Tuesday, June 07, 2005

View From The Top

We woke up feeling much better than we had the night before. We had a quick breakfast in our room then headed to the mountains. When we stopped in Hyde Park for Dan to see if there were trail maps available, I asked a young mother who looked like she had packed her SUV for any contingency if I could give her a dollar or trade her a Clif bar for a piece of foil. Of course she was happy to give me some foil for free, but I would've felt bad not offering something in return.

So when we got to the head of the Big Tesuque trail, I wrapped Dan's uneaten dinner from the night before in the foil and set it on the dashboard in the sun, thinking if things went right we just might have a hot meal waiting for us once we were done hiking.

Our first trail attempt ended badly. The trail ended after only a few minutes, and the other little trails that appeared to lead off from it were in fact only clearings in the rocks and brush. Just because I'm descended from conquistadors doesn't mean I was in any mood to make my own trail, so we went back to the trail head and chose again.

This time the trail meandered along nicely, over streams, through a small meadow and on up the mountain. At one point Dan made the mistake of asking a nice looking older lady how far the trail went and we'd still be there today if I hadn't continued on without him, providing him a convenient excuse to break off the conversation. People just love talking to Dan for some reason.

We got to the end of the trail and found ourselves at a small dirt service road. There was another small trail that continued into the woods, and I was prepared to take either one. We decided on the service road and since it was steep but fairly clear of debris, I took off, figuring if I walked fast enough I could probably count the hike as a long run because the thin air and the climb put me into a hard aerobic state almost immediately. The trick, of course, to living at sea level and hiking at or above the aspen line is good steady breathing.

Fairly soon, I lost sight of Dan, but I figured he couldn't be too far behind me. We were timing our hike, and that also gave me what turned out to be a fals sense of confidence in our arrangement. I didn't realize he hadn't worn his watch, so while my watch slowly ticked down the 90 minutes and I was thinking that Dan wouldn't be looking for me before the time was up, he lost all sense of time and became worried. We both learned a few lessons on that one.

But anyway.

The road continued up forever, with lots of turns and switchbacks. I would stop and check out the view from time to time, and once I got into the area where the snow still hadn't melted, I had a great time admiring some surprisingly deep banks, walking in it, scooping out a handful from time to time. It was amazing that the snow just went on and on, even in June. Sometimes the road would be muddy from snowmelt and sometimes the road itself was covered. I hadn't seen anyone for over an hour when I came across some mountain lion tracks in the snow. Hm. This made me ponder my situation for a few minutes. It's one thing to know from books that wild animals avoid roads and don't attack humans unless they are provoked or driven by drought to seek out other territories and food sources. It's another matter entirely to be alone on the road with the tracks right there in front of you.

I decided to trust the experts on these matters and continued on my way, but a bit more cautiously than before, keeping a closer eye out for any sounds or movements in the woods. Although there were no people around me, there were recent boot prints in the dirt and mud, so the road seemed to be fairly well traveled.

Finally, with only about twelve minutes left on my watch, tired legs and a head full of thoughts about turning back, I rounded one more turn and found myself on a high ridge overlooking the valley below. It was stunning, and seemed like more than a just reward for my hard work. I spent a long time walking back and forth, admiring the view, but eventually became intrigued by a rocky prominence higher up the trail. From my vantage point it was hard to tell if it was the ruings of a man-made structure or something created by nature. I had about five minutes left on my watch, so I figured I'd go on a little higher and see if the structure was close enough to reach.

Sure enough, it was quite close. The trail was steep and the last several feet were through a snowbank that was ankle-deep in some places, but when my watch beeped at me, I was so close that I shut it off and kept on going. Finally, breathless, I climbed out of the snow and over some rocks to find myself incredibly at the top of a peak with a green meadow sloping away to my right, tall granite boulders warming in the sun in front of me, and off to my left, the valley, the road I'd traveled and the sides of the mountain.

Words don't describe what I saw or what it felt like to be alone up there, with the most heart-wrenchingly beautiful views in every direction, no signs of human depredations except the snowed-over trail winding away back down the mountain. I've climbed to the tops of mountains before, but never one where there were no other people, nothing made by man, no sign that another human had ever been there. It was one of the great art masterpieces of the world, and it wasn't there for me or for anyone. It was just there and for a few minutes I was priviledged to see it.

I was so overcome, I laughed. I hugged a big warm rock. I cried. I placed a small rock at my feet on top of the tallest of all the boulders. My own simple monument.

Finally I started reluctantly down off the peak, running through my mind the things I would tell Dan about it. I was beginning to think he had tired and sat down to wait for me. But instead I was overjoyed to find him trudging along at the edge of the snowbank. He kissed me and hugged me, told me how worried he'd been, and then told me how he'd spotted me from below up among the rocks on the summit. "I underestimated you," he said. We went on up to the rocks again, and after he'd looked around for a bit, we sat down on a flat rock that had warmed in the sun, and had some Clif bars. We stayed up there a long time, but eventually we both were too cold and there was still the whole mountain to get back down.

So we headed down, stopping to take a few pictures along the way. This time we stayed together, as much because we were both tired as anything else. My boots were hurting my by this point, too. I really need to buy some hiking boots without ankle support because all they've ever done is bruise my achilles tendon. I'm prone to twisting my ankle on things, including flat city sidewalks, but because my ankles are so flexible I always bounce right back like a cartoon character, so I think I'll get some new boots before my next hike.

At any rate, by the time we finally found our trail down off the service road, I had a knot on my left achilles that was making my calf cramp up and causing all kinds of other weird problems, and the only thing keeping me from continuing on in my socks was the technical nature of the trail. We finally hobbled back into the parking lot, and I got my poor bruised feet out of those stupid boots! I slipped into my clogs, with a notion of soaking my feet in the stream nearby, but I quickly was set straight on that matter. Why that water was in a liquid state remains a mystery to me, because it felt like ice.

I sat down at a picnic table while Dan retrieved my food experiment from the car. He set it down in front of me with a big grin on his face. "Is it hot?" I asked.

"It sure is!"

I opened it up, and sure enough, the green chile quesadillas were hot, the cheese had melted, and the rice was exactly right. Not bad for having been in a fridge that morning, and for me not really knowing if the foil trick would work or not. We were starving, so scarfed everything down quickly and finished with bread pudding and honeydew melon. It was all single-person portions and there were two of us, so we knew we'd be hungry again soon, but it was great to have a hot meal waiting for us after a three hour hiking on a snowy mountain.

As we were packing up to head back into Santa Fe, Dan got to talking to a woman who had lost her dog and was posting flyers. Supposedly the dog had been spotted over the past few days, each time a little further down. So as we drove toward town, we kept an eye out, but didn't see Buster the dog.

In town, we went to see the Martyrs' Cross, which stands on a high hill overlooking the city. Neither of us had ever been there, and we both found ourselves sighing in mock frustration over the steeply winding path up to the cross. But the way was punctuated every few feet with a plaque that discussed various key events in New Mexico's history, so that was fun. And at the top was the cross dedicated to the friars who had lost their lives in the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. We're more sympathetic to the Pueblos than the missionaries, so we gave that a miss and just enjoyed the view. A bit higher up, on a dirt path, was a beat-up wicker chair that seemed to afford an even better view, so I climbed up there to take a look. I found a surveyor's marker of some sort and the chair, obviously put there by some local who probably likes to sit there in the evenings and watch the town below. There were other trails leading off in different directions, but I'd had enough of trails, so we headed back to our car.

By now we were hungry and it was just past five, so we went to our Indian restaurant for some tandoori chicken and saag paneer. Then we headed down to the farm in Belen to take a little evening stroll with my father and tell him all of our adventures.

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