I was originally under the impression that this last stint was going to be another 8 days. I miscounted; it was actually to be only 4 full days. Even so, somehow, this turned out to be one of the longest, most brutal trips out.
Day 0: We drive back into Willow Creek yet again, along the road of death. It’s the tail end of the holiday weekend, so the roads and campgrounds are busy…not just with New Mexico vacationers, but also all the Arizona vacationers that have been driven out of their own national parks because of fire (we’re very close to the Arizona border). We get out of the car, make some lunch, then get out packs together and hike up on top of Iron Creek Mesa for a half-day of plots. We do two, which is about right. Three is the norm, and four is what SHOULD be the norm, except that we’ve frequently been cut short by storms. Anyway, it’s a full day. The campground is also full…of idjits. People that are hauling huge campers and trailers with multiple ATV’s. People that use that bright orange construction webbing to make a playpen for their kids (in direct sunlight) while they drink beer. People that fish in the streams for endangered Gila Trout, and bring chainsaws to cut live wood off the trees for their fires (which steeps the whole site in smoke, which, coupled with the dry air and the smoke rolling in from Arizona’s Aspen fire, are probably the contributing factors of the near-complete loss of my voice, which has not yet come back). People that bring BB guns and set up targets in the meadows with beer cans on sticks. People that are up yelling and fighting until the AM. People that bring a bug zapper within a 1/8 mile of a wilderness. People with generators. People that set up a large-screen television, with satellite, on their picnic table.
Day 1: Zack decides that we need to get some more distant plots today. So instead of plotting on Iron Creek Mesa, we hike up Iron Creek Mesa, down the other side of it, and then up the steep, trailless, 45-degree slope of Turkeyfeather hill to survey up there. It’s achingly hot, and we’re all sluggish and sleepy. We do 4 plots.
Day 2: Today Zack feels bright and chipper, and that’s not a good thing. He decides that since we had gotten almost no plots done on Clayton Mesa because of the evacuation(we did about 10 tree plots there on the last stint, in the recent burn), and because those plots turned out to not be in the area he was aiming for (we were looking for some unburned stuff from some photographs), that we should return to Clayton. Bear in mind, this is not an easy task. We’re not at the Gila River, having hiked in those 4 ½ miles from Snow Lake. We’re at Willow Creek, and so we’re hiking in the back way, which means that we hike up Iron Creek Mesa (1 mile), hike down Iron Creek Mesa (1 mile), hike downstream along Iron Creek (2 miles), and then hike up Clayton Mesa (2 miles). Let’s think about this.
a) We’re going up and down some pretty steep terrain, very hilly.
b) Most of Clayton Mesa is very exposed, so there’s lots of direct and reflected sunlight.
c) It’s over 90 degrees by about 9 or 10:00 AM
d) We work until about 5 PM
e) It’s over 8,000 feet
f) We plan to work a full day when we get there, surveying, and…
g) …that adds up to a total of 12 miles, round trip.
And we did it. We hiked all the way up and over there, spent the day surveying in miserable heat and light (Zack got to our 3rd plot and just started yelling “why, WHY?!?!” at the sky), and then hiked all the way back. The hike, by the way, is 3 hours one way, 6 hours total (for those of you that cannot multiply by two). It was misery. Mizz—irr—eee.
Zack and CJ drove to Reserve for dinner tonight. I really wanted to go, but was literally too physically wasted to want to sit in the car for several hours (long drive there and back, plus the time Zack and CJ would have spent in the bar). I wanted to go to bed early, and did so…which was just as well, since they got a flat tire on the way and didn’t get back until 11:00, which is late when you’re working outdoors.
The spare was a little low on air, and from then on it was a little nerve-wracking to be traveling on windy, rocky, unpaved roads with no spare, and no tow truck for several hours (and no phone, for that matter). Luckily, it held out until Silver City.
Day 3: Zack told us the night before to not get up too early, and that we would take a bit of an easy morning before getting to work because of the pain, intense PAIN, of the previous day. So we did. Sorta. We sat around the campsite for an hour and a half, and then hiked up Iron Creek Mesa and did…5 plots. Dammit.
We’ve only cranked out 5 plots on one other occasion, and it sucked, and we therefore swore never to do it again. It was very very hot, and I was tired and gimpy. Then at lunch, Zack breaks the news to us that the next day, he wants to return to Clayton Mesa. I almost started to cry. I DID have a minor panic attack, which resulted in some hyperventilation and my throat closing up for a bit.
I fretted about it for the rest of the day before finally talking to Zack that evening and telling him that I didn’t think I’d be able to make that hike again. He did NOT take it well at all. He basically told me that he couldn’t make me come (which made me feel like I was refusing to come because I didn’t want to, rather than telling him that I was questioning my capability), and that he was sorry I didn’t like hiking (I DO like hiking, but Zack is much faster than I, has better endurance, and I don’t like destination-hiking as much as hiking to enjoy the trip, which I can’t do here), but this was the job I was hired to do.
So then I spent the rest of the morning feeling like complete and utter shit, because not only did I have a major hike the next day, but I felt like I’d risked and lost any respect Zack had for me as a worker. I felt like I had the best chances of making the hike if I camped at Iron Creek that night (just 2 miles away), but Zack wouldn’t let me go. He eventually said that if I really didn’t want to go, he could find something for me to do at camp the next day (form-pushing, probably), but that wasn’t an option for me. I DO have some employment-integrity, dammit. I was hired to do this job, and I was going to go with the rest of the group, wherever it was. Besides, if I didn’t, they would be severely short of help, and would not get nearly as much done (the job needs a minimum of 4 people, really). I was not going to be responsible for that.
Also, while hiking down the hill that day, I lost my sunglasses. They fell off my shirt when I tripped stepping over a patch of deadfall (we came back cross-country, not on the trail), and by the time I realized they were gone (5 minutes), there was no way to backtrack to find where I had lost them, since we were coming down a diagonal slope. I tried anyway, but no luck. It’s probably a blessing in disguise, since the coating was peeling and the earpieces pinched my temples and gave me terrible throbbing headaches, but I hate losing things.
It was a wretched day.
We also drove to the phone tonight (there’s a tiny phone booth here, about 15 miles on the road to Reserve). Zack tried to call Penny. We also encountered the Elk Hunters…two men and a woman in a big Ford pickup, all talking about elk. They asked to cut in front of us (we let them) and they called people to talk about the elk herds they were seeing (there were some in sight across the field). They were all wearing elk hunting-related t-shirts, and one man had a camouflage belt. Their truck had camouflage seat covers, antler bits hanging from the rearview mirror, and a license plate that read “ELK HTR.”
Day 4: And so we went back to Clayton Mesa again. I left WELL before sunup, several hours before I usually do, in order to get as much hiking in as possible during the cool hours. I arrived at our plot area and had the luxury of waiting for about an hour before Zack and CJ arrived (Tyler arrived right behind me). I wasn’t as tired today for several reasons…first, I had that rest. Second, I hiked in the cool part of the day when the sun wasn’t sucking my strength. Third, I left before everyone else and could hike at a comfortable pace instead of pushing to keep up. Because of that, I had the strength to work a decent day, which actually worries me, because now what does Zack think? Does he think that I was actually fine, and was just objecting the night before to try and weasel out of a hard hike? Do you know how awful it feels to have that hiking success marred by the nagging feeling that I SHOULD have failed?
I saw some elk on the way up. I was coming around a corner and disturbed three of them grazing. Two saw me and ran off in alarm, but I froze instantly and the third, a big doe less than 100 feet away, looked around and didn’t seem to focus on me at all. She went back to eating while I quietly crouched down for the camera. She only saw me when I stood up again, and then she was off, hooting and barking. Elk make cool noises. I continued on the trail with her vocalizations continuing as she watched in hiding.
We did three plots that day, and then Zack suggested that I start back for camp while they did another plot (and 2 tree plots as well, it turned out), since I needed the most time. So I left, and got back into camp several hours later, just 10 minutes ahead of everyone else.
Zack called Penny from the phone today and got The News.
Day 5: We got up early today, packed up the whole camp, and then hiked up the mesa to do two more plots before coming down and driving out. We got into Silver City at about 3:30, and Tyler and I departed for Los Alamos as soon as our rental car came in (late, as usual).
I’m ready to be done for the summer. Alas, it is not to be, ever since we got The News.
More to come…