Monday, February 18, 2013

The Vagabond Loop Part 3: Denver to ABQ, and the GET

The Vagabond Loop is very important to me. However, sometimes the theme of the VL does not make sense in the straight-forward glance of topography, cultures, and biospheres. The similarity between the AZT, HT, and the GET is apparent while the CT sticks out like a sore thumb. My point of hiking the VL is not so obvious. Some years ago, say 10-12, I pitched an idea to my buddies Habit and Conch about a book I‘d like to write, then maybe one day, far down the line, turn the pages into an independent film. The idea was whimsical but the essence behind it still holds true for me: human connection and the random intersections of wavelengths. The basis of the story was a random, powerful occurrence of human connection of four vastly different individuals with vastly different stories making their way through arduous journeys to reach the Four Corners monument at exactly the same time only to find some understanding in the mad, mad world and within themselves. The four individuals followed random, but meaningful signs or paths, both metaphysical and actual, through innate human feeling, trusting their gut, to find each other in that one ultimate moment. And that is a driving theme for me within the VL: synchronicity, everything you have ever done leading up to that one moment. The Southwest holds this mystery for me amid my driven wanderer type of character. I see something in this loop more than just the obvious. Ruess saw it, Abbey too. Tempest Williams describes it eloquently; Fayhee details it in grumpy, fiery printed words. The Navajos lived within the mystery, the Utes as well. The Mexicans stormed around the land caught up in the spell of the wild. Scouts, like Carson and Walker, leaders of men like Fremont and Escalante, explorers like the one-armed General Powell, they too observed the swirling lure of the vortex. And me, I am enrapt within the great mystery of the Southwest ever pushing me farther away, farther towards that one moment…

I rant because of the validity of the Loop. There is a huge predicament in connecting the CT and the GET. I have to piece together a route that is not so obvious through mountain ranges smothered with huge private ranches and the lack of a long trail in an expedient matter. Initially, I wanted the quickest way possible from Denver to Albuquerque, a straight-shot whether by dirt roads, trails, and the occasional paved road. I knew I could traverse the Sangre de Cristos in Colorado and in the Taos area all the way down to Santa Fe. But that left a huge gap between La Veta Pass south of the Sangres and the town of Red River in northern New Mexico. I figured I could piece the gap by paved roads and just bang out the miles in order to ‘hurry’ to the GET. Only after reaching out to Brett Tucker, inventor of the GET and expert on the Southwest, via the Simblissity website, did I realize the magnitude of the VL and how much I value the mark I leave on the actions and plans I exhibit and do. I came to the conclusion within my planning process that I was treating this connection like it was not meaningful to me. Funny, how much tunnel vision I was experiencing in trying to connect the four trails in a ‘slog-fest’ manner that I was inadvertently going to possibly de-value my experience of hiking the VL. After all, I was getting feedback from an inventor of hiking routes, someone who has established a trail/route that others have hiked and will hike. And I had to re-think the way I was tackling the VL. I never thought of the VL as route I was establishing that one day maybe others would hike; the VL is my own personal goal, mission. However, I want to leave my mark.

Brett broke me out of my driven, narrow-minded trance with this paragraph:

"I think it's one thing to do a long hike, get a great deal out of it, and use it to inspire others. But one way to make the rewards even greater is when you fashion a route that is worth hiking twice, or better still, that others will want to hike. The momentum that builds from developing a genuine long-distance hiking experience for the masses is something that can be transcendent, legacy-worthy even. So it's with this in mind that I at first questioned your plan to walk hundreds of miles on roads down the front range. With so much more available to you, it just seemed like a bit of wasted potential to essentially write off several weeks of the trip as a "get it done with as quickly as possible" style slog-fest."

I delved, and currently am continuing so, into maps and research in order to find an attractive route. I am investigating trail connections, and not just dirt road connections. Scouring through maps I have managed to find that I have to backtrack on the CT for approximately 30m to the junction with Goose Creek Trail in the Tarryall Mountains. The Goose Creek Trail intersects with the mountain bike route of the CT at Goose Creek Road, then weaves its way south along Matukat and Tarryall Roads into the hovel of Lake George where I can have a re-supply option. From Lake George I’ll take a southwesterly course along forest roads through Pike NF and San Isabel NF. Nothing attractive nor trail intensive in this area but it is imperative I go through this way to hit Salida and the northern swell of the Sangre de Cristos. The trail town of Salida will prove to be a pivotal re-supply point. It is a long solid stretch along the Rainbow Trail that traverses the Sangre de Cristo range. Roughly 85m I will roller-coaster up and down pine-forested ridgelines and in and out of drainages on rocky tread and tumble out near La Veta Pass. After finding my way through checkerboard BLM land by dirt roads I’ll eventually intercept Indian Creek Trail in the Culebra Range. I will need to have a re-supply option in this area, most likely Red Wing or Cuchara, and I am in the process of finding one that’ll work.

Here is where the connection of the VL gets tricky. Three large, and I mean expansive, ranches lay claim to the lofty summits of the Culebra Range in southern Colorado all the way to the Carson NF in New Mexico. Cielo Vista Ranch will be the first ranch I meet, if I am allowed to access their land. The ranch offers climbing opportunities of the 14,000ft. Culebra Peak for $100 in the summer months. Further south the high elevation ridges separate the Rio Costilla Ranch and the Vermejo Park Ranch, the latter being owned by media mogul, land baron and eco-conservationist Ted Turner and extends thousand of acres all the way to Interstate 25. Dirt roads look like they lead to a connective point along a crest within the Carson NF. The route leading to that area is hard to research but I hope communication with the ranch managers will allow permission to access the private ranches, first and foremost, and help me find a quick and efficient way through the property. These ranches are exclusive hunting ranches, which offer hunters magnificent hunting opportunities for a hefty fee, and pampered cattle grazing among managed land with ample green grass providing people with high-end, pricey beef. I am currently working with a former co-worker from MCC, Cliff Kipp, to formulate a letter to send to the 3 massive ranches to request permission to cross their land in a responsible Leave No Trace ethics sort of way. I see this as a land-grant proposal and to instill the brain of Cliff will be a big help for me. This gap in the VL is a work in progress and details will come later as to the inter-workings of land management and public usage.

All I do know, at some point from somewhere, I will be trekking south from Red River NM. Brett Tucker established the 500m Northern New Mexico Loop in 2012. I will follow his pioneered path from Red River to the outskirts of Santa Fe. His eastern portion of the NNM Loop scampers over Wheeler Peak, the highest point in NM, and mainly follows the spine of the Sangre de Cristos along trail sometimes rambling through mountain meadows vocalized by babbling brooks and speckled by large aspen stands. I am researching a route between Santa Fe and Albuquerque, most likely through a railroad corridor and dusty roads, to attain the eastern terminus of the GET. Bridging the gap in totality between Denver and Albuquerque will be in the range of 400-450m.

I am enamored with New Mexico. I have been even before my crossing of the state last year while on the CDT. The people, the food, and the high peaks springing up amid high-altitude mesas polka-dotted with the fragrant juniper tree. The spirit of the wild, scenic beauty, desert ghost towns, and vast, gigantic skies all highlight my love affair with NM. Brett Tucker laid a proven, definitive route connecting the metropolises of Albuquerque and Phoenix through this area. Defined by his ‘hike-invention’ innovative mind he pieced the GET with interlinking trails, dirt roads, water drainages and canyons, and some overland cross-country rambles.

The GET is roughly 700m that roams through remote wildernesses and the occasional dusty town. Over half of the 700m is on trail tread and is alluring for this quality as the GET’s bigger brother, the CDT, has more road travel than the GET. Brett’s route also flows between water sources efficiently to make the burden of lack of water less stringent. Since his route follows canyon corridors, such as Aravaipa Canyon, and the Eagle and Bonita Creeks, branching the terrain between the drainages with wells and earthen cattle tanks is of utmost importance. These canyons and gulches provide an oasis with large cottonwoods and beautiful sycamores to sit and cool down. Despite a dry appearance and folksy tales of dehydration this arid land has a healthy bounty of hidden water sources. Luckily for me, Brett has the route planned for these important water sources.

Now, I will be venturing on the GET sometime in late July and early August. I asked Brett about my timing of hiking the GET during this timeframe and he believes my timing will be in concurrence with the monsoon swell drifting over the New Mexican high plains which means a possible surplus of precious water. The months I plan to be there will be the hotter months but the higher elevations and river canyons of the GET will alleviate the rising temperature in my favor for cooler temperatures. At some point this summer, I will be back in Gila Country this time meandering down the lazy West Fork of the Gila River. I am looking forward to this moment, not only to see how the forest looks from the massive forest fire that ravaged the land last year and charred the tall ponderosa standing guard over the land, but to re-experience, to re-feel, to have that one second back in the electric wilderness, where the Gila wilderness first entered my dreams as a wild, untamed, neon blue-eyed wilderness vixen; for she is real, not just in my dreams but within each skin-pricked swollen pore letting me know that life is for real, that life is precious and worth doing…

The GET hops from the high peaks of the Sandia Range looming above Albuquerque to another 13 mountain ranges, such as the Mogollon and Magdalena Mountains, with a multitude of diversity of flora and fauna. Between these sky islands the GET portages not only the canyons I mentioned but high altitude mesas. Ultimately, I will re-connect with the AZT to form the complete circle of the Vagabond Loop. I’ll probably pause, maybe take a nap and relish in my hard work, then re-group and finish the 3,500m circuitous loop in the city of Phoenix.

With the route description explained with plans laid to change, my final VL preparations will include training and gear testing. I will be on the 96m White Rim Trail in Canyonlands NP next week hardening my feet, guts, and mind as well as mentally visualizing my adventure around the great Southwest.








Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Vagabond Loop Part 2: Moab to Durango, and the CT

From the end of the Hayduke Trail I will backtrack back to the slick rock town of Moab. Although not quite the halfway point mileage-wise, Moab is a fitting place for me to treat it as such. Moab has been a refuge of some sorts for me through the years. Around my mid-20s I used to venture to Moab and sober up. I would get sick and tired of living and working in L.A. while boozing relentlessly and the wilds would call me. I would quit my job and escape, running away from the troubles I had but never quite solving anything. The pattern persisted and, eventually, Moab became more than just a refuge; it became a place I thought of as a home away from home.

I see Moab as a midway point because of the level of difficulty of the AZT and HT consecutive thru-hikes. I foresee my body being taxed to the limit around this time and Moab will front as a regrouping and replenishing aid station. But, in Moab I am struck with my first major connectivity obstacle of the Vagabond Loop. I must find a way to bridge Moab to Durango, which is the western terminus of the Colorado Trail. And I want the connection to be trail-thick or at least heavily traveled on forest roads if limited trails are available. Those two particular, wanted details made the research even harder as squeezed between the gaps of USFS and BLM land are private property swaths. After scouring maps for routes and finding little, I eventually fell back on the notion passed along to me from a buddy named Larry that supposedly there is a mountain bike trail connecting Moab to Telluride that traverses over the Uncompahgre Plateau. That sounded scenic but the route would make more mileage for me as it takes a more direct easterly course from Moab. I rummaged and rummaged search engines and stumbled upon a hut-to-hut route from Moab to Durango. Reading more about the mountain bike route, I knew it would be pleasingly walkable and though it would not tie together a series of trails the route would follow dirt roads in remote and scenic country. This is exactly what I had been looking for!

The Moab to Durango bike route is 215m long connecting a hut system littered throughout the mountains and valleys. The possibility of staying in a hut each night is a welcomed chance at comfort within the VL. Of course, rather than biking, I will be trekking the route in tying together the mountain bike mecca towns. The route leaves Moab from the popular Sand Flats Road and climbs up into the La Sals Mountains via Geyser Pass to find my first hut. Then the route plunges dramatically down into Paradox Valley via a mix of trail and dirt roads that lead to my second hut. Leaving Paradox Valley and the meandering Dolores River, I will traipse among low-lying mesas and settle in at the Wedding Bell Hut. From there I will scamper across the relatively flat Dry Creek Basin to find the namesake cabin. From Dry Creek Basin I lumber high up into the alpine-lush of the San Miguel Mountains to encounter the Black Mesa Hut. With more hut to attain I will leave the confines of Black Mesa and climb ever higher towards Bolam Pass in the heart of the San Juan Mountains. From Bolam Pass I will follow the Colorado Trail roughly 19m and descend into Durango for a few days rest. The Moab to Durango hut-to-hut hike is not exactly a walk-in-the-park, despite the flat dirt roads and stunning, isolated beauty. The route is ’out there’ but some bed and breakfasts nooks may provide a pivotal re-supply option. I am in the progress of finding that 1 re-supply to split my food load up evenly. More to come on this.

The Colorado Trail wends its way dramatically through picturesque sierra vistas, spiky peaks and spongy, colorful high alpine tundra of the Rocky Mountains for almost 500m. The CT extends from Durango to the outer flanks of southern Denver. The CT is by far the most well-signed, well-maintained, and well-traveled trail I will ramble on in my Vagabond Loop. Though the CT is sought after by many hiking enthusiasts bucket lists, it is by no means an easy task. The CT will punish you, especially in the San Juans, with constant, steep vacillations, numbering 1,000ft. in each up and down, that will try and test your enduring will. The CT is drastically different than the other 3 major trails of the VL in topography. I expect to be on the CT in mid-June, which poses an entirely different obstacle: snow. Lingering snowfields, deep drifts, and frozen water will still be present from the winter stranglehold. In a way, this will be a welcomed change in scenery and topography from the hot and dry desert trails I’ll have trampled by then. I walked about ¾ of the CT last year while trekking north on the CDT. The CDT and CT intersected at Humpback Pass. From that junction to Spring Creek Pass, in which a highway led to the mountain hamlet of Lake City, I relished in the splendor of the beauteous alpine wonder and the physicality exerted on my body. I was the only one amid the malevolent, tall spires and vicious, slender ridgelines. (Journal entry here). I felt the world to be mine alone and a powerful yet spiritually fulfilled surge inside me swelled with the infusion of pink alpenglow from the Gods of the Mountains. I was all Man in his wild and savage form.

[‘…razor-edge butterfly. Don’t kill me because I’m pretty,’ is a phrase that comes to mind of my time in the San Juans.]

The CT leaves Spring Creek Pass and climbs up to perch on the monumentally flat Snow Mesa. San Luis Peak, a low 14,000ft.-er, breaches the Continental Divide and is a short scramble to the top from the CT. The CT traces the Divide until venturing into the low-lying swells of the Cochetopa Hills. Even at 10,000ft., the Cochetopas are mere rolling hills pocked-marked with lush meadows amid the tall, surrounding ranges seen from every vantage point. The CT pushes north into the spectacular Sawatch Range, then heads on a more easterly course into the Ten Mile Range. After a re-supply in Breckinridge, I will follow the tempered Swan River choked with massive red-hued mine tailings and eventually attain the Continental Divide for the last time on the CT. A long steady pine-forested trek continues through the Kenosha and Tarryall Mountains. By the time I reach this area, my eyes will be filled with the height of the alpine wildflower bloom. While visually enamored and my olfactory senses piqued with the colorful floral scene, I will quickly make my way to the eastern terminus of the CT along the South Platte River and have a brief spell in the largest metropolitan area on any trail on the VL.

As stated earlier, the CT is vastly different than the AZT, HT and GET but I feel it does not get lost in my ‘driven wanderer’ theme. These high mountains provided relief from the summer heat for Native Americans, Mexicans, and mountain men. The Rockies stood out like a fortress wall above the Great Plains. In order to get to the vortex of the Four Corners area the Rockies had to be flanked or scaled. Mountain men and scouts, like Kit Carson, led pioneers through this area, Escalante and Dominguez sallied in a lost state for months among the mesas, and the Utes grazed their sheep up in the high meadows. Eventually, in their different times, they ambled down to the red deserts below. The interlinking of the HT to the CT and south to the GET is bridging the gap between cultures, topography, and the wilderness mind of the whole region. The region is vast, so I must connect them all.

Linking the gap south from the Colorado Trail to the Grand Enchantment Trail is next: a route through the Sangre de Cristos.




Monday, February 11, 2013

The Vagabond Loop Part 1: AZT to HT

The idea for the Vagabond Loop primarily started with the Arizona Trail. After my failed attempt on the AZT in 2011 (read about it here), the AZT is the trail I have been most determined to conquer. With my completions of the PCT and CDT thru-hiking the AZT seemed like the next step, however, by itself it would not be enough. That failure taught me alot and I feel I owe it something. From the bud of failure of the AZT the VL blossomed into an epic adventure. I couldn't help but envision of tying one trail into another. My plan kept getting bigger and bigger. My wanderlust to go beyond my limitations, the unexplainable urge to keep pushing myself through challenges, and to explore the unknown is the motivational force for the VL. I must go farther, point blank. The VL is a 3,500 mile circuitous speed hike around the Four Corners region. My objective with the VL is to consecutively tie the Arizona Trail, Hayduke Trail, Colorado Trail, and Grand Enchantment Trail using a trail intensive and dirt road route in connecting the gaps between the ending and starting termini to complete a circle. Needles to say, predicaments and challenges loom around every detail in planning and logistics. I want to ramble on about my thoughts on the VL, but before I go any farther I will delve into the route description. I’ve got a long summer to jab at your eardrums full of gritty and philosophical yammering.

I will start tentatively April 10th on the AZT. I must fulfill my work commitment of April 8th then zip on down to the Mexico/Arizona border and begin mashing tread northbound. The diverse and beautiful AZT is approximately 800 miles long stretching longitudinally linking island mountain ranges, scorched deserts, and high, arid plateaus.. The sky islands provide a cool haven amid the blazing furnaces of the Sonora Desert. In fact, the elevation of the sky ranges, such as the Rincons and Huachucas, spring up from the desert floor rather abruptly reaching 10,000ft. Various biospheres are experienced in the sky ranges and I’ll be able to trek from clusters of Saguaro cacti in Saguaro National Park to thick forests of Ponderosa high in Forest Service land in a day. In the southern portion of the AZT, the trail ventures from island to island with the desert floor metaphorically representing the sea. In the northern portion of the AZT, the trail levels out at high elevations at around 6,000ft. or above. The first uplifting shelf is the Mogollon Rim which eventually tops out at the Coconino Rim. The AZT meanders transversely across the pine forested rims to eventually plunge into the Grand Canyon. From the bottom of the chasm I will then ascend into the lofty Kaibab Plateau which leads to the northern terminus of the AZT at the Arizona/Utah border.

Many challenges threaten a complete thru-hike of the AZT. The trail environs consist of isolation and remoteness but a stark, rather attractive quality of the AZT is the linkage of communities, such as the major cities of Phoenix, Tucson and Flagstaff. Despite the vast, empty, inhospitable lands these metro areas provide an oases for the restless wanderer lacking social interaction. Most hikers attempt the AZT in either Spring or Fall. Thus is so to beat the dangerous heat of summer and the brutal cold and deep snow, in some areas, of winter. Temperature is not the only factor in start dates as, needless to say, the AZT is extremely arid and lack of water may pose serious concerns for the wayward hiker. Most water sources are polluted with cow patties and/or are unreliable and ephemeral. The AZT is a trail of severe extremes---a tantalizing quality for an adventurer like myself.


From the end of the AZT, I will intersect Highway 89 and make my way west cross-country towards the town of Kanab which will front as an outpost to re-group for the Hayduke Trail. After a few days of respite, I will then continue west and eventually make Zion National Park, the western terminus of the HT. The AZT and HT actually intersect in northern Arizona on the north rim of the Grand Canyon. However, with the thru-hiker’s mindset of the urge to relentlessly move ever forward, I choose not to backtrack and will make the 80 or so mile connection between the AZT and HT with a non-detailed planned cross-country route paralleling Highway 89. This particular connection may change because of the few miles between the termini, isolation and the lack of cars on the highway, and private land issues.


The Hayduke Trail, named after the grizzled, irascible character, George Washington Hayduke III, from Edward Abbey’s book ‘The Monkey Wrench Gang,’ is an 800 mile backcountry route through the wilds of Utah bridging Zion, Grand Canyon, Bryce, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, and Arches National Parks as well as a peregrination through the Grand Staircase National Monument and the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. The HT is unmarked, has hardly any trail tread to mash, is rugged and stunningly beautiful, and requires an expertise level of experience to safely navigate the way through wending, maze-like canyons. The HT consists of varied terrain in which I will traipse among juniper and pinyon pine-sprinkled plateaus, trod around pillared and serrated hoodoos, and mash lonely desert roads. Flash floods are of constant concern, and diligently reading your maps and the landscape correctly are paramount for accomplishing a successful thru-hike. Water is even scarcer than the AZT, spookier to boot, and more desolate. The wind is fierce and the sun omnipotent. Even though the trail is 1/3 the distance of the Continental Divide Trail, the Hayduke Trail will test and push my knowledge, will, and emotions more than the CDT did, which is notoriously labeled as the toughest trail in the world to trek.

By far, the Hayduke, I believe, will be the most challenging of the four trails I will be attempting this summer in the VL as indicated by my previous sentiment. I estimate the AZT to take around 30 days to complete and I expect the HT to take about 5-6 weeks. Though the trails share roughly the same mileage the HT will take slightly longer than the AZT, assumingly, because of the nature of the route. Most hikers attempt a thru-hike during the spring or fall season, the reasons being very similar to the AZT. However, very few hikers have connected the AZT and HT in succession due to the oncoming heat and dryness of early summer. I have a small window to do both trails, say 2.5 months, but I believe I have the ability to accomplish the task. I have been in communication with Cam ’Swami’ Honan, an Aussie I met last year on the CDT who in 14 months hiked over 14,000m along the major trails in the U.S. He is a hiker I trust and respect; shit, and admire greatly. Check out his website and blog. Last year, he connected the GET, AZT, and HT in a clockwise horseshoe. The timing of his hike put him on the HT in May which, in his opinion, is the most optimum time to hike the HT. According to Swami, May has mild temperatures, cool nights, available and somewhat reliable water sources (though ephemeral as they may be), and a substantially subsided wind from the cold month of March on the Red Rock desert plateau. In May, I won’t have to battle the elements as much as the months book-ending it.

Everett Ruess has a strong presence in the HT. Some of the HT route embodies some of his wandering essences and trails. The allure of the Hayduke Trail weighs more on me than the others simply because of the mystery of Ruess. Here’s another intermingling theme within the VL: Ruess was one of Ed Abbey’s heroes, kindred spirits in the great Southwest. I like to think I am following in their footsteps, marching aimlessly driven among National Scenic Trails (I will elaborate on this contradiction in a future blog entry).

I think back to the documentary of Ruess, Wilderness Song. I envision the wind whistling and whipping up sand. I think of wispy, ethereal clouds poofing into a disappearance, vanished in the void; the mystery of nothing intrigues me. My vision sees vast distances blurred by heat, I breathe in hot air hotter than my exhaling breath, and dry salty tears evaporate on my swarthy cheeks. I am at home here, swallowed by the full empty soul of the desert I yawn and fall sleepy.

Here is an essay in video by Abbey. I hope you feel the silence of the desert and the pricks of the cactus and the heat of the blazing sun.

Continuation of the VL route to come soon and I will pick up from Moab, the eastern end of Hayduke Trail and the popular mountain bike town that once was the stomping ground of the desert rat Abbey. From there, the VL extends into the high Rockies of Colorado.