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April 2005

Magellan, Muir, And Me: Backpacking the Pecos Wilderness

Invent your own hike, and go where no one (well, almost no one) has gone before.

THE SHORTEST DISTANCE between two points, the hard thinkers of physics say, is a straight line. Here’s what I say: Whoever dreamed up that theorem never tried to design their own hike. This thought comes to me as I grunt through a thicket of thimbleberry brambles on the flanks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. My friends and I are on the first full day of our self-designed traverse of these 13,000-footers in northern New Mexico, but instead of explorer’s enlightenment, I’m having fantasies about tracking down my old high-school science teacher and putting him in his place. Two objects can’t occupy the same space at one time? These branches and my tangled limbs are living proof they can.

The map suggested that the climb up this no-name peak in the Pecos Wilderness would be steep, off-trail, and above treeline. All true. It neglected to suggest that “above treeline” does not mean “above bush line.” That’s the tough part of pioneering a route using just inspiration and topo study: No matter what the maps say, there’s no way to know for sure what’s ahead. The fun part? No matter what the maps say, there’s no way to know for sure what’s ahead. My three pals wisely circle around my briar patch to tag the peak and check out the next part of our four-day odyssey.

The idea to create a Pecos thru-hike came one spring a few years ago, when some friends and I were resting on a wind-raked ridge south of here during training for a Cascades trek. Shoulders aching, legs near surrender, we stood in the fading light at 12,000 feet and looked north toward a series of ridges that lurched up from the valleys below. From our perch, it seemed possible to blaze a route linking that broken spine of rock and ice. It could be my own Megatransect, a friend joked, referring to wildlife biologist Michael Fay’s recent 400-plus-day trek across central Africa. I estimated I could do the Pecos in a week, and without the leeches.

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