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Monday, August 24th, 2020

Lion Food

Sunday, August 2nd, 2020: Animals, Black Range, Hikes, Nature, Sawyers, Southwest New Mexico.

It was forecast to reach the low 90s in town, so I figured I’d head for the high country. I could do the Black Range Crest Trail to 9,700′ Sawyers Peak, a hike I’d only done twice before because it was less than 7 miles round trip. I could make it longer by fighting my way through another mile and a half of deadfall, or I could try a branch trail that might or might not be passable since the 2013 wildfire. Although it’d be hot at first, I figured there was also a good chance of clouds and rain in the afternoon.

When I got to the trailhead up in 8,200′ Emory Pass, there were already two other vehicles, plus a pile of stuff concerning a lost dog: a khaki jacket, a pile of dog food, and a note with a phone number.

As I hiked up the trail, I pondered the dog note. All dogs are supposed to be on leash on these trails, but nobody complies with the rule, hence the lost dog. And if their dog was lost, why did they leave? Why wasn’t the owner still here, waiting or looking for their dog? Why did they expect others to find the dog for them? If I’d lost something that important, I’d be camping out on the mountain.

A quarter mile up the trail I met a young guy with a camouflage backpack and an Aussie cattle dog. He said he’d been out here before dawn, scouting for elk, since he had a hunt coming up in November. He said he’d seen four bulls together, up around the peak. I wished him luck with the hunt.

A mile farther, I passed an older couple, also with an off-leash dog, who said they’d climbed the peak. A little farther and I reached the branch trail junction. I was starting down through the high-elevation forest, aiming for vague patches of tread, picking my way over fallen trees, when suddenly a dog barked up ahead. The lost dog!

I talked to the dog in a friendly way, and soon it came into view. It was a dark brown, short-haired little hound, and it looked on its last legs. Holding my hand out, I got it to come to me. It seemed in a state of shock or severe depression. It had a collar but no tag. It looked like it could hardly stand, let alone walk. As I walked past to check out the trail, the dog laid down in a depression it had made in the dirt under a ponderosa pine. I hiked another 50 yards and discovered there was literally no trail left to follow. I told the dog I’d be back later, and continued back to the crest trail.

With no branch trail I was doomed to battle deadfall past the peak. But I’d done it once before, and this time might be easier because I knew where I was going.

Traversing the side of the peak I encountered the four bull elk. They were in the standing snags above the trail, and their racks were huge. This was the first time I’d encountered a group of mature bulls in the wild, and it was pretty impressive.

I decided to skip the peak on the way in, and decide on my return whether to climb it or not – it’s only a few hundred feet above the trail. I continued south on the abandoned part of the crest trail as dark clouds moved over the range from the northwest. Finally, as I approached the grassy knoll that was my destination, I saw three young buck deer up ahead. It was a day for male ungulates!

The bucks took off and I climbed the knoll. Lightning and thunder had started farther north, and there wasn’t much cover up there. I crawled under a low juniper and ate a lunch of mixed nuts while I watched the storm come to me.

Rain started as I got up to start back. It was light at first, but by the time I got to the saddle below the knoll I had to unpack my poncho. By the time I was working my way up through the steep jungle of deadfall toward the peak, I was in a full hailstorm with lightning striking nearby and deafening cascades of thunder. Just my kind of weather!

When I reached the saddle below the peak, I decided to climb it. I hadn’t stopped thinking about that poor dog, but I wasn’t going to cut my hike short just for some fool’s pet. Besides, the dog could at least find some water now that it was raining.

There was no trail to the peak, and it was a difficult hike up broken, rocky ground with lots of deadfall. On the way back down, I strained my knee, which had been giving me trouble for the past couple of months, so I had to stop and put on a stronger brace. My pants and boots were soaked.

Continuing down the trail, I thought about the dog. I checked my pack and found a nylon strap I could use as a leash. And luckily, I’d brought two sources of meat protein – a venison bar and some salmon jerky. I’d give the salmon to the dog. And I could lay my poncho down in the dog’s dirt depression and fill it with water. I’d taken a photo of the stuff at the trailhead, and when I checked my camera, I discovered I could zoom in on the note and read the phone number. I was planning to give the owner a hard time. No leash, no tag, what were they thinking?

When I reached the branch trail, I took off my poncho so the dog would recognize me. I started calling it, and when I reached its little bed under the big pine, I saw it coming up the slope toward me.

I laid my poncho down and poured a little water into it, but the dog wasn’t interested in that. So I poured out the salmon jerky, which it ate, but not with much enthusiasm. Then I fastened my nylon strap to its collar and started leading it up toward the saddle. The dog soon balked and stood firm, and I couldn’t drag it forward. So I took the leash off.

I noticed it was a female. “Come on, girl!” I urged. I walked a little ahead, and the dog slowly followed, stopping frequently to sniff the ground. We continued this way, slowly, to the saddle, and then down the trail, me turning back frequently to encourage the dog. Soon we reached a couple of fallen logs that had to be climbed over. I crossed easily, but the dog seemed completely at a loss. She glanced from side to side, then turned around and walked away from me, her head hanging down.

I went back and called her again, and she came up. “Come on,” I said, patting the logs. She put her front legs up, and as I backed away, she finally climbed weakly over. It was as if she’d never seen a log before. Her entire attitude seemed one of shock and depression. I forged ahead, but after I’d gone a dozen yards I turned and saw she’d stopped again. She sniffed the trail, then turned and headed back toward her comfort zone. She was apparently just going to lay down and die back there under that pine.

Lion food, I thought. I’d been thinking about this for a while. People pride themselves on adopting “rescue” animals from shelters, animals that would otherwise be euthanized. The new owners are supposedly “rescuing” these animals from death.

I have a better idea. Pets make great food for wild predators. These clueless pet owners could actually help native ecosystems by donating their domesticated animals to the wild. Pets are ecologically negative – they only serve to damage nature; as food for predators, they would actually be helping nature. I did feel sorry for that dog, but it had already given up. Its spirit could live on in a mountain lion, a real animal with an actual, positive role in this ecosystem.

I reached a place where a couple bars showed on my phone, so I called the owner, but it went to voice mail. I told them where to find their dog and said if they really wanted her, they’d have to come and get her.

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Eve of Destruction

Monday, August 10th, 2020: Black Range, Hikes, Hillsboro, Nature, Plants, Southwest New Mexico, Stories, Trouble.

In my endless rotation of weekly hikes, it was time to return to the 10,000′ peak east of town. It was looking to be another hot day, but as usual during the monsoon, I was hoping for cloud cover and maybe even rain later in the day.

Starting from the trailhead I saw damp ground in the shade, evidence that it had rained last night or late yesterday. Vegetation was lush and humidity was high as the sun beat down on me. Since the first half of the 5-mile hike to the peak is exposed, I was racing to climb up into the shade of mixed conifer forest. And I was scanning the sky for clouds that might develop into thunderheads.

I’d gotten an early start, and I reached the peak shortly after noon. I immediately started down the backside on the continuation of the crest trail, into old growth firs and meadows deep with grass and ferns. I came across several deer and a small flock of wild turkeys, maybe the same I’d seen here a few weeks ago.

At the saddle that marked the end of the maintained trail, I decided to try fighting my way through the big blowdown that blocked the rest of the crest trail. It descends into a broad bowl that funnels into a ravine. The trail has been mostly obliterated. I climbed over log after log, found a remnant of the trail with a couple of old cairns, and continued down to the bottom of the bowl, where I faced even bigger logs. There, the trail ended in a heavily eroded gully where debris – piles of rocks – had filled in where the trail used to be. There was no clue where to go next, so I turned and fought my way back to the saddle.

On the return hike, moving slower, I noticed wildflowers I’d missed on the way in. I’m sure I’ve seen most or all of these before, but they seemed new and exciting. I heard thunder overhead, and it began to rain, but never hard enough to require my poncho.

The temperature up there dropped thirty degrees or so, and despite the sporadic rain, my sweat-soaked shirt soon dried out. I continued to make my way in and out of dark cloud shadows, rain, and brief spells of sunlight, enjoying the flowers along the way.

Finally I reached the highway and drove home.

The next morning I woke late, went to the bathroom, smelled toxic smoke – like burning plastic – and suddenly smoke billowed out of the heating vent at my feet. I ran outside in my bedclothes, yanked the basement door open, and saw my basement engulfed in flames. At that moment I knew the life I depended on was over. I ran back inside, called 911, rushed into pants and shoes, grabbed my keys and wallet.

My music studio was directly over the inferno, so I raced in there and grabbed the two instruments I’d taken out of storage – my precious vintage electric guitar and a cheap electric bass. Then I ran outside. Police were arriving, blocking off the street.

I moved both my vehicles out of the driveway. Finally after a few minutes, a fire engine arrived. Firemen ran hoses down the driveway. The police moved me out of the way, to where my neighbors were gathering. I couldn’t see what was going on at the back of my house, but smoke was coming out of my roof. I was terrified and in shock.

Much later, another fire engine arrived, and they ran another, larger hose to the back of my house. I asked for information but they couldn’t tell me anything yet. I asked why there weren’t more engines and firemen, and they said this was all that was available now.

More and more smoke poured out of my house. I literally couldn’t stand, and collapsed on the sidewalk in front of my neighbor’s place. So they brought out folding chairs. After an hour or so, getting up and peeking around the yellow police tape, I could see firemen coming in and out through my front door. They’d opened all my windows. I asked a policeman if someone could try retrieving my computer from the office, and within minutes they’d brought it out. Later, I remembered my phone was still on my desk, and a helmeted fireman got it for me. Finally, I was told the fire was under control but they had to clear the smoke. They set up a fan at my front door.

Looking down the driveway, I could see a growing pile of blackened, sodden trash. Firemen were pulling everything out of the burned basement because it was now flooded and they needed clear space to pump the water out. That pile of blackened, sodden trash was all that remained of my Archives – the history of my life since earliest childhood, all my correspondence, journals, high school yearbooks, university transcripts and degrees, reference material, the history of my bands and art projects, recent tax records. My old friend Katie’s wonderful sculptural art – dozens of pieces incinerated. My camping gear. Old clothes and shoes, surplus furniture. Nothing of great material value, lots of sentimental value.

The silver lining was that a couple months ago, unable to work on my painting project, I’d carried all my archival music tapes up to my office, planning to finish digitizing them.

Gradually, the firemen and police left. The fire marshall stayed for hours, investigating the source of the fire. In the end, he had no definite conclusions, but the water heater and old electrical wiring were possible culprits. There remains the question of insurance, which keeps me in a state of uncertainty.

My neighbors have been wonderful as usual. One fed me breakfast as I waited for the fire marshall’s investigation. I’ve moved into the guest room of their house next door. Every five minutes or so I remember something I need and return to my damaged house. The kitchen and bathroom are coated with black soot, and the burned smell makes it hard to spend more than a few minutes in the house. It looks like the floor under the kitchen and dining room/music studio will need to be replaced, plus half the central heating ducting and attic insulation.

It’s sad because my builder was just finishing his restoration of my back porch, with its floor of antique oak tongue and groove. Most of his work has been destroyed, along with one end of the floor. All the utilities to my house have been disconnected, and I will need to hire an electrician, a plumber, and a licensed contractor to get everything going again. Not to mention the cleanup. Rough estimate is 6-8 months before I have a home again.

Living from minute to minute. So lucky I woke up just as the fire was starting! So lucky the firemen were able to stop it from spreading!

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Hiking Through Trauma, Part 1

Monday, August 17th, 2020: Hikes, Holt, Mogollon Mountains, Nature, Southwest New Mexico, Stories, Trouble, Wildfire.

First Sunday

My house fire occurred on a Monday morning. My neighbors were wonderful as usual, but the aftermath was an ongoing series of crises that fell on my shoulders alone. By Sunday I was a wreck.

I headed for the trail in the high mountains to the northwest, the trail where I can get 4,000′ of elevation gain and an expansive view of the tallest peaks. We were still in a drought and heat wave at home, but I was hoping for rain or at least cloud cover up in the mountains.

It’s an hour’s drive from my temporary accommodations to the trailhead. Suffering from PTSD, my heart fell when I rounded a bend, got a view of the canyons and peaks I’d be climbing, and saw smoke from a wildfire back in the wilderness near where I was headed. My first thought was that the trail would be closed by firefighting equipment.

I turned off and drove up the dirt road into the foothills. I passed a truck and encountered an older couple walking beside the road. They said they lived down in the valley and I asked them about the fire. They said the Forest Service was aware of it but wasn’t doing anything. That was both good and bad news. I could get to the trail but didn’t know if I could hike it safely.

The couple dismissed my concerns. “If you see smoke ahead, just turn around and hike out!” said the woman. This was the only trail this side of town that would kick my ass, which in my damaged state I mistakenly thought I needed, so I didn’t want to give it up. What pathetic animals we humans are!

The sun blazed down in the canyon, and the humidity turned out to be as bad as I’d ever experienced. My clothes were all drenched with sweat at the halfway point, so I stopped for lunch and hung my shirt and bandanna headband over branches, hoping they’d dry a little.

On the climb, a thunderhead finally began to develop in the east, moving over the crest. It chilled the alpine air but failed to drop any rain. From the little knob on the shoulder of the peak, I could finally see the fire, a few miles due east. It was one drainage away near the head of the biggest canyon in this part of the mountains, and its smoke was beginning to pour north over the ridge into a smaller side canyon.

I took a picture of myself up there, as usual, but I look too miserable to include it in this Dispatch.

On the way back to town I saw a serious storm in the east, and it turned out we’d finally gotten a little rain back home.

Next: Part 2

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Hiking Through Trauma, Part 2

Monday, August 24th, 2020: Black Range, Hikes, Hillsboro, Southwest New Mexico, Stories, Trouble.

Previous: Part 1

Second Sunday

The second week after my house fire was just as hard as the first, with more delays, contractors screwing up, daily arguments with insurance, and no hope of temporary housing. Constantly in reactive mode, I had no time to think about where I was going for my Sunday hike, so I just continued the cycle of west followed by east.

Walnut trees in the canyon, where the winding road approaches the crest, were heavily infested with tent caterpillars. I’d seen lesser infestations last year, but this was pretty creepy.

Maximum humidity again, with most of the day up there in the sky fully exposed to sun, so it was a pretty tough slog. When I got up on the crest I could see heavy smoke obscuring the lowlands to the east. I assumed it was from the California fires.

The long views from the crest are one highlight of this hike; the other is the old-growth fir forest, grassy meadows and fern dells on the back side of the peak. But this time I explored a new trail from the saddle behind the peak, and found a beautiful shrub swarmed by big orange and black tachinid flies – really impressive pollinators.

Next: Part 3