Dispatches Tagline

Both Near and Far

Monday, April 22nd, 2024: Hikes, Pinos Altos Range, Southwest New Mexico.

After last Sunday’s bushwhack in Arizona, I needed a hike that was both nearer and in better condition. But since I was still trying to rebuild capacity, I chose the mostly boring hike, twenty minutes from home, that totals 18 miles out-and-back, with over 3,000 feet of elevation gain.

A short drive meant an early start, giving me plenty of time to move slowly and mitigate the impact on my joints, which hadn’t faced anything this long since last September. But the proximity to town and the easy start on a road up a spectacular canyon means this is a popular trail, and within the first quarter mile I encountered an older couple with a dog that looked like a wolf.

It was chilly in the canyon, but I expected a high in the 70s in the afternoon. I made good time climbing the steep section through the dark forest, out of the canyon to the five-way trail junction at 8,000 feet – the four-mile point. Just past that, on the forested traverse across the next watershed, I stepped aside for a thirty-something trail runner, a guy who’d gone up to the peak with his dog and was returning – a pretty good run at twelve miles and almost 3,000 feet of elevation.

Just below the peak I encountered a forty-something woman wearing a t-shirt from some statewide environmental group. She was perky and immediately asked me where I was coming from, but as I answered it was clear she wasn’t familiar with the area, and she seemed uptight and anxious to move on. She said she’d driven up the road to the crest and was just doing a short hike down this trail.

I’d been avoiding this trail because just past the peak there’s a segment that holds deep snow late into the spring, and I’d brought my gaiters just in case. Sure enough, I needed them – patches were up to eighteen inches deep, and soft enough to sink in.

I was feeling okay, but began to doubt the wisdom of going all the way to the pine park at nine miles. I figured I would pay attention to my body and turn back whenever it seemed right. But it never seemed right. A quarter mile before the pine park I encountered a chubby guy in his 40s or 50s, also with a dog, and it turned out he was the same mountain biker I’d run into last September, using a chain saw to clear logs off the trail so he could ride it. He’d picked the same day as me to return seven months later – how likely is that?

At the park, I stretched out on pine needles to rest, but was quickly swarmed by ants, so I moved to the grassy meadow in the middle, which seemed ant-free. I wasn’t feeling too bad after the first nine miles, but was a little concerned about how I’d feel another nine miles later, after a 3,000 foot descent on knees that had been punished last Sunday.

I recalled the story about the blind men and the elephant. All the people I’d run into on this hike had only seen part of it – as usual, I was the only one who’d covered it all.

And I’d been suffering from allergy all day – surprising because pollen is mostly settled this late in the season. But coming down from the peak I noticed a big alligator juniper completely blanketed in pollen. Apparently our long winter delayed the blooming.

I ended up going slower and slower as my joints began to complain, and in the end, the eighteen miles took me ten hours, including the stops. I ran into yet another hiker with dog shortly before the end. The guy was tall and skinny, but his dog was tiny, and I thought what a tasty morsel it would make for a native predator. This canyon is popular with bears.

Four parties out of five had dogs, and a few days earlier I’d noticed an article in the national media titled “Too Many People Are Getting Dogs”. Something I’ve been saying for years. Most pet owners are irresponsible, and the few who are only encourage others to get them, calling themselves “animal lovers” as our planet becomes more and more domesticated and wild animals and plants suffer and go extinct.

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