Timelines Part 2: Time Travel
In the great scheme of the mostly fictitious American Dream, a great many people could rightly argue that, not only am I and not only have I long been one serious U.S. Grade-A fuck-up, but I could very well pen a how-to tome about being a fuck-up. My retirement savings are not nearly what they ought to be for a man of my advancing years. I never seem to get caught up on the myriad home-improvement projects that daily await attention that will likely never be forthcoming. I still haven’t finished that damned tennis novel. My rap sheet, while not exactly world-class, has more red check marks than it ought to have. I drink and smoke too much.
From the ashes of a near-clinical fuck-up life, there are three components that are most assuredly not fuck-ups.
I married very well (26th anniversary this summer).
I have done a lot of very cool shit.
I have always managed to live within spitting distance of the kind of turf people dwelling in lesser realms would drool over.
Three miles from where these words are being penned lies the closest boundary of the famed 3.3-million-acre Gila National Forest. Almost immediately upon passing the forest sign is found the Gomez Peak Trailhead. A quarter-mile farther is found the Little Walnut Trailhead. And, two miles past that lies a double trailhead for the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail. All three of those trail systems hook into and out of one another, forming a series of loops that, should one be thus inclined, could occupy a hiker for many hours without re-tracing one’s steps.
Certainly, from the perspective of true backcountry aficionados, the Gomez Peak/Little Walnut/CDT trail complex is certainly something of a yawner. It is what it is: a front-country/almost urban-interface system that is perfectly suitable for trail work-week forays. These are the closest national forest trails to town, though, in town, there are many acres of footpath-crisscrossed open space.
Because the Gomez Peak/Little Walnut/CDT trail complex is only a few minutes drive from the center of town, it serves as a siphon for hikers and mountain bikers who would otherwise venture farther in the Gila to commune with nature. Ergo, the complex gets more use than most of our less-populated trails. On some weekends, there can be as many as six or eight cars in the Gomez Peak Trailhead parking lot, a sad reality that causes many of us who moved to Gila Country at least partially because of the empty woods shake our heads and wonder how long it will be before this place starts looking like Colorado.
During the summer months, I interface with the Gomez Peak/Little Walnut/CDT trail complex almost every morning during the workweek. There are other more-wilderness-ish trails I prefer, but none close enough to the Casa de Fayhee to merit serious consideration on days where vocation-based toil is unavoidable. I generally leave home at 6:30 a.m., arrive at the trailhead at 6:40 and, after changing into my hiking boots, generally leave about 6:43 or 6:44. Since I usually have to wait while my dog takes a dump 15 feet from the car, that means I’m generally limping my way upward by 6:45. The reason I hit the trail so early (at least by my historically non-early-riser standards) is that summers in southwest New Mexico are rough on a man who has lived most of his adult life above 9,000 feet. In summer in this neck of the woods, if I do nor hike in the coolness of morning, then I will likely not be hiking that day.
I biorhythmically prefer to hike in late afternoon/early evening, and, in the non-summer months, that’s exactly what I do. I also really like to take a toke or two before venturing forth into the backcountry, and that’s something I have never been inclined to do before Happy Hour time. I have of course had many chums over the years who opted to commence each new day with a couple bong hits. For me, that’s a one-way ticket to an extended stay on the couch. So, all things considered, I much prefer taking my daily hike at 4 p.m. rather than 6:43 a.m., but I also prefer hiking when it’s 60 degrees rather than when it’s 92.
This hot-season/non-hot-season hiking schedule juggling act has time-related implications that transcend its early-morning/late-afternoon, stone-or-not-stoned components. Some of those implications are direct: When I hike in the early morning, I generally hike for 90 minutes at most, because, unregimented though my work day might be, it is still a work day and therefore I need to get back to my home office at a reasonable hour. When I hike in the late afternoon, I generally kick it out for two or three hours, because my work day then is over and done with.
And some of those time-related implications are less direct.
Though the main reason I hike the Gomez Peak/Little Walnut/Continental Divide Trail complex near-bouts every morning is, as I have indicated, its proximity to my front door, there is one other reason, and this reason may seem counter-intuitive when applied to a perceived ragtag life such as mine. Though my preference for moving through the woods is to walk upon a path less followed into the great unknown — and, believe me, I have done just that for more miles than could likely ever be counted — I also very much like to tromp upon the same ground on a regular basis. This is time-relative on several levels. The first of those levels is more macro in nature: I am not exactly getting any younger, and, by impacting my bootprints onto the same tread several times a week, I am more able to gauge — if not mitigate somewhat the almost stunning effects of — Father Time’s inexorable journey into the depths of my physiology.
The Gomez Peak/Little Walnut/Continental Divide Trail complex is very interconnected — meaning there are long series of both and informal formal loops. There are system trails, social trails and unmaintained trails galore. It is easy to be as spontaneous as one can be in the midst of a defined trails system, and it is, of course, easy to stay the regimented course.
Though I deviate somewhat, here is my basic summer/early-morning schedule:
• Monday: The Angel Loop (55-60 minutes).
• Tuesday: The Mountain Loop (60-65 minutes).
• Wednesday: Angel Loop with a side trip to the summit of Gomez Peak (80 minutes).
• Thursday: Angel Loop and Mountain Loop (90 minutes).
• Friday: If I’m not off somewhere camping, either the Mountain Loop and the Angel Loop with a side trip to the summit of Gomez Peak (two hours) or the Mountain Loop, with a connect to the Dragon Trail via the Angel Loop (90 minutes).
Though there are permutations, like doing these loops/trails clockwise or counter-clockwise, that’s pretty much it. And, while such a rigid schedule may sound a bit repetitive and, therefore, boring, it’s not. Well, it is, sometimes, sorta. But, overall, it works, at least partially because I always bear in mind that there are millions of people out there who spend similar amounts of time and effort in gyms on Stairmasters and NordicTracks and at least partially because, from the summit of Gomez Peak, you can see clear down into Mexico. From the Mountain Loop, you can see 50 miles away to the Mogollon Mountains.
More than that, though, those familiar loops, around which I have circled hundreds of times, provide chronology-based opportunity to measure my ongoing journey into physiological decrepitude. It serves as a psychic salve to know that, this morning, at age, 56, I was able to hike the afore-referenced Thursday schedule in 87 minutes, without stopping a single time. That is at least 10 minutes faster than I could do five years ago, and, five years ago, I usually had to stop and catch my breath midway up both the ascents.
Assuredly, I understand these are not the only ways by which my increasing decrepitude can be measured. Though I am now hiking those Gomez Peak/Little Walnut/Continental Divide Trail complex trails faster than I was five years ago, it is not lost on me that, increased speed notwithstanding, there are more and more real-time pain-based manifestations of that increasing decrepitude that rear their ugly heads, most often simultaneously. Those various maladies have a bothersome way of making journeys of their own from one part of my weary corpus to another, depending on whether I’m ascending, descending or striding on level ground, whether the trail itself is rocky or smooth. And my recovery time is not exactly following the same line on my personal health-and-fitness graph. The standard health-and-fitness line is that, when one exercises in the mañana, it energizes one for the rest of the day. I find, at my age, this is not often the case. Verily, on days when I hike early, I usually find my weary eyeballs wandering toward the daybed along about siesta time, which may just be a function of the summertime afternoon heat. Maybe not.
Moreover, though, I find myself wondering, as I’m risking every piece of soft tissue I own as I sprint down the trail trying to beat last week’s best time, why on earth I bother. I mean, after 56 years, oughtn’t a man have come to understand that the goal should be to increase time spent in the woods, rather than intentionally and with great effort, decreasing one’s time? I mean, what kind of dumbass, when he has a couple hours to kill in the beauteousness of the Gila National Forest, tries his damnedest to get back to the office as quickly as his little legs will carry him? A truly dumbass dumbass, methinks.
Well, this dumbass dumbass is at least partially at the mercy of his aforementioned biorhythms. This is the biggest difference for me between the necessity of hiking early in the morning in Gila Country when it’s too hot to hike any other time of day and hiking later in the day during those wonderful months when the weather is perfect no matter what time of day one chooses to tromp through the wild land that defines this part of the world. When I hike in the mornings, my thought processes are far more literal. I am awakened by an alarm clock set for no other reason that to get me out of bed early enough to hike before it gets too hot to do anything save sit in the shade. Though I am blessed insofar as I have no one looking over my shoulder and telling me what time I have to punch in, I still have to figuratively punch in, something I try to do by 9 a.m. (Though I am biorhythmically inclined to exercise later in the day, I am more biorhythmically inclined to get work done in the mornings.) So, when one factors in the need to shovel down some breakfast, it’s somewhat understandable that I have little choice but to think in terms of time while passing through terrain that, like most terrain in the Mountain Time (!!!) Zone, is more, or least partially, conducive to leisure and contemplation.
When I hike in the mornings, I am focused on the hiking itself. On foot placement, on the impending terrain, on pace, on breathing, on heart rate, indeed, even on the mechanics of arm swing. Some might call this a perfect example of living in the moment, being here (or, more accurately, there) now (or, more accurately, then). Which is great and all, except that such focus makes the actual hiking less pleasurable. It makes the minutes seem like hours, which, when you get to be my age, might seem from the sidelines like a positive, but, when your thighs are getting ready to explode as you’re pushing it up the south end of the Dragon Trail, it is functionally counter-productive, at least as I define the process of hiking through the woods.
I understand how fortunate I am to be able to “work out” in the Gila National Forest. I pity the poor people who live in Omaha, at least in this context. My recognition of my good fortune requires that I further recognize that anyone who looks at two hours out on the Gomez Peak/Little Walnut/Continental Divide Trail complex trails as solely, or even predominantly, as a “workout” deserves whatever bad shit comes his or her way. I am not too bright, but I am bright enough to comprehend that forays out into the woods are physically healthful by default; one does not need to keep track of how long it takes to get from the trailhead to the Ponderosa Loop junction in order to benefit the cardio-vascular system.
The other reasons — the most important reasons — the reasons that separate a national forest trail from a Stairmaster at a gym in Omaha — are mental and spiritual. This is of course not to say there are not inherent mental and spiritual benefits associated with Stairmastering in Omaha, especially if that’s all you got, which I think is the case with people who live in Omaha. I guess if you’re an open-minded, perceptive sort, you can gain enlightenment, whatever that is, no matter your immediate circumstance. But you know what I mean: At a minimum, one should not only stop to smell the roses, but one should maybe even ponder the roses one smells within a frame of reference larger than immediate aromatic sensation. I too often look at the Gomez Peak/Little Walnut/Continental Divide Trail complex trails as workout facilities with views (and rattlesnakes), except that I often don’t pay the views enough attention because I’m too fucking focused on cutting two minutes off my trail time.
I don’t think there are any roses to smell or ponder in a gym in Omaha. Yet, when I hike in the early mornings, I sometimes feel as though I might as well be indoors on a Stairmaster. Which, of course, once again shows what a serious dumbass my dumbass self really is. There is no doubt that, by osmosis, if not recognition, being outdoors positively affects one’s mental and spiritual states, even if one is too obtuse to notice.
Now, when things cool off in Gila Country and I am able to comfortably visit the local trails in late afternoon, things are different, and not just because, at that time of day, I am inclined to maybe get a bit stoned pre-hike. Well, OK, maybe partially, but not totally. During the non-scorching times of year, I do not set an alarm; I wake up when I wake up. And, since, by late afternoon, my work day is done, I rarely have to worry about returning home by a certain time. I can hike till darkness falls or till my legs give way — which means I do not keep track of time, I venture further afield, to trails I visit less often and therefore am less familiar with, trails that I can’t remember how long it “takes” to follow them. I bushwhack more.
And this is where and when things get a bit more interesting on the temporal plane. For, even when, during the cooler months, I do by default hike on the Gomez Peak/Little Walnut/Continental Divide Trail complex trails, I rarely find myself thinking very much at all about the hiking itself. My mind wanders, and this is when I “do” the bulk of my actual writing. I am sure my heart rate is increasing and that my overall cardio-vascular fitness level is improving much the same way I assume it does when I’m hammering it early in the morning during the summer months.
There is this concept of “folding space,” a concept made popular — at least insofar as incomprehensible scientist jabber can be made popular — in Frank Herbert’s astounding “Dune” series. The idea is that, in order to cover great distances, you do not increase your speed, but, rather, shorten the distance.
When I hike in the afternoons, I often get to where I am going (understanding that I am often going nowhere in particular) and I can’t remember getting there. Space has been folded. Even on the Gomez Peak/Little Walnut/Continental Divide Trail complex trails, trails I know in 30-second increments (yes, I most often measure distances in time, rather than space), I will suddenly snap out of some sort of reverie and realize I am on top of 80 Mountain or most of the way to Bear Mountain Road or even back at the trailhead. And at those times, I rarely am out of breath. I rarely notice the aches and pains that define my corporeal here and now. I am not tired. I am not stiff. I just am.
It is during such instances that I come to realize how relative time really is. We try to capture and maybe even control it with day planners and schedules and with verb tenses and, yes, with digital and analog measurement devices. But when we’re alone out in the woods, time comes down to a deep mathematical formula that includes more sun than day planner, more wind than schedule, more mental wandering than limiting verb tenses, more perception than watches and clocks.
I do not argue that my time-oriented morning hikes are less valid or important or relevant than are my time-free afternoon hikes. They are assuredly part of a yin-yang-esque greater whole that will thankfully always be well out of my conscious grasp.
Because of the change of the seasons, because of time layering again and again upon itself, I have no choice but to interface with the complicated tick-tick-ticking of the cosmic clock as I go about the simple process of walking through beautiful woods near the place I have come to spend my little part of eternity.