Thursday, January 8, 2015

Big Bend Outer Mountain Loop Part II: The desert

There comes a time in every hike lasting more than twenty-four hours where, for me, my other life ceases to exist. This is what my life is now, and it seems like it will always be this. I want to just keep hiking forever. I don't know if others feel this way or not. Mostly I am afraid to ask, in case it is just me.

December in the Chisos. I crawled out of my tent wearing the following: long underwear. Fleece pants. Wool long sleeve shirt. Wool long underwear top. Fleece pullover. Down jacket. Fleece jacket. Mittens. Hat. Down booties. It was cold, well below freezing. TC fired up her Jet Boil and passed me a lifesaving mug of hot water. We huddled around the bear boxes (no campfires allowed), discussing today's water carry strategy.

"How many liters are you going to carry?"

"Um...three and a half? How many are you going to carry?"

We had an eleven mile hike today before we reached water, or at least the rumor of water, and we were dropping 2,500 feet, then climbing in and out of steep washes. It would be warmer, we guessed. And what if there was no water in Fresno Creek after all? In the end we all had about three liters, except for Camel, who of course carried at least five, living up to his trail name.

We stopped at Boot Spring before we left the mountain for the desert, next to some buildings that had once housed crew for trail rides, now defunct. A couple were stealth camping by the spring, carrying the most old school gear imaginable, including huge bedrolls and jeans. They weren't the only people we would see with this type of gear, and not the only ones without the right permits. This was easily a country in which to disappear, to stealth camp, to reinvent yourself.

The trail climbed steadily to the rim and then shot downwards, passing through the pinyon-juniper forest and into the crumbly rock face. It was entirely possible to fall into a cactus, which one of our group did (who shall remain nameless), and we later learned that someone in another group had broken an ankle somewhere in the vicinity.  Every step had to be placed with care on the rocky trail. Finally we gained the desert floor, in another world entirely.



Here was the place the rain forgot. The sun blazed, the temperature soaring to eighty degrees. The landscape was wrinkled folds of tawny skin, as we dropped down into dry washes and back out again.  Spiny cactus dotted the path. It was as far from flat as it could be. We were circling the mountain, its steep face towering over us. It was impossible not to feel small. There was no bailing out, not now, unless we took the path of the desperate. One hiker we saw was doing that, the desert more than he had expected. He was hiking to the Juniper Canyon road, a four wheel drive access point traveled by few vehicles, hoping for rescue. He could wait, we knew, for days.



"How far do you think we are from the river?" I asked. The Rio Grande, I meant, the only river that really matters.

"Maybe seven miles?" TC said. I thought of other desperate people walking through this starkly beautiful landscape, not for the luxury of recreation like we were but for survival. It would be hard to survive out here without the things we carried.



Deep in the afternoon we ascended a ridge to see Fresno Creek glimmering below. Water--and plenty of it! We scrambled down to filter, once again having the conversation about water carries. We would not have more water until we reached our cache at the Homer Wilson Ranch, at least four miles away on Day 3. Four miles doesn't sound like a lot, but in this country, it really is. Though I have to keep learning this lesson, desert travel takes half again as long as any other kind. This water would have to get us through a dry camp and half a day's travel.

"Five liters?" I said, trying to do the math. "I drank two today for eleven miles, and then we need dinner, and breakfast..."

"I'm taking four and a half," TC said. She looked convinced. TC is a person who is instantly comfortable anywhere, it seems.

"Five," said Buffalo. He looked sort of convinced.

"I'm taking seven," Camel said. I laughed. Of course he was.

Due to a miscalculation, I ended up with about six liters, and crawled my way to the top of the next ridge out of the Fresno Creek drainage (A liter of water weighs 2.2 pounds. Add that to our winter gear and it was a substantial load). This was a backcountry zone, where camping was allowed anywhere, but we had no idea where we would camp, and the desert fell away in long folds to the horizon. It looked hostile and unforgiving. What were we even doing here, I thought. What was this hike even about? But at the top, there it was, the perfect campsite.

There have been a few perfect campsites in my life: overlooking a wild Alaskan lake before the bear charged our camp; the campsite in the Goat Rocks after Flash, MG and I traversed the scary Knife Edge of the Washington PCT. This site ranked right up there, five small clearings in the cactus, the Mexican mountains in the distance, the South Rim towering overhead. As darkness fell we lay in a row marveling at the stars.



The desert is a very quiet place at night. It was beautiful. It was perfect. It was one of those nights you wish would never end.


to be continued...

19 comments:

  1. Whoa....beautiful sunset shots. You did find a nice campsite.

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    1. Thanks Linda--it was just perfect Perched on a ridge and enough space for all of us. None of us wanted to leave!

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  2. Beautiful! I can picture it...the "emptiness" ( but not really),the quiet, the desert landscape.

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    1. It would be a nice place to rent a cottage and just day hike also. But a long drive from any town!

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    2. We have friends who did that....rented a funky cabin somewhere near the park and really enjoyed their day hikes there.

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  3. I'm so saddened that just going outside and enjoying public land has to be called "stealth camping" now. :(

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    1. This is a tough one for me. I kind of hate how the NPS forces you into picking one of their campsites, but then again, you don't see trashy fire rings and litter at every flat spot either like you do in FS and BLM lands. In this case the couple was camping right by a spring which I am sure wildlife depend upon so I was feeling a little uncharitable.

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  4. Thank you for transporting me into the desert. Oh I miss the desert, but reading this, I can almost feel the weight of all that water on my back. And those desert nights with the expansive sky and crispness and stars, and wild temperature extremes. Ah!!!

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    1. My friend and I may hike the first 110 miles of the PCT this spring. Would love any insights you have on that section (A).

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  5. Gorgeous pics. Felt like I was their hiking next to you. Oh wait, then I woke up and thought to myself...hmmm...me?...desert?...nope, I'll leave that up to Mary and just admire her eye for beauty, heart for adventure, and the courage to challenge herself.
    Can't wait to read anout the rest of the adventure.

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    1. You would have liked this desert. I didn't expect to, and it was gorgeous.

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  6. What is it about desert travel that makes it take longer than regular hiking? The weight of the water carries? Gorgeous photos! Flash

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  7. Beautiful Mary, I bet the stars were awesome!
    I know what it's like to find one of those top 5 camp spots of a life time I've found a few myself. I don't think you're the only one who feels the way you do about hiking. I wish I could stay in the woods all summer long and not come out till the snow starts to fall.

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    1. Nice to know...I think secretly a lot of us wish this.

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  8. "There comes a time in every hike lasting more than twenty-four hours where, for me, my other life ceases to exist. This is what my life is now, and it seems like it will always be this. I want to just keep hiking forever. I don't know if others feel this way or not. Mostly I am afraid to ask, in case it is just me."

    THIS!! I'm definitely like this. All the noise of civilization slips away and what remains is peaceful and primitive. Food, water, walk, shelter. For me, that's the biggest draw of backpacking.

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    1. Yes, it is so simple with no room for all the clutter of the "real" world. I knew you would get it!

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  9. This is Camel – the over-hydrated hiker in the Chisos Mountains with Mary Ellen, TC and Buffalo. Mary- you truly are talented. You have a unique way of using language to paint a picture of location so that others can feel what it is like. When you described that campsite amongst the cactus above Fresno Creek, I felt the hair on the back of my neck stand with joy and nostalgia. It truly was one of those ‘special places’. I will never forget the sheer joy of the four of us lying on our backs looking up at the myriad of stars. I think we were all feeling joy, humility, awe, wonder, health and good fortune in the same moment. Those feelings that you wish you could grab, place in a jar, put on a shelf with the knowledge that in days to come you could take it down, open, and savor a spoonful of bliss.

    Never stop hiking or writing…….with love and appreciation……..Camel

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    1. Hi Camel. Thanks so much for taking the time to to respond! Yes that was a special place, with special people.

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