The Second Annual Bird-Man of the Cataloochee Father’s Day Memorial Hike

It’s already been a year since T.F.A.B.M.O.C.F.D.M.H., aka The First Annual Bird-Man of the Cataloochee Father’s Day Memorial Hike.  That first fatherless Father’s Day hike spawned what will no doubt be an annual trek, a time of peace and remembrance in the outdoors.  The name remains the same, but this time around is far from the Cataloochee Divide in the Smoky Mountains.  No dewy hardwoods, rainy weather, and mist shrouded Smoky Mountains here.  Not quite the easy walk in the woods this time around, either, but the sentiment is the same.

This one has been in the works for a while.  There have been a couple short hikes in the Sandia Mountains to now, but the long one has been waiting all along; the hike to the top of the range.  Not a day goes by that I don’t look at the top of the mountains, the north-south jagged spine and the surrounding high country with thoughts of aspens and firs going through my imagination.  There’s really no reason, none whatsoever, to go any longer without taking a run up there.

So, I set the date close to Father’s Day, thinking it would be a perfect locale for T.S.A.B.M.O.C.F.D.M.H.  The date got bumped up.  The Forest Service had other plans.  Fortunately, I learned in advance that they were closing all the trails as of June 10.  The fire danger is so ridiculously high that there’s not much other recourse: Mountains closed until further notice.

I get to the trail at 7:30.  The sun is up but I’m at the base of a precipitous west-facing slope, so it should be a while before the sun clears the ridge, and things should be cool and shady for a while.  The trailhead is about 7,000 feet and the top of the range is 10,000 and change, so I’m looking at a 3,000+ gain with no timetable and, the way I figure, by the time the hottest part of the day arrives, I’ll have climbed to a cooler zone.

The lower foothills make me yearn for rain.  The hills are full of low growing bushes – mountain mahogany – whose leaves are small and brown and crispy.  I imagine just a little moisture making all these leaves green and changing the whole palette out here.  The trail takes its sweet time climbing, thus, the mahogany is present for a while until I reach the top of a drainage and come to some oaks and soon pinyon.

This well known, well used trail climbs evenly and steadily and is easy going.  I check time and mileage and calculate I’m travelling at a rate of about 2.5 miles per hour.  The drainage is supporting some green leafy trees that are as conspicuous as someone beating on a drum out here.  The leaves are as bright and soft as cottonwood, but they are oval and not heart-shaped so I don’t know the tree.  Any tender and green leaf is a big deal out here.IMG_2649

Further up the canyon, things get rugged.  This is why you have to hike.  There’s no seeing this from down below.  You need to climb and get behind the crags and into the folds to see the rock formations and the monolithic outcroppings, some of which stop you right you in your tracks.  More than once, I think of the contrast between last year’s Father’s Day hike and this year’s, how this area is so rugged, so exposed and outright spectacular compared to how the Smokies were so pretty and pastoral and like being in a cocoon.  Is one better than the other? The answer is written on a shirt I bought from the Mast Store in Waynesville, NC on which appears the caption:  “If you’re lucky enough to be in the mountains, you’re lucky enough.”

IMG_2661 The trees get big before the five mile mark and give shade.  Ponderosas and spruce: evergreens with long green needles and short bluish ones.  The air cools and when the wind blows the right way, you get a nose-full of pine.  The trail turns rocky around the five mile mark and the hike becomes more of a scramble across the scree at the base of a giant thumb-shaped formation.  A warning sign to winter hikers warns of deep snow and ice. I see the first aspen and know I must be around 9,000 feet.  The cones of Douglas firs with their little tails are showing up now also.

At the top, the trail levels out.  I’m on the crest and sight the spine of the Sandias all the way to the Manzano Mountains.  One could hike the length of the spine in this high country and it would make a great overnight trek.  The views are forever, the air is cool and the terrain forested.  I’m only going along the crest until I reach the tram – my ride back down.

After taking long enough to rest and feel the cool air, the tram ride down drops me back in the cactus and ninety-plus degrees.  Now comes the hard part.  It’s about two more hot miles from here to the trailhead and it is now that I know I’ve had it from the stumbling and tripping from the sloppy walking and the heavy legs and the cursing.  The last of it turns into a grinding endurance test.  It’s good to see what you’ve got once in a while, push your body, get into a little mind over matter, deal with the discomfort, if even poorly. It might hurt some tomorrow, but it’s a good hurt.

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T.A.H. 1933-2012

Just Like Riding A Bike

The Three Sisters are named JA Volcano, Black Volcano, and Vulcan Volcano, respectively, from south to north.  The middle one, Black Volcano, is the one which I watched the mountain bikers descending.  The downhill run they were on was rocky with mild curves and a forgiving grade, a perfect spot for gauging skill.

I take the long and level, hard-packed dirt trail that skirts the volcano.  It’s broken up by a rocky stretch that takes a little steering and tighter gripping to go through smoothly.  To my mind, this little change in texture and surface is the equivalent of going through a minor rapid, a Class I.  Certainly there must be a system for rating the technicality of a mountain bike trail, and if I were a bit more ambitious I’d have looked it up for this entry, but it probably wouldn’t mean much to me.  I can relate better to the system of rating rapids.

It is clear and sparse and dry here, mostly dry sage and snakeweed and a lone juniper every so often to add a small splash of green.  The views go on for miles in every direction.  I prefer the west.  It’s open and empty (can’t you just see Clint wearing a poncho and riding on a white horse across the malpais?) clear to Mount Taylor.

On the north side of Black Volcano, the path begins to climb.  Downshift and pedal.  The long grade is a good warm-up for legs and lungs.  The worst of the acclimatizing to the mile-high elevation has passed.  The spitting of blood, blowing of blood out the nose, and hypoxic cellular agony that go along with  getting used to physical activity at elevation have all been paid their dues.

IMG_2624  The path plateaus and splits at a little saddle.  On the left is a long, S-shaped ascent.  The rocks get bigger, the trail gets steeper, and the whole affair gets more technical.  I’m pleased as can be at being able to steer through the scree and control the bike to the top.  The muscle memory and technique are more intact than I would have thought.

I’m glad to also remember why people do this, or climb, or paddle, or paint, or do needlepoint, or (fill in the blank): Because of the activity’s ability to be all-engaging.  Regardless of what may be going on in my interior world or the world at large, my only concern at the moment is keeping the front tire between the boulders, maintaining rotation of the back tire, and seeking out the next line.

Ideally, you want the back tire to make it through the crease as smoothly as the front, but it doesn’t always work out that way.  Often, the rear tire is on a different line than the front, and you must brace, knowing you’ll have to drag the rear over that big rock, and it will kick, and knock a little wind out of you, and you’ll swear, and have to expend precious depleting energy to work the sprockets that much harder.

At the top, I’m anaerobically gassed and sucking air, but there will be some time now to recover my wind; it’s downhill for a while now.  I’ll call the downhill ride a Class II/III.  It’s fairly rocky but not too steep and the lines to take are pretty easy to spot and follow, though it requires vigilance.  At the bottom, I’ll call it a Class III due to the sudden emergence of much larger rocks and the blind ledge at the bottom that you can’t see past.  Some extra pre-scouting would have come in handy here and I have to put my feet down (hate to do it) to get through.  Since then, the ledge has been smooth – you just have to know where you’re going.

I’ve been back numerous times.  There is an alternate route down Black Volcano shown here that I’d give a Class III due to the fact that it feels the whole way down that gravity is just waiting for the rightIMG_2590 time to yank you right over the handlebars.  Another way down is on a different path on the side I came up on, full of pebbled black volcanic cinders, narrow and steep as can be – a Class IV that’s been daring me, but is presently only in the scouting stage.

And then, there’s the one on Vulcan Volcano, a path I needed to brace against at times just walking down it.  The dirt bore the tire tracks of some lunatic who’d ridden it, a veritable Class V.  I know what you’re wondering, and the answer is “not a chance.”

Fat Tire Fever

It’s a good thing I saved the knobbies.  It has been a long time, yes it has, since they’ve seen any action.  One look at the duders beating it down the hill on the backside of Black Volcano was all it took.  “Get ready to get good and dusty, and beat up,” I tell the old steed, needlessly.  The bike can handle any and all abuse.  It’s proven.  As for the rider, that remains to be seen.

The first order of business in this mountain bike renaissance is to change out the tires.  The slicker ones so long employed for paved riding won’t last a minute on these rock and crater trails.  Taking a trip in the way-back machine, I pry off the tires and roll out the long-stored knobby ones, second or third generation I’m sure, for they look remarkably good.  It can’t help but make me think about the miles this bike has seen.

Before I get to the trails at the volcanoes, and there’s plenty to say about them, I feel it necessary to pay a brief tribute to the beater, the beast, the steed, the roughest toughest hunk of metal I’ll probably IMG_2265ever ride.  Not being the sharpest knife in the drawer, I have to break out the ancient calculator (a yellowed, solar-powered Sharp from college, older than the bike) to deduce the bike’s age.  18 years.  Mostly original parts.  A few tune-ups and brake jobs.  The biggest replacement was the rear wheel with its six sprockets, but that wasn’t the bike’s fault; that was me running it over with my car.

There were those first years of riding single-tracks and Jeep trails around Tucson back in the day when staying in one piece was secondary to being able to look up a hill at the end of a run and say, “No way I just did that.”  There were drop-offs where you’d think no way can a bike withstand that, but withstand it it did.  The friggin’ thing is indestructible, I tell ya.  Well, I’ve been ass over teakettle plenty on it, and actually got pretty good at recognizing that split second before the poop is about to hit the fan and being able to bail out, leaving the bike on its own to ghost ride down a hill and crash and go ass over teakettle itself at the bottom, with no complaints nor barely a scratch.

Well, I’m not much interested in getting busted up, and seeing those mountain bikers at the volcanoes made me remember the thrill of the run.  This area I speak of is part of Petroglyph National Monument, the  very same PNM I’ve written about a couple times here, though this is a different segment of the park, the far western portion.  There are no petroglyphs here.  It is wide open and sparse with three separate volcanoes – The Three Sisters, as they are known, which, along with two more volcanic cones to the north, make up the far western skyline of Albuquerque.  The network of trails that crisscross the three volcanoes come in all different levels of difficulty, so there’s plenty of opportunity to grease the wheels without doing anything stupid.

“Medicine Man Was Here”

I reach the top of the escarpment a couple of minutes before six, just ahead of sunup.  It’s probably a subjective thing, but over there on the northern fringe of the Sandia Mountains, the morning sun seems to rise slingshot-fast.

Another early morning hike, this time in a different canyon of Petroglyph National Monument, a reply from several weeks ago to NIIY reader and Chicagoland author SC’s inquiry for more information on this rock art.  So, for what it’s worth, here goes.  First thing to realize is that the original meaning of each of these symbols is known only by its creator.  However, there are some generally accepted meanings to some of the forms that are seen repeatedly throughout the canyons.  To wit:  (Following information courtesy of Petroglyph National Monument Visitor Center interpretive signage)

  • Animal imagery can represent family clan affiliations with the Pueblo social organizational or may simply communicate a food resource.
  • Macaw petroglyphs verify the extensive trade network that existed among North, Central, and South American native people.
  • Spirals are associated with wind, water, spiritual emergence, and an individual’s journey through life.
  • Geometric and abstract images are associated with nomadic desert cultures that likely created the oldest petroglyphs in the monument 2,000-3,000 years ago.
  • Hands were the most useful tools for early cultures and handprints were used to mark territory, sacred places, and were also the emblem left behind by medicine men.

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The weather in the early morning at this time of year is nothing short of phenomenal.  Fifty-nine degrees and ten percent humidity?  Fuhgeddaboudit.  Listen.  There’s one sound, the single, rising-note laugh of a quail, playing hide and seek somewhere in the low brush.  There are also two jackrabbits keeping their distance without fleeing outright.  They trot and I’m lucky to catch them in a rabbit version game of leap-frog.  You always want them to show off the strength of their hind legs.  They split up and the one left behind sits still, crouching near a saltbush.  Its body blends perfectly with the surrounding sand, but its ears give it away.  If they could just fold up those extra-long , black-tipped ears, they’d be so well concealed from their enemies.

At the back of the canyon – the dead ending of the box canyon (not that you’d need to be any kind of hotshot climber to scramble up to the top of the ledge and find yourself smack dab in someone’s back yard) is where the handprints are.  It’s peaceful back here and a good place to stay still awhile.  Yes, that’s that other thing that dovetails with hiking: coming upon places of tranquility to sit still and absorb the ambiance.  There’s a stick next to the rock I’m sitting on and I pick it up and begin drawing in the sand, ending up with a figure with a round head, big ears, slits for eyes, a flat nose and a tiny round mouth and a bearded collar dropping from ears to under chin.

I leave the stick next to the drawing, thinking that the next person who comes by can smooth it over and make one of their own.  It reminds me of the monks who make beautiful works of art out of sand and then leave them behind for the elements to do as they wish with their creations.  Drawings in the sand and footprints are all that need be left behind here.

Abq’s Finest to the Rescue

The Russian Olive is wrecking havoc on my legs.  Don’t be taken by its delicate and sweet-smelling yellow blooms; its thorns will shred skin and, like the salt cedar, aka tamarisk, it is an unwelcome and invasive plant species along the river.  Bushwhacking, crawling, and contorting to reach imbedded garbage is scratchy work, but the thickets are where the trash coagulates.

I have to keep reminding myself to visually scan the banks for litter as we go downriver.  My tendency is to become transfixed on the water, looking downstream and working back to the boat, reading the water, always reading.  An old habit.

We have to hop out on more than a few occasions to drag the canoe off of a sandbar.  It isn’t a big deal, but it does tweak one’s sensibilities.  Running a river smoothly is a matter of pride.  The only plus out here is that reading and steering mistakes are easily forgiven and don’t result in wicked rock-pins, flips, and carnage as they can in whitewater.  The key here, as in faster water, is a glassy surface.  LOOK FOR GLASS!  I decide early that I’ll be back on the river within weeks, seeking that perfect run.

Our takeout is a boat ramp at the Central Avenue bridge – easy to find since there are only two bridges on our section: the highway and Central.  Given the urban character of the area, the bosque hemming in both sides of the river gives the feeling and quiescence of it being anything but.

There is a large gathering of volunteers in the park at the takeout.  It appears almost all of them have patrolled on foot, given our two canoes plus two kayaks are the only boats beached there.  It’s quite the jovial post clean-up get-together, with free lunch, a raffle, and a contest for the most interesting item of the day fished from water or bank.  Sorry, but no one found Tuco’s “grill” in the river (if you watch “Breaking Bad” you know about this).  The winner was…a small effigy with melted wax on its head and pins stuck in its body, the whole thing stuffed halfway into a wide-mouthed bottle.  Come to think of it, it was kind of “Breaking Bad” worthy.

Our return shuttle is running late.  People are leaving the park, and we’re still missing the third boat in our party.  One of our people gets HQ on the phone.  They inform her, and she relays to us, that the wayward paddlers have called in.

“Where are they?” I want to know.  “Los Lunas?  Belen?  Juarez?!?  NOT JUAREZ!”

“Bridge Street,” she tells us.

Turns out they miscounted bridges and overshot Central by a mile and ended up doing a paddle-by of abandoned riverside homeless camps.

IMG_2574  Our shuttle arrives and before you can say “Can we go home without further incident?” the driver buries the tires in the deep soft sand under the bridge in the middle of a three-point turn.  We try to jam branches under the tires for traction, but this bad-boy isn’t going anywhere.

ABQ’s finest to the rescue.  Blue is out in numbers today and they are right there – yes! – with a four-wheel drive and chain and have the van free in no time.  No blood, no foul.

Cleaning Up

May 11 was National River Cleanup 2013.  One of the participating parties here was Quiet Waters Paddling, an outfitter from Bernalillo which provided canoes and shuttle to anyone wanting to take part.  Any reason to spend a day on the river is a good one, and helping to clean up is an especially good one.

The Quiet Waters group is a small one, five of us and three canoes.  A sixth person from Albuquerque Open Space meets us at the put-in somewhere around 8:30.  I can’t say for sure since I’ve deliberately dispensed with all timekeeping devices for the day.

I step into the cool mud to give the second canoe out a push-off.  It’s a rough start.  One of the paddlers overshoots on the initial attempt at sitting on the small webbed seat in the boat’s stern and goes ass over teakettle into the rear compartment while her paddle goes flying into the river.  I go wading after it and retrieve the paddle, nearly going ass over teakettle myself trying to navigate through all the submerged and slippery roots and rocks.

“Whew,” hoping that will be all the drama for one day.  It won’t be.

We’re preparing to drag the third and final boat, ours, to the water when my boat mate asks me a question you never want a boat mate to ask you.

“Do you have another paddle?”

I stare back blankly.  That would be a “no.”

Our van driver has just left, but she’s got his number and gets him on the blower.  No, there is no extra paddle on the van.  Screw it, we decide.  We can trade off taking the stern.  There’s a current working with us and we can get down the river just fine with one paddle.  As it turns out, there’s another person from Open Space who’s going to paddle solo in a kayak and he has an extra kayak paddle.  Snafu #2 averted.  Our kayaker friend gives us an extra breakdown paddle to keep on board for good measure and we’re soon clear of the tree tangles and moving with the current and dipping paddles and all is right with the world.

I had my doubts about the water level for this trip, but there is still good flow on the river.  Things also have greened up considerably since my last time on the Rio Grande.  The cottonwoods, just beginning to grow their leaves then, are now leafed out and shimmering in the breeze.  And the willows, taking more time than any to come out of their winter dormancy, are finally showing tender shoots.

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Le Barge

We zigzag and ping-pong between the left bank and the islands in the middle of the river, beaching the canoe and walking along shoreline with two bags, for recyclable and non-recyclable garbage.  I’m glad to report there was less trash than I thought there would be, but then again there are others in front of us on this sweep, plus it hasn’t rained in quite some time, which would flush all kinds of debris downstream.  There’s plenty of the usual suspects still: primarily plastic bottles and Styrofoam.  Lots and lots of Styrofoam.

“A tight trip is a safe trip,” goes the whitewater maxim.  It’s a good thing we’re not in whitewater because we’re anything but tight.  We won’t see the other two boats in our party once  along the five miles of river we’re covering.  In fact, one of the boats is still AWOL an hour after we rendezvous at the arranged take-out area, leaving four of us speculating and scratching our heads as to their whereabouts.

Old School Art

The twilight hours are the best time here.  All the other times I’ve come have been during the brightest part of the day, which tends to bleach out some of the mystery of place as well as make the mind more restless.  In the quiet of early morning, however, there is room to let your imagination roam at its own speed.  And that’s really the way to see the petroglyphs – slowly, finding a pace, staying open to whatever the images evoke, hearing only your own footsteps.

Following that line of thinking, or non-thinking, I find myself heading in a new direction, walking to the north-facing side of the canyon where I haven’t been before, picking my way through the sand past saltbush and sandsage brush.  Everything looks dead out here, but if you look closely you see it is not.  The plants have managed to send out the faintest of greenery, a leaf here and there, but you have to seek signs of life.  They’re holding out for some life-giving monsoonal moisture in July, and sacrificing limbs until then if necessary.  You wonder about the animals.  Where are the jackrabbits are finding water out here?  But, they too are survivors.

There is no art on the north-facing rocks on this side of the canyon.  Why did they not adorn the rocks on this side?  The first of many questions.  Soon enough, though, reaching the dead end of the box canyon and turning north, they will begin to appear, and in large numbers.  Petroglyph National Monument contains over 25,000 individual images that have been etched into the basalt boulders, most between 400-700 years ago by ancestral Puebloans.

IMG_2306They come in clusters.  Up the canyon wall on one rock is a horse, a man, a crab, a turtle, a snake, and what looks like a rack and a spine (to me at least).  Here is a figure made of three diamonds forming two arms and two legs with an oblongish, sideways, alien head perched on top.  There is a snake with two antennae protruding from its head.  Over there – a two headed bird.  A sun-head with two eyes and a wide, flat nose.  A square Martian head with two antennae.

Why all the Martian forms and the antennae?  Did the ancient Puebloans play host to visitors from outer space or were they imagining what they might look like?  Or, were they just messing with the future generations whom they knew would see their work?IMG_2551

Speaking of the work, that’s another thing that tickles the brain.  Chipping away at the black basalt reveals a lighter shade beneath the surface.  For these images to remain after hundreds and hundreds of years, it took a lot more than lightly scratching the top layer to make something that has lasted this long.  This is a combination of art and hard labor.  How many hours, days, weeks, working under the sun – there isn’t shade for a fly out here – pecking rock on rock, does it take to make these?