Light Hiking New Mexico
Going early into the Sangres
April 21, 2020 • 4 minutes
Up in the high valleys of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, the snow has begun to melt. Patches of snow remain below the aspen groves, or on northern slopes. High up, around 9,500 feet, the snow is still deep. Near Agua Piedra (rock water) I found a closed trail headed up to a valley. We parked the truck down the road, and walked past closed summer cabins to the beginning. A creek ran quickly to the left. It ran through a dry, mixed forest of ponderosa, white fir, and spruce. The forest of Northern New Mexico.
Almost nothing was green yet. But sapsuckers and woodpeckers screamed and hammered on dead trunks. Red squirrels chided from spruce boughs. My left arm went totally numb.
I was hiking with a 30L frameless pack. But to the back was strapped a tomahawk. And a bahco laplander saw. These two extra items, along with the steep grade, pulled my back backwards toward the earth, compressing the brachial plexus of my left side. This resulted in a pins and needles feeling in my hands, which quickly gave way to stiffness and pain.
After ceaselessly adjusting the pack, and wondering aloud with Anna why the trail was marked closed (we counted 3 minor downed trees), we hit flat ground. Then the valley opened up before us. Elk sign was everywhere. Wild flowers, that looked like trillium, were just beginning to grow. But the grass in the valley was laid flat and golden by the snow that had so recently melted. And an old wrecked cabin stood at the edge, roof and half its timbers gone.
Ahead of us Bear Hill (cerro del oso) loomed, covered in aspen and rocky mountain doug fir. We crossed the narrow stream through a thicket of alders and set up camp amongst ground that had not been camped on in years. The path through the meadow, though clear and easy, was growing in. Pocket gophers heaved dirt mounds in the center of the trail.
Trees, huge for this dry state, loomed on the eastern side of the meadow. The sun would rise there. We went to the west side, a few tens of feet above valley bottom, amidst a grove of aspen, above where the cold air would settle during the night.
The small clearing where we stayed was the domain of elk. Rubbings on trees showed where they worked the velvet off their antlers last summer. Small paths crossing the stream showed the best way to walk. Nibbled aspen tops showed what they had been eating. A rumbling and crackling, and then thumping into the distance along the slope near sundown showed we were in their way. We slept all night long by the stream, and heard two owls hooting early in the morning.
Along the edge of the little clearing a spruce had died and fallen. Its branches were sticking into the air. I used my saw and tomahawk to cut and split several. They were so dry they lit like a candle.
As the hours passed in the meadow, I looked around at the trees and grass. The ground was lumpy from years of gopher work. There was downed wood everywhere. It was easy to tell that no human had stayed here for a long time, or if they had they had left no trace. Due to unmarked nature of the trail, and the closed sign, I wondered how long it had been, since deer and elk alone had walked here.
I trimmed dead branches from the base of a living doug fir, to clean the trunk and hang my pack there. I cut and sawed branches of aspen, and used a rotting one as a sawhorse. I bucked and piled and lit the wood, and boiled creek water for hot spruce needle tea. By using the land, with the small knowledge I had, I made it less fire prone, and better for humans like me.
And yet the shaping and moving of such small things, in such a tiny quiet place, stuck in my mind and troubled me. Are we born to do such things, is our use only a use of such space? I think that we can contribute more than we take. We can do crazy things like move beavers to places they once lived. They fix the rivers the cows destroyed, and put thousands of gallons into reservoirs. In a single day a beaver can fix what cows took ten years to desecrate.
So with our knowing eye we can grow food for more than us, and make watering places for birds. We can use the land in a way that helps, and not only in ways that harm.
The next morning I donned my wool sweater against the chill. I cut green willow to size and made a rack for bacon above our fire. The smoke mingled with the salt and fat. We ate the bacon hot and crispy with green chiles grown down south in the hatch valley.