17 miles (by map), 20 miles (by GPS) (these differ considerably most days–I’m making a track of the whole trail on GPS so I have its data for comparison)
Last night the temperature dropped to 30 at the bottom of the wash where I was curled tight in my 0 deg sleeping bag, with hat and insulated hood squished on my head, and still I was too cold to sleep well. Ah well, sleep is a fickle friend, especially out here where there are all manner of things to keep me up: leg pains, hip pains, foot pains, cold, wind, moonlight. I consider them all my nighttime companions. So without as much sleep as I would have liked, I rose and began walking along an old road across a broad basin of sage brush and the occasional small herd of twenty or so sheep (deer maybe?–they ran away before I could look to close, but they had gleaming white butts). After a mile and half, I left the road at a saddle and made my way cross country over a couple ridges and across a couple washes. Washes are the thoroughfares of this land, water-carved lanes of travel occupied by both human and animal trail. They are often slow going, their primary drawback, because all the fine powdery sand ground off the canyon walls is deposited right into the wash bottoms, where they bog down the weary traveller. Which is all to say, it was nice to shortcut some of the wash travel by crossing a few ridges, winding between junipers and pinyon pines and other desert shrubbery, all of which have the fiercest limbs ever, ready to slash you or gouge out your eye ball. No give whatsoever. Still, nice cross country.
Eventually the cross country ended for a time at Ruin Canyon, a beautiful, grassy-meadowed place with a sparkling creek dancing down the middle. The cows that graze there part of the year had even built some good trail (thanks cows!) to follow. Ruin Canyon has ruins too, one at each end where Erin and I entered the canyon and then left it. The ruins are painstakingly built cylindrical buildings made of flat rocks. I can’t imagine the time it would take to make one, or the skill required to build one that would last for a thousand years, which is when the builders, the Anasazi, lived here. I imagine them as I walk, people moving through these places with a sense of belonging and purpose, learning how to live with an indifferent land. And how also, I wondered, did they get up and down from these round stone houses to the creek below, as I thrashed my way up to one or slid treacherously down from the other. The ruins sat high above the canyon bottom, separated from it by cliff bands that were a little difficult to navigate.
And that way, the difficult way, is the way I had to go. After leaving the ruin and its canyon behind, I had more cross country, this time aiming high up to 8000 feet from the 6800 of the canyon floor. It started straight forward enough, more weaving among trees crossing rounded ridge tops, but then followed a massive climb up what looked like a cliff face. It wasn’t a cliff, not properly anyway, as there were small ledges to move between and enough dirt for the unyielding shrubs to take hold and refuse to share their crappy little ledge with you. All the more fun with a giant backpack and five liters of water, weight pulling me over and sideways and backwards and the shrubs poking me. I found as I climbed that I just wanted it more, the top I mean, and the more I grunted, shoved, heaved my body up on rocks like a beached whale with a backpack. I fought my way to the top and felt ferocious by the time I arrived. I also was soaked in sweat, caked in dirt on both the inside and the outside of my clothes, broke a couple nails, scratched all to hell, and my hair had so many twigs in it a bird could have moved in. (Most of those twigs are still there, along with plant matter from many of the last days, and my hair is no longer moving in individual strands but as a unit, one hair ball that I wad into a hair tie every morning). As I climbed I noticed mountain lion tracks in the dust. The way of the mountain lion is the way for me, I thought.
Erin and I took a lunch break at the top when our cross country route met a road. From there we dropped down Trail Canyon in Dark Canyon Wilderness. Cliffs tower on either side of the wash at the bottom, a bone dry sand pit crossed repeatedly by the trail that mercifully takes the benches above and to either side of the wash. It was hot down here today, dry, my nostrils and mouth thickening and hardening in the dry heat. We passed a few NOLS groups, one of whom knew there was water a quarter mile up a side canyon. The water is a constant issue: where is the next source, how reliable is it, how much to carry to get there. Local information about water sources had been very helpful.
I’m now camped in Dark Canyon with another fifteen miles or so before I’m out. It’s warm tonight, I think it will be anyway, and I’m exhausted but happy. Happy the day went so well, happy for the views and the breeze and the water and the twigs in my hair-ball.