Trip Report: Santa Fe Baldy

Santa FeBandelier 008New Mexico’s Santa Fe Baldy is a simple walk-up, which I’d tried last year in early May but heavy snow still covered the trail.

This is what the trail looked like in early May of 2016. SantaFe&Taos 005I could follow it thanks to snowmobile and snowshoe traces, but I’d constantly break through, sinking up to my crotch and filling my boots with snow.  I knew that if I’d just try again next year, but a little later in May, the trail would be clear of snow.

This year, I’d slept the night before in the deserted Aspen campground at the trailhead after a twelve hour drive,Santa FeBandelier 001 and gotten an early start up the Winsor Trail (trail 254 on the map).  The entire area is part of the Santa Fe National Forest, and after a half-hour of steady hiking you’ll arrive at the boundary of the Pecos Wilderness.  A Wilderness designation is mostly a line on a map saying “this side of the line man is a visitor and will not remain,” but the Forest Service decided to celebrate the line with this gate and a list of rules.Santa FeBandelier 015The altitude here is nearing 11,000 feet, and although I could see a dusting of snow further up, the trail was so far clear.  If it remained clear of snow, I’d summit Baldy by early afternoon and have time to come back down and camp that night up on the Puerto Nambe plateau.

The trail did not remain clear of snow.  This is what the trail looked like in mid-May of 2017 .Santa FeBandelier 002

It looked amazingly like the trail in 2016.  It took another four hours to make it to Puerto Nambe, which was indeed the only place flat enough to pitch a tent, and thankfully snow-free thanks to being near treeline and more exposed to the sun.  At this point, the trail to Baldy’s summit splits into two choices.  Santa FeBandelier 004Trail 251 is more direct but difficult, but that’s the standard route and the snow lower down had slowed me considerably.  If I was going to make it up and back before nightfall, I was going to have to move fast.  Hopefully, Trail 251 would be as snow-free as Puerto Nambe.

Fifty feet from Puerto Nambe, Trail 251 was covered in deep snow.  Trackless, untouched by earlier passages, the trail was invisible deep inside the ascending forest.  I backtracked down to the trail split.  Taking Trail 254 would be longer, but I knew that it was my only choice to make it to the top if it was clear enough of snow to see.

Trail 254 was buried under three feet of snow.  I looked around, decided that Puerto Nambe was a really beautiful place to camp the night, and that provided it didn’t start snowing, I could get up early the next morning and get a fresh start on figuring out how to make it up Baldy.

It began to snow.

It began to snow heavily, and the odds changed rapidly.  First, the trail up was definitely not going to be any easier to find tomorrow, but now the trail down would disappear.  Spending the night above 11,000 in my little tent in a snowstorm suddenly looked very stupid, and I was already visualizing the headlines about the stupid Texas hiker found frozen to death, and all the Santa Fe hikers saying “damn, it’s sad.  Totally preventable; if he’d just stayed in Texas.”

I decided I had just enough time to make it back down the four hours to the trailhead, and figure out what I’d do next from the safety of a lower elevation.  It snowed so heavily at times that I couldn’t look up to see my way, simply staring down and plodding forward to make sure I didn’t step into a hole I couldn’t get out of.  The Aspen campground had been deserted last night, almost like a backcountry site, and I knew all I needed was peace and flat ground to recover for tomorrow.

When I returned to the trailhead, a large group of twenty or so youngish people had set up camp, with a generator and all the energy and senseless noise a group of twenty or so youngish people can generate.  Cold, wet, and tired, I said to myself (and to them as well, I suppose, as I said this out loud several times) “there is no fucking way I am spending the night here.”

As my good luck would have it, as I sat there covered in snow, trying to think what to do next at that late hour, a couple came up and asked if I’d just come down the trail, and if it I thought it a reasonable plan to hike up it.  They were from the Netherlands, where there are no mountains, but they do have snow.  And generally speaking exceptionally nice people.  We spoke a bit, as the snow continued to pile up on my pack, and our shoulders, and we decided together that the moment for ascending Santa Fe Baldy had not yet arrived. Santa FeBandelier 016 From the snow-encased trailhead, we all decided we’d head for the lower elevations of Bandelier National Monument, but that is another story.

 

 

 

Marufo Vega Trail

Marufo Vega 036My original plan for hiking Big Bend National Park’s Marufo Vega Trail was to hit the trail in the cooling late afternoon, take my time down the trail and camp that night somewhere before the river.  I’d spend the next day checking out the Rio Grande and Mexico on the other side, and then head back and camp near the trailhead the next evening and get an early start back home.

There is very little info on this trail, so although my itinerary proved impossible to implement, this turned out to be an awesome trip.  Marufo Vega, which means “skin cancer” in Spanish, is not an easy hike, but I’ll share with you now things I wish I’d known before starting out.

First and most importantly, this is a winter and fall hike.  I did it in early April, and although the temperature did not rise above the mid-80’s, the sun was brutal.  The first 2.5 miles of trail are over entirely shadeless rock and desert,

and although the scenery grew in beauty, I was really happy to find the first shade in a rough little wash canyon.  Do not attempt Marufo Vega in the late Spring and Summer.

Second, there is no place to camp prior to or after the river.  Your only option, other than doing it as a day hike, is to camp on the section that follows the river, and this is definitely something worth doing.  I camped on the flood plain beneath where the South Fork of the trail meets the river on a little trail appendage, but I saw a good looking spot at the other end, right where the North Fork meets the river.  I saw no one during my stay, and it was awesome.  I’ve always backpacked Big Bend up in the Chisos, and I was unaware Big Bend had such magnificent canyons.Marufo Vega 098

I would save the $10 a NPS-recommended topographical map will cost you; it isn’t especially useful in keeping on the trail, and in the few places I lost track of the cairns temporarily, if you were eventually lost enough for the topo to be useful, you will definitely die soon and won’t need a map.  On the other hand, the ranger at the permit desk gave me a free and very useful map, which I referred to often.  Feel free to download this copy in case they are out of them.  And don’t lose track of the cairns.MarufoMap

Finally, water:  curiously, the NPS link states that “there is no water along this trail, and the river water is not potable.”  Well, d’uh.  Take along your filtration system, and save yourself some weight in water packed in.  Be sensible, particularly if you are solo, and carry enough water nonetheless in case things go wrong, because this is not a trail to be on unprepared if things go wrong.

A couple of notes about the trail itself:  I recommend taking the North Fork in and the South Fork out.  It’s pretty easy to follow in that direction, and less so counter-clockwise.  The descent toward the river that begins about half-way along the North Fork is very steep, particularly with a pack for overnighting.Marufo Vega 061  You do not want to negotiate this part of the trail in the dark (or any other part, for that matter).  And finally, one of the best views from the trail is about 200 yards off the juncture of the South Fork and the side trail down to the river.  The Ranger at the permit desk told me most people didn’t go down to the river (WTF!?), so if you are considering skipping that extra half-mile down and then back up on a day trip, do not miss this view.Marufo Vega 119

Desire and Faith

gctfGrand Circle Trailfest

Faith is not something to grasp, it is a state to grow into.  Mahatma Gandhi

Intellectually, I understand why I cannot achieve everything I desire.  But I believe it is possible, so I keep trying.  I would lately describe my central character trait as “frustrated.”

Faith is a strong belief based on spiritual apprehensions, rather than on proof.  I have proof that I can swim the Cap2K, because I’ve already done it five times, but the first time I did it on faith.  And thousands of meters of training.

I do not have proof that I can run the Grand Circle Trailfest in October, but I have mounting evidence that I cannot, despite my belief that it is possible.  Everything is possible, but past a point what is possible is measured by what you are willing to give up to achieve it.  I did not realize how many things my life had accumulated that I would have to let go of to focus on one single thing so much.

Here is a partial list of things I like, and that I have or would have to give up to do other things:  running, swimming, working, karate, friends, women, sex, travel, dogs, yoga, backpacking, and beer.  That list is not in order.  I want all of that, and I have faith that I can have it all.  But I’m going to have to grow into it.

‘Roids

roids-001I approach my return to running methodically:  10% increase in total time run per week, pay attention to potential injuries, set short-term goals to keep me motivated.  I’m already pretty much in shape, just not “running shape,” so there’s still a few kinks to work out.  I also swim quite a bit, which I began several years ago after an introduction to mid-life male prostate cancer scare by blowing a large quantity of bright red blood out my ass, which led eventually to signing up for the Cap2K Open Water Race in support of prostate cancer research.

I don’t believe in coincidences, so when I recently started shooting blood out my ass again thanks to running more, I decided to enter–again–the Cap2K.  No real pressure this time, because I’ve learned enough since my first scare to understand that I’m old and I’m running a lot, and a toilet full of blood is going to happen now and then.  It’s not heroic like some of the scars I carry from other athletic adventures, but I adjust to my new potential.  It’s all inside, anyway, so I can’t really say “wanna see the hemorroid I got running in ’17?”  My body amazes me–what it will do, and won’t, how it responds to my mind, and how truly ephemeral it becomes, day by day.roids-002

Just wanted to make sure no one really thought that was a pic of my hemorroid.

Swag

swag-002This is the haul from my first race in a long time, and (I think) my first trail race ever.  I don’t normally eat energy or protein bars, but they were free, right?  Those yellow things?  There was a giant yellow ball of them on the table, and because whatever it was was free as well, I pulled one out.  Luckily the lady next to me said “oh, they’re shoelaces,” or I would have walked away with just one.  The stainless goblet I won as second place finisher overall, precisely the same prize first place got, so I’m technically better than him because I achieved the same reward for less work.

Still working my way back to becoming a runner again.  Running definitely takes a lot out of me, but like I tell the kids in karate class, if it was easy we wouldn’t need to practice it.  I’m giving myself until the end of March to see how the training goes, with the goal of entering the Grand Circle Trailfest in Utah.

Of course, I don’t run for the swag or a medal, although cash would cut 15 seconds off my pace.  Nonetheless, I was taken aback (I’ve always wanted to say I was “taken aback.”) when I checked out how much my second place prize costs.  The run was organized by REI, and they sell those things for $12.  But the ones they sell have an etched pint mark inside kleenwhile the one they gave me does not swag-002which means they awarded me a reject they were going to send back to the manufacturer.  And a reminder like that, that I run simply because I love to run, is priceless.

Builders of Cairns

GNMPNOV15 046You can be almost lost.

I wanted to thank whoever built this little cairn up in the Mescalero area of Guadalupe Mountains National Park.  It’s not one of the ranger-built ones you find along more heavily traveled parts of the park–too simple, just there, and not part of a series.  But somebody had been on exactly the same windswept, featureless mountaintop I was standing on, not quite lost, but not seeing the trail any more, either.

I haul out to GNMP whenever I really need a time-out and want to get up high.  In Texas, you don’t have many choices, but GNMP is pretty awesome.  Three days up, and the only person I saw was a ranger on his way down near the trailhead.  Before I left, a guy at work asked “but what if something goes wrong?,” which pretty much summed up the whole point of the exercise.

I was thinking of starting a “Brotherhood of Cairn Builders” (if anyone can suggest a more gender-neutral term, I’m all in.  I thought about “Guild,” but that implies an apprenticeship and exams and dues–let’s not forget we’re talking about a well-executed pile of rocks).  All that’s needed to join is an ability to recognize when you are almost lost, but found your way, and to understand that someone else may someday be in precisely your situation, and that you can offer a little bit of help.

Sometimes you need a cairn.  Almost lost, but not quite.

Mene Tekel Parsin

WorldChampAt fifty-seven, I have taken the measure of my life and found it wanting. I have decided to become World Champion.

I’m pretty happy with fifty-seven. More precisely, it could be worse. I’ve got a job, I’m married and have two kids, the mortgage is paid off. At fifty-seven, these are considered lofty goals.  But I want more.

My World Championship is a secret. There’s nothing a fifty-seven year old man likes to hear less than “oh, you’re just having a mid-life crisis,” something my wife has said to me at least once a year since 1997. That is why she does not know I am going to become World Champion. Once her husband becomes World Champion, we’ll see who is having the mid-life crisis.

Do you know the origin of the phrase “the writing on the wall”? It’s a Bible story (Chapter 5 in the Book of Daniel), called Belshazzar‘s Feast. Belshazzar, king of the Chaldeans, hosts a great feast, and drinks from the temple vessels. A hand appears and writes on the wall–“mene tekel parsin.” Belshazzar can’t read the writing, so sends for Daniel. Daniel interprets the writing, explaining that Belshazzar has blasphemed God, and his days have been numbered (mene). He has been measured and found wanting (tekel), and his kingdom will be divided and given to others (parsin). Belshazzar was killed that night, his kingdom was given to the Medes, and look where we are now.

Moral of the story:  never ask someone else to interpret what’s written on your own damn wall.

WorldChamp

Off The Map

GNMP-CDT 2015 070“Don’t either of you guys have a map?”  You may remember this as the beginning of my education in backpacking with experienced outdoorsmen and free spirits Rob Graham and Ed Mahoney during a trip to Colorado’s Front Range last year (see my post “On The Road Day 2” at https://wordpress.com/post/32316380/1028/).  So I was touched to see that Rob had brought along the Ley CDT maps when I met up with him again this year to hike a section of the Continental Divide Trail that passes through New Mexico near Silver City.

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Bullet-riddled trailhead marker on Bear Mountain Rd near Silver City, NM.

I’d brought along my own map.  The National Forest Service’s 1:126720 scale map of the entire Gila National Forest, which opens out to about 4 feet square, and covers the entire forest’s 3.3 million acres.  Rob had suggested we do the trail as a series of leap-frogging day hikes, leaving a car at each day’s trailhead and the other car at the next day’s, avoiding having to carry our tents, sleeping bags, and food.  I’d guessed this was Rob’s plan the moment he brought the trip up months ago, because he’s pretty hardcore and I’d just slow him down, but he’d need two cars for this trip and I guess Ed was too smart to volunteer.  Plus, Rob’s wife probably made him bring along a grown-up.

CDTIt all looks simple on a map.  Just follow the dotted line, and you’ll get from one place to another, so that’s what we planned.  I camped the first night at the Bear Mountain Trailhead, with Rob showing up late at night out in the middle of nowhere like a campfire story axe murderer, hollering “Schools, you out there?”.  We took his car the next morning to the other end, the Little Walnut Rd Trailhead, and started the simple plan of walking back to my car.

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That sign says it’s a six mile hike to that trailhead, but I’d already understood that all measurements in the outdoors are suspicious.  I’d thought about that before Rob arrived, and decided to carry my pack anyway with more water and food than I thought I’d need, enjoy the walk, and see where I ended up.  With Rob, you just can’t know.

Well, we did a fair amount of walking.  One thing that’s always stuck with me from my time as a boat captain is that an average person walking fast travels at about 3 knots (the maximum speed in port), or 3 mph for you landlubbers.  So that six mile walk should have taken a couple of hours, four at the most if you take into account stops and hills and general lollygagging.  Rob and I were already well past that point when we followed the trail to a point where it crossed a dirt road . . . and simply disappeared.

Asking around in town later, we’d learn that there was an “old” CDT, and a “new” CDT, and that “you boys musta been on the old trail.”  I think that means that my car parked at the end point was at the beginning of the old trail, while we had started off at the other end, which was both the old and new trailhead, but that somewhere along the way the two diverged.  All I know for sure is that we walked miles in various directions trying to pick up the trail again.  We had returned to the road to get our bearings, and were just discussing taking off in the wrong direction again, when we flagged down a passing truck and asked them how to get to Bear Mountain Road.  “Well, you’re on Bear Mountain Road,” to which his eyes added but mouth did not utter “dipshits.”

And here is the best part of the whole trip for me, when he asked to see a map and Rob handed him his Ley CDT map, the one that shows the trail and environs, the one that it quickly became obvious did not encompass our present location.  This is where my NFS representation of the entire 3.3 million acre forest came in handy, as the driver opened up its expanse and eventually found us way, way, way down the road from where we wanted to be.  My compassion for Rob did not permit me to look at him and smugly grin, but at that moment I loved my map like my child.

Despite some new blistersGNMP-CDT 2015 098 and black toenails, we made a pretty good couple of days of hiking the Gila.  A minor diversion on a side trail off the Arrastra trailhead that took us unexpectedly into the grounds of a sect of woodworkers, a side trip to visit the Gila Cliff Dwellings and nearby hot springs to soften up some sore muscles, but overall an honest few days of effort.  Coming back south into town on our last full day, Rob suggested we find a Mexican restaurant he’d been recommended, and then find some alcohol.  We didn’t realize it was Sunday until we found the restaurant closed, and so had to settle for food and alcohol in the same spot, the Little Toad Creek Brewhouse (www.littletoadcreekbrewerydistillery.com), a hipster-ish brewhouse (is there another kind?) we’d visited before.

A few pained expressions and back-of-the-room seating is expected when we show up in restaurants after, in my case, a week of not shaving or bathing, but it immediately became clear something weird was going on in this place. We were greeted upon entering, seated amongst other diners, and then quite exaggeratedly ignored.  Other tables within arms reach were served, but no one bothered to even look at us, and suddenly I felt a total peace come over me–in a restaurant, because of bad service.  I had one of those little epiphanies that remind us that we are still truly alive.  Here I was, with no place else I needed to be at a certain time, nothing else on my mind, really no problems at all.  I wasn’t even especially hungry.  My walks and Rob had allowed me to let go of everything, except that moment.  All I wanted to do was sit there and watch how this was going to all play out.

This was not the case for Rob.  I understood gradually that a good locally brewed beer at the end of the day was the soul of Rob’s outdoor experience, just like a good cup of coffee at a pre-dawn campsite is for me.  Normally the most serene person I have ever known, someone I have never seen angry, after 15 minutes or so of waiting Rob’s face tightened up and his eyes narrowed to little reptilian slits.  “Can we get some service?,” which seems like a normal request when you look at it written out like that, but when you see it coming out of the mouth on that face you realize some kind of boundary has been crossed.

We got our beer, and we got our food, and Rob relaxed.  We still had plenty of daylight as we left the brewhouse, and so I wasn’t surprised when Rob suggested we try that first section of trail again, but this time from the other end, just to see where the “old” trail joined the “new” trail, allowing us to leave not feeling we had missed something.  I was game, having no other plans, no place else to be other than right there, for however much time was required.  I couldn’t know then how the hike would turn out, couldn’t know we’d walk quite a distance and never find anything we recognized, well past the last faded CDT trail marker.   I just grabbed my pack, threw in enough water for two, plus a little more if things didn’t go as planned.

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Broken Arrow

With Broken Arrow

With Broken Arrow

broken arrow

This is a picture I took on the morning I came down from the Guadalupe Mountains.  In my hand is Broken Arrow, my last water.  You may know the term “broken arrow” from the Mel Gibson movie “We Were Soldiers.”  Mel and his troops are about to be overrun by the North Vietnamese army, and things are not looking good.  They’ve done their best, all they could, but their training and equipment and bravery have not been enough to get them out of this jam.  So Mel calls out “Broken Arrow!” over his radio, announcing to the world that he can no longer save himself, and American air power swoops in and blows the hell out of the North Vietnamese army.

My Broken Arrow was a bottle of water.  Last time I went to GNMP I let the National Park Service scare me into taking about 500 gallons of water along in my backpack, and things did not go as planned.  This time, fortified with substantial experience and a growing sense of the futility of life if you couldn’t just damn well walk wherever you want when you felt like it, I relied on my own instincts and stripped my supplies down to a minimum.  Very little food (I’m not hungry hiking, anyway), and only enough water to make two cups of coffee every morning–because life is not worth living without two cups of coffee every morning.  Plus my two liter water bladder in the pack.  I was confident that this would be enough, but just in case I created Broken Arrow, my last water if things went really poorly.  I decided that if I had to open Broken Arrow, I had failed and needed to get back down to my car and showers and comfortable beds and just go home and watch TV.

Didn’t need Broken Arrow.  I thought about drinking it on my way down at the end, luxuriating in extra water, but I wasn’t thirsty.  Broken Arrow was the child of an adult life spent always knowing how to get out of a rough spot when things don’t go as planned.  Because things never go as planned.

There’s a lot to be said for planning, for covering the unexpected eventualities, for getting out of a mess.  I have certainly gotten into more than my share of messes in the natural world over the years, and covering those eventualities literally saved me.  It is something to know “I would be dead now if I hadn’t . . . .”  But, you can’t know everything, see it all beforehand, prepare for the truly unexpected.  I’m not sure if you’d really want to .

I saw this thing growing by the trail somewhere up on top.  That stalk growing out of the agave is about nine feet tall.  I have no idea what kind of agave it is, or what’s going to come out of that thing when it finally blooms.  But I think it’s going to be wonderful.GNMP-CDT 2015 006

Time and Distance

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“Everywhere is within walking distance if you have the time.”   Steven Wright

From the top of the Bush Mountain Trail in Guadalupe Mountains National Park, you can still see the trace of the mid-1800’s Butterfield Overland Stage route off to the southwest and just your side of the Gypsum Sand Dunes and Alkali Lake.  Four hundred fifty-eight miles in 126 hours, for just that segment between present day Cook County, Texas and El Paso.

I made the 510 mile trip from Austin in my new Mazda in eight hours.  Eight hours seemed like an incredible undertaking just to find some altitude when I first started these trips, but I enjoyed them and it’s actually quite an easy drive.  First time in the Mazda, so I was pretty amazed to hit my normal first gas stop at Harper with the gas gauge still almost on full.  You even gain an hour crossing into the Mountain Time Zone just before arriving at GNMP, so I still have the best part of a day ahead of me once I arrive.

I felt a lot less awesome about myself when I looked down and saw that stagecoach route and thought “that must have been one really horrible trip.”  As my friend Rob Graham says, “every time you think you’re out doing something badass, somebody else comes along doing something even more badass.”  The people on those stages came through 250 years ago, but somehow out there you feel like it wasn’t so long ago.

A day later, I found this piece of fossilized coral up on top of the Tejas Trail, 8,000 feet above sea level and now about 250 million years away from the ocean it was once under.  We live in an amazing world.  I can stand on a desert mountain trail that was once the Capitan Reef on the Delaware Sea.  From there, I can look down and see the distinct imprint of pioneers passing through two centuries ago in stagecoaches.  Amazing.

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