Field Notes

180 Pounds and 28 Miles in the Wilderness

Nov 23
180 Pounds and 28 Miles in the Wilderness
Posted November 23, 2014

The Black Range rises up out of the southwestern New Mexico desert, in the center of the Aldo Leopold Wilderness, straddled by the Gila desert to the west and the Rio Grande valley on the east. Looking up from the desert one would not expect to find the rugged peaks covered in aspen and ponderosa pine, dense forests providing sanctuary for bear, mountain lion, deer and other wilderness creatures. There are mountain saddles on the Black Range where you can look down 5000’ to the desert floor below, both east and west, see a thunderstorm and rainbow on one side and a sunset on the other.

The Black Range Crest Trail runs down the spine of the Black Range, and for two consecutive years we worked on clearing the 14 mile section from McKnight’s Cabin to Reed’s Peak, where it intersects the Continental Divide Trail.

These two expeditions have been reckoned the most ascetic, grueling and rewarding in Wilderness Outreach history. 

Each expedition began with the Forest Service driving us 20 miles up nearly impassable, rock hewn mountain roads, to McKnight’s Cabin. They supplied us with crosscut saws, axes, food and water and waved goodbye.  They came back 7 days later to pick us up and take us back to civilization. Our food was either MRE’s or the freeze dried backpacker fare, and our water came in plastic cubic foot containers called cubies weighing about 60 pounds each.

On many expeditions the tools, food and kitchen are packed in with mules and horses, but not on these two. We were the mules and horses.

On that first day, each of the 12 men made two trips from McKnight’s Cabin up and over 10,000’ McKnight’s Mountain to Mimbres Lake, a total of a 12 mile, loaded for bear workout; no small feat for a group of men coming out of 1,000’ above sea level.

Only 3 cubies of water were packed in on the first day leaving 18 cubies of water behind at McKnight’s cabin. We hoped that one of the few springs shown on the map would supply us with our daily water requirements. If we found enough good water in one of the springs we wouldn’t have to carry the thousand pounds of water on our backs and legs over the top of the mountain to our basecamp. “Ay, the best laid plans of mice and men go awry.”

The Black Range Trail may be one of the least used and sparsely populated trails in the United States. For two years and 14 expedition days, we did not see another human being. It had not been adequately maintained for years. Hundreds of aspen and Ponderosa pine clogged the trail between McKnight’s Mountain and Reeds Peak. On the first day of work 11men attacked the fallen timbers with pulaskis, axes and crosscut saws, while three of us hunted through the dense forest looking for the springs promised on the map.

Following an hour of searching we finally found it; A small murky, bowl of water about 2’ in diameter. We pumped for an hour and filled one cubie and ruined one filter. We knew this plan wasn’t going to work. I looked at Stephen and Thomas and said. “This isn’t going to do. Our brothers are going to be coming back this afternoon tired and thirsty and we don’t have enough water. I’m going up over the mountain and bring back a cubie.” “I’m going too” Thomas said. Stephen looked at both of us and spoke with grit, “Let’s roll.”

These are the times and challenges that form authentic brotherhood. This would be an 8 mile journey with a 1,500 feet of elevation gain. The hike over was the warm up, the hike back the real work. On the second leg of that journey each of us would carry 60 plus pounds on our backs. These are also the times when prayer can lift the body and the spirit to accomplish what is truly difficult.

We gasped for air in between the Hail Mary’s and the Glory Be’s. We pushed each other; we coached each other forward one step at a time. We arrived in basecamp 4 hours after we left, tired and exhilarated.  I think on that push back to basecamp we must have prayed every mystery of the Rosary.

Not long after we returned, the 11 man work crew arrived from an obviously productive day of clearing trees from the trail. They were singing, joking and laughing. They were gloriously, physically tired and emotionally and spiritually uplifted.

When Father Doerr saw us he asked “Where have you men been?”  We explained the failure of the spring with the filters. “I really feel bad that you weren’t with us today. We nailed it. We removed 100 plus trees that were blocking the trail. I wish you had been with us.” I looked over at Stephen and Thomas. The look in their eyes spoke volumes. We struggled, we pushed, we pulled each other over that mountain. The Holy Mother of God rooted us forward. “I would not have changed it for anything Father.” We had chosen wisely.

I then spoke to the group of men. “There is not enough water in the springs. Tomorrow and every day following, three men will have to volunteer to go get water. Who wants to go tomorrow?” Immediately multiple hands shot up. I chose three. Early the next morning, following Morning Prayer and breakfast, three men headed out for water while the other 11 headed out on the trail in the opposite direction. By Noon the men who went for the water caught up with the men cutting trees and finished out the day. They had dropped the cubies at basecamp and hiked forward to join us another 3 miles up the trail. On the next day, three more men went for water and again they showed up further up the trail where they finished the day with saws and axes. The same scenario played out every day. Three men muled it 8 miles over and back the mountain, dropped the water and then headed out in the other direction to help their brothers clear the trail.

On the last day of work in the Aldo Leopold Wilderness, three men hiked over McKnight’s mountain and carried 180 pounds of water back to basecamp. The 11 man work team headed off toward Reeds Peak and the last two miles of trail clearing. 

Towards the end of the work day around 3 pm, the men with axes and saws came upon a large tangle of Ponderosa Pine blocking the trail. The men were tired from a long week of work and the long hikes it took to get there. They considered not clearing it and leaving it for the next trail crew. It could take a full two hours to clear it. 

And then over the hill and behind them, here they came; the three men who hauled the water that day. When they had dropped the cubies at basecamp they “set their faces like flint” and hiked briskly toward Reeds Peak, determined to finish that last day of work with their brothers. The men in the work group shouted with robust masculine joy for these men who had just hiked 18 miles to be with them. All told by the end of the day they would hike a total of 28 rugged, mountainous miles. Astounding!


That last tangle of Ponderosa Pines blocking the trail didn’t stand a chance.