Big Rock Candy Mountain

“I’m headed for a land that’s far away

Besides the crystal fountains

So come with me, we’ll go and see

The Big Rock Candy Mountains”

Quartzite Outcrop – southwest Grant County NM

If I were writing this song today, I have found the perfect inspiration.  There are one or two singular outcroppings of quartzite rock just off the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) — big ol’ white knobs of rock standing each one alone above the ridge just south of the Burro Mountains.  Those knobs remind me of a mountain of rock candy, shattered and spilling bite-sized bits down the sides of the ridge in river-flows.

A River of quartzite

There are old tracks that go up to the outcroppings if I wanted to venture up for a closer look. And actually, I have – had a closer look, that is.

Couple of years ago, when I was hiking pre-Covid days with the Tuesday Group, we ventured off the CDT up the old track to one of those quartzite outcrops.  The ground was scattered with chunks of quartzite, some of which were very pretty – some solidly snow white, some bits darkly-veined.  Taking our mid-hike snack break, we sat on the larger blocks of rock while some in the group rock-hounded, filling their pockets or packs with manageable chunks. I refrained from collecting only because of the added weight that I didn’t want to carry 2+ miles back to the trailhead.

Chunks of rock-candy quartzite

It wasn’t until we were packed and ready to start back to the CDT and our vehicles, that our resident historian-slash-geologist told us a bit more about this formation, its history and its mineral makeup.  “Did you know that this area was mined for uranium?” he asked us.  Umm…uranium?  Isn’t uranium radioactive? And we have pocketfulls of the stuff?? “Well,” he reassured us, “not very high level.”  I noticed a few of the group covertly emptied their pockets of the now-suspect rock, diligently brushed off their fannies where they had been sitting, and headed back down the track, quick-stepping to abandon the area.

This region is known for copper mining, along with silver and gold.  All the way back to the Apaches who ranged this area, copper was extracted.  But the fact of uranium is not as well know, probably because the metal was not found in enough quantities to warrant major investment.  Still, there were, and possibly still are, a number of mining claims in the area that proved out for limited uranium deposits.  I was curious and Google came through with a 1952 report by US Geological Survey on the geology, the formations, and the mine claims that is an interesting bit of history to read. And looking closely at my cell-phone picture, mining piles show evidence of abandoned hopes.

Enlarged to show mining piles bottom left of image

Now, I just admire the Big Rock Candy Mountains as I hike the CDT just below them.  I step past the flow of candy quartz and hum the tune remembered.

“I’ll see you all this coming fall

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains”

A wealth of quartzite — a hint of uranium

A Hike Interrupted — aka We Were Buzzed

Continental Divide Trail – Grant County NM

Dog, Friend and I, and one additional friend headed out this week to a section of the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) that we haven’t hiked before.  It’s a roughly 3-mile segment between C-Bar Rd and Knights Canyon Rd.  We struck off up a track pocked with wide-mouth tire treads and eroded from too-frequent atv-ing; the CDT often shares with such as this.  Wasn’t long, though, before we came to two huge cairns, one on the right side of the track and one off to the left appearing to direct us up a gully.  Fortunately, 20 feet or so up the gully, we spotted the CDT/Forest Service trail marker heading off to the right.  

Cairns are often an ecological problem,
but make a great Facebook post

A rabbit trail:  Friend and I have a now-ongoing joke about cairns.  Are they: navigational tools? spiritual exercise? or a Facebook post, as in “lookie, I was here!”  Well, yes to all but in context. They can do ecological damage; they can keep hikers on the right path; their construction goes against “Leave No Trace”; they are ego statements for a picture and a post. It’s all context.  I don’t pass one by without notice. Some I appreciate.  Some I kick down.  And I have repaired one or two.  In this case, the cairns were directional to keep us from plodding down this unlovely track that paralleled the highway 100 feet away.

Ridgeline — CDT

We hiked through three habitats: juniper/pinion/mahogany groves in the dry creek beds; trail that hugged the side of the ridge, offering long views; and rock outcrop.  The trail was expressed in two directions: steeply up and just as steeply down, with some modest sections modestly level.  There were two rocky crevices to descend into and to climb out.  One of them made me think of the Great Rift Valley in Tanzania. The trail through this area was accommodating with switchbacks to make breathing in transit a little easier.

Small Rift Valley on the CDT

While we were in the shelter of the groves, we commented that it felt like a rock garden planted by a large hand. We frequently stopped to bird-spot.  Up on the ridge-hugging trail, we took advantage of our 360° views of Mexico borderlands, the Floridas, Cookes Peak, Jacks Peak, and the rocky ridges above us. 

Florida Mountains in the Distance

On crossing the rock outcropping, I thought of a trail called Billy Goat at Great Falls, MD. While walking, I didn’t register beyond my feet, which demanded all my attention.  Stopping, I looked around at raw stone painted with several shades of lichens; the trail was etched across the face of the outcrop.  Each territory had its unique beauty. 

Dog perched on the rocky trail

Our turning-around point was just shy of 2 miles and was marked by Dog alerting on several cows with calves.  Dog sometimes forgets that she’s on a leash; she throws herself to the end of the line in wished-for pursuit.  Throws my shoulder out, too, if I’m not expecting it.

Coming back, we crossed the rock, hiked up then down the switchback through the small Rift, and started on the ridge-side trail. 

A roar became louder until it crashed over our heads, followed by a fighter jet cresting a few hundred feet over the ridge and starting to drop toward us.  Pilot may have seen 3 humans on the trail and pulled up slightly.  As the jet screamed overhead, banking slightly south, its buddy-jet howled just over the next ridge down and the pair headed east, low and fast.  Too fast for us to get out phone cameras.  Too fast to mentally record aircraft profile.  Too fast to see my middle finger waving.  Not 15 minutes later, jet-noise drew my eyes southward a few miles to two more jets pulsing across the landscape, safely higher in altitude, hot-dogging it across the Forest and private lands. Three friends standing stunned, one dog sitting low.  We marked our location on gps with the intention of reporting the overflights.  We believe that this is not a legal training MOA for any of the military bases in the region. 

Before we could move on too far, that roar came again.  Fumbled for my camera, thinking that the jet would appear in front of us where the last low-flyer did.  Suddenly, I realized that the roar was leading the aircraft from behind us; I turned quickly to see this jet coming at us, following us on the trail, so low my natural instinct was to duck.  I tried to get my phone up and aimed as the jet passed overhead. I may have hit the shutter button, I may not have.  I didn’t record anything with a jet in it, though.  We singed the leaves on the trees with our blue language for the next mile or so down the trail.  I was particularly incensed, having been similarly and dangerously buzzed by two fighter jets in the Gila Wilderness on a steep canyon rim trail on horseback. 

Top Gun may be the most viewed movie for wanna-be fliers, and Top Gun Maverick may break viewing records.  But hot-shot Top Guns are not welcome at minimum altitude and maximum speed over a wilderness area.

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