Wednesday, September 7, 2011

My First Hike

Two years ago, in October 2009, while visiting New Mexico, I drove two friends of mine to a trailhead in the Pecos Wilderness so they could hike up to a lake called Lake Baldy (near a peak called Mount Baldy).  I wanted to go with them.  That was not an option. I weighed over 400 pounds.  Walking one tenth of the distance they planned to cover that day was my limit, and that was my limit on flat ground at sea level--they were climbing from about 9000 feet to over 11,000 feet in elevation over rugged wilderness trail.

I watched them disappear on the trail with tears in my eyes.  I resolved on that spot to make this hike within a year.

Two years later, I just finished my first hike. It was not this one, it was shorter and not as demanding, but it was in the same wilderness, just sort of over to the east and a bit lower, but it was a real hike into the wilderness.  I just did something I've never done before, something two years ago I could not do.

We hiked from the Iron Gate trailhead to the Mora Flats in the Pecos Wilderness of Northern New Mexico.  We hiked trail 249 to where it crosses 250, then taking 250 down into Mora Flats.  Mora Flats is a flat area between mountain ranges, a long oblong rolling meadow along a river bank bordered by mountain ranges on all sides.  It is about 2 miles long and about a quarter of a mile wide.  It is covered in soft grasses and wildflowers.  Most people arrive on horseback.

It is about a 400 foot descent into the Flats from Iron Gate.   Unfortunately, the trail is not straight down.  You descend about 300 feet as you navigate over the ridges on the west side.  That is, you begin with a 200 foot climb, then you descend 400 feet, then make 4 sections of 100 foot climbs (over three miles of trail) before at the end you drop over 500 feet down on to the flats.  Once on the flats, we hiked about halfway up to camp right where two rivers ran together.

So, it is a little easier going in than coming out.

My companions live at 7000 feet.  I live at sea level.  I was carrying a 50 pound pack, but my limiting factor wasn't my legs or feet, it was catching my breath.  I am long accustomed to carrying far more than 50 pounds in excess of my current curb weight.    My problem was I was hiking 9500 feet in excess of the altitude to which I am accustomed.  My companions weren't  skipping through the tulips either, everyone was huffing and puffing, but they could hike faster than I so I became self-conscious about this.

Talk about never satisfying expectations!  Even hiking high country with a heavy pack I wasn't performing up to my specs!  The hardest part about being the slow hiker was that I never got to stop hiking.  They would hike ahead of me and wait, taking in the awesome beauty around us for a moment or two while they waited on me without the burden of having to think about where to step next.  Just as I trudged up to where they were standing they would take off again.  I would never break stride, I would just keeping putting one foot in front of the other, my friends just momentarily in closer proximity than usual.

I was very focused on not falling down. I was very aware that a relatively minor injury could be major hassle.  My attention was completely focused on my steps.  Each step was the entire universe, I just took care of them one at a time.  It was marvelous zen practice, but it meant I couldn't really look around.  My eyes were constantly scanning the trail in front of me, I needed to be sure of every step.  I was on a rough, rocky trail.  I was carrying 50 pounds on my back.  I did not want to fall.

My tent on the Mora River
Once we got to the campsite it became clear that a mistake had been made when packing.  I had all the water.  My pack was almost twice as heavy as anyone else's.  We made camp fairly rapidly, within an hour of arriving I was napping on my sleeping bag.  There were sheepish apologies about the packs. If it had not been my first hike I might have suspected the mistake, but I don't know how much my pack is supposed to weigh.

It was wet, and one of those effed up situations that follows me around came to a head.  The day before I was making a run to REI for a few supplies.  I solicited a list from my companions and they began just mentally calling out what they would need and checking what they had against what they needed.  On the list was newspaper.  I put it on my list and they both laughed at me, saying we didn't need to buy newspaper, there was plenty at the house, ha ha, funny guy for putting that in the list.

So, I took it off my list and forgot about it.  Well, guess what we needed to start a fire and didn't have?  We almost didn't have a fire because of it.  If it had not been for a section of rope I found tied to a tree we would not have been able to start one.  All of the leaves and twigs around were damp.  It had been raining.  But, because of the rope I found we had a fire, a truly great campfire, it did finally come together nicely.   We went to bed after a while, which was good, because another downpour was on the way.

We had good tents pitched on good ground, so the rain was just a sleep aid.  I was the first to wake up, so I hiked up on top of the ridge we were next to, made some instant iced coffee (that ice-maker was heavy, too!) and watched the sun come up after my morning sit.

I guess that's where it all hit me.  I had hiked into the wilderness and spent the night.  There wasn't anyone else around.  We had gone far beyond the reaches of casual campers, they were miles back behind us.  I was on an outcropping of rocks where two rivers converge, surrounded by spectacular wildlife, and I had gotten there under my own power with my shelter, food and water on my back.  Wow.  This is a life I've never known before, a life I thought I never would have until very recently.  There's good reason why people go to all the trouble to do this kind of thing.

After my companions arose we had breakfast, freeze-dried chicken teriyaki, which was surprisingly good.  They wanted to make a day hike up the river, which I didn't appreciate the appeal of until it dawned on me I wouldn't be carrying a pack.  Oh cool, we can just walk.  Walking is fun.

Vibram Five Finger Shoes
after a 12 mile hike in the Wilderness.
Because I had wisely risked my first hiking experience in my Vibram Five Finger shoes, I could walk on rocky trail, along river bottoms, grassy meadows, creek beds, and slog through mud without worrying about swamping my shoes.  If and when they got wet they simply air-dried in a few minutes.  I had not one blister or any kind of problem with my feet, and I could use my toes for fine balance.   I can't recommend these things enough.

We hiked about a mile up river, bushwhacking (off trail hiking) the entire way, it was a slow go, but we went to places probably unseen by human eyes for many seasons.  There's no way to describe how interesting and intimidating this is.  You are on your own.  If something went wrong out here a rescue would take days.

We got back down to the campsite after a couple of hours and took down the camp.  I was really good at this, I finished long before my companions and I kept waiting for them to put stuff into my pack.  It seemed too light.  As it turns out, apparently out of shame for loading me up on the way in, my pack out was at least 20 pounds lighter.  That was a good thing, because the hike out was almost all uphill.

As with most physical challenges, the real challenge was mental.  As I climbed the ridge, my mouth got dry because I was breathing so hard and fast.  I wanted to quit, but I realized that all of my quit had to do with a forecasted dread of what things would be like in the future.  Right now, right then and there, I was fine.  I had enough wind, I could take my next step, and the entire hike, even the "worst" parts of it in hindsight, were all like this moment.  I can make the next step, I just can't imagine making all of the next steps.

Well, as it turns out, you only have to make the next step.  If you keep making the next step, all the steps get made.

It rained and hailed on us on the way out.  This was another odd wilderness realization I had.  When it started raining, my natural inclination was to look for shelter, there's gotta be a Starbucks around here somewhere, right?  No, there's no where to go when it rains, or hails.   You just keep going.  It wasn't bad, but leaving that inclination to shelter alone was also an interesting practice.

It got tired on the last mile, even though it was level or downhill.  I was spent.  I hiked even slower, but I kept putting one foot in front of the other.  Never before has the sound of a car door slamming been such sweet music to my ears (we could hear the trailhead before we could see it).  Never before has sitting in an automotive seat been such unending bliss.  I was mostly looking forward to not carrying a pack, even if it was only 30 pounds on the way out.

I still had to drive down over a muddy road in ill repair before I could rest, but that was no big deal.  I pushed down on a pedal and hills were climbed.  Magic.

Mora Flats September 2011
I learned a few things.  I can hike.  This was not a terribly challenging hike, but it was no training-wheel experience either.  My companions, both experienced hikers, were hitting the Ibuprofen when we got home too.  They were tired.  The last part of the hike out kicked their ass too.  They've hiked much more, and much longer distances, but this was a hike.  I can do this.