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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.

That first night, hiking behind blue cones of light, we occasionally stopped and killed the headlamps to watch wisps of moonlight slithering through the trees like ghosts. By the time we reached the alpine lake and made camp, we heard the shrill bugling of elk from the next valley over. In the morning, we suffered another of the indignities that plague pioneers: equipment failure. After breaking camp, we found that my friend Misty’s almost-new water purifier had a hole in it, making for wonderfully purified air but pitifully little clean water. I stressed about the fact that we had no backup tablets–which, as it turned out, was actually my fault. On an established trail, someone–a trail guide, a local-would know about water availability. But by design, our high route would stay above the lakes and streams on the map; we had no idea if this would be the last water we’d see all day. We labored for two hours to purify a liter from the lake, and I boiled another couple of liters even though it probably meant running out of fuel later.

The irony of rationing water and fuel in the Pecos was not lost on us. The region is rich in resources; people have been coming here for centuries, including members of the ancient Tewa, Keresan, and Tiwa tribes, who traveled into the area for fish, timber, and medicinal plants. Settlers who moved sheep and cattle between pastures here dubbed the area ?Pecos? after a native word for ?place with water,? and it’s a fitting description. The 223,000-acre oasis on the southern end of the Rockies blesses the state’s otherwise dusty expanses with fields of asters, cool streams, elk herds wandering among Engelmann spruce, and even waterfalls. Despite these riches, roughly 85 percent of Pecos visitors use only 15 percent of its trails.

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