Monday, May 22, 2017

Breathless on the Osha Trail

Let me start by pointing out that this Osha has nothing to do with a government agency charged with keeping us safe on the job and recording the details when we're not, but rather with a plant; the kind with roots and leaves, not the kind with factory-workers and time-clocks. Osha, which obviously grows here though it is at the southern end of its range, is considered an herb because of it's many medicinal uses. If you try a web search on Osha the search engine will be inundated with OSHA crap so use the scientific name of Ligusticum porteri

But before I could hike the Osha trail I had to get there. With the sun just breaking the eastern horizon I left my peaceful, solitary camp there near Sitting Bull Falls and started making my way back towards US 285, up to Artisia then west on US 82 towards Cloudcroft.

The trip is only about 140 miles, but this is one of those journeys where it's not only about the getting there, but also the going, and I was in no rush to miss anything along the way, so it took the whole morning and then some to get from here to there.

After poking around Artisia for a while, a disphoric little town torn between the distinctly different infrastructures necessary to support the oil-fields to the east and the ranches to the west, as well as a burgeoning, if incongruous, art and culinary scene, a town that is sometimes pretty and sometimes not, I headed west and immediately started encountering signs warning that trucks without engine-brakes, or over a certain length even with engine brakes, are prohibited west of Cloudcroft and this sign made it graphically clear why!

Between here and there US 82 isn't that steep, but it is divided into three distinct sections.

From Artisia to Hope the land is largely flat and the road runs straight, guided on its way between endless barbed-wire fences that prevent any straying, of livestock or road.

Just there on the eastern edge of Hope is a large picnic area that made for a decent mid-trip stop well off the road. Just up the way, within sight of the picnic area, CR 12 heads south and is, eventually, the gateway to points in the northern end of the Guadalupe unit of the Lincoln NF, but today I was headed elsewhere so didn't make that turn, though it was tempting.

From Hope to Pinon the land starts to roll. The restraining fences persist because this is still range land, but the road isn't straight anymore as it snakes up, around, and down the hills past large ranching operations perched out there on the high plains. As is normal for high-plains ranches, there's a lot of land, very few cows, and even fewer structures, to be seen. What can be seen are the eastern ramparts of the Sacramento Mountains there up ahead.

Then as soon as you go around the curve by the new-looking, and surprisingly large for being out in the middle of nowhere, Pinon-Durham elementary school US 82 plunges into the lower end of the canyon formed by Rio Penasco and the road gets downright kinky as you leave the high plains and start working up into the timbered land of the Sacramento Mountains. If you have a co-driver this would be a good place to start switching off because there is a lot to see with one beautiful vista after another but the road is a jealous one and demands the driver's attention.

When I got to Cloudcroft I took advantage of it being banker's hours and hung a left on SR130, passed below several 'houses' with the back side resting on a cliff-top and the front sides perched on ridiculously tall pilings far above the road, (as in forty feet or so above the road) and in less than a mile pulled in at the Lincoln NF Sacramento Mountains Ranger District Headquarters.

I told the ranger behind the info-desk I was interested in day-hikes and camping and walked out again with a handful of copied pages, each one detailing a particular trail, as well as three stapled pages of campground information. (National Forest Headquarters are closed far too often when you need them, but when open they are a great source of information.)

Among the information the ranger-dude imparted on me was that the Osha trail is by far the most popular day-hike trail in the system.

Now normally I don't consider 'popular' an asset for a trail, or pretty much anything else either, but it was Monday, lunch-hour had already expired so the fitness nuts were back at work now, and the trailhead is right there on the edge of town, so I was willing to give it a shot.

Westbound on US 82, just as you fall off the edge of town on a steep right-hand curve, 2nd street will appear on your right. Make that turn, then an immediate hard left puts you in the trailhead parking lot. When I pulled in there was only one other vehicle in the lot which I took as a good sign.

On paper the trail is what looks like an easy 2.6 mile balloon trail (A loop with a tail) with some 4 to 5 hundred vertical feet between the low and high points.

OK, hold on here. Notice that in the previous sentence that I said 'looks like an easy trail'? I'll get to the alleged easy bit later in this post.

The vertical part of the trail started, rather ruthlessly I thought, right off the bat as I walked past the trailhead sign and immediately started climbing up the 'tail' part of the loop which traverses skyward along the side of a ridge on it's way to the saddle above.

But all was soon forgiven, well almost all, when views of the curved Mexican Canyon Trestle started appearing over there on the other side of where US 82 is begining its plunge down to Alamogordo.

This is a remnant of the Alamogordo and Sacramento Mountain Railroad which I'll get to in more detail (probably more than you ever wanted to hear.) in other posts. (I know, I know, but as a certifi(ed/able) train nut would you expect any different of me??)

A little further on more vistas opened up, such as this one looking west across the Tularosa Basin, including the White Sands (Of missile range and National Monument fame) to the San Andreas Mountains, which are about 50 air-miles away at this point.

The floor of the basin is at about 4000 feet and at this point I'm within a couple hundred feet of being at 9000.

When I left camp this morning I was also at 4000 feet and it took me, or rather The Van, 140 miles and all morning to climb up here, yet Alamogordo, down there on the basin floor at the base of the Sacramento Mountains, hidden from here by the ridge forming the southern wall of the canyon, is only some 19 road miles away. And 14 of those miles are steep!

Having been well and thoroughly logged over through the 1900's, this is all second growth timber up here where I am

but second-growth or not, the rugged and towering Douglass Fir is impressive anyway.

A few patches of snow are hanging around to remind me that it's still only early April around here.

but this Northern Flicker doesn't seem to mind. (Although technically a woodpecker these guys spend a lot of time foraging on the ground for ants.)

And this gorgeous little Alpine valley tucked in between ridges at the westernmost part of the Osha trail's loop is looking decidedly spring-like.

All of which made for a great hike.

From this point, there in the little alpine valley, I could have switched over to T568 which goes up over the hill towards the Pine area out there along SR 244, but instead I stayed sensible (I know! What a surprise!) and made the sharp turn at the pointy end of the T10 loop and slogged my laborious way up the ridge heading back towards the trailhead.

OK, I might have just given the impression that I was being sensible in my choice of routes at this point, but the truth is, I had been struggling since almost as soon as I left the trailhead and was still only about halfway through the hike so my choice of route at this point had far more to do with necessity and any sort of intelligent sensibility.

From personal experience I know I can make elevation changes of about 4000 feet without really noticing them, (It used to be more like 5000 feet, but that was then and this is now and I don't want to talk about it!) more than that and I need time to acclimate, and I'm talking days here, not hours.

But little more than one week ago I had been hanging out for several months at slightly less than 500 feet, definitely flat-lander territory. A few days ago I was messing around in the 2000 foot range. Yesterday I was at about 4000 feet. Today I'm at 9000!  You do the math because I don't want to. . . In fact I can't, because it's taking too much effort just to get the occasional teaspoon full of air into my lungs.

I'm pretty sure that by the time I made it to the first viewpoint on the trail my legs weighed about twice what they normally do, and shortly after that they passed the three times mark. By the time I reached the halfway point of the hike I'm positive that if my hand hadn't been propped up by the hiking stick my fingers would have been worn bloody from dragging on the ground. At one point I considered lightening the load by dumping my emergency liter of water, but to do that I would have to take my pack off and I wasn't sure I could manage to get it back on again. . .

By the time I trudged, one floppy, jarring step at a time, back down the tail of the loop and returned to The Van I looked more like last-call at a country western biker bar than the triumphant and well conditioned hiker I pretend to be inside my head.

Damn! I really think it's time for a nap!

Oh, and by the way, anybody got some spare oxygen just laying around??? Otherwise all this gasping for air is going to keep me awake.

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