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Best Hike Ever!

Monday, January 10th, 2022: Mogollon Mountains, Sapillo, Southwest New Mexico.

Just kidding – not really the best hike ever, but with plenty of redeeming value. I finally realized I need a major attitude adjustment. I’ve been complaining way too much, and I need to start reacting to setbacks, hardship, crisis, and maybe even trauma as exciting opportunities.

This was the hike I’d planned to do last Sunday – top of my short list of lower-elevation winter hikes – but had been prevented by a snow-blocked highway. This time I took the long way around, to avoid the higher elevations, but unnecessarily as it turned out, since the direct route had been fully plowed in the past week.

I’m glad I took the longer route, though, since I’ve been avoiding that area since I moved here, and I’d completely forgotten how interesting it is. It’s a real slice of the Old West that is near my home but otherwise fairly remote, scenic, and off the tourist radar. The highway runs north up the upper floodplain of one of our two local rivers, then over a low divide into the smaller valley of a creek, which has been dammed to create a small lake for fishing and recreation.

Finding the trailhead and actually following this trail was going to be a gamble. According to the maps, it starts near where the highway crosses the creek downstream of the dam, enters the wilderness boundary and climbs high up the north slope above the creek. Once up there, it contours around a series of high shoulders to a point near the mouth of the creek, where it drops back down to the creek and follows it a short distance to where it flows into the wild river. The backcountry horsemen claim to have cleared it of logs and brush last spring.

Some sources said the initial access went through private land, where it could be blocked. The latest crowd-sourced maps showed it starting on the highway, but the latest online trip log, from Thanksgiving, simply said “This trail is not accessible any more.” But I’ve learned to take anonymous online information with a big grain of salt. If I found and could follow the trail, it would be my first venture on trails in the heart of the wilderness, and my first encounter with the river in its wildest stretch.

When I reached the short stretch of highway where the trail was supposed to begin, the only manmade thing I could see from my passing vehicle was a small, ancient, blank, unpainted plywood signboard nearly buried in high weeds 20 feet off the road. Beyond that I found a turnout, parked, and optimistically shouldered my pack. The creek trended west below a high south slope, so it would mostly be shaded from the low winter sun. The temperature now was well below freezing, so I dressed warmly but expected the temperature to reach the 50s in the afternoon.

I walked back the road to where I’d seen the old signboard, and noticed a faint, narrow track through the weeds, leading down onto the floodplain. I’d found the trailhead, but I knew it had to cross the creek in order to climb the north slope – would it really turn out to be “not accessible any more”?

One reason I’ve avoided trails in the heart of the wilderness is that most are canyon hikes involving from 50 to 100 river crossings. Hikers can only use these trails in warm weather, when they wear water shoes, gaiters, and shorts. My foot condition makes this impractical – they don’t make water shoes that are reinforced and accommodate prescription orthotics. My experience of canyon hikes had been limited to creeks which are major tributaries to the rivers, and in every case there had been stepping stones or logs allowing me to cross without too much anxiety around getting my boots wet or my feet frostbit.

I didn’t expect the trail in this creek bottom to be any different, nor did I expect it to be a bigger creek than those I’d dealt with elsewhere. And my reading of the maps had indicated there would only be one or two crossings before the trail left the floodplain. Hence my surprise when the first crossing was wide and deep and with no stones or logs.

It took me 5-10 minutes to find a place downstream with a couple of barely submerged rocks, and a couple of dead willows I could use as walking sticks. It was touch and go, but I made it across. I left the sticks beside the trail so I could use them on my return.

In the end, there were 9 crossings in a mile and a half, and as creeks do, it got wider and wider the farther down I went. I was losing a lot of time at these crossings, so I used the first sticks I found, usually rotten and awkwardly formed, and hoping this would be the last crossing, at each crossing I stopped and found new sticks, and left them on the far side for return use. I began to feel I was trapped down here in the freezing shade with this ever-widening creek – maybe the trail had been changed since the maps were made, and it never climbed out of the canyon?

The only recent prints I found in the snow or frozen mud of the trail were from horses and dogs – I figured that’s why there were no stepping stones or logs at crossings – equestrians don’t need them. So this must be primarily an equestrian trail. Eventually it left the creek and began to climb up an even darker side drainage, getting rockier as it climbed, with the awkward volcanic cobbles.

From my cursory reading of maps and trail descriptions I expected this to be slightly over 6 miles one-way. My destination, the mouth of the creek, was only 650′ lower than the trailhead. In climbing the north slope, the trail never gets higher than 500′ above the creek, but because it has to zigzag back and forth into deep side drainages, dropping and climbing hundreds of feet each time, the accumulated elevation gain is almost 3,500′. That made it a good candidate for me, although I’d always rather get that elevation climbing a peak.

When I reached the first shoulder, I wasn’t rewarded with much of a view. The peaks and ridges around me were all low, rounded, and uniformly forested. I’d passed rock outcrops and low cliffs on the way, but there wasn’t much of that visible from above. The next shoulder was much the same, and I was getting tired of all the up and down with apparently little reward.

While climbing over those shoulders, the trail had been trending away from the creek and its canyon. It wasn’t until the third shoulder that I regained a view over the canyon and into a significantly new landscape. To the northwest, peeking from behind the next shoulder, I glimpsed a much higher peak that I figured had to be Granny Mountain, one of the few higher peaks in the heart of the wilderness (the really high peaks are all at the western edge). Then, as I traversed down and across to yet another shoulder, a dramatic section of canyon opened on my left, to the south. The canyon wall here was composed of black rock cliffs that narrowed to an impressive slot canyon, where I could hear the creek roaring. The walls were so sheer and close together that you couldn’t see into the canyon from above.

Most of these shoulders featured broad grassy meadows, and when I found an abandoned wilderness sign, I reflected on the real vs. official histories of places like this. These meadows may have resulted from indigenous management. Whereas the myth of wilderness teaches environmentalists that white Anglo heroes like John Muir and Aldo Leopold saved these areas from destruction by eliminating human interference.

The reality is that indigenous people used this habitat sustainably for thousands of years, managing for both diversity and productivity. Then whites invaded, killed or otherwise relocated them, and, unaware that this natural abundance had been achieved by prudent native management, began overconsuming it, driving species to extinction. Conservationists like Muir and Leopold failed to recognize the indigenous role in natural habitats, believing the balance of nature could be restored in “parks” and “preserves” if we could remove all human impacts.

Wilderness – the raison d’être of these places where I hike – is a European colonial fiction. So now, instead of a culture in which every member is intimately aware of and dependent on the health of their local natural resources, we have a culture of urban consumers dependent on anonymous products from distant sources, surrounding isolated parks and preserves overseen – but seldom actively managed – by career bureaucrats and urban law courts, in which the natural diversity and resilience carefully achieved by local native users are gradually collapsing. And we congratulate ourselves on the “progress” achieved by our civilization and its white male heroes.

Down and up onto the next shoulder – the fourth so far – and I had yet another view, into a much broader new landscape that led to the high peaks I was familiar with in the far west. I could now see the gray deciduous forest down in the mouth of the creek, still far ahead, but even up here I felt like I’d penetrated deep in the wilderness.

I was getting pretty discouraged, because according to my original estimate of distance, I should’ve reached the creek mouth already. And I hadn’t anticipated so many intervening shoulders – so many ups, downs, and arounds, so many times shedding layers in the sun and pulling my sweater and gloves back on in the chilly shade. Now there was yet another high shoulder to get over before the trail began dropping toward the creek. The last thing I wanted to do was have to make those precarious stream crossings in the dark on the way back, but I was running out of time. Still, now that the mouth of the creek was almost in sight, how could I turn back?

And when I finally got within view of the riparian forest, from the final switchbacks dropping into the canyon, I could see it was largely made up of beautiful, venerable sycamores – one of my favorite trees.

Of course when I reached the floodplain, the first thing I encountered was another crossing point, with a creek that was now 20 feet wide. It took me longer than usual to find two sticks, 40 feet up the bank and 60 feet off the trail, but with quite a bit of anxiety I made it across. It would be no picnic hiking all the way back in wet boots with temperatures dropping to freezing again.

I passed an old junction with another trail coming in from the south, and another difficult creek crossing below cliffs. And eventually I saw the river junction up ahead in brilliant afternoon sunlight. But just before it was the biggest and gnarliest crossing of all – a rapids, with big loose rocks that were just too precarious to use as stepping stones. I’d brought the last pair of sticks with me, and spent a few minutes trying scout a route, but the flow was strong here, and it was just too dangerous. At least I’d seen the river, and that would have to be enough for now. It was time to hurry back.

That was when I realized I’d lost my expensive sunglasses, yet again. Somewhere up on the trail into the canyon, I remembered hanging them from the open neck of my sweater. They could’ve fallen off anywhere in the past mile.

I returned up the mostly shaded trail, scanning the ground carefully. I recrossed the creek at a sunny spot and trudged up the floodplain to the shady crossing before the climb out of the canyon. The banks were littered with limbs, which made it harder to search. I thought maybe the sunglasses had worked loose while I was seeking and breaking limbs on the far side, to use as walking sticks. So I crossed over and searched the bank, working my way back into the forest where I remembered finding sticks. I began scanning a clearing under a big sycamore, and amazingly, there they were, almost perfectly camouflaged in leaf litter dappled with shade.

The return hike was even more grueling, but I kept reminding myself that it’d been a great day, and all the hardship just made it a better adventure. If I had to cross the creek in the dark, so be it – it would make a better story!

I did come to hate those interminable shoulders, and it was pretty dark by the time I finally reached the creek again. And the first thing I discovered was that another hiker had followed me partway, and on their return, had selfishly used nearly all the sticks I’d so carefully saved, discarding them out of my reach on the opposite side. So now I had to find new sticks, and this time I picked ones I could carry with me and re-use. By the time I reached the last crossing, it was headlamp dark, the water level had risen to submerge my former stepping stones, and I could no longer see submerged rocks. So I found a spot where I could use a little midstream shoal and try to jump the far channel. The jump didn’t quite make it, and I did get my boot wet, but I grabbed a branch to haul myself up the bank, and I knew the vehicle was now within reach.

It was full dark when I got there. It’d taken me 8-1/2 hours – I knew it had to be farther than 12 miles round-trip. When I got home and plotted the route, I found it was closer to 15.

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The Rocks, My Teachers

Monday, January 17th, 2022: Hikes, Mogollon Mountains, Sapillo, Southwest New Mexico.

After last Sunday’s tantalizing views over a hidden canyon, this Sunday’s hike was the second choice in my short list of nearby, lower-elevation winter hikes. From a trailhead only a few miles east of the previous hike, the topo map showed this one climbing north from the valley of the same creek, at a little over 6,000′, to a large branching plateau near 8,000′. According to the map, the trail spent several miles up there meandering across the plateau, then dropped down its north slope into the canyon of another creek. I didn’t expect it to be a spectacular hike – the most I hoped for was some new views, decent mileage and accumulated elevation gain, and maybe an interesting canyon at the far end.

That was a big maybe, because it would be almost 9 miles from end to end, and I would only be able to hike the entire distance if the trail turned out to be in good condition, on a surface that allowed me to maintain my preferred rapid pace. As usual I was being optimistic – in the back of my mind was my previous experience that all uplands in the heart of the wilderness were covered with the dreaded volcanic cobbles.

The day was forecast to be partly cloudy with typical midwinter temperatures at 6,000′ – high twenties in the morning to mid-fifties in the afternoon. But the sky was almost completely clear as I left home. Google Maps claimed the direct route through the mountains is 15 minutes shorter than the roundabout route at lower elevation, so that’s the way I went. Google Maps failed miserably – the direct route was actually 15 minutes longer than the roundabout route, which I used to return in the evening. But it gave me a fine panoramic view over the southern edge of the wilderness.

Despite a total lack of wind, it felt pretty damn cold at the trailhead, which faced a low wall of crenelated cliffs across a meadow lined with frosted chamisa – the floodplain of the upper creek, which was dry in this stretch. By the time the trail led me back into a narrow tributary valley and the wilderness boundary, I’d had to dig a wool scarf out of my pack and wrap it around my face.

But I quickly warmed up, and began shedding outerwear, on the climb to the plateau. The first part of the climb, along the rim of an interior basin to my right, revealed occasional views of sheer cliffs of soft, partly compacted volcanic tuff. But it also revealed the dreaded volcanic cobbles, as bad as I’d encountered anywhere. And the trail, while not really steep, proceeded at a grade that could only be described as relentless, straight up an outlying ridge of the plateau, through open pinyon-juniper-oak forest that allowed only frustratingly partial views of the surrounding landscape. The forest cover meant that I could never see more than 100′ ahead of me, and always hoped I would reach the top of the plateau after another 100′ of climbing, only to face yet another 100′ of climbing.

After about 3 miles of climbing, I reached the top of the plateau, and the first of a series of reasons why this trail even existed – an abandoned corral, followed by an abandoned stock pond. The trail had been accompanied by an abandoned barbed wire fence for the past couple of miles, and I was to see that fence for the rest of the hike. Not my favorite wilderness experience.

From there, the trail proceeded across the gently rolling plateau, in and out of small stands of tall ponderosa pine and through long patches of snow up to 10″ deep, the ground lined with the difficult volcanic cobbles everywhere except for small patches of mud.

I was looking for the junction with a shorter trail that came in from the west. That junction would be 5.3 miles in from my trailhead, leaving less than 4 miles to the far end at the distant creek. But it was such slow walking that I was pretty sure I wouldn’t make it to the end. It seemed to take forever just to reach the junction.

What awaited me at the junction was not encouraging. Nobody else had hiked this trail since our snowfall 3 weeks ago, but shortly before reaching the junction I found boot tracks in the snow, and at the junction itself somebody had built a campfire in the trail literally at the foot of the trail sign. Like the on-trail campfire I’d found a few months ago, this one had trash on top of the coals – a sardine can, a melted plastic wrapper, and some crumpled foil.

I remember back in the Dotcom Boom when my idealistic young colleagues proclaimed “information wants to be free!” This is the result of that. People who haven’t been brought up in backpacking culture watch YouTube videos and learn about places and trails on social media, and anyone can buy the gear at Walmart or REI. But information without ethics is inevitably abusive and destructive. Freedom erodes accountability and hence responsibility, and the technologies which my colleagues hoped would liberate people instead became addictive and exploitative, leading to genocide and other societal abuses while turning a tiny minority of white men into billionaires.

Continuing past the junction, I passed the second abandoned corral and stock pond. Until a few decades ago when a citizens’ lawsuit finally forced the Forest Service to end ranching in the wilderness, this had been a rancher’s trail – and visually, it still was.

It’d taken me so long to reach the junction, there was no way I was going to reach trail’s end at the next creek. But I had about 45 minutes left before I had to turn back, so I continued on the main trail. That was when I began to encounter more work by the rogue trailworkers. Whoever is doing this recent trail “maintenance” seems to be in love with their chainsaw. They’re clear-cutting a corridor between 10 and 15 feet wide, and leaving unsightly slash piles along the trail.

Maybe I’m encountering stuff like this because I’m hiking trails that are really better suited to equestrians. They don’t actually have to walk on the volcanic cobbles – they spend the entire day sitting on their horses’ backs, while the animals have to deal with the rocky ground, and with four feet, they probably find it easier than humans.

But the Forest Service doesn’t designate trails for hikers vs. equestrians – all trails are supposed to be mixed-use. And all upland trails in the Gila have this kind of surface – maybe that’s why horse-packing outfits are so popular here.

Lined with hacked-off limbs and sawed-off young trees, the trail continued out a northern branch of the plateau for another mile, before the path of destruction ended. I found myself in a patch of deep snow on the north rim of the plateau, with a view north over the main part of the wilderness, a view I’d never had before. Parts of it were even more rugged than I’d expected.

From there, the tread became almost invisible as I worked my way down a series of short switchbacks through dense pinyon-juniper-oak forest into the canyon of the unfamiliar creek. I soon ran out of time and had to turn back.

Now I had more than 7 miles of that terrible rocky surface to cross on the way back. I’d intentionally given myself enough time so I didn’t feel rushed, but since I’d sworn to approach those volcanic cobbles with a positive attitude, I decided to make a concerted effort to tackle them on their own terms – to figure out a way to walk that incredibly challenging ground with grace.

There was only one way to do it. I had to banish all urgency, and give the task all the time it required. But even more importantly, I had to clear my mind, stop thinking, and focus all my attention, not on the trail ahead, but on the ground directly in front of my feet – the length of my shortest stride, which on ground like this is 2 feet or less. At each step, I had to pinpoint and decide on exactly where to put each foot, before even lifting that foot off the ground.

I thought I’d done that before, but I learned that I actually hadn’t. Goal-oriented, highly motivated, brimming with energy, I’d always been scanning 6 to 10 feet ahead for major obstacles, assuming I could ignore lesser obstacles. That way of walking worked on every other kind of surface, but not on these volcanic rocks. Hence I’d always been twisting my ankles or stumbling on this kind of surface, cursing all the way.

Why had it been so hard for me to focus and concentrate? I recalled losing my sunglasses last week – and only a few days ago, buying a new furnace filter, setting it on the roof of my car while I unlocked the door, driving away and only realizing a half hour later, at home, that the new filter was lying along the roadside somewhere, miles away, battered and broken. This kind of thing has happened to me over and over again during the past few years, and why? Because trauma and frustration have left me in a perpetual state of distraction – always worried about problems I have to solve, always anxious about what will go wrong next – never present, never fully aware of my surroundings. Always distracted and literally absent-minded.

Gurus speak of mindfulness, but what I needed was a state of mindlessness. It was only when faced with these rocks that required me to stop thinking and focus on the ground before my feet, that I was able to banish that distraction and enter a state of mindless grace. And after a while, it began working. I found I no longer resented these rocks. I found I enjoyed the challenge. I felt I was getting good at it, I was mastering the rocks – and since that was a form of thinking, a form of distraction, that’s when I began to stumble again.

I had now learned my second lesson: humility and submission. We don’t master nature – she will always be our master. Wisdom comes when we submit to nature.

These rocks, that for years I believed to be my enemies, had become my teachers.

Of course, this kind of extreme focus and concentration has to be put in context like everything else. While doing it, you lose all consciousness of your broader surroundings. Gurus speak of becoming more present, but when taken to an extreme like this, you’re actually oblivious to your surroundings. You can’t see vegetation or wildlife, and you have no idea where you are in the landscape. To see anything except the ground at your feet, you have to come to a full stop. I wondered how the Apaches could hunt in this kind of habitat. You’d have to pick your vantage points, and the routes between them, and stop frequently along the way. There’d be no running to chase down a deer, like in that expensive, award-winning Hollywood production Last of the Mohicans.

Hiking became quite literally a form of meditation. Walking with more grace and more peacefulness the farther I went, I finally reached the southern end of the plateau and began descending, just as the sun was lowering to the long ridge north of town. It lit up the soft cliffs surrounding the interior basin, and there was just enough last light to briefly gild the rim of the side valley before I emerged into the chamisa.

I hoped I would remember the day’s lessons.

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