Monday, January 27, 2020

Guadalupe Mountains: Tejas Trail to the Bowl

OK. It's Saturday morning, Veteran's Day weekend, and the trailhead is damn crowded! There' a constant stream of people, OK, maybe not constant, but considerable nonetheless, filing through the gap in the fence and raising dust, and commotion, on that first bit of trail.

A quick look at the log-book next to the trailhead shows that some of these hikers are headed for Devil's Hall, but most are heading on up the Peak Trail, all lined up, nuts-to-butts as my drill sergeant used to say, hoping to get bragging rights for summiting Guadalupe Peak.

Being the considerate kind of guy I am, I decided not to crowd the crowds with my presence (OK, so we all know the real reason is that I'm not much of a people-person and frankly can't abide crowds.) and instead turned to my day-hike guide to find a trail that might be less traveled on this holiday weekend. (When I was working there were never enough holidays, now that I'm retired there are far too damn many!)

OK, this looks like a good candidate.

It doesn't get as high as the Peak Trail, only 8300' to the Peak's 8700', but it is just as far and most importantly, this morning nobody else has signed out in the trail-log for this hike.

True, not everybody enters their hikes in the log, me included, but enough do that if  more than a few people are on this trail one of them would have logged it.

The Park Service recommendation for this trail is contrary to my normal counterclockwise inclination, but if that's what they recommend then that's what I'll do.

(I'll have more to say about that recommendation later!!)

  So the plan for the day is to leave from the campground/trailhead - that green dot - hike up the west side of Pine Canyon - the red line on the left - to the bowl - the blue circle - transit across the the bowl, and return to the campground via Bear Canyon - the red line on the right.

OK, been through my checklist to make sure I have all my hiking gear. Got my soup, tuna, and crackers lunch tucked into the pack. Time to grab the hiking sticks and go!

First, just like yesterday, I cross the wide and rocky wash of the Delaware River.

But this time instead of switching over to the Frijole trail on the other side, I stick to the Tejas trail and double-back along the far side of the Delaware.

I know it's not good composition, but putting the deer dead-center in the photo makes it easier to spot.

Not too far up the valley I come to an encouraging sign. Encouraging in that the three mule-deer would probably not have still been hanging this close to the trail if there were hikers out in front of me.

I stood still, trying to blend in and "be one" with my surroundings, and took a lot of photos of the three, though they were never close enough together to get all into a single shot, as they fed and eventually meandered their way up-slope and away from the trail. I picked out this photo as representative of the batch because the skinny, white (On top) tail with the black tip clearly marks this as a group of mule-deer and not white-tails which also inhabit the area but actually have a fat, dark (On top) tail with a pure-white underside.

Once the deer are out of the way I continue to climb the north slope of the valley, getting higher above the Delaware with every step. Which, considering that I've got about 2500' to climb today, isn't surprising.

From up here the view is long and I'm assuming that those are the Davis Mountains out there to the southeast. If so they are just about 90 crow-fly miles away.

As I get higher I start running into a few spots where drill-marks are visible in the rocks where sections were split away to make way for the trail. At least I assume they used the holes to split the rock with feathers and wedges and didn't actually blast it, even though blasting is cooler!

The trail doesn't really feel precarious, just rugged.

But right after this I round a corner. . .

You know how you always want to know the magician's secret, but once you find out you realize that knowing maybe isn't all that great?

Boy do I wish I hadn't looked up when I came around that corner!

You see those faint squiggly Zorroish lines just below the peak in the center?

Well that's the trail and the photo just doesn't do justice for showing how high up there it really is.

Here I've blown up the relevant section of that previous photo and pushed the contrast to make the trail stand out a little better.

And yep, once it finishes those switchbacks over to the right under the rocky peak, it continues off to the left, always climbing, before disappearing over that ridge.

And the portion of the trail I can see, there in the red circle, is only part of what's left before I actually make it up over the edge and into the bowl.

I'm standing at that corner at the end of the arrow and can't see the switchbacks just above my head in the blue circle on the right, nor can I see over the ridge on the left to the final set of switchbacks in the other blue circle.

After I recovered from the disheartening mixture of shock and dismay at the sight above me, I pulled my figurative socks up and started trudging onward again. Shortly after that, over the thumping of my hiking sticks and crunching of my boots (Soft soled-boots are quietest, think moccasin, hard-soled boots protect from rocks best. I compromise with medium-soled boots, which crunch on the rocks and let me feel them. Humm, maybe compromise isn't the correct word here. . .) I hear something behind me and just barely have time to get out of the way before this guy runs by.

Yep, runs.

I blurted out something like "you're friggin nuts!" as he went by, which I don't think he appreciated. . .

Oh well, we'll both get over it.

Or at least I will, he may just die running up steep, rocky trails like that!

From this new vantage point, once the dust of that runner settles, I can look down into the bright colors of Devil's Hall where I was a few days ago.

And by putting boot to trail, and boot to trail, and boot to - well, you get the idea - I eventually make it up to the switchbacks I first saw from way down there below. From here I can look back with pride at the ground I've managed to cover since that first shocking sight. (The "corner" I came around and got my first glimpse of the trail above me is just barely off the right edge of the photo. Bad composition on my part.)

From here I also have a view, a really long view over the intervening ridge, of the visitor center, just there on the left edge of the photo under that little dot that is the flag flying on the pole out front, and the trailhead overflow parking-lot.

Yep, there's a lot of people up here on the mountain today. Fortunately few of them, in fact only that one running fool fit young man so far, are on the same part of the mountain as me.

At last I make it to the final back of all those switchbacks and though I am still below the rim of the bowl the forest has spilled over the edge like the oatmeal I slopped out of my own bowl this morning, and gives me a preview of what's ahead.

Finally! The Bowl.

 A forest thousands of feet above the desert below.

After pushing on for two more tenths to get a look at the Pine Top Primitive Campsite, you know, just because, I quickly pick out a sheltered spot up against an Alligator Juniper for lunch and celebrate reaching my destination.

Only it's not really my destination is it?

You see that trail-sign shining in the sun just left of center?

That's sitting right on the rim where I came into the bowl.

At this point I'm supposed to leave the Tejas Trail and switch over to the Bowl Trail which will, approximately a mile and a quarter later, take me to the upper end of Bear Canyon trail which I am to follow back down off the mountain to eventually return to the campground. (Not the campground listed on this sign, that's for the Pine Top wilderness campground)

But during lunch I haven't just been lollygagging. (Though I admit, there has been a little of that.) I've been doing a little calculating as well.

This is an 8.5 mile hike, if the day-hike guide is to be believed that is. If that's true then when I came over the edge of the Bowl, I'd completed exactly half of the day's hike so far, all of that an uphill climb on a series of switchbacks.

If I hike another mile and a quarter across the relatively flat Bowl that only leaves 2.5 miles to climb down what it took me 4.25 miles to get up!

Yep, a close inspection of the topo map (something I clearly should have done with more care before I set off on this hike!) shows that Bear Canyon is one steep sucker!

Now I don't know about you, but for me climbing steep is always easier than descending steep.
Sitting there in the bowl, over 4 miles and a 2500' decent from the comfort of The Van, the thought of blindly slithering backwards on all-fours down some impossibly steep trail in Bear Canyon, probably, based on past experience, whimpering the whole way, didn't seem like something I wanted to do just now. Maybe back when I was as young as that guy that ran past me earlier, but not now that I'm carrying enough years on my back to have earned a medicare card.

And just who the hell at the Park Service thought the better way to hike this trail was clockwise when clearly the counterclockwise route is preferable?

I'm not really a bragging kind of person, which may be more along the lines of who-the-hell-would-I-brag-to rather than an admirable character trait, but I am goal oriented and my goal today was to complete the loop, but at this point I totally wimped out and abandoned the idea of making this a loop hike deferred to the caution that comes from taking responsibility for my own actions and used the wisdom that comes with age and experience to adjust my plans.

Yep, I decided the smart thing to do is to come down off the mountain the way I came up. The way I know is doable.

Thus ended my aborted loop through the bowl.

A portion of the Guadalupe Peak Trail over there in the distance.

A final footnote on this hike:

As I was coming down out of the bowl with my tail between my legs trying to put a good light on my retreat by reminding myself that at least I wasn't over there on the Guadalupe Peak Trail where there would be lots of witnesses to my wimping out, I met a half-dozen people strung out along the trail, all hiking up to the Pine Top Wilderness Campground for the night. (That filled the back-country camp. Guadalupe National Park may be a long ways away from anywhere, but it's popular nonetheless.)

Nope, not him but you get the idea

The first encounter was not too far below the rim where this poor guy, active military judging by his appearance, dress, and the gear he had, was melted down into a puddle in the middle of the trail. Not off to the side, but right in the middle.

As I approached he craned his neck to look up at me and wheezed out "how much farther?"

I told him. (It was another half mile to the bowl then 2 more tenths to the campground.)

"What's the campground like?" he gasped out, perhaps in the hope of bucolic inspiration to keep on going.

I told him it looked fine to me but I had just hiked up here today and hadn't actually camped.

"Oh man!" he groaned. "Up and back in one day? And here I thought I was in good shape."

OK, I'll admit that up until this point I was considering oozing down into his exhaustion-puddle right along with him, but after that comment pride kept me on my feet. (It's another one of those annoying guy things. . .) Instead, as any real man would have to do under the circumstances or risk losing his man-card, I braced my hiking sticks a little more firmly, stood tall, and tried pointing out that it may be the elevation that's getting to him, besides, I was only carrying 25 pounds worth of gear and water to his 40 or 50.

I don't think it helped and my last view of him as I turned back on mountain-weary legs from farther down the trail hoping he was out of sight now so I could give up this he-man charade and do my own melt-down, was of him still laying there in that same spot. . .

Sometimes mountains be bitches!

Monday, January 20, 2020

Is It Better To Shout, Or Whisper?

OK, here's the setup.

It's Saturday of a holiday weekend (Veterans Day) at Guadalupe Mountains National Park.

The tiny little lime-green tree in the lower right quadrant of the image above is the campground and trailhead. Currently a very active trailhead.

I'm standing on the Tejas Trail, at about where the blue arrow is pointing, looking south across Pine Valley with the Delaware River, or at least its braided wash, gleaming bright several hundred feet below.

What I'm looking at over there where the red arrow is pointing on the other side of the valley are the initial switchbacks of the Guadalupe Peak Trail.

These are about three-quarters of a mile away as the crow flies, yet I can easily hear the groups of hikers chattering away over there as they are stepping on each other's heels. (Bagging the Peak is apparently a big deal and, by far, draws the greater percentage of the crowd, while I'm out here on the Tejas Trail all by myself.)

Since when did chattering become an Olympic level sport with the loudest auditorialist taking the gold? I'm reminded of the hallway of a large high-school seconds after the final bell sounds on a Friday.

Thankfully the chatter of the hoards only lasts as long as the breath, and the mountain sucks that out of most pretty quick.

Photo of the Guadalupe Peak Trail from where I'm at across the valley on the Tejas Trail. And that's not Guadalupe Peak up above but rather just the shoulder of a ridge behind which, from this vantage point, the peak is hiding.

But not only do I have to listen to these people desecrating this natural place with their yammering, (Yeah, yeah, I exhibit signs of anti-social tendencies. So sue me! Though I probably won't show up in court because it's too crowded. . .) I can't help but also see many of them over there. Little moving spots of visual pollution.

At the 24 mm focal length I shot this image the camera doesn't quite see as well as my eye (The human eye is roughly equivalent to a 50 mm focal length) and the hikers don't show in the image as well as I can see them, so I added the arrows to point out a few.

The red arrows are pointing to three different hikers on the switchbacks that have chosen to visually shout by wearing loud, disruptive, and highly unnatural colors

Blowup of the previous image.

and the blue arrow is pointing to a pair of hikers that would rather whisper in a more muted fashion.

This image, taken from the same spot at a 1200 mm focal length, shows one of the visually shouting hikers in more detail. Not only is he/she wearing a construction-equipment-orange pack, but has a just as obnoxiously loud jacket hanging off that pack.

Some will disagree with me, in fact there was recently a brief discussion among some of the bloggers I follow about the advisability of making sure you are visible while hiking in case you need rescuing, but my personal opinion is that hikers should respect the area they are traversing, as well as any other hikers that might also be out there to enjoy that same space, by remaining quiet and largely unseen.

I personally hike in earth-colored clothing. I even take a black marker to the neon-orange bits of my survival knife. My current pack is Realtree(TM) camouflage because the other choices at the time I bought it were too loud. Even my poncho is a muted forest green so that when I wear it, which isn't often, I'm not shouting.

True, as well as allowing me to blend in with my surroundings, those choices would make me pretty difficult to spot if I got into trouble.

Well my first line of defense there is to use my experience and common sense to stay the hell out of trouble!

But shit happens. Or at least could happen.

For the eventuality that I can't self-rescue I carry a nearly weightless emergency blanket that is not only many times larger than any pack or jacket I might have, but is also an eye-lasering orange on one side and shinny, reflective silver on the other.

Of course if I manage to kill myself by falling off a cliff I'm probably not going to be able to dig out my medical kit, extract the mylar  blanket, rip the packaging away. and unfurl it on the way down so my body can be located after the fact, but then again, in that event I wouldn't mind just being left to nature anyway.

Just my 2 cents, which, given inflation is probably worth only about a quarter-penny now.

Now on with the rest of the hike!  (next post that is.)

Monday, January 13, 2020

The Frijole Ranch Museum

By the time I finish lollygagging over lunch at Smith Spring things have cleared up quite a bit. As in the clouds have lifted off the mountain enough that I can actually see more than just a handful of feet in front of me, though it is still overcast which is muting the colors.

Of course the new and expanded view reminds me of how much mountain there is up there, and I swear I can hear it taunting me, ("That's right old man, I dare you to try me!")

but at the same time, by turning around and looking east I can finally get an almost-glimpse of the Permian Basin spreading out to the east. This is the area that used to be the sea along the shores of which the Capitan Reef behind me formed.

In 1921 the Permian Basin was described by Wallace Pratt (I'll come back to him many posts from now.) as a 100 mile " road-less trek" between Pecos TX and here.

Today the basin is a dry morass (Yeah, I know, since a morass is technically a swamp/bog/slough/quagmire, by definition it can't be dry, but the other, implied, definition of morass is mess/confusion/chaos/muddle, which fits so well I couldn't resist using the word.) of oil-wells, temporary impoundments, (built with tarp-covered earth-berms filled with trucked-in water used for fracking) drilling rigs, pipeline pumping stations, equipment yards, flair towers, and a complicated, unmapped web of roads and tracks over-populated with commercial vehicles of every description, all trying to get wherever it is they are heading in the shortest possible time resulting in many scary encounters and ridiculously beat up roads. So unless you work the oilfields it may be best to give the heavy traffic, potholes, (Tire shops in the remote and scattered towns are doing a booming business!) near misses, and ridiculously expensive lodging a miss for now. Give it a decade or two and things may improve.

And yes, in case you are curious, the official name of that feature out there in front of me is Nipple Hill.

Now that lunch is history I have a choice to make.

Either backtrack the way I've come, and a fine hike that would be, I know since I've already done it, or head on down the eastern leg of the Smith Spring Trail to the Frijole Ranch History Museum.

Only thing is, the museum has no set hours, instead it is posted as "open intermittently - check at the Pine Spring Visitor's Center".

Well the visitor center is farther from where I'm standing right now than the ranch, so I decide to take my chances.

Besides, there's yet another spring down-slope from here, between me and the ranch, and I want to see if it is as good as Smith Spring.

A perfect example of why you don't want to plant trees too close to a building.
This one is busy shoving the mountain out of the way!

But before I leave Smith Spring I wanted to show you this.

It's not all wind and water shaping the terrain around us. In fact, one of the oldest plants, lichens, a symbiotic combination of algae and fungi, were the first organic terraformers, releasing acids that break down underlying rock. The main reason lichens do this is to get access to minerals and nutrients locked away in those rocks but a side-effect is to decompose rock into soil.

Now that visibility has improved beyond just barely seeing the pointy-thingies before they stick me,

as I hike down towards the ranch I can look back and see what I couldn't as I approached. The swath of trees, many sporting fall colors, (Sometimes I wish I still had my film-camera since digital images don't always seem to pick up the vibrancy of the true colors. In person the fall colors were not this muted.) lining the wash as they take advantage of Smith Spring is quite evident when you can actually see it. As are the imposing ramparts there above the spring.

Unlike the trail above this point, the couple tenths of a mile from the Frijole Ranch parking-lot to Manzanita  Spring is paved, more or less anyway, making it accessible for many of the mobility challenged,

Look close at the lower center and you can catch a glimpse of the pond that is Manzanita Spring.
And yes, that's El Captitan looming out there on the horizon. First time I've gotten a good view of it since catching that scary and humbling glimpse as I drove up from the south three days ago.

but honestly, after chilling out in the glory of Smith Spring, Manzanita is a visual disappointment. I probably should have hiked this loop the other way around to get to Manzanita first, before my senses were spoiled by Smith.

Frijole Spring doesn't show up on many maps anymore but it is right next to the ranch house and now has a spring-house over top of it.

Although, apparently Manzanita made for

a great swimming hole in its day.

The spring-house is in the foreground here,  the main house behind that, (The unimposing entry door to the house/museum is the green door on the left side almost hidden by the tree and leads into the kitchen) and the schoolhouse to the left. The bunk-house is behind the left-rear corner of the main house.

By pure luck the ranch museum is staffed by a volunteer and open when I get there,

so I'm able to get my hands on the very helpful and interesting printed brochure from which the above two images were taken.

Even if the museum had been closed the grounds are interesting in their own right, though it probably would have been safer to ask for the brochure at the visitor center in case the volunteer wasn't at the ranch, but I didn't know it, the brochure, existed when I was in the visitor center a few days ago.

The ranch started out as a two room building built of double-walled native stone with mud packed between them

built in 1876 by a couple of brothers that never did file on the land and soon moved on into the obscurity of history.

In the very early 1900s the Smith family filed on the land, expanded the house, including the stone-walled kitchen there on the back under the green shed-roof,

added the separate bunkhouse, (the white building in the previous photo) and

built the red schoolhouse just a few steps from the back corner of the house.

Smith was a bit of an inventor and engineer and set up a carbide generator (a larger version of what the old miners used on their helmets) to provide acetylene-gas to lamps in the house, built a ram-pump to pump water into a raised tank which provided running water in the house,

and used a wind-generator set up near the corner of the bunkhouse to charge this glass-jar battery which powered a radio.

The house even served as the area's post office from 1916 to 1941 with mail coming down from Carlsbad three times a week, which got easier to do once US-62/180, laid out in the late 20's, was finally paved in the late 30's.

Eventually the Smiths sold up and moved on. In 1942 Noel Kincaid, born and raised in what is now the Dog Canyon area of the NP, became the ranch foreman and moved in with his family and stayed there until 1970.

I have to admit, I'm a little jealous when looking at this photo.

While I was being raised on the edge of suburbia with two siblings, these three kids were growing up on the edge of the wilderness. . . How cool would that have been! (Guffaw all you want. I still think, even at my age when I should be happily embracing the modern comforts, that outhouses and composting are a far superior way to deal with our waste than flush toilets, that heating domestic water on a stove is perfectly acceptable, and carefully managing off-grid electrical power ensures resource-mindfulness which generates good karma.)

OK, I'm not sure boys ever needed a book on how to pull tricks. . .
 I'm fortunate to have stumbled across the ranch when it is open.

The displays and information inside the house are very interesting, but eventually the number of people trying to occupy this small space (Remember, this house was built long before we developed this insatiable need for bedrooms large enough to hold square dances in and living-rooms the size of bowling alleys.) drives me back out the door.

But never mind, it's probably time to head back to the campground, which is still about 4 miles away, anyway

I have the choice to return via the Frijole Trail, back-tracking the way I came this morning, or dropping further south and returning via the Foothills Trail.

I choose the Foothills Trail but frankly it is far less interesting down here on the flats than up against the base of the mountains on the Frijole Trail. It was like walking through a pasture, a rough and cactiky pasture, but a pasture. Nice, but that terrain up there on the other trail is even nicer.

Next time I'll know better.

By the time I get back to The Van the sun is sinking and for the first time since I got here I have a clear view of Hunter's Peak looming colorfully up there above the campground. (This is the view out The Van's side door.)

That's all for me today as the sun sinks with a promise of clear weather to come.

Tomorrow, the mountains!

(I just hope they don't kick my ass too bad. . .)