Dispatches Tagline
Monday, December 20th, 2021

Stone for Joan

Monday, December 6th, 2021: Hikes, Rain, Southwest New Mexico.

Last week’s hike was so epic, it would be hard to top – and besides, I needed to take it easier on my recovering foot and hip. By Sunday morning, I’d convinced myself to head east of town to repeat an easy ridge hike I’d probably done a dozen times before.

But as I packed for the hike, I found myself longing to return to the same area I’d hiked last week. It seemed I just couldn’t get enough of that place – it was the rockiest area I’ve found in our local mountains. Including last Sunday’s hike, I’d hiked the ridges on both sides of the ten-mile-long canyon, but I hadn’t explored the abandoned trail in the canyon bottom, which would be passing between and looking up at all those stone promontories, cliffs, and pinnacles.

The only recent information available on that trail comes from the website of a guy who’s obsessed with waterfalls. He and a friend went up the canyon in 2018, encountering a 75-year-old man who they claim “has long been repairing and maintaining trails that the feds have discontinued and abandoned”. Frankly I was skeptical of their story, but I’d printed out their low-resolution map and would give it a try. If the trail turned out to be a bust, I planned to follow the main trail to the next ridge and bushwhack off it up the ridge as far as possible, to look down on the canyon from a different perspective.

But if I succeeded in following the abandoned trail through this wonderland of rocks, I would dedicate this hike to my mother, Joan, who is always asking me for “more rocks”!

It was a clear and cold December morning at home – 37 degrees. At the trailhead I found only one log entry since my visit a week ago: someone from the nearest village who said they were going fishing in the creek. I was a little bemused since in my experience the creek had been ephemeral and intermittent and I’d never seen fish in it.

But down the trail a bit, when I got my first view into the big bend far below, I saw a bright ribbon of water, and as I hiked lower in the morning sun, shedding my jacket, I could hear the creek rushing noisily over rocks in the canyon bottom.

The mesa around the trailhead is heavily used by cattle from the Moon Ranch, and fresh cowshit preceded me down the rocky trail, but disappeared by the time I reached the wilderness sign a half mile in. I saw no sign of cattle in the canyon itself.

The canyon bottom was dark and so chilly I had to put my jacket back on. It’s a mile and a quarter down into the canyon and across the creek to the junction where my favorite trail continued up the other side, and where I believed the abandoned canyon trail branched off north. The canyon trail is not signed – there’s only a fallen, broken sign for the ridge trail.

I headed up the unmarked branch, and found it to have good, but very narrow, tread. The map showed it closely following the creek, but that’s at low resolution. In reality it climbs high above the creek to clear obstacles, then drops down and crosses to the other side to avoid more obstacles, as the creek itself winds back and forth through this 2,000′ deep canyon.

For the first quarter mile or so I found it easy to follow. I didn’t see any evidence of trail maintenance by the mythical 75-year-old. It was blocked occasionally by deadfall, but less so than many of the regularly maintained trails I use. There were cairns, but most of them were minimal, buried under vegetation, and hard to see. From the abundant recent scat, it was clear that bears were the most active users of this trail. They, not some phantom human, were keeping it open for the rest of us.

I was eagerly hoping to get to the really rocky part of the canyon, but my progress was slow because the trail was so hard to relocate at its frequent creek crossings. The creek itself disappeared underground before I’d gone too far up it, leaving a broad dry bed of cobbles. But I gradually came to trust the ancient cairns. If you started by assuming they were buried under vegetation, they became easier to find. The trail’s tread might completely disappear for up to a hundred yards, but if you followed natural openings in the vegetation and rock formations, you’d eventually be able to find another buried cairn.

I was anxiously watching for a big side canyon to open up on the left – the big canyon I sat above in the stone saddle at the end of last Sunday’s hike. I’d been curious as to whether you could actually hike that side canyon. When I finally reached it, it appeared at the bottom as a broad washout, old enough to have cairns and descending tread on both banks. But once across that washout, it took me forever to locate the next cairn and the continuation of the trail. From there on, I expected to see more rock – I’d be passing directly below the monumental rock formations I’d looked down on last week.

The canyon did get a little rockier, but the upper slopes still lacked the impressive formations I expected. Back and forth I crossed, looking for buried cairns, following tread when it was available. Suddenly I came upon the remains of a recent campfire – a fire ring filled with ashes and unburned trash – directly in the trail, in a narrow passage where you couldn’t avoid it. What the hell? Who would build a campfire on a public trail, and even worse, walk away without dispersing it? The ashes were really fresh, so I suspect it was the local who came “fishing” only three days earlier.

I kept going, figuring I’d disperse and restore it on my return. And eventually I began seeing some fanciful rock formations on the slopes above.

Now I was in rock heaven, in the heart of the canyon. Bedrock in the canyon floor kept the creek running on the surface, often for long level stretches with deep pools. And cliffs and house-sized boulders forced the trail to climb steeply for up to a hundred feet above the bottom before descending and crossing again.

This local rock is not “real” rock like the sandstones of Utah or the granite of my beloved Mojave – as crumbly volcanic conglomerate, held together by tuff, which is just compacted mineral dust, it’s a poorer quality rock for climbing. But surprisingly, its eroded shapes are similar, from a distance, to the familiar forms of sandstone and granite.

I reached a broad grassy meadow where a tributary creek poured out of a really big side canyon on my left, and up that canyon I could see the back side of the ridge I’d wanted to climb last Sunday, 3,000′ above me now.

My time was getting short. It had been a slow hike, partly because the trail had often been hard to follow, but also because I’d stopped a lot for photos. I didn’t really know how long it would take to get back. But I wanted to reach the point, near the top of the main stem of this creek, where the map showed the trail finally leaving the canyon proper and clinbing up the right-hand slope to the ridge above the canyon, marked “steep difficult trail” on the map. That would be a real milestone.

Unfortunately, past the big side canyon, which was already quite a ways past where I’d hiked last week, I entered a long stretch of narrow canyon shaded by towering walls, where the trail had to climb even steeper and higher above the creek to avoid giant boulders and cliffs. I was racing against time now.

Again and again I dropped down a steep left-hand slope and crossed to the right side of the creek, thinking this might be the place, only to find the trail recrossing to the left side again. Finally I reached a point where the left-hand wall of the canyon seemed to come to an end. The trail crossed the creek and climbed a short ways to where it was blocked by deadfall, with no visible tread beyond. I unshouldered my pack, sat on the big log blocking the trail, pulled out my map, and saw that I’d in fact reached my goal – this was the base of the trail to the ridge top! A short distance up the canyon was the top of the main stem of the creek, where three major tributaries came in from west, north, and east.

What a canyon! This was definitely the rockiest, most spectacular place I’d found in these mountains. And once you knew what to expect, it was surprisingly easy to hike.

It was getting late. I wasn’t even sure how many miles I had to hike back, let alone whether the return hike would be easier now I’d done it once. My only hope was that I’d reach the main trail in time to use my headlamp, because there was no way I could find all those buried cairns after dark.

The return did prove to be easier. I stopped and dispersed the campfire on the trail, and restored it as best I could. We’re expecting rain this week, so that should help finish the job.

On the long hike down the canyon, I realized I preferred this to all the other actively maintained and “recently cleared” trails I normally use. This trail has just enough tread and markers for me to be able to follow it, without being easy for other hikers. I didn’t see a single human footprint on the trail, and hopefully mine will quickly wash away. The old hiking trail is basically just a really good game trail at this point. I’d like to keep it a secret for me and the bears.

In the end, the sun set nearly a half hour before I reached the main trail, but my eyes adjusted to the gradually falling darkness so that I didn’t even have to use my headlamp climbing out of the canyon.

On the 20-mile drive down the mesa, I stopped when I realized the night was as dark as it was going to get.

I got out of the vehicle and gazed for a while at the Milky Way arching overhead, picking out the old familiar constellations. Despite living under one of the clearest skies on our continent, since my house fire, I hadn’t had a chance to relish a night sky like this. It felt so good.

No Comments

Unstoppable Urge

Monday, December 13th, 2021: Hikes, Mogollon, Mogollon Mountains, Southwest New Mexico.

Midway through the past week, I’d finally succumbed to another episode of severe back pain – a continuous level 7 on the pain scale – which was then added to the chronic foot inflammation and the burning sensation in my hip – which now seems to be connected to the back thing. I was virtually immobilized for a couple days due to a perfect storm of delays in the healthcare system, then spent another couple of days operating at half capacity on meds.

It takes a week or two for episodes like this to subside, so why would I even consider going for a hike only four days after onset?

Why does the Pope (blank) in the woods?

After all, walking is generally considered good for back pain, although not always in my experience.

Early Sunday morning, the edge-of-your-seat Formula 1 season ended with a bang, with two drivers equal on points, and the young challenger passing the much older 7-time world champion on the last lap, the young driver admitting he’d had a terrible leg cramp at the time. How could I wimp out of a hike when faced with an example like that?

The rational thing would’ve been to choose an easy hike close to home. But after four days of severe pain, I was hardly rational. Like a rampaging zombie, I followed a deep-seated urge to return to the area I’d been hiking for the past two weeks, and re-tackle the trail I’d previously sworn was too rocky and dangerous on my feet. But as usual, I did bring the meds, just in case.

After finally getting a little rain a couple days earlier, it was several degrees below freezing at home, under a crystal clear sky.

Remembering how upset I’d been about the terrible footing on this trail the first time I’d hiked it, I vowed to revisit it with a positive attitude and take the dreaded volcanic cobbles in stride, slowing my pace, increasing my concentration, and allowing extra time where needed.

But two miles in, after crossing the seemingly interminable rolling basin and starting up the rocky slope to the pass, I found something else to annoy me. At the trailhead, I’d read a recent log entry by the Back Country Horsemen, who proudly and excitedly proclaimed that they’d “cleared” about ten miles of trail. Of course, this trail had already been cleared recently by another volunteer group, and I’d found it in good shape in September. What I found was that the horsemen had unnecessarily mutilated beautiful and valuable wilderness habitat, cutting back or cutting down hundreds of trees and shrubs as far as 8′ off the trail, while ignoring thorny catclaw and locust seedlings that remained the only impediment to hikers.

On a day hike, this incredibly rocky trail is a lot of work for a small payoff. But the payoff still seems to be enough to keep drawing compulsive hikers like me – and of course the lazy back country horsemen, who let their pets do all the work.

Shortly after crossing over the pass into the backcountry, I came across the first pile of junk left by the horsemen – some kind of heavy, unidentifiable camping apparatus which had just been leaned against a tree beside the trail. I’ve been finding junk left in wilderness far too often lately, but this was so heavy I wasn’t excited about carrying it out. Why would they leave it in the first place?

With my determination to enjoy the hike, the segment to the high pine park seemed to go quicker than before. My back pain was there, but walking did seem to keep it manageable.

Unfortunately, while crossing the beautiful pine park I encountered the second pile of trash left by the horsemen – six 5-gallon collapsible plastic water carriers, all punctured in various ways, probably by a bear. Had they stupidly left them there full of water, thinking to make them available for future visitors? Several times on popular trails I’ve come across water bottles left for hikers, and it always seems like a well-intentioned but naive idea – leaving plastic waste that’s sure to attract wildlife. This was the worst example I’d ever seen.

From the pine park I dropped a few hundred feet to the junction where the horsemen had descended into and crossed the big canyon northwards toward the West Fork. As before, I passed the junction, continuing straight up the ridge above the canyon, through the burn scar of last summer’s fire, to the saddle where the trail begins descending into the heart of the big canyon, deep in the wilderness.

Following my unstoppable urge, I’d decided to try reaching the creek crossing down there – a fifteen-mile round trip with 3,500′ of accumulated elevation gain. Would my wrecked body endure it?

Starting down the trail into the canyon, I entered another world. The tread was narrow and very steep in sections, but I had long, dark volcanic cliffs to admire on the opposite side. The trail passed in and out of forest, scrub, and oak thickets, veering back into deep side canyons where recent post-fire erosion had created logjams and rock berms. It traversed the slope eastward for the better part of a mile, then began dropping hundreds of feet down into the canyon on long switchbacks. This was a north slope so it was holding a lot of moisture, and not just from last week’s rain. I had my sweater back on descending this shady slope, and the moist ground was frozen solid and covered with frost.

I reached the creek sooner than I expected, in a lush, damp, chilly green swale. The canyon was narrow here but I could see the trail continuing east onto a broad flood plain forested with ponderosa up to a hundred feet tall.

After last summer’s fire, the canyon bottom was a strange place. Lush with grass but lined with ashes and char, the floodplain, which was probably a great camping area before, was uneven from post-fire erosion and deposition, and the tall pines had been charred for dozens of feet up their trunks, some of them killed, others with surviving crowns. I was excited about reaching this place, but as usual, I’d pushed my available time and needed to rush back in order not to get lost in the dark.

Although in the past 3 months I’ve had to cut way back on my hiking, I seem to have somehow retained my conditioning, because the 800′ climb out of that canyon back to the ridge felt really easy. I’d put a fresh metatarsal pad on the orthotic for my sensitive foot, so it seemed to be doing better – you really need to keep up maintenance for a condition like this.

With little more than a week ’til the winter solstice, the sun was dropping rapidly, shadows were deepening, and I treasured what little light I could get going back along that exposed ridgeline toward the pine park.

I hadn’t planned on trying to pack those big water carriers out, but when I reached them I just couldn’t stand leaving them without a try. I had a plastic bag that, with a lot of forceful crushing, accommodated three of them and barely fit inside my pack. I crushed the other three and used my nylon strap to secure them on the outside of the pack. They hardly weighed anything.

After another mile and a half traversing toward the pass, I reached the weird heavy camping item. Yep, it was heavy – 12 to 15 pounds. But it had a handle, and I remembered the young Formula 1 driver who won the race with a leg cramp. So I began carrying it out.

The next three miles were just an ordeal, but I stuck to my determination to keep a positive attitude. There were places where stumbling or twisting on the incredibly rocky trail triggered my back and hip pain, and I ended up taking a pill, and then another an hour later, realizing it was ridiculous to suffer when I had the means to relieve it.

As on the previous Sunday’s hike, it was almost completely dark when I reached the trailhead, but my eyes had adjusted well and I only used my headlamp to unload and rearrange stuff in the vehicle. I left the weird rolled-up camping device at the trailhead – it seemed to have some sort of faded, vaguely official printing on it.

And since this trailhead is really remote, on roads I’m still unfamiliar with, it was a long slow drive home, but I was feeling pretty good about what I’d accomplished.

No Comments

The Hike That Almost Wasn’t

Monday, December 20th, 2021: Hikes, Little Dry, Mogollon Mountains, Southwest New Mexico.

This Sunday’s hike barely happened. I won’t bore you with the details, but Saturday was hard, I got up Sunday assuming I wouldn’t be hiking, and by the time I decided I might as well give it a try, I was almost two hours late getting to the trailhead.

Starting late, I should’ve done the hike near home, but my mind was still obsessed with that area over on the west side of the wilderness. Without the time for a serious exploration, I decided to hike the canyon-to-ridge trail that I’d previously given up on as too much trouble for too little payoff. If my body held up, I might be able to reach the junction at 9,000′ where another abandoned trail branched off into unknown territory. I didn’t expect to get much farther in the limited time I had, but at least I’d get a sense of the condition of that old trail.

It was another crystal clear day, just below freezing.

One reason I’ve avoided this trail is the condition of the canyon bottom. The canyon is narrow and very rocky, and would be spectacular if it weren’t choked with deadfall and post-wildfire thickets. All the crowd-sourced websites show the trail from the canyon to the ridge top as 3.8 miles, but they omit all the zigzags, switchbacks, and up and down sections required to avoid obstacles in the canyon bottom. And because of the towering cliffs and forest cover, I’m sure there are huge gaps in everyone’s GPS readings. The hike to ridge top takes a minimum of two hours, and I’m convinced it’s closer to 5 miles.

The saddle at 8,240′ is no place to linger. That’s where I hit the first patches of snow from our storm a couple weeks ago, and the north slope below the saddle was coated by a couple inches. The trail continues straight east up the next steep section of ridge then starts a series of six long switchbacks, none of which are shown on the maps, before traversing around a white conglomerate cliff into the bowl at the head of Little Dry Creek. There, you face the arc of ridges that top out at over 10,000′. I’d previously bushwhacked up to 9,800′ there, but now I was hoping to turn off onto the abandoned trail at about 9,100′. I was looking forward to getting above 9,000′ for the first time in months – usually the higher elevations are inaccessible this time of year due to deep snow.

There was virtually nothing left of the old trail, but I clambered over deadfall, followed gaps in the oak seedlings, and used occasional sections of tread maintained by elk, for a few hundred yards, reaching a level clearing on the shoulder of the next outlying ridge.

Beyond that clearing, a solid thicket of Gambel oak had completely obliterated the trail, but another couple hundred yards past the thicket, I could see the old trail crossing a wide talus slope. That’s one of the few good things about talus – as long as it stays clear of vegetation, it preserves trails.

Due north of me were some of the highest peaks in the range, and thousands of feet below me were the parallel canyons of Spruce and upper Big Dry Creeks, whose junction I’d bushwhacked to last July on another abandoned trail. It was a great view, but all that country was essentially inaccessible to humans now due to post-wildfire deadfall, blowdown, and regrowth.

Since I couldn’t get any farther, I had some extra time. I hung out there for a while, soaking up the views, eating a snack, and reminding myself not to rush the return hike. I hadn’t even expected to hike today, so it was sort of a free day anyway.

Unlike the other hikes I’d done recently, this return was almost all downhill. Not to say it was easy – in addition to the usual loose rocks, I faced that canyon obstacle course, which is equally hard going up and coming down. But I finally realized I just had to stop thinking of it as a trail, and treat it as a bushwhack. So much of hiking is in your mind, and your mental attitude.

No Comments