Remember when I joined the Meetup hiking group about a year ago – and then I didn’t go on any hikes for many months, because I was feeling rather intimidated by it all? And then when I actually signed up for a hike, I didn’t want to go because I have social anxiety – but I forced myself go and discovered that I liked the people and the hiking? And you may have noticed that since then, I’ve posted about my hikes several times?
Well, here is another one.
I promise, this isn’t a hiking blog (and I can’t imagine it will turn into one). It’s just that right now I’m doing a lot of hiking – and I manage to get myself into some ridiculous situations while hiking. Of course, I immediately want to share my ridiculousness with you, because you get me – probably because you also get yourself into ridiculous situations every now and then.
So, remember when I said that I wasn’t particularly fond of desert hiking and I didn’t think I would go on a desert hike again? Well, I lied. I didn’t mean to lie – at the time, I really had made up my mind not to go on a desert hike again, because they are hot and there are creepy crawlies about. But I had already signed up for a hike for this past weekend and I didn’t realize until the day before that it was another desert hike (there is a lot of desert in New Mexico – like a crazy amount of desert). I’m a girl who likes to keep my promises and commitments, so I made sure I had plenty of sunscreen, my brimmed hat, sunglasses, and over a gallon of water (imagine carrying a gallon of milk on your back for miles and miles in the heat – it was like that, except without the stinking and curdling that would probably happen with milk).
Our little convoy drove forever on little dirt roads to get to the hike – a butte that was shaped like a mitten…or a bear’s head, depending on the angle.
Our mission was to hike into the bear’s mouth – or to the junction between the thumb and fingers – however you want to look at it. We’ll call that area “the saddle” for future reference (I don’t know why they call it “the saddle” – because that introduces a whole ‘nother, unrelated object and it’s confusing enough already – but that’s what they call it, okay?)
We parked the cars and piled out onto a barely there dirt road and our leader, Woody, pointed out our destination (the saddle) and a long, high ridge that led up to the base of the monolith. He explained that there wasn’t a trail for this hike – but you could either hike up the ridge and once you hit the stone face, head down into the saddle, or you could stay to the left and there was a trail there that led across the face of the mountain and directly to the saddle. Besides sounding easier, the added bonus of the second route was that Woody had once seen, in the sandstone alongside the trail, a giant cat track that he thought might be prehistoric. I don’t know about you, but if I have the chance to see a saber-tooth tiger’s paw print, I’m going to take it!
After a mile or so of pretty intensive hiking, most of the group (who obviously were in much better shape than me) went directly up the ridge, but I veered to the left and kept watching for the trail. I never found it, but pretty soon I got to a point where I needed to either head out on the face of the mountain and towards the saddle or commit to climbing that ridge…and I was tired and hot. I just wanted to get to that saddle the easiest way possible and have my lunch in the shade of the stone columns on either side. I dropped over the side of the ridge and started walking towards the saddle – and determined after about a quarter mile that I had made a mistake.
The slope on the mountain was at least forty-five degrees – maybe even more – and my footing was not solid as the ground was covered in loose rock and soft dirt. I would often start to slip and have to reach for a pinon tree or bunch of weeds to halt my slide or stop a fall. On more than one occasion, I reached for support and realized the only thing near me was a cactus — I opted to slide a bit more in those instances. It seemed for every couple of steps I took towards the saddle, I slid down the mountain a foot or two and would have to struggle to regain the elevation I had lost. Trying to traverse across the loose scree on that brutal slope meant my ankles were constantly bent at a weird angle, which soon became painful.
At one point, I caught a glimpse of Woody and another hiker behind me, just starting to drop down onto the face. I called to them, trying to warn them that the way was difficult, but they didn’t hear me and soon they disappeared behind some trees. I looked ahead as I tried to plot my route – going down was not an option – there were some cliffs about a hundred feet below me. Going up seemed impossible – with the loose rock and almost no vegetation to use as an assist, I didn’t think I could do it. Quite frankly, looking up made me dizzy because it was so steep and I couldn’t see the top (or maybe because I was addled from the heat). So, I kept going forward, one exhausting foot at a time.
Soon, I was gasping for breath, nauseated from exhaustion, and my heart was thudding alarmingly. I sat down under a pinon tree so I could refill my small water bottle from the massive plastic canteen I carried in my pack. I had difficulty with the simple task, as I kept dry heaving, which would make me slide a bit since I couldn’t brace my legs on anything solid. I was so hot and dizzy, and I couldn’t seem to catch my breath and, at that moment, I realized that not only was I overexerted, but that I also was having a bit of a panic attack. I recognized the feeling from the time I was on a solo hike and thought I was lost – that feeling that I might be in trouble…that the situation could be dangerous if I wasn’t careful.
As I sat under the pinon tree, I concentrated on slowing my breathing, taking sips of water to rehydrate. My heart slowed and my head cleared. While I could see a few other hikers already in the saddle, I reminded myself that I could go as slowly as I needed to go – it’s not like anyone was going to leave without me. The breeze (that wonderful breeze) brought voices to me – it was Woody and his companion. I called out to them again, but again got no response. Still, I felt better knowing that they were behind me (and would eventually come across my body if worst came to worse).
I got up and headed out again – still struggling, but much calmer. I managed to go a fair distance before I was stopped by a rather deep ravine in the center of an area that had obviously been washed out during a heavy rainstorm. The ravine itself was only about two feet across, with steep walls of dirt and no trees or handy weeds to be seen in the wash area, which was about 4-5 feet across. Now, I know two-feet sounds small – most people I know could jump across that with no problem at all. In fact, they could probably clear the dirt on either side without difficulty. I’m not most people – I can’t even figure out how to skip.
Have you ever seen The Biggest Loser? If not, I’m sure you know the premise – they take heavy, out of shape individuals and work them like dogs in the gym until they injure themselves or vomit. Hey! I had apparently worked out as hard as a Biggest Loser candidate – I’d been retching just moments ago!! Always look on the bright side, I say! One of the things many Biggest Losers seem to have a problem with is jumping up onto the top of a small box – it’s maybe about 12 or 18 inches tall – but for some reason, it is daunting to them. I totally understand this – I’ve tried to do it in the gym and usually end up tripping as I try to jump – or only jumping about three inches – either way, it’s humiliating, so I shy away from it. I’m just not a jumper.
But now, I needed to get across that little ravine. There was no getting around it – there was an incredibly steep area above me and a cliff below me. I’d have to make a leap of faith – and hope my tired legs were up to the challenge. I gave myself a little pep talk and crouched a little – and then pushed off.
I landed on the other side! But not far enough up the other side, dammit! The dirt beneath me gave way and I started to slide down the mountain towards the cliff. There was nothing I could grab to stop my descent and before I knew it, I was flat on my face, spread-eagle, desperately digging my hands and feet into the dirt, my life flashing before my eyes! Okay, I may have exaggerated on that last part – what I was really wondering was if the hikers behind me would be able to see my body at the base of the cliff when they came by – and if they would end up on top of me when they tried this crossing.
As you can surmise (since I wrote this story and you are reading it), I managed to avoid death. I was able to scramble up the side of the ravine, but it was tough going and, I’m not ashamed to say, I was scared shitless. When I got to the top, I just laid there for a few minutes trying to catch my breath (I may have also kissed the ground like a shipwrecked sailor who finally managed to find his way to the shore of the deserted island).
After the ravine, the going got easier – the slope became milder, there were more trees and shrubs, and the loose rock and dirt gave way to hard packed ground. I heard voices ahead and saw all of the other hikers (who had gone up the ridge) just ahead of me – which was incredible to me. I thought for sure I had been battling my crossing for a couple of hours. I was happy to hear them all complaining about the rough time they had and the difficulty in finding a way down into the saddle. Wait – I should rephrase that, because it makes me sound like a dick. What I should say is that I felt better knowing that the struggle I had did not reflect so personally on me and my lack of stamina and skills. Everyone, including the hard-core hikers (with the exception of the three freaks who made it to the saddle long before everyone else) had trouble as well. Is that better?
I finally made it into the bear’s mouth, to the welcome shade, the rocky resting area, and some needed nourishment. The view was incredible and, as we talked and laughed while using tweezers to pull cactus needles out of people’s hands (they had actually grabbed the cactus as they started to fall), we all seemed to forget about the trials of the journey. Well, maybe not those with the cactus spines in their hands – but the rest of us were pretty jovial.
I signed up for another desert hike scheduled for November. I’ve been assured this time there will be a trail. What could go wrong?