Social Distancing on the Continental Divide Trail

New Mexico Blue on the CD Trail

New Mexico Blue on the CD Trail

This morning dawned New Mexico blue, offering an invitation to take Dog and go up to a favorite section of the CD Trail, a short 15 minute drive from home.  My hike on this portion of trail is usually about 3 miles round trip and takes Dog and I roughly two hours.  We frequently have this section of trail to ourselves.

As I pulled into the parking at the trailhead, a good friend pulled in behind me.  Meeting was totally random but welcome.  Up until this morning, we have seen each other through computer cameras and zoom.  Dog was thrilled; this is one of her most favorite persons who usually has a bit of doggy bacon in his pocket.  We visited for a few minutes at the distance of Dog’s 18 foot leash, then he went down-trail and I went up.

We didn’t get too far before meeting up with another hiker and her dog, Jack.  Jack and Dog know each other from the town’s dog park, so they shared a brief greeting and a sit-down while she and I caught up a bit.  Good to see folks I know, doing the same things I love in the places that make us smile and feel grounded.

Signs that this section of trail is loved and valued: someone left a painted rock on a tree trunk next to the trail.  Another someone carefully positioned a pine cone and a pebble on a lichen-covered rock. A little cactus, unusual to be found at this elevation and in this habitat, has been rocked off to protect it from mountain bikes.  These touches mean a lot in a time when human connection is more difficult to sustain.

Flowers are beginning to pop up.  And the oaks are turning golden, ready to drop their leaves in favor of new buds.  As an aside, when I first moved here and saw all the oaks turning yellow in April, I thought they were dying of some dread disease.  Coming from the East Coast where all the trees turn and drop leaves in the fall, I had no idea that here, this is the natural order of things.  Oaks drop their leaves in the spring so that the monsoons, when they come, can water the trees into full new leaf.

Another welcome sign on the trail: the rancher who had a lease to graze this section of forest must have moved the cows somewhere else.  For a full year, I found no tracks, no scat, no sign of the wild animals that inhabit the forest.  Only cow tracks breaking up the trail, crossing and tearing down the hillside, denuding the earth of its grasses. And piles of cow dung.  Now that the cows have been removed, sign is coming back.  The gray fox has been marking the rocks in the trail. Hawks or owls are sitting on overhanging branches, munching their lunch and leaving white stains of uric acid on the ground underneath them. And this morning, I heard a warbler calling in the trees nearby.  I could see it flitting through the branches, but not well enough without my binoculars to identify the little guy.  I pished at him for a couple of minutes but only succeeded in getting curious stares from Dog, while the warbler darted on off among the treetops.

By the time I got back to my truck, the day was growing hotter.  The Ponderosa pines were scenting vanilla and cinnamon on the breeze and the earth, in the sunny spots, was smelling flannel-warm.

During this time of social distancing, our Gila National Forest, like other parks, forests and wildlands, is getting heavily used.  Sadly, not everyone escaping to the forests or parks is treating their wildland of choice with respect, care and protection. Trash and worse are left along the trails and piled around the locked bathrooms and trashcans, creating health and safety risks for humans who have to clean it up as well as danger to animals. Graffiti mars petroglyphs. ATVs cut tracks where only deer should be leaving theirs.  So a plea from one who finds sanity and peace on our public lands: be careful-be responsible-be safe and keep it clean. Remember — Do No Harm.

Bear Mountain from the CD Trail

Bear Mountain from the CD Trail

Social Distancing down New Mexico way

Field of poppies.2.Portal.3-31-20

Social distancing requires us to stay at least six feet from each other. Six feet? That is awfully close!   Thus goes one of several New Mexico versions of this bit of coronavirus humor.

Another bit. Six feet is about the equivalent of: 6 Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout (or Gila Trout if you’re in my neighborhood); 2 mule deer bucks; 4 Roadrunners; or 2 Black Bears. This from NM Game and Fish recommendations for social distancing in the field. Of course, I’d rather be more than 2 black-bear lengths from any black bear, but that’s just me!

Down here in New Mexico, six feet of separation isn’t a problem for a large state, home to only about 2 million people, most of whom live in one of three cities.  Practicing social distancing can be as easy as getting out onto some little corner of our millions of acres of public land.

In 30 minutes or less, I can be on a trail in the Gila National Forest, hiking with my dog alone or with one, maybe two friends.  We have the choice of going low:  the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) starts down south in a desert environment at 6,000’ or less, wandering through pinion, juniper and boulders, as though through a carefully landscaped rock garden. Seen from the ridges, Big Hatchet and the Floridas stand stark against the border; Soldiers Return holds the near frame. The snaggletooth of Cookes Peak anchors the east.  The Peloncios, Chiricahuas and Mt Graham bound the south and west.  These days, Mt Graham and the tallest points of stone in the Chiricahuas are snow-topped.

Or I can go high, above 7,000’:  Signal Peak, Cherry Creek trail, the trail out of McMillan Campground, Meadow Creek trail are all favorites when Ponderosa and fir are preferred, and a shady path calls.  This time of year, the Redstarts and Red-faced Warblers are moving in and singing their territory.

We’ve had a wet late winter and early spring.  Rains have come with regularity.  The soft female rains – or farmer rains, depending on your argot – soaked into the land at just the right time and right temperature and the result is a golden explosion.

Field of poppies.3.Portal.3-31-20Poppies. Mexican Poppies glowing along the roadside, in painterly splashes on the hillsides.  And most spectacularly, spread across fields as quilts made of yellow, orange and gold, with love-knots of white. In New England, they go leaf-peeping in the fall.  This week, I have indulged in Poppy-peeping.

Poppies don’t bloom alone.  There are lupines, brittlebush, bladderpod, mustard and other yellow ground flowers whose names refuse to stick with me.  There’s a spot along AZ Rt 191 where for about 3 miles, the hillsides look as though Monet was trying to improve on his Garden at Giverny.

And, the other evidence of generous rains and snow-covered elevations is water.  Dead Man's Canyon.2.3-28-20

Water running in the most ephemeral of streams, bubbling down stony creek beds that rarely entertain a flow outside of a good monsoon.  Seeps become creeks, creeks become challenging crossings and waterfalls sing over rock.

The Gila River gorges on the melt and silt from the snows on the Mogollons, spreading beyond its banks and filling the acequias.

The happening-together of a glorious wildflower bloom set against the backdrop of snowy peaks, and water courses that live up to their names has made for a rapturous spring of hikes and drives, indulging in color and sound, and following Dog’s nose up the trails.  I hope and pray for the recovering health of my community, nation and the world.

Mogollons.3-2020

 

Here, though, is my refuge.  Social distancing at six feet?  That’s awfully close!

 

 

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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