It is pouring rain now. We barely got back from a shortened walk before the rain, lightning and thunder picked up. The lightning seemed to flash from one side of the canyon and the thunder to rumble from the other.
In fact it has rained much of the last 4 hours, starting right after we secured a new tarp over the camper. We don't want water pouring in as it did a year ago.
But that was Colorado and this is New Mexico. We are in Bear Trap Campground (CG), under the tallest trees next to a metal picnic table, maybe 15 miles from pavement in the north end of the San Mateo Mountains, downhill from Mount Withington.
Earlier it was a female rain, gentle, steady, nurturing, not a bit of thunder or lightning. Now it is trans-gender, sometimes raging male but at the moment steady. The noise on the roof was so loud I had to stop reading to Merri from my journal of 2 years ago, when we went around the southern tip of this mountain range and up the west side for the first time. With luck, we'll meet our turning point from the north west this time [later: in fact, that didn't happen].
We came south knowing it would probably rain but figuring a wet day in NM is drier than a wet day in Colorado.
We hit our first storm passing through Magdalena (named after an old tune by Frank Zappa). That storm let up before we turned off the pavement. All along the dirt road myriad wildflowers stretch away in all directions, the best mix I've seen in ages: purple fluffy bee balm above several different kinds of yellow plus a deep purple desert four o'clock. We walked along a two-track to a stock tank and older wooden trough, wildflowers wild, gray and white clouds crumpled over the hills, the blackest spot just above our destination.
"Is that a small antelope," Mer asked. Nope, it was a jackrabbit so big he had to fold his ears back to fit under the bottom barb-less wire of the otherwise-barbed wire fence.
A little farther up the road, wildflowers and rangeland rose to become piñon and juniper (p-j), then ponderosa pines.
As the road rises from the forest boundary, it is narrower and rougher than I remember (we got stuck in the snow here our first time a few years ago). The road clings to the edge of the canyon. At the last moment, it forks, 4 miles uphill to the lookout or 1 mile downhill to the CG, as we came. We normally prefer what the forest service calls "dispersed camping" and we call "jack-camping": outside of CGs. But this is a nice CG, all the nicer without neighbors.
Tomorrow we may detour back up to Mount Withington, though we are headed southwest to Dusty, probably more than 20 miles.
Propane pan-fried burgers for dinner. 63°F at 9pm. It is still raining.
It stopped raining by 9:30pm. Mer got up around 3:30pm to pee; she said the sky was clear and the stars beautiful. Perhaps this is where we'll come for my 50th, my Mark-stock.
Around 7:25am, the dog got up. I also got up and we walked down the road a little farther than last night. No wildlife, though I heard quail or some such earlier. Lots of beautiful trees including a few large oaks mixed in with mostly ponderosas. Saw identical twin ponderosas, conjoined trunks separating, branching in perfect reflection. I thought about the notion of 'walking in beauty' (Navajo), of being surrounded, immersed, steeped in beauty, breathing beauty in and out.
It is unbelievably still and quiet – our ears ring from the silence. Is beauty quiet or only clearest in the quiet?
It has been a long day. Mer has been in bed 50 minutes; it is not yet 9pm.
We left Bear Trap and drove 5 miles up the hill to the Mount Withington fire lookout. There were people on the tower we waved to but otherwise ignored. We walked among the wildflowers and rutting ladybugs. A car drove up with a dog standing on the hood, leashed in place on a piece of carpet or blanket.
On the way back down the hill, we stopped where the wilderness boundary was barely a dozen steps off the road. Bagged Withington Wilderness there, though I agree with Mer it felt like cheating.
Stopped again soon after to hike downhill, figuring we'd earn our wilderness that way. Ironically, we never saw a sign or boundary. We walked too long downhill. As we turned back, we heard yelling. It was a hard trudge uphill.
Two vehicles flanked our truck. More dogs. Turns out these are bear hunters (season started Monday). I was appalled and nauseated. These people derive pleasure from terrifying, then destroying innocent creatures that live in the beautiful place. This isn't sport or necessity – it's monstrous.
Mer had many questions so when we passed the bear hunters a mile or so later, she asked. The young guy in the sexy wrap-around sunglasses assured her one can eat bear meat, though it's not the best meat. We have no reason to worry about the hunters in the woods – they have to tree the bear first. Great. Can't that be it – tree them, leave them, everybody wins? If you're going to kill an exhausted and trapped bear, climb up that tree and kill him with your own two damn hands.
Next week bow season for deer begins. A sportsman's bloody paradise.
We left them to their evil carnage, preferring to admire the wildflowers and trees. If we saw a bear, we would be amazed, probably a little frightened, certainly grateful, not blood-thirsty.
A long time later, we were on a stretch of road new to us. We stopped for cheese and crackers as two storms slowly collided nearby.
A vehicle drove up. Not bear hunters – wolf hunters, er, biologists. We happen to know a couple of wolf biologists, so it wasn't much of a surprise that they all know each other; still, this is a typical example of just how small New Mexico is – one degree of separation, as Mer says.
Dan and Luis work for Fish and Wildlife and are tracking and hoping to trap a male wolf that has traveled from the original Blue Wilderness release area on the border with Arizona; they recently caught a female who may have been his mate. Dan says wolves can range 250 miles. These deep, rough, wild canyons must make great wolf habitat. They stopped to warn us about buried traps in a couple of canyons and the risk to the dog. Removing this wolf is an onerous mission. The day before they were helping release several in the Gila (in sight of this spot, not far away at all as the wolf runs).
Soon after the wolf hunters, we saw a small herd of huge antler-less elk. Run, run, the hunters are coming. I imagine how great this place would be with wolves running free and safe. Eco-tourists would come; it could be New Mexico's answer to Yellowstone's wolves.
We took a brief detour down into one of the Pigeon Canyons (Big or Little, I don't know).
Eventually, we hit State Road 52 (NOT Forrest Road 52! the road from hell on the other side of the mountains) and turn south. Passed through the town of Dusty, which is neither. Turned up West Red Canyon, 15 miles long. At the end of the road, we are near a stock tank and corral. Narrow leaf cottonwoods have joined the mix of trees. We put our tarp on the roof and popped up. Walked a bit, read a bit, rained a lot, walked some more. Bed time.
Flank steak with corn for dinner. 62° at 9:24pm.
Although the folks at UNMCE may not forgive me, this beats the hell out of any meeting, no matter the door prizes or scintillating speakers.
We are less than 2 miles from last night's spot. We definitely hiked much more than we drove today – 8 miles or so.
Mer drove from the end of the road to this unmarked turnoff to Water Canyon. We started half a dozen wild turnkeys which trotted up the hillside. Their color and patterns hide them perfectly but their motion betrays them.
We were planning on the Coffee Pot Trail another mile down West Red Canyon, but this one beckoned to us. We drove in about .6 mile along a flat narrow canyon. The truck slid once in a muddy spot. The small streambed is dry but the grass, wildflowers and trees are lush below dry rocky hillsides of p-j.
The road ends at a gate and the trailhead for #43, the Apache Kid Trail, the opposite end of which is near Springtime CG. Everything here is connected as throughout the Universe. We noted 3 miles to the intersection with trail #28, perhaps 2 miles to the wilderness boundary. That would be the Apache Kid Wilderness, not the Withington Wilderness. The San Mateo range has two wildernesses that should have been one big one but for the interference of "a politically powerful rancher" (my guess is the late Congressman Joe Skeen or a friend of his).
It was a very easy hike. There is a slight climb and the trail wanders and crosses the small dry stream repeatedly. The first mile or more follows an old 2 track. There are plenty of blazes though you can't wander far off track in a narrow canyon. Tiny birds teased Mer.
We came to a large fenced-in area which was Pothole Spring. Lucky Dog drank but no amount of treatment would make any water in this canyon fit for humans. Cow pies are everywhere (many pushing up numerous mushrooms), even if there are no cows anywhere. Where are the cows? We're guessing they're removed before hunting season. Our lucky timing.
We never did see a boundary marker, which should have been near the springs. Only when we hit #28 did we realize how fast – for us – we were moving: 3 miles in 2 hours.
We went on another ½ mile or so and finally found water in Water Canyon. We stopped to frolic near a pool 3 feet across and 8 inches deep. Beyond this point it appears the trail climbs a bit, so we turned back.
All along the way were lots of oaks, ponderosa and narrow leaf cottonwood above a great variety of grasses and wildflowers (though not nearly as dense as along the road in).
The wind picked up before we got back. I was sure it would rain, but it did not. We moved the truck a few feet and struggled to cover it with the tarp. The wind was strong for nearly 2 hours. The dog barked a couple of times at things we could not see – there must be deer and elk nearby.
After dinner of grilled burgers and hashbrowns, we walked back to West Red Canyon Road. Got buzzed by bats a few times. A waxing crescent moon tags after the setting sun.
It's 9:51pm, 66°.
This is a weird place. The bugs are very loud. We've heard strange bird calls – almost monkey-like. We are camped almost on the road in sight of towering cliffs, with many other such imposing rock formations ahead and behind. We are about 5 miles beyond Chloride in the Gila, up a very rocky road. Even needed low-4 to get this far. We passed a group camp a mile or so back but we hear nothing but deafening bugs and insane birds.
Wow, someone just drove by well after dark. They're nuts. I hope they won't be back.
How did we end up in the Gila? I can't blame Heshel and Irene or Rusty and Ethel.
This morning, we had bacon and eggs before packing up. We stopped to look at the Coffee Pot turnoff, which looked a lot like Water Canyon at that point (however, the Coffee Pot trail supposedly climbs a lot). We drove on down West Red Canyon. Got a glimpse of Red John's Box, a steep-walled passage for the stream. Then we yielded to an older couple who might as well have been Heshel and Irene ____, whose ranch, closer to Dusty, has a large rabbit-shaped sign.
The canyon unfolded and broadened as it got lower and drier. Soon after turning back onto 52 and new territory, we startled an ad-hoc flock of TVs and ravens, picking over the widely scattered remains of a rabbit. That was nothing compared to the smelly cow corpse just a bit farther. Some accuse ranchers of leaving dead cattle to tempt wolves to develop the taste.
A few miles later was a turnoff I had marked because of unspecified ruins on a map (an old fort, it turns out – not that we saw it). This was also the way to Post Canyon, which had interested me for wilderness access. We drove up 140 a short way but a ranch that straddles it seems to discourage the public throughway. We weren't interested in pushing our rights in the matter.
Instead, we turned towards the ruins and saw the Monticello Box, which was quite enticing even at a distance. We paused at a 'No Trespassing' sign as a jeep with an older couple came out. We smiled and waved at each other and they didn't try to run us off, so we risked trespass – the sign didn't say the road isn't public, just all the land on either side. Mer drove through a shallow stream more than a truck-length wide next to an amazing green wetland. We stopped at a wide spot above a 90 degree confluence of 2 streams.
The jeep returned and we braced for a fight. "Is it OK to be here," Mer asked the thin man with shoulder-length gray hair, "the signs say 'No Trespassing'." "Signs say lots of things," he and his wife both said. Barefoot and skinny, he jumped out of the jeep with both of his dogs. Grinning and animated, he told us the land belongs to the town of Monticello. He and the missus, who piped in regularly from a more sedate seat in the jeep, bought a place downstream in '96. They had just driven to the mailbox, but this was no stroll to the end of the driveway, as we soon found out for ourselves.
Rusty and Ethel (let's call them) told us it was OK to proceed across the stream and up into the box, as they were about to do. Rusty did indicate he had helped pull 3 vehicles out last week.
It is also from them we learned the connection to the Burma Road I was hoping to make was miles in that direction and probably impossible to make. Bummer.
Maybe they were just goofing on strangers or sticking it to the landowners. We were willing to accept their permission. Before we knew it, they had driven across the stream and turned up into the box.
We were parked next to a stream that comes down from Ojo Caliente to meet Alamosa Creek. We crossed both streams, wading from the start. Then we stood at the mouth of the box.
I can't possibly describe this adequately. Cliffs rose up on either side several hundred feet. At our level, the streambed may have been 20 feet wide; the stream itself was about 8 feet wide there and only inches deep. Rusty and Ethel had just driven up this stream. We followed their tracks.
It was more amazing than I can convey to walk in the steam in this narrow canyon. We walked and waded for almost 2 miles up this meandering canyon which opened up some even as its walls got higher. The creek was never very deep or fast, though it did vary throughout. The canyon was stunning. Every turn revealed new layers. At one point, we could see the southern end of the San Mateo's, our ostensible goal, seeming a hundred miles away. Closer-by were large peaks above rolling green hills above cliffs above us. What a discovery. I can't believe I'm revealing this to the Web (but who will have read this far?).
Even though this stream was about ankle-deep, there was much evidence that it was recently a couple of feet higher and must sometimes be a real river.
On the way back, we spooked a blue heron twice.
Back at the truck, I climbed a hill to look for a spring and to look down over this amazing spot.
We left and stopped to admire the pocket-wetlands with bright red flowers among the bright green leaves.
Back at 52 and on southward. Where 52 and 59 meet, we picked up pavement for the first time in 4 days. Stopped to switch drivers and weigh our options. Clearly, we weren't going to find passage to the Burma Road, our West San Mateo trip of 2 years ago – not without driving up the Box. Turning west into the Gila had some appeal but seemed a detour. But south of that point didn't offer much in the way of national forest.
So we drove through Winston, where we saw a tanager, then drove through Chloride and up this rocky road that isn't maintained (the sign says) – we've been on worse, including the Burma Road. We kept going just a little farther, then turned back to settle here just a ways down the road form a strange black bull with drooping horns, some suspect petroglyphs and a few caves. We are beside yet-another dry stream (even with all this rain), which would make things perfect if it had water in it. It rained a dozen big drops and threatened more but never rained much.
Now I hear the rumble of an engine. I wonder if that truck is returning 40 minutes later.
9:47pm, 62°. Grilled hotdogs for dinner.
In our first 15 minutes at home, we used more water than we did in the five days prior. It is easy to conserve when you have little and just as easy to waste when you have much.
Not that our trips are about denial or challenge or even insight (though that's usually a good outcome). This water wisdom, the appreciation of a shower as one of the greatest features of modern life, has occurred to us before. On one of our first really long trips in the camper, we came back to marvel at all of the space in our house: we had just spent 4 weeks in a space close to that of one of our bathrooms.
Today was like many last days of earlier trips: get home as quickly as possible. We did walk a little, did admire lots of scenery (miles of it). The first 5 miles were the slowest and roughest; the last 150 miles flew by. What a fine Toyota truck, to go from narrow rocky road to wide, smooth Interstate, from 5MPH to 80MPH in the same morning.
So, we got up, packed up, and hit the road as early as we could (about 8:47am). Back down the rocky road that weaves over, across and in the Chloride Creek. Back to Chloride itself (don't blink). Back to Winston, with some amazing old buildings or pieces of buildings (river stone topped by adobe bricks; red brick fronted by log cabin). Onto a new leg of old 52, which banked, turned and climbed and then became very straight (paralleling a huge canyon at the end of which is Cuchillo).
Got fooled into going miles away from home to TorC for gas. Stopped at the McDonald's only to learn they don't serve fries at 10am (you're kidding?!). Got diverted to the Border Patrol checkpoint (at least 75 miles from the border). Are you both US citizens? Where are you headed? Done in a few seconds, though that raised a long discussion: can they ask you where you're going? Do you have to answer? What policy would result in fewer people dying to clean our houses?
A long stretch passed in comfortable silence with the occasional reaction to things we were passing.
At home, after the water orgy, we read 5 days of newspapers in an hour. No real mail to read. I had about 70 email messages, a few of which are still awaiting attention.
Now Mer is off dancing and I'm at my computer – all is right with the world. Of course, it was just as right when we were squeezed in our camper, sipping water, reading by flashlight, in bed by 9pm.
We were awakened with a shock at 3am by 3 shots, shortly followed by sirens in pursuit. Even in the woods with bear hunters we never had such a rude awakening. A violent welcome back to urban living.