My friend, Dog and I had a full day to devote to a hike, giving us the time we needed to head a little further afield. When we have that luxury, one of the first and favorite places that pops to mind is Railroad Canyon up in the Black Range of the Gila National Forest.
Another luxury is going to the same trails throughout the seasons to watch the changes in water, in plant life, in color and smell and sounds. When we hiked Railroad Canyon last it was probably in late August, when water in Gallinas Creek still ran freely across the river rock and the wildflowers were still in their summer progression. In August, the Ponderosa still smelled like vanilla when the sun warmed them. Birds were still calling, showing us glimpses of Painted Restarts, Robins, a shy Hermit Thrush, a Red-tailed Hawk sailing on the air currents above us.
This fall day was clear and bright with a New Mexico blue sky. We found, at the entrance to the trail, an artform that someone had created since the last time we were here. This is not a trail cairn because none is needed here, but a balancing act of rock on rock.
We beat the sun into the canyon, feeling a chill for the first quarter mile until the uphill slant to the trail warmed us. The first creek crossings were dry. Gallinas Creek runs over and dips and slides under the creek bed so except in the very wettest spring, when snow melt has swelled the creek, many of the creek crossings are really rock crossings, showing only the evidence of dried algae to remind the passer-by that this ephemeral creek can run charged.
Although the sun had yet to light the canyon floor, it was filtering through the Ponderosa above us.
The south-facing canyon sides were already ablaze with golden oak in brilliant display. On the north-facing slope, seed-headed underbrush was still dully lit with the sun sitting just below the ridge. The fuzzy heads would soon be backlighted as soon as the sun edged over the hill.
But tarry we didn’t and by the time we hiked back down-trail, the sun was high and the light was lost.
We walked to the point where the trail splits into Railroad and East Railroad Trail with directional signs pointing up to the Crest Trail on the ridges of the Black Range. A good place to sit. A good place for Dog to go digging after whatever small dark creatures lived under the duff. And eventually we started back down-trail.
The sun had moved further overhead, as it is wont to do. The canyon was now warmed, and the pine needles were fragrant. Friend and I kicked at dried oak leaves on the trail, as though we were still 10 years old. Birds were moving around – Juncos, Wrens; Jays were calling. A few lingering, late-season wildflowers caught our attention: Purple Aster, Larkspur, white Yarrow, a couple of wild Geranium and one small offering of Cinquefoil. North-facing hillsides of oak and seed-headed underbrush were now limned with gold light.
And pools of water, layered with fallen leaves, reflected color back to the morning light.