Hiking to Fisher Peak
By Ed Hockett

The author on Raton Mesa with SFTR in the background


It has taken me almost a year to compose my thoughts on this adventure.  In the planning phase of the hike it occurred to me that this was my opportunity to write a travel narrative in imitation of Joyce Wolff.  I have always enjoyed and admired her narratives that appear on the Ranch website depicting a visit to a local point of interest or describing a local nature tour.  They are always so clean, neat, and informative.  The pictures that she and Walt take make the well-written articles even more attractive.  Unfortunately, much as I wanted to recount a neat and orderly experience as Joyce presents, I soon found myself immersed in the rough and dirty world that Mary Jo Shelton portrays in her narratives.  This story, then, will be a tribute to the writing of both Joyce and Mary Jo.  I also must thank my friend and fellow-teacher, Tim Keller, who walked every step of this adventure with me, and made the whole experience possible.

The Adventure

Sometime in the last couple of years it occurred to me that in order to be an official resident of the area I needed to climb the Spanish Peaks and Fisher Peak.  I do not know how I reached such an illogical conclusion, but perhaps I have been teaching teenagers too long.

I had been up on Raton Mesa or Fisher Peak Mesa about four years ago.  That time it was to help the Colorado Division of Wildlife do a controlled burn on the top to improve elk habitat.  On that occasion the DOW had obtained special permission to gain access to the mesa through the Crazy French Ranch.  We had met at the entrance to the Ranch just off Exit 2, and then chose-up rides in the most substantial four-wheel drive vehicles.  I remember I rode with Wildlife Officer Jim Aragon.  His job required him to make routine visits to the Mesa.  Consequently, he knew the road well.  It started off as reasonable enough road for someone who lives on SFTR, but soon it turned into a rugged Jeep trail.  I vividly remember at one point Jim made me get out of the truck and walk because the road was so dangerously steep.  It took us about all morning to get up on top, and about all night to get back down.  When we got to the top I was somewhat surprised to find it was not flat.  The landscape had substantial rolling hills covered in grass with a very occasional small bush or tree.  I always found it curious that I could remember quite a bit about the controlled burn, but do not remember ever having glimpsed Fisher Peak while we were burning.  Of course, the James John Fire happened the next year, so I was not sure what the top would be like after that conflagration.

In the last two years the lunacy to climb always seemed greatest in the spring just after the Fire Department did its annual pack test.  At those times I was in my best condition of the year, and I could almost convince myself I wasn't over fifty.  I knew Rick and Carolynn Johnson had attempted to scale the Spanish Peaks, and some of the younger Fire Department members were into rappelling, but each year came and went without me finding anyone to be my climbing mentor.

Tim Keller has the misfortune of being assigned to teach in the room next to mine at Raton High School.  He suffers from a lunacy, but not of his own making.  He must teach six classes each day which requires him to do four different preparations taken from English, Social Studies, and Economics.  The strain on his brain is so great that he even believes he enjoys this work.  As fate would have it, he must spend a substantial amount of time doing hall supervision duty between classes with no adult to talk to but me.  Tim is approximately my same age.  He is really a highly accomplished musician masquerading as a teacher.  He spends his free time serving as a volunteer EMT for Des Moines, NM.  He has also taught himself Spanish and loves to travel in Mexico and Central America.  Consequently, when we talk we are able to converse about things other than the inadequacies of the younger generation.

At some point in our unending series of five-minute conversations we reached a level of trust where I revealed my insane desire to climb to the highest points in our area.  I simultaneously lamented that I could not find anyone with an equal desire.  The reaction I received was quite different than normal.  Instead of laughing derisively and looking at me as if I were demented, the features on his face tightened.  His eyes gleamed even though we were in the midst of giving and grading final exams.  He asserted, "I will" without any noticeable hesitation.

The thrill of Tim's answer was quickly offset, though, when he asked me what I knew about the hikes.  I could only tell him that the Spanish Peaks were accessed from a trail off Cordova Pass.  I had heard in myths and legends that you might as well camp there overnight because you had to start to hike before dawn.  As for Fisher Peak, I had heard there were various approaches, but almost all required you to cross private land.  The only public route I had heard about was said to originate in Sugarite Canyon State Park.

My information caused Tim to retrench somewhat.  He wanted me to check on the elevation change of the Spanish Peaks hike.  He was concerned the jarring of walking downhill would be too hard on his knee.  As he said this, my mind replayed the weary voices of Stonewall firefighters as they responded to aid yet another lost hiker on the Spanish Peaks trail.  I decided on the spot to file Tim's request for further information on my "to do" pile, which has no time limit for completion.  As we returned to our respective rooms for the next academic period, I suspected Tim was intrigued by the idea of a challenging hike beginning in Sugarite.

I was not mistaken about Tim's interest.  At the end of the period he exited his room carrying several papers stapled together.  It had been his planning period and he had done an Internet search.  He had searched for "hiking Fisher Peak in Colorado".  Among his papers were directions to reach the Lake Dorothey SWA, a rough map of the top of the Mesa, and excerpts from a forum discussion culminating in a Trinidad native relating an attempt by her and her husband to reach Fisher Peak.  All this information seemed to validate the information I had collected through the myths and legends I had heard.

The final day of school we compared summer plans.  We decided after we both completed previous obligations we would be free to attempt the hike in late June.  When our first proposed day arrived Tim was unsure about his knee and requested an additional week of therapeutic rest.  When the second day came I begged off because I had just spent the day fighting the Sola Ranch fire.  When the third day rolled around we both knew there would be no further excuses.  This time for sure!

At this point, we realized that theoretically the hike was possible.  Still, we had no concrete details on how to accomplish the task.  I recalled my experience in the controlled burn on the top of the mesa, but the James John Fire had burned since then.  I imagined that the conflagration would have changed what I only vaguely recalled.  We didn't even really know where the trail started.  When we called The Sugarite Park Office they were quite willing to help, but also lacked information.  Fisher Peak is actually in a separate Colorado park.  Consequently, it was not in their purview as a New Mexico park to know very much about it.  They did offer to show us a topographical map when we dropped by the Park Office.

When it came down to preparing for the hike, then, everything would be purely speculation.  We could only imagine the walking conditions.  The weather leading up to the day of the hike had been hot.  The temperature in Trinidad had exceeded 100 degrees on a couple of occasions.  I wanted to think light clothing.  In fact, Tim elected to go with a hat, t-shirt, and shorts, and he carried a poncho in his pack.  After serious reflection, I finally decided on a hat, t-shirt, and jeans.  Despite the potential heat, in order to guard against sunburn and insects, I decided to wear a long-sleeved over shirt.  I can experience a variety of foot problems, so I considered footwear carefully.  I thought long about the jeep trail we had used to get to the controlled burn.  If that was the trail, might walking shoes be a possible choice?  Fortuitously I decided to wear my 8" fire boots, but I did throw my walking shoes in my pack.

We reread the excerpt taken from the Internet forum, searching for hidden clues about what to expect.  The lady hiker guessed that it was seven miles to Fisher Peak.  Tim and I did not openly discuss this, but we both felt we could hike three miles an hour under normal circumstances.  This would mean we could get to Fisher Peak, have a pleasant lunch, and return around noon.  For the morning hike I imagined, I packed four bottles of water, trail snacks and a lunch.  In case of emergency I packed a mirror, marking tape, a whistle, and I carried my fire radio on my belt.  Tim carried similar items.  As an exemplary EMT he carried essential first aid supplies including a snake bite kit.  Tim also carried extra water because he planned to take his border collie, Coltrane.  We discussed the possibility of finding water on the way that a dog could drink.  I had a hard time imagining that this would be possible, so Tim prepared for the worst.

Despite our years in the area, neither one of us had ever been to Sugarite Canyon State Park.  I did not have high expectations because I believed the land around Raton was all dry grassland on rolling hills.  As a result, I was rather surprised to find Sugarite was a well-tended and beautifully forested Park on land similar to SFTR.  I met Tim at 8:00 A.M.  on a Monday at the Park's Visitor Center at the Park entrance.  Unfortunately the regular staff was in a meeting at that time.  The aides did not know about a topographical map, but did make a copy for us of the James John/Lake Dorothey SWA, which is reproduced with this article.  They also gave us directions to where they thought the trail began.  In the course of giving us directions, the aide speculated it was 12 - 14 miles to Fisher Peak.  We heard this mileage, but chose instead to trust the 7-mile guess of the lady hiker who had actually walked the trail.

Copy of map received at Sugarite Canyon State Park
Click on map to see larger map image

As instructed, we continued on into the park on the main road until we spotted a small sign on the right marking 4 miles.  We then turned our attention to the left where we quickly spotted a dirt road.  We turned on that road and drove some distance up the hill until we spotted a port-a-potty on the left and behind it a small horse corral set back from the road behind oak brush.  There was room on either side of the road to park our cars.  The trailhead was on the right.  It gave mileage to Little Horse Mesa and Lake Maloya.  We guessed this was the right trail as we had been informed there would not be an indication that it went to Fisher Peak.

As we put on our packs, Tim looked skeptically at my walking stick.  This was with good reason because it was formerly the aluminum handle of my trusty doggy pooper scooper.  Tim eschewed the use of a walking stick, but I carried mine despite my embarrassment.  At 8:30 we headed up the trail with Coltrane in the lead.  Our first task was to reach, cross, and descend Little Horse Mesa.

As far as conditioning, I did not feel that I was in my very best shape, but I thought I was okay.  Ever since school had recessed for the summer I had been walking 3-4 miles with my dogs each day on the Ranch roads.  For his part, Tim had told me he did 400 sit-ups every day before school, and that he liked to hike for three hours on his property in northern New Mexico.  This level of exercise did not mean anything to me because I had never done it.  Now that we were walking, I found it meant he was in excellent condition in spite of his athletic knee.  As a result, I had to run one of every three steps to keep up with his long strides.  We had intended to take turns in the lead, but it was soon apparent that he would be leading all day.

We moved at a brisk pace, stopping occasionally for conversation.  Soon we reached a sign which indicated the maintained trail would take a hard right and head for Lake Maloya.  This was our key to continue straight ahead on a narrower less-maintained unmarked trail.  This soon turned into a narrow trail appropriate for horses and game.  The brush was now closer and the thorny locust trees and bristling nettles scratched at my shirt and jeans.  In the bottomland, the trail was often difficult to perceive.  On those occasions, though, we could look up and spot the trail ahead.  We were pleasantly surprised to cross a stream(s) on four or five occasions.  Coltrane took advantage of this unexpected development to lap the cold clear water.

After the bottomland we began the ascent of Raton Mesa/Fisher Peak Mesa.  This was heavily forested.  I was impressed to see some ponderosa pines much thicker than the thickest ones I had seen on SFTR.  The footing here was somewhat of a problem.  Even on the maintained trail the surface was often studded with protruding volcanic rock.  It was not impossible to walk on, but I was happy I had worn my tall boots and had my walking stick.  I seemed to be thrown off balance or off stride frequently as we walked on the uneven surface.  We were again pleasantly surprised on the hard climb up to come upon a fast running cool spring which emptied into a stock tank.  This was another great drinking opportunity for Coltrane.  Since we were finding water on the trail, Tim now dumped some of the water - extra weight - he had brought for his dog.

We continued ever upward, and eventually we came out on top into open grassland.  We had been hiking 90 minutes.  As the lady hiker had informed us, "When you arrive on the mesa, it is so quiet and peaceful."  This was exactly right.  The only sound was the call of a pair of hawks that patrolled the valley we had just come up.  There was grass and flowers as far as we could see.  We could look back and take in the vast panorama of northern New Mexico.  The view was breathtaking in all directions.

Shortly after departing the tree line, we came to a gateway in a fence.  We assumed our route must be correct to have come to this precise opening.  After the gateway, though, the trail became problematic.  The lady hiker had said they had taken a wrong turn to the right, which had prevented them from ever getting to the top of Fisher Peak.  Consequently, we tended to focus toward the northwest even though we could find little or no trail in the grass.  I tied orange flagging at points where we changed direction.  This was a fruitless effort, though, because the only thing I could tie to was tall grass, which would immediately succumb to the weight of the flagging and bend to the ground.  This is where Tim proved to be invaluable.  He could look back and orient himself by the northern New Mexico physical geography.

Tim oriented us by looking back at the Northern New Mexico landmarks

Thus, with Tim orienting us and taking the lead, we plodded on.  And we plodded on.  And we plodded on.  After four hours at a pretty good clip we began to question the seven-mile distance that we had read.  We began to suspect that the fourteen-mile distance quoted to us by the Park Assistant was more accurate.  The scenery was magnificent, but it was a succession of similar-looking rolling hills covered in grass.  This made orientation difficult.  The grass tended to grow in clumps and hid the same uneven rocky surface we encountered on the trail up to the mesa.  Tim was accustomed to this kind of footing on his walks and sped along unhindered.  As a road walker, I bobbled along behind him.

As time and miles passed, an unforeseen philosophical question occurred to us: just how does one recognize they are at Fisher Peak when they are walking on top of it?  We did not reach a definitive answer to this perplexing question, but we both secretly believed Fisher Peak would look different than what we were accustomed to seeing as we gazed at it from Trinidad.

As we proceeded northwest, we eventually saw and approached a fence which intersected our path.  It appeared the fence was heading in the direction we wanted, so we began to follow it.  Soon we found a swath cut in the grass and marked as a pipeline that paralleled the fence.  I had heard about a pipeline on the mesa in myths and legends.  In addition, it was marked on the map we had been given at the park office.  I was still incredulous, though, because I could not believe a pipeline would be laid over the highest terrain in an area.  Still.  I was tired of walking on rough surface, so I did not question the company's motives for placing the pipeline there.  I just took advantage of the smoother surface to walk on.  I could now walk side-by-side with Tim.  A short distance along the pipeline path we came to a gate in the fence where bleached steer heads were wired to the sides of the gate.  I recognized this place from the time we had done the controlled burn.  Although I had not seen Fisher Peak on that day, I just knew we had to be close.

After a few more minutes of walking, our tired bodies were rewarded with the sight of an escarpment rising on our left at the edge of the mesa.  This must be it!  It was about noon, so the time seemed about right.  We proclaimed that we had finally arrived.  We decided to celebrate by pausing for a lunch before making our triumphant summit.  It had taken a lot of effort to get there, but it was certainly a pleasant place for a rest.

Once our minds and bodies were renewed, we faced the final approach.  I smiled broadly as I had Tim take my picture with my back to the high point we were about to conquer.  Having documented our presence we considered the final route.  It appeared it would be best to continue a short way straight ahead to gain a ridge, and then walk along the ridge to the highest point.  Since we were so close to victory, we did not even think of the additional effort we expended gaining the ridge. 

As we reached the ridge and turned to face the easy walk to the summit, something else caught our eyes from the right.  We glanced in that direction…and there was Fisher Peak!  We might have been viewing it from higher than usual, but it did not look different.  It was clearly Fisher Peak.  We returned to our map, and came to the startling realization that we were approaching Berg Peak, not Fisher Peak.

The author just before he loses his smile when he climbs the ridge on the right, and discovers he is not at Fisher Peak.  Note the building clouds.

Now, sadder and wiser, we regarded Fisher Peak, which loomed tantalizingly close, but beyond reach.  It appeared that we could get there if we continued on the pipeline road.  It looked like the road just climbed right up to the top.  We estimated that it would probably take at least another forty-five minutes to get there.  That would add another hour and a half of travel time for our tired legs just to get back to where we were standing right then.  We had already consumed most of our food and a lot of our water.  Also, it was not visually lost on us that a storm was brewing over the Spanish Peaks.  The lightning flashed threateningly in the midst of the swirling ominous clouds.  Of course, there was no doubt we were the tallest lightning rods on top of the mesa for miles.  We had come so far.  We really wanted to get to the top of Fisher Peak, but the choice was obvious: RUN!!!

As we turned and moved out, I discovered that Tim had additional forward gears which he had not used previously.  He glided down the pipeline path.  Then, when we entered the sea of grass he moved just as effortlessly onward.  Meanwhile, I stumbled behind him trying my best to keep him in sight and desperately hoping I would not have any encounters of the snake kind.  We dared not look back or stop for a rest.  The increasingly darker sky was all we needed in order to know that we were losing the race.

Tim used the New Mexico landmarks to guide us on our return.  Our haste would not allow us to follow the trail I had attempted to mark.  We had to cut corners and take shortcuts wherever possible.  In this way I gained a short reprieve.  When we reached the end of the mesa we came to the fence, but not the gate.  Obviously we were not on the right track to catch the trail off the mesa.  We were pretty sure it was the right fence, but which direction should we go?  As we pondered this deep question, I was able to finally catch my breath.  Sadly rest time ended all too quickly.  We decided to go uphill as opposed to downhill.  This proved a good decision.  Within a few minutes we spotted the gate at the top of the hill and hurriedly passed through.

We hurried downhill to the sound of thunder.  As I caught flashes in my peripheral vision, I counted the seconds and divided by five: 1,8, Two miles away.  It was hard to keep track of Tim as we descended the forest path, passing from switchback to switchback.  Tim's dog, Coltrane, had never ventured far from us on the trek out, but now that she recognized that we were headed for the cars, she was well out in front of Tim.  When we left the sanctuary of the ponderosas to enter the meadow at the bottom, we cautiously glanced skyward knowing once again we would be the tallest objects for some time.  This realization put wings on our feet, and we hustled across the open area.

We had a running start as we departed the meadow and started to climb Little Horse Mesa.  The lightning now crackled actively behind us.  I counted as I saw a flash: 1, KABOOM!  It was close.  We started the ascent with full intention of maintaining our speed.  Nevertheless, the steep slope was soon charging its toll.  I desperately gasped for breath, and could only lift each leaden leg with difficulty.  I had to beg Tim to stop for a rest.  No sooner had we stopped, though, than the rain began.  At this point we were still a good three miles from the trailhead.  At first the thick forest canopy sheltered us, but the rain was falling in sheets.  I had smirked at Tim's T-shirt and shorts at the beginning of the hike when he was being scratched and torn by the locust trees and brambles, while I passed comfortably in my long shirt and jeans.  Now, he gave me a knowing look as he pulled a poncho from his pack and donned it.

The last leg of our trek occurred in a steady downpour devoid of thunder and lightning.  This meant we walked the last miles, or at least I walked the last miles, sopping wet.  Fortunately most of this part of the trail was relatively flat, so I was not overly-burdened by the additional weight in water I was carrying.  The mud was another question.  We didn't have to fight our way uphill against it, but it was pretty sloppy and we both found our lower extremities encased in mud when we finally reached our cars.

In summary, then, we walked an undetermined long distance, and never reached our goal.  We ran for our lives in front of an advancing storm.  Finally, we came home soaked, muddy, and exhausted.  What a great hike!  We couldn't wait to try it again.

Unfortunately, summer vacation ended quickly.  We were back settling into our daily school routines before we had a good chance to consider another hike.  In mid-September everything fell in place.  The weather was expected to be good, so we were ready to go.  This time I went for a smaller pack.  I threw out my walking shoes and everything else without a specific purpose.  Despite their weight, I went with my tall fire boots for ankle support.  I again wore my over shirt, and carried my walking stick reincarnated from dog duty.

This time we knew what the hike entailed, and we knew where we were going.  We were men on a mission.  The day began without delays.  We met at the trailhead and set out before 7:00 A.M.  This time it was just Tim and me on what we knew was a longer hike.  Coltrane was left at home.  Once again Tim set a grueling pace.  We did not stop for a rest until we reached the spring on our way up the forested trail to Raton Mesa.  Our walking was somewhat easier.  It was now hunting season, and others had used the trail, making it more visible, especially in the bottom.

After our rest at the spring, we resumed the pace.  When we reached the gate in the fence at the top of the mesa, we paused briefly.  We remembered our difficulty locating the gate on our return last time.  For that reason, we studied the surroundings and picked out two unique ponderosas that would serve as our landmark when we returned.  Having prepared for our return, we set out in the sea of rolling grass toward our goal.  I futilely attempted to tie flagging, but nothing was able to bear the weight of the plastic.  After a few attempts, I just gave up.  We had not used them last time, so why bother?

Our immediate objective was to walk northwest to reach the fence line and then get on the pipeline as soon as possible.  We accomplished that and soon we were back where our last ill-fated journey had ended.  We gazed ahead at Fisher Peak.  We took a short rest to consider the unknown part of our hike.  Any way we looked at it, it still appeared that all we had to do was stay on the pipeline trail and walk up a long hill.  It looked like this would take us right to the peak.  Plain and simple, it looked like a piece of cake.  Still, we were a little uneasy.  We kept recalling the advice from the Internet posting we had read where the lady hiker indicated you needed to stay to the left in order to have a chance to reach the Peak.  As we looked, we saw no left or right: it was straight ahead.  How could we miss?

Fisher Peak was ahead of us like a carrot on a stick

We set off again up the long hill.  We continued to press the pace, believing all we needed to do was reach the top of the hill.  When we got to the top of the hill, though, we saw we must walk up another hill.  This was followed by yet more hills.  Still, Fisher Peak was in view on the path ahead of us just like a carrot on a stick.  We were convinced we were just about there.

When we got to the top of the last hill, we began to walk by groves of aspen trees.  We had a pleasant walk along the top, but suddenly the trailed ended.  Ahead of us lay a very deep and heavily-forested canyon.  Had either of us brought our map from the previous hike or even bothered to study it, we should have seen there was some severe topography at the end of the mesa before reaching Fisher Peak.  We would later learn this is called San Miguel Arroyo.  It is not visible from our perspective of Fisher Peak on the Ranch.

It was rather disheartening for a couple of now suddenly-tired old men to look at the impressive chasm lying between us and our goal.  There was a continuous ridge that connected to the peak above the canyon on our left.  This ridge is what we see from the Ranch.  This must have been what the lady hiker was talking about.  We could backtrack and get on that ridge, but it appeared that route to the peak would involve some technical climbing which we were not prepared for in equipment or energy.  We reviewed the possibilities over and over again.  Unfortunately, it became obvious: we had been foiled again!

Despite once again failing to reach our goal, we did not feel totally defeated.  We had a marvelous view.  Fisher Peak was so close we could almost touch it.  As I snapped a picture of Tim with the Peak in the background, I could see Lake Trinidad peeking over the ridge, and the Spanish Peaks clearly visible beyond.  It was a bright fall day and the location was excellent for our picnic lunch.  So, we did get quite a bit of enjoyment for having come so far.

So near, yet so far!

We walked a more leisurely pace on the way back.  Since there was no storm chasing us, we were able to enjoy the nature surrounding us.  It was very windy.  We had a hard time keeping our caps on our heads.  Otherwise, it was a perfect day under Colorado blue sky.  We eased down the pipeline trail stopping on occasion to take pictures.  It looked like we would get back on time if not earlier, so there was no rush.

When we departed the pipeline trail to enter the sea of grass, the footing again became difficult.  The change in terrain made us realize how tired our legs were from the long walk to Fisher Peak.  We had no landmarks or flagging here, so we did our best to retrace our steps from memory.  The landscape is remarkably similar, so it was hard to recall distinguishing features.  As we labored through this part of the hike, we let our minds wander to visions of our soon-to-be-enjoyed hot showers and fulfilling dinners. 

A fence line, however, suddenly jolted us out of our pleasant thoughts.  We had never encountered a fence out here in the sea of grass.  We had found catch ponds and even an antique washer, but not a fence.  Was this the fence line of our much-anticipated gate?  Possibly, but we were up on a flat and the fence stretched as far as we could see in both directions.  This was nowhere near the side hill where our gate waited for us.  We searched the horizon for our landmarks.  We saw ponderosas, but not in the combination and shape we sought.  Where were we?  What had we done?

Surprisingly there are several catch ponds on the Mesa

We contemplated our situation.  Apparently we had gotten, somehow, on the wrong ridge.  We concluded that we needed to get on a ridge farther to the east.  After a taxing hike down and up the hill, we found ourselves no better off.  We decided to repeat the exercise to reach the next ridge east.  When we arrived there, even more tired, we found this ridge was not the answer, either.  We decided we should have searched west from our original position.  As much as we hated to do it, we painfully retraced our route across the hilly landscape.

As we trundled back, in the distance we spotted a horseback rider leading a pack horse.  He looked like he knew where he was going, so we angled to intercept him.  Not wanting to lose this opportunity, we broke into a run.  This recalled our flight before the storm on our previous hike.  Memories of unsure footing and dread of stepping on a snake came flooding back to me.  Perhaps it was these fears which gave me the adrenaline to stay with Tim and finally reach the rider.

The rider, who was a hunter, was very friendly.  He had come up on the mesa from Lake Dorothey.  We did not know his trail and he did not know ours.  He had a Forest Service topographical map.  (Why didn't we?) We scanned the map, but it was fruitless.  It did not show the trail we were searching for.  In addition, we didn't know where we were, and the topography was so similar we could not match it with the features depicted on the map.  Disappointed, we bid farewell to the hunter and went our separate way.

We struggled back to our original unknown position and looked westward.  It did not look promising, but we had no other option than to try that direction.  Once again we painfully descended and ascended a hill.  On the way we discovered what looked like a path down a canyon.  It was not our path, but it was a path.  I knew it was not what we were looking for, so I insisted, much to my chagrin, that we continue the steep climb of the hill.  Of course, this was not the right ridge, nor could we spot our fervently-desired landmark.

Tim now suggested we return to our neighbor hill where we started our east and west searches.  My legs bitterly objected, but my brain weakly consented.  Another descent and ascent, however, did not improve our prospects.  We regarded the discovered path with pathetic hope, knowing it was not right.  We had consumed hours traversing east and west across the mesa.  This had put a severe dent in the time we had planned to be at home sitting in our favorite chairs after a nice hot shower with our legs propped up on cushions eating our favorite dinners.  I did not know about Tim, but I knew my tired old legs could not take much more of this crossing from hill to hill.

We knew this was not the right trail, but it did follow a drainage.  Our thoughts were that if it followed the drainage, it would have to take us off the Mesa.  In the best case scenario it would lead us to the stream at the bottom where we had watered Coltrane on the first hike.  There we could pick up our trail and head for home.  The worst scenario was that it would lead us to Lake Dorothey or Lake Maloya, which we had never seen, but knew they were below the mesa somewhere.  Then, at least we would know where we were, and could get home somehow.

We began to follow the trail with doubt and trepidation.  At first, the trail was good.  It was a clear path accompanying a stream downhill.  It was not long, though, before it degenerated into a game trail.  This was acceptable for a while, but eventually the trail began to branch and fork frequently.  It became a constant challenge to choose which fork to take in order to continue.  Finally, despite our best efforts, we were simply thrashing through brush so tangled that any unimproved property on SFTR would be glad to call it its own.  Of course, this thrashing took place as we walked on a side hill attempting to follow the drainage.  Nothing about this situation did anything to make our legs feel better.

After a satisfactory amount of thrashing and crashing through the impenetrable brush we both collapsed from exhaustion.  We had never felt we were lost.  We knew where we were.  We just could not find where we wanted to go.  Now though, we were very tired.  It was late in the afternoon.  We still had no idea where we were or where we were going.  We had long ago used up all our food and water.  Our mouths were parched, so that our tongues stuck thickly to our mouths.  We no longer pictured ourselves resting comfortably at home.  We did not think we were about to perish, but we could clearly envision the possibility that we might be spending an uncomfortable night in the woods.  At this point in our desperation, I pulled my fire radio from my belt.  I had carried it all day in case of an emergency.  The word emergency now seemed to describe us.  I spoke into the radio, "Sugarite Park Office, this is a lost hiker."  I had not forewarned Tim what I was going to do, so my words caused his EMS mentality to make him shudder audibly as the reality of our situation hit him.  Sadly, there was no reply.  I repeated my call slower and more insistently.  Still there was no answer.  Either we were out of range or the battery was dead.  In either case, there would be no rescue party.

As our exhaustion ebbed, we contemplated our situation.  Although we had attempted to follow the drainage, the topography thick foliage had caused us to get high on the hill.  We now realized that we needed to think about preparations for a night in the woods.  Still, there was daylight, so there was no reason not to continue on our original plan until dark.  We thought that we should continue awhile, but first we needed to get back down to the stream.  The foremost reason was that we both needed water.  Below us we found a place where the stream fell down a small fall.  We collected water and drank it, eagerly hoping we would not have any regrets later.  The cool fresh water improved our attitudes immensely.  Tim resumed the lead with renewed energy.

After another spell of thrashing through thick brush, the forest brightened.  We had come into a clearing, but it was not a natural clearing.  I suddenly realized it was an advantage to serve on the Ranch's Forest Health Committee because I knew immediately that we had come on the shaded fuel break which committee minutes had told me was being constructed at Lake Dorothey.  This gave us immediate hope.  Furthermore, we now could walk unimpeded in open clear terrain.  We had a ways to walk, but it was vastly easier, and we now had the sense we were finding ourselves.  Soon Lake Dorothey came into view.  No one was at the lake, but we could see parked cars and hear voices in the distance.  I can not say that our legs enjoyed continuing to walk, but they did it.

In the Lake Dorothey parking we found God's angel, Wildlife Officer Jeremy Gallegos.  He was busy attending to elk hunters, but once he heard our sad story he agreed to take us back to our cars.  We had to wait a half hour as he attended to his work, but that was fine.  We were not going to walk another inch.  Finally our hike had ended.  The thought of an uncomfortable night in the woods was behind us and the delicious comforts of home awaited us.  As Officer Gallegos drove us back to our cars, we determined that we'd exited the forest six miles from where we'd entered it.

The distance of our big hike lengthens with each day and time we tell the story, but the current "conservative" guess is that we walked 24 miles that day.  We have continued to be puzzled how we missed our landmark to find our trail.  This almost happened to us twice.  Tim was so intrigued, he wanted to go back the next week to figure out what happened.  I have been unable to face a return visit to the mesa until this story was told.  Tim and I also agreed that we would not make the trip again unless we had a GPS.  Now the story is told and I own a GPS.  It may be time to venture up on the mesa again.