Hiking backcountry trails, of which there are many in Northern New Mexico, is one of my favorite things to do. Long distances require that the hiker to maintain a state of calm, both in body and mind, constantly adjust exertion to conditions and conserve energy. In maintaining this balance, your mind becomes quiet and distinctions between person and place fade away … the best nourishment for the soul I know. One such hike is to the Stone Lions Shrine in Bandelier National Monument. It covers 13 miles round trip, beginning from the visitor’s center, over widely varied terrain and nearly 3,000 feet total elevation gain. This hike tests my mettle and teaches me valuable lessons every time.
The trail climbing out of Frijoles Canyon is covered in hard packed snow and ice. My spikes are strapped onto my pack, but I’m too charged up about the hike to stop and put them on.The warble of Frijoles Creek follows me up the wall; running water—no other sound is as soothing in the desert. At the top is a trail intersection. Quickly glancing at the sign, I go left. Walking on the mesa is a delight. I startle a pair of mule deer browsing in a thicket. They saunter across the trail a mere 30 feet away, stop, look at me, I look at them. They are healthy, with thick coats and deep obsidian eyes. The moon, about three-quarters full, slowlysets behind the peaks of the Dome Wilderness. Soon, though, it’s apparent that Corral Hill, the landmark which should be to my right, is falling away behind me. This is not the correct trail.
Now the better part of a mile out of my way, I feel a wave of disappointment roll through me. Two extra miles could put the Lionsout of reach. Corral Hill is in sight, and for a moment I consider bushwhacking and cutting the corner. Short cuts, however, often turn into long cuts, so I turn around. Back at the intersection, I study the sign and see my error. Lesson learned: rushing and not paying attention to the surroundings is almost always a mistake. Still agitated, I focus on slowing down and accepting what comes.
Walking the mesa just south of Corral Hill, I enjoy my stride. Disappointment and anxiety fade, all is well. Sections of the trail are wet from snowmelt. Now in early morning they are frozen; I make mental note that later they will be mud and will be slower going. Lummis Canyon opens up before me, this is the first to cross. Being fresh on the day, I find Lummis a nice taste of descent and climb—this afternoon, with 10 or 11 miles under my boots, it will be a trial. On the next stretch of mesa I’m wondering whether this hike is about the journey or the destination. Should I push to the Stone Lions? I don’t know. Enjoy what comes. Don’t worry about it. Deer, coyote, bobcat and mountain lion droppings appear on the trail. It would be a great honor to encounter a mountain lion, perhaps the most elusive of North American cats.
The great quiet cleave of Alamo Canyon opens before me. The walls are for the most part impassable rock escarpment. Any sign of other hikers’ tracks disappears. The narrow trail falls through millions of years of geologic history. The sun feels good. Picking the way down, my full attention is on my footing. My knees take a beating. The shady and cool inner canyon world awaits.
Since the fire in 2011, these canyons have flooded repeatedly. In some places, the landscape is completely changed; in others, tangles of uprooted trees and brush and heaped up washes of stone remain. Deep in the canyon, complete silence descends upon me. I stop, close my eyes; it is now just my heartbeat and breathing. Standing there, a chill sets into me. Moments pass, my mind is completely still. The plaintive call of a lone canyon wren then pierces the silence and my heart. Neither of us is alone any more.
Climbing out of Alamo is an arduous task. My pace slows to the terrain, many small steps. This is the north facing wall. Long stretches of the trail are snow covered, but the snow has not been packed by other hikers so traction is good. Overgrown brush swishes and rattles against my pant legs; in places it’s so thick that following the trail is a challenge. I am now on my own in a vast and little-traveled land, and mistakes can carry high consequences. I’m breathing hard and pick my way with care. The muscles in my legs burn, pulled taut they sing, my body is the instrument.
I rejoice at reaching the top of the canyon. Views of the Jemez, the Dome Wilderness, the Sandias, the Sangre de Cristos and Truchas Peak are spectacular. Almost there, I think, wherever there may be, after one final mesa cruise. But no! A relatively small branch of Alamo lies ahead, tossed in for good measure.
With each step I’m now thinking each one out is one more back. Each footfall is a step pushing myself too far. The Stone Lions are about a mile away. In my mind I’m charging, pushing. Go. Keep on. Make it. But every part of my body says stop. This is too much, I need to listen. There’s the return, with half a day on the trail already worn into me to think about … and so I stop. Journey trumps destination. The Stone Lions will have to wait.
Sitting on a rock outcrop with sweeping views of the mountains and the Yapashi Pueblo ruins, I pull off my boots and socks. Unhappy feet (aka blisters) can spoil theday, so I let mine dry in the sun and use fresh socks for the remainder of the hike. Perfectly content with this spot, I inhale a bottle of water and a small lunch and write a few notes. Above the slight breeze I hear a bird call, just one little hoot, but distinctive. Then another … yes, the call of sandhill cranes. In a moment, it’s many voices, intensifying. I search the sky. Simply a turn of the wing and they’re invisible, then another and there they are, a small flock, heading north. They fly in a V formation, then bundle up into a round-ish group, fly around in circles, then form another V and on they go, curious creatures. This sure sign of spring stirs deep.
I am at peace, thankfulfor food and water. Glad to be in this place, far away from four walls and a roof, computers, phones—networks carrying arcane signals at the speed of light. Here it is just nature at work, both my own and that around me. Everything makes sense, has its pace and season. Being part of this backcountry place pulls at me. It is time to go, however, to retrace my steps. Two more flocks of sandhill cranes fly over. Searching the sky, I see them, lose them, listen to them.
Again, Alamo Canyon is before me. Even as I descend, the approaching ascent hovers in the back of my mind. Cold air draining from the Jemez slips down the canyon; it sieves through towering ponderosa pines. Pausing on the sandy floor, listening to the wind in the high crowns, I hear spirits talk. The separation between place and self is now gone. The spot where the trail leaves the canyon is obscured by brush and flood tangles. I keep close watch, it’s easy enough to walk right past and on up canyon. Finding it, I make my way through the brush and head up. My legs ache immediately. Now it is all about endurance. Climbing out from the opposing wall’s shadow is like walking into an oven. The heat is intense, both the beating down of the sun and the heat radiating from the sun-soaked rock wall. Beads of sweat run down my face; my palms are soaked. This is the toughest stretch. Moving very slowly, I conserve my waning energy, my heart pounds, I hurt, but at the same time … I feel great. I’m with it, in it, this canyon rock world. Every few minutes I stop just long enough for my pulse to slow, then continue. Gravel crunching under boots is the only sound. One step, then another—oh for that rim.
Once on the mesa it all seems like easy street, except of course for Lummis Canyon. Walking along, I scare up small flocks of juncos. They dart up to safety in the branches of juniper and piñon. The soft puttering of their wings is the sweetest, most endearing of sounds. I am so grateful to hear it. With one flock I stop and wait. Eventually they come out of hiding and go back to their junco doings in the grasses and scrub. When I move, they stay put; things are okay. Wet sections of trail are now mud and I slither and slog to get through. Late afternoon light streaks across the landscape. Winter colors glow. Silver, tawny gold, greens drab and rich, greys, dusty lavender. As I tap into last reserves, Lummis comes and goes. My mind and heart are full of place.
Heading down into Frijoles Canyon, I at last put on the spikes. They’re like magic, walking on glare ice is as on dry ground. At the base of the trail, a man in crisp sports wear reads a sign. We say hello. This is the first time since greeting the mule deer this morning that I’ve said a word. My voice sounds strange to me. The path to the parking area is paved, predictable and unyielding underfoot.
Someone starts a pickup truck with a loud exhaust. The percussive bark hits me like a slap in the face. I want to go back. Knowing this is the greatest lesson. I always want to go back, to where life’s contrivances fall away, where my mind is quiet and when thoughts come, they are simple.
For more information on hiking Bandelier go to nps.gov/band/index.htm, or call: 505.672.3861, ext. 517.
Story by Gordon Bunker
To read Gordon Bunker’s account of a threeday backpacking trip in Bandelier (the first in a three part series): gordonbunker.blogspot.com/2014/05/backcountry-part-i.html.