June 22nd, 2015. I quit my job and headed west. West, where the Pacific meets Hollywood and the sun sets over the water in a spectacular orange ball of flame. I had one week to get there before starting a NOLS Wilderness-EMT course in Weed, California, and thus, the day after my friend J.D. got married, I started out at 5 AM in my Subaru for the West Coast.
I took a leisurely, scenic route from Edmond, Oklahoma, to Raton, New Mexico; past the grassland, open horizons, and dust devils before the horizons shrunk and moved up and down in jagged spikes and the tall grasses gave way to pines. I picked up my buddy Thomas from the Raton Greyhound Station, a small station surrounded by the Rockies and several wild deer. From there, we gunned it down to Cowles, New Mexico, and began what would become the worst hike of my life. Yet, as evidenced from the photo below, we started out absolutely stoked for the hike up towards Pecos Baldy and Trailriders Wall.
The crisp mountain air hit us like an ice bath, and we set off on a rapid pace up the trail. Sketched out by a black Dodge that kept circling the parking lot, we halted and hid behind several bushes to see what they were up to. Since I was moving back to the Northwest after this trip, I had nearly all of my earthly possessions in my car and didn’t want anything to happen to them. After a few more suspicious circles around the lot, the pickup roared off and Thomas and I hefted our packs and began our 8 mile trek up to Pecos Baldy Lake.
We were a little confused about whether or not we were even on the right trail, so after about 30 minutes of hiking, we backtracked and asked a campground host where the trail was for Pecos Baldy. Unfortunately, we were on the right path before. So we thanked her, shouldered our packs, and marched back up the trail again. We came to a switchback not much farther than where we had first turned around and there was a sign pointing to where we needed to go. If only we hadn’t second-guessed ourselves. Relieved to be finally gaining some ground, we hiked up the grueling switchbacks as our car-cramped legs grumbled in pain.
Thanks to our little detour, we were only a little past 4 miles in (out of 8 miles) and darkness was soon catching up.
We paused along the way to grab some sweet sunset shots in this part of the Southern Rockies before moving up into the forest and filtering water for the evening. By the time complete darkness hit us, we both had started feeling a bit woozy. At first, I was in denial. “No way would I have altitude mountain sickness!” Then the symptoms became more evident. Peripheral edema, splitting headaches, and lethargy. I recalled the research paper on AMS I had written back in 2014, but figured we might as well continue to the lake where we could get water and sleep. We were at 12,000 feet above sea level after starting out at 1,200 feet earlier that morning, and by then we still had another 2 miles to go before reaching the lake. Eventually, after multiple stops to rest our exhausted lungs and aching heads, we arrived at a small grove of trees near the lake. We barely had enough energy to munch on oatmeal and set up camp. Yet, by the time morning rose up and the sunlight bounced off of the nearby peaks, filtering its reflected light down through the copse, my headache had mostly disappeared and I was full of energy. So much energy that I bounced out of my sleeping bag with the plan of running up to the nearby ridge and looking down at Trailrider’s Wall.
So after a quick breakfast, that’s precisely what I did. I jogged up to the saddle and was greeted by a small family of mountain goats. They were eating breakfast a little later than I had and were munching grass and licking rocks, while I fumbled to back away slowly as Papa Goat glared at me protectively and moved closer every time I glanced away from him. I turned around slowly after snapping a pic of Truchas Peak etched in the distance, and headed back toward the lake.
Regrouping with Thomas, we hiked to the trail and followed it back to the trailhead. We passed the now vivid and bright places that had been darkened by the previous night. Passing by a small deer’s skull, burnt to a crisp, we wondered what large scale fire had devastated that part of the forest and stopped to shake out the ashes from our boots.
We tramped along the powdered path until, once more, we were back in the vast open space where we had seen the sunset the previous day.
Soon we were back at the trailhead. Adventure awaited us, and we headed off to Arizona to camp at Fossil Creek Falls, only a mere 7 hours away.
We flew by Sante Fe, and seven hours later we found ourselves in the flat, desertland of Arizona. Temperatures were in the high 90s, and with windows down and Streetlights blaring, we cruised towards the distant hills of Strawberry, Arizona.
We arrived with about an hour of remaining sunlight, and trekked towards the old mining road that winded its way into the deep canyon. A sign at the trailhead warned us to not plan on being rescued, but with a mere 8 mile roundtrip hike, we went for it anyways.
The lingering sun painted the cliffs and distant peaks with an incredible array of colours, dazzling us with its auburn reddish glow.
As the canyon walls grew taller and the views more magnificent, we marveled at the beauty that Arizona had in this desert oasis.
Eventually, the sun sunk completely behind the canyon walls and we navigated the remaining miles with the aid of our headlamps. Since we couldn’t camp directly at the falls, we hitched a ride with some teens who were taking the long way out of the valley after a trip to the falls. They had to drive 20 miles over a rough, dirt road until they reached civilization and major roads. They dropped us off close to a bridge that was about two miles downstream from the falls and we cowboy camped in the warm desert air. Around midnight, I awoke to voices and spotted headlamps walking over the bridge. Whoever it was, they had one crazy long hike to go, if that truly was the way they were heading.
We woke up at 5:15 AM to get an early start before the sun rose to its zenith and ate a hurried meal of oatmeal. We packed up camp and started hiking toward the falls.
After walking down several dusty trails, we emerged into a little shaded cove with thousands of gallons pouring over its falls.
We jumped in and swam around the deep hole, and I fought back that lingering thought that there might be an ancient creature that lived at the bottom of the hole and preyed on unsuspecting swimmers.
The heat began to creep upon us, slowly at first before zapping our strength and making us seek shelter from the blazing rays. I took a quick bath before getting out and drying off in the sun. We drenched our towels in the cool creek water and then wrapped them around our heads for the hike out. Four miles of uphill trekking in rising temperatures without any shade. By the time we got back to the trailhead, the temperatures were in the low 100s and we felt roasted.
Next stop: Southern California, 7 hours away. Continue to Chapter II.