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.




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.

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  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 (, 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.

GNMP-CDT 2015 105

Product Review: Rubber Bitch

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I own a really nice tent, so we’re not going to talk about how I ended up without a tent in Big Bend this week.  This rainy, cold week.  With gale force winds.  All night long.

But I’d love to talk about how happy I was to improvise my little shelter-half out of a poncho–happy, not because it kept me dry (it did, sort of), but because of the flood of memories it brought back.

Somewhere back in 1978-79, I was stationed on Okinawa in a Marine infantry company, and sort of the point in being in the infantry is that you’re going to spend a lot of time sleeping on the ground.  I realized early that as much as I enjoyed playing in the dirt, I really liked going home and getting clean at the end of the day, which is not how things worked out most of the time.

dll758This is a picture of Flores.  I lived in that little tent with Flores for a solid month, and I never knew his first name.  He was Corporal Flores to me.  Flores had served with the Army in Vietnam, fought in the A Shau Valley, and why he got out and then enlisted in the Corps, he never said.  Found something he needed, I suppose; being that old and experienced and still a Corporal probably explains a lot.  He was a really good man.  Anyway, that tent is composed of two joined “shelter-halves.”  Each Marine carried his own shelter-half, which he could stretch out like a tarp, or join to another Marine’s half and make a tent.  This photo was taken during the month we spent up in the Northern Training Area, and at that point I was the company radioman, which kept me separated from the rifle platoons.  Flores–I don’t even remember why Flores was up there, because he was a supply guy, but I do remember that he was the guy burning the shit.  If you’ve never smelled shit burning in diesel, you’ve really missed out on an experience.  Even on Okinawa, they grabbed the Mexican to burn the shit.


Improvise–Adapt–Overcome.  There’s so much of the Corps that you will never get out of your system.  Improvising that little lean-to out of my 99 cent poncho made me feel like I was getting ready for a slumber party that I knew was going to turn bad–there was no way that was going to keep me dry, but I wasn’t willing to admit I was screwed.  But once I managed to weigh down the bottom with enough rocks to withstand the wind, and wrapped my feet sticking out the end in a trash bag, it did ok.  I woke up the first morning, sure I was somehow buried under storm rubble when I opened my eyes to a greenish darkness and felt only something cold and wet.  Turned out I was just shoved right up under the bottom edge, which was a relief until I scooted out a bit and hit the poncho’s hood hanging down, which had filled with water during the night and instantly emptied on my once-dry crotch.

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You’ll notice another piece of equipment, my Big Agnes mattress.  I already own a Therma-Rest “Self-Inflating” mattress, but I wasn’t particularly happy with it–wait, that’s not honest:  I HATE THERMA-REST.  “Self-Inflating” means it inflates itself, but even after blowing my lungs out into it, it still feels like sleeping on layered cardboard.  I hesitated to buy the Big Agnes, because it looks so much like another piece of Marine Infantry gear, the Rubber Bitch.  Somehow, Flores and I each had our Rubber Bitches in that little tent, and the rubber smell of that thing lingers almost as thoroughly as diesel-burned shit.

The Big Agnes is a awesome.  Very comfortable, and–best of all–it packs amazingly small, about half the size of the Therma-damn-Rest.BigBendNatandKevin 003

Well, there’s lots of other things I could review about this trip, which is probably my last to Big Bend for a while even though I discovered a whole new aspect to the Park which will definitely make it worth visiting again, but I’ll save that for later.  Happy Trails.

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No matter how fast I run
I can never seem to get away from me

Teddy Roosevelt, when asked about his approach to the outdoors, said “when I go, I go hard and I go alone.”  “That’s me!” I said when I read that, and then recalled that I was not alone on my last outdoors trip, that it totally kicked my assDSCN0145, and that it barely winded my two trail companions, Rob Graham and Ed Mahoney.  Hard is relative.  You’d think “alone” would be an absolute; not really, it turns out.

I was going to head west to Guadalupe Mountains again, but, you know–shit happens.  The point was sort of to “get away from it all,” but, not being able to go, I accepted that I’d just be taking “it all” with me anyway, so why not save myself all that driving and deal with that shit right here.

The older I get, the easier I find it to deal with things by ignoring them, and that usually means I metaphorically kill myself exercising.  It’s a beautiful, spring-like day here in Austin, and after a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation of how far I could go between people who absolutely needed me around in the morning and people who absolutely needed me around in the evening, it turned out I just had enough time to run the Wolf Mountain Trail out at Pedernales Falls SP.  “Hard and alone!”  Awesome, totally badass, except for the little girl and her overweight dad I crossed pretty far out on the trail, just out for a daddy and daughter hike.  From where I met them, I figured their total walk was a good ten miles, and that just offended my sense of hard-and-alone superiority.  Ok, well, I swam 2,500 yards at the pool on my way out to Pedernales, because doing just one of those things wasn’t badass enough, and I better not find out that guy and his little girl were riding bikes back to town.

I don’t really believe I can run away from problems.  A lot of problems are just things happening that keep you from being who you are, and the struggle to remember who you are and act accordingly is what happiness is all about.

Until recently I thought the thing I always liked most about diving (I’ve logged over 10,000 hours of some pretty awesome dives) fra154was that it humbled me.  I was always profoundly grateful just to be able to breath underwater thanks to technology, and to see such incredible things thanks to skill, experience, and luck.  And every time I witnessed these incredible, often life-changing things underwater, I was fully aware of how pathetically un-adapted I was to be in that place, where what I was watching was so beautifully, perfectly suited.  For lack of a better word, I felt “liberated”–everything that counted for who I was above water mattered not at all in that place.  “To be dissolved into something complete and great,” as Willa Cather wrote.  No longer having an ocean to work in, I understand better now what I felt underwater.  The natural world is whole and sufficient unto itself; it doesn’t need me or want me.  It is indifferent to my existence.  All I had down there was pure me.

Here’s a story I don’t tell many people:  the happiest day of my adult life occurred a few years ago.  I woke up in the middle of the night, and had no idea who I was.  Everybody at least once in their life might wake up and not know where they are, but I did not know who I was, which family members in the medical industry tell me is something to get looked at.  Anyway, I lay there motionless in bed, trying to figure out if–wherever I was–I was safe.  The room looked nice, the bed was comfortable, there was a female sleeping next to me with a slim waist and wide hips.  Things looked pretty good.  And during those moments of laying there, having no past, no expected future, no history to define my existence, I was completely at peace.  I was truly happy, alone, with just me.