Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The High Country: Jicarilla

One afternoon at REI, an older gentleman came up to me with the hope that I would order for him a new pair of hiking boots. When I got the email address by which to contact him, I was intrigued by his name. Musai. Somewhere I'd heard it before, this obvious dharma name. Googling it later, I found out that he was the dharma heir to the priest who had performed the ceremony for my first marriage back in 1997. He was now Roshi to a Zen group just outside Santa Fe. Looking over their website, I noted that he did hikes monthly with friends and sangha members.

Last Saturday I joined him for the first time. There were just three of us, waking at dawn for the long drive up the High Road to Taos. We hung a left at Truchas (where Redford filmed " The Milagro Beanfield War"), passed the still operating flume at Trampas, then turned right onto the long dirt road past the village of El Valle, spread proud and isolated along its grassy valley. Where the road ended we moved onto trail, tracing the San Leonardo watershed to its eponymous lake source, up over 11000 ft. It was a lovely hike, crossing the stream a few times, with a long snack break for 'Elevenses.' The conversation was light, mostly about the wildflowers and the ample supply of fleshy mushrooms growing to impossible sizes.

It felt great to get into the hills. I'd too long been putting it off. It seemed that the timing had never been right. The snow season gave way to mud season, a time when even down in town, the dust turns to mud, splashing up to dirty the undercarriages of all those expensive European toys people here drive. I couldn't even imagine what the roads at altitude were like. Then the spring winds came, and in the window between when they clear the stage for the summer monsoon, somehow work told hold of me, taking away triple the weekly hours I had been working over the past decade. Inertia creeps as always, and over this past month a terrible craving for space, both temporal and spatial, has begun to build.

Again, it felt great to get into the hills. While it is admittedly a blessing to have a wife who shares my love for the mountains (and in many ways, is more intrepid than I), it is a treat to be out with the fellows. It also reminds me how much I enjoy walking solo, something I'll need to attend to before the snows come again.

There was a large open meadow at 10,000 ft, the trees all blown down or pushed over by avalanches. From here the trail showed its seriousness, leading us up a 1000 ft climb in less than a mile. It was here that I was truly awestruck by Musai. His pace across the level trails or slight inclines matched my own. It was only on the more steep ascents that his legs revealed their mileage. Lunch was well earned, beside the smaller of the two San Leandro lakes. Small fish swam in water which surely must freeze at this altitude. Across the water was the steep slope that we'd later climb, between the trees and up over the talus, looking for footholds where no trail has ever been. It was tough going, even with the hiking poles I was initiating. I'd always questioned their use, but was now forever sold. Four legs are indeed better than two. Using the poles brought more stability and balance, and occasionally I'd lean onto one, looking down at the floor far below, and across at the adjacent rock wall, where big horn sheep leap and strut, though not today. I'd have envied their sureness of foot. To slip here meant a long and dangerous fall, every step requiring full attention. Awareness built into every step.

It took a couple hours to reach the ridge. I'd sat awhile on a rock just below it, looking over the scenery over which we'd walked, over which we'd driven. All the familiar landmarks were there: Taos and Los Alamos; Black Mesa and the Jemez. Yet, by contrast, the view over the back of the ridge introduced the unfamiliar: the higher Pecos with all that open space, and the ridge that looked like it encircled it all. The Sandia range was visible far to the south, with the Truchas Peaks closer in, all gnarled and misshapen like deformed hands. The beauty ensnared me. I was both in, and of, the landscape. I simultaneously began to expand and disappear.

Then my eyes began to greedily seek more details within the view, and the mind joined in by wanting to capture everything in photos. I wanted to linger, but we still had a short climb ahead. We followed the ridgeline up to Jicarilla Peak, nearly 12500 ft and a good place for tea. I believe I said something like, "Three-sixty is a fine number." All of northern New Mexico was there for us.

There weather was good, but it was nearing three. We didn't dawdle as we moved down the ridgeline, trying to keep equidistant between the two watersheds on either side of us, the truck parked near their confluence. When the descent would grow steeper, dropping us into one of them, we'd veer off at a diagonal for higher ground. It was a long afternoon, feet sore at taking near sideways steps, ankles pitching and rolling. We wound up in a creek bed, thankfully dry, but which required some bobbing and weaving over fallen trees and over rough terrain. Finally, we found the Trampas Lake Trail, wide and well-kept. I'm rarely so grateful to see something constructed by man. The rapidly encroaching dark reminded us that this was the time of the animals, not so subtly demonstrated by the paw print of a very large cat, and in the half-devoured carcass of a porcupine, its quills scattered about like spilled toothpicks.

The truck was there, outlined in the nearly full dark. It had taken us about four hours to get down. Musai mentioned that his goal with these hikes is to be completely emptied out. I felt the opposite, full and re-energized after all those summer days seen from indoors. Not that I wasn't suffering. My stomach was crying for food, but luckily we arrived at Rancho de Chimayo a few minutes before its 9 o'clock close. The ride home seemed long, myself crammed sideways in the jumpseats of the truck cab, my neck stiff from altitude and dehydration. What didn't help matters was arriving at a police DWI checkpoint back in town, me rankling at such a deliberate display of control after a full day of freedom in the wild. Finally, my fatigue found a cure in sleep, crawling into bed nearly 18 hours after I'd left it.

(Musai has posted his own take on things, with pics. Scroll down to Aug 21 post.)

On the turntable: Gentle Giant, "Gentle Giant"
On the nighttable: David Hatcher Childress, "Lost Cities and Ancient Mysteries of the Southwest"

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