Ruth Rudner
Ruth Rudner

David Muench's National Parks


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A birthday hike through wild country seems a proper celebration, the reassertion of our beginning as beings of nature. 

For me that means being on a mountain, in a forest, by a stream.  A desert will do in a pinch, although deserts are not really my landscape.  Still, I treasure the birthday I spent wandering through the Chihuahuan desert of Big Bend National Park.  And, last year David and I hiked in New Mexico’s Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument, an exotic landscape of giant, volcanic-formed, tapering hoodoos with boulder caps perched on their tops.  The trail squeezes through a tight rock corridor before opening up into a world that seems like ancient villages frozen into stone.  Climbing 630 feet in 1.5 miles to the top of the mesa, the short route offers a fantastical playground the whole way. 

The previous year, I hiked the La Luz Trail to the 10,250 foot Sandia Crest alone while David was in Hawaii leading a photo workshop.  The Sandias, Albuquerque’s mountains, close the Rio Grande Valley in from the east.  It seems odd to look east to the mountains, but at least, in this part of New Mexico, I know which direction I’m facing. Beginning in desert at 7,040 feet, the La Luz trail climbs 7.5 miles to the top.  At a little over 4 miles, the terrain changes from a desert trail lined with brilliantly blooming cactus in late April to a rock and snow challenge.  In my pack, I carried the instep crampons I’d used at the steep, icy top of the trail down into the Grand Canyon a couple of Februaries ago.

By the time I reached the rocky ravine that marks the divide between easy and difficult, the early warm day had clouded over, and grown chilly.  Almost immediately past the ravine, the ground was snow-covered. I attached the crampons to my boots, put on a warm hat, gloves, jacket, and proceeded.  While there had been many hikers on the lower part of the trail, I saw only three other people on this upper section. 

My body warmed quickly as I negotiated the 15 switchbacks while an occasional stop presented the memory of cold.  Hiking up the snow, with the crampons holding well on the slick places, was actually easier than hiking up the rough, loose rock that forms the trail surface in warmer seasons. 

I’ve hiked alone all my life, but since coming to New Mexico with David, and experiencing some difficult back problems, I had not hiked without him.  But also, because we had spent every one of his New Mexico birthdays hiking the La Luz Trail -- in June, when there is never snow on Sandia -- my competitive nature craved this hike on my own.

What mattered to me was that I could use my birthday to prove to myself that I had not lost myself, that I could still do what I loved.  And I loved that snowy, cold, now blustery afternoon.  It was deeply satisfying to be comfortable on this mountain, on this quite northern day. 

At the top of the trail, it is still a walk of about a mile contouring around to the tram that brings tourists up from Albuquerque.  (And which I intended to ride down.) The contour trail provides views over the Rio Grande Valley, the city so tiny below, out beyond the West Mesa and the mountains of Arizona.  Tourists milling on the view platform, shivering, (it had been warm at the bottom of the tram), looking out over the vastness of New Mexico experienced the awe appropriate to high  mountains.  Most of them didn’t even see me.  But one woman did.   “Did you hike up?” she asked, taking in my outfit and ragged look.

I was pleased someone had noticed.  “Yes,” I said, feeling triumphant.

I knew David would be away on this year’s birthday, too.  (For photographers, April is an ultimate time – to photograph wildflowers or autumn, depending on which hemisphere they are in.)  I thought he would leave the day before, which was fine with me.  I looked forward to my own hike.

Then he told me his flight to Patagonia left on my birthday. We would return from Big Bend on the 25th, in time for me to take him to the airport on the 26th.

I am seriously pissed at spending my birthday taking my husband to an airport.  Because he leaves mid-day, I can’t just see him off, have a lovely breakfast, and go for a hike.  NO!!!  I can spend the morning watching his anxiety as he prepares to leave, then deliver him in time to have some part of an afternoon, which is not enough of a day to do anything that could possibly interest me, especially since it is a Monday, when museums—which I also love-- are closed.  I have always hiked on my birthday.  It is what my birthday is for!!! It is meaningless to hike the next day.  That is not my birthday and no longer has any relevance.

The Big Bend trip is some consolation, though.  I’ll hike while he is off leading a photography workshop.  It will be just me and the mountain lions.  If I’m eaten before my birthday, I won’t have to worry about it.  And he’ll have to find someone else to take him to the airport.  So there!

I emailed all that to my friend, Eileen, who lives a few hours away.

This morning Eileen called to tell me she had read my email to a friend she was visiting in Albuquerque.  I’ve never met her friend.   “There’s only one thing to do about that,” her friend said.  “We’ll take her for a hike and out to dinner!”

“Can we do that?” Eileen asked me. 

I didn’t even stop to think that meant a short, late hike.  I just wept at the caring of a stranger.  And at how the Universe comes through . . .      

Copyright © 2010 Ruth Rudner