Morning efficiency is not what I would call a strong suit for me. I had set an alarm, but as usual it was at best a precatory and easily ignored suggestion. My son had the whole week off for Thanksgiving, so we had plans to adventure in the mountains. Holding us back was the fact that my daughter attends a different school, with an entirely different schedule (get together on this, guys!).
Finally, though, we had her happily dropped off and could make the winding road up to Dripping Springs. As I parked, I realized it was the last day of my annual national parks pass. That’s always somber, another year gone by. My first impulse is to renew immediately, but I’ve learned to milk it, to wait until we visit a park and sometimes gain another month or two. Which brings up a question. What do I do with the pass when we visit and there isn’t anyone to check in with? This time of year, it’s easy. I leave the pass on my dashboard. But in the summer? Unattended plastic objects have a strong tendency to immolation in the desert, so I always wonder if I’m going to get a ticket of some kind if I leave the pass in a less visible, somewhat less Venusian location.
Not a problem today, and really neither was water or heat for once. In fact, as we got out of the car, I could tell my son was considering how best to ask me whether we could just go back to civilization, get some hot chocolate, and haunt Barnes and Nobles. The wind was coming down off the rocks with a purpose and the sun seemed to be fighting a losing battle to escape the cloud bank that had collected over the Organs. I watched, counting seconds until it would break free from the fast-moving, eastward bound fog. But the sun could never quite win. My hypothesis is that the Organs keep collecting all the water vapor in the valley, creating a permanent cloud blanket despite what looks like a pell-mell flow toward Alamogordo.
I had to assume command though and get the boy moving. A dip down into a dry creek bed, a short uphill burst on the other side, and we were moving around the stegosaurus-backed granite ridge of La Cueva. The rocks themselves make a good hike; shady, filled with crannies to explore, and just barely climbable all the way up. Of course, taking a three-year-old to the top nearly gave me a heart attack, but scrambling up with my son has been fun. One day we found a hummingbird nest in the small trees on the north side of the ridge. Another, as we crossed over a natural slide between the tall spires, we watched sadly as a baby thrasher tried desperately to get back up to its nest. There was nothing we could do to help, and my son learned a grim lesson in the natural world that day.
Today we hiked around the rocks to the north, following a loop trail that could lead back to the visitor center if we so chose. We didn’t so choose. Instead, we picked up a small feeder trail that forks off at the sign for the Modoc mine. A short walk further on, just below the old mine’s tailing pile, three trails diverge in the brown desert. On the left is the infamous Needles Trail, beautiful and brutal, but not to be attempted on a casual day that begins at noon. The middle path leads into Fillmore Canyon. It is a short hike, and with the icy wind and my son’s constant grumbling, I considered it. But I had promised myself we would begin the Organ Peak trail, so we took the righthand path. To be honest, the trail was a bit hard to find, so we ended up scrambling up from Fillmore Canyon and only then finding the correct path.
The wind was really letting us have it as we paused for granola and jerky, but our hopeful watching paid off as the sun briefly triumphed and warmed us for the first portion of the hike. We entered a sheltered, scrubby forest of juniper and oak and the wind was mercifully diverted into the canyon. We paused and listened from the top of a large boulder. I almost couldn’t believe the jet engine roar of the wind in the trees below us.
Above us, Fillmore Canyon widened into a valley of sort, a gulf between the northern granite peaks and the rhyolite of the south. We had come to a high portion of the trail where the first pine trees were poking out, forming true stands of ponderosa (I think) on the slopes above us. Online, there are rumors of wondrous things above; adventure hooks that tantalized. The trail supposedly enters a narrows perhaps half a mile from where we stopped, passes a plane wreck, and even leads to an abandoned observatory. This last reminded me of a D and D adventure I wrote once where goblins had occupied just such an ancient astronomical site. They used a rusty orrery to drop metal planets full of acid on the party. I must have had the Dark Crystal in mind when I wrote it, because now I realized I was hoping to meet Aughra up here.
But there were flu shots and a doctor’s appointment to make, so we turned around. My ears were aching from the cold wind, and I can’t say a part of me wasn’t relieved to turn around. But we’ll be back, either better prepared for the chill, or when things warm up and turn to summer again.
You know… like in early February.