by Nancy King
The Sierra Club hike was advertised as: Strenuous Hike along the streams and meadows of the Grass Mountain area of the Pecos Wilderness, ~10 mile one-way hike with car shuttle, possible 2000 ft. cumulative climb.
It sounded doable to Nancy King on the trailme although I usually hike only seven or eight miles. The preceding weeks had been stressful and my system felt full of grunge. Maybe the sight of wildflowers and panoramic mountain vistas would act as emotional system cleanser and make me feel better. So, I signed up.
By seven o’clock, on the morning of the hike, I didn’t feel well and was on the verge of canceling. But I made a decision, that I would be okay, and with many deep breaths, set out to meet the group at 7:30. There were eight hikers; I was clearly the oldest, and the leader, a cheerful, upbeat guy in his early forties, was so welcoming that he carved a space in my worries and filled it with optimism. But I was unnerved when I heard people ask him, “So how long is this hike, really?” Funny question. The blurb said ten miles. Hadn’t they read it?
I’ve learned that if I’m able to walk behind the leader, I get charged with his or her energy, but if I’m at the end of the group, it’s a slog all the way, an energy sink. As we started up the mountain, with me just behind the leader, the relentless uphill climb made me wonder if it was going to go on ad infinitum. I huffed and puffed up the first four miles, hoping I’d make it to the top, wherever that was. Fortunately, people stopped to take photos of wildflowers and odd-looking mushrooms, which gave me a chance to catch my breath.
We didn’t stop when we got to the top of Grass Mountain but the path was mostly level and the spectacular views of the Sangre de Cristo and Truchas mountains lifted my drooping spirits. Had I known what was coming next, I would not have felt so blissful.
We walked down a long steep path and I was relieved that this was a one-way hike—at least we wouldn’t have to climb back up. Then, we came to a wide, deep, roiling stream. I looked for a bridge. No bridge. People took off their boots and socks, put on wading shoes, rolled up their pants, and forged through the freezing cold water. I stared in dismay at the stream, wondering what to do. I didn’t know wading through knee-high ice- cold water was part of the program. Since there was only one way to cross it, I reluctantly took off my boots, stuffed the socks in my pockets, and prepared to enter the dreaded water. The leader, Mike, took pity on me and lent me his flip-flops. The stones were slippery so the rubber bottoms helped me keep my balance but the cold numbed my legs and I had to force myself to keep going.
While I put my boots on again, I asked one of the hikers who’d hiked this trail before, “Are we about a third of the way?” I was hoping he’d say, “Nah, more like half.” Instead he laughed and said, “Not quite, the hike’s twelve miles.” In a state of panic I said, “Twelve miles? I thought it was ten.” He laughed again. “Mike always underestimates mileage,” and, he added, “as well as possible altitude gain.” Twelve miles! Hiding my alarm as best I could, I did what I always do in this situation: I ate a large chocolate bar.
The long, steep uphill climb before lunch required focused concentration on breathing, sipping water, and sucking on hard candy. I had to have faith that the up would end before I did. Around 1:20, we finally stopped for lunch in a huge meadow with a spectacular mountain panorama—a welcome break before our next challenge, almost two miles down an extremely steep, rocky hill, a spine between two canyons. The closer we got to the bottom, the narrower the trail. There was momentary relief as we walked through a spacious forest of old trees, the earth soft from the fallen needles.
I didn’t like what was in front of me: another roiling stream, as wide but not as deep as the first. This time there was a log that spanned the width but it was eight feet above the water. That was seven and a half feet too many for me, so I waded through the stream, relieved when I got to the other side. Only that wasn’t the end of the water. We’d crossed a stream on one side of the canyon, and now we had to cross a second. This time the stream was deeper and my waterproof boots weren’t high enough to keep the water out but it was better than walking, panicked, on another log suspended high above the turbulent stream. Mike reassured us that we only had two miles to go, which sounded great, except by this time I questioned his sense of time, distance, and danger. Two miles of trail is one thing, but we quickly ran out of a trail and had to climb up and down the sides of rock walls to get to the end. Some of the hand and foot holes were too high or low for me to move easily on the rocks and at times I felt like screaming out loud, but instead I said under my breath, “I can’t do this!” It’s amazing what one can do even when one doesn’t think one can do it. When we got to the end of the hike, as others sat, waiting for the drivers, I felt like dancing and singing and shouting to the world, “I did it!”
In spite of the fear that I’m not up to it, I’ve arranged to climb Santa Fe Baldy—fourteen miles and 3500 foot elevation. Why? Because! But also, my last blood test revealed that my white counts are down. Not a good sign. So, I figure, if I can conquer my fear, the least my white counts can do is rise to the occasion.
Nancy King’s most recent books are three novels: A Woman Walking, Morning Light, The Stones Speak, and a nonfiction book, Dancing With Wonder: Self-Discovery Through Stories. You can read excerpts of her books, as well as order them, on her website: www.nancykingstories.com, at local bookstores, or on Amazon. For information about her upcoming readings and workshops, please contact Nancy at firstname.lastname@example.org.