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Monday, June 28th, 2021

Longest Hike on the Longest Day

Monday, June 21st, 2021: Black Range, Hikes, Hillsboro, Southwest New Mexico.

Shrinking Options

It was the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, the turning in the arc of the sun’s orbit. The solstices used to be sacred to me – my personal holidays, on which I tried to go somewhere elevated for my little rituals, often making a 3-day road-and-camping trip out of it. But life’s gotten progressively harder, and the past year’s been the hardest of all, with the solstices catching me unprepared.

Our heat wave continued, with a high of 99 forecast here in town, at 6,000′. I was used to hiking through the hottest weeks of summer, seeking shaded canyons and forests and the high-elevation crest trails where you could usually depend on a breeze, but this heat was a little extreme.

Miraculously, the solstice fell on a Sunday this year, and the least I could do was go for a solstice hike. I was also trying to get back on track after a month-long hiatus – a stressful month during which I’d missed my main form of stress relief – and last Sunday’s hike had been aborted due to smoke from the big wildfire in the wilderness to the north.

The problem was that all but one of our nearby high-elevation trails was closed because of the fire. And that one open trail was exposed to full sun for most of its distance. The only well-shaded trail near town was the last one I’d hiked, a month ago, so I wasn’t keen to hit it again. And the more scenic trails over the border in Arizona were lower elevation and would be ten degrees hotter – not an option at all.

As usual, when resuming after a break, I was torn between taking it easy on myself and gradually working up to my pre-break level, or challenging myself to try to compensate for the time off. The trail I was forced to take, the exposed crest trail, offered two levels of effort. I could hike over the 10,000′ peak and down the back side to the first saddle, returning for a round-trip distance of 13.5 miles and accumulated elevation gain of 3,200′. Or I could fight my way through blowdown and deadfall on the abandoned section of trail to the second saddle, for 15.5 miles and 3,500′. My current target for these Sunday hikes is 14-16 miles and 4,000′-5,000′ elevation gain, but considering the heat and the month off, I figured I’d be content with the easier option.

Hot Climb

I loaded my drinking water reservoir with ice and packed the little cooler with ice to cool an extra water bottle in the truck for the end of the day. On the drive to the pass I was surprised to find little traffic, and the shaded mountain picnic areas empty. Apparently everyone was staying home with the air conditioning on full blast.

Smoke from the distant fire had laid a low blanket of haze over southwest New Mexico, but so widely dispersed you could barely smell it. At 9am it was already hot at the 8,200′ trailhead, and the air was absolutely still. On hot days I unconsciously speed up to get past the exposed section of trail and reach the shaded part, and within a half mile of the trailhead I caught up with, and passed, a young couple and their dog. So far, I wasn’t feeling any loss of conditioning from my month off.

After another half mile I passed another couple, only a little younger than me, returning down the trail. I said they were smart to be leaving early, but the man bragged that unlike me, they’d gotten an early start this morning. Since it’s a 5-1/2 mile hike to the peak, to make it all the way they would’ve had to start their hike at 4am – so they likely hadn’t gone all the way. Those were the only people I saw all day on this popular trail.

It was such a relief to finally reach patches of forest after the first 3 miles, stepping out of the sun’s radiant heating into shade that felt 20 degrees cooler. This trail is normally one of the best for wildflowers and berries at this time of year, but the heat wave had accelerated the bloom and I’d missed most of it. One thing I hadn’t missed was butterflies – the mountainsides were swarming with them, especially the big yellow-and-black swallowtails.

Before 11:30am, still walking fast, I crossed over the peak and headed down the crest trail on the back side without stopping.

Thorny Descent

Two or three years ago I met a rare Forest Service trail crew clearing deadfall from the burned back side trail, but the successional thickets of locust and aspen are quick to overwhelm the trail. So I had a certain amount of bushwhacking to do to reach the first saddle. In fact, it was so overgrown, it was obvious that despite the trail crew’s work, no one besides me is using this crest trail anymore.

This is when I admit I had a hidden agenda. Trail work in the Southwest is typically done in April, and back in May, before my hiking hiatus, I’d checked out the latest map of cleared trails, and was surprised to see that the previously abandoned stretch of trail beyond the saddle was marked as cleared. This section is 2.5 miles long and ends at a junction of four trails in a saddle I’d reached more than a decade ago, where I’d encountered a “cinnamon bear” – a black bear with a patch of red fur.

If the trail to the junction was really clear now, I could hike it much faster. It would turn this hot day into an unprecedented marathon, but I’d get to see new ground and new perspectives on the range, and what was usually an anticlimactic, incomplete hike would finally get a real destination.

The Hard Part

I wasn’t too surprised when I reached the first saddle and discovered that the next section of trail hadn’t been cleared after all. The Forest Service map turned out to be in error. The initial hundred yards was still blocked by a big blowdown of old-growth ponderosa pine trees that had to be laboriously climbed over, followed by a broad, shallow bowl filled with soil loosened and crisscrossed by giant fallen Douglas firs.

But since I’d been hiking fast, the day was still young, and my body felt great, happy to be put to work again. I made my way down through the blowdown maze, then across the bottom of the drainage onto the traverse of a steep, narrow canyon, where smaller-diameter deadfall filled in by thorny locust creates a more dense obstacle course for the next mile, up to the second saddle, which is as far as I’d ever gotten in my available time.

As on the descent from the peak, the only tracks on this section of trail were from animals. I came upon a fairly recent pile of black scat which looked like mountain lion, then a large four-toed track that didn’t look like anything familiar. The piles of black scat became regular, and I realized it was probably from a bear instead. Bear scat can take many forms depending on what they’re eating, and since unlike a lion they eat continuously, they also poop frequently.

When I reached the second saddle, it was still relatively early, and I still felt good. Clouds were forming over the mountains and I was getting periods of shade. It actually felt cooler than it had in the morning.

A stretch of daunting deadfall blocked the unexplored trail head, but I figured I could at least go a little ways and see how bad it was.

New Ground

It didn’t seem too bad. Past the initial deadfall, a good section of trail continued for a quarter mile, curving into a narrow drainage and through a tight gap between dramatic rock outcrops. Any exposed rock improves my mood, so I kept going, despite feeling a little uneasy about the return hike. I knew I’d already hiked farther than at any time in the past 30 years. How was this possible, after taking a month off?

I kept encountering stretches of thorn thickets and deadfall to fight through, but never very long. The trail snaked through an even larger and more dramatic rock outcrop, which seemed like a reward for the effort I was putting in. And I came around a bend and a new canyon opened up in front of me, which I suddenly realized must be the one with the trail junction saddle. Unbelievable! I was actually going to hike the full distance, and this would turn into one of the longest hikes I’d ever done.

Unfortunately, after turning that corner I entered a seemingly endless, straight, steep traverse hemmed in by thorny locust and Gambel oak, like an overgrown green corridor that paralleled a fairly new stretch of barbed wire fence. Not the most scenic or pleasant way to finish an out-hike, but since I’d come this far I simply had to reach that junction.

At the bottom, when I finally emerged from the thicket into the broad clearing, all those long-ago memories flooded back. It was an ugly place, but I felt a sense of miraculous accomplishment. And my body felt fine. Clouds had filled the sky and were getting darker, and I anticipated no problems on the return hike. I might even get some soothing rain!

The previous visit to this saddle had taken place three years before the fire, and I could now see how the fire had taken a bite out of the forest on the east side. On that previous hike, I’d explored a few hundred yards down into that now-destroyed old-growth fir forest, spooking a hidden flock of big birds roosting in the lower branches that created a calamatous thrashing when I approached. I’d figured it was either turkeys or band-tailed pigeons. And then I’d encountered that bear browsing in a stand of ferns as I left the saddle. A blast from a magical past.

I took off my pack and sat for a while on a log left by backpackers at a fire ring, adding some hydration supplement to my water bottle. On such a long hike in hot weather I was likely to run short of water and get leg cramps, so better safe than sorry.

Taking a Fall

The hike back to the second saddle went fairly quickly, and I still loved those rock outcrops which created welcome breaks in the forest cover. With my solstice rituals interrupted it was easy to forget what day it was, but on that return hike I suddenly realized that my previous visit to that junction saddle had also occurred on the summer solstice, back in 2010. Unbelievable! I’d unconsciously returned to the same place on the same day of the year, but by a much longer and more arduous route this time.

Just past the second saddle is a really tricky maze of small-diameter deadfall that you have to slowly and cautiously clamber over and through using all four limbs. Midway through the maze my back foot got caught under a branch and the weight of my pack toppled me onto a pile of small logs with protruding dagger-like broken branches, one of which drove into my shin.

This is something I’ve always feared, and it hurt like hell, but I wear tough pants and heavy socks pulled up to my knees. No blood appeared immediately on the outside of my pants, so I just tried to ignore it, got up, and kept going.

Costly Mistake

By the time I reached the first saddle I was starting to get tired. I figured I’d gone 12 miles and still had over 6 miles to go. I laid down on pine needles and gazed at the darkening clouds overhead. Thunder was rolling from all directions, every few minutes, and I occasionally felt isolated raindrops on my face.

After ten minutes I got up, and suddenly noticed the flap over the pocket of my pack was loose. Back at the junction saddle, after taking out the hydration supplement, I’d forgotten to cinch that flap shut. My heart sank, because that pocket holds hundreds of dollars worth of stuff, including my GPS message device.

Sure enough, something was missing – my emergency bottle of prescription pain meds, recently renewed. I was sure it’d fallen out when I took that painful fall, a mile back near the second saddle. I could tell my doctor I’d lost it, but in the hysteria of our current War on Drugs, regularly encouraged by alarmist stories in both liberal and conservative media, it would put me under suspicion of abuse and put him in danger of criminal prosecution. And the highly restrictive law would probably require me to wait a couple of months before renewing anyway.

Now I was in trouble. I was already returning from a record hike, but going back to retrieve that bottle would make it the longest hike I’d ever done. And that was the hardest, most dangerous stretch of trail.

With thunder crashing all around, I retrieved a lightweight summer rain shell from my pack. I hung the pack from a branch and unfolded my rainproof poncho to cover it. Then I started back down through the maze of blowdown, deadfall, and thorny locust. I was so glad to be hiking in a long-sleeved shirt and thorn-resistant long pants, unlike most white folks who wear shorts and t-shirts on these trails. I used to be one of those, often going shirtless in hope of getting a tan, until I realized I was seriously risking cancer.

Knowing I had to do this, I’d switched into full survival mode, so my emotions were on hold, my mind and senses sharpened. Lighter without the pack, I could move faster, but was even more cautious than usual, knowing an injury now would really screw me up.

Sure enough, after fighting my way back down that narrow canyon, I found the bottle hiding under crisscrossing branches just below the trail, at the exact spot where I fell.

Challenging Bypass

Fighting my way back up to the first saddle and shouldering my pack, I took the fairly easy decision not to climb back up the peak as usual. There’s a bypass trail that circles the southwest side of the peak, returning to the main trail about a thousand feet lower. I’d been told it had been cleared two or three years ago, but I’d explored the first third of it last year and found it still pretty overgrown, with little or no tread. It wouldn’t be easy, and it wouldn’t shorten my return hike, but it would save me the thousand foot climb.

I’d felt more light rain and heard frequent thunder during the retrieval hike, but now the storm had moved west, where I could still hear thunder far in the distance, as I picked my way through thickets and deadfall, traversing the steep flank of the peak on the bypass trail. There was so little actual tread across the steep slopes of loose dirt that at one point I put my foot down and it just dropped out from under me, and I slammed down on my side, grabbing a root to stop my slide. Air temperature had stabilized in the low 80s, and a strong wind was rising out of the west.

Home Stretch

The bypass trail joins the peak trail at a long, exposed north-south saddle, like a bridge between mountains, and there the west wind was so fierce my hat was blowing off despite the tight chin strap. I just had to carry it. That wind would continue to get stronger, all the way back home. What a day of weather!

I could see occasional bolts of lighting in the west, and suddenly noticed a plume of smoke rising, about where the highway to town approaches the big copper mine. Would my way back home be blocked?

My joints were starting to feel a little sore, but not as badly as on much shorter hikes, during the period when I was starting to build capacity three years ago. I thought about my previous longest hike, the “survival hike” we’d been forced into in the middle of the night, at similar elevation on my aboriginal skills course in August 1990. We’d walked 18.5 miles that night, and I’d been so depleted and sore that I spent three days resting afterwards. I was 38 at the time, and had thought myself in good shape, but now I realized I hadn’t prepared myself with any cardio conditioning back then. Despite being much older, I’m in much better shape now, with much more capacity.

Highway Home

There was almost no traffic on the highway back to town, so I wondered if I’d find the road closed by wildfire. It was eerie driving the empty road through that fierce wind. The fire turned out to be in low forested hills about a half mile north of the highway, and I only saw one emergency vehicle parked at the mouth of a dirt road with its lights flashing.

Amazingly, I arrived home feeling no more sore or exhausted than usual. My old computer and iPad are no longer capable of accessing the hiking websites with trail data, so I’ll have to walk over to the library to find out exactly how far I hiked and how much elevation I got, but I figure it had to be over 21 miles and 3,000′.

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Over the Top

Monday, June 28th, 2021: Chiricahuas, Greenhouse, Hikes, Southeast Arizona.

Muggy Climb

As we shared the heat wave covering so much of the West, most of my hiking options had dwindled. But our monsoon seemed ready to break. Rain was forecast over much of the region for most of the next week, beginning Sunday, my weekend hiking day. Even if it didn’t rain, surely clouds would form in the afternoon, bringing shade and much cooler temperatures.

My favorite trails in our nearby mountains were still closed by the now-dying wildfire, so I was anxious to return to the range over in Arizona with lots of exposed rock pinnacles, cliffs, caves, and waterfalls.

When I hike, I always carry a bird’s-eye-view of the landscape in my mind’s eye. You can get an overhead perspective on terrain simply by climbing to the highest peak in the vicinity, but of course I also study maps in order to pick a trail. The visitor center in the Arizona range also has an amazing large-scale relief map made by hand out of layers of wood, the size of a pool table, that you can walk around to view from all directions.

With north at the top and south at the bottom, the crest of the range is L-shaped, with a dozen major ridges and canyon systems reaching outward from the L in all directions. The upper right angle of the L encloses the inner canyons and ridges, with the trails I can access coming from the northeast. I’d hiked along the crest many times now, with a view down into the eastern and western canyons, but I’d never gotten a view into the south side of the range. After last weekend’s big hike, I sat down and calculated distances for hikes that would take me into that new world. I thought I could do it in a 16-mile round trip, especially in cooling weather.

Driving a couple hours one-way to hike in Arizona makes the day complicated. Regardless of where I’m hiking, I try to get back home before dark, to warm up leftovers and have dinner around 7. Hiking within an hour of home, that means I have 9 hours to hike. Driving to Arizona, I only have 7 hours. But now, with no mask requirement and most people vaccinated, I could stop at the cafe at the entrance to the mountains, and have my favorite red chile pork burrito instead of driving home for a late dinner – as long as I could finish my hike before the cafe’s 5pm closing time.

But as soon as I drove west over the low pass into the basin at the northeast foot of the mountains, and rolled my window down, I knew the day was starting hot. When it reaches 80 by 9am at home, it will be 90 here. The sun was burning down from a clear sky, but that’s often the way it is in monsoon season. Clouds usually don’t form until the afternoon.

With my high-clearance 4wd Sidekick having clutch problems, I had to take the little truck and park it at the mouth of the access road, at about 5,800′, and walk a mile and a half up the loose rock to the trailhead, which is really hard on my foot and knee. I’d also forgotten that with the monsoon ready to break, humidity would be high so temperatures that would normally be bearable would feel a lot worse.

The 1,900′ climb to the mouth of the hanging canyon is normally a fairly easy hike, but in that muggy morning it was a miserable slog.

Creek Relief

Body and clothes drenched with sweat, I entered the hanging canyon above the dry waterfall hoping for some relief. I could see small, isolated clouds peeking out from behind the high ridges beyond. And the creek in the canyon bottom is always one of the coolest places in these mountains. Once I got down in there among the lush riparian vegetation, I found myself unconsciously slowing down and making frequent stops to take pictures.

After damaging my good camera beyond repair, I’d reverted to the old camera, which had a broken display. So now I had to use the tiny optical viewfinder, which was barely usable itself due to dust somehow getting inside it. My experience of taking photos was now sort of a reverse version of the old heavy, bulky, time-consuming 19th century view cameras. I had this tiny device that might take decent photos if I could finess it properly, but with no camera monitor, I wouldn’t find out until I got home and uploaded the images to my computer.

By the time I traversed the old-growth pine-and-fir forest out of the creekbed to the Forest Service cabin near the crest, clouds were growing over the head of the canyon, forming intermittant patches of shade in the forest. My boots were feeling loose so I stopped for lunch at the cabin and tightened them. I checked my watch and found it was taking me 50% longer than usual to hike this stretch of trail. I doubted I’d be able to reach my planned destination – the morning heat and humidity had just slowed me down too much. I would keep going, but I’d lost my enthusiasm for the day’s hike.

New World

I’d noticed during the drive in that the whole area seemed to be devoid of people. Even the campgrounds, usually occupied by escapees from Tucson and Phoenix, had been empty. This trail to the crest was typically only used to reach the falls overlook below the hanging canyon, but the falls was dry now.

When I reached the crest trail above the cabin, with my first view west, I encountered recent boot tracks. Hikers typically drive to the 9,000′ crest at the north end of the L and hike southward along the ridgetop, because it’s much easier than the 3,300′ climb I do to get up there. The crest trail just gains and loses a couple hundred feet here and there throughout its 6 to 7 mile length.

Hiking the crest southward, I saw isolated storm clouds growing in the distance and passed through stretches of shade, and I enjoyed a little breeze, but the sun was still hot when it emerged from a cloud. Finally, traversing down across the west slope of the highest peak, I passed from the heat of post-wildfire aspen thickets into cooler fir forest, and suddenly saw a hiker approaching me up the trail ahead.

He was a tall, lanky guy with a mustache, my age or a little older, wearing a sweaty t-shirt full of holes. “You’re the first person I’ve seen all day!” he exclaimed with exhuberance, stopping to chat. We described our day’s hikes – like most people, he’d driven to the crest instead of climbing up, and had spent the day exploring side trails on a loop around the peak.

He excitedly described how on a previous hike down into the creek where I’d found relief from the heat, he’d heard something in a tree above the trail, looked up, and saw a bear resting in the canopy. The bear was just shifting in its sleep – it wasn’t aware of him watching from below. But as he hiked around the tree, the bear woke up, shinnied down the tree trunk, and bounded off through the forest.

I congratulated him on his good fortune, and we wished each other a good day and continued off in opposite directions.

I was running out of time – I already knew I would miss the cafe’s closing time, and would have to drive home in the dark for a late night dinner. I probably wouldn’t get any farther than I had in the past – the saddle south of the peak, just a tiny clearing in the forest, with no further views.

But when I reached the saddle, the trail beyond looked so easy, I just had to keep going. And it took me only a third of a mile to break out of the forest into a whole new world.

To my surprise, it was a world of rock. On my left opened a long, steep-sided canyon lined with sheer rock outcrops, and behind my left shoulder, at the canyon’s head, rose cliffs that formed the south face of the peak of the range. Straight in front of me was a distinctive rocky peak, and the trail ahead snaked through boulders that continued for some distance and studded the forested slope above at my right. Flowering shrubs and annuals decorated the crevices between boulders, and burn scars on the slopes of the canyon glowed a florid green with Gambel oak.

I hiked down through the boulders to a broad saddle below the sharp peak where I could get a panoramic view of this new canyon. Amazing how much a hike could change in such a short distance! And now clouds were coming together to form a dark mass over the range. I might even get lucky and hit some rain on the way back.

Out of Time

Returning up the trail to the crest, the race was on. Yes, I was already too late for that burrito, but I still didn’t relish driving home in the dark and eating leftovers at 9pm. My foot was feeling vulnerable again, and most of the trail was rocky and hard to maintain traction or balance on, but I did my best, traversing the crest trail and thumping down through the hanging canyon. Fortunately the clouds had cooled everything off, so heat was no longer a problem.

Hurrying down the creekbed, I suddenly came upon a little mammal rushing across a patch of sandy soil and into its burrow. About 4 inches long, fat and seemingly headless and tailless, with glossy dark brown fur, I’d never seen anything like it. Because of the hole I immediately thought gopher, but I thought they were bigger?

Drops of rain began to fall as I picked my way down the rocks of the creekbed, but they were sparse and ended as I traversed back out to the overlook above the dry falls.

Misty Mountains

There, I faced a strange view over the interior of the range. The cliffs that circle it were obscured by white mist – a fine rain falling over a large area. The mist gradually cleared as I climbed downward thousands of feet, my body feeling sorer and sorer all the way, until finally, traversing the forest above the trailhead, a light rain resumed.

At the bottom of the switchbacks, my phone began vibrating angrily. This time, it wasn’t a text alert – it was a voice alert: Dust warning! Visibility can suddenly drop to zero! This was for drivers crossing the playa on the interstate, more than 30 miles away.

My knees were really hurting, especially the left which is often a problem, so past the trailhead, lurching down the rocky road, I had to stop and strap on my knee brace. And opening up the knee brace, I re-injured my sprained hand, which happens at least once a week now.

Windy Night

I reached my little truck at 5:30 Arizona time, and unhappily reset my watch an hour later to New Mexico time, already hungry and thinking about that late dinner 2 hours up the road. Feeling exhausted, I drove slowly down the gravel road through the winding valley to the mouth of the canyon at the edge of the mountains. Lo and behold, there were still people seated at the outside patio of the cafe, and servers running back and forth. I pulled up and walked over, asking if they were still serving. “Yes, we don’t close until 6!”

Hallelujah! I got to enjoy my burrito, and a cold IPA on draft, at the end of my hike, instead of a hungry 2-hour drive. What a day!

As I was eating, a wind gust hit the patio outside, the high branches of sycamores whipping and people grabbing their napkins. And as I approached the interstate, I could see plumes of dust rising in a line across the broad valley. The interstate itself was mostly dust-free, but tractor-trailer rigs had slowed down and were struggling with a stiff crosswind. One had blown off the interstate down a slope and was surrounded with flashing emergency vehicles as a huge tow truck tried to drag it back up onto the roadway.

After sunset, I drove through another dust storm on the road to Silver City. And as I approached home, long after sunset, I could see the last light reflected in pools of rainwater beside the highway, and at intersections near my temporary rental. I was looking forward to the week ahead.

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