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Monday, March 28th, 2022

Sometimes a Pleasant Hike

Monday, March 14th, 2022: Hikes, Little Dry, Mogollon Mountains, Southwest New Mexico.

Apologies to my loyal readers for the long hiatus between hiking Dispatches! No surprises – life’s been a little challenging lately, and an earlier attempt to resume my hiking routine was kind of a bust.

This Sunday morning, the time change confused me, because I rely on my iPad’s alarm to wake me, and the iPad was set on Phoenix time from a flight I made months ago. The time change makes New Mexico an hour later than Arizona, so I was sure I’d lost an hour of hiking until a mile or so up the trail when I realized the sun – and my body – was still on the old time, and despite what my watch said, I had a full 8 hours to do a serious hike.

The hike I’d chosen was actually my third choice for the day, because I’d done it before and it had ended inconclusively, short of a ridge top, at a logjam of wildfire deadfall. But the important thing, after a hiking hiatus, was that it gained me plenty of elevation. It was a real workout.

The day started just below freezing but temperatures were expected in the 50s by afternoon, under clear skies. The creek in the canyon bottom was running strong from continuing snowmelt. Small butterflies were everywhere.

This is the canyon whose middle stretch is choked with debris flows and deadfall, twisting between sheer bluffs and giant boulders that require constant detours. The trailhead logbook featured a recent entry from a couple who’d continued over into the next canyon, to the remote creek junction I’d bushwhacked to last year. They’d done it as an overnight and complained about the bad trail condition – I’d done it as a day hike.

One thing that surprised me in the canyon was the large number of seemingly healthy firs and alders which had fallen recently. I don’t think of a narrow canyon with sheer walls as supporting the kind of wind that could bring healthy trees down, but it’s hard to imagine a hidden disease that would weaken such different species, and drought shouldn’t be an issue in this well-watered canyon.

The trail traverses steeply out of the canyon to a pass where the trail into the next canyon begins. But from there, I continue up and across the west wall of the first canyon, snaking around massive rock outcrops and following a scarcely visible but well-remembered route which is now only maintained by elk. In fact, elk love this trail so much their scat and tracks were all over it. There was no sign of human use since my last visit here – this route is generally believed impassable.

Like before, I was able to follow the elk trail all the way to the deadfall logjam near the ridge top. Whereas my first visit had been frustrating – the top is tantalizingly close – this time I was just glad to be back hiking and reaching my highest elevation since last summer – 9,750′.

I’d tweaked my back, which remains on the edge of severe pain, climbing over a big log in the trail, so the first thing I was looking for on the way down was a clear, level spot to stretch. It took me nearly a mile to reach that, because the upper trail traverses and switchbacks across steep and rough ground, including talus slopes. Finally stretching on a grassy saddle high in the sky, in the warmth of the sun, felt wonderful.

I reached the vehicle exactly 8 hours after starting. No adventures, and at this point that’s a good thing!

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Bushwhacking the Last Frontier

Monday, March 21st, 2022: Chiricahuas, Hikes, Southeast Arizona.

It hurts to write this. Standing at my desk, with my laptop and papers raised on cardboard boxes because my back pain won’t let me sit, an ache throbs up the back of my legs, and I’m so exhausted I can barely think.

I’m not sure why – I’ve done much harder hikes than the one I did yesterday. It may be allergy – I had my first bad attack of the current season a few days ago, my eyes have ached and watered since, and a headache kept me awake much of last night. These things will pass.

I’d been wanting to get back to the range of canyons in Arizona near the Mexican border, but didn’t want to repeat the hikes I’d done there recently. I finally decided to try a trail I’d been avoiding because according to the description, most of it would be easy, and the rest might be impassable. I wanted to reach the crest, which would reward me with 4,000′ of elevation gain, but I was actually looking forward to some bushwhacking. It would be a final frontier of sorts – the last major trail on this side of the range that I hadn’t hiked yet.

Our weather was getting cooler, but under a clear, sunny sky at lower elevation than home, I hit the trailhead with my sweater off. Climbing up a long canyon with spectacular rock formations and exotic vegetation, it’s the most popular trail in the range, so there were 8 vehicles parked in addition to mine, but I knew most of them would be birders, confined to the first mile or so. And that’s what I found – I passed all eight groups, including many young people, in less than a mile and a half. Of all those parked at the trailhead, I was the only one actually hiking the trail.

Birders are seldom friendly – they view strangers as annoying interruptions in their competitive hobby. One older man was actually hostile – when I wished him a good morning, he scowled and said “Is it morning? I’m not so sure.” I checked my Arizona-adjusted watch and said we still had an hour and a half of morning left. His wife smiled but he kept scowling as I passed.

As I left them all behind, my sweat began attracting flies and I had to pull on the old head net.

The trail description claims it’s level for the first four miles, but I found that it climbed 1,100′ in that distance, which is hardly level. Being popular, it is much better maintained than trails back home, at least in the first few miles. Virtually all of it lies within federal wilderness. The rushing creek, draining from snow still clinging to the crest, is lined and clogged in many places with debris from floods after the 2011 wildfire, so the trail is occasionally diverted high upslope.

But I do love the riparian canopy here, visually dominated in winter by the leafless white sycamores, with oversize yuccas and agaves along the trail. The map and trail description mention an apple tree about three miles in from the trailhead, but I never found it, enjoying maples and dark groves of majestic cypress instead.

At the four-mile point I reached the noisy confluence of two creeks. The main stem came down from the right, draining the vast upper canyon whose rim I’ve hiked many times. But the trail continued straight up a side canyon. According to the trail description the next stretch was in worse condition, but I found that a lot of work had been put into logging, brushing, and grading it during recent months. It was very steep and much of it was rocky, but the only thing slowing me down was my stamina – I had to stop more often than usual to catch my breath.

One strange thing about this tributary creek was its color. Where it was rushing it looked clear, but where it pooled, it was a pale, opaque turquoise.

Narrow, hemmed in by cliffs, the side canyon climbed 1,500′ in the next two miles. Patches of snow still clung to slopes above, and I was excited when I reached a small stand of aspens.

But just beyond the aspen grove, the creek disappeared underground, and I emerged in a small basin where several side drainages converged. The maintained trail ended there, and the only thing that beckoned me forward was a pink ribbon above a brushy, trackless slope which had burned intensely in the old wildfire.

I followed a series of ribbons through the brush and bunchgrass for a few hundred yards, and came to a chaotic erosional gully choked with boulders and logs from above. The ribbons continued across it into a thicket, so I scrambled over, and began fighting my way through dense brush, much of it thorny locust, up the opposite slope in search of more ribbons. I’d brought the map with me but was trusting to the ribbons now.

Several hundred yards up this slope the ribbons ended, but the brush remained thick. High over my right shoulder I could see the snowy crest, still a thousand feet above, where I’d hoped to end my hike. But I wasn’t going to fight my way through locust all the way up there, and that log-and-boulder-choked gully would be no easier.

A more attainable goal loomed ahead of me: a lower ridgeline where I knew there was a trail I’d approached from the opposite direction more than a year ago. Somewhere in my current vicinity there was supposed to be a spur trail that led up there, but it seemed to be buried or hidden in thickets. I saw a minor spur of the mountain ahead of me, across a minor drainage, that was sparsely forested but showed no thickets, and might be a direct route to the ridge. Getting there was not easy – fighting through more thorns, climbing over logs, descending steep boulders, clawing my way up a loose slope – but as I approached, I saw a trail on that spur where no trail was supposed to be.

When I reached it I found it was just a game trail that quickly disappeared, and I found myself ascending a knife-edge ridge choked with sharp rock outcrops, random deadfall, and more thickets. Looking at the surrounding landscape, I saw I’d picked one of the more difficult routes to the high ridge, but I’d committed myself, so I kept climbing. After about 45 minutes I’d only gone about an eighth of a mile, but I suddenly emerged on the spur trail and felt I had a real chance at reaching the ridgetop.

I’d be cutting it close. Bushwhacking had used up a lot of time, and as usual I wanted to finish the hike in time for beer and burrito at the cafe. And although the spur trail had good tread, it was overgrown with thorns and blocked by huge logs and deep, debris-filled gullies. I even had to carefully cut steps across a long, steep patch of snow, where I found footprints from weeks or months ago, evidence there was somebody in these mountains as crazy as me.

Soon enough I reached the trail junction on the ridge, and got my reward – a new view to the southeast of the range and the mountains of Mexico beyond.

The wind was howling up there and I had to hurry back. I didn’t want to repeat that bushwhack and wondered if I might be better off taking the other trail back, but checking the map I could see that route would be at least a mile farther. I thought I might return on the spur trail as far as the tread lasted and see if I could find a shortcut to the main trail.

In the event, the spur trail disappeared high above that thicket where the ribbons had led me earlier. It ended at a sheer-sided gully ten feet deep, so I had to fight my way down through thorns to the big boulder-and-log-choked gully above my earlier crossing. This was as hard as any bushwhacking I’d done, but I finally reached the pink ribbons and the trackless traverse that led me to the small basin and the resumption of the maintained trail. I figured I now had just enough time to reach the cafe, if I walked fast down that steep trail.

I hadn’t seen or heard much wildlife on the way up, but just before reaching the confluence of creeks, I heard a sharp, catlike cry. Then, under the canopy of the lower canyon, two spotted towhees dashed into a bush at my right, then a woodpecker landed on a tree trunk at my left. Shortly after that I came upon a solitary whitetrail doe that merely sidestepped up the slope a few yards as I passed her.

Dark clouds had been blowing over. I finished my first beer while waiting for the burrito, then drank another half glass, so I had to stay in the motel that night. Heavy rain began to hammer the roof after dark.

In the morning, I saw a dusting of new snow on the upper slopes. Rain fell sporadically during the drive home, and it was actually snowing lightly when I entered my hometown.

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A Walk in the Park

Monday, March 28th, 2022: Black Range, Hikes, Hillsboro, Southwest New Mexico.

Nothing exciting or spectacular to report this week. Sunday’s hike was a personal milestone in that I was finally able to return to the highest-elevation trail in my regional circuit. It crosses a 10,000′ peak, traversing a densely forested north slope that retains deep snow late in the season. Our unusually cold winter finally broke during the past couple of weeks, so I guessed that I could now handle whatever snow remained up there with my normal 3-season boots.

Over the years, as I increased my capacity for longer hikes, I’d encountered a catastrophic blowdown on the far side of the peak which obliterated the crest trail. Becoming accustomed to bushwhacking and routefinding, I’d fought my way through that blowdown, and through a half mile of wildfire deadfall beyond it, eventually reaching a saddle marking the crest trail’s junction with feeder trails coming up major side canyons. Out and back, that hike amounted to almost 20 miles round-trip on the crest trail, which felt like quite an accomplishment. Not only did it include climbing over, under, and around the blowdown and deadfall. I also believed I had that part of the trail to myself – I never saw evidence of other hikers making the effort I was making.

The trail starts at an 8,200′ pass and traverses alternately across east-and-west-facing slopes, climbing steadily through exposed burn scar high in the sky, with long views across the southern landscape, until it reaches intact stands of pine and fir at the top of the peak. It crosses the peak through beautiful alpine meadows and groves of old-growth conifers, passing near a famous fire lookout which is the destination for most hikers.

The temperature in town was forecast to reach the high 70s, and I found it warm enough at the pass to take off my sweater. The sky was mostly clear with a few wispy clouds. It can be windy up there on the ridgeline, but was fairly calm during the climb.

Shortly after entering the forest on the flanks of the peak, I saw another hiker coming down the trail toward me. This stretch of the trail to the fire lookout is the most popular trail in our region, because it’s the highest elevation – hence coolest – hike accessible to the nearest low-lying cities – Las Cruces and El Paso. So I always expect company here. We stopped and had a lengthy talk. In his late 20s or early 30s, tall and slender, he was from California and completely unfamiliar with local culture and habitats. He couldn’t get over how much brush and deadfall he found in our burn scars – he’s apparently accustomed to easy, groomed trails in stable climax habitat.

He’d come prepared for backpacking and spent the night on the peak, returning in frustration after failing to find water up there. He shook a floppy, empty water bottle at me and said his filter had become clogged with melting snow. But he was impressed with our “real wilderness” – as opposed to what he was used to farther west – and wanted to return for a longer stay.

Leaving the popular trail behind on the far side of the peak, I was prepared for my hike to begin at the big blowdown, which no longer seemed like an obstacle for me. Imagine my surprise when I reached the saddle and saw an opening had been cut through those giant ponderosa logs!

A trail crew had arrived some time after my last visit, toward the end of our monsoon in early September. My first reaction was actually disappointment, and my disappointment grew as I discovered they’d logged and brushed almost all of the trail from the saddle to the distant junction. What had become a fun obstacle course was now like a wilderness superhighway.

Wildlife was sparse on the ground and in the air. It was too early for migrating birds, and I saw no deer or elk. With the trail clear, I had no trouble reaching the junction saddle in good time, so I stretched out on the ground. The temperature was still mild, but the sky was being covered by a thin cloud layer, and wind was picking up.

Climbing from the saddle exposed me to a fierce wind out of the southwest, and I had to snug the chin strap of my shade hat. Wind and cloud cover dropped the air temperature but the gradual climb back to the peak kept me warm. Still, the higher I climbed, the stronger the wind became.

Nearing the peak, my acculated elevation gain for the day exceeded 4,000′, and I could definitely feel it. Remaining patches of snow were unstable enough to throw me off balance several times, so I had to focus on staying calm and composed. Then, descending out of intact forest on the other side, the wind reached gale force, nearly blew me down, and tore my hat off despite the chin strap. I was able to chase it down and had to carry it for much of the remaining descent. It was now cold enough to require the sweater.

About halfway down, I spotted the smoke of a wildfire, 20 miles west and a few miles north of the highway I’d be driving home. Then I came upon a mysterious piece of blue synthetic fabric about two feet long, labeled “Mission Enduracool.” It had obviously been dropped by the young hiker from California. I stuffed it in an empty pocket. At home I learned it’s some sort of high-tech “cooling towel”, apparently used by athletes. After decades of running, hiking, and backpacking in the Mojave Desert, I’ve never heard of such a thing. Wonders will never cease, and it remains a mystery why someone would need it at high elevation in late winter.

Then, only a few hundred yards before the trailhead, I came upon that floppy water bottle. Yeah, I know, I’m prone to losing things on hikes, but I generally make the effort to go back and retrieve them. This California hiker was shedding gear right and left, and he didn’t have the wind for an excuse – it started long after he would’ve returned to his vehicle.

All in all, it was a hike on thoroughly familiar ground that offered nothing new, but still felt like an accomplishment – after a long winter, the high ground was again accessible, and from now until next winter I’d have a lot more choices in my hiking routine.

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