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Monday, May 25th, 2020

First Steps in the First Wilderness Part 10: May

Sunday, May 10th, 2020: Hikes, Holt, Mogollon Mountains, Southwest New Mexico.

The last time I’d done my favorite hike, at the end of March, there’d been patches of snow two feet deep above 9,000′ elevation. But since then, the entire West had been hammered by a heat wave for weeks, and almost all the snow had melted from our mountaintops.

The heat had finally subsided this weekend, and today the forecast in town, at 6,000′, was cloudy with a high of 79. As I drove north toward the mountains, the sky above was clear, with scattered clouds in the west. And when I left the highway to take the dirt road to the trailhead, I could see a small mass of cumulus clouds peeking from behind the canyon I would be hiking up. I was hoping for some weather, but didn’t really expect any, since no rain had been forecast.

The canyon bottom was sweltering, and sweat poured off me. The stream was almost dried up, but as I’d expected, the heavy snowmelt had resulted in a big hatch-out of flies and gnats, and they were swarming in my face. I’d picked up a cheap “head net” earlier in the week, and pulled it down over my hat to keep the bugs away. What a relief! The bugs had never been this bad before, but I’d spent years waving my hands in front of my face in early summer, trying to keep them away.

When I reached the first viewpoint on the trail, 1500 feet above the canyon bottom, I could see tendrils of rain trailing from heavier clouds in the west. A strong wind was rising and the temperature was dropping fast. Soon it had dropped almost 30 degrees and I pulled on my sweater.

Climbing higher, I finally heard some thunder, far off to the northwest. And when I reached the crest, I could see more dark clouds and rain along the skyline to the east, only a few miles away.

I’d gotten an early start and was hoping to continue following the trail down the other side of the mountain, a mile or so beyond where I usually stop. But it was slow going because it entered the burn area and many dead trees had fallen since the Forest Service had cleared the trail last year. After a half mile I had to turn back – just too many logs to climb over.

I’d descended almost 500′ in that half mile, and as I trudged back up to the saddle, it started to rain. Yay! I quickly unpacked my cheap poncho and pulled it over me and my pack. It wasn’t a hard rain, but it continued for about 15 minutes, so the poncho was well worth it.

I knew this hike would be a milestone for me – the first time in more than 40 years (since I was 26) that I’d climbed over 4,000′ in a day. I felt like I could’ve done even more if I’d had more time.

On the way back down, I was lucky to spot another painted redstart, a bird I’d first seen last weekend. It was much farther away this time, and moving fast, but I recognized it by the white bands on its wings and the white underside of its tail.

On the way back home, I could see rain falling south of town, and shortly after I got home, while I was eating leftovers for dinner, I could hear the rattle of rain on my metal porch roof. Apart from the snowmelt, it’s been a very dry spring, so this rain was really welcome!

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Color Returns to the Mountains

Sunday, May 17th, 2020: Black Range, Hikes, Hillsboro, Southwest New Mexico.

Returning to the wilderness area around a 10,000′ peak, where the snow is finally gone and color has finally returned!

I chose this hike because it was going to be a hot day and I hoped it would be cooler up there. It’s also a north-south ridge and tends to be windy – I would turn a bend in the trail and literally go from calm and sweating in the 80s to a wind chill in the 50s, instantaneously. I had to hold onto my hat several times.

This is a fairly remote hike, but popular with city people driving from Las Cruces and El Paso. Most people are focused on reaching the fire lookout compound on the peak, partly because it used to be occupied by local celebrity author Philip Connors; I couldn’t care less about Connors and am much more interested in the wildlife. I skip the fire lookout and continue down the crest trail on the back side of the peak to a remote saddle, around which there are still some big old-growth trees that survived the 2013 fire.

I was hoping to explore more of the crest trail, but north of the saddle, it was completely obliterated by a big blowdown of mature conifers. I will be surprised if the Forest Service ever restores the trail system around here. The trails themselves, like the fire lookout, are simply aspects of more than a century of failed practices. A microcosm of our entire society.

On the back side of the peak, trying to climb over a fallen tree trunk, I lost my balance and fell backward, grabbing a locust seedling by mistake. My hand was pierced by its long thorns, but miraculously, didn’t bleed. Hiking back to the trailhead in a heavy wind, I noticed a beautiful butterfly darting around my legs. It suddenly dashed under my heel just as I put my weight down, and was crippled.

Driving down through the foothills, where the speed limit increases and I was forced off the road a few weeks earlier by a reckless driver, I watched carefully as vehicles emerged one by one from the blind curves ahead of me. Nearly all of them were driving too fast and cut the curves, crossing the double yellow line into my lane, and I leaned on my horn again and again – something which is strictly taboo in rural southwest New Mexico. I was relieved to get home safe, but I couldn’t stop thinking about that poor butterfly.

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Skunk’s People

Monday, May 25th, 2020: Hikes, Holt, Mogollon Mountains, Southwest New Mexico.

Another unanticipated holiday weekend materialized – another national holiday I don’t celebrate. This one supposedly memorializes soldiers, mostly young men, who died in the various wars pursued by our aggressive, competitive, violent society. A society which is the direct descendant of European empires and their interminable, apocalyptic conflicts, which were all implicated in the development of the benefits we treasure from Western Civilization – the arts, the sciences, the “democracy.” All these entitlements fed and matured on an endless cycle of war, suffering, and death.

As we echo platitudes about these young men, we might consider the mothers, fathers, wives, and children who were scarred by their deaths. We might consider the much higher casualties of the “enemy,” including the civilians injured or killed either intentionally or as “collateral damage” by our trained warriors and weapons of mass destruction. We might consider the displaced or slaughtered wildlife and the productive natural habitat rendered sterile or toxic. We might consider the peaceful societies who, alongside our history of violence, have had the wisdom to avoid this legacy of destruction that’s glorified by our “advanced” civilization.

But it was Sunday, and like clockwork I was heading out for my Sunday hike, which is partly a tribute to my dad, who briefly joined the U.S. Marines, but missed the fighting as the war ended while he was still in training. He came from a churchgoing family but always told people nature was his church. As it is mine, hence the Sunday hikes.

Because of the holiday, the ongoing pandemic, and media hysteria about people violating lockdown orders and massing in dangerous crowds across the country, I was a little apprehensive. But traffic on the national highway west of town was even lighter than usual, with miles between vehicles. The trailhead, at the end of a five-mile dirt road, is empty four times out of five, but I figured I might have company today. Little did I know!

First I passed a full-size horse trailer. Then I came upon EIGHT vehicles, big trucks and SUVs, packed into the steeply sloping parking area around the trailhead. Most wore Arizona plates, but two were from Utah and Montana. I could hardly believe my eyes. During this pandemic, while everyone I know locally stays obediently near home, every time I go out for a hike, I find vehicles from out of state, some from as far away as Michigan. Renegades hiding in the forest, invaders endangering us locals. City people may be getting tired of travel restrictions, but we country folks are getting tired of thoughtless, careless invaders from the city. And this crowd at the trailhead was out of control, adding insult to injury.

There was only one narrow space left beneath a juniper where I could pull in without blocking anyone else. What was going on here? Eight five-seater passenger vehicles plus a horse trailer, that could mean up to 40 people and half a dozen equines. Two of the SUVs had been parked blocking two others, so it was clear that some of these people belonged together as part of a group. Even assuming the folks from Utah and Montana were outliers, I’d never encountered such a big group in the backcountry around here.

Strangely, the log book at the trailhead showed only two visitors since I’d last been here, two weeks earlier. There was no entry for this weekend.

I hate crowds in nature, and I was ready to give up, but where else would I go? This was one of the most remote trails in the area. My feet, anxious to get going, pulled me forward toward the trail. The canyon bottom was a mile ahead, and I envisioned it teeming with dozens of anti-government yahoos from red-state Arizona, enthusiastically violating lockdown orders and carelessly exposing each other to the virus. For some minimal exercise, I would just walk the half mile to the wilderness boundary. Or maybe the full mile down into the canyon, but as soon as I saw people ahead, I’d turn back.

Strangely, the sparse dry dirt of the trail didn’t show much sign of a crowd. In the first half mile I could distinguish two or three different boot or shoe prints and what seemed to be a single hoofprint. My feet kept pulling me forward, down into the canyon. Just before the first creek crossing I came on a single fresh pile of horseshit. I listened but could hear no voices, just the trickling of the shrinking stream.

The sky was clearer than when I’d last been here, and the air a bit cooler – in the low 70s in the canyon bottom – and I was comfortably warm in my tough hiking pants and long-sleeved shirt. You don’t wear shorts on these trails in burn areas because they’re often overgrown with thorny shrubs.

After another mile, moving from stark burn scar into semi-intact riparian canopy, I reached the trail fork, still with no sign of people. But someone had pulled down the Forest Service trail sign at the fork – it was lying facedown in the dirt – so I set it upright again and rebuilt the cairn that held it in place. I was going straight as usual, up into the high country. I knew the right fork led to an old miner’s cabin over in the next canyon to the south, but according to the Forest Service that trail hadn’t been maintained since the 2012 fire and was impassable. Yet it looked used to me. I carefully followed beside it in the grass, looking for tracks. Sure enough, there was a hoofprint and a single boot print. But that didn’t account for the crowd from the nine vehicles at the trailhead. The mystery deepened.

I continued up the canyon. Lush vegetation blocked my view ahead much of the time, so I stopped often to listen for voices. Had most of the group been on a guided backpacking trip? Were they off somewhere in the wilderness that I hadn’t been able to penetrate on my day hikes? There were guided horseback trips over on the other side of the wilderness, but I’d never heard of such a thing here, or on foot. And surely there was a moratorium on guided trips during the pandemic.

3-1/2 miles into my hike, I reached the base of the switchbacks at the head of the long side canyon, where the trail begins its steep climb to the 9,500′ crest. There’s an old fire ring there in the grass beside the now-dry creek where I usually stop for a snack and a drink of water, but there was no sign anyone else had lingered. So I continued, keeping my eyes and ears peeled toward the trail above. The next logical stopping place would be the mountainside spring at 9,100′.

But there was no one up there either, and no recent tracks. It was breezy, and cool in the shade of the forest, so that if I didn’t keep climbing I’d have to pull on my sweater. I was feeling much better at this point – even if I found people at the crest, I would’ve achieved a good day’s hike.

The approach to the crest is across a barren slope of crumbling white rock, so I stopped as soon as I rounded the bend that reveals a view of the crest and the little knob at its west end, about a quarter mile away. Anyone lingering at the crest would be up there for the panoramic view, so I squinted and waited for movement. There was a shadow between the trees that could’ve been a person, and it wavered a bit, but I couldn’t be sure. So I kept climbing.

There was no one up there. I saw an occasional boot track but couldn’t tell how fresh it was in this dry, sparse dirt. Like I had a couple weeks earlier, I continued down the other side, climbing over dozens of fallen trees until the effort was greater than the reward, where I turned back, still mystified about where the crowd had gone. Had they all parked at the trailhead and headed somewhere else, not using the trail at all? I wasn’t aware of any other destinations from that starting point, but I’d never actually checked.

Despite the nastiness of the trail on the back side of the crest, I like being back there, feeling like I’m really in the heart of the wilderness, on the other side of the watershed from the distant highway and the tiny pastures and farmsteads of the San Francisco River valley. Shortly after I turned and started back up the trail, I heard an awful racket in the tall firs to my east. It sounded like an animal in pain, a very loud sort of rasping croak. Then I saw some large birds bursting out of the foliage, flapping up into a dead tree ahead of me, keeping up their racket full-time. I couldn’t tell what they were but whipped out my camera and tried to zoom in before they flew away. They were really worked up about something!

Later research would reveal that they were Clark’s nutcrackers, a bird I first saw at the age of 12, on the rim of Oregon’s Crater Lake.

On the way back down, I stopped at the spring and waited to fill the dipper I’d brought along just in case. Earlier in the year, the water had been full of sediment, but now it was clear and delicious again.

Back down the steep, rocky trail into the canyon. Through the tangled, difficult stretch where fallen trees and small debris flows need to be negotiated. And finally to the trail fork, with still no sign of people. But just past the fork, I finally spotted people ahead. Not from the crowd at the trailhead – these were just starting into the back country, hiking toward me. It was two boys, one about 18, the other a few years younger, both carrying old-fashioned frame packs with sleeping bags and pads.

As we talked, the mystery was solved. They were part of a “family tradition” that maintained and used the old miner’s cabin, Skunk’s place, over in the big canyon to the south. The vehicles from Utah and Montana were part of their far-flung family. When I asked the condition of the trail, the older boy said they’d gone in with horses two years ago and cleared it. And the cabin was all fixed up and I was welcome to use it any time.

The boys were super polite, shy but friendly, and my former annoyance at their invasion during the pandemic faded away for the moment. Their elders had organized this trip and it wouldn’t do to challenge these kids. They were carrying fishing gear and said the trout should be biting over there, where a perennial stream cascades over a series of falls.

In fact their trail climbs 600′ out of this canyon to a saddle, and then down 1,400′ to the cabin in the bottom of the next canyon over, a much bigger and wilder canyon that can only be accessed from here. One online nature photographer who has rafted the Grand Canyon claims that this canyon in our local wilderness is its equal – it’s a mile deep and has towering cliffs and a series of waterfalls up to 200′ tall.

So the crowd of invaders from Arizona, Utah, and Montana maintain a cabin deep in our wilderness, and return here each Memorial Day weekend to hike or ride a rugged five miles in, with 2,600′ of accumulated elevation gain on the round trip. That’s quite a family! And screw the pandemic – in the culture we inherited from our European ancestors, clan loyalty is far more important than the health and safety of your neighbors.

Who knows how many strangers these travelers interacted with in their journeys to Skunk’s cabin? But as it turned out, they didn’t interfere at all with my day in church.

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