Beyond the Gate

I have my favorite hikes, each starting at a trailhead in the Gila National Forest. I mark multiple turn-around points on each trail, depending on my energy level and the anger of arthritis in my hips. A modest turn-around might be shy of one and half miles; on more energetic days, I might turn around at two-plus miles. Most of these trails are so familiar that I often don’t set my meter because I know just where I’ll turn back based on how far I want to hike.

The furthest endpoint of three of my favorite hikes is at a gate.  I guess I never thought about going through those gates to see what lay beyond.  Not that I’m not curious.  But I remember the advice of a long-ago friend: “Hike until you’re half-tired.”

The first gate breeched was on the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) near my home.  This is a section of the CDT I prefer when I’m hiking alone and want to just do a quick in-and-out. Dog needs her exercise and Sunday mornings are good opportunities to get her on this trail just long enough to work her nose, to wear off a little of that energy. Not long ago, my friend and I decided to hike this trail to the gate, just two miles from the trailhead.  Good weather and good conversation, plus a good pace, and we got to the gate before my hips had a chance to complain.  We decided to see what was on the other side. The CDT continued, of course; the gate simply marked the boundary of the rancher’s grazing lease.  On we walked for another, oh, maybe half a mile and then the trail began a switch-back down into a deep arroyo. We turned back, but not before I took a picture of the view.  This was one of those times when I kept thinking: just a little farther – just around that big juniper – just a little up that hill – and we’d get a great view of Bear Creek Canyon.  That hike, having gone beyond the gate, added up to just about five miles.

From the CDT, looking toward Bear Creek Canyon and Tadpole Ridge

The next gate was at the end of the trail in Pancho Canyon, on the Gila River. Another favorite hike, Dog, Friend and I retreat to this trail in the heat of summer, always ending up with our feet in the river watching the idling birds. This section of trail is not much more than a mile one-way but it’s shady, rife with Common Black Hawks and warblers and perfect on an early morning before the temps hit the 90s. A couple of weeks ago, we headed out there in cooler weather to leaf-peep at the golden Cottonwoods and white-barked Arizona Sycamores. 

Cottonwood – Pancho Canyon on the Gila River

Lower temps are conducive to longer walks so when we reached the gate at the far end of this stretch of river, we decided to keep going.  I knew what was on the other side; I have driven up and over the ridge and down to the river, ending at Ira Canyon at the far end.  I have never hiked from one end to the other.  This seemed like the day to try.  Once through the gate, we dropped down to the river on the only obvious trail – and came to a dead end.  Retracing our steps, we found another spur through the weeds.  That spur wandered through a small copse of Sycamore, Cottonwood and coyote willow, only to end at another point on the river.  We stood listening to the water moving over the rocks in riffles while Dog hopped around chest-deep in the river.  Filled with river-music, we turned back for that gate and Poncho Canyon.

A final gate marks the two-mile point on the CDT heading south from Gold Gulch Rd. This section of the CDT is not one for summer.  The trail is exposed to both sun and breeze, traversing the sides of a ridge, dropping into two meadows and climbing out before finally relaxing through a forest of waist-high bear grass. On this clear cool morning, Dog, Friend and I decided that a sunny trail was just the thing. We hiked until we reached the gate and contemplated returning to the road where we were parked.  But neither of us had been beyond this point and, having plenty of time and the best weather for hiking, we slipped the chain on the gate and went through, securing the gate behind us.  We had rather anticipated we might connect with Rt 90 and the cross-over to C-Bar and the CDT on the east side of 90. Or at least see 90 in the near distance.  Once up on a little hillock, we could see that Rt 90 was still a long distance to the southeast.  After hiking about three-quarter mile through an unchanging landscape, we decided to head back.  Back at Gold Gulch and the truck, we recorded almost five miles and one tuckered Dog.

Not all gates are made of metal. Not all gates demark grazing leases. Some are just there to mark the way and to bring a smile to the next to pass by.

Continental Divide Trail in Two Acts

From the CDT.3-25-19.edAct 1

One of my favorite stretches of the CDT near home is a forested section of the trail, cutting just under a ridgeline at about 6400 feet elevation.  It’s my go-to place when the temperature encourages hiking in the shade.   The trail dips and rises – on the dips, it passes through pinion and juniper and crosses erosion streamlets, and on the rises, Ponderosa pines dominate.  A gentle place, a refuge from the busier sections on nearby Gomez Peak and 80 Mountain.  The dog and I walk a couple of miles each way at a leashed-dog pace.

Last week, I looked for Spring.  Little signs.  Tiny blooms and grass.  Signs were there, but not in abundance; not yet.  There was plenty to entertain a dog’s nose. And grab her ears’ attention, for that matter. Nothing that I ever saw, but she knew “they” were out there.

I noticed a White-breasted Nuthatch, an “ass-up” bird as my Ornithology Prof called it.  The Nuthatch was shopping up a pine tree trunk, gleaning among the crevices in the Ponderosa bark.  My eye followed the bird, past the bird, up the trunk and higher into the early Spring blue sky, where a Red-tailed Hawk was also shopping for dinner, soaring in circles, eyes down.  The dog was sniffing a chipmunk hole so I had a moment to watch the sun firing the red tail as the hawk moved between me and the light.

The clouds on this day were herringbone and cross-hatch.  They moved and morphed into jelly fish and mares’ tails.  A full sky and a good camera would have made this photographer happy.  As it was, it was lovely to check out the clouds at each break in the overstory.

I had plenty of incentive to look up and around.  Normally I would be watching the ground, noticing the tracks left by neighbors who passed recently: mule deer, fox, dog, bicycle, horse, once a mountain lion.  But now, the trail is crossed, edged, saddled with the destructive tracks of cattle.  This section has been pristine till now.  This is Forest Service land, and cattle leasing competes with recreational uses.  Now, there is a leaseholder who has moved cattle into this section.  Seeing the impact of those animals’ passing, even understanding the mission of multiple use, makes me sad and discouraged.  It’s hard to be poetic about cow tracks.

Act 2

Later in the week, and on a cooler, windy day, dog, husband and I went south to another section of CDT, off the appropriately named Gold Gulch Rd.  This is another favorite section, mostly thanks to the incredible views from the open trail at an elevation over 6300 feet.

Husband hikes at a different pace and with a different attention than me.  He’s not leashed to dog who waits for no human – except when smells dictate pauses.  He fell further behind than usual, so after waiting for a few minutes for his hat to top the rise, dog and I went back down the trail.  He was alternately bending over scratching in the dust of the trail, and standing up staring at his hand.  Caught up, he held out a bit of gold.  Not enough to start a gold rush, but enough to give us a little rush of discovery. Would have been nice if it were big enough to pay the mortgage.

The land is covered by mostly bear grass, scrub and pinion/juniper, it’s more exposed, and Spring is making more of an appearance.  locoweed.CDTrail and GoldGulch.3-28-19One of the many forms of locoweed is in bloom and tiny yellow sprigs are popping.  This is not an area where we get the glorious wildflowers that are stunning hikers across the Southwest, but at 25 miles from home, I’ll take what is offered.

The dog’s nose perked and dragged us both off trail about 50 feet.  I caught her just before she buried her teeth into the scavenged remains of a javalina, officially known as a collard peccary.  No bear here, no wolves, possibly a mountain lion kill shared afterward by coyotes.  More likely a hunter took this animal, stripped it of meat and dignity, and left its bones, hide and head to the sun and wind.  I know hardcore trackers might bag the head with incisors intact, take it home and clean it, saving the skull.  I was satisfied with a few pictures and an observation documented on iNaturalist.Javalina.1 on CDTrail and GoldGulch.3-28-19

Here, we are within 50 miles of the southernmost end of the CDT.  From the rises, we stare at Big Hatchet Mountain, the mountains of the borderlands, the Floridas.  To the east, the blue haze of the Organ Mountains;  Cookes Peak stands alone; to the west, glimpses of the Peloncillos. Years ago on a little mountain in my home state, I saw a family with a young son come up the trail to the edge of the rock and look over the farmland 900 feet or so below.  He turned in excitement to cry, “Hey mom hey dad.  We’re bigger than the world.”  Exactly the way I feel up here!

 

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