There’s a funny thing I’ve been noticing lately that when I’m in the wilderness I get worried about heading back into Civilization – and when I’m around people I enjoy I start to stress about heading back out into the Wilds. The funny thing about it is that I am actually comfortable and at ease in both of those situations – it seems to be the anticipation of change that gets to me. The Pecos Wilderness is the most rugged wilderness the ponies and I have tackled on the Journey thus far. There were sections of the trail that took us up above tree line and large areas of blowdown from forest fires 10 and 12 years ago. I’d gotten excellent help with route planning and the ponies were well rested and in good shape. I’d filed a “flight plan” with several people (including the Forest Service) and had made plans to ride out and meet my Aunt and Uncle at the mid-way point. I got a call from Sarah from the Pecos Ranger District as I was packing up and got great suggestions for a last minute route change based on her recent trail clearing projects and her first hand knowledge of some blocked and tangled trails. Incredibly valuable ‘phone call!
On the morning of Friday the 17th of August I rode into the Pecos. When Jesse James is feeling nervous about a trail he cocks his head in a peculiar way, like he’s trying to see around the corner. The trail didn’t seem too crazy to me but I thought he’d have a crick in his neck by the end of the day. New sights and sounds and smells and plenty of logs and rocks to navigate. I made camp near the confluence of two creeks and two trails. Shortly after I got the tent set up it commenced raining and continued off and on throughout the night. Saturday dawned clear, Jesse was shivering a bit and Trailrider’s Wall awaited. I gave Mr. James a brisk massage and broke camp quickly. A lone backpacker came through as I was tacking up – he was heading up to Pecos Baldy Lake on his last free weekend of summer.
The next section of trail had a few major blowdowns and we did some bushwhacking to find a way around. At one point Finehorn and I had to struggle to fit the pack between two trees without unloading her- but we did it. We came to a lovely wee lake in a clearing but didn’t linger – I could see the ridge we’d have to cross from there and just wanted to be done with it. It’s a humbling experience being up above tree line. I felt vulnerable and exposed to the elements. It was colder than I’d anticipated and my wool sweater and hat were packed. There was driftwood scattered about, white as bones, and pockets of hail from an earlier storm. The clouds were low and grey and ominous and I was relieved when we started down the far side of the mountain – and into an unfamiliar and soggy terrain.
The climb up had sections so steep that Jesse was hitting my heels with his back legs. Jesse’s breast collar snapped and I managed to repair it with a bandana. The trail down had my ears popping. I walked sections of it because it felt safer, although Jesse gave me a look like I was being silly. That night we camped in a lovely meadow along a tiny stream. It was less than 3 hours ride out to Iron Gate and my Monday rendevous so Sunday was a day off. I unpacked everything and set up housekeeping in the tent. Clothes sorted and folded and stacked. Books and papers and computer arranged in a tidy row. I’m getting a bit tired of living out of bags and it was a pleasure to have things organized and at hand. I found some Boletus edulis (Porcini) mushrooms to add to my dinner and followed the stream up to the source to gather water. I found a topo map of the Pecos beside the creek. Blessings on whomever left it there! It sure came in handy during the second half of the trek.
Sunday was a day of rest. Two black-tail does came through the meadow, grazing and completely unfazed by the presence of the ponies. I watched a dark squirrel, not much bigger than a chipmunk, carry a mushroom up a pine tree and place it on a branch. The mushroom was larger than the squirrel’s head and was carried by the edge of the cap like a shield, the stem extending between the front legs and under the body. I wondered if this was an ancient rodent technique for dehydrating food for winter.
Auntie Pat covered the rendevous beautifully – so I’ll skip that part. I also met some OK horsemen who treated me to coffee and dinner (and breakfast the next day!) around their campfire. Tuesday was a lovely day and a short ride to a meadow camp on the edge of the burn.
Wednesday was going to be a long day – 15 miles between water sources and much of the route above 11,000′. I was up at first light and in the saddle by 8am. We ascended through an amazing tangle of downed trees and tender new growth. There are no motors allowed in designated Wilderness (I wish there was a way to extend that to planes!) which means that all of these trails were cleared with hand saws – mile after mile of Herculean accomplishment (and careful marking with stone cairns and pink ribbons) allowed me to cross the Wilderness. A HUGE Thank You to the trail crews! WOW!!!
We’d covered about 5 miles when it started to rain. Jesse tripped over a log. Not long after he started limping on his left hind. I got off and walked him. The trail was difficult in terms of leading two horses so I looped Finehorn’s rope up onto the pack and she followed like a pro. It started pouring. This time I was prepared for the altitude and had my wool sweater, my alpaca scarf and the Donegal Mulberry hat Gryph knitted for me – at least I wasn’t cold! I missed the spring on Spring Mountain – the lightning missed me – fair deal. We started down and I suddenly realized that Finehorn was no longer in sight. I stopped and called – no pony. Grumbling, I tied Jesse’s rein to a tree and went back. There was Finehorn, standing over my beloved sunflower hat which had fallen out of the bucket. I hadn’t even noticed and I would have been so sad. Much praising of Saint Finehorn as we made our way back to Mr. James. An amazing realization of that day was that while I was wet and tired and hungry and thirsty and my feet hurt and I was concerned about Jesse – I wasn’t unhappy. I was actually fine. It wasn’t an uncomfortable day, but it wasn’t a bad day either. I was pretty content to be where I was, doing what I was doing.
By the time we made it to Beaver Creek and a suitable campsite it was almost 7pm. Thankfully the rain stopped long enough to set up camp and get the ponies situated for the night. I had just enough dry gear to sleep comfortably – though a vinyl tarp over soaked saddle pads left a bit to be desired as a sleeping surface. I spent the next two days drying everything out, planning to walk out on Saturday, leading Jesse to be on the safe side. It was a grand camp and the cows came a visiting. I got some postcards written and finished Doug Preston’s Cities of Gold which was a brilliant read. The ride he and Walter Nelson did was daunting, but I found myself thinking that was nothing compared to writing such a book.
Friday night I went across the creek to retrieve the ponies and bring them back close to camp for the night. I wasn’t paying attention to my feet (in Chaco’s) and somehow misjudged a fallen tree in tall grass. I caught my toe on a stob at just the wrong angle. I looked down and the second to the last toe on my left foot was perpendicular to its accustomed angle and on top of my little toe. Remarkably, it really didn’t hurt all that much. I finished camp chores, hanging bear bags, etc and retired to the tent. I downed the 3 1/2 ounces of whiskey in my flask (which I keep there for medicinal purposes) and made a valiant attempt at returning my toe to a position which would allow me to put my boots on in the morning. Now it HURT. I used band-aids to split it to my middle toe and took some Alleve. I was not a happy camper.
Saturday it was obvious that toe+boot=Not! I took another day off, telling Jesse that he was going to have to carry me out after all so he needed to rest up and get ready. By Sunday morning I felt like I didn’t have a choice. People were expecting me out by Monday and it’s bad form to necessitate a search and rescue if you’re not actually dead. I took Alleve, packed up – and last thing donned my boot. Once it was on it wasn’t so bad. Walking wasn’t good, but Jesse seemed sound and willing. Two horsemen came through and let me know that there was no place for horses at the El Porvenir campsite, but if I’d follow the well-crafted wooden bridges and stay left I’d come to El Porvenir Christian Camp and they might be helpful in terms of a place to stop. I rode down river under a clear blue sky.
Within an hour it had started to pour, thunder and lightning and hail. Cold and wet and the trail running like a small river. Waterfalls cascading down the steep rock canyon walls. I’m truly sorry that I didn’t take any photographs. There were 37 river crossings on the way out and the trail was rocky and slick. About 4 miles in Jesse just quit. He’d had enough and wasn’t carrying me another step. I got off and walked. I walked the next 5 miles, leading Mr. James and trusting Finehorn to follow – which she did – like a mountain goat! Eventually the trail leveled out and Jesse came up and nudged me and let me know that I should get back on, which I gratefully did.
I rode into El Porvenir Christian Camp like a drowned rat. A woman was helping her three young daughters out of a van and was incredibly kind and gracious. My hands were so stiff with cold that I couldn’t even unzip my chaps, much less untie Finehorn’s pack rope. Before I knew it the ponies were unpacked and tethered, I was moved into a small cabin with a hot shower, a cup of tea and some chicken rice soup. I was so grateful – and then the sun came out. I slept in a dry bed that night and the next day was offered a day of rest and a van to drive down to Montezuma to pick up my mail. I called the people who might have been worried and got things dried out – again! That night I slept 12 hours and awoke feeling like a human being. As if this wasn’t enough, I was also given a new tether rope for Finehorn, the long awaited Tyvek, a GPS simple enough for my non-tech-savvy self, fresh batteries for the Steripen And a 3/4 length Thermarest pad. Blessings on the wonderful people at El Porvenir for taking such amazing care of a poor way-faring stranger. Amazing Grace!
PS – there’s a 9 hole disc golf course at the camp and the public is welcome to come play!