The Pecos Wilderness is still in his dreams
The Pecos is just east of Santa Fe, and, while my wife-to-be was busy covering stories for the big New Mexico newspaper, I’d strap up my pack, jump in the Volkswagen van and head out on Interstate 25.
The Pecos are part of the Sangre de Cristo range that surrounds Santa Fe. This translates as “Blood of Christ.” I’ve seen the mountains both at sunrise and sunset, and I salute the Spanish for their nomenclature.
The Pecos River rises in a big valley girded by peaks. From there, it weaves its way south through New Mexico and Texas in a parallel course with the Rio Grande, joining the bigger river on the Mexican border east of Big Bend National Park before flushing out into the Gulf of Mexico.
The first time I hiked up into the Pecos was in June, and the snow was still deep in the high country. Pecos Baldy, the peak I climbed, had a huge, snowplow-shaped cornice on the very top and I kept worrying it would break off as I trudged around there.
My next trip was in high summer. I was aiming for Truchas Peak, the second highest mountain in New Mexico, though in some ways a harder climb than Wheeler Peak, some 60 miles to the north. You have to negotiate several miles of steep switch-backs to get into the valley. The place is popular among horsemen and horsewomen, and the trails are studded with fragrant equine nuggets.
Once you get past that, the place smells like the West: that peculiar essence of sun-baked pine needles that always made my mind reel back to those bleak Boston Sundays when I would watch westerns on television and be transported to a place and time I seemed to know from another life.
On the way to Truchas Peak, I set up camp beneath a tree that had a bull’s skull nailed to it, complete with horns. I built a fire and spent the night blessedly alone under the stars.
The next morning I arose early and set off. True to its name, the Pecos Wilderness, at least in those days, showed little sign of human touch, meaning the trails were poorly marked.
Nonetheless, I found my way up to the terminus of the forest. I was sitting there drinking water when I heard the sound of hooves stampeding towards me. I turned just in time to see a coyote, pursued by two does, dash across the trail within ten feet of me. The coyote disappeared into the trees. The deer gave up the chase and clopped back to from where they came.
“Did you see that!” was on my lips, but there was no one there and so I said nothing.
The ridge to Truchas Peak was rocky and steep. As I climbed higher, a black cloud gathered strength above the valley below. The area was famous for its thunderstorms, and this one was drifting closer.
I was only about a hundred yards below the summit when the lightning started crackling. By my reading, the majority of people struck by lightning get hit on exposed mountains. Thunder boomed. The rain came. I took off my metal-frame pack, stuffed it in the lee of a rock and made a dash for the top.
The area around Santa Fe, I had found, was generously spiked with Sikhs. Yogi Bhajan, the leader of the Sikhs in America, had an ashram in Espanola, outside of Santa Fe.
The Sikh religion is native to India, although its adherents are often in conflict with the Hindus who dominate that country. Sikhs wear turbans. The men sport long beards. Some of them practice kundalini yoga, which I had studied for a while back in Boston. When I got up to Santa Fe, I learned that they also like to climb.
I explain all this because when I got to the top of Truchas Peak, there was a turbaned Sikh sitting in meditation outside a one-man tent staked to the summit rock. He had apparently spent the night here and was now facing the coming storm, eyes closed. As I stood gawking at him, he sensed my presence and, interrupting his meditation, glanced at me.
It was all over in a second, but as I hurriedly claimed the summit I found myself giggling. The Sikh sneaked a peek. I scrambled down as the rain got serious, never knowing what happened to the Sikh.
Soon enough, the sun came out and the day grew hot. There were some bighorn sheep on the ridge, and, when I paused among them, one of them sauntered over and started to chew on my leather boots. By the time I got to the base of the peak I wished I’d stayed up top and gone for Middle Truchas.
A string of hunters on horseback came up the trail. The guide stopped alongside me and asked if I’d seen any sheep. “Up there,” I said.
I looked up the mountain, and he looked up the mountain and they clip-clopped on. I opted to make a loop back to my camp, but the trails were confusing and the few markers useless.
I was pleasantly surprised when I came out to my tent and saw the skull. I got back to Santa Fe before the afternoon thunder storm and had a fine dinner with my wife-to-be. Later, I did some kundalini yoga.