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.
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.”
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.