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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.
Like most hikers, I find something irresistible about the idea of starting at one point on a map and walking to another. The conceptual appeal of such a trek is what gets thousands of people to bypass the rat race for six months to attempt the long-distance paths every year, but most of us working schmoes don’t have the resources for that sort of magic. Creating my own shorter route would bring about the same good vibes, minus the bankruptcy. But when my buddies and I finally spread out the topos, I realized a week was optimistic. The Pecos Megatransect is about 50 miles long and runs up at least 23 mostly nameless peaks. Total vertical gain and loss: close to 50,000 feet — a good 50 percent of it off-trail.
Given that we had only a long weekend, we downsized. By the time we set out the next night for a 4-mile hike to Serpent Lake by headlamp, we were calling this trip the Minitransect–though we’ll find there’s nothing diminutive about it. The route will rarely dip below 11,500 feet, and we’ll spend plenty of time at 13,000 feet or so on trailless mountains like Barbara, Chimayosos, and the three Truchas peaks. Connecting the summits is only 12 miles or so–plus about 10 more to get in and out–but we suspect the terrain will be loose and rocky.
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.
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.
We make it by dusk to Truchas Lakes, two ponds ringed with spruce. Reflections of the craggy peaks float on the glassy black surface. As expected, we run out of fuel, but we split a Tecate and a can of Pringles left behind by horsepackers, then build a modest fire to boil water. We wake to a blanket of fresh powder and smear hummus on pita and drink smoke-flavored water, soaking up the stillness that follows a snowstorm. The snow melts by noon, and we climb a saddle near Middle Truchas Peak and follow the Rio Quemado out to a dirt road, where a buddy picks us up as darkness falls.
For now, the Pecos Megatransect remains an alluring idea. I’m moving to Oregon, but maybe an envious Michael Fay will call and I’ll get an invite to come back and whack the rest of it. And there’s this: Misty may attempt the whole thing next summer, and link up those lines on our maps–or maybe extend them, or adapt them. Like any new route, this one just needs someone to be the first to walk it.