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Thursday, April 21st, 2022

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Bad Luck and Trouble

Monday, April 4th, 2022: Bear, Hikes, Pinalenos, Southeast Arizona.

Trying to maximize the time available for my Sunday hikes without rushing and stressing out, my weekend schedule is tight, and I’m still having trouble adjusting to daylight savings time. This weekend I set my alarm to go off early, but still ended up getting a late start, because I couldn’t decide where to go. I really wanted to return to the range in Arizona with a trail that climbs through granite boulders – it’d been almost a year since I’d been over there – but it comes at a high cost.

I burn a prodigious amount of energy on these hikes, and end up starving afterward. But it’s a two hour drive, and there are no restaurants along the way, so I need to end the hike in time to get back home at a reasonable hour. I never like to drive home in the dark anyway, because of the chance of deer on the road. Those time constraints generally result in shorter hikes than I can do closer to home. But for other reasons, the cost of today’s hike was much higher than usual.

The day was forecast to be partly cloudy with a high of 70 at home. Perfect hiking weather. But I wasn’t thinking about elevation and aspect – the trail starts 1,000′ lower than home and is fully exposed on a south-facing slope for most of the way.

One reason I like this trail is that it’s a steady 4,000′ climb to the crest. But since most people prefer an easy hike, trails in this range are intended to start at the paved road on top and end at the bottom, where there is no marked trailhead. You have to know the turnoff onto a high-clearance 4wd track that meanders a few hundred yards into the foothill scrub, and then you have to know where to start the trail, a few hundred yards beyond the end of the track. I figured all that out on my first visit.

Nobody had driven that 4wd track recently, but it’d been fully trampled by cattle. The boulder-strewn base of the mountains alternates between meadows, dense scrub, and giant old Emory oaks, and the trail meanders between them while climbing gradually into the complex topography of the foothills. I could hear the cattle before I saw them – they were grazing a grassy basin to my left – then while stopping to stretch I was surprised by a cow and her calf emerging from the oak scrub a few yards away.

This is generally a good trail, and a very beautiful one, but it’s seldom used. One large man had walked the first mile or so recently, but his footprints ended soon. Even the cattle seem to stick to the foothills and never venture higher.

Flies were bad and I had to pull on my head net shortly after starting. Small flowers brightened the trail, and the Emory oak leaves were turning. We think of deciduous trees as changing color and losing their leaves in fall, but the Emory oak does this in our windy season of March and April.

The day felt hot from the beginning. My memory of this place was rusty, and things had changed in the eleven months since my last visit. The steady climb that yields spectacular views is exhausting, and last summer’s wet monsoon had resulted in overgrowth of the trail by grasses and shrubs. Near the bottom it was thorny mesquite that scratched my hands and made me especially grateful for thorn-proof pants. Since virtually no one besides me hikes the full trail, grasses had obliterated much of the tread and hid rocks that kept throwing me off balance. Game trails often had more tread than the hiking trail, so I really had to rely on memory and cairns, which were themselves sometimes buried in overgrowth.

Fortunately the flies disappeared beyond the foothills – hopefully they were localized around the cattle. But it seemed to take much longer and require much more effort than expected to reach the midway point, a saddle in the ridge that stays to your right during the climb. Since the entire trail, ending at the crest highway, is only a little over 6 miles – shorter than my usual Sunday hikes – my plan had been to add a mile or two on a side trail. But I was so fatigued by the halfway climb I wondered if I’d even be able to finish this trail.

The second segment of the climb to the crest runs through completely different habitat: a unique mixture of scrub oak and fir forest between outcrops of white rock. The vegetation is so dense you know it’s the product of wildfire and is now overdue for another burn, but in the meantime it’s a great place to visit. But in dense vegetation, protected from wind, it felt like it was 80 degrees, and my head net went back on because the flies in that area were terrible.

Entering the shadowy old-growth fir forest near the crest I got a second wind. The second milestone on this trail is a tiny saddle where it crosses to the north side of the crest and enters dense, cool fir forest – the third completely different habitat adding to the appeal. It’s a 3,200′ climb to that saddle, and while traversing upward on that north slope you occasionally get glimpses through the firs of the vast Gila River Valley 5,000′ below to the north.

Shortly after starting that traverse I heard the voices of a young couple hidden in the trees above the trail. Like most people, they’d walked down from the crest highway and were just hanging out. Three quarters of a mile farther, near the 8,700′ high point of the trail, I heard kids yelling and screaming on the little peak above – more people who’d simply walked over from the crest highway – and that made up my mind about what to do next.

Just below the peak there’s a signed junction – a trail that’s sort of the mirror image of mine, climbing from the northern foothills. I couldn’t remember anything about this trail, but I figured I’d explore and use it to add mileage and elevation for the day.

It surprised me by dropping very steeply through more dense fir forest, in a seemingly endless series of switchbacks, the most I could ever remember, some of them only two or three dozen feet long. Due north of me I could see a white rock spire and knew there had to be a saddle between me and it. I figured that would be my turnaround point, but it seemed to take forever to get there, in 600′ of descent that I would then have to climb out of.

When I finally reached that saddle in a small sunny clearing, it was hard to leave it. But my hip was hurting and I couldn’t afford to delay.

I counted the switchbacks on the way up – 32! But they actually made the steep climb tolerable. It was late enough now that everyone else had left and the only sounds were from wind and birds.

Heading down the south slope from the junction saddle, my hip was so sore I took a pain pill and began favoring that leg. Precarious footing on loose rocks, swarms of flies – but in partial compensation, those endless views!

As expected, I made much better time going downhill, but in the foothills, where tread was often buried under grasses, I first got confused, and then got completely lost.

In a level patch where grassy slopes declined on three sides, there was a nice big cairn, but nothing more that looked like a trail. Why hadn’t I noticed and marked this spot on the way up, like I usually do if the way seems confusing?

I spent 20 minutes scouting far and wide for trail in all directions beyond the cairn, but could find no sign of trail. I was now running late, so I said “Screw this, I’ll just bushwhack.” Far below I could see a little rocky peak. I knew the trail crossed a grassy saddle just before it, then traversed the left side. If I just headed straight down I should intersect the trail somewhere.

With the deep grass hiding sharp rocks and drop-offs, it was slow and hard going. After another 20 minutes, I came upon another cairn and the continuation of the trail. I figured I was now a half hour late.

I was in one of the prettiest parts of the trail when a golden eagle flew over, hazed by a small, screeching hawk. I couldn’t get a picture because they were directly in front of the setting sun.

Further down, I found the cattle in exactly the same place as 8 hours ago.

The drive home was uneventful until dusk, when the highway home climbs through the foothills of the low mountains south of town. I’ve occasionally found deer standing in the road there and am always paranoid. I did pass a small group standing off in the grass on the right, but they didn’t even raise their heads as I drove past.

Then, about 10 miles outside of town, when visibility was getting poor, I suddenly noticed another small group standing off in the brush to my right, grazing peacefully. I was driving the speed limit, 65, but since they weren’t on the move I figured I’d make it.

But just at that moment, one doe darted directly in front of me, the length of her body slamming against the full width of my car’s grille, and her sideways momentum combined with the forward momentum of my car threw her limply all the way across the highway to my left.

She was killed instantly, and parts started flying off the front of my car. In shock, I slowed and pulled over and got out to check the damage. The car seemed to be running fine, but the grille was gone, the front frame and hood were slightly buckled, the radiator fan was just hanging loose behind the bumper, and the headlights, glass completely gone, were barely hanging on by their wires.

It was getting dark fast, and I focused on just getting home, especially since my headlights were  useless. Approaching town I started to smell anti-freeze and knew I was on borrowed time. I took a detour on back streets to avoid cops. The temperature gage still looked normal. But a block from home, the engine emergency light came on and I noticed the temperature gage was pinned in the red. I managed to roll up to the curb in front of my house just as smoke started pouring out from under my buckled hood and I turned off the ignition.

I was still in shock, but I knew this was an overdue initiation to rural driving, and I was very lucky. A guy in his 20s had recently died just outside of town after swerving to miss a deer, and one night in the Sierra Nevada of California, my dad rolled his car, was thrown out into a field, and broke his collarbone after swerving to miss a deer. More recently, one of my oldest friends hit a buck while driving home late and, like me, barely made it home with his crippled car.

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Tantalus & Sisyphus Go For a Hike

Monday, April 11th, 2022: Hikes, Pinos Altos Range, Southwest New Mexico.

As usual, this Sunday’s hike was conceived with complicated and conflicting desires. I was still reeling from last weekend’s accident, so I didn’t want to drive far and risk returning in the dark. I was worried about the recurring pain in my hip, so I didn’t want as much climbing and rough surfaces as usual. But to give my hip a break, I’d skipped my short midweek hike and was also reluctant to wimp out and do an easy hike on the weekend.

I ended up targeting a trail about 45 minutes from town that I’d had on my list as a lower-elevation winter hike, but hadn’t tried yet, since it didn’t seem to offer as much elevation gain as I usually craved. I’d already located the trailhead along the highway east of town that goes up a rural valley toward remote recreation areas, and I’d observed from the faint tread that this trail is little used. It climbs up a series of canyons to the crest of the low forested mountains that trend from east to west north of town, where maps show that it meets the Continental Divide Trail and ends at a forest road I’d spotted from a crest hike last year. I wanted to try for the CDT junction 8-1/2 miles in, but that would be a 17 mile round trip with nearly 3,000′ of elevation gain, and I didn’t know if my hip was ready for it.

Online maps disagree as to the exact route of this trail. I vaguely remembered reading an online account of a partial hike that said it was confusing and hard to follow and there was a corral or cabin in one of the canyon bottoms. But in my usual hurry to hit the road I failed to bring a map, trusting on my routefinding skills.

The day was forecast to be clear with a high of nearly 80 in town. It was in the low 50s as I left home, but when I reached the trailhead I took my sweater off.

The first thing I encountered was a confusion of trails up a broad, dry floodplain forested with large, old pinyon, juniper, and oak and rumpled with flash flood debris. I just assumed the trails would all converge upstream and took the most direct routes. After a quarter mile they did converge and began climbing the left slope. But that slope turned out to be laced with a dense network of intersecting trails, like the diagonal grid of a chain-link fence, and they all showed heavy use, so it was initially hard to figure out which to take. Most were clearly animal trails, but I saw no cowshit so I was initially mystified.

But I did begin to notice human footprints, and was soon able to pick out the hiking trail from the animal trails. Then, when the trail dipped back into the canyon bottom, I found clearings of disturbed ground covered with piles of horseshit. Horses are not generally allowed to range free, so I figured this must be a rare enclave of feral horses.

The trail began climbing steeply, and two miles in from the trailhead I came to a stock gate in a narrow saddle marking the watershed between this canyon and the next. The gate had been left open by the recent hikers who had left their footprints on the trail, so I reclosed it. We think of hikers as environmentally sensitive people, but this hike would yield ample evidence they can be as insensitive and irresponsible as your average urban consumer.

Through the gate and over the saddle I got my first and only view into the next canyon. The trail was heading down the north slope of a small, densely forested basin, at the far end of which I could glimpse some kind of small grassy clearing. The trail quickly deteriorated into a very steep, rocky erosional gully, in which I slowly and carefully tried to avoid stumbling down a couple hundred vertical feet through dense scrub. I began seeing cowshit, and at the bottom of the basin I entered a thoroughy trampled and overgrazed area with a fence, corral, and a small, muddy water hole. From there I followed a broad cattle trail to a running stream trampled by cattle and choked with algae, and another stock gate. I was pleased and surprised to see so much water in the canyon, but in general, this was turning into a fairly depressing hike.

Past the gate, the trail became a vehicle track. I kept following it through forest and out into a big grassy meadow, but I was worried that like much of the CDT, this trail would turn out to follow a road the rest of the way.

At the upper end of the meadow lay a cabin and a series of old but intact corrals and sheds. The cabin looked maintained and its door was tightly wired shut so I didn’t try to get in. But I could see through a window screen that it was clean and fully furnished inside. I later learned that it’s still used by the family that ranches the canyon.

Beyond the cabin the trail continued to follow an old road, back and forth across the algae-choked creek and its trampled, overgrazed banks, until it finally began to climb a steep, rocky slope and narrowed into a real hiking trail again. The footprints of three other recent hikers continued there, but they were dominated by the hoofprints of cattle.

We didn’t really get that much snow over the winter, so I was surprised to find more water draining from the slopes into the creek here than I’d seen anywhere else in our region.

Continuing up the canyon, I finally emerged into a stretch with more exposed bedrock and clearer running water. I came upon a crumpled piece of toilet paper on the trail, and continuing, saw a scatter of toilet paper on the ground at the foot of rock outcrops above the trail. These recent hikers were truly jerks, failing to carry out their paper waste, leaving it to be scattered by animals and found by later visitors.

I was now in a stretch of canyon lined with huge boulders, cliffs, and impressive rock outcrops, but immersed in dense forest, I could only catch glimpses through the tall ponderosas, oaks, and alders.

Four or five miles in, I came to a junction with a trail that led into the next canyon south. My trail so far had been fairly clear of logs but showed no sign of recent maintenance. But beyond the junction, I encountered a few shrubs along the trail that had been recently chopped. That isolated trail work only lasted a few hundred yards, so I figured the crew had come up the side trail from the other canyon and only worked a short distance in this one.

Flies – the size of house flies – had been visiting me occasionally all the way up the trail, but had never become a nuisance, in contrast to the small flies or gnats that had plagued me in Arizona recently. I associate these larger flies with livestock and was relieved not to need my head net.

The rock formations just became more and more spectacular the farther I climbed up this long canyon, but remained tantalizingly hidden. I figured I’d gone well over 6 miles at this point and was still stuck in the canyon bottom. When would I start climbing to the crest? My hip wasn’t bad yet, but I didn’t want to reach a tipping point where my return hike would become really painful.

As much as I hate perpetuating colonial culture, I couldn’t help mixing up the myths of Sisyphus and Tantalus, kings who were punished by the gods in ways that resonated with my situation. Not that I really think I’m being punished – the life of all true seekers is hard as we refuse to fit into the dominant mold of our culture, rejecting the career, the steady job, the marriage, the kids, and the endless upward climb of consumerism. But today I felt continually tantalized by brief glimpses of majestic rock formations, and condemned to an endless climb.

The last couple of miles were especially hard as I sensed the crest getting near. The canyon narrowed and seemed shallower. I was now in the upper elevation mixed conifer forest with firs and tall old-growth Gambel oaks. My hip was beginning to complain, but surely I was nearing the top?

I wasn’t. The trail turned left, then right, and just kept traversing up a gradual slope, and trapped in the dense forest I had no way of orienting myself in the landscape. Human footprints had ended much earlier – the recent hikers had only gone about four miles in – but cattle were using this trail all the way up. At this point they were the only users. Nor had there been any maintenance in a long time – I found logs that had lain across the trail for at least a decade.

Eventually, instead of cliffs and rock formations, I began to glimpse blue sky through the trees above, and believed I was nearing the top. But after a few more turns and long traverses, I found myself again in the bottom of a narrow, rocky canyon. There I found a rusted, empty water trough half-buried in debris. And after crossing the canyon bottom again, I faced the steepest trail I’d seen yet. Surely this must be the final climb? I’d been hiking for five hours, which would normally take me more than ten miles. But coming this far, I just had to see where the steep trail led.

It turned out to be one of the steepest trails I’d ever climbed. I estimated the grade at 35%, and to prove I don’t normally exaggerate, when I got home I measured it on a topo map and found the average grade is actually 36% on that stretch.

But nearing the top of the steep stretch, I suddenly emerged into a zone of strong wind, and was convinced I was nearing the crest, where wind would strengthen due to the funnel effect. And after traversing an overgrown burn scar, I finally came upon a fence and the dirt forest road. I’d seen no sign of the CDT junction – I’d misinterpreted the topo maps.

I was now behind schedule, my hip was hurting, and this overgrown burn scar offered little in the way of views and was no place to hang out. But I knew I’d achieved a serious hike and was proud of myself. Knowing the descent would be even harder on my hip, I took a pain pill and began the long slog back, most of which would mercifully be downhill.

Before reaching the overgrazed canyon bottom, I did finally encounter some small flies, but they never became bad. I’m always intrigued by the ecology of things like this. Why are they localized, and locally a problem?

The day had gotten windier, and I realized that despite its frustrations, the wind and shade of this hike had been an escape from our spring heat wave in town.

I reached the trailhead 9-1/2 hours after I started. I’d made a lot of brief stops, but it had to have been a long hike. When I plotted and profiled it back home on a topo map, I found it had totalled 17.3 miles, with 2,932′ of accumulated elevation gain. Coincidentally, the forest road where I turned around is only a quarter mile from the point I reached last year on a 19-mile hike from much closer to town. So I was only a quarter mile from connecting the two hikes.

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Thursday, April 21st, 2022: Restoration Projects.

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