The following weekend, one week before the Long March, I got serious. Saturday was recon time. I knew that our starting-point trailhead would be hard to get to even with four-wheel drive, especially in August, when New Mexico's rainy season mucks up the backcountry. So, I and one of the trip's platoon, my friend Brad, threw mountain bikes in my two-wheel-drive truck, drove east out of Truchas as far as we could without getting stuck, and pedaled until we hit pay dirt. This mission was a success: We found the elusive trailhead, and we learned that, as I'd suspected, the Jeep road had washed out, so it was not possible to drive all the way. We'd have to factor that in to our start time on Friday.
This mission was also a failure: We were horrified to discover that many of the hills we biked up were too steep for our illin' lungs. So, we got off and pushed.
On Sunday I really went for it, starting out early on a Pecos River trailhead that led north to the Twin Baldies. About six miles in I decided to detour away from the peaks and toward a site called Beatty's Cabin, former homestead of an eccentric 19th-century prospector. Something bad happened next. Some would say I screwed up and got "lost." I would say that the map didn't match what the trails were doing, and that the cash-strapped Forest Service (which maintains the Pecos Wilderness) has let too many trail-marker signs fall over and rot. So, really, it was all Saddam Hussein's fault.
However you slice it, around 4 p.m. I found myself 10 miles from the trailhead, facing an uphill march all the way, with a thunderstorm in progress. I got back just before dark, feeling as fit as a melting Gumby and cursing myself as a dumbass. I was vexed by that deeply eerie, lonely feeling that I sometimes get in the woods, and I wasn't especially eager to see them again soon.
But see them I must. The week prior to the trip was marked by my sorting-and-packing rituals, provisioning (to "rough it," I bought more over-packaged, junky food—ramen, Crystal Lite, breakfast bars, Snickers—than I do in a typical year), ominous weather (daily afternoon thunderstorms), and, thanks to tortured group dynamics, the near-collapse of our adventure. (If only!)
Some people "go lite" when they backpack; I "go anal," spending hours sifting and weighing each object, arranging them in "official" piles (food, clothing, tent-and-bag, cookware, etc.) that I inexplicably shuttle from room to room for complex re-sortings, weighings, and ponderings. And when I'm done and the load is just right? I throw in a bottle of rum and I'm staggering under the mass.
The group-dynamics thing required even more mental energy. I had to arrange to leave two cars at the exit trailhead and to have us dropped near the entry point. (Another dirty little secret about backpacking: The logistics drink more gas than a military invasion.) During negotiations on all this, two of our buddies started making subtle bleats about "not going." One of them—to avoid embarrassing this person, let's call him Mo Fo—suddenly announced that it would be raining the whole time (hey! really?) and that, even without this annoyance, backpacking sucks.
(Agreed. But dang it, we were past that point.)
The other—let's call him Most Fo—simply disappeared. He phoned Thursday night from Chicago, where he'd been "called away on business," and proposed an outlandish scheme that involved him and Mo Fo hiking in on Saturday night, using a Walkie-Talkie link to find us at Pecos Baldy Lake. Most Fo is big on these complicated, theatrical entrances. Once, at a place called Hermit's Peak, he showed up at midnight wearing only his pack, boots, and a kimono. All I can say is that I used to find this sort of thing amusing.
The trip itself was great, though it sucked. We got lucky with the weather. Friday broke rainy, but by the time we got moving the clouds had receded, so the only possible source of misery was everything else. As we headed up the trail's first rises—the opening afternoon involved 4 miles and 2,000 feet of altitude gain—I carefully monitored my legs, heart, and lungs to see where I stood. My "getaway sticks" seemed rubbery but OK, and my knees did not swell or creak or explode. Heart: No problem. Lungs: Errrrr, a little painful.
Based on past experience, I could tell I would make it, but I also knew I'd feel awful much of the time. When we humped over the 12,400-foot saddle, the trail was nothing more than a cruel zigzag up a scree slope, and I had to resort to the 15-step drill: 15 steps, stop, gasp, repeat. Later that day, on a high, exposed uphill section of trail called Trailriders Wall, I nearly bonked just as a hail-and-lightning storm rumbled in. One of our group's alpha males, Nick, had to backtrack and tell me to shake a leg.