Last week, a few of my friends invited me to skip Superbowl and go on a hike with them up in the Jemez mountains. The weather has been gorgeous here in New Mexico and I enthusiastically agreed. The Jemez area is in a geothermal area. Back in the day (about 1.2 million years ago), a super volcano blew its top, forming the Valles Caldera. The volcanic eruptions continued until about 50,000-60,000 thousand years ago and thanks to that, we have several, natural hot springs in the area that you can hike to and enjoy.
Our plan was to hike about 4.5 miles to San Antonio hot springs – it was my first visit to this spring, the hottest, perched on the mountainside with a beautiful view. I don’t hike in the winter, as a rule – I think snow is pretty to look at, but I don’t especially like to be out in the cold. I don’t like the constant nose running, icicle ears, and numb fingers and toes. I haven’t gone downhill skiing since my early 20’s and I’ve never gone cross-country skiing or snowshoeing. I would much rather be warm, preferably on a tropical beach with an umbrella drink in my hand and a gorgeous, smooth skinned man sensually rubbing suntan oil into my skin.
However, as there seems to be a shortage of tropical beaches and gorgeous, smooth skinned men in my area, hiking in the cold with a soak in a steaming hot springs as my reward seemed an acceptable trade off. While I didn’t have any specific snow gear, such as waterproof hiking boots or ski pants, I dressed in several layers and carried extra wool socks, a clean shirt, and my swimsuit and towel in my pack. As it had not snowed in a long while, we thought that the trail would either be free of snow or hard packed snow at the worst.
We were wrong.
From the beginning, the trail was snow packed. It wasn’t bad for the first two or three miles – the temperature was still in the 30’s, so the snow on the trail was frozen over and, while it was very bumpy and uneven, leading to some slipping and rolled ankles, I wasn’t any more winded than I would be on any other hike up a mountain. However, when the temperature started to rise, the icy covering on the trail started to melt and the snow became softer. Every so often, our feet would break through the crust and we’d sink into snow up to our calf, then our knee, even up to our thighs at times. The going was slow, as I was watching and testing every footstep. But, even when I would step directly in the footsteps of my friends, who were ahead of me on the trail, I would still break through and have to pull myself out of the snow, sometimes crawling on my hands and knees until I found a firm patch where I could stand again – just to do it all over a few steps further.
We took a bit of a wrong turn near the end of the trail – I promised my friend Yavon that I would make sure to entirely blame her boyfriend, Jesse for this. He had gone on ahead, because he has the stamina of an ox and, as he hardly ever fell through the snow, he either weighs as much as a small elf or he has fairy wings that helped carry him along, just above the surface. He had been sure to tell us that when we came to the abandoned cabins that were about 500 feet below the spring, we were to “head to the right just before you get to the second cabin.” I put that in quotes because we all heard him say this – and it’s important to be accurate (especially when we were finger-pointing later). Just as we got to the first cabin, the trail split – some of the tracks went to the right and up the hill – but just as many went straight ahead, to the second cabin. So we kept going straight, watching to the right for the trail that would take us to the springs. But there wasn’t one. Instead, the tracks headed around the cabin and then, on the other side of it, up the mountain.
We figured that Jesse had been mistaken, so we started up the hill. While everyone was falling through the snow more often than not – I could not catch a break. Just about every step, I would have a moment of triumph as the snowpack held my weight, followed by a crushing defeat as I fell through – up to my hips at this point. My non-waterproof shoes were soaked through, the jeans I was wearing were wet up to my mid-thighs, my muscles were screaming, and I couldn’t catch my breath. I was so exhausted that I was ready to bury myself in the snow – after I vomited, of course. My friends were going at a much quicker pace – and were not falling through as often as I did. Not only was I exhausted, but I was feeling enormously fat since I was breaking through the snow so often — because I’m just shallow enough to have body imagine issues at a time like this.
I finally was totally and completely out of gas. I called up to my friends, “I can’t go any further! I’m going back!” I promise, I wasn’t being a drama queen – I was nearly in tears, just too drained to continue struggling through the snow. I figured I would slide down on my butt to the empty cabin and wait inside for them to have their soak and start back.
Then, I heard the voice of an angel behind me. “You can’t stop now. You’re nearly there.”
I turned and saw a man and his dog right behind me. “It’s just up the hill,” he said. “Let me pass you and you can follow in my steps.”
I tried, but again, even when I would place my feet directly in his footprints, I would fall through the snow about every third step. Then he stopped and said, “I have snowshoes – let me get them out for you.”
Do you remember me telling you that I don’t participate in winter sports? I explained to him that I had never used snowshoes – but he put them on the snow before me and instructed me on how to strap my boots into them and how to walk. He then quickly proceeded ahead of me up the mountain (another dude with fairy wings – I’m sure of it), while I snowshoed my way, slowly and painfully, up the trail. I still was exhausted. I still felt like vomiting. I still had to stop about every fourth step and bend over or squat down to try to catch my breath – but I was making progress. Bless my friends – they could have been in the springs getting warm, but they waited for me, encouraging me on.
I finally made it to our destination, surprised to find that there were several other people already soaking, several of them naked. As we had been the only car parked at the trailhead when we started, I was baffled, until Jesse explained to us that the others had come on the correct trail – the one with hardly any snow. The one we should have taken if we had we had turned right at the first cabin, as he had told us to do. This is when all the finger-pointing came in – because accuracy is important.
I slowly stripped off my wet clothes – not to provide a sexy show for those in the spring below, but because I could barely move. I was wearing my swimming suit underneath (layers are important when it’s cold – plus, I wasn’t about to get butt naked in the freezing cold in front of strangers). I laid out my wet clothes and shoes in the hopes they would dry out a bit, grabbed my lunch and my water bottle and eased my way into the spring – the blissfully hot, beautiful spring! I found a comfortable spot, and attempted to get some fuel and water into my still queasy stomach. What I really wanted to do was to lay there for about three hours and take a nap.
My attention was diverted as more people arrived, stripped naked, and joined us in the springs. Now, I’m not a prude – I knew this was a clothing optional spring. The fact that I was in a swimming suit said more about my body issues than my modesty. Still, these people were VERY comfortable being naked around strangers. I wasn’t trying to gaze at anyone’s private parts, but it was hard to avoid it. Just as you would respectfully avert your eyes, someone else would stand up or get in or leave the springs right in front of you. I saw more junk than I’ve seen since I stumbled across an episode of “Real Sex” on a free preview weekend of HBO.
I had a nice conversation with my guardian angel of the snowshoes – Carlos from Los Alamos (that’s him on the left in the picture above), who was thankfully soaking in his shorts and a tank top. I thanked him profusely, told him he was my hero, and I promised to sing songs in his honor. I’m still working on that — I’m not particularly musical.
Too soon, it was time to go if we wanted to get back to the car before dark. I made my way back up to where my clothes, still damp, were displayed and I began the complicated process of stripping off my swimming suit while trying to stay covered with my towel. I finally gave up and let the towel drop to my waist as I pulled on my sports bra – turning to my friend and saying, “I’ve lost all sense of modesty,” realizing as I spoke that I was clutching my pink panties in my teeth. It just illustrated my point – plus it kept my panties off the wet ground.
On the way back, we took the correct path back to the first cabin (it was a million times easier – but we took the opportunity to do some more finger-pointing when Jesse insisted that he HAD told us the trail was before the FIRST cabin). Then we began the long trek back, across now very soft fields of snow – all of us (except for Jesse the elf, who had disappeared from view) falling through or just falling, time and time again. I didn’t even care about getting wet anymore. I could feel the water squishing between my toes at every step – luckily my two pair of wool socks were doing their job and keeping my feet warm, but I was quickly becoming exhausted and sore.
At one point, tired and rather miserable, I reminded myself that I could choose my attitude. I could be negative and grumpy about the difficulty of the ordeal, or I could be positive, enjoying the beautiful scenery, the snow sparkling on the mountainside, the gorgeous red cliffs and green pines contrasting against the snow, the company of good friends, who continually had to wait for me to catch up. I looked up to take in my surroundings and immediately stumbled, breaking through the snow and then falling on my ass as I tried to regain my footing. Fuck it! Fuck it all!
I’ve never been more grateful to get to the final stretch – a primitive road that was covered in about three inches of thick, sucking mud – and the occasional hole of muddy water, which would cover my boots. Luckily, my feet were so soaked by this point that a little more icy water didn’t faze me in the least. When I finally made it to the car, I threw off my pack, stripped off my boots, and hobbled to the driver’s seat – determined never to move again. I was gratified to see that my friends all felt the same way – except for Jesse, who had taken a 40-minute nap in the sun as he waited for us to catch up.
Where can I get some of those fairy wings?