Colorado, creative non fiction, Desert, memoir, new mexico, southwest, Uncategorized

Introduction: Two Kinds of Disappointment

I arrived at the trailhead of Mt. Abraham, in western Maine, on an afternoon in early October.  I planned to backpack the mountain for two days and a night.  I’d never climbed Abraham.  A guide book informed me that the mountain’s 4,000-foot-high summit was above treeline and rocky, so my plan was to make camp just below treeline―for privacy and, hopefully, a comfortable tent foundation―and explore the summit from there.  The following day, I would descend to my truck and return to my home in Gorham, Maine, where my wife and I had been living for a year and a half.

Prior to Maine, we had made homes in various places in the Southwest for over two decades.  During that time, I had backpacked regularly in New Mexico, Arizona, southern Colorado, and southeast Utah.  In addition to regular day hikes, I needed the tonic of several annual overnighters in the Southwestern wildlands to maintain my mental, physical, and spiritual health.  My backpack on Abraham was to be my first east of the Mississippi, and I was looking forward to it.

Fall in New England was unfolding when I hit the trail.  Thus, there were still some greens among the reds and yellows.  This being New England, the trail began in a place dense with hardwoods, pine, and brush.  In the Southwest, I nearly always sought a campsite with a view, because I liked the shelter of trees or rocks at my back, yet also room in front for the eyes, thoughts, and imagination to wander.  However, I had now lived in Maine long enough to understand that vistas anywhere beyond the state’s coastline were rare; that forests in the state grew thick, tall, and seemingly without end.  Still, I figured a modest clearing with a view surely existed somewhere just below Abraham’s treeline. 

Three things brought us to New England: my wife’s furthering of her formal education; the fact that I had a sister and brother-in-law in New Hampshire; and―at least as far as I was concerned―a great nostalgia.  My love of nature began when I was a New Jersey kid in the 1950’s and 1960’s, during which time, over a sequence of summer vacations, I explored the verdant hill-and-mountain country of northwestern Connecticut and southwestern Massachusetts.  I loved the adventure, mystery, solace, and shelter offered by the region’s woods, lakes, and fields.  Years later, I would express this passion fully in the deserts, forests, and plateaus of the Southwest.  On Abraham’s slopes and summit, I planned to re-experience that original delight; to thank lavishly the land that had planted the seed in me.  I was expecting Abraham to be the first of many backpacks in that part of the world. 

As usual, I had some 45 pounds on my back, five pounds of which were water from our tap in Gorham.  I knew Maine was abundant with lakes, rivers, and streams―that is, water for my portable filtering device.  However, I had no idea if a natural water source existed on or anywhere near Abraham’s summit.  No matter: I always carried water when packing in the Southwest, for I always camped where water was absent. 

What I was not prepared for, however, was the strenuousness of the climb.  Granted, my guide book indicated that the ascent would be “moderate to difficult,” but prior to Maine I had lived for a decade at an elevation of 7,500 feet, in the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado, two-thirds of a mile higher than Abraham’s summit.  I thus had this notion, admittedly unsupported by science, that my body had been well-hardened by the thin air of Colorado, and therefore more oxygen-rich Maine would make my climb of Abraham easy.  Whatever the reason―my 60 years or the relentlessly uphill climb or the fact I had not backpacked for two years―such was not the case.  I was pausing at length every 20 yards to catch my breath.

At one point, my heart galloping, I sat upon a fallen log that crossed the trail.  I noticed a large patch of sweat, where elements of my pack met my back, that was starting to chill, with the chill then beginning to seep into my flesh.  Which got me to wondering if Maine’s average relative humidity, some 70 percent, would affect my comfort level during the long and certain-to-be-chilly night ahead. 

And then I recalled another mountain upon which I had to pause, gasping and sweating, 18 years earlier.

That mountain was Sierra Ladrones―Spanish for Thieves Mountain―an isolated, primarily desert range in central New Mexico, 45 miles south of Albuquerque, my home at the time.  I was sitting in the shade of an old juniper tree in a dry wash in a canyon on the mountain’s south slope.  It was a very warm day in April.  I was roughly at the 7,000-foot elevation of this range that climbed to 9,200 feet.  The wash, choked with rocks, trees, and brush, was my route to the mountain’s summit.  I had failed to uncover any literature indicating developed trails, if any, up the mountain, and this was before the explosion of the information-awash internet, so I had estimated by eyeball that the canyon was the swiftest and safest way up. 

I was only doing a day hike, so I had a minimum of weight, almost entirely water, in the little pack on my back.  However, I wasn’t prepared for the canyon’s steepness.  I still had a little under a half-mile to climb, and already I was wondering if I had the heart and lungs to do it.  Meanwhile, the rocks were punishing my legs and ankles, and the sharp and brittle limbs and branches of dead junipers were raking my flesh, threatening blood.  I tried to push all of these concerns from my mind as I removed my daypack to access the bottle of water.

In desert New Mexico, one, of course, sweated with exertion.  However, such sweat struggled to manifest itself due to the aridity, and when it did, to linger on the body.  So I was a little surprised to sense a patch of sweat where my daypack met my back.  And I was pleasantly surprised when the patch became a welcome chill in the heat.  When I removed my sweaty cap, an identical chill enveloped my scalp. 

And I thought: Of course!  Evaporative cooling!  The very principle that keeps our house in Albuquerque comfortable in the fiery central New Mexico summertime. 

It was a small but significant realization for someone relatively new to the desert Southwest.  I gulped some water and, refreshed and determined, resumed my climb.

As forecast, that autumn day in Maine was gorgeous, the sunlight of the near-cloudless sky amplifying all the colors―the “great symphony in the woodlands,” in the words of New England nature writer Hal Borland. 

The previous day, rain had drenched much of the state.  Thus, I was not surprised that a stream I had to awkwardly cross without the benefit of a bridge either natural or artificial was abundant with runoff.  However, as I gained elevation, I wasn’t prepared for the frequent puddles―or, in places, actual running water―upon the trail.  I was accustomed to the arid, absorbent forests of the Southwest.  At the very least, I thought the paths in the New England woods drained quickly, even after a heavy rain.  Fortunately, I had waterproofed my boots the previous day, although I was in no mood, as I frequently sidestepped the watery trail, to test the thoroughness of this effort.  Such sidestepping forced me, for my own safety, to direct my sight at the rugged terrain of the trail’s shoulders far more than at the wondrous kaleidoscope of colors in the tree canopies.

The steepness of the canyon of Sierra Ladrones had only increased as I paused at length once again, now at the 8,000-foot elevation.  I was struggling.  Was that my uvula shimmying to the beat of my pounding heart just down the stairs?  I was still fighting rocks, trees, and brush.  Something had superficially cut the flesh of one leg, drawing blood that had fortunately dried quickly.  Gazing up, I saw no hint of either of the mountain’s twin pinnacles, just more broad, dispiriting slope.  Then I noticed that a patch of my right palm was furred with the finest of cactus spines, obviously a result of a blind handhold during my increasingly dazed struggle upward.  Yet either because the spines were so fine or because I was so exhausted, I barely felt them.  Nonetheless, I foolishly tried to remove them by rubbing the palm, freeing some, but surely driving others deeper.  I wondered how my palm would feel that night.

Still waiting to gather the energy to continue upward, I decided to contemplate the dry wash, or arroyo seco, in which I once again sat. 

Ever since arriving in New Mexico, I’d been fascinated by these ubiquitous, luminous avenues of arid sand and soil that webbed the low and high deserts of the Southwest.  When bedded mostly with sand, bone-dry, and not too steep, these arroyos made for pleasant and expeditious arid-land foot travel. 

And I thought: What queer lives they lead!  Parched, static wrinkles on the vast land for weeks, months, or even years, then seething, foaming torrents for a half-hour, and often in blazing sunshine if they are loaded by a localized storm dozens of miles distant. 

The possibility of this sudden change filled them with a delicious tension whenever I hiked them―the broader and deeper the arroyo, the sweeter the tension.  And I was particularly struck by the visual echoes of their hydraulic violence, often where their bends were sharp: the stacked limbs and logs plastered with mud, grasses, human trash, and the occasional animal carcass.  This amid the perennially-static desert.  

Then I gazed up into a massive feeder canyon to the east, and was startled to see, on this otherwise parched range, a small forest of aspen and ponderosa pine.  Obviously, this tiny section of the range had just the right location and configuration to regularly wring enough water from the desert sky to cultivate this little Babylon.  I imagined the delight of camping overnight in this cool, remote Eden―until I envisioned the hell of hauling 45 pounds on my back to get to it.  I resumed my climb.

After a mere mile on Abraham, I gave up, offering myself all kinds of excuses.  The slope had not let up.  The water on the trail had not thinned.  Tunneling endlessly through leafy trees, the trail had offered no relieving vistas and thus portended no views below treeline at a campsite at the end of the day.  The lingering dampness of the previous day’s rain and the fundamental humidity of Maine would surely sour my evening of star-gazing.  Even with my stove fuel as an accelerant, I doubted a robust campfire would be possible during the night ahead, given the unlikelihood of combustible wood after the heavy rain.  Depressed―for I had never aborted a backpack, once well on the trail, in my life―I staggered back down the mountain carrying an additional 10 pounds of guilt, hoping I would not meet any climbers casually inquiring how my “night” was. 

I scrambled and then crawled the 20 yards to the 8,700-foot-high saddle between the twin peaks of Sierra Ladrones.  Sprawled upon the ground, luxuriating in its relative levelness after three hours of relentless slope, I looked up and studied the final ascent leading to the west peak, the higher of the two.  A climb of just 500 additional feet, over ground that was now merely rocky, not crammed with trees and brush, would grant me the summit that I had so coveted. 

Yet I knew I hadn’t the strength to do it.  I feared my depleted condition could result in a false move that could then cause a badly-sprained or broken ankle.  I had no cell phone―if cell phones even existed in those days.  I had provided my wife with only the vaguest idea of where I planned to be climbing in this remote range.  Finally, I knew that the descent, without gravity to at least steady me, would be nearly as exhausting as the climb. 

So I simply looked. 

And looked. 

The canyon up which I had just struggled was cradled in the branches―desiccated, blackened, gaunt, and elegant―of several dead junipers that stood just below the saddle.  I saw the glowing thread of the dirt road that had led me into the canyon’s mouth.  At the foot of the range spread the vast basin drained by the Rio Salado―actually, just one more arroyo, albeit a massive one, that was parched most of the year.  Scattered mesas guarded the basin: a red and gold sea of sand and rock, the fundamental skin and bones of the high desert, of the Earth itself.  On the far northwestern horizon rose Mt. Taylor, a sacred mountain of several Indian nations, snowcapped and blue as if saturated by the astonishing hue of the sky above it.  All of this funneled up the canyon and into my grateful lap.

No, I hadn’t reached the summit, but I nevertheless felt that I had gained the summit of a rather satisfying humility.  I was pleased with and grateful for my effort. 

Certainly, I was reminded of what I loved about my new home in central New Mexico: the equal distribution of peak and plain, mesa and mountain, space and substance.  

Four years later, Christian academic and backpacker Belden Lane, in his book The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, would acknowledge this appeal as well.  He identified it as the lure of the combination “refuge” and “prospect.”  Call it a hideaway with a grand view, and, in Lane’s words, a place to “see without being seen.”  During early Christian times in the Judean Desert, he explained, holy men and women established places like this; “hanging caves” on cliff faces, for instance; places where monks offered spiritual guidance, safely and with objectivity, to the yearning masses who would trickle in from the distant cities.  For myself, this landscape meant security, yet room for my thoughts to take flight.

I inched back down the mountain, my legs barely supporting me, but content. 

Driving back to Gorham through the oily autumn darkness, comforting myself with a Coke and a large bag of potato chips purchased in Waterville, I contemplated the day’s events.  I knew the window of opportunity for an overnight camp in Maine was closing rapidly.  Snow would soon be on the ground―and I do not camp upon depths of snow, anywhere.  And the window wouldn’t re-open until the fall of the following year.  For I knew I’d never camp in Maine in the spring, because of mud and black flies; or even in the summer, because of heat, humidity, and mosquitoes.  Perhaps, I thought, I’d never backpack again, never miss the authenticity of tramping four or five miles with a load on my back just to spend a night sleeping on hard ground.  Perhaps I’d be content with the “wilderness” experience of sitting on the porch of our house in the woods outside of Gorham. 

When we moved to New England, my wife and I planned to spend the rest of our lives there.  I couldn’t speak for my wife.  For myself, however, I now vaguely but nonetheless uncomfortably wondered:

Did I make a mistake?


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