Ruth Rudner
Ruth Rudner

David Muench's National Parks


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April 3. Snow on the apple blossoms, the redbud, the cherry trees. Snow on the narcissus. Snow covering vines lining the irrigation ditch. Only the cactus blooms, warm against a rock, sheltered by the branches of the pinyon above them, are free of snow, brilliant red in the white/grey morning.

Winter has arrived in Corrales. We had a few cold days in December, a January morning of snow tramped into earth by the sandhill cranes getting at corn we’d thrown out before dawn. But, until now, there has been no real sense of weather, of winter, of North. Yesterday’s afternoon turned grey, rain fell all night, snow began a little after dawn. Such dawn as there was.

The gardens, filled with flowering trees, explode in pinks, fuschias, yellows and whites. Daffodils have been up for days. Iris are starting – tall, deep purple iris; small, pale, delicate blue iris. There are red anemones and the first tulips --little red and white tulips a friend gave me in Montana that I brought to New Mexico two autumns ago. Now all this is mantled in white, as if the winter I love, and the spring in which I was born, have become lovers.

I know how temporary the crisp purity of winter is. How ephemeral. This particular gift of winter is circumscribed by spring. It was in the 80s when I hiked up the La Luz trail last Saturday. The temperature will be in the 80s soon again.

I’d planned to reach the 4 ½ mile marker on the La Luz trail, the overlook, the last part of the broad, easy trail that climbs from the parking area at 7,000 feet to the overlook before continuing more steeply to the Tram station at 10,250 feet. The entire trail is seven and a half miles long. Moving from the hot desert landscape of the first miles into a world of ponderosa and rock, it becomes steeper after the overlook, switchbacking up a talus slope to gain about 900 feet elevation in about a mile and a half. At the top of the talus, the La Luz gentles out, winding around the face of the mountain to the tram.

When David and I do the entire trail, we take the tram back down. A few years ago, when I hiked it by myself on my birthday in late April (he had the gall to be in Hawaii . . . ), I used half-crampons on the packed, slick snow covering the talus slope. But usually, when I’m alone, I just hike to the 4 ½ mile point, then retrace my steps back to the parking area. Which is what I’d intended doing on Saturday, a sort of preparation for my birthday hike later in the month up 7832 foot Emory Peak, highest peak in Big Bend National Park. That trail is a strenuous four and a half miles up with no tram for the return trip. Because I find it harder going downhill than up, the four and a half miles back down seems very long. The last time I hiked this was a couple of birthdays ago. (Late April is a good time in Big Bend because cactus is in bloom. In a good year, the Chihuahuan desert entirely surrounding the Chisos Mountains is a spectacular palette of color.)

I was dismayed to discover that, after 3 miles, I was ready to stop. I was hot and hungry and in need of time under the big ponderosa on a slight rise to my right. It is a perfect rest stop, but it wasn’t what I had in mind. (How can one be resentful of resting in beauty?!) From the tree I had a good view of the trail where hikers, focused on walking, never even glanced toward the tree. I watched many people pass. If they were all doing it, why wasn’t I? When I had finally been there long enough, I rose, put my pack on, imagined I would continue toward my goal. Instead, without thinking, I turned back the way I’d come. As if that next mile and a half did not exist. I had not been walking long when I realized my wonderful, dependable, comfortable, utterly perfect boots were rubbing on both feet. Choosing to pretend my feet weren’t burning, that I wasn’t building the world’s biggest blisters, that I would walk it out, that my boots wouldn’t do this, I continued, slowly, agonizingly, back to the parking area.

So, I thought, I wasn’t supposed to go on because I could never have survived the additional mile and a half back down. But I could have stopped at any time, opened my first aid kit, and taken care of my feet. How have I become so stubborn? And why? I understand any of us might do stupid things when we aren’t paying attention to the moment. But pain certainly gets one’s attention. Was I so angry at not going the whole distance that I thought I should punish my body? Was I frightened at not going the distance for what it could mean for Big Bend?

It was, perhaps, the only hike I can think of that left me feeling incomplete. There have been many hikes where I turned around earlier than I’d planned, for reasons of time or weather or blowdowns or burns or-- as anyone reading earlier articles knows – some talus slopes, but I’ve never felt the kind of incompleteness I experienced Saturday. Yet, turning back did keep my feet from further damage, so maybe that instinctive turn around was by some order of the Universe.

After several days of wallowing in my discontent, today’s Winter happened and I finally let go of Saturday. I will, though, go back to the trail this weekend (after picking up my boots currently being stretched at the shoemaker’s), and reach last week’s goal. Meanwhile, I’m working on endurance at the gym.

And I’m reveling in this moment of winter; this mingling of snow and flowers; this love affair of nature that reminds me of my own love affair with mountains. The lover doesn’t always give you what you want, but you probably get what you need. By the weekend, it will be full spring again. My boots will work better. I’ll put moleskin on my feet. I’ll start earlier. I’ll pass wildflowers brought to bloom by winter moisture and spring warmth. I’ll pass my ponderosa and thank it for succoring me. I’ll have lunch at the overlook. I’ll be happy in this hike.

Copyright © 2012 Ruth Rudner