The last words I heard when leaving my house at 2:30 AM Wednesday morning were from Cyndi, who said, “Berry, you come home to me.” It made me happy; I am a lucky guy.
Why was I leaving so early? To join Paul, David, Cory, and Clark on a three-day backpacking trip into the Little Creek area of the Gila Wilderness in western New Mexico. The trailhead was a ten-hour drive from Midland and we wanted to be four miles down the trail and in our tents by sundown that same day.
Our first destination was Woody’s Corral, a parking lot and staging area near the trailhead, elevation 5,500’. We arrived at 12:30, spent thirty minutes sorting gear, weighing in, loading up, and were cruising down the trail by 1:00 PM. There was no time wasted by this group.
I was happy that my full pack weighed only 42 pounds. When I go up into the Guadalupe Mountains and I have to carry three gallons of water, my pack weighs at least 25 pounds more. I also had my new Hennessy hammock tent. This would be my first experience sleeping off the ground on a trip like this.
We hiked southwest up Miller Springs Trail about thre e miles to the junction where we turned back west on Little Creek Trail for another mile. I think we were all surprised how many blackened tree trunks we passed. We were moving through the remains of the Miller Fire from June 2011, and each turn in the trail confronted us with more burned wood. Nature doesn’t always tell the story we imagined, but tells the truth.
We found a great camping spot among tall pine trees and soft, pine needle-covered ground about 100’ from Little Creek. We were now about 6,500’ elevation. The creek flowed mostly below ground in that area, but there was just enough flow to fill water bottles. My meal partner was David, and that first evening we ate red beans and rice, and some of Paul’s apple cobbler. Hot food tastes so good in a camp after hauling gear all afternoon.
Thursday morning was slow, peaceful, and relaxing as we waited for the sun to warm us up. It was 22* F when we first began moving around. We ate a leisurely breakfast, including Paul’s open-fire biscuits, finally leaving camp about noon. This day consisted of a long eleven-mile loop up the cutover to Ring Canyon Trail along Thousand Mile Ridge, west about five miles, and then back east following Little Creek. The creek was mostly dry, or underground, but we did find a spring with plenty of fresh mountain water to refill our water bottles. It was just in time, I might add. We were all nursing the final half-inch of water in our bottles.
That evening David and I splurged by cooking two meals: Santa Fe chicken with rice and Chili Mac. Once the sun went down it was too cold for extended meaningful campfire philosophy, but Paul found the energy to recite another of his wild west cowboy poems – something about a guy being cremated and finally getting warm.
I must say that these guys took great care of me all day long. The Rabbit of the group, tall skinny Clark, found places for rest breaks where there were big rocks or logs so I could sit. Being the slowest hiker on the team, and hobbled by bad knees, I valued every opportunity to take weight off my legs and relax. David even kicked rocks and branches off the trail ahead of me, making clear a path in the wilderness. I think he enjoyed the noble aspect of trail maintenance.
Friday morning our trail boss, Handlebar Paul, determined to get us out of camp and back to the trailhead (and finally, back to Midland) at a decent time, got us all out of our tents before 6:00 AM local time. It was still dark, and about 26* F. It was very cold untying knots and loading gear and my fingertips were stiff and sore for the next two days.
We left our camp about 8:00 AM local time, hiked north again up the cutover draw and then followed a long gradual descent down EE Canyon about four miles until we encountered the West Fork of the Gila River. It was a pleasant hike, even under our packs, a fine and peaceful closure on a great trip. As we neared the end of the trail we had to cross the river three times. It was only ankle deep, but the water was very cold and swift and the bottom was slick with slime and moss, so we were careful to use our trekking poles as we crossed. No one wanted to finish the day falling into the cold river and ending up on You Tube.
For the first crossing, everyone diligently pulled off their hiking boots and waded across in Crocs or flip-flops. However, for the next two crossings I stayed in my Keen hiking boots. We were almost done for the day, my boots were mostly waterproof, and I was too tired to sit down all the way to the ground and change shoes two more times. It might have been a mistake, though; I filled both boots with mountain water before the day was done.
The end of the trail was also the spot where tourists gather for instructions before hiking up to The Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. We felt proud to be, not just tourists, but seasoned backpackers, with miles on our bodies, dirt on our boots, campfire grime on our hands, and broad smiles on our faces.
Paul hitchhiked down to Woody’s Corral with a truck full of missionaries (imagine that), and then drove his Expedition with trailer back to the group. It was nice to have the privacy of our own trailer for changing clothes. I stayed behind, parked on a big log bench, while the three youngsters (David, Cory, and Clark) toured the cliff dwellings. My knees and legs were used up; I’d had enough for this trip.
I realize, in the grand scheme, my knees would feel better if I simply sat down permanently, but I’m not yet willing to live a sit-down life. I need to move. The current research into osteoarthritis says we won’t make the problem worse with action, but rather, it’s a matter of “use our knees or lose our knees.” I’m planning to use mine as long as possible. It’s true that life would be easier if I stopped doing things that hurt - like running, or cycling, or hiking, or backpacking, but that life would be too thin.
I’ve spent a lot of my life thinking about home: Where is home? What makes a place feel like home? In fact, my next book dives deeply into that very question. For me, home isn’t a location, a house, or even a city. Relationships are home. The journey itself is home. If I stop moving how am I going to get home?
Well, Friday night, after we drove all the way back home to Midland, I finally crawled into bed about 12:30 AM. Cyndi was up and waiting for me. She knew I had lots of stories to tell her about the trip, but she planned on hearing all those on Saturday over Rosa’s. She asked, “How did your knees hold up on the hike?”
I said, “They were sore but manageable. I was definitely the slowest hiker in the group. They waited on me for three days.”
She said, “They didn’t mind. They like you.”
Thanks, Paul, David, Cory, and Clark. Being with you feeds my heart. I’m a lucky man. It’s good to be home.
QUESTION: Where does your heart find home?
“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32
To learn about Berry’s books, “Running With God,” go to www.runningwithgodonline.com , or “Retreating With God,” go to www.retreatingwithgod.com ,… Follow Berry on Twitter at @berrysimpson or on Facebook … Contact Berry directly: firstname.lastname@example.org … To post a comment or subscribe to this free journal: www.journalentries.org