Mr. Bad Decision

GMNP2018 002

Call me Honey Badger

During the eight hour drive to Guadalupe Mountains National Park I decided that I had had enough of obeying the dictates of time and distance.  “I need to be on the trail by 2 P.M. to make it up to Bush Mountain and set up camp before the sun sets and it gets frickin’ cold and dark.”  Bullshit.  It’s fucking oppressive.  So I just let go of one of those constraints, and it didn’t really matter which.  Just not both at the same time.  Never again.

I struggled with this dilemma as I passed Ozona, Texas, which for reference is the last place to get gas before you make it to Fort Stockton, an hour and a half away.  Or 108 miles, if you’re keeping track of distance, too.

Sixty miles beyond Ozona, immersed in the flow of time, I checked my gas gauge, which cares only for distance.GMNP2018 001 With 48 miles to go across that emptiness to Fort Stockton, all I could quietly say was “I hate to make mistakes.”  West Texas is not a place to make mistakes in your car .GMNP2018 005

There really isn’t any Plan B out there.

“It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation”

Have you ever heard of Bakersfield, TX?  Neither have I.  It is not on the map.  It was not on the road between Ozona and Fort Stockton all the other times I’ve driven out there.  But there it was, right at the exit ramp as I ran out of gas, consisting exclusively of a gas station.  It was not there on my return trip.  Call it Trail Magic.

Later, heading up Tejas Trail, I felt strong.  I flew.  I was so grateful for my body, all it does for me.  I carry a little Tiger Eye stone with me most days for the positive vibes, but I’d left it in my car before heading off because I didn’t want to lose it.  I felt so good–joyous, and overwhelmed with gratitude.  “My Tiger Eye must be going crazy back in my car, this is just so incredibly good!”  At the top of Tejas, after the hard climb, I stuck my hand in my left pocket . . . and my Tiger Eye was there, love made tangible in the palm of my hand.GMNP2018-2 062

Bush Mountain is another couple of hours past the top of Tejas, but by the time I reached it I was asking myself why I needed to go that far the first day, why not stop at Pine Top, and maybe just spend two nights up top instead of three?  That whole section of trail is nothing but unstable limestone and incline, and the 25 pounds of water I carried for three days out was kicking my ass.  I no longer flew, and was not strong.  That evening I collapsed in my tent.

Honey Badger is my trail name.  Rob Graham bestowed it on me somewhere near Greys and Torreys years ago, but at the time and since, I didn’t feel I deserved it.  Real backpackers have trail names, people who thru-hike the PCT and AT.  Rob and I were going up Mt. Taylor in New Mexico a couple of years ago and met some thru-hikers:  “What’s your trail name?,” to which Rob could answer authentically  “A Lo Hawk,” while I just looked off and pretended to not hear the question.  I knew the truth, that I had not committed to Honey Badger.

“I quietly take to the ship.”

I’d decided I needed to get as far as Bush Mountain the first night, because I wanted to make it all the way to McKittrick Ridge by the second night, so that I could come out through The Bowl and Bear Canyon my last day.  Time and distance.  Fucking oppressive.  And it occurred to me that I had decided to make this hike because I had also decided to not do something else, and so this trip needed to damn well be worth whatever I had decided to give up.  It was easy to push myself after that understanding–everything I do needs to be worth what I choose to give up.

New to me, McKittrick Ridge was beautiful.GMNP2018-2 034  The trail had actual soil in it, not just rocks, and there hadn’t been any fires up there for quite some time.  I flew.  I decided that evening to leave my bag of trash in the small foyer area of my tent.  Around 3 a.m. I was awoken by a sound my brain instantly recognized as a small trash bag being pulled out of a tent, and yelled “Bring that back!”  Got out of the sleeping bag and tent in time for a stare-down with the biggest ringtail I’ve ever seen.  “Just walk away, wanna-be raccoon, just walk away.”  Ugly-ass; that’s right, just keep walking.  Fuck with my trash?  I don’t think so.

I let go of time.  The miles are hard in GMNP, scrambling up and down crumbled limestone trails, and then there’s all that water to carry, and a cruel sun.  But the time–the time just is.  For those of you who know me, you might be surprised to learn I have problems with linear time.  I’m pretty good at showing up for appointments and work on time, but it really doesn’t register with me that one thing might precede or follow another.  Time is a great, flowing river; I jump in and out, travel along in my stream, passing by and through other streams of time, each very real and tangible.  I feel immersed in all of it, but my relationship to it is a human construct.  It has caused me a lot of sadness.GMNP2018-2 027

From McKittrick it was a pretty easy shot out to Pine Top for my last night.  Every step became an imperative:  make this moment worth what I chose to give up that brought me here, to this place right now.  I offered myself a few additional miles by looping off the main trail through The Bowl, hotter and drier than I’d expected.  “Why did I decide to do this?,” but I knew that answer.  That evening, situating my tent, laughing after two brief loses of consciousness followed by partial blindness, I rewarded myself with 16 ounces of water and an early dinner.  It had been a day worth living.

That last morning out I was up very early.  The trail down from Pine Top is practicable in the dark, and walking down a desert mountainside under the stars fills me with a deep sense of peace and contentment.  About half way down, my headlamp caught a radiating glow on the trail, the eye of a nighthawk sitting quietly as I passed, invisible save for that eye.  When she realized she was not, in fact, invisible, the silence of her taking flight was remarkable–no beating of wings or rustling of brush, only a silent transition from stillness to flight.  Further down, I passed through a trail section of quartz, and a thousand twinkling flecks reflected back my light underneath a thousand-starred night sky.

I reached the trailhead and my car right at sunrise, where everything was luminous, if not yet clear.GMNP2018-2 065

Like Ishmael, clinging to Queequeg’s coffin.  Call me Honey Badger.

 

 

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Life In A Desert

“I like to take things one step at a time, one foot in front of the other.  I like to think things will all work out fine, and follow along behind.”

Mesa de Anguila 086I’d never hiked Big Bend’s Mesa de Anguila, and there is not much useful information available to prepare you for what is in store:  “offers an opportunity for solitude in an area with exceptional views.  The trails may not be obvious as animal trails diverge from the main trail, and sections of trail may be overgrown with grass and shrubs. The trek is recommended for experienced desert backpackers only.”  That’s about it.

Seven hour drive to park headquarters for the permit, another hour further to the trailhead at Lajitas.  There’s really nothing in Lajitas, but I still managed to not find the road the trailhead was supposed to be at the end of.  Stopped and asked directions at the town store, and the first person I asked said “I’ve only been here since September 19, maybe you should ask Natalie.”  It was mid-January, and although I wanted to learn more about how you could not know where everything was in Lajitas in that space of time, I was in a hurry and got directions from Natalie.

Loaded up and hit the unknown trail at 3 pm.  Hiking in, I met a really healthy looking couple on their way out from a day hike.  As is often the case in our National Parks, they were not from the U.S., in this case Namibia.  “This is our favorite hike here; we really love the views.”  I asked how long they’d been here, and they replied “since December 1st.”  Again, an exact date for how long since they’d arrived in Lajitas.  There’s something going on in that town.

Up to the top of “The Saddle,” which is an obvious landmark rising before you as you leave the trailhead.  That’s the steepest part of the Mesa de Anguila hike, and it’s not bad at all.  When you get to the top, before you head off toward where the sun will come up tomorrow morning on the mesa, don’t miss the little trail turning off to the right.  There’s a beautiful view that takes in the bends of the Rio Grande and countless unnamed mesas down Mexico way.  You won’t have any company.Mesa de Anguila 094

“And some things they just happen, and some things you can plan.  And some of those things you just can’t help, but some of them you can.”

This is the quietest place I’ve ever hiked.  No chirping birds, no planes passing far overhead, no trees to russle leaves in the wind.  Only your thoughts, which can be quite loud at times.  Just before leaving on this trip I’d learned that a friend from years ago had died.  On the day of her funeral, Alice’s sister had said “she just wanted to move on,” and I wondered what had made Alice want to hurry the pace and shorten the trip.

From the top of the mesa I knew of only one trail, and my plan was to walk it as far as I

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Map I got at the permit check-in. I added little x’s before and after La Mariposa indicating the best camping spots I saw. Note particularly that the trail down to Santa Elena Canyon passes east of La Mariposa; there is another unmarked trail at that intersection that passes west.

could before I ran out of sunlight.  I had the whole next day to get a feel for the terrain and figure out how far I could go and make it back to my car after a second night out. Generally speaking, on most multi-day backpacking trips I try and walk as far as possible each day, but I have to make sure that where each day ends there is a decent place to pitch a tent.  It’s no good to walk as far as daylight permits and then find yourself half-way up a mountainside trail, which is what I did that evening.

Mesa de Anguila 021

Where I found myself at sunset.

I suppose I could stay in one place and see and hear and smell all things new to me, but I have to walk.   There is so much to know, and I’m afraid I might miss something if I don’t keep moving.  And so I wondered that first night what had stopped Alice so short?  She still had a lot of ground to cover.

I backtracked a bit to find a flat spot for my tent, but got settled in as the light disappeared and the temperature plummeted.  My bag is rated to 20 degrees, and I was definitely cold.  Freezing in my bag and tired from the long drive, I was late hitting the trail the next morning, but made it to the north bank of the Rio Grande right at the entrance to Santa Elena Canyon by noon-ish. Mesa de Anguila 054

The canyon is beautiful, but you can’t really get into it without a boat, and once in you are not coming back.  Check out my visit across the Rio Grande at the Park’s other end along the Marufo Vega Trail (https://wordpress.com/post/georgeschools.wordpress.com/1501).  I dawdled at the river for a light lunch, soaked my feet in the cold, silty water, spritzed a bit, and turned north to head back out.  That’s another part of pacing yourself, remembering that whatever you go down, you eventually have to go back up.

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What I had to go back up.

Once back up on the mesa, I knew where I was going to camp my final night:  the last decent spot I’d seen on my way in, about two hours from the trailhead.  Excited to get back on the road and head back home, I planned to wake a half-hour or so before first light, break camp, and be on the trail as soon as there was enough light to see.  But now in tune with the desert vibe, I was up and about around 4:30 am, and everything you’ve ever heard about the night sky out in the desert is true.  Watched the stars a bit, saw a shooting star, and then had to look down because my brain was freaking as it gradually began to understand the depth of field I was looking at.  There really are more stars in the sky than you can count, or even comprehend.  It hurts your brain once you understand how tiny, tiny you are.

On the trail as soon as I could see it.  I hadn’t realized that up on a mesa, the sun would clear the horizon down below well before it made it above the mesa.  I had a good hour of light before I ever saw the sun.  Walking, pacing myself just right, moving along, I suddenly had to stop.  It was so beautiful, that light.  Like everything was new, and life was just beginning.Mesa de Anguila 065

“Some things they just happen, and some things you can plan.  And some of those things you just can’t help, but some of them you can.  Oh, some of them you can.  As a matter of fact, those things are driving me crazy.”

Why give up looking at those stars and that morning desert before you had to?  It is a strange feeling, to know someone intimately yet not understand what would cause them to hurry things along.  Alice was a professional musician, from a family of professional musicians.  She was alive to all those notes and melodies, so far beyond what I could hope to understand.  I suspect the brief time we spent together was irrelevant to the great arc of her life, but the arc was there, full of infinite possibilities, nonetheless.  Just imagining what she might have discovered, had she allowed herself more time, is awe inspiring.  Like a map full of blank spaces instead of trails, or a night sky full of stars.

Big Bend is beautiful.  In a certain frame of mind, though, you look at it and think “but what does it all mean?”  This is a mountain, that is a sunset, those are all the stars in the sky–but that is all they are.  They don’t, by themselves, mean anything.  And what does it mean that I am here, in this place?  These mountains, this sky, are totally indifferent to my existence.  They just are.  As am I, or Alice.  We have to give ourselves meaning.  And then it can be quite beautiful.

“There are things that come too soon, and some things that come too late.  It’s the best thing to come too early so you have some time to wait.  Oh, have some time to wait.”

 

 

“Things”

I like to take things one step at a time
One foot in front of the other
I like to think things will all work out fine
And follow along behind those
One act play-things can give you a thrill
Guess it depends on the actor
Dreams can come true, but some things never will
As a matter of fact, those things are driving me crazy
Those things are keeping me sane
I like to take things and make a design
Keep a low profile. Oh and
I like to take things and put them to rhyme
Like those things that are confusing
And the things that seem so clear
And the things that seem so far away
And yet they seem so near
There are some things I have lost
And a few things I have found
Well it’s so hard to keep track of things
There’s so many around
There’s so many around
And there’s things we have to look for
And a few we never find
And we all have things in common
You got your thing, I’ve got mine
And some things they just happen
And some things you can plan
And some of those things you just can’t help
But some of them you can
Oh, some of them you can.  As a matter of fact, those things
Are driving me crazy
Those things are keeping me sane
Some things turn out all wrong
And some things turn out all right
Some things don’t turn out at all
But then again they might
There are things that come too soon
And some things that come too late
It’s the best thing to come too early
So you have some time to wait
Oh, have some time to wait
Well it’s hard to talk with words
There’s some things you just can’t say
And it’s best to leave some things alone
In case they go away
You can share some things with friends
There’s some things we’ve all been thru’
Well it’s things like this and things like that
And how are things with you?
Oh, how do you do?
You can hang things on your wall
You can leave your things around
You can mark some things 2001, and put them in the ground
And maybe later on, they will dig them up some day
And ooh and ahh, and ‘how ’bout that?’
Who knows the things they’ll say.

Joe Walsh

 

 

 

 

 

Is/Is Not

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It’s a simple sign, and all I had to do on my last hike in Colorado.  “Go right!”

It’s hard to mess up something so simple.  It’s not like there are twenty different trails up there, just the CDT and the CT.   My friend Rob shuttled me to the Cunningham Gulch trailhead after leaving my car at my Little Molas Lake endpoint, then hiked with me as far as the section of the Colorado Trail that follows the Continental Divide Trail.  I’d planned on three days out, he thought it could be done it two, and all I had to do was hike to this sign and turn right.  I didn’t even take a map because . . . well, there aren’t twenty trails up there.  Turn right, hike down the Elk Creek drainage, up over 10,899 ft Molas Pass, and find your car.

Isaiah 41:10
“Do not fear, for I am with you. I will strengthen you, surely I will help you, surely I will uphold you with My righteous right hand.”

I did not hike down off the CDT along the CT Elk Creek Trail, and I did not climb over Molas Pass to my car at the Little Molas Lake trailhead.  This trip was not that, but I know exactly what this trip was, because I know exactly what it was not.

I remember clearly now, looking back and seeing the trail I was supposed to be on, zigzagging down from the Divide, but it didn’t register at the time.  I’d camped the night before at Hunchback Pass, WheelerHumboltCO 071but of course I didn’t know that because I didn’t have a map.  I was just up high, at a pass.  I found an old mine way up there, which you can see clearly on the map, but you need a map to see things clearly on a map.WheelerHumboltCO 073  I was pretty excited,  because I was hauling ass, moving fast, doing something extraordinary.  Way up high.  From my little tent, next to the abandoned mine, I heard dozens of unseen foxes howling their hunger right at sunset.  And the next morning, right at sunrise, every little pika and marmot within earshot sat there chirping, grateful to see another day.  Extraordinary.

Somehow, after I’d turned right that morning, I found a trail and followed it down the drainage.  As the trail descended, it became less and less a trail, more a game path, but I’d occasionally spot a cairn and say “this must be it.”  Eventually I had to admit that this little shit of a trace couldn’t be the CT–I might have been able to fight my way down it, but no way could anyone make their way up.  So down I went, scrambling my way to an alpine lake I could have dove down through and stayed forever. WheelerHumboltCO 081

When I realized I was not where I thought I was, I was angry with myself but not worried.  I had shelter, water, and food enough.  I felt strong, I was not afraid, and I’ve learned to take care of myself because no one will ever uphold me with their righteous right hand.  My only concern was that the Weminuche is very big, and whatever trail I was on could be taking me even deeper into it.   But I figured that if I followed the drainage I was on far enough, I’d end up at the Animas River (this assumption turned out to be incorrect), and from there find my way back.  I was also worried that after four days out, Rob would alert Search and Rescue and I’d get served a $60,000 bill for the operation even though I didn’t feel I needed to be rescued (this assumption also turned out to be false, as Rob was blissfully unconcerned with my welfare once he’d left me at the CDT).

I eventually stumbled upon a real trail, and I could see someone had been down it recently on horseback.  Following it for several miles, I came to a post that read “Valecito Creek” on one side, and “Johnson Creek” on the other, neither of which were part of my knowledge of where I was supposed to be.  “We’ll, you’re fucked now” was all I could say, so I walked.

Genesis 11:4

“And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”  That’s the story of the Tower of Babel.  I’d always thought the story of Babel was about Man attempting to raise himself to God’s level, but after reading the actual Bible I realize they were just trying to do something memorable.  They could have done nothing, and just lived out their lives down where they were, but they wanted to make themselves a name, a life worth remembering.  But “the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they ceased building the city.”  Trying to live a life worth remembering is often met with frustration, and although they didn’t complete their tower, the attempt endures.  It’s in the Bible.

My problem now was the opposite: I did not want to be remembered as the idiot who got lost in the Weminuche.  Luckily, the next day, hiking further down the same trail, I met an old-timer camped in a grove, who told me he knew exactly the pass I was looking for, and all I needed to do was go back the way I came and take that Johnson Creek trail up over the pass.  “I ain’t never been up over the pass myself, but it’ll take you where you’re going.  Plus, there’s a river you’d have to wade down this here trail, and it’s a big river.”

So back I went, angry but hopeful, and found the Johnson Creek Trail.  It made sense to me now, that I’d have to go up a drainage instead of down to get to where I needed to go, and up I went.  And up.  When I thought I was high enough that I should see a pass any minute now, up further went the trail.  There was a brief moment of desperation as I rounded a bend and saw the top, and saw the trail continue on down my side of the crest without finding a pass, but a bit further along, there was the pass.  Looking at those last switchbacks, I thought “I can do that” and reached down deep.  And then the freezing rain started.  And then the sleet.  Pausing to put on my rain gear, I had time to laugh at God’s righteous right hand.  And then it began to hail.

As I got nearer to cresting the pass, I told myself “don’t be upset if you get to the top and don’t see what you expect to see,” meaning the Animas or a highway or some sign that I was not just getting deeper into the Weminuche, but when I came over the top and saw even deeper canyons and darker forests, all I could say, again, was “now you’re really fucked.”  I thought I should take a picture, but told myself “this is really not pretty.”Colorado June 2016 105

But I couldn’t go back down the way I came, so over the pass and down the other side I went.  Incredibly, after a mile or so I came across a tuft of mountain goat hair on a bush.  There is only one place I know of in the world with mountain goat hair littering the ground, and it is the place I hiked last year in Colorado.  “Fucking mountain goats” was all I could say.  A little further down, I recognized another abandoned mine–which is a pretty cool thing to be able to say, now that I think about it–and knew exactly where I was, and also where I was not.Colorado June 2016 050

I had come over the backside of 13,094 ft. Columbine Pass, about 20 miles from where I’d planned to be.  The year before, I’d crested the Chicago Basin side of Columbine, and looking down the other side said “that looks really hard.”Colorado June 2016 069It was.

Once I knew where I was, and also now where I was not, a veil was lifted.  I could situate myself on the face of the Earth–and my entire life, all 58 years of it, felt suddenly re-centered as well.  All that was left was to haul ass three hours down to the Needleton whistle-stop and catch the train to Silverton, and then hitchhike back to my car.

I did not hike down off the CDT along the CT Elk Creek Trail, and I did not climb over Molas Pass to my car at the Little Molas Lake trailhead.  Instead, I walked hard down, up, and over a lot of other ground, for the pure pleasure of being subsumed by the mountains.  I did not know where I was, but I knew where I was not, and now that makes all the difference.

I can’t stop thinking about this, how a thing or an idea can be defined both by what it is, and by what it is not.  0906171146a

These are each the exact same thing, but one is the thing and the other is what it is not.

 

 

 

 

A Bunch of Names

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Dear Charles,

I hesitated to send you this, but you’ve written about your experiences in Vietnam, and talked specifically about Dwight Laws (KIA 10/30/66), Lurch Donohue (KIA 03/01/67), and Jerry Georges (KIA 03/23/67) in your blog (http://ckjournal.com/category/travel/asia/vietnam).  I’ve read these posts uncounted times, and I probably will continue to until I die.  Everybody should.  Still, they are your memories, and that is your life, and I didn’t want to overstep the bounds.

I just returned from a family vacation to Washington, DC.  You know my family, and you know me pretty well, I think, so you know that means that when we’d seen all the sights their patience could contain, I went off on my own.  I didn’t know if you’d ever been to DC and the Vietnam Memorial, or if that was something that even interested you.  In fact, I wondered if perhaps that was something you had decided you did not want to do.  So here’s the part where I tell you to just delete all this right now, and tell me to erase it all from my hard drive if you want.  I’m totally ok with that.  They are your memories, and that is your life.

So from this point on, here’s what happened:  I knew I wanted to visit the Wall.  I knew I wanted to find the names of Dwight Laws, Lurch Donohue, and Jerry Georges and send them to you.  And I knew I needed to be there alone, even though I never knew them, the war was over two years before I graduated high school, and they were just names to me.  Three names among 58,307 names of dead Americans.  But I was thinking I could find the names of these people who are very real to you, and you are very real and alive to me, and that would help me understand what I was looking at.

Like my own Greek chorus, as I’m scanning panel 11E130 for Dwight’s name, a family passes by and a kid says “it’s just a bunch of names!”  There’s a Vietnam vet volunteer there explaining the war and the wall and the names to people, and he says loudly enough for me to hear a couple of times “just ask if you need any help,” but I didn’t want any help.  Eventually I figured out how to find Dwight’s name, and here it is:  0821171747  After that, it was pretty easy to find Lurch’s name (which was actually Francis, so now we know why your friend went by “Lurch”),0821171748and finally Jerry Georges 0821171749a.

As I’m looking at all these names, and trying very hard to think about Dwight, and Lurch, and Jerry, I still wasn’t making the connection I’d hoped.  It was still just a bunch of names:  fifty-eight thousand, three hundred and seven names of dead Americans.  And then it occurred to me that your name was not on that wall.  There was no Charles Kemp.  It could have been, probably should have been, but it wasn’t there.  And I knew you, very real and alive to me, and Dwight, Lurch, and Jerry were not.

Charles Kemp, father to David, husband and companion, neighbor, citizen.  Very real.  Thank you for making the Wall so real to me by being alive.

0821171755

 

“Leave No Trace” Camping–A Ghost Story

Santa FeBandelier 052I don’t know why I took a selfie in the Bandelier National Monument backcountry.  Any trip into backcountry relies heavily on the principles of “Leave No Trace” camping, which simply means that there should be absolutely no trace that you ever passed through.  That extends as far as hiking out your own used toilet paper, although you can still dig a hole to leave your poop. I guess a selfie just proves you were there, sort of like a digital Iliad, Homer’s Greeks wanting to be remembered for sacking Troy.

Although you shouldn’t leave a trace of your own passing at Bandelier National Monument, the people who lived there before left proof of their existence everywhere.  Ancestral Pueblans (I learned that “anastazi” is now considered derogatory) were intimately tied to this place.  They lived profoundly attached to the land and all that moved through it, and carved their homes into the flesh of Frijoles Canyon. SantaFe&Taos 025

I had already visited the cliff dwellings of Frijoles the year before, and this year I wanted more than anything to just get away.  I wanted to lose myself in the land, and so hiked into the Bandelier backcountry alone.

To get to the backcountry, there is a bit of hiking up out of Frijoles, and then a lot more hiking down and back up and down again through first Lummis Canyon and then Alamo Canyon.  Past Alamo, I headed for what was marked on the map as the Yapashi ruins, which turned out to be an unimpressive and unexcavated Pueblan dwelling, but then further on a small kiva, which turned out to be a still-active holy site know as “Stone Lions.” Santa FeBandelier 039Not so innocently rummaging around, I came across a small painted pottery shard.  You’ll come across a lot of pottery shards in parts of New Mexico; they could have lain there 300 years, or closer to 1000.  You’re not supposed to disturb relics, particularly in National Monuments, but this piece I held on to as I sat beneath the shade of a small tree and thought about the very real people who built this kiva and broke this pot–who left a trace.

Sitting there, alone on the ground, holding this piece of someone’s pottery and thinking about these people, I suddenly heard the very loud buzz of a hummingbird right behind my head.  It was gone as soon as it had arrived, leaving me only to think “wow, that was weird.”  I hadn’t seen any hummingbirds up until then, and put the shard back where I’d found it.

I still had a few hours of daylight left to hike, so headed on down the trail.  By the time I reached the juncture of Stone Lions and Capulin Trails, it was getting late and time to find a flat spot for my tent.  I came across a beautiful sort of valley, and the wonderful thing about sleeping in this place where people had lived for thousands of years was how totally alone I felt.Santa FeBandelier 043

With the tent set and dinner consumed, I had a few minutes of light left to walk around my campsite, and discovered that I had inadvertently installed my tent within 20 feet of an unexcavated Pueblan dwelling.Santa FeBandelier 045If you didn’t know where you were, you’d just think it was an overgrown pile of rocks, but within a couple of minutes of more not-so-innocent rummaging around I had come across more painted pottery shards.  You’re not supposed to camp within 50 feet of ancestral relics, but it was late and the chances of a Ranger coming by were pretty close to zero, so I left the tent where it was and went solidly to sleep, twenty feet from the lodge of people dead for hundreds of years.

I slept stunningly well this trip.  But this night, I awoke around 2:30 a.m. when a bright white light passed my tent on the side away from the ruins, accompanied by shuffling footsteps.  If you’ve ever slept in a tent on a cold night, snug in your sleeping bag, then you know the not quite awake/not quite asleep state that you can drift in and out of, and I’m pretty sure that’s where I was.  I thought it was probably a Ranger passing by, because I felt guilty about breaking the rules.  And then no sooner had I thought “no Ranger is going to be out checking my campsite at 2:30 in the morning, way out here” when I realized I could clearly see a large group of people gathered in front of my tent, despite the closed fly.

Not able or wanting to move, I tried to decide if I was truly awake or not.  I was aware that I was not afraid, but this inexplicable group was so real, the ground, my tent, the grass, all of it exactly as I knew it to be before the sun went down.

In the middle of this thought, a hand and forearm came through my tent from the side toward the lodge.  I was laying on my right side, back to that side of the tent, solidly grounded with the earth, and the hand and arm reached directly across my hip to the ground on the other side.  The hand and arm were totally black, but, again, I was aware that I wasn’t afraid.

When I rolled slightly to the left and lifted my head to look at the arm, I could again see another large group of people on that side of the tent, between me and the ruins.  “This is really weird,” I thought.  Now, I was definitely and totally awake.Santa FeBandelier 061

I don’t know why I was visited that night.  I’m not a particularly superstitious person, and not very emotional.  But “Leave No Trace” camping speaks to me deeply, the acknowledgement that we can efface ourselves amid so much perfection, that we can be so small and insignificant yet so joined to something immensely greater than ourselves.  The traces of ancestral Pueblans are everywhere here, their passage through time and the land literally carved into stone.  My selfie won’t ever matter to anyone, but I’m thinking that some day, someone may wake in the middle of the night and see me outside their tent.

 

 

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

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