Day 53: Into the San Juans

6/9

I fetched gas station coffee, wrote, packed. We probably should’ve gone for breakfast earlier, because we were both snarlingly hangry by the time we checked out and went to Fina’s diner, where the cherry turnovers and service disappointed, but the breakfast burritos lived up to their reputation. The inside was cute, decorated with Coca-Cola memorabilia and an amazing hand carved model of a section of Main Street Chama.

Back to the Lowe’s grocery, to find granola and a few other hoped for items, and then we were ready to get out of town. We walked toward Cumbres Pass, thumbs out, and eventually someone pulled over. “We have to run a few errands, run to the grocery store, but if you’re still walking when we come back by, we’ll give you a lift.” Amazing! We continued uptown, still trying our luck, but no one else even slowed down. We said our farewells to hikers scattered along Main Street, and when we were almost to the train station, our offered ride pulled over. They were Rich and Anna, and they were a delight to chat with on the drive to the trailhead. As we were pulling our packs from the trunk, 2 hikers led by a dog appeared, heading south from the trail we were about to head north onto. “Wait, is that Rita?” I asked. “And is that Dan?” A very healthy and very happy Rita came right up, wagging her tail, leaning into pets. Behind her was indeed Dan, and another hiker we’d seen in passing, headed south in the previous section, who introduced himself as Diesel. They had decided to turn around before 15 miles in- Dan for his ankle, Diesel for the snow- and were hitching to a much lower road walk around. Not super encouraging. “Well, are you guys looking for a ride up to the Platoro trailhead?” Rich and Anna asked. “We’re headed that way.” What wonderfully generous people, and what luck for Rita & crew- Rita hopped right into the back of the SUV like she belonged there, and Dan shared a bowl of water with her. It would have been nice to catch up with them some more, but things turned into a whirlwind, and then they were gone, and we were hiking north.

Switchbacks led into ravines and back across the face of the mountain rising over Cumbres Pass, Chama, and the train. A waterfall gushed – first of the trip- and a mountainbiker with a chainsaw strapped to the back of his bike coasted by. “Broke the chain on the double blowdown I really wanted to get, but it’s clear for a ways.”

I couldn’t believe how many trees were down. More so, I couldn’t believe how many were dead, standing or down. The forest just looked ravaged.

Topping out the main climb cracked open a view into another world. We stood at the edge of a big drop- along the far side paraded snow covered peaks- directly across, the serrated spine of the Tierra Amarilla, from which tumbled the massive falls, the birth of the west fork of the Rio Chama; farther north, the peaks I assumed we would enter; and farther north still, and west, a line of pyramid tops that were perhaps the Weimenuche, 70 miles distant in the next section.

We continued on fabulous trail on the edge of the ridge, agog at all these snowy mountains. They were startlingly sudden, compared to the desert we’d been in just a week ago, compared to the length New Mexico had taken to traverse. But we’d experienced the transition, abrupt as it was – one of my favorite parts of walking such a long swath of landscape- and here we were. It was a shame the air was so smoky, as most of the pictures didn’t turn out.

We reached our first snow on trail, got a little taste of the steepness we’d be faced with. Definitely don’t want to hit any north facing slopes too early in the day, I noted. I wished I had downloaded The Freedom of The Hills to read the finer tips on snow travel- reading obsessively always offers a small measure of empowerment in the face of uncertainty.

We followed the ridge up, playing a bit on big snow drifts, luckily finding that, even this late in the day, the snow was surprisingly consolidated, despite (or maybe because of) the warm night temps, and despite the dire warnings we’d received at the trailhead.

A long ridge led toward a knob jutting up into the long evening light, the lateness exaggerated by the thick smoke. Three elk darted across the trail right in front of Prana. We climbed slowly, methodically, into the wind, and topped our first 12,000 foot point, which also marked our entry into the South San Juan Wilderness.

The views were indescribable.

We ambled down the broad, gentle ridge behind the knob, taking in the spectacular surroundings. Weaving between snow drifts and clumps of krummholz, we picked a nice high vantage overlooking the western skyline, and the sunset conducted a pyrotechnic show as I cooked dinner. Bedroll arranged en plein air on a snowless circle of tundra, sheltered perfectly from the wind by a stunted clump of pines; snuggled in, it wasn’t nearly as cold as I expected, and the Milky Way splashed itself across the sky.

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