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Monday, August 29th, 2022

Long Walk For a Shallow Dip

Monday, August 1st, 2022: Hikes, Mogollon, Mogollon Mountains, Southwest New Mexico.

We’d been getting regular cloud cover and occasional rain in town, so I expected fairly good summer hiking weather. Like last weekend, I hoped I might even get some cooling rain in the mountains.

On the drive north, the sky was clear to the west, but there were broad, high clouds over the mountains on my right. And I was excited to get a little rain on the windshield as I headed toward them, but it didn’t last.

I knew just what hike I wanted to do, but I was a little worried when I crossed the river on the highway – it was in flood, 4 times its normal flow. To get to the trailhead, I had to drive across one of its perennial tributaries. Would that be in flood too?

But when I got there, emerging from a shady sycamore grove, the creek’s flow was normal.

This is one of the only two major perennial streams in our mountains that isn’t called a river. The trail begins near the creek downstream, and climbs over several ridges to meet the creek again deep in the wilderness. I’d only been there once before, briefly. It was a hike of over 15 miles round trip, the most I’d done since my illness. If I could make it all the way, I would deserve a dip in the creek!

On the long approach up a rolling basin, I was distracted again and again by wildflowers. The morning temperature was in the 60s, but the humidity is so high now, I was soon drenched with sweat again.

Finally I reached the steep climb to the pass, and now I was really sweating! On past visits I’d found these seemingly endless, exposed switchbacks the most daunting part of the hike, but now I didn’t mind them so much. At least I was getting an occasional breeze.

Beyond the pass you enter the backcountry, a land of deep canyons, burn scars, multicolored layers of rock and dramatic formations, with the crest of the range on your horizon. I’d always thought of this next section of trail as a seemingly endless traverse without much elevation gain, but this time I experienced it completely differently – as an endless series of steep erosional gullies lined with loose rocks. Just goes to show how much our experiences depend on psychology.

The reward at the end is the ponderosa pine “park” – a small, shady, grassy plateau before the trail becomes a ridge hike. But today, I’d been plagued by flies all along that traverse, and as expected the flies were even worse in the park. So I just rushed through it to the descent to the ridge.

On the ridge you are high above the canyon of the creek, with spectacular views to left and right. In the first saddle below the park was my first decision point – the junction with a trail that could be my short cut to the creek. I stood there a while trying to make up my mind. Although the temperature was probably only in the 70s, I was dripping with sweat and really wanted that creek, but I also wanted this hike to be an improvement on last week, with more mileage and/or elevation, and if I took this shortcut it would end up almost identical to last week’s hike.

So ultimately I decided to keep going up the ridge to the next creek crossing.

About another mile along the ridge, the trail begins descending steeply into the canyon, through burn scar regrowth, across erosional gullies, over more fractured white rock, much of it exposed with spectacular views of high peaks and multicolored cliffs of volcanic rock on the opposite side. I kept pushing the head net up from my face, thinking the flies were gone, only to have them return in swarms, dive bombing my eyes and nose.

When I reached the creek, deep in the wilderness, it looked completely different – narrower, choked with vegetation, its bed rearranged by floods. And the flies were terrible. There was no swimming hole, only a shallow channel choked with rocks, but all I could think about was shedding my damp, stinky clothes and getting in, somehow.

I found a channel between rocks that was deep enough to lie back in, and rinsed out my shirt, hat, and head net. The water wasn’t actually cold, but it felt marvelous after that sweaty hike! And while I was wet from the creek water, the flies briefly left me alone.

It’d taken me a long time to reach that crossing – a walk of close to 8 miles – and I knew the hike back would seem truly endless. But first I had to climb out of the canyon, about 800 vertical feet, and I had to take it slow – my lungs were still struggling, and I wanted to preserve the memory of that dip in the water and not get overheated.

Clouds had been massing over the crest in the distance – it looked like there might even be a storm elsewhere in the range. But not here. I knew the temperature couldn’t be above the low 80s, but it felt like the high 90s with all that humidity.

Finally I left the ridge and climbed to the pine park, where the flies swarmed me with a vengeance. And from there forwards, the trail really felt unfamiliar. The “traverse” back to the pass and the open country beyond the mountains felt even more endless than usual, and the rock-lined erosional gullies were harder to descend than they’d been to ascend. With my compromised foot and hip, I had to take it slowly and carefully.

And despite the approach of evening, it didn’t get any cooler. Over the pass, down the endless switchbacks to the foot of the mountains, and then the two-mile slog out the rolling basin, the sun burning down on me all the way. Dark clouds were moving out from the crest of the range, but that dip in the creek was only a distant memory by now!

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Art File

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2022: Fire, Restoration Projects, Stories, Trouble.

Shed in the Hills

I’ve described before how the rising cost of living in California had driven me relentlessly from larger lodgings, where I originally had room for art and music studios, into smaller and smaller places, finally ending up in a tiny studio apartment with all my creative work and equipment far away in storage. It wasn’t until I moved to this remote small town in New Mexico that I could afford enough space to get all my work and gear together, and it still took me years to pull a lifetime of art and music out of boxes and set up studio space to continue that work after the dismal hiatus of struggling to survive in California.

Part of that process was finding a readily accessible way to store my thousands of works on paper and canvas – by me and others. For a decade and a half most of those paintings and drawings had been packed away in boxes, portfolio cases, and mailing tubes and stashed in various basements or garages. I needed a big flat file.

I was registered on an online community forum maintained by a couple of older men, 60s hippies who were fixtures in the local progressive subculture. At the end of July 2008, I posted my need for a file, and immediately got a response from one of those guys. It turned out his ex-girlfriend had left him a big flat file made by a local cabinetmaker from local pinewood. But it was stored in a shed way out in the mountains, an hour’s drive from town, and he didn’t have a vehicle that could move it.

So I bought it from him and drove him out there in my pickup truck. It took all day – we had to stop first at a rural settlement on the river to pick up a key, then we slowly drove for miles, winding back into the hills on a rough, narrow gravel road, finally reaching the shed. The file was so heavy that we had to remove all the drawers first to lift it into the truck.

But of course, once I got it home, I was faced with how to get this big wooden box into my house by myself.

First, I borrowed a dolly from a neighbor, and improvised a ramp from a sheet of plywood so I could roll the cabinet off the truck. Then I had to take my front door off the hinges and unscrew all the weatherstripping from the jamb in order to just barely scrape the file through the doorway.

Once I’d walked the awkward thing past my vestibule, put it back on the dolly, and rolled it into place, I could carefully reinstall all the drawers into their ball-bearing slides.

The cabinetmaker had put a huge amount of work into this file – precisely cutting, planing, and joining the pine planks for the sides, building the drawers from scratch, cutting perfect rabbet joints at all the corners. But for some reason he had neglected to finish it, leaving it topless, so John had given me a heavy sheet of particle board to put over it. I covered this with a Mexican blanket so it wouldn’t look so shabby in my living room.

After the Fire

Just as it was hugely liberating and inspiring to get my music, instruments, and recording gear out of storage after all those years, it was a revelation to rediscover my art. And soon I began a new series of work, filling the drawers of the file to the brim.

But my house fire in August 2020 put another stop to my creative work. I had to quickly remove those thousands of art works, re-pack them in boxes and portfolio cases, and move them back into storage.

Contractors moved all my furnishings out of the house in preparation for interior cleaning and repairs – all except for the file, which was too much of a hassle. It wasn’t until almost a year later, when the flooring subcontractor prepared to refinish my oak floors, that we absolutely had to get the flat file out of the house. So I again removed the drawers, took off the house’s front door and weatherstripping, and with a couple of young construction workers muscled the big thing out of the house and into a tight space in the already nearly full casita in back, in between my bed frame, fridge, and gas range.

In the process, one side of the cabinet was chipped. I salvaged the wedge-shaped piece of wood and quickly stashed it somewhere I thought it would be safe and retrievable, for however far away in the future it would take to fix this thing and get it back in the house.

Working Around It

The flat file and its separate drawers were now taking up space in the casita, along with most of the other furnishings of my house. I had moved back into and was camping out in the main house, but it was now the middle of winter, and I needed at least one room of that casita as a workshop, to start completing the interior of the house and make repairs to items like the flat file.

I cleared out the workshop as much as possible, but the flat file cabinet had to stay there while I put in the wiring – it was too big to fit through the casita’s other doors. So I worked around it, moving it from place to place as needed.

Repairing the Chip

Finally, at the end of March, I was ready to start fixing up the flat file. But by now I’d completely forgotten where I put that missing wood chip. I looked everywhere but couldn’t find it – I would simply have to fabricate a new piece and glue it in. But how to match the original knotty pine? Knotty pine is no longer available, especially here.

Fortunately I had an old piece of scrap pine hanging around that had similar grain and color.

Refinishing the File Cabinet

The body of the file was quite worn, not to mention smoke damaged. But getting the old finish off took two days of heavy sanding, and in the process I discovered it had never been sanded to begin with – the surface was extremely rough under the finish the cabinetmaker had applied.

Like many things around here, it was paradoxical – the unfinished, imperfect product of a lot of obsessive labor.

I also found out early that sanding in the workshop raised far too much dust, and applying the finish indoors generated too many fumes. So I rolled the cabinet outside on my new dolly and applied three coats of polyurethane, sanding between each coat, covering it with plastic every night and uncovering it every morning.

Making Feet & Corner Guards

The base of the cabinet was the crudest part of it – inconsistent with the rest of the thing, the base was made out of rough, construction-grade two-by-fours. I wasn’t going to have that sliding around on my newly refinished oak floors, so I had to make feet, to which I would attach protective felt. I made these out of scraps of oak from another project, plus I cut corner guards to protect the vulnerable bottom edges of the cabinet, where the chip had come off earlier.

Moving It Back Into the House

Like a fool I was determined to get the cabinet back into the house by myself, and it did not go well – after taking off door and weatherstripping again, there was still only about 1/16″ clearance between the sides of the cabinet and the door jamb, and I ended up scratching up my new finish in a few places. But those were easily repaired.

Installing the Feet & Corner Guards

Reinforcing the Cabinet

I spent weeks puzzling over how to make a top for this cabinet. It would have to span over a yard of open space without warping, and there was no room to add bracing within the existing cabinet – the top would have to be framed above the existing front, sides, and back.

Plywood wouldn’t do – it should be solid wood – equivalent, if not superior, in quality to the expertly joined sides. But I didn’t have access to a broad selection of cabinet-grade wood – our local lumber yard only stocks a limited selection of “project boards” in poplar and oak up to 12″ wide. And I didn’t have the tools or setup to match the joinery of the sides.

Meanwhile, I realized that the top would need to be removable! A fixed top would prevent access to the drawer slides inside the cabinet, and they are mechanical parts that can wear out and break and need to be replaced. I decided to make the top hinged at the back with a continuous piano hinge.

A removable top added even more complexity to a project that just seemed to keep growing. And whereas a fixed top would reinforce the whole cabinet, a removable top would place stress on a structure that didn’t seem to have enough bracing as is. The top front crosspiece was so flimsy you could bend it up and down with one hand.

So I cut a couple of oak boards as cross braces for the body of the cabinet – they would just barely fit above the top drawer, and would stabilize the cross member in front, as well as to prevent warping of the sides. They would also need to be removable to facilitate getting your whole body inside the cabinet to work on the slides!

Building a Top for the File

We didn’t have any cabinet-grade wood panels available locally to cover the entire top, but I finally figured out a way to combine two different woods without more expensive tools. In addition to the oak boards, the lumber yard had a few 24″x48″ cabinet-grade pieces of birch plywood with a nice surface grain, and I was lucky to find two pieces that were book-matched.

I used the oak as edge binding and to join the two pieces of plywood down the center. I still didn’t have long clamps, but I managed to get enough pressure using bungee cords, and a doweling jig, to get reasonably fine joinery.

Being all hardwood, the top ended up really heavy.

Installing the New Top

Once I’d decided to hinge the top, I worried for weeks about how to align the hinge. Both the cabinet and the top were really heavy pieces, and the hinge would need to be attached with the top open, in such a manner that the top would be aligned with the cabinet when closed.

And the fit was not perfect – the original cabinetmaker hadn’t cut the sides perfectly straight, and I hadn’t thought to plane them earlier. Ultimately, searching online, I found adhesive-backed felt tape to line the interface between top, sides, and front. This would help keep dust out. I ordered it the week before I left for Indiana, and it was waiting for me 6 weeks later when I got back from the hospital.

To align the hinge properly was extremely complicated and took three tries, drilling a few holes at first, mounting a few screws, setting the whole heavy thing upright, relocating some holes and screws, lowering, removing and reattaching, etc.

And finally, I discovered that my house floor is uneven, and the cabinet flexes as it’s moved around the floor, so that in some positions, the hinged top is out of alignment, whereas in other positions it’s perfectly aligned. So I gave up and accepted imperfection.

I also realized that the cheap piano hinge from our local Ace is not really sturdy enough for the weight of this top. But it took me so long to install it, I’ll leave it as is for now, letting the next owner worry about that.

Refinishing the Drawers

I kept thinking I was almost done, until I realized the drawers still needed to be sanded and refinished – all 8 of them.

First I had to remove the wooden pulls – they were originally unfinished, and I decided to spray paint them black.

Refinishing the drawers took over a week, partly because I first sealed them with Danish oil to deepen the color, and I had to wait a day and sand between each coat. I had to keep moving them from place to place after each of the 4 coats, to keep them from running and sticking together, and to keep them free of dust from another project I was starting in the shop.

Installing the Drawers

Finally the drawers were ready! I assumed the project was done – what a huge relief! The last big piece of furniture repaired and restored to my house, almost two years after the fire!

I carefully carried each drawer from the casita, up onto the back porch, through the kitchen, and into the living room. When they were all there, I started by inserting the bottom drawer into its slides. These drawers have always been a tight fit, needing several firm pushes to get all the way in. But after the second firm push, one of the drawer slides exploded and ball bearings shot out across the floor.

I wasn’t finished after all. And thank god I’d made that top removable!

So I order a new set of slides for the bottom drawer, and waited another week for it to arrive. And meanwhile, I finally found that missing chip from the side of the cabinet. It was in the bottom of one of the drawers. If only I’d found it months ago, I would’ve saved a couple days of work fabricating a new patch, and the cabinet would’ve ended up looking better. So it goes.

But how to prop up the hinged top so I could work inside the cabinet? I hadn’t included that in my design yet, and there wasn’t much room to work with inside the cabinet. After a few days of design experimentation, I came up with the solution you see below, which works great.

I knew I had to prop the “lid” of the cabinet up in some way. This could be done either with a metal rod – like on the hood of your car – or with a wooden dowel, or a wooden “strut” with a rectangular cross-section. I wanted to avoid metal, which would come with its own challenges. Initially I figured a rectangular strut would be best, because I could attach it to either the underside of the lid or the top of the cabinet with a hinge. But the hinge would have to have a flush profile when the lid is closed, and mortising to achieve that would add work.

Also, I’d need to design some kind of socket to secure the loose end of the strut. Ultimately I realized a removable dowel would be the most elegant solution with my limited resources. I could easily fit an upper socket into a corner inside the lid so it would be flush. The lower socket would simply be a hole cut into the front cross-member of the cabinet, with a metal plate on the underside forming the bottom of the socket. When not in use, the dowel strut could sit in brackets attached to the middle cross member of the cabinet – a neat solution that would keep it inside the cabinet without interfering with the top drawer. I would make these brackets by carefully bending metal mending straps that I already had in my collection of surplus hardware.

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Hiker in the Storm

Monday, August 8th, 2022: Hikes, Holt, Mogollon Mountains, Southwest New Mexico.

This Sunday’s weather was forecast to be partly cloudy and warm. I’d been having such a hard time climbing – my lung capacity didn’t seem to be recovering – I felt I needed to keep pushing, forcing myself to climb higher on each new hike. And getting up in the higher elevations would help with the heat. Maybe I’d even get some rain.

With the wildfire closures, the only nearby hike I hadn’t tackled yet was my old favorite, which climbs to the shoulder of a 9,700′ peak and continues down a ridge to a saddle with dramatic rock outcrops. It would involve between 4,000′ and 5,000′ of accumulated elevation gain, depending on how far I got.

But first I had to get through the jungle in the canyon bottom, which occupied 2-1/2 miles of the hike. It was as overgrown as I’d expected, a riot of flowers, flies, and waist-high growth with heavy dew, completely covering the trail, soaking my canvas pants. As usual, I was drenched with sweat from the beginning, but in the sections where the creek was flowing above ground, I could wet my hat and head net for a little evaporative cooling.

And I’d worn waterproof boots, so my feet stayed dry.

The long climb to the 9,500′ crest was difficult and slow. I’m beginning to suspect the damage to my lungs was permanent, and I may never regain the ability to climb steadily at my normal walking pace.

I stopped at the spring below the peak, to rinse out my hat and head net. I’d been glad to see no recent cattle sign so far, but unfortunately found a big cowpie near the spring less than a day old. The beast was apparently hanging out in the high country – avoiding the Forest Service’s recent attempt at removal.

Far above the spring, just as I turned the corner into the interior and got my first view of a storm building over the wilderness, it began to rain. I first pulled on my poncho, then when I reached the saddle with its little surviving stand of pines and aspens, I changed into my waterproof and thornproof hunting pants.

Last fall’s trail crew had cleared most of the logs across this trail, but from here on, the main challenge was thorny locust, and they’d done nothing about that. I’d chopped about a half mile of locust with my machete a couple of years ago, but it’s fast growing, and if I wanted to continue I’d just have to fight my way through it.

I knew there would be little reward – after the slow climb to the crest, I knew I didn’t have enough time to reach the rocky saddle, and the intervening trail would just be a thorny jungle with no view and no landmarks. But I still wanted to give my lungs a workout, so I fought my way through the thorns for another mile or so, stopping at an arbitrary point on a traverse just below the crest of the ridge. Through an opening in the locust, I spotted something far down the canyon, a hazy spot that might or might not be smoke.

I watched it long enough to see it drift and change. Yes, there was a little fire down there, apparently a lightning strike. But the whole landscape was saturated, and another big storm was building over the mountains – surely this would burn out quickly?

After I began the hike back up the ridge, the vegetation was so dense that I didn’t get another view of the little fire. But it was soon raining again, and I knew I didn’t have to worry.

At the saddle, I trudged up the little rise that gives a view over the peaks of the range. The northern half of the interior was getting hammered by rain, and another storm was forming outside the mountains in the south.

Lightning and thunder were bombarding me from all sides up there, and the first part of the descent is totally exposed, so I wasted no time descending. The rain fell harder, blowing sideways, but I knew it would move on soon.

After the rain moved on, the air was so chilled I regretted leaving my sweater at home. But as it turned out, the hike down the long switchbacks and through the canyon bottom jungle went much faster than the climb up, and hiking kept me warm.

In the canyon bottom, I was really glad of the waterproof pants now that all that waist-high vegetation was soaked from the rain. Unable to see the rocks in the trail, I was constantly slipping and stumbling. And my third rain of the day began during the last stretch before the climb out of the canyon. I’d been accompanied by the sound of thunder continuously since reaching the crest hours ago.

Driving out of the mountains, and looking back at where I’d come from, I could see storms getting bigger both east and west, over Arizona. And back home, I’d no sooner parked in my driveway than it began to pour.

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Life Renewing on the Burned Crest

Monday, August 15th, 2022: Hikes, Mogollon Crest, Mogollon Mountains, Southwest New Mexico.

Much of the story about this Sunday’s hike is not shown in the pictures. Of all the hikes I do in our region, this is the hardest to get to. It’s only 50 miles from home as the crow flies, but like many hikes in our local wilderness, it requires a much longer drive than the hikes I do 80-90 miles away in Arizona.

I always forget how bad the road is. It begins at 5,000′ as a paved 2-lane in good condition. It climbs onto a flat mesa at 5,600′, at the end of which it begins the serious climb, turning into a one-lane with blind hairpin curves and sheer drop-offs with no guard rails. Here, the rough pavement is littered with rocks that have fallen off the cliffs above.

After climbing to over 7,000′ in the foothills, the paved road drops into a narrow canyon where the ghost town nestles. There, the pavement ends, and it turns into a forest road up a dark, narrow canyon lined with flash-flood debris and shaded by old-growth conifers. As it slowly ascends the canyon, fording the creek again and again, it just gets rougher and rockier, until it crosses the creek one last time and begins the serious climb to the crest. Here, I switch into 4wd, and high ground clearance is essential.

Crawling over shelves of rock, slowing for steep sections and erosional gullies, watching carefully for approaching vehicles – including big trucks towing trailers – that I may need to stop or back up for, I finally reach the crest, at over 9,000′. Here, after our exceptional monsoon rains, a section of the road is flooded to 9″ deep, a muddy lake almost high enough to reach the door sills of my vehicle.

It’s always a huge relief to reach the ledge with its big parking area and incongruous permanent restroom. Surrounded by a steep drop-off with a forever view, it’s a platform in the sky that emphasizes how you’ve driven 4,000′ above the surrounding countryside.

I parked next to two other vehicles. I wasn’t particularly surprised – this is a legendary road, and on my one previous hike I’d met a couple from Texas.

We’d been getting a lot of rain, with cloudy skies and cool temperatures. At 9,200′ it was in the low 60s and positively clammy.

My goal was to get as far along the crest as possible, but what had drawn me back here now was curiosity. My previous visit, almost two years ago, had been a few weeks after an extreme wind event had toppled thousands of fire-killed snags across the trail. In a masochistic determination not to let that stop me, I’d fought my way over, under, and around a couple thousand fallen logs, and it was such a miserable experience I swore not to return until the trail had been cleared.

Earlier this year, in late winter, I spoke to the Forest Service trails supervisor, and she’d said that clearing that trail was a priority for the coming season. Then in early June, a hiker posted a report on the most popular hiking website, saying they’d encountered a trail crew clearing that trail and planning to reach the first milestone, a popular saddle below the peak of the range, by the middle of the month. But around that time, our monsoon storms started early, and I could find no update on trail condition anywhere.

So I took a big risk making that epic drive, hoping the trail would be clear.

The most recent entry on the trailhead log, from a month ago, was from a hiker who claimed to have climbed the peak. That was encouraging, because surely the trail to the saddle had to have been cleared. Nobody was as crazy as me, to fight their way through fallen logs just to reach a forested peak that didn’t even have a view!

So I started up the trail, soon leaving the small margin of intact forest behind and entering the moonscape burn scar, which has been filled by a thicket of aspen and thorny locust. I knew most of the crest would be like this. Despite being the highest-elevation trail in our region, it’s not a scenic hike – it runs through a devastated landscape, and your view is mostly obstructed by a dense ghost forest of dead tree trunks. But you do get glimpes, between the snags, of the surrounding mountains, to remind you how high up you are.

Just before emerging from the intact forest, I spotted a hiker up ahead, returning down the trail. He had a big gray dog, and it bounded down the trail toward me. I said something friendly and reached out my hand, and the dog started barking violently, jumping around me in a circle, threatening to attack. The owner approached, and I said, “Your dog seems a little suspicious!”

“No, he never bothers anybody.” Like it can’t possibly bother me to have a dog barking and threatening me. I love how dog owners always deny what’s happening before their eyes – despite the evidence, their pet can’t possibly bother anyone. I’m sure it comes from the lazy owner’s sense of guilt at not making the effort to train their pet – not to mention disobeying the leash rule on public trails.

Because the trail runs along the crest of a ridge connecting the highest mountains, it involves little climbing, and I was hoping I could move fast, and if enough of the trail was clear of blowdown, at best I might be able to go as far as 9 miles, and reach a cabin on a connecting trail, far beyond the highest peak.

And in fact, when I reached the point, about a mile in, where the blowdown had begun, I found a broad path had been cut through the logs. Smooth sailing!

About 3 miles in, the trail switches from the northeast to the southwest side of the ridge, an important milestone for me because you finally get glimpses of the interior of the range, where I do most of my hiking. And about 4 miles in, you reach a rocky outcrop where your view is for once actually unobstructed by dead trees.

And shortly beyond this, the cleared trail ended.

My heart sank when I saw those criss-crossed logs blocking the trail ahead. Why hadn’t they finished the job and cleared it all the way to the saddle, as promised? Hiking to this point, and no farther, made no sense.

Maybe the early storms had stopped them. Or maybe the money ran out. In any event, the Forest Service hadn’t updated its public trail information in almost a year – maybe they were ashamed to admit they hadn’t met their goals.

I knew the saddle wasn’t much farther, so I fought my way through the logs for another half mile. Then I encountered a logjam where the tread completely disappeared in a thicket of thorny locust. That was too much even for me, and I gave up and stopped for lunch in a small, sunny clearing where I sat and watched pollinators working the wildflowers.

At one point I glanced over my shoulder to find a chipmunk sitting on a log about 9 feet away, watching me in curiosity.

A big storm was dumping to the northeast as I headed back. Another began building to the southwest, and just as I entered the margin of intact forest before reaching the trailhead, I felt the first drops of rain.

The other two vehicles were still there. They must be backpacking. I couldn’t believe they’d fought their way through that logjam – another trail started here, running down into a side canyon – maybe that’s where they’d gone.

It rained on and off during the drive back, making for spectacular skies. For once, since my planned hike had been cut short, I would get home early enough to make a decent dinner.

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Missing the Desert

Monday, August 22nd, 2022: Hikes, Pinalenos, Southeast Arizona.

This was the weekend when my region was forecast to get extreme rain and widespread flooding. Most of it was supposed to arrive on Saturday, but that turned out to be something of a letdown.

Still, I was sure there’d been enough rainfall in the mountains to raise the level of creeks in canyon bottoms, and most of my hikes involve creek crossings. So I figured it was time to drive over to Arizona and do the big climb from the desert to the fir forest. It was a really hard climb, but with no creek crossings required.

It was a perfect day for this hike, because it’s generally too hot in summer, but today’s cloud cover would fix that. Sure enough, it was in the 60s when I set out from the trailhead, through an overgrazed maze of boulders, mesquite, and big Emory oaks. But the humidity was almost 100% and the head-high vegetation was dripping from overnight rains. So I in addition to waterproof boots, I put on my waterproof, thornproof hunting pants and left my regular hiking pants in the car.

My destination, the mountain crest, was completely obscured by low clouds. And as I approached back and forth through the lowland maze, I was accompanied by the freight train sound of a raging flood not too far off on my right. I was surprised because it wasn’t raining, and I didn’t think any of the drainages near this trail had big enough watersheds to flood. But the trail led me away from the sound and I thought no more of it.

Then, less than a mile into the hike, the trail began climbing and led around a hill toward a narrow gully – the only gully crossing on this hike – and the freight train sound came back. It was coming from the gully! What the hell was I going to find?

I was shocked to find this littly gully, which had never had water in it before, turned into a churning torrent of muddy water, 8-10 feet wide at its narrowest. Then I began to visualize the landscape above, and I realized that the watershed for this tiny gully led 3 miles down from the crest, which was over 3,000′ above. So it was actually able to collect a decent amount of runoff and ultimately funnel it through here.

The logical thing would’ve been to start worrying about what would happen to this flood if the crest got rain later in my hike, but as usual all I could think about was getting past the obstacle. Fortunately there was a log across the surface of the torrent, which could be reached by stepping out on a slippery rock, with another shorter log as an intermediate foothold. And I found a soggy stick I could use to improve my balance while crossing.

But the intermediate log turned out to be rotten and immediately broke in half under me, briefly submerging one of my boots as I scrambled to leap to the opposite bank. Without that intermediate log, would I be able to get back across on my return at end of day?

It always amazes me how a loud a creek can be. Even the smallest creek can sound like a raging torrent from hundreds of yards away, and that sound can really set your nerves on edge if you know you have to cross it at some point.

This trail is very seldom used by anyone other than me, and the last time I’d been here, in March – long before the growing season – I’d gotten lost because the tread vanishes at many points. I knew it would be overgrown after this year’s long, wet monsoon, and it exceeded my expectations. Beyond the flood crossing, I was wading almost continuously through sopping wet chest-high grasses. The crest was still hidden behind clouds, but at least it wasn’t raining – yet!

Most of the cairns that mark some of the turns in the trail were hidden under the tall grass, so I kept having to stop to search for sticks and rocks that would work as route markers on my descent. And as I’ve noted many times before, these trails are always lined with rocks – loose or embedded – and the overgrowth also hides the rocks in the trail, so you have to either go very slow, feeling your way with each step, or be condemned to stumble or lose your balance often.

At times I was helped by a corridor where the surface of the grass had been trampled, and at first I thought another hiker might’ve come this way recently. But gradually I realized the trampling had been done by game, because it often led away from the actual hiking trail.

With all this stopping and trail marking, it took me forever to reach the saddle which marks the halfway point. Meanwhile the sky had darkened and I could see isolated rainfall behind me in the lower range to the south. I was so discouraged by my slow pace that I considered giving up and turning back, especially with the flood danger. But as usual, I threw caution to the wind and kept going, thinking the descent would go a lot faster.

In the next stretch – the final climb to the crest – the dense grass is replaced by scrub oak, and eventually by scattered pines and firs. Here, the trail often turned into a creek. The higher I got, the more it seemed that water was just flowing down the entire slope.

By the time I reached the saddle on the crest, it had taken me 4-3/4 hours to go 4-3/4 miles. My legs were sore and I was tired and out of breath, so I figured I’d just take it easy from here on, enough to enjoy the alpine forest, and turn back well before reaching the end.

But again, my compulsive nature won out. At the high point, there wasn’t even a view to reward me, since the peaks of the range were still hidden under clouds, so I continued down to the highway saddle – the terminus of the trail, which most hikers use as a starting point. It was empty – not surprising in this weather.

I wanted to sit on a rock, but I suddenly developed a painful cramp in my thigh, and realized I’d forgotten to drink any water during the past hour of hiking over the crest. The cramp had me paralyzed for about 5 minutes, but I’ve learned how to deal with these. I stood with my leg straight, gradually stretching the muscles in the back of my thigh and calf until the cramp began to relax. Then I mixed an electrolyte supplement – something I’ve learned to carry for situations like this – into my water bottle and finished it off.

I’d used up so much time already that I realized I’d get back to the vehicle near sunset, facing a 2-hour drive back home in the dark. So I decided to drive to Safford and stay there in a motel – I thought I might have enough points for a free night. The idea picked up my spirits – Safford is a strange place and could add to the day’s adventure.

Clouds were entering and darkening the forest as I proceeded back down the crest toward the saddle, and before long I ran into rain. The descent did go quickly, but the rain also increased. Realizing I could begin worrying about crossing the flood – at that gully which was still almost 5 miles away, and which was being steadily renewed by this rainfall – I forced myself to smile, on the principle that mind follows body.

If I couldn’t cross that flood, there’s no telling how long I’d have to wait for it to subside. There was no other way off the mountain, and it was too wet to start a fire to keep warm throughout the night. I might be forced to call for a catastrophically expensive rescue – using my GPS device since there was no cell signal. These were the things I was trying to keep from thinking.

As usual, the rain only lasted a half hour, but now, runoff was pouring down the entire slope, and the entire trail was functioning as a creek. As mentioned earlier, the sound of a flood is exaggerated and carries a long distance, so I was accompanied by that freight train roar most of the way down.

I’d never encountered runoff like this back home – I wondered if the geology of these mountains was the cause? Our local mountains, being all volcanic, might be porous enough to absorb most runoff.

In the end, I successfully failed to think about the flood until I literally reached the bank of the gully. It had gotten higher, wider, and angrier, but I could still see the diagonal log, and the sloping rock on the opposite side.

I’d left the stick I’d used earlier up the bank, but I wanted a second one for the other hand. Just as I stepped over some deadfall to look for another stick, my thigh cramped up again and I was paralyzed with pain. What if this happened while I was crossing the flood?

As the cramp subsided, I drank some more water and scouted for a stick, but finally gave up and just rushed across the flood waters as best I could. It turned out to be both precarious and easy.

Evenings are usually spectacular in this valley, and this was no exception. But as beautiful as it was, I was getting really tired of humidity, lush vegetation, and spending nine hours in clothes drenched with sweat. This is really not my favorite kind of habitat to hike in. I was really missing the desert.

The sun was setting and I was anxious to finish the 25 minute drive to Safford. But as I was changing into dry pants and socks at the vehicle, I heard a woman’s voice over toward the highway. The deeply eroded, primitive 4wd track to the hiking trail winds a short distance through dense oak and mesquite scrub, and as I rounded a bend close to the highway I saw a small woolly dog, and then a middle-aged woman appeared with her arms spread wide. As I slowed to stop, I saw a city-style SUV blocking the track, and an older man came over and leaned on the hood of my vehicle.

“Do you live back there?” the woman asked, crowding in my window.

“No, I was just hiking.”

Why?”

“Because I like to.”

She shook her head in frustration. “Where do you hike to?”

“The top.”

“The top of what?”

I was getting tired of this. “The top of the mountains.”

Why?” she asked again.

“Because I like to climb mountains.”

She frowned a while, then suddenly smiled. “So do I!” Right.

The man came over and leaned in my window. “Do you live here?”

“No, like I told her, I was just hiking.”

The woman elbowed him out of the way. “Have you seen those hieroglyphics?” she asked me.

“What?”

“Over on the other side of the mountains!”

“They have lots of those over around Phoenix,” said the man.

“No!” replied the woman, “Not Hohokam! These are 4,000 years old!”

The man turned back to me. “Where you from?”

I told him, and he said he was from Safford, and he grew up on farms and ranches and never wanted to do anything physical on his time off. I told him I’m retired, and he questioned me thoroughly about what kind of work I’d done, and then they offered their names, so I had to tell them mine. It was like meeting me was the big event of their day. They were clearly hoping to get to know me a whole lot better, there with my engine running and me on the way out.

Christ, what a day! I’d gotten up early and driven 2 hours to pursue a brutal 9-hour hike through rain and flood. I was exhausted, I still had chores left in Safford, and trying to explain to these weird strangers would only trigger more questions. I said it was nice meeting them but I really had to hit the road.

Ironically, the motel I got a free night in calls itself the Desert Inn. I knew from experience there were no decent restaurants open on Sunday night, but on the way I remembered I could pick something up at the Safeway and warm it up in the room’s microwave. So I enjoyed a celebratory dinner and a good night’s sleep, looking forward to an easy drive home the next day.

While sampling the motel’s breakfast the next morning, I idly studied the local newspaper, discovering that the Forest Service had scheduled a volunteer work session on that very trail for both Saturday and Sunday. Since I’d seen no sign of work or workers, they’d apparently had to cancel due to weather.

Unfortunately the direct route home turned out to be closed – the mining corporation was moving some oversized equipment, with a state police escort. So after pointlessly driving east about 15 miles, I had to return to Safford yet again to take the longer route back.

I took this opportunity to sample Safford’s only coffee house, and had a decent espresso. I was the only customer.

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