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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.

We finally packed up, then ditched the trail to climb a steep buttress leading to the thicket-draped summit I’ll later christen Whackbush Peak. On top, our route drops down to a trail along the Santa Barbara Divide and wanders westward for several miles before hooking up with the Santa Barbara Divide Trail-though, as we learn, there really is no path, just a series of enormous cairns. It no longer comes as a surprise to find ankle-tweaking rocks where the map denotes trail. We slow our pace, no longer trying to make up for the time lost futzing with the filter. We’ll have to sacrifice bagging the Truchas, but we’ll gain a few more hours of wandering up high on an exquisitely unmaintained trail.

The rest of the route falls into place with surprising, unplanned perfection. Though we don’t make the lake near Barbara Peak, we find a mostly flat ledge amid a copse of trees beneath the main ridge and are awestruck by our evening’s view of the abrupt and spectacular Santa Barbara drainage. And in the morning there’s water just down below. We later discover that our planned watering hole, about another mile along, has shores trampled by cows and waters mucked with dung.

We clamber up Barbara Peak over tufts of clotted grass and loose rock. The summit, covered in flakes of granite, yields close-up views of 13,000-foot Truchas and Chimayosos, the next summits on our list-and we realize it’s probably a good thing our progress doesn’t equal our ambition. A climber could burn three days working along the knife-edge ridge of the Truchas.

I begin to learn the biggest pioneering lesson of all: that the trail may sometimes blaze itself, in a sense, rather than follow the lines we’ve drawn on the map. Typically a goal-oriented hiker, I scale back my ambitions; I realize we’re better off going where the hike takes us. So we won’t make hiking history. Real pioneers, back in the day, didn’t have a ride waiting at the end, and some had to eat their horses. We might have to chow cold food, but we’re still getting naps on breezy summits, rare views of a wilderness lovelier than any map let on, and a chunk of real adventure squeezed into a long weekend.

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