hometown, which is in the middle of the county, is pretty crazy.

Approaching the first peak, the road reached the edge of a bluff with a dramatic view. To take the peakbagger’s route I would continue on the road until it reaches the foot of the peak. But below me was some country that looked interesting in itself, and would yield more mileage and elevation in my hike. There was a high-clearance 4wd road leading down into this country – it turned out to be very sketchy, but by stopping regularly and scouting lines I managed to make it all the way down to a corral, windmill, and stock tank on the bank of the big wash. Cattle were milling about there, so I drove back up and parked on a ledge.

I had an amazing vista: it appeared that I could follow the wash upstream, through a dramatic gap in low bluffs, and from there, up alluvial slopes to the foot of the cliffs. My map showed that the hidden north side is gentler; I hoped to circle around and climb it from the back.

It had been a long time since I’d bushwhacked off-trail, but I was motivated by having new country to explore. The main obstacle seemed to be waist-high thorny mesquite, which blankets heavily grazed land throughout the Southwest. I would just have to wind my way through it.

This is very dry country. I could see snow on northwest slopes down to about 5,400 feet, but I was surprised to meet running water in the wash – bedrock was close to the surface, and when it emerged, there were interesting water-sculpted features and cascades.

The gap in the rock bluffs turned out to be a slot canyon that involved some creative scrambling. I’d forgotten how much fun hiking without a trail can be!

Past the bluffs I emerged in a sort of overgrazed bajada, a rocky expanse of cactus, grass and mesquite that was at first like a superhighway leading toward the base of the peaks. Farther up, it was divided into ridges and gullies so I had to pick a route, but I came upon a well-marked cattle trail that led me up to an old fence and gate that divided this from the grazing on the north side of the peaks. The gate clearly hadn’t been opened for years and took all my strength to re-close.

Now I was nearing the saddle between the two peaks, and needed to start traversing up the slope of the right-hand peak. I didn’t know what I would find on the north side and I wanted to start gaining some elevation while I could. It was a 20-degree slope, and I began encountering snow, but had thankfully left the mesquite behind.

I was intrigued by a narrow gap in the cliffs above, a slot that appeared to contain a steep chute that might be a shortcut to the crest. But I could see snow in there, and I had no idea how technical it would get up close, so I filed it away and kept traversing.

As I rounded the corner toward the north side, I could see a towering fin of reddish rock blocking my way ahead. Between me and the fin lay a steep snow-covered slope heavily forested with pinyon pine – this would be my only route to the crest. The grade was more than 30 percent, and the trees appeared to get thicker toward the top.

That forest lay mostly in the shade, so I didn’t mind the effort of climbing – it kept me warm! But the ground beneath the 4-inch-deep snow consisted of loose gravel or scree so there was a lot of slipping. The steep grade required me to sidestep most of the way, zigzagging between trees.

The slope narrowed as I climbed, with a cliff closing in on my right and outcrops emerging on my left. The cliff on the right eventually forced me to cross the outcrops on the left, where I found myself on an even steeper east slope strewn with deadfall, scrub, and bare scree.

After finding my way across that final slope, I emerged on the north end of the crest. I’d never actually believed I would make it up there, especially while climbing that forest slope, so I was inclined to just savor the moment and call it a day.

But after checking my watch and calculating how much time I had left – assuming the ice would’ve either melted or been cleared off the highway home – I realized there was no reason why I couldn’t continue and try to reach the peak, which loomed another 200 feet above the ridge south of me.

First I had to climb another steep, forested, snow-blanketed slope. But when I did, I found myself standing on the rim of a great stone funnel, facing the slot in the cliff I’d wondered about from below. Vertical cliff walls towered on both sides of the slot, and when I shouted, it came echoing back. A chute of scree fell vertiginously away below me. It appeared that you might be able to climb it from below, but going down would be terrifying and probably suicidal.

I’d been excited to reach the lower edge of the crest, but now I was ecstatic. This was the most spectacular rock formation I’d ever reached in all my years in this region.

And the peak appeared to be only a short climb above.

I kept climbing up a slope of bare rock with a thin coating of snow, and reached a wall of stone, with the summit looming behind it. The only gap lay at my right, a window at head height, its sill a 45-degree ramp cascading to a drop of hundreds of feet, with no hand or footholds I could see.

I took off my pack and tried edging toward the window. But I soon ran out of holds. If I was roped and anchored, with a partner, I probably would’ve tried it. But gripping the last available hold, I reached my camera up over the sill, and it didn’t look like there was a non-technical route to the summit on the other side.

I estimated I’d gone between three and four miles in 3-1/2 hours – about what you’d expect while routefinding and bushwhacking new terrain. The alluvial slopes had gone quickly, but the slot canyon and snow-covered upper slopes had gone very slow. I expected the descent to be treacherous.

But the descent of that snow-covered scree actually turned out to be both easy and fun – probably because there were plenty of trees and branches so I wasn’t worried about falling. And my landscape memory served me well on the alluvial slopes – I only strayed once, finding myself across a deep gully from the cattle trail, but that was easily remedied. On the way up, I’d regularly looked over my shoulder at memorable features on the skyline behind me, because the bajada is a maze of shallow washes, and those distant features would keep me oriented on my return. And sure enough, I was able to find the stone gap and slot canyon even though they were hidden from the bajada.

I reached the stream and the slot canyon sooner than expected, and not long after, the windmill appeared above the trees of the big wash. After climbing the road to my vehicle on its ledge, I suddenly realized the shrubs surrounding it were creosote bush! My favorite desert plant, after a day of the kind of hiking I treasure in the desert. And I was left with plenty of time to get home before dark.

I’d only gone 6-1/2 miles and climbed a little over 1,600 feet – I would normally consider that a failed day trip. But how can I forget standing on the crest of that great stone rampart, overlooking more than fifty miles of wild country? And a little farther down the crest, standing in that echoing amphitheater of stone with its narrow gateway over the same country, its perilous cascade of scree falling away at my feet. Fortunately, there’s more to explore in that area.

I encountered a final mystery on the way out – where the road runs down the wash, the bank was lined with half-buried old cars. I couldn’t tell whether it was by design or by accident – some trailer-trash rancher upstream might’ve had a junkyard that was washed down in a flood?

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Round the Mountain

Monday, February 5th, 2024: Hikes, Pinalenos, Round, Southeast Arizona.

For months I’d been wanting to return to the archetypal sky island over in Arizona, to try a trail that seemed to offer the perfect winter hike – mid-elevation so it should be snow-free, devoid of forest so it should offer endless views, and with plenty of elevation change to provide a cardio workout.

This is the range that abruptly rises 6,000 feet above the desert plain like a southeast-to-northwest-trending wall, its crest a tilted alpine plateau – 9,000 feet high at its western edge, 10,700 feet high on the east. A paved road winds up the big southeastern canyon to the crest, where there are campgrounds, but other than that, the flanks are too steep for either roads or cattle. So although this has no designated wilderness like the other ranges I hike, it’s plenty wild.

Most of the trails in the range begin on the plain and climb up a canyon or ridge to the crest, and they’d be blocked midway by snow now. But today’s trail is an unusual traverse of the eastern flank of the range, beginning at 6,000 feet in the southeastern canyon and crossing a half dozen intervening ridges and canyons before finally ascending to crest fifteen miles later.

I was hoping to get about halfway and back in a day hike. But the trailhead is more than a two-hour drive from home – that’s why I don’t come here more often. And although I was ready for an early start, it took me fifteen minutes to get my windshield clear of frost.

I drove west under a cloudy sky, but it was beginning to clear as I drove up the canyon to the trailhead, where I arrived a half hour later than planned.

The southeastern trailhead is on the highway up the canyon, but the map showed that I could avoid the first intervening ridge and thus get farther into the backcountry by taking a short cut from a lower picnic area. I found an older man parked there in a pickup with camper shell; he preceded me up the trail dressed in colorful old-school flannel – making me feel like a real yuppie in my high-tech duds from REI and Patagonia. I soon passed him, and he remarked on how cold it was.

But this first segment of trail, climbing to the first ridgetop, unfolded at an average 15 percent grade, so I quickly shed layers. Sunlight glinted off the snowy crest thousands of feet above, while the thawing dirt of the trail had been deeply chewed up by horses as well as hikers’ boots. Thankfully it was sand and gravel and didn’t stick to my boots like the clay mud farther north.   And I was admiring the surrounding igneous boulders and outcrops, which reminded me of my beloved desert.

That first climb was about 1,300 feet, and ended at a knife-edge saddle overlooking a completely new watershed. This was all unknown terrain, miles of it unfolding for me to explore. The tallest peaks of the range glittered above, and I could hear a creek roaring a thousand feet below. Far to the north I could see a prominent stone spire rising from the distant ridge I hoped to reach. From here, it looked much too far – especially since at the end of the day I’d have to climb back up out of this canyon.

The upper part of the descending trail was frozen solid under a thin layer of snow, and was steep enough that I had to go slow to keep from slipping. This trail was literally clinging to the wall of the canyon, with overhangs in some spots. Eventually I reached switchbacks that were mostly in sun, but there were so many I soon lost count. It seemed to take forever to reach the creek.

Brush had been cut recently all along this trail, and cut branches had often been left blocking the trail. The canyon was impressively rocky; the bottom was lined with sycamores; I easily found stepping stones to cross on.

Although the slopes on the opposite side of the canyon were gentler, they were also rockier, with big exposed slabs of igneous rock. After crossing a much smaller side canyon, I reached a bigger side canyon bearing a creek as big as the first, lined with solid rock. I began noticing metasedimentary rock with deformed strata just like the rock on my desert land. This is what I love – much rockier than the landscape around my New Mexico home.

Past that canyon, the trail climbed over a low divide where I reached a junction with an ascending ridge trail, now abandoned, then down into a hollow where I met the lower end of the abandoned trail. The recent trail work ended here, as did the human tracks and horse tracks. And it suddenly occurred to me that despite the lack of wilderness designation, and the gentleness of the grassy slopes all around me, there was no sign of cattle here! How could our Gila Wilderness at home be overrun with cattle, while this range, unregulated and closer to a bigger city, remains ungrazed?

Past that junction, the trail was mostly either blocked by shrubs or overgrown with tall grasses, and there was no sign anyone had gone there for years. But I was able to keep going by reading the landscape.

I made it another two-thirds of a mile before running out of time. My planned destination was another mile and a half farther and 1,200 feet higher, on the ridge that led to that prominent rock spire. With an earlier start, I might’ve made it.

But I wasn’t disappointed; this route had turned out even better than expected. Sure, it’s a challenge climbing over those intervening ridges, but this turned out to be the most spectacular landscape in our region, and I look forward to returning in better shape, and with more time.

I flushed a white-tailed buck out of the second canyon, and a dove out of the brush along the trail, but I was surprised not to see any hawks or eagles.

I took my time climbing out of that first deep canyon. It did take about an hour, but the frozen part was easier going up than going down.

The final descent to the trailhead was mostly in shade. I discovered someone had come partway up on horseback while I was over in the backcountry, so the trail was even more chewed up than in the morning.

I’ve been studying maps of this range for years. As I mentioned above, most trails start on the plain and climb to the crest. But since the catastrophic wildfires of the teens, and the ensuing erosion, all the crest-bound trails on this side of the range have been destroyed and abandoned. So this round-the-mountain traverse is my only option to explore this vast area, and today was just a first taste. I’ll be back!

Another night in a motel, followed by a lonely drive home through a wild landscape.

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Reset and Recovery

Monday, January 29th, 2024: Hikes, Little Dry, Mogollon Mountains, Southwest New Mexico.

I assume everyone has experienced setbacks, and starting over. Losing the ability to do something essential, and facing a slow, arduous recovery of that ability. That seems to be the theme of my life now – every few months, I lose the ability to hike, and I have to fight my way back to a slightly lower capacity than I had before – so that in the long run, I’m gradually losing capacity. One step forward, two steps back.

When I say essential, I mean hiking is the way I keep my blood pressure low. When I can’t hike at capacity, my blood pressure quickly goes up 30 points, and if it stays there indefinitely I’ll have to start taking daily meds like most people my age.

Today was supposed to be my latest recovery hike, after more than a month off. I knew I shouldn’t tackle a hard one, and my favorite crest hikes were inaccessible anyway because we had more snow last week. I finally decided on a canyon hike I hadn’t done since last May. It’s a slow climb through a flood-damaged canyon to a mid-elevation saddle, and from there I could descend into a second canyon if I had time and the inclination.

It was a little below freezing when I left town, but it was forecast to reach the mid-50s later. Approaching the mountains on the highway, I saw a lot of snow above 8,000 feet – my saddle would be at 8,200, which shouldn’t be too bad.

This is a trail I’ve hiked many times, but it was washed out a few years ago. Last May I discovered that the first two miles had recently been cleared, and beyond that, it was slow going but I could find my way.

This time around, I expected to be out of shape from the hiatus, and at 6,800 feet, beyond the cleared section, I was surprised to run into some snow, which made it even harder to get through the obstacles. Boulder-choked narrows that had to be climbed around, debris flows of loose rock, big snow-covered logs that had to be crawled under or cleared of snow and climbed over. And that was only in the canyon-bottom section.

A mile beyond the cleared section, I came upon three heavy-duty cardboard boxes with plastic handles, containing square seven-gallon water jugs, sitting right on the trail. These could only have been carried in by pack horses or mules, and had to have been left by the equestrian group that has the permit to do trail work. They had to have been left here since my May visit, but there was no corresponding evidence of additional trail work. This was the second time I’ve come upon gear left by these people – using public trails as long-term storage for their gear. The cardboard will rot – what were they thinking?

Three miles in, the trail leaves the creek and begins traversing in and out of side drainages, climbing, at a steep grade, almost a thousand feet to the saddle through dense oak scrub. Since this trail is seldom used by anyone other than me, the stiff scrub has closed over it, and fire-killed trees continue to fall onto it. Since last May, despite a poor summer growing season, I found it had become almost impassable. As a recovery hike, it was brutal, and I had to put on my gaiters halfway up to keep snow out of my boots.

In May it had taken three hours to go the four miles – today, with the snow and worse trail conditions, it took three-and-a-half. I’d really wanted to continue into the second canyon, but only about 50 yards down the side trail I sank into 16 inches of snow and gave up.

In the little saddle, my boots in the snow, I sat in the sun on the end of the only snow-free log, eating my lunch of nuts and jerky, and noticed the last storm had dropped about four fresh inches here, on top of the earlier snowpack. Despite the effort of getting here and my disappointment at having to turn back, the landscape was beautiful and I’d have a fantastic view going down.

The steep grade and tricky footing quickly took their toll on my knees, making the descent almost as slow as the climb, and painful. Remind me to avoid this one in the future, unless I can somehow rebuild my capacity without another setback!

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Mud Day

Monday, January 22nd, 2024: 2024 Trips, Mogollon Rim, Regions, Road Trips.

I could tell from the clouds on Saturday that we were going to get rain Sunday. But I hike in the rain all the time and it’s never been a problem around here.

My problem was, as usual, deciding on a hike. I’d gone three weeks without hiking, in darkest Indiana under heavy cloud cover, and most of our local hikes involve a canyon – I wanted something exposed, with a view to remind me I was back in the West.

I was tempted to make a long drive into Arizona, spending the night over there. But the options there weren’t much better and would involve more complications. In the end, I used up an hour and a half trying to decide, then leaving late, headed north to a new area I’ve been studying on the map.

With the late departure, it would be a shorter hike than usual, but at least I could do some scouting for a later return. On the way, I spotted a blue heron standing in the Gila River – I assumed that was a good omen.

The trail I wanted to try is a long traverse west across the foot of a 9,000 foot mountain, with branches along the way. The turnoff is an hour and a half from town. It’d been raining on and off all the way, and the long forest road to the trailhead turned out to consist of mud, snow, and ice. I’d never really tried this vehicle in serious mud before. The road set out climbing a shallow ridge where, despite being in low-range 4wd, I immediately started sliding around. I only made it about a half mile before approaching a deeply washed out section where I was almost certain to get stuck. When I got out of the vehicle to scout, my boots sank an inch into the muck.

There was another option on my list, a six-mile ascent of a 9,800 foot peak. I knew I wouldn’t have time to reach the top, but again, I could do some scouting. It required driving east through the tiny county seat, a hotbed of the anti-government Sagebrush Rebellion. I had thought about spending the night there, if the town’s one motel actually existed. Google Satellite View showed a vacant lot at the address, but the place had a website and ample online reviews.

The motel was indeed there. And past the town, I found the turnoff to the next trailhead, a long and winding dirt road. It wasn’t too bad at first, but after a few miles it climbed to the rim of the canyon of the Tularosa River – which I knew it had to ford at the bottom – and I could see the descent involved more mud, snow, and ice. I definitely didn’t want to start down and find myself unable to drive back up. This day was turning into a real bust.

But on the way north to the first trail, I’d passed one of those little “hiker” signs that I’d never noticed before, about ten miles south of my destination. I checked the national forest map I carry in my pack, and found there was indeed a numbered trail there, heading west into the Blue Wilderness. This trail is not shown anywhere online – it only appears on the official printed map.

I drove another half hour back south and easily found the turnoff. The map showed a dirt road heading west less than a mile to the trailhead, but what I found was the deepest, softest mud yet. Still, after all that driving I was determined to walk, so I parked just off the highway, and began trudging west, immediately picking up several pounds of mud under my boots.

As bad as it was on this road, the mud was even worse when I tried to walk off the road, where it was uncompacted. The road climbed up a little peak to two transmission towers, part of the powerlines that bring our electricity from the coal-fired plants up north. Past the peak, the road enters the wilderness area, continuing downhill to the trailhead. I was surprised to find an old wooden kiosk, but I wasn’t surprised to find a family of mice living in the box where the visitor logbook is stored.

It’d been drizzling on and off. I’d only gone about 3/4 of a mile, and each boot was carrying a big pad of mud like a brown snowshoe. Past the kiosk, I started up the trail proper, but the mud was even worse than on the road. I made it only a hundred yards before realizing this was pointless. It was forecast to rain all day and this could only get worse. And both road and trail had been heavily trampled by cattle, despite federal wilderness designation.

On the way back I saw headlights approaching and stepped aside for a late-model Toyota pickup. I waved but couldn’t see inside – they’d had all the windows tinted, even in front. Where were they going? The powerline is the wilderness boundary – the road is closed past it. Maybe they wanted to camp under the transmission towers – there’s a great view – but they’d be camping in mud.

So much for hiking. It was close to 1 pm, and I’d had nothing but snacks, so I was hungry. There’s a roadside cafe about ten miles north that’s seldom open, but I’d noticed the parking lot was full earlier, so I headed north again.

I was able to get chorizo and eggs, served by a lady with a European accent and a teenage Black boy, and by the time I was finished it was almost check-in time for the mysterious motel in the right-wing county seat. I now knew that the geology in this area is unlike any of the other areas where I hike – the ground is some sort of fine clay that becomes unwalkable when wet – but I wanted to return in dry weather, and it’s far enough that I would need a place to stay overnight. So I might as well try the motel.

I turned out to be the only guest. Everything looked new, which explains the vacant lot on Google Satellite View. I needed yogurt for breakfast, which led me to the discovery that the “General Merchandise” at the crossroads is really a supermarket crammed into a small building. Of course – it serves an entire county that’s remote and sparsely populated but huge.

After settling into my motel room, I realized this was just what I needed. At home, I’m surrounded by work to do and problems to solve. Maybe this is why I like motel rooms so much. For a minute there, I imagined myself just living in motel rooms for the rest of my life. The phone rang and messages arrived – needy people, demanding my attention – but I ignored them. And the next day, it was hard to leave.

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