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Sunday, January 2, 2011

Desert Wasteland? - White Mountain Wilderness, NM, Three Rivers Canyon Trail, 12/30-12/31/10

Speeding down HWY US-70 directly into the blast zone of the famed Trinity Site location, my brother in-law Ben Wood recalls to me a conversation he had with his culinary chef instructor back home in Missouri over a few pints at a Kansas City pub, this fellow whom I know nothing of apparently has it in for New Mexico, referring to our land as a "barren wasteland". I hate this guy's perspective already but I cannot help but see the foolishness in my argument considering my geographical location at this moment in time. My defense dangles by a thread considering the fact that we're literally driving through one of the most desolate and hostile stretches of land in the desert southwest, a swatch of dried up deposited gypsum and massive selenite crystalline dunes that constitute the Tularosa Basin. The seasonal absence of water and any water outlet has left this desolate lowland a dry and barren place at the surface, especially when you're down in the thick of it kicking up dust and choking on your own tongue. However, a traveler wandering through this desert only has to look up against a blazing sun to make out the silhouettes of the mountains stretched out before them in the distance. All too often we're caught with our heads down forgetting to look up.

I want to tell Ben's instructor that sand dunes don't need water, in fact it's water that forms the very particles that shape the dunes, that there's nothing 'barren' about them, that cactus make due with what the skies spare them, that the roadrunner runs fast and light because the scorching earth beneath them tells them too. Of course, I only recall to Ben how foolish it is for his instructor to think such a thing, but I'm reminded by my own words that you have to earn the rewards in New Mexico; for some, this is unattainable, for us it's home.

With the nod from our wives for all 'the boys' to simultaneously split town right before the new years bell rings, we run to the hills. I threw together a quick route for a pre-holiday overnighter, the only objective to purely hike up and get out in the mess of it. Leading up to (12/30) Thur. forecasters and weather models were calling for a fast moving low pressure system to slam into the Sacramento Mountains right as we would be pulling in to the trailhead. It would not disappoint.

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Dawn patrol. Blazing east over the Organ Mountain range into the Tularosa Basin. The sun briefly rises up from the horizon to burn off some morning frost, but would later be blocked out by the wake of the encroaching winter storm.

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Sitting in the front seat with half of a green chile, egg, cheese, bacon, and sausage burrito in my gut, prepared with meticulous detail and skill by a former penitentiary resident who insists on calling me "Boss", I welcome the cold weather that's brewing outside the windshield.


Forest Rd. 579. Few miles west of the trailhead hopping cattle guards and skidding along an old washboard road. The thermometer shrugs off one degrees Fahrenheit with every yellow dash in the road that slips under our tires.


An enthusiastic and atypically informed and welcoming BLM employee/resident gets the scoop on our intentions as we arrive at the trailhead. At this point I desire to falsify our itinerary for fear he'll scold us for heading up into higher country when a strong low pressure system is about to unload. He only suggests we do an out and back. We'll see.


I zip up my windshell just as the anemic sun is finally being blotted out by the dense cloud cover. Last minute gear suggestions, eliminations, re-evaluations, additions, adjustments, etc. are made out of the back of the vehicle. We shoulder our packs and hit the trail mid-morning, typical pea-cocking rituals over the title of lightest pack is the last thing on anyone's mind... no one cares. It's all about the joy of the hike now.


Different textures crunch underfoot. Snow fell the night before.


For prospective anglers, the Three Rivers Canyon still holds small trout pools, despite the excessive blow down and a massive monsoonal flood that nearly decimated the brook trout population in 2008 ripping down the canyon to the basin below. The week prior to this trip I had every intention of trying my hand at some winter nymphing with my Tenkara Iwana rod and letting my brother in-law check out the setup before purchasing his own, however the weather would dictate otherwise. I've been desiring to get in some quality backcountry time with the clever little TrailLite Designs Ebira Rod Quiver, BPL's own Thom Darrah has been developing some unique pieces of UL adventure gear and this item has been one that I've had the pleasure of using at a limited capacity since late summer. I'm anticipating a few fishing specific outings to this area when the weather turns for the better in spring. For now I'm enjoying the wintery transformation this canyon is undergoing. The freeze and thaw cycle is a good thing.


Large slabs of canyon wall are adorned in fresh snow. Further up the Three Rivers Canyon trail the weather conditions continue to become much more pucker inducing for this ragamuffin group of desert rat hikers. The beauty of the muted sky and the roar of the heavy winds swirling through the canyon evoke smiles that only a good day of hiking can bestow.


As the light of morning prematurely slips behind a thick veil of gray I'm reminded of one of my favorite songs:

Listen to the silence, let it ring on
Eyes, dark gray lenses frightened of the sun
We would have a fine time living in the night
Left to blind destruction
Waiting for our sight

-Joy Division, Transmission


My typical trail banter is swallowed in the white noise of the day. Our feet move to the natural rhythm of the trail: breathe, hike, look up, look down, rock hop, hike, stop, breathe, hike (repeat).


We hike with a sense of anticipation, for something up ahead, just around the next crook in the trail.


Each individual enjoys the process.


Following the impressions of a large male elk left in the snow there's a particular comfort in knowing that we're not the first to break trail this morning. We hardly ever are. In jovial conversation I point down like some fledgling naturalist to the tracks of a male elk, which stirs up an argument over whether the tracks belong to cattle or elk. I insist to my buddy that they are indeed elk and that no cattle in their right mind would wander up this canyon. He's wholly convinced otherwise. I try my best to hold my tongue and let it go. Shortly after, while searching for a suitable camp, I stumble across a frozen corpse lying in the ground, with only the massive creatures fallen crown jutting out of the soil, I cannot help feel a sense of divine intervention. I was one immature response away from saying "Told you so, told you so!".


We discuss our options at this point as the storm increases. In an instant the cool gray/white sky above us slips away like a phantom and an eery uncharacteristically dark and brown sky casts a shadow over us, transforming the trees into dark figures. I raise my head and immediately recognize the smell that fills my nostrils... dust. The storm had stirred up an enormous all consuming cloud of dust from the Tularosa Basin below us and was now stirring these particles into a wintry slurry. The hour hand said 1pm, but the sky was full of deceit, for it appeared to be closer to sundown.

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Shangri La-2 and Mountain Laurel Designs Trailstar respectively. Both shelters held their ground against the wind blown snow of early afternoon, and well into the evening with the constant winds. Big thanks to Dave Chenault over at Bedrock and Paradox and Hendrik and his Hiking in Finland Nordic LightPacking constituents for convincing me with all their great accolades and reviews over the Trailstar.


Shelters pitched for the night, we rummage about in search of material for fire. Gathered damp wood and frozen blades of grass prove unsuitable for burning. It's going to be a long night. Everyone senses the awkward standstill we've arrived at and we retreat to Kenny's shelter for some honey whiskey, food, boisterous conversation, and good company.


By 530 pm we head to our shelters for evening. Kenny and I tank up on water walking down to the stream on fresh powder. The now partially frozen creek is a touch disconcerting. I tuck my container of water under my quilt with me so there's something to cook with come morning. Slam a Snickers bar and flip the lamp off. Night.


Ice crystals formed on the surface of my newly acquired Mountain Laurel Designs Trailstar.


3am comes fast and I wake up fresh and ready to go, back at home I never get more than 6 hours rest, I'm already pushing 9hrs. With nothing else to do I stare at the peak of my shelter some more.


Patiently I wait until I hear the stirring of the other guys to fire up my stove. Nothing is worse than sitting around watching other people eat breakfast when you've already had your fill. There's always room for more, especially when it's only a few degrees above 0F.


In regular form Ben is first to rise. In regular form my little point and shoot is in everyone's face.

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The early morning sky ebbs and flows seamlessly from dark to light.


Morning congregation takes place inside Kenny's REI Quarterdome T3. We pass around a fresh pressed pot of coffee and whiskey of course. Conversation subject matter is sporadic, but mostly focuses on the subject of urinating into bottles in the middle of the night, or avoiding compromise of down loft due to poor technique.


Only had to tap off accumulated snow once in the evening, come morning the few inches of fresh snow on the skirts of my Trailstar were only a welcomed addition.


Microspikes armed, trekking poles unsheathed, ready for the short hike out anticipating beautiful sights with every step. Would we make first tracks?

First tracks




The flowing creek took the time to freeze over and rest, making the short crossings easier to avoid wet feet.


Marty taking it in

Typical hikes for me always have some underlying physical challenge or goal in mind from the start. This morning's hike was about the serenity.

Blades of Grass



The creek came back to life lower down the canyon.

Looking up towards Crest Trail

About 1/4 mile from the trailhead the Ponderosa and Fir trees are replaced by alligator juniper, yucca, cactus, and mesquite, allowing a first glimpse of the fresh powder dumped on the Sacramento Mountains.

Keith stoked

Kenny and Keith arrived a few short minutes behind us, in perfect timing, as I remembered that I had thrown in a 6'er or Guiness Extra Stout, which somehow managed to not explode inside the car. Slushy Guiness overflowing out of a freezing cold bottle is about as good as it gets.

Group shot at Three Rivers Campground

Relishing in the finality of our quick overnight, we're fully aware that all of our family, school, and work schedules won't align like this for another full on group trip like this one until at least spring. For Ben who has been studying to be chef over in Kansas City, MO, the homesick pains for New Mexico were strong, hopefully after this trip he'll be able to get through until spring.

White Mtn. Wilderness

Packed up, heater on high, defrost the toes, we head for home with a smile on our faces.

Facing E. towards Sacramentos

It doesn't take long, maybe 10 minutes down Forest Rd. 579 before I realize we're now being swallowed whole by the barren sand of the Tularosa Basin. Some might call this place a "barren wasteland", for some of us who take the time to look up once in a while, it's home.


  1. Eugene that was a fantastic post and thanks. Glad the Ttrailstar did not let you down.

  2. Epic, Eugene, epic. Beautiful. Great photos.

  3. four years later i still miss NM every day. It was very enjoyable seeing these photographs.

  4. That post kicked ass man. Fantastic images. Cheers.

  5. Wow. Stunning imagery both written and shot.

  6. Great photos, they capture the vibe of the trip well.
    The landscape looks amazing!

  7. Thanks everyone. I'm few and far between in keeping up with any consistency here, but it pleases me to know you guys found this enjoying. Cheers.

  8. Really great report! I loved the b&w photos too - good choice.