Sunday, June 18, 2017

End of Trail/Homecoming

The trail ended for me June 10. I spent a couple days in town and a couple days taking the train back; I just started my new job as COO of Bellwether Coffee two days ago.

I didn't really want to leave, though. I wanted to see Lily, and for that matter I was excited about my new job. But the raw wilderness of New Mexico had done so much to settle my mind.

That's about all I have to say about that. Go to New Mexico. Eat chile. Be at peace.

Some deer need no headlights

June 10
I slept badly, as bugs big and little kept feeling the need to examine my face during the night. It had been so long since I'd slept at a low elevation to worry about bgs, I realized. Probably just as well that today was my last day, I really wasn't equipped to handle a mosquito hatch. But: No snow! I was below 10,000 feet and I was staying there all the way into Santa Fe. So much the better, as I had a good 35 miles or so to make before the end of the trail. And I was pretty committed to finishing that day, as I didn't have anything to make for dinner that night.
So I hauled myself upright, broke camp, and got hiking as quickly as I could. My progress was slowed by blowdowns, as a lot of treees killed by the fire had fallen over the trail and not yet been cleared. The blowdowns started as single trees to climb over, under, or around. Then there were pairs of trees that had come down together, increasing the complexity of the maneuvers needed to get past them. Then threes, then fours, then at some point I found myself in a multi-tree matrix that necessitated acting like I was trying out for American Ninja just to get forward a foot.
Maybe I shouldn'ta taken the shortcut, I grumbled to myself. I lost three hours of my morning, scraping and belly-crawl squeezing and flopping my way through the trees. As always, I reached that point were I realized my loyalty lay with the goal, not the path, and I started to chart the shortest possible path cross-country to the edge of the burned section.
Back out of that section, I had clear trail. This, my last day on the trail, was one of the only days I had where I had clear singletrack most of the day. The route dove down through my elevation by thousands of feet, thoughtlessly spending all the work it took me to climb the ridge at the other end. I passed an elderly couple eating lunch trailside with a crosscut saw resting nearby. Apparently they were engaged in the sisyphean task of clearing out the deadfalls; I thanked them for their work and moved on. At Horsethief Meadows, my alternate met up with the main trail and climbed up over a bluff, then down past Stewart Lake. I passed another, smaller lake, and glanced down at my map to see the name.
Spirit Lake. Huh. So that's where it is.
The trail passed a major trailhead and campground and continued, mostly down and mostly south, along mountain bike trails. Every biker I met stopped to allow me to pass; note the excellent etiquette! It got hotter the further I went, with the vegetation increasingly sere and sparse. I walked along a stream with a lot of trail runners, a couple of whom asked me where i was going or had been.They got treated to my explanation trailing off in the distance: "A 500-mile loop through Northern New Mexico..."
Because I didn't have the time. I was about 9 miles out and had about 2 hours of sunlight left. I started hustling. I started doing the math in my mind -- if I can hit four miles an hour, I'd get in just after 8:30, and if I could hit five miles an hour, I could get there by 8:40 or so, etc. But how was I going to hike 5 miles an hour?
I started using the "scout pace," a relic of my old Boy Scout training.The Scout pace is 100 paces at a run, 100 paces at a walk. Running with a pack, even if it's only 100 paces at a light jog, wasn't really what the doctor ordered after the last few days of strenuous travel. But with each passing mile, the roofs of Sante Fe got closer.
Now I switched to municipal trails, which got very steep, climbing up and over ridges and down into steep, narrow valleys. At the next trailhead, I got off the trails and switched to the roads. Heck, I'm not a purist, and I was losing light.
I waked the rest of the way into Santa Fe on the Hyde Park Road, a two-lane highway. There were cars, but the evening was nice, cool, and relatively quiet. I could smell someone cooking beef, and could hear a live band playing somewhere far off downtown. About two miles from the plaza, the end of my trip, I watched a very young buck step gingerly down into the road. He stopped dead when he saw me,and we spent the better part of a minute just regarding each other. I don;t think he quite knew what to make of me, and  wasn't going to voluntarily end my last communion with wildlife on this trip.
And then he looked up, his reverie over, and walked off the other side of the road.
It was full dark as I finally entered the streets of Santa Fe. I walked straight down to the plaza and had two very proper elderly women take my picture.

I was punch-drunk exhausted and wandered the square for another ten minutes. I was more than a little afraid that I had forgotten how to stop walking. A restaraunt appeared before my shell-shocked eyes and I went in. It was a fancy place catering to the tourist trade, and I bet I was the stinkiest dude they'd ever served a smothered burrito.

High Lonesome

June 9

I woke at first light and made myself coffee and breakfast burritos over a fire. Not the fastest way to break camp! And as much as I normally defend Spam and Amercian Cheese, I cannot really recommend building two back-to-back meals around them. The fake taste starts to shine through pretty badly. It was very picturesque and cowboy-like, though. I'd even made an impromptu grill out of some fence wire I found nearby. I think you could base a good country song on the metaphor of grilling over a barbed-wire grill. A great song would even reference Spam.

The snow along the trail started crisp, and I thought I might have an easier time of it than the day prior, but by 9 am I was falling through again. The snowpack was getting really rotten as the summer wound on -- this was far less reliable than the snow had been a week ago.
The morning became a race to get to the flanks of Jicarita Mountain. Named after a band of Apaches, this mountain was the beginning of 12 miles above treeline. While high altitudes are generally correlated with more snowpack, this relationship falls apart when you get above treeline. With no trees to shelter it from the wind and sun, the snow melts out much more quickly.
As it turned out, that was exactly what had happened. Below Jicarita and along the ridge connecting it with Trouble Peak, there was no snow. No real trail, either. Just cairns along the ridge and your own decision about how to cross the mix of jumbled rock and alpine tundra.
There were lots of animals -- two herds of bighorn and a herd of elk that must have been 100 strong, streaks of chocolate brown running just north of the ridgetop. I nodded to my elk guides, but I also carefully threaded my way between the herds. They may be inadvertently showing me the way, but I still do not desire a close encounter.

Beyond Trouble Peak (which looked easy to summit but who has the time), the trail continued right along the ridge, popping over unnamed summits. Open meadows and lakes accompanied my path on either side and I walked straight toward Chimayosos Peak, looming in the near distance. The trail, my twelve miles above treeline up, dipped down into a forested bowl on the southeast side of Truchas Peak.

The trail immediately started getting elusive under snowpatches, but I was able to follow it all the way down to the side of Truchas Lake. From there on, things got a bit hairy. I lost the trail and followed a little game trail to a cliff beyond which most mere humans wouldn't want to proceed without ropes. I backed up, chose another route, and found trail again. I followed it high up onto a steep hillside, where it disappeared under steep, deep snow.
Traverses on steep, snowy slopes are about as much fun as an 8:59 am traffic jam on the Bay Bridge. Except that in this traffic jam, there is a slight possibility that the bridge will crumble underneath you and plunge you to the Bay below. Protecting the hikers from slipping down the face is what ice axes are for, and I had sent mine back days ago. Bummer. There's nothing to be done about it except go across or go back. This traverse wasn't long, and it wound me around to a more southern-facing section of trail, where the snow should have melted.
I went for it, carefully kicking each step into the snow and making as sure as I could be that it was solid. Light exploded all around me, bright sun from above and reflected from the snow below. Rocks, streams, and sky all dwindled to a little corner of my mind as I concentrated on each step: Kick Kick Kick One. Breathe. Kick Kick Kick Two. Breathe. Kick Kick Kick One. Breathe. Kick Kick Kick Two. Breathe.
When I finally grabbed a sapling on the far side, and I knew I'd made it, the sensory input that I'd been stalling all rushed in, and I stood to reflect on the surroundings, crowded with beauty and devoid of humans. I am so rich in these memories, I thought, in the mental remnants of millions of moments
and thousands of hours spent in these places. I ascribe all sorts of positive effects to my time in the wilderness; I tell people it's made me a much more well-adjusted person. But maybe I just do it for the straight, uncut joy of it. Maybe that's what humans need: More of this uncomplicated joy.
The trail found it's way back to the ridgeline and above treeline again, and cruised right past a mile of cliffs colorfully named the "Trailriders' Wall." It was late afternoon, and within the hour The trail sloped off to the south of the ridge and into the little bowl holding Pecos Baldy Lake. There were suddenly dozens of people around. Friday night, I realized.
I had a trail junction here with a choice: The recommended route followed river valleys down, and back up a bit, on it's way southwest to Santa Fe. The Horsethief Alternate was more direct, but spent more time in a burned-over section left from an intense fire in 2013. I chose Horsethief, reasoning that less live trees meant less snow cover, and silently passed the other campers by. I craved company, but not quite yet. I wanted to hike a few more miles. I'd be in Santa Fe soon enough.
The route headed up to a little notch in the west wall of the lake's basin. That wall turned out to be another harrowing, steep, snowy ascent. As soon as I could, I made my over to a little line of trees and used them to haul myself up the wall, hand over hand. It's never been boring on the NNML, I thought, using my arms as much as my legs to gain the pass.
Up and over the pass, the trail got faint. It wasn't under snow, mind you; now it was the faint track of an abandoned, or nearly abandoned, trail. It was getting dark, and I couldn't be bothered with how ominous that was for the rest of my trip. I collected water from a spring, found a place to lie down, and strong up the tarp one last time.

These'll Just Have to Do

June 8

Dawn was a wash of direct sunlight on my face; ridgetops are nice that way. As I was lacing up my shoes, I noticed that all the step-kicking seemed to have taken a pretty dire toll on my shoes' structural integrity: There were two-inch-long tears in the fabric above the instep on both shoes. I fretted for a moment but then figured there wasn't much to be done about at the moment anyway. I mean, as long as they didn't literally fall off my feet, I was better off just lacing, hoping, and hiking.
The road started to drop elevation pretty much immediately, and before long I was back down below snowline. Destroyed shoes or no, this made me enjoy life. Meadows and forests traded off, light and dark versions of the same color palette. The temperature rose as the mountains dropped, and midday found me sweating at the trailhead along a two-lane highway to Sipapu Ski Resort, my next (and last) supply stop.
It's a two-mile hitch along the highway into Sipapu. It was too nice a day to hitch, though. Hitching is such a bummer for me; you are very suddenly very dependent on others, literally begging on the roadside. And while catching a ride can be exhilarating (especially if you've been out there for a while), it can also be terrifying. I've had a couple rides with people very drunk, very tweaked out, or trying to modulate the two. And while these rides make for good stories, at the time the experience is just shitty. Your adventure is quickly reduced to an open question about whether you are going to escape this tawdry Subaru with your body intact.
So in I walked, head held high. To my left was the Rio Pueblo, rushing and well up onto the grass on its banks. Above was clear blue sky, and ahead the promise of a hamburger, beer, and enough food to power me into Santa Fe. Maybe they'd even have shoes, I mused.
The resort did, in fact, have shoes. They are apparently a dealer for Salomon. I'm not a huge fan of the company -- I wore their over-named 3D XT Pro Comp shoes for a while in 2008, and they hurt my feet after a while. Still, any port in a storm, right? So I sat in the back of their little resort store, diligently trying on every kind of Salomon they had in a size 11 and hoping no one was going to scold me for putting such nice new shoes on such rotten, foul-smelling feet. (They were pretty bad, to the point where the feet smelled a little like Nacho Cheese that had been left out in the sun for two long, like several years. Humid years.) The aforementioned 3D XT Pro Comps carried the day, and I wore them over to the grocery section to see what I'd be munching on for the next couple-three days.
That's where things kind of fell apart. They had cereal, but no dried milk. Tortillas, but no beans. No stove fuel. That was gong to present a problme, as I only had enough left to boil two pints of water. No sunscreen, but at least I had a pretty good hat. No peanut butter. No peanut butter. That almost literally never happens.
Basically, they had a few cans of green chile, a dozen eggs, two packets of ramen, a couple cans of mushrooms, some graham crackers, candy, Spam, and American "cheese." Lily says that I'm good at making meals out of whatever we have left over in our kitchen, but this was outside my scope. This was Iron Chef: Post-Apocalypse Already-Looted-Grocery-Store Scavenger Edition, and I needed about 3500 calories a day.
So let's see... We'll have breakfast burritos, eggs/"cheez"/spam/mushrooms/chiles for dinner. Then for breakfast, we'll have the exact same thing. Then for lunch, tortillas. After that, we'll have ramen, then some candy for breakfast (sure why not), then graham crackers, then graham crackers. If I needed another dinner, I'd have to eat my new shoes.
I loaded my gut up on as many calories as I could, jamming a double green chile burger and a pint of Sierra Nevada at the cafe. The woman behind the counter got excited, saying she was jazzed to have a hiker in her shop, although it could have just been that I was the only customer in the dim, wooden room. She checked out my maps, trying to see if she knew where my route was going to take me (she did not). Was I going to Spirit Lake, she asked?
Not sure, I responded.
Certainly I knew about Spirit Lake, though.
Not really. It's hard to explain to people on the outside: I pass a lot of lakes, and rarely look further than one day ahead of me in my maps. One of the ironies of spending so much time in the wilderness is that simple specific joys, like that a certain alpine lake, can get crowded out by the generally heightened presence of the sublime. The edges of specific moments and places wipe into each other without narrative, leaving a blurred imprint of the vast universe but no memory of its constituent parts.
My pack was so heavy leaving the resort -- damn canned food -- that the word "laden" kept occurring to me in non sequiter phrases: It's awfully hot in the sun. The donkey was laden with too much ore by the cruel miner. I wonder what kind of plant that is? Wlo could identify it, laden down with burdens as I am, is? Laden. So it as I walked back my two miles, head held significantly less high.
Still, it was a beautiful day, and I was entering the home stretch. And maybe this nest section would have less snow! I got off the highway and crossed a roaring Rio Pueblo at the Agua Piedra campground. Through the campgorund and up the gorge of Agua Piedra Creek I went. The trail chased the stream up therough forests, then open, swampy meadow, then, not four miles in, into a snowfield.
No way to go but forward, though. I plunged on through snow, lost the trail entirely, and started to navigate by GPS again. I passed Los Esteros pond, listed as a "tea-brown" water source on my map, and it was entirely covered in snow. Another pole snapped when I slipped down a little snowbank,and I cussed a blue streak.
I gave up on the designated trail and started to look for elk tracks. I'd followed coyote, elk, and deer tracks on this trip, but elk made for the best pathfinders. They also posthole, you can see the three-foot-deep print, but not always. As such, they are always looking for the most stable snow, that which will carry them on its surface. That snow usually carries my weight too. Conversely, if they postholed through a opatch of snow, it;s good bet to leave that patch alone. The best part about elk is 90% of the time, they are trying to follow the same trail as you, and will lead you right to the trail as it leaves a snowfield on the far side.
An hour of following my elk guides led me to a gentle place to approach the ridge. After I'd gained it, I turned to climb along it, skirting snowfields by hiking the cliff's edge ridgetop in places. Almost half my hiking light was coming from an early-rising waxing moon when I finally got over Ripley Point and down to a saddle.
No stove fuel meant no stove, so I found an old fire ring and made just enough of a fire to roast spam and cook scrambled eggs, and settled in to make myself a dinner of breakfast burritos. The fire felt amazing, such a luxury, and I soaked in the sweet light and warmth before retiring to my bag and tarp.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Mr. Bill and an Oh No Moment

June 7
Breakfast at the Elkhorn Lodge is served at 7. When I entered the dining room, I found one of the owners and several hired men starting their days on coffee and frosted flakes. I grabbed a share of both for myself and sat down next to Mr. Bill.
The crew was going to go out to the stable and put the owners' other business -- trail rides on the surrounding National Forest land -- into commission. The workers looked like working horsemen often do: Skinny, taciturn, and maybe in need of clean laundry. Who was I to judge on any of those three criteria? They kept to their food, only glancing up from their coffee to a TV playing the Today show from time to time. Mr. Bill was of a more open cast of mind, however. He invited me to sit next to him and introduced me to his two small dogs, Bubbles and Oreo. Bubbles immediately jumped into my lap and fell asleep; two of the other three bigger dogs in the room took turns coming over to pay me their respects. The last one remained aloof on a couch, so I walked over. Turns out he was not so much aloof as blind with age.
And Mr. Bill was the kind of older gentleman who would keep a small pack of good-tempered dogs. You kind of got the feeling he was a good egg. He sent a hired hand up to my room to clean it,and I mentioned there were beers left in the fridge. He smiled and told his guy to "stick the beers in the cooler, y'a'l can drink them later." He then told me how he and his wife, who the hired men called Miss Nancy, had built this hotel to their own specifications in the '80s. They'd been doing the trail rides that whole time as well. It was good life, he explained.
A local news show came on, and the anchor noted that car thefts were up in Albuquerque; Mr. Bill sighed and remarked that there were far too many murders these days, too. Older people are of course inclined toward lamentations about the sad state of modern affairs, but as such complaints go, his was pretty hard to disagree with. Yeah, I suppose there are too many murders these days.
A quarter of an hour later the rest of breakfast showed up when I was handed a paper plate loaded with toast, sausage, and scrambled eggs cooked in the sausage grease. Miss Nancy follwed the plates out and sat down to chat with me. We talked about the land, the wide-open elk pasture I'd just walked through, the way ahead. We discussed calving elk, and the need to give them space. And we talked about the people in New Mexico.
"The thing you have to understand is that these are wilderness people around here," she said. "They don't see the wilderness as something separate from their lives, they see it as part of their lives." The words rang true, and exemplify what I love about New Mexico society. If Californians are ready at the drop of a hat to mount an expedition into the country, a lot of New Mexicans seem to already be living in pretty close contact with it as a matter of daily routine.
A bid the crew goodbye as they were climbing into pickups to head out to the stables. Pack on, a gut full of Folgers, and a bluebird sky above, I was totally ready to get lost and hike half a mile in the wrong direction as I tried to find my way out of town. Back on the route, which here was a series of municipal trails, I came across two young mule deer bucks, antlers in spring velvet, grazing in a strip meadow. They were completely at ease with my presence, just idly observing me as they munched the fresh green grass.The route then wound up into the mountains, following roads and utility right-of-ways until it finally found a single-track trail that looked like it saw a lot of mountain bike use. That trail climbed up along forested ridges and down past cows lolling in meadowed pastures.
It finally found some jeep roads and got a bit more serious about climbing. Snow patches started to appear, as did some pretty substantial clouds. I was thinking about the lightning along the highway the day prior, and hoped we weren't going to do that again.
It was cool and overcast as I approached Cerro Vista, the local high point. Snow now obscured most of the trail, such that I missed an easy road junction. That road, which headed right up to the summit, was totally snowed in, so I treated it as an optional ad mostly just directed myself to the summit via GPS and compass.
Cerro Vista and bad weather
I was almost to the top when it started raining. The first flash of lightning was essentially simultaneously with my attainment of the summit ridge. Tree cover was sparse up there, so I decided to duck into a little stand of firs just off the ridge. I ended up spending three hours there, most of them crouched into the lightning safety position as cell after cell rolled over the ridge. Every time I poked my head out of my cramped, freezing crouch, I was scared back in by a very, very bright flash and a very, very close clap of thunder.
Evening was encroaching when I finally felt like it was safe to start down the trail again. Even then, there were some pretty terrifying lightning strikes happening, so I bombed off the ridge and into a maze-like network of logging roads in a valley to the north of the ridge. I walked a mile or two on those roads, most of flooding with snowmelt and the day's rain. As the light started to get dim, I realized I was going to need to strike out cross-country straight up the side of a steep ridge to regain the trail. Like 2,000 feet of elevation gain in a mile.
So I kick-stepped myself up a couple thousand feet, treating the snowpack like a ladder. Ten steps, rest, repeat. Every quarter mile, I'd cross a logging road and check to make sure it didn't miraculously hook up with my ridgetop route further down the line, which it did not.
I got up onto the ridge at twilight's end. I cruised the trailside for a flat-ish snow-free spot to lay down on, and around 9:30, I found one. Up with the tarp, down with me.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Not going out like that

June 6
I sprang out of bed at 6 am -- sleep matters, it turns out -- and then realized the only restaurant in town that served breakfast opened at 8. The Kaw-Lija Diner, named after the catchy and casually racist Hank Williams tune, did not rise with the sun. I guess it's a better name for a restaurant than I'm So Lonesome I Could Die.
So I caught up some writing, especially the reviews of camp coffee I've been making for Liz "Snorkel" Thomas (check her out). Checked out the news, where the Trump junta was idly contemplating hanging improbably named whistleblower Reality Winner from a lamppost. 
Yeah, I guess if you don't believe your government is going to mount a robust response to the hacking of voter registration, it makes sense to leak. I get the motivation.
I pushed it aside and walked to the diner, where I  ate a Spanish omelette and a cinnamon roll so hard it bent the knife when I tried to cut it. Paid out, I went back to the hotel, got the kit together, and started walking.
The trail took me along Eagle Nest Lake's shore, which smelled vaguely of sewage. The smell got less intense after I passed the actual sewage treatment center, which looked like a big lagoon along the shore of the lake. 
Some pretty threatening clouds were forming up over my old pal Wheeler Peak, which crowned the eastern side of the valley through which I walked. There wasn't too much I could do, so I kept hiking. It started to rain, and I realized that when you are on an exposed ridge in a storm, you can bomb off the side. If you're on a long, exposed roadwalk, all you can do is get struck.
Oh man, that is not how I want to go, I thought.
And this did 1:30 pm find me cowering inside a privy along the Lake View Trail. I watched forks of lightning hitting flat valley-bottom ground, not too far from where I'd been. There is nothing dignified about crouching in the portico of a pit toilet, but it beats getting electrocuted on a roadway while trucks with the last Tapout stickers in existence cruise past you.
The storm eventually passed, and I made haste toward the town of Angel Fire. I picked up my last maps for the trip at the post office, got a room, and bought groceries. A good meal at the local brewpub, a warm bed, and about four more days of hiking.

In the Elk Lodge

June 5
I slept poorly. A bright moon, occasional flashes of lightning, and the unexpected advent of mosquito season all conspired to have me up most of the night. When day broke, a cacophony of birds was augmented by a pack of coyotes and an elk bugle and I was like, okay, I get it, it's time to wake up. Sheesh.
The trail, here a dirt road, was a sodden mess. Squishfoot in full effect. But the surrounding landscape was amazing. The relatively narrow canyon gave over to a mile-broad meadow valley, carpeted in plush bunchgrasses and wildflowers. Hawks cried in the trees, flocks of redwing blackbirds chattered at me, and a bright sun overhead. 
And the elk were everywhere. I counted the herd in the valley until I hit around 70 and then gave up. They would spook as I walked up, but then, I was spooked too. As I've mentioned, mama elk in calving season can be very... zealous in the protection of their young. And yup, sure enough, I could see baby elk and yearling elk moving with their matriarchs. 
Our mutual fear set up a situation in which we were both unwillingly herding each other. They would run away from me, but would unfortunately run toward the head of the valley, in my direction of travel. I would then make a wide, sweeping detour to get around the herd; I detoured over a mile from my designated route to skirt the trees at the valley's edges trying to get around them. In fives or dozens they'd prance past me, down-valley, heads held high. But there were always some in front, and more than once a big cow shadowed me, just 100 feet on my left flank, watching. 
And thus was it with a little sadness and a lot of relief that I finally reached the head of the valley. I knew I'd come to the edge, because I found a barbed wire fence that told me not to cross upon pain of prosecution. I didn't, instead skirting the fence as it climbed steeply, super steeply up and over a couple ridges. I finally walked across a fence, unmarked this time, and made my way on abandoned logging roads to Mills Pond. This was almost certainly on somebody's property, but it was also on my route, and I needed some water. So I filtered a few liters, gave the place a furtive look, and got out as quick as I could, climbing toward Mt Baldy.
Observant readers will remember that just the day prior I had climbed Baldy Mountain. But this, Mt. Baldy, is a totally different peak of a much more prominent alpine nature. Also, it's on the Philmont Boy Scout ranch, where in 1988 I had my first relavatory backpacking experience. It is a sure sign we live in a patriarchy that two such peaks in such close proximity were both names after a vanity injury for aging dudes. I mean, one could have  been named Mt Babybutt, Mt Smooth, or just Mt Amazing, but no, both are essentially Mt Past His Prime.
My climb followed an old jeep road, now long since abandoned. Soon enough it was choked with small pines on the left tread and snowbanks on the rights. The snow was totally rotten, my feet pushing all the way through with each step. But, you know, there was only one way forward, and that was up. I gained the summit ridge in forest about the same time I heard the day's first thunder. 
Crap, I thought. I'm above treeline for miles today.
Still, ever hopeful, I plowed on up to the we of treeline. And my luck served me well: Jus as I reached the wide-open expanses of alpine tundra that would take me over Mt. Baldy and down to the town of Eagle Nest, there was a break in the weather!
I stepped out onto the tundra like it was a frozen lake in spring. Yes, the sky above was blue, but there was an awful lot of grey and black around me. I skitttered across grass and scree as quick as I could, and soon enough I was right at the foot of the peak.
The map said go up and over, where a low-altitude alternate beckoned. I checked out the sky. The sky, in turn, looked at me and asked me if I felt lucky.
Well do ya, punk? Do ya?
I did not. Something about discretion and valor, and how guys who know how to read maps live longer. I sketched out a moderately doable route that would link up with the alternate and took a jeep trail off the ridge that moment. I was immediately back in forest and relative safety. Any regrets I may have had on not sumitting were softened by the loud, consistent thunder that started up behind me. Screw that, I thought. 
Which is not say that it was all smooth sailing. My jeep road faithfully followed its mapped route for about half a mile, then experienced the joys of independence and started going in a totally new, unmapped direction. I responded by traversing across a wicked steep slope cross country, coming across an abandoned mineshaft in the doing. Totes routine, right?
An hour of hard buahwacking later, Inwas back on the route, which is to say I was bushwacking down a drainage my map suggested I bushwhacked down. But I t was green and beautiful, and there were plenty of game trails. 
Then, suddenly, there was an old Wedgewood stove and a metal box of a building. It looked a bit like the trailers sheep herders use, which themselves look a bit like covered wagons. But this one hadn't been used in a long, long time.
That was just the beginning. As I walked further down the drainage, I saw all sorts of evidence of failed human occupation. There were a lot of old mining contraptions, including an excavator that looked like it might start if you tried. There were sluice boxes still in place in the creek. And then there was the ruin of an old brick building, vaguely church-like, crumbling in the sun at the edge of a meadow.
I kept on walking. More mining stuff, all looking like it had been left at shift's end in 1970 and then never touched again. It was awesome and creepy.
The route left the drainage, much to my regret, and started a tour of old defunct logging roads. I suspect I wasn't always on public land, ahem,  but I didn't see anyone and sure didn't disturb anything. Below me on a grassy plain, I could see Eagle Nest, my goal. The trail took me there, stitching roads together with short hops of cross-country, culminating in a mile-long trip down a brushy dry creek bottom. 
The creek crossed under a highway and I climbed up through thorns to the road. Three miles of road walk later, I was walking through Eagle Nest. I saw a hotel and bar built in the nineteenth century, asked about prices, and moved in when I realized it was cheaper than the Econolodge. Meal, laundry, and shower, and then to an crumpled mess on the bed. Underslept and overworked, I barely made it under the covers.