Saturday, August 29, 2015

Day 14: Tucson, Arizona to Las Cruces, New Mexico via Chiricahua National Monument and the scariest hike.

Chiricahua National Monument is in southeastern Arizona.  I have no idea why the U.S. Border Patrol is all over the place down there but every few miles we would see a truck, SUV, or van for the Border Patrol just parked on the side of the road.  We are still many miles from the border.  Is it really this bad?

Chiricahua is a treat that now contains one of my favorite hikes that I will probably never do again.  Let me explain.

The drive across southern Arizona was fine and the temperature was surprisingly mild.  It was 80 degrees at around 5 a.m. when we left Tucson but the digits started to drop as we climbed east.  By the time we hit the Chiricahua Mountains it was in the low-70’s.  Chiricahua is like a combination of Bryce Canyon mixed with Pinnacles National Park, only the rock formations are much more organized.  There are fins, hoodoos, and plenty of toadstool formations mixed in with narrows and canyons.  We drove up to Massai Point and planned our nine mile plus trip.  The idea was to hike The Big Loop, a series of trails that wrapped around a few canyons in the middle of which there was a large bowl of rock formations called Heart of the Rocks.  We started the Big Loop in perfect hiking weather with partly cloudy skies and a cool breeze.  We made excellent time and hit the Heart of the Rocks loop in a couple hours.  The Heart of the Rocks now ranks up among my favorite hikes.  It’s a little over three miles to the loop, then you hike within the rocks along a bowl rim for a mile experiencing a geologic intimacy that’s unreal.  It’s steep.  There are narrows and some minor scrambling.  But the pace forces you to look around and take in the closeness of the rocks and sweeping vistas of the surrounding valleys.  It’s a real treat!

Then we started down the Sarah Deming trail into a canyon, a little under half way done with our Big Loop.  The rattle I heard was a little ahead of me but sounded fairly small.  I told my wife to stop and pointed using my trek pole to the small rattlesnake in front us.  The snake was about ten inches long and seemed to be travelling left to right across the trail while being annoyed by a lizard bouncing around.  In fact, the snake seemed much more concerned with the lizard than us.  It was my second rattlesnake in my life.  It was my wife’s first.  She was not happy.  I was happy it was small.  We proceeded down the trail talking about being-on-the-lookout for the reptiles when my wife somehow tripped over some stones and ended up face-down on the trail.  We cleaned up a bit of blood and made sure everything worked ok and promptly moved on.  Things were a little iffy but we were doing ok. 

Near the bottom of Sarah Deming we ran into a family that seemed to have come from Europe to visit America’s nature.  There was Dad, Mom, and two kids. 

“Hey, just to let you know there is a small rattlesnake up the trail about a half mile.  It’s probably gone by now but just be aware.”

The man smiled.  The wife looked annoyed.  The children, oddly, were totally silent. 

“Thanks for letting me know.  But I’ve got to tell you that there are two large rattlesnakes sitting on the trail about a mile that way”, he pointed down the trail, “and we had to work our way around them.” 

“What?  Are you serious?”

“Yes.  Hey, we’re not going to let some snakes ruin our time, right?” 

His European accent, maybe French, just didn’t fit the rattlesnake conversation.  By this time his wife was glaring at him and his kids still were dead silent.  They didn’t seem to be having fun.  Now we had a choice.  Turn around and hike a long up-and-down back to the car, or push forward, hope the snakes were off the trail when we got there (about 30 minutes) and finish the gradual climb back to the car.  We said good-bye to the family and elected to push on. 

Within forty minutes we reached a junction.  Turn right and we would go the snake direction towards our car and a gradual three mile climb on the Upper Ryolite Trail.  Turn left and we would head down the canyon 1.5 miles to the Visitors Center.  Then we would have to hoof it eight miles up the road back to our car.  Ick.  Then we heard thunder.  It was far off but we were seven thousand feet up and were a bit off by the potential snake encounter.  We turned right and hoped for the best. 

About a half mile down the trail we started an S-curve and were greeted by a loud rattle.  On trail about twenty feet in front of us was a mammoth, three foot long rattlesnake; now coiled with its head up and a huge rattle sticking up in the air.  It was yellow…or gold, hell it was straight out terrifying.  It looked mean.  We backed up and waited.  Normally snakes will part ways when you encounter them but this one had been here for an hour and didn’t seem to want to move now.  To our left, a canyon edge.  No way around there.  To our right, a sharp hill covered with brush.  There was probably another snake around too, at least according to the family.  What now?  We waited.  Our car was a few miles on the other end of that snake.  Then the thunder got louder.  The snake was no longer rattling but it wasn’t moving either.  I took a step towards it and a soft rattle started, and it didn’t move.   


We looked down the canyon and it was getting storm dark.  This means that it was only about one in the afternoon but the clouds were a color that brought a sense of foreboding.  We turned around and headed for the junction and eventually the Visitors Center.  We reached the junction and another rattle started up again.  I’m not kidding.  At our feet and to our left was a rattlesnake over a foot long, thankfully heading away from us but making us wonder if we were being punished for something we had done earlier in the year.  It was nuts.  As the snake moved off the rain started up and the thunder got louder. 

At this point we just pushed.  We were so focused on the last mile and half that we didn’t talk.  Eventually we made the Visitor’s Center with an almost cry of relief that was quickly overcome by the realization that our car was eight miles up the road.  My wife approached a pleasant couple in a small orange compact car and pleaded for a ride from the two ladies.  They were super kind and drove my wife up top while I told the rangers about the snakes.  They were thrilled.  I was exhausted.  Then the heavens opened up and for about twelve minutes it poured.  

It was quite the rush, yet I’m really not sure that I liked the experience.  My wife and I were tired but still had a three and a half hour drive to Las Cruces, New Mexico.  We passed car after car of Border Patrol on the way to I-10, then turned east.  The drive was mostly in sunshine but in New Mexico we encountered powerful thunderstorm cells, the kind that you felt the concussion through the car when the lightening touched down.  We powered through and crossed the very flat Continental Divide for the first time.  We arrived in Las Cruces in a light rain.

We are at a Best Western next to the railroad tracks but the hum of the air conditioner pretty much drowns everything out.  We are tired and shaken, and done with snakes. 

Trails hiked:  Over half of the “Big Loop” including the Heart of the Rocks, and the Lower Ryolite Trail

Miles hiked:  7.9

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