The route to Dog Canyon, south of Alamogordo, NM, took me past squatter huts and broken trailers, giving balance to my earlier views of rich adobe-style homes along the edge of desert cities. At 7 a.m., again a bit late for summer hiking in this region, the cool desert breeze felt great, the scent of dampened herbs provided a dash of rare intoxication, and the sun began its creep over the escarpment of the Sacramento Mountains.
A white-winged dove cooed and a canyon wren whistled from inside the canyon’s mouth as I began my walk on the riparian trail at Oliver Lee State Park. This was cougar country, western diamondback terrain, and I was glad to step slowly in a land where humanity again receded from its usual place of dominance. I had been here before, had encountered javelinas, rattlesnakes, scorpions, rock wrens, verdins, mule deer, desert willows, horse-splitter cactus, ocotilla, and a field guide’s worth of other life forms, but today I was hoping for another life-bird or even a glimpse of the elusive mountain lion or Barbary sheep. No, I wouldn’t see one of those, but it was fun looking.
When I reached the actual Dog Canyon National Historic Trail and started the sharp ascent, it was like climbing a stairway into human and natural history. This wild trail has been used for thousands of years to transport ancient and modern peoples back and forth between the harsh Tulerosa Basin and the wetter forestlands of the Sacramento Mountains (today’s Lincoln National Forest) overhead. It’s a stark, quiet, magical environment with perennial springs that attracted aboriginal and early European settlers. Today I was just about the only human on the mountainside.
The Apache peoples had a strong presence here for centuries and thwarted Spanish and Anglo settlement until the late 1800s. The Apaches used Dog Canyon as a fortress and climbed above the desert via the “Eyebrow” section of the trail, a narrow path hugging the edges of a thousand-foot cliff. Today I wouldn’t get that far, thanks to a relentless sun, but I thought about the skirmishes between the natives and the U.S. Army in an area of the precipitous Eyebrow, battles in which the Apaches typically had the upper hand (at least for a while), raining boulders and arrows on the unsuspecting military and hurling soldiers and horses into the abyss.
I made the climb slowly, trying to take in the environment as much as possible, watching birds such as rock wren, brown towhee, black-throated sparrow, and Scott’s oriole, listening to the splash of intermittent stream far below, and realizing that this wilderness was so quiet that tapping the sun-baked ground with my walking stick made the earth sound hollow.
In the middle of this mountainous landscape a hummingbird flew by me and, completely off-balance, I shuddered at the sound. In this sunscape with its long view of the White Sands National Monument to the west, I heard the roar of Stealth bombers far away, and I shuddered again, but in a different manner and direction. A Chihuahuan raven cawed from a summit south of me and I felt relaxed, scoping with binoculars on the chance of glimpsing a wild cat or a sheep up there.
If I knew I could take one last hike before getting tossed from this mortal coil, would I choose Dog Canyon for my final outing? Let’s see, I’ve walked to the abandoned Fairchild Cabin situated by a spring at the 2.9 mile point of the climb. I’ve gone there solo and also with my son in 2008 (see RR post “Dog Canyon Hike”) but I’ve never been able to get past the Eyebrow through the upper half of the trail. I’d have better luck making the six-mile climb if I could visit sometime other than in summer. If my life had room for one more hike, and one more only, would I choose the Dog, say, on a pleasant day in early spring? I thought about the question and decided… probably not. This is an exposed earth, wild, spacial, beautiful, and brutal. There was no way I could feel as immersed in the elements here as in a country where the many streams flow intimately from a high and forested ground.
Nonetheless, I need to get more of this wild place in my bones.