Run! Climb! Rappel!
A rare cloudy day shrouded the mountains in grey. The wind, like a tipsy Irish banshee, wailed in dithyrambic verse. Dust occluded the air and pried itself under our eyelids. The cactus was extra pointy.
It was a perfect day to venture into the wild. Rope, harnesses, hardware, an apple, and a bag of pecans insinuated themselves into our backpacks along with the requisite water, headlamps, and fire making supplies. My friend Marcos and I decided to venture into an anonymous forested canyon. We began walking across the sere piñon-juniper high desert and accelerated our pace as the incline steepened.
Running now, we leaped from rock to rock to rock as the clouds thickened overhead. Having ascended to a lung-invigorating altitude, we paused while I performed an exuberant handstand and we both drank some water.
To the northwest, on a normal lucid New Mexico day, would be visible the green strip demarcating the Rio Grande Valley, the volcanic plugs of the Cabezon wilderness area, and specks of traffic on I-25. Today though, we enjoyed a murky, wind-whipped vista which made the smaller things more noticeable. Mule deer tracks. Verbena purpling the trail. Las flores de Santa Rita.
Our destination was a jumble of Brobdingnagian boulders nestled amidst a grove of lofting Ponderosa pines. A bit of arm-scraping scrambling and we were on top of the largest of the brood.
I am always amazed at how, in this beautiful canyon, less than 2 miles from Albuquerque’s Northeast Heights, can be found such genuine solitude. Today, not even birdsong socialized the sylvan silence.
Marcos and I sat for perhaps ten minutes on that granite perch breathing and chatting about life, language, and the peculiarities of humanity.
Next on our adventure bucket list was an ascent of an 80′ Ponderosa pine which would fulfill my whimsical and yet strangely soul-healing goal of climbing at least one tree every day.
The lowest branches of this specimen were out of reach. It was for this that we had brought along our rope and climbing gear. After slinging the 10mm static line over an appropriate branch, we donned our harnesses. Now it was time to tie a couple of prusik knots and begin ascending.
This is a technique adapted from glacier travel and crevasse rescue which allows a person to safely, albeit painstakingly, climb up a rope like an inchworm moving vertically.
After reaching the embrace of the lowest branches of my host tree, I unclipped from the carabiner and continued towards the sky. The sensation of being 70′ aloft and feeling the bark, cambium, xylem and phloem upon which your body now clings sway with each tremulous breath of wind is a reminder of the genius and sheer joy of life!
Rappelling down from the giant of the forest, Marcos and I continued on our way, running downhill with gravity at our backs. We passed a perennial spring where sun-scorched forest creatures seek solace during the blast furnace days of summer and sprinted through a labyrinthine creek bed jostled by thirsty tree roots. Leaping over rocks, swinging on branches around 90 degree trail turns and skidding recklessly down sandy inclines, we finally reached it.
What is it about a cave that so stirs the Homo Sapiens heart? Is it the misty dankness of resurrected childhood dreams? The boyish longing that never ceases for a place of privacy and protection? In any case, we wended our way to a perfect cave, a place where a fire can transform a hole in the rocks to a castle of shape-shifting shadows!
Here was another perfect moment and location to pause and soak up elusive life, so often drowned by mundanity. We ate apples and pecans, quaffed water, and felt good about not hearing car horns. Some years ago, an old friend of mine and I had camped in this very cave on a night of full moon corresponding to the date Nisan 14 in the ancient Jewish calendar. On that occasion, as now, the talk had drifted from mere shallow chat to more gut-searching introspection. I am thrilled with the ability of the natural world to cause a leveling, an opening, a healing. Cave walls are good listeners.
The Secret Waterfall
Enough! We shouldered our packs and dashed from the niche-dark into the wilting afternoon light. The Secret Waterfall beckoned. The Sandia Mountains are a strange and changing beast. Despite being located at the spitting fringe of the decent-sized metropolis of Albuquerque, solitude and wonder can be found mere meters from the trails trammeled by spandex-clad mountain bikers and other civilized species.
Among such delicate surprises is this waterfall which, varying in intensity according to the precipitation received, cataracts over a 25′ cliff to splash into a pool fringed by wild mint. The minty redolence of the place enchanted me from the day I discovered it.
From the pool, we scaled a precipitous granite escarpment and saw explode into view a classic western panorama. Prickly Pear and Cottonwoods speckle the dusky desert tan with verdancy. From the top of the cliff, a dizzy peer provides a glimpse of the hushed water below. We fixed a rope and rappelled the face for absolutely no reason.
It felt good, this getaway. It took only about 4 hours, even after our sprint from the Secret Waterfall back to where my Volvo waited in the parking lot. We spent no money. We ate no junk. We eschewed the drivel that Hollywood offers up as entertainment. Our muscles, both physical and spiritual, were strengthened and healed. We smelled the real world: the oxygen-rich exhalations of evergreen trees, the musky breath of mule-deer printed soil, the sweet mint and coarse anorthosite.
True, we could have paid money to sweat in a gym reeking of Dorito socks and vending wellness as if it were a commodity of the concrete-encrusted world. True, we could have paid for a video in which a liposuctioned celebrity would school us on how to “get in shape”.
Instead, we chose Strongility. Stretching, breathing, exerting, living in unity with what is real in us…and around us.
Quoting the words of Scottish naturalist John Muir, I exhort you: “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings, Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves. As age comes on, one source of enjoyment after another is closed, but nature’s sources never fail.”