Mogollon Rim Trail day 30: from the frozen snags to the secret land of the free cows


Mileage: 16.5

407.7 miles hiked

In the night condensation comes and steals the warmth from me. I wake up, touch my damp sleeping bag, decide I need to pee anyway. The tent has frozen solid from condensation, and I push away the frozen flap of the vestibule, shivering and tiny bits of ice rain on my face. Outside the stars are hard and bright, and the frost on the cold ground melts under my bare feet. It’s so cold. Inhospitably cold. Why is life so fragile? After peeing I clean the dirt from my feet with my pee rag and shiver back inside the tent, refasten the frozen vestibule. I scootch down into my damp sleeping bag and cinch the hood around my face. I lay on my back. I can feel the weight of my phone and my battery pack in the pockets of my puffy jacket, their hard corners against my stomach. I sleep with them on nights like this, because cold will drain a battery. The feeling of keeping my batteries safe comforts me, somehow, and I fall back asleep.

When I wake from the unparalleled sleep of being warm in one’s sleeping bag during a bitter cold night the whole world is glittering under sheets of frost, and there’s chunks of ice in my water bottles. My shoes are frozen solid, and I wrap them in a trash compactor bag and put them under the foot of my sleeping bag, like an egg I’m trying to hatch, while I’m eating breakfast and drinking my tea. Packing the shelter away is painful- we have to roll it and then stuff it into its stuff sack, and it’s so stiff with frost that it numbs our hands and we pass it back and forth like the game of hot potato, only opposite. We cross from one side of the drainage to the other via slopes of standing burned trees and blowdowns and attain the abandoned road again. The sky is a painful blue and the light, today, is impossibly clear and clean, and our morale rises as the sun slides its warmth across the mountain and finally reaches us. The old road is slow going again at first but soon clears and we’re able to open up our stride and just like, walk, man. We reach the trailhead for the descent into Bear Wallow Wilderness something incredible happens- we leave the burn behind. This trail is good, unobstructed, soft and loamy in unburnt forest, the conifers gathering the light and letting it loose again, a little creek burbling in the verdant shadows down below.

There are small new growths of poison ivy along the path, but they’re easy to avoid. We reach Schell canyon, not so much a canyon but another drainage between hills, and the land is burned again. As a result, or maybe it’s always been this way, the faint path up Schell canyon along the creek is eroded, faint, missing entirely or obscured under blowdowns, jumbles of rocks, and the huge rootballs of fallen trees. Still, though, the way is straightforward, if slow.

It starts to rain a bit and we pitch our shelter and take a long early lunch inside, drying our sleeping bags on our laps. I count the food in my bag. Why am I so hungry, why doesn’t any amount of food feel like enough.

Schell canyon climbs steeply up to the actual rim of the Mogollon Rim where we will, apparently, have incredible views. And maybe the walking will be better! The views, when we get there, are very good, lots of nested mountain ranges I do not recognize, likely New Mexico? And here our route follows the rim, through what would be excellent walking in open ponderosa forest… except this forest burned in the Wallow fire. So what follows is a few miles of the worst blowdowns of the entire route so far.

There is no good way to walk through a large expanse of these blowdowns. Sticks in every direction, huge piles of wood, the impenetrable clusters of new aspens. Every direction you turn feels like a dead end, except you have to make your way forward. The world opens for twenty feet and then a clumsy confusing obstacle blocks your way again. Time slows until it feels like you’re not getting anywhere at all, your route meanders so much that it feels like you’re walking in circles. I’m frustrated and exhausted. It is what it is.

A few miles in we start seeing sort stretches of tread that come and go and then, suddenly, a consistent path, and I’m so relieved I could cry. We follow this to a dirt road where we turn off our brains and walk as fast as we can for three miles, no thinking required. The dirt road branches, branches and branches again, becoming lesser and more remote with each split, and then ends in a small grassing clearing in the forest. The start of the McBride Mesa trail, apparently, which we’ll follow way down into our next drainage. I feel apprehensive about this trail on account of how many blowdowns there have been today but amazingly at the trailhead we leave the Wallow fire behind and reenter intact forest, where we’ll stay until the end of the route, and there are no longer any burned trees at all, and no blowdowns on the trail.

The McBride Mesa trail is faint, eroded and doesn’t follow the line on the map, but we pay careful attention and we’re able to stay on it, and it transports us down into a warmer, drier land of junipers and cow patties. At one fold in the mountain I listen carefully and hear the trickle of water, and we follow cow paths up to a tiny, mossy waterfall, where we fill our bottles. The descent is on a steep slope but I see a saddle on the map where there might be good camping and we scramble up to it, exhausted. We find an open, trampled area, and we kick away enough cow patties to clear a spot to pitch our shelter. We sit outside cooking our dinner in the gloaming, so grateful for the freedom that warmth brings. The sky is black with clouds but it’s not raining, and I feel more relaxed that I have in days.