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An East German in the Wilderness

Monday, April 8th, 2024: Hikes, Holt, Mogollon Mountains, Southwest New Mexico.

I woke on Sunday not knowing where I would go for today’s hike. I was tired of driving, but snow and runoff were still a problem in the mountains near home. I literally didn’t have any appealing choices, so I started to drive southwest toward Arizona, halfheartedly intending to try another bushwhack in cattle country.

I only made it about twenty miles, then turned back in dismay. I would just bite the bullet and do a less desirable hike nearer home, and since at this point I was getting a late start, it would be shorter than usual.

After a stop at home to review my options on the map, I set out on the highway north, toward the western crest of our high mountains. There I would find a series of options, and since driving helps me think, I would pick one enroute.

I arrived at the trailhead almost two hours later than usual, but with daylight savings time that still left me up to seven hours for hiking. I’d picked the old favorite trail that had first introduced me to our local wilderness. It involves a lot of elevation gain, but I expected deep snow at the top that would make me turn back early without getting much mileage. So be it – at this point I just needed a damn hike.

The sky was clear all around, the air was chilly, but the high was forecast to reach 60 at the mid-elevations.

You’ll notice I didn’t take many photos this time. One reason is that I know this trail so well I could almost hike it blindfolded. The other reason will become evident.

The trail starts at 6,400 feet, climbs over a ridge at 6,800 feet, then traverses down to the canyon bottom, dropping back to 6,400 feet. Then it follows the canyon upstream for a couple of miles, to the base of switchbacks which take another mile to reach the crest at 9,500 feet. The hike I’d done last Sunday, in a storm, had involved worse trail conditions and more mileage and elevation gain, but for some reason this hike felt much harder, especially the steady climb up the canyon bottom. Shortly before I reached the base of the switchbacks, I stopped to dig a lunchtime snack out of my pack, and saw a guy coming up the trail behind me.

I run into other hikers on maybe one out of every five hikes in this region, which is fine with me. One of the great advantages of this region is the high ratio of mountains to people. We simply have a lot more wilderness than we have people who use it, and that enables solitude for those of us who treasure it, and a sense that we’re discovering wild habitat for ourselves.

Sometimes the hikers I meet are even more intent on solitude, and ignore me or toss off a gruff greeting as they pass. Other times they’re friendly and stop for a brief exchange of small talk.

But as soon as this hiker stopped, I could tell he welcomed my company – for whatever reason. He appeared to be in his mid-thirties and spoke with a soft German accent. I asked him how long he’d been in the area, and he said only a couple of days – he was on his way west to Arizona. He immediately announced he was vegan, and complained about the cafe in the town at the base of the mountains, where the smell of frying bacon had nauseated him as soon as he opened the door. He said he was on a goodbye tour of the U.S., returning to Germany after living here for twelve years – most recently on a horse farm in Connecticut. Then he said, “You must know about the BLM and horses?” I nodded yes, and he went on a long lament about his concern for animal welfare and the treatment of wild horses in this country.

He just kept talking, and he seemed like a really nice guy, but I wanted to finish my hike in the time I had left, and said so. I was obviously moving more slowly so he set off ahead of me.

Much later, I reached the patch of deep snow below the crest, and strapped on my gaiters. It was at least 18 inches deep, but fortunately the melting sequence had packed it hard enough that I could mostly walk across the surface. The German’s tracks had veered off-trail at some point so I figured he was bushwhacking to the peak. I avoid the peak because it’s forested and has no view – the trail takes me to a rocky outcrop with a glorious view of all the high peaks of the range.

On the way down, I had just crossed the snowy patch and unstrapped my gaiters when I noticed the German a hundred yards ahead, dropping down through the forest from the peak. I yelled at him and he came up the trail to meet me.

I asked why he was returning to Germany after so long in the U.S., and he struggled to answer. He said he was uncomfortable with the way things are going here, but admitted that politics are bad everywhere. When he’d left Germany there hadn’t even been a Neo-Nazi party, but now they represent twenty percent of the government.

He complained about how bad racism is in the U.S.. He’s been working as a carpenter, and white people in the building trades blame Mexicans for taking their jobs. He also complained about their sexism and antagonism toward sustainable construction. That led to a complaint about materials that are non-recyclable or even toxic, from which he launched on a long, excited discourse about a landfill in Brooklyn that began as a dump for fat rendered from horses before the advent of cars, and is now a park, where relics from past generations keep eroding onto the surface. The German’s complaint there was the “Do Not Remove” signs all over the park – apparently he felt these artifacts should be free for everyone.

He’d been walking ahead of me, which made it harder for me to understand his accent, and he kept wanting to stop and just talk, so finally I passed him and took the lead. I was beginning to resent the nonstop conversation, which completely prevented me from enjoying the wilderness and views around me, and disrupted my usual rhythm of stopping for pictures, snacks, and hydration. Instead, I began hiking faster than usual and made much fewer stops.

Back on the subject of the U.S. vs. Germany, he said he’d grown up in East Germany, where his family had been oppressed by both the Nazis and the Russians, so he sympathizes with Native Americans. But he complained about how rude they’ve been on the few instances he’s met them. That’s when I told him about my place in the desert and my Native friend, and the German said he really envied my experience. He wondered if maybe he was making the wrong decision, and should stay in the U.S., moving to the West where people might be more open-minded.

I mentioned I’d done carpentry myself since childhood, even working on construction projects here and there as an adult. That’s when the German stopped complaining and really lit up. He said his passion is for wood-framed construction, and began an endlessly detailed description of the little houses he built for the goats on the farm in Connecticut. One he built in the shape of a wooden ship, with a surrounding deck, a sleeping loft inside, and a wooden anchor on the front door. He told me about something he’d built out of cherry and walnut – maybe some kind of cabinet – with wooden hinges and a wooden lock. This is when I began to visualize the classic old German craftsman out of Grimm’s fairy tales, deep in the Black Forest, carving gingerbread decorations in the lintels of doors and windows.

More random stories of living on a kibbutz in Israel, persecution by hard core Zionists, wanting to have kids but accepting it wasn’t likely to happen. He enjoys being the “bad uncle” to his sisters’ kids but rejects the loss of freedom that comes with raising a family. He didn’t completely monopolize the conversation – I regularly interrupted with questions and comments, and he did ask me a few questions about my life – but by the time we reached our vehicles I was more than ready for a break.

His vegan and animal welfare complaints had put me off at first, since they often reflect an ignorance of ecology and a bias toward domesticated animals at the expense of wildlife. In general, he’d spent a lot of time sharing simplistic complaints on complex subjects. Then he’d proudly mentioned a photo someone had shared of him taking a dump off the side of a sailboat, and said since he’d left the farm he’d launched a project of him pissing at various scenic spots around the U.S., which he was sharing with friends. I said I expected his friends’ kids would love that, and I finally realized that even in his 30s, the German was a kid at heart – that characterized everything he’d said. And in some way, that made him lonely, and anxious to connect on this wilderness hike.

I’d been able to share my experience of moving west to escape the European worldview that dominates the old colonies of the eastern U.S. I’d described how I’d pursued, met and befriended Native Americans, and how they’re struggling to survive our “progress”. I’d described how I’d moved to southwest New Mexico hoping to grow my own food, stayed on a commune and almost tried to join it. The German and I parted as friends, and we both seemed elated by the experience. He seemed impressed by what little I’d managed to share about my accomplishments and experiences. I can only wonder how he’ll continue to ponder all the topics we discussed, and whether he’ll really return across the ocean to stay – because it sounded to me like he might be better off here.

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