Here in New Mexico, we have some of the best hiking in the country. We also have a huge sky with the biggest moon you ever saw. So, it’s only natural that the two be joined – and full moon night hikes are a thing here.
Until last night, I hadn’t gone on a full moon hike. I had seen the Facebook posts about the great times my friends had when they went on full moon hikes, but I hadn’t been invited along. It kind of made me feel like the girl picked last (or not at all in this case) for the kickball team in 5th grade. Do you hear that, friends? I felt like an awkward 10-year-old! Never mind the fact that I’m a grown-ass woman who could have actually asked to go along – or even organized my own full moon hike – it’s just sometimes more satisfying to pout.
But last night, the hiking Meetup group I belong to was going on a full moon hike after work and my friend, Cathy, invited me along.
I was excited! Not only was I finally going on a full moon hike, but someone mentioned that there would be a lunar eclipse, as well. Plus, we were hiking to a point where we could see an old ghost town before sunset. What’s not to like??
It took us over an hour driving on small, winding roads and then small, winding dirt roads, before the leader finally pulled over and parked just off the road. He mentioned that he hadn’t been on this hike for three years, so he wasn’t sure this was where we were supposed to park – but it would do. He also told us that the hike was actually just along the dirt road to the ghost town and then back again. That way, he added, we would have a large path to follow once night fell. He encouraged us not to use flashlights, as the full moon should provide enough illumination on the way back. I enthusiastically agreed. I wasn’t going to ruin my full moon hike with a flashlight! Flashlights are for wimps!
We set off and, after a couple of miles, Cathy and I fell to the back of the pack so that we could answer the call of nature. I hadn’t been hiking for over a month and it had been four times that long for Cathy – so both of us were a bit fatigued. We opted to slow to a stroll and chat while enjoying the sunset and the spectacular scenery.
The hike leader had mentioned that, as this was an out and back hike, any of us could turn around and head back whenever we wanted – eventually everyone else would catch up. When Cathy mentioned she didn’t want to continue on, I was happy to join her for the trip back. I didn’t get to see the ghost town, but dusk had fallen and there was a thunderstorm in the distance putting on a stunning light show. Eventually the stars began to appear and the road became more difficult to see – and the moon was nowhere to be seen. However, our eyes adjusted to the gloom and we were able to make our way without too much difficulty.
About a mile from the cars, the moon finally peeked over the clouds on the horizon. Have you ever watched a full moon rise? It’s not only beautiful, but the speed of the moonrise is so intriguing! In just a minute or two, it changes from a mere glow on the skyline to a sliver of light, and then to a large dome with the silhouettes of trees decorating the bottom, and finally to a huge, illuminated ball of orange hanging just above the mountains, bright enough to cast shadows.
We stopped to appreciate the phenomenon and then began to walk again. While the light from the moon illuminated patches of the road, the trees and shrubbery alongside kept most of the path in darkness. At one point, Cathy noticed a pinpoint of green light shining alongside the road. We crept closer and finally pulled out our phones to illuminate what we thought was a glowing rock. It was a small worm-like creature – barely a quarter-inch long, but emitting a tiny bio-luminescent glimmer that was strong enough to be seen from 15-feet away. A glow worm, perhaps?
We continued on our journey, exclaiming over the glow worm, the night sounds, and the various fragrances of flowers and pine that seemed so much more noticeable at night. Then, suddenly, a new sound erupted – right next to me – a loud, angry, buzzing sound that immediately caused my adrenaline to spike and my heart to leap into my throat.
Cathy shrieked and ran down the road. I can’t remember exactly how it happened, but suddenly I was on the other side of the road, well out of striking range for the coiled rattler that was just a dark shadow in the road near where I used to be standing.
“Holy shit!!!” I yelled to Cathy. “What the fuck is that fucker doing on this fucking road in the middle of the night??”
I don’t know about you – but sometimes swearing like a sailor in the only way for me to process a scary situation.
Cathy hollered back, obviously as freaked out as I was, “I didn’t even think…it never even occurred to me…who would have thought…why…a rattlesnake in the road!” She paused as I got closer and then added a bit sheepishly, “I probably should have pulled you to safety with me when I started to run.”
We both started to laugh, a bit hysterically – and suddenly we realized we were not the least bit tired anymore. We also both decided that flashlights were in order for the rest of the hike, which flew by as we debated why the rattlesnake was hanging out in the road instead of hunting in the brush, how close I had come to death (or at least a scary emergency situation), and how we would have handled it if I had been bitten. Should we go back and see if the snake was still there and a threat to the hikers behind us? (No, thank you). Did the leader get my text warning him about the rattlesnake in the road? (I hope so, but every man for himself in the dark of night!) Should we drive up the road once we got to our car to 1) make sure the snake was gone and 2) warn the others? (Sure – that sounded safe enough!)
Then, I noticed lights in front of us, glinting off metal that I was sure was our cars.
“Did someone leave the lights on in their car?” I asked Cathy.
We walked closer and the lights became brighter.
“Is someone breaking into our cars??”
Just then a spotlight hit us and a figure was outlined by the glare. We stopped. What the hell was going on?
“Hello?” I said, casually reaching for the pepper spray I carry on the hip belt of my pack.
The figure got closer and resolved into a female deputy sheriff, with her hand on her gun.
“What are you doing out here?” She asked, “Are these your cars?”
“Yes,” I said slowly, “We’re part of a hiking group on a full moon hike. Is there a problem?”
“You’re trespassing,” She informed us, “This is private property and the owner came across your vehicles. There was a break-in at a movie set down the road, so he was concerned there might be more trouble and called us.”
We looked past her and saw three more vehicles just down the road – all with their headlights trained on us.
Cathy, who is a retired cop, assured the officer that we were not ne’er-do-wells and explained that the rest of the group was somewhere behind us, but should be arriving within the next 30-45 minutes or so. We added the story about the scary encounter with the rattlesnake – just because we still were freaked out about it.
The deputy sheriff seemed to believe us, “I need to call in,” She said. “I have backup coming from the sheriff and police departments that I need to cancel. I also need to tell the property owner what is going on.” She walked with us towards another figure standing in the road – Mr. Gonzalez, the property owner.
Cathy and I both apologized profusely to Mr. Gonzalez, but he was annoyed and let us know it. He had encountered our vehicles when he came to feed his livestock. Hadn’t we seen the private property signs? There used to be one right at this location, but someone had knocked it down some time ago – but there were other signs we should have seen. We had frightened his wife, his family, and his livestock. He had called his neighbors for backup (it was they who were in the other vehicles down the road). We were lucky that we parked here instead of a few miles down the road, because his cousins lived down there and they weren’t as nice as he was – they wouldn’t have called the police and would have just slashed all of our tires.
We apologized again, explaining we had no idea that we were on private property. That we had seen the signs as we walked down the road, but they had just said, “Stay on the road! Private Property!” and, as we were on the road, we hadn’t thought it was a problem. Mr. Gonzalez pointed out that, while this was a county-owned road, the moment we parked our cars off of the road, we were breaking the law.
He asked questions about our group and the other members (who still had not arrived) and we again offered our apologies for worrying him and inconveniencing his family and his neighbors. After a while, his ire faded and he even asked us at one point if we needed any water. Cathy gave him a hug and we both shook his hand before he walked back down to the waiting vehicles to call off his posse and they all drove away.
Anna, the deputy sheriff (because it’s good to be on a first name basis with the woman who has the power to haul you to the pokey), let us know that she was going to drive down the road to look for the rest of our party and to check to make sure the rattlesnake had decided not to lay in wait for more unsuspecting hikers. About 20 minutes later, she returned, exiting her vehicle to open the back door and let a couple of older members of our group climb out.
“That was thrilling!” said one woman, “I couldn’t open the door myself – she had to let me out!” (I have to admit, in hindsight I was kind of sad I didn’t get a ride in the back of Anna’s SUV – it would have made the story much more interesting!)
“She was an answer to our prayers,” said a gentleman, “I flagged her down because I was having real trouble climbing that last hill!”
Anna chatted with us for some time, explaining that Mr. Gonzalez had first reported six cars, and then nine, and then more, telling dispatch, “They are doubling!” She said when she had first seen the cars herself, she had figured they belonged to teenagers who had come to have a rave (apparently that is a thing in New Mexico – teens and young adults go off into the middle of nowhere in order to party – who knew?), but she hadn’t heard or smelled anything suspicious, so then she figured that we were thieves. At this point, I was wondering if the sheriff’s department often runs across groups of thieves so large that they need more than a half dozen cars to carry the culprits to the scene of the crime.
In the end, we all exchanged business cards and Anna and Cathy promised to keep in touch. I think my friend might now have a new best friend. It’s like 5th grade all over again.