Monday, January 18, 2016

Thinking Like a Watershed

Last spring's trip into the backcountry behind the Santa Rita mine proved that travel in unknown and unprotected spaces could be unexpectedly beautiful and wild. For over 2 years, I've wanted to push the envelope a little further, and travel the length of our local watershed, the San Vicente, right from the front door. The San Vicente cuts right through a "Bermuda Triangle" of high Chihuahua desert grassland, weaving through lonely and humble volcanic peaks, eventually falling into the Mimbres River. A perennial water source cutting through Silver City, the San Vicente is probably the natural spot our family frequents the most. How lucky we are to live so far south in the desert, and have a riparian playground to enjoy it in. To follow this constant source of inspiration to its end seemed like a logical journey, and a way to enjoy our humble landscape even further.

I was a bit nervous about the trip, knowing that there was a fair amount of blatant trespassing inherently necessary in following our drainage. Hours of research spent staring at topo and satellite imagery on Caltopo led me to believe that there were fewer than 5 ranch homes along the route, and equally as many potentially "reliable" windmill water sources. That research proved accurate, in fact, I found even more quality water than I'd expected.

The first bit of private property dodging was at the far Southern end of town, dropping into the now dry arroyo to skirt a swath of singlewide trailers. On the other side was the town's Wastewater treatment plant. Ever curious about the plight of our water in the desert, I was pleasantly shocked to see beautiful crystalline agua flowing into what has become a birder's paradise. The creek now flowed again into a few large ponds. With every turn, I flushed out hundreds of geese, scenic framed against the cottonwoods of the lower creekbed.

A few miles below, the old railroad grade become more pronounced. The railroad ties and spikes have long since been discarded, but the grade is beautiful and easy to follow. Fast hiking prevailed, and I had notions of creating a rails to trails bike path cutting from Silver City to Deming, boosting the local economy and giving locals a reason to enjoy this most subtle landscape. That daydream came crashing to a hault when first I found railroad tracks again at Oak Grove Creek, and then trains proper at the hamlet of Whitewater.

Forced off the tracks by 3 sets of trains, I cut to the other side of the now wide San Vicente drainage. An ocean of tumbleweed grew at the bottom, making progress excruciatingly slow. Where tumbleweed didn't grow, head-high bunchgrass did, tall and oblivious to the cows at the bottom further upstream. The vegetation was thick and inspiring, the landscape not denuded as in other places by cattle. This would become a common refrain; staring with admiration at tall grasses where cattle walked not, gawking nauseatingly at the barren landscapes where they did.

33 miles into the day, the sky turned threw pink in all directions. I knew it was time to pause and bivy down for the night. The winds picked up as the sun went away, but sleep came easily on flat and open ground on the rim of the arroyo.

Coyotes calling in directions around woke me up at 5:00 am in time to make some Earl Grey tea. Determined to end my route before dark and get home, I started off down the arroyo under the light of my headlamp.

Approaching the wide blue expanse of water reflecting the sunrise, I stood in disbelief. When I heard the quiet ripples of moving water on the Mimbres River, I smile wide, transfixed. I felt my heart racing and finally felt the urge to put pen to paper. I felt something like Craig Childs reaching the Sea of Cortez after traversing days of barren desert. I sat down on the last few feet of cracking San Vicente soil and fished the pen and paper from a ziploc in my pack. The past 35 miles had been so subtle that finding flowing water under the soft yellow & blue light of dawn was almost too stimulating. The previous monotony of landscape had told me that I should not expect to find water flowing here. It'd been over a week since any significant moisture had fallen nearby, but clearly the white glinting in it's headwaters of the Black Range was providing the water that caused me to smile so huge this morning.

In the first few hours of morning, I'd heard many coyotes, seen 2 owls in the arroyo under the beam of my headlamp, and the enjoyed the nearing proximity of Black Mountain. I was cutting cross country now, following the flats above the banks of the Mimbres River. There is an old Mimbres ruin site out here that I've pinpointed on my GPS. Aiming toward South Peak in the Florida Mountains, I suddenly stumble upon a rainbow of rocks on a subtle terrace. I knew the ruins once lay here, since bladed to the ground by a cattle rancher leasing the lands from the state of New Mexico back in the 70's . Pottery hunters looted this site of nearly everything a while back, making small fortunes to buy big trucks.

Sitting down to eat a bit of food, I mumbled to myself how I never find any pottery sherds. An archaeologist from Tucson once told me that they are EVERYWHERE in this region, how had I never found any? I felt like I could crawl on my hands and knees looking for them, but only find funky rocks, pronghorn, and cow shit. As soon as I stood up and walked eastward while staring at the ground, I noticed thin red chunks. Picking them up I realized that these weren't rocks, and instead lightweight clay chunks with dabs of black geometric art inscribed on them. Each was smaller than a quarter, but they needed to be no bigger. It was predictably inspiring to be touching these pieces of pottery that have sat on this sun bleached ground for over 1000 years. If finding the Mimbres flowing at the bottom of a parched San Vicente was the most profound event of the trip, then this was splendid icing on the cake.

I'd set climbing Black Mountain as a goal, hoping to one day climb all of the large and small peaks that dot the Mimbres Basin. The hiking from the ruin site was straightforward, and I was grateful to have an excuse to eat summer sausage and cheese with a long view. Out came the Peakfinder app on my phone, and I was amazed at how good the visibility was. Views of the snow-capped Chiricahuas in Arizona, Mogollon Mountains in the Gila Wilderness, and eastward to the Franklins behind El Paso. While there were not many of the large and dark airhole pocked volcanic rocks elsewhere on this trip, they were stacked in abundance on all sides of this peak. Descending was a nightmare, recalling talus descents off 14ers in the Maroon Bells of Colorado.

At the bottom it was business time, hoping to cut straight right across the desert to catch a final fill of water at the Mimbres and a finish before dark at the new gas station on the North End of Deming. The river died slowly as the water filtered under the sandy river bottom and ATV tracks coursed its length. A surprising network of 2 tracks followed the river for over 10 miles, making the hiking fast. Things turned industrial and I preferred taking in the odd sites above the Mimbres instead of the increasingly battered riverbed.

As the landscape was starting to get creepy and trashed, I climbed up to the crossing of Hwy 180 and my finish. The river had completely dried up a couple of miles back, possibly never returning to the surface this time of year. Maybe some other time I'll try to trace the Mimbres from Deming to its ultimate destination below Palomas, Mexico. That trip would even more subtle than following the San Vicente. Travelling through the grasslands on this trip prepared and excited me for such monotony.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Splashes on the Middle Fork

Pangs of home, missing daughter and wife, haunt me for the first few miles as they always do. This time things would be different, later on and halfway up Little Creek, I'd break free of my other life and fully live in the one I was walking. For now, dropping into Little Creek from the scorched rim above, I spot Inov-8 trail runner tracks in the hardened mud. Looking up, five horsemen pass by, two carrying bloodied elk skulls, racks spread wide behind them. "Where did you find those?". "We're the shooters, we just pull the trigger." The guides in front of the line pass word that the elk were in McKenna Park.

Grasses high, ponderosa spaced wide. McKenna Park is as great of a place as I'd imagined it. No severe burn here, just the feeling of "healthy" fires having passed by. Pines and yellow-leafed Gambel Oak left with tons of space as they were meant to have. I'm scanning for elk, and hoping to find wolf tracks due to the story I'd been told back down at Little Creek before starting the climb out. He'd heard two Mexican Grays last summer while camping with his dogs. "Wildest thing I've ever heard. Incredible."
Turning around after failing to photograph the subtle beauty of this park, a man hikes up, wind jacket glistening with sweat. Bill is from Tucson and has been coming to what he considers the best Wilderness in the Southwest for 40 years. We chat capital W wilderness and he can't stop saying "You Get IT! You're living it!". Blushing and awkward we talk about our reverence for the Gila, the sopping wet earth here, it's vast size, these trees. He's counted the rings on a ponderosa pine cracked across the trail, "175 years old! The Gila was still part of Mexico then." His enthusiasm and cheer help me cruise the remaining miles down to White Creek as it dumps into the West Fork of the Gila River just as darkness fell.

Staring at topo maps under a full moon, headlamp barely needed, I decide to re-route my trip. 20 miles of sloshing down the Middle Fork to make camp at Jordan Hot Springs now seemed like an idiotic idea in the deep chill of autumn. Instead, I decide to traverse the mesa between the West and Middle Forks, allowing me to visit Prior Cabin on Prior Creek. The foliage had been enjoyably vivid on this hike, and I'd hoped that a north-trending drainage would hold good deciduous trees. My leaf-peeping notions were slightly misguided, but the location of the cabin did not disappoint. Built into rolling hills in an open meadow, this is for some reason not what I'd expected. The Forest Service has done work to this cabin, the date 1954 scraped into concrete at its foot. I'd hope to catch it in a crumbled state like Skunk Johnson's cabin on Big Dry Creek, and was sad to see it locked up and in nice shape. Internet sleuthing upon returning home shows that the Forest Service built this cabin back in the '50s. Why had I wanted so badly for it to have been built by some pioneering miner trying to make a go of it in true wilderness?

Poking around downstream trying to find the evaporated trail, I run into a large hunting camp. No one is around, but the smell of horse shit is intense. I hike cross-country only to run into the trail which is now pockmarked by hooves and filled in with puddles. As I'm stumbling and annoyed by the trail, three elk dart across the trail, crashing through the grass and brush. I smile wide, mind wiped clean.

In the deep shade of the Middle Fork, my toes burn cold with each meander. Soaked to the waist, my focus is intense while picking a route through milky, translucent white water. I've picked a shitty crossing, and at this steep bank of reeds, the water is now up to my navel, swift. Reminding myself to keep it together, I prod my quivering ultralight trekking poles into the slimy boulders beneath for one last lunge upward. Smiling huge, dripping cold, I realize I've finally embraced the Gila as home. Not once on this trip did I find myself daydreaming of the snowy angular peaks of Colorado, insted excited for the humble beauty of where I then stood. The intensity of the fords never dropped off, but their effect on my mind did. I slipped through the water with relative ease, later grateful to share Jordan Hot Springs with only two bullfrogs on its edge.