Dispatches Tagline

Mud Day

Monday, January 22nd, 2024: 2024 Trips, Mogollon Rim, Regions, Road Trips.

I could tell from the clouds on Saturday that we were going to get rain Sunday. But I hike in the rain all the time and it’s never been a problem around here.

My problem was, as usual, deciding on a hike. I’d gone three weeks without hiking, in darkest Indiana under heavy cloud cover, and most of our local hikes involve a canyon – I wanted something exposed, with a view to remind me I was back in the West.

I was tempted to make a long drive into Arizona, spending the night over there. But the options there weren’t much better and would involve more complications. In the end, I used up an hour and a half trying to decide, then leaving late, headed north to a new area I’ve been studying on the map.

With the late departure, it would be a shorter hike than usual, but at least I could do some scouting for a later return. On the way, I spotted a blue heron standing in the Gila River – I assumed that was a good omen.

The trail I wanted to try is a long traverse west across the foot of a 9,000 foot mountain, with branches along the way. The turnoff is an hour and a half from town. It’d been raining on and off all the way, and the long forest road to the trailhead turned out to consist of mud, snow, and ice. I’d never really tried this vehicle in serious mud before. The road set out climbing a shallow ridge where, despite being in low-range 4wd, I immediately started sliding around. I only made it about a half mile before approaching a deeply washed out section where I was almost certain to get stuck. When I got out of the vehicle to scout, my boots sank an inch into the muck.

There was another option on my list, a six-mile ascent of a 9,800 foot peak. I knew I wouldn’t have time to reach the top, but again, I could do some scouting. It required driving east through the tiny county seat, a hotbed of the anti-government Sagebrush Rebellion. I had thought about spending the night there, if the town’s one motel actually existed. Google Satellite View showed a vacant lot at the address, but the place had a website and ample online reviews.

The motel was indeed there. And past the town, I found the turnoff to the next trailhead, a long and winding dirt road. It wasn’t too bad at first, but after a few miles it climbed to the rim of the canyon of the Tularosa River – which I knew it had to ford at the bottom – and I could see the descent involved more mud, snow, and ice. I definitely didn’t want to start down and find myself unable to drive back up. This day was turning into a real bust.

But on the way north to the first trail, I’d passed one of those little “hiker” signs that I’d never noticed before, about ten miles south of my destination. I checked the national forest map I carry in my pack, and found there was indeed a numbered trail there, heading west into the Blue Wilderness. This trail is not shown anywhere online – it only appears on the official printed map.

I drove another half hour back south and easily found the turnoff. The map showed a dirt road heading west less than a mile to the trailhead, but what I found was the deepest, softest mud yet. Still, after all that driving I was determined to walk, so I parked just off the highway, and began trudging west, immediately picking up several pounds of mud under my boots.

As bad as it was on this road, the mud was even worse when I tried to walk off the road, where it was uncompacted. The road climbed up a little peak to two transmission towers, part of the powerlines that bring our electricity from the coal-fired plants up north. Past the peak, the road enters the wilderness area, continuing downhill to the trailhead. I was surprised to find an old wooden kiosk, but I wasn’t surprised to find a family of mice living in the box where the visitor logbook is stored.

It’d been drizzling on and off. I’d only gone about 3/4 of a mile, and each boot was carrying a big pad of mud like a brown snowshoe. Past the kiosk, I started up the trail proper, but the mud was even worse than on the road. I made it only a hundred yards before realizing this was pointless. It was forecast to rain all day and this could only get worse. And both road and trail had been heavily trampled by cattle, despite federal wilderness designation.

On the way back I saw headlights approaching and stepped aside for a late-model Toyota pickup. I waved but couldn’t see inside – they’d had all the windows tinted, even in front. Where were they going? The powerline is the wilderness boundary – the road is closed past it. Maybe they wanted to camp under the transmission towers – there’s a great view – but they’d be camping in mud.

So much for hiking. It was close to 1 pm, and I’d had nothing but snacks, so I was hungry. There’s a roadside cafe about ten miles north that’s seldom open, but I’d noticed the parking lot was full earlier, so I headed north again.

I was able to get chorizo and eggs, served by a lady with a European accent and a teenage Black boy, and by the time I was finished it was almost check-in time for the mysterious motel in the right-wing county seat. I now knew that the geology in this area is unlike any of the other areas where I hike – the ground is some sort of fine clay that becomes unwalkable when wet – but I wanted to return in dry weather, and it’s far enough that I would need a place to stay overnight. So I might as well try the motel.

I turned out to be the only guest. Everything looked new, which explains the vacant lot on Google Satellite View. I needed yogurt for breakfast, which led me to the discovery that the “General Merchandise” at the crossroads is really a supermarket crammed into a small building. Of course – it serves an entire county that’s remote and sparsely populated but huge.

After settling into my motel room, I realized this was just what I needed. At home, I’m surrounded by work to do and problems to solve. Maybe this is why I like motel rooms so much. For a minute there, I imagined myself just living in motel rooms for the rest of my life. The phone rang and messages arrived – needy people, demanding my attention – but I ignored them. And the next day, it was hard to leave.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *