At Home He's a Tourist

He fills his head with culture/ He gives himself an ulcer.

Sunday, August 10, 2003

W., the Boss's husband, an unfailingly jovial man who teaches and practices psychology, happened to be going to his cabin in central New Mexico on Thursday afternoon in order to finish up a sabbatical research project without distractions. He invited me to follow him there and spend the night so that I could break up the long drive to Taos. It seemed we stopped at every Allsup's from Plainview to Fort Sumner for gas, snacks, drinks, or restroom breaks. While we dined at a modest roadside eatery W. told me about the paper he's working on, an attempt to empirically prove the efficacy of death anxiety in motivating clients to undertake behavioral change. Simply put, he has his patients consider the brevity of life and whether they want to spend their precious moments in useless anger, depression, etc. I knew he was a liberal Presbyterian, but I was still surprised when he wondered if the traditional notion of an afterlife was harmful in encouraging people simply to wait for all their problems to be solved in heaven. (His is one of many instances I've seen in which the study of psychology has had a corrosive effect on theology.)

A few miles west of Muleshoe we left the flat brown farmland of Texas behind us and entered eastern New Mexico's rolling grasslands. As we gained altitude over the next couple of hours the mountains and cedar forests appeared. W. grew up on a large ranch acquired by ancestors who homesteaded the area about 90 years ago, and at his parents' death he inherited a sizable parcel of the land. It's north of the village of Corona, within a mile or two of Gallinas Peak, surrounded by the Cibola National Forest. W. had arranged it that I would drop my car off at a nearby family's ranch house, since my Saturn wouldn't make it up W.'s deeply rutted dirt road. The overly garrulous family invited us in and kept us for over an hour, but we finally excused ourselves and drove up to the cabin. W. built it himself and did a pretty good job--although the untreated plywood interiors weren't very attractive, it looked sturdy and had the desired amenities (electricity, plumbing, running water). The night was dry and cool; leaving the windows open afforded us all the air conditioning we needed.

Early in the morning W. drove me back down to my car and I left eager for new sights. I drove north to Santa Fe, a city of the strictest architectural conformity where even the fast food restaurants and gas stations are built adobe-style. I picked up some groceries and browsed the leaflets at a tourist information center north of town. I saw a brochure for Bandelier National Monument, which is thirty miles off of highway 84 on the way to Taos, and decided that it would provide a nice warm-up hike before the big Wheeler Peak ascent the next day. Highway 502 to Bandelier twisted through mountains and drought-stricken piney woods near Los Alamos. Along the way I passed various fenced-in LANL installations, including a big white radio telescope perched over a valley. Bandelier itself was pleasant but nothing special. The archaeological attraction amounts only to a few cliff dwellings, most of them vestigal, so I left after an hour's walk along the main tourist loop.

North of Santa Fe I began to see the real mountains, those over 10,000 feet in height, particularly impressive for someone like me who has lived only in the southeast and midwest. Taos is a hamlet of only about 3,500 inhabitants, but because of its fame as both an artists' colony and a ski resort it's clogged with tourists. The main street is only two lanes and backed up with traffic almost as slow moving as any I experienced in L.A. or New York. I stopped by the Carson National Forest Ranger Station to confirm that the Twining campground was at the trailhead for Wheeler Peak. Once I finally got through the traffic jam downtown, I wended my way up Highway 150 to the ski lodge. According to my USFS map the Twining trailhead and campground was at the very end of 150, but I reached Taos Ski Village without finding it. As the sky clouded over I bounced slowly up a steep, rocky road that continued beyond the lodge. Hobbling along about 5 mph past private homes, a condomium with BMW's and Jaguars in the carport, and a faux-Bavarian restaurant, I came to the end of the road at a Carson Forest trailhead labeled, not "Twining," but "Williams Lake." Signs warned "Day Use Only--No Camping," but by now it was getting dark, I was tired of the wretchedly bumpy road, and a drizzle had started to fall. I asked some scoutmasters who were taking a troup to Williams Lake about the Twining trailhead but they couldn't help. I decided to camp in the woods near the parking lot and hope no forest rangers noticed.

I had just finished tying down the rainfly when thunder boomed and the rain came down in earnest. I dove into the tent and zipped up. It was only 6:00 and the storm didn't pass until after midnight. While there was still a little light filtering through the tent I sought distraction by reading a few chapters of Olaf Stapledon's Odd John, but otherwise it was a long, long evening.

I got up around 5:30 the next morning so as to have enough time to get to Wheeler Peak, a strenous hike by all accounts. I tried to boil water for coffee but my clearance-sale camp stove kept sputtering out. I asked some other hikers who had pulled into the parking lot about Twining. One had heard of it but didn't know where it was. He was planning to hike to Williams Lake some 2 miles ahead and then take a short but difficult direct route east up to the peak. Having no clue where Twining was, I decided this trail was my only option for hiking Wheeler.

I didn't quite make it. After Williams Lake the trail gets truly steep, gaining about 2,000 feet of altitude over a horizontal distance of about 3,500 feet, and I could only take 50 steps or so at a time before having to rest. Also the scree got slippery near the top and I, wearing ordinary running shoes rather than hiking boots, kept losing my footing. To top it off, the daily thunderclouds which, according to what I had read, were supposed to form late in the afternoon, began floating over the ridge before noon. Frustrated and defeated, I gave up only a tantalizing 100 feet or so below the peak. (Maybe I needed a Japhy Ryder to spur me on; see Kerouac's Dharma Bums, pp. 82-84.) The clouds hurdled the ridge and rained on me during my descent, making the path treacherously slick and forcing me to choose each step with painful care. I slipped and fell three times, but luckily did not take a 1,000 foot tumble. I was happy to reach the valley, but also annoyed when I talked to someone there who had ascended along the "much easier Twining trail"! It turns out the trailhead was lower on Highway 150 than suggested by either the USFS map or the lady at the ranger station.

I got back to camp around 1:00, exhausted from the 7 hour hike. The stormclouds were blooming large and I didn't want to spend more rainy hours stuck in the tent, so I decided to leave a day early. The drive back home was long and lonely, through sparsely inhabited northern New Mexico and the Texas Panhandle.


Despite my complaints, I would like to try another New Mexico campout, considering that so much of the aggravation this weekend was due to bad luck. However, Taos really is quite a long drive, even for a 3 1/2 day weekend trip. Hiking in Cibola somewhere near W.'s place might be more feasible, since it's about 2 or 3 hours closer and the altitudes are not quite so lung-burstingly high.


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