Recreational Climate Refugees: A San Juan Season Opener

Mega drought. It’s no secret that the southwest US, with its ever-increasing population straining what little resources are available, has found itself in the midst of a great reckoning with a lack of consistent rainfall and snowpack which traditionally sustained its communities for thousands of years. As I began typing this, I could count on one hand the days which have had precipitation this spring, including a brief, but much-celebrated storm the prior afternoon. A combination of normal, historical shifts in climate, anthropogenic climate change, and a booming population have put an increased strain on our delicate ecosystems. This strain is evidenced by a longer, more intense fire season and a rapidly increasing aridification, once mostly evident at lower elevations and now climbing its way into Ponderosa stands; amongst many other examples.

Unsurprisingly, these shifts have had a large impact on how and where we recreate outdoors. The Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon fires (originally two separate incidents which had merged into one) have burned nearly 320,000 acres with (at the initial time of writing) 67% containment. The Cerro Pelado fire west of Santa Fe consumed 45,000 acres though it is now listed as 95% contained, largely due to it running out of fuel when colliding with the Los Conchas fire burn scar from 2011. Our latest, the Black Fire, is set to overtake the Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon Fire as the largest in recorded NM history; making its way through 300,000 acres with just 47% containment.

With so much of the state currently burning, historic and consistently high spring winds, and no moisture in the forecast until monsoon season, local officials and land managers have made the decision to close all National Forests in NM as well as all local trails here in Santa Fe. Although I absolutely understand the necessity of this closure, it has made for a difficult spring for those of us who find much-needed mental clarity in our time outdoors.

The final week of May I got a text from my doppelgänger, good friend, new dad, and immensely accomplished ultra runner Rickey Gates, saying he would have a few days open in early June for a bike trip and asking for route recommendations in the San Juan mountain range. My first thought was that I’d be happy to lay some tracks down on a map, but I’d be even more excited to join in. Rickey obliged and we quickly wrangled another renowned trail runner and local to the area, Joe Grant, into our fold.

Ok, quick honesty break. If you know me, you know I ain’t no slouch on the bike. I’ve done my fair share of self-supported ultras with a decent bit of success. As of late, I’ve taken a bit of time away from that world (albeit, with the occasional dabble) to focus on my shop, Sincere Cycles, and spending time with my fiancé Kate. That said, I am a fair bit off of “peak fitness.” I’ve ridden a fair bit of single track with Rickey and can usually tame him on the technical climbing/descending, but his motor is one of an elite athlete and he’s been known to straight embarrass me on longer forest road climbs.

Joe, however, I’d never ridden with and in fact, only met in person once while he was in town to pace Rickey on an Everest of our local Ski Santa Fe resort. I knew Joe was my sort of people, but I was nervous to set off on an early season open-ended bike adventure with two top-level athletes.

Joe, a resident of Durango and the surrounding San Juan Mountain range, pieced together a rough itinerary for our outing which would include some time on the Colorado Trail along with a few side trips to hit some additional high alpine riding. Being that our ride would be taking place in early June and getting us up to elevations of 12,000′, there was more than a little uncertainty regarding snowpack and deadfall. Thankfully, Rickey had been guiding a running trip in the area just days before and felt we’d be more than able to make do based on trails he’d seen, which were adjacent to but not the exact area we’d be riding.

With Rickey only just returning from his guiding trip, Joe finishing a Black Diamond athlete summit the day before, and my getting everything at the shop squared away to enable my closing for the week; things were a bit messy. But I was quite confident that if any, our crew would be a solid one for the journey ahead regardless of the present difficulties/stressors.

Monday morning I pedaled over to Rickey’s house with two breakfast burritos and nothing more than I’d be taking on our excursion. We packed his truck, said our goodbyes to his wife, mother-in-law, & 6-month-old daughter, Willa, and headed for Durango. Upon arrival, we quickly got all our gear set and loaded, sent off the final texts/emails, and started out for some much needed time in the mountains. A quick pedal up the obscenely steep gravel road leaving Joe’s house landed us on glorious singletrack in ten minutes.

Instantly the stresses of getting everything in order to takeoff on our ride melted away and we found ourselves living quite present and in the moment, which the physically demanding trails required. After just a dozen miles of hooting and hollering in delight, we made our way into Hermosa for an ice cream stop at a convince store, which would be our sole resupply of the outing.

Hot as it was at the lower elevations, this was a welcome respite from the oppressive sunshine. Gathering ourselves and packing extra snacks, we began the climb up a forest service road that would lead us to the Hermosa Creek trail, a fun and mostly gentle trail which follows its namesake Hermosa Creek through 14 miles of singletrack and 5 miles of double track to its terminus. With the sun setting for the evening and our arrival at a campground that included vault toilets, we decided to make our home for the evening beside the plush amenities of water to filter and an outhouse to shit in. After some quick food, easy conversation, and sharing some of Colorado’s state flower (no, not the Columbine. the other one) we settled in for a restful slumber.

Morning saw us making our way up and onto the Colorado Trail and the higher elevations which held more than a few unknowns. We pedaled our way up Hotel Draw Rd. where we’d join up with the Colorado Trail on section 27. Although we were still a bit early in the season, these sections of the CT see scores of ambitious hikers and mountain bikers anxious for a return to the high country and thus most of the trail was clear of appreciable deadfall. In fact, it was quite an enjoyable section of trail, even with the interspersed hike-a-bike (HAB or Habanero; according to Joe). Upon reaching our high point on this section of trail we had decisions to make. Grindstone Trail down to Bear Creek and a push up to Sharkstooth Pass? Or descend (the sort of descending with plenty of climbing) the Colorado Trail back to Durango and the comforts of cheeseburgers?

After a short debate, while riding a high that one only experiences on a bluebird day at 11.5k, we decided to go for the lesser-traveled bonus loop and an extra night out. Joyfully, we descended off the top of the pass down Grindstone and back into the woods, which quickly revealed ample downed trees and lingering snowpack.

A brief query as to how much trail breaking we were up for landed us on the decision to push forward, conditions be damned. Climbing over deadfall on downhills, after all, ain’t that bad. Intersecting with the Bear Creek Trail which would take us up to Sharkstooth, we began our slow progress over lumpy, faint trail and back into the woods where we discovered an immense amount of downed trees to be stumbled over, tripped & cut by, and generally struggled through. With our forward progress significantly slowed and daylight dwindling, we decided to set camp at 11k, the intersection of the Sharkstooth Trail, and save the final push to the top for the morning; rather than camping down at Taylor Lake. This decision, we all agreed, was probably the wiser. After all, this was a vacation of sorts.

Sunrise found our bivys and saw us crawling out into the light of day for our final push back to Durango. Today would require little dillydallying so we could get Joe back home to speak at a conference regarding wildfire management and mitigation. The ascent of Sharkstooth is a long, steep, HAB up loose rock and shale. To be certain, it is a grind, but a grind which is well worth the trouble when finding oneself staring across the La Plata range at Hesperus Mountain, Dibé Nitsaa in Diné, the northern boundary of Dinétah. This is one of the four mountains which define the traditional land of the Diné people, and is said to be near Hajíínáí, where the Diné ancestors emerged from the underworld.

Undoubtedly, this area has been of unique anthropologic significance to all who’ve had the fortune to pass through. We took a few moments to soak in the morning sun and vistas, eat snacks, and make a quick adjustment to the sole derailleur on our journey before beginning our descent to Taylor Lake and back to Kennebec Pass. Rejoining the Colorado Trail, we knew there was still tough trail and punchy climbs, but we were largely through the most difficult portions of our ride. With ubiquitous grins, our trio started the steep and rowdy descent back towards Durango, shifting our mental focus from burgers to burritos. This section of trail, a popular shuttle in season, we anticipated to be clear of snow and debris as well as providing ample water, hopefully making our return to civilization a mostly relaxing and enjoyable one.

The Colorado Trail loses around 6.5k ft. of elevations from Kennebec to the Junction Creek Trailhead, of which we were quite grateful, primarily because Joe had been riding with a broken saddle rail sustained at some point during our crawling through deadfall, necessitating him mostly riding his Myth hardtail standing up like a BMX bike. But this is singletrack in the Rocky Mountains and all descents have their undulations. This one included nearly 2k ft. of gain on it’s way back to town.

Watching Joe standing and smashing the pedals on his singlespeed through descent, ascent, and the odd flat section was quite admirable, though nothing I envied. My calves ached just watching. After 22 miles of (mostly) descending we found ourselves at the Junction Creek Trailhead. A quick glance around the parking lot would reveal New Mexico plates on a quarter of the vehicles. Turns out we were far from the only recreationalists fleeing wildfire and National Forest closures.

A quick drop back into town found us at Zia Taqueria, where we filled our souls & bellies with burritos and tales from the trail. Joe and Rickey, in interest of expediency, were picked up by a friend and taken to Joe’s house amongst the Aspen, just outside of the San Juan National Forest, where he’d shower and change before speaking about wildfire and the changing American West. I stayed back with the bikes, ordered a second burrito, and contemplated the impacts of driving from one draught stricken area to another in order to recreate. Do the mental health benefits justify my contributions to the Anthropocene Epoch? & where do my responsibilities as an individual lie in an era of greater environmental impact through industrialization and Capitalism than previous societies have ever known?

As I sit here editing and typing up this final paragraph monsoons have returned to the southwest, bringing a palpable sense of relief to our communities. The local Santa Fe trails have reopened, as has much of the Santa Fe National Forest. The Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon fire burned nearly 350,000 of the 1.6 million acre protected area and stands at 92% containment. The Cerro Pelado fire is 98% contained after consuming 45,000 acres. Although many are celebrating the much needed precipitation, and certainly with good reason, our problems are far from being over.

Heavy rains on immensely dry soil cause erosion of top soil and moisture run-off before it can give much needed life to the starved grasses, trees, & shrubbery. Soils burnt by fires allow for ash and other containments to flow into rivers and streams which are relied upon as primary sources of water for affected communities. Scorched pastures have eliminated food sources for cattle & sheep grazing, directly impacting the livelihood of many impoverished rural communities who’ve relied on small ranching operations as the primary source of income and livelihood for more generations than most can trace back their lineage.

And this is only the beginning. On June 14th of this year, Camille Calimlim Touton, Commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, in an address to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources stated, “Water supplies for agriculture, fisheries, ecosystems, industry, cities, and energy are no longer stable given anthropogenic climate change, which threatens food and energy security, human health, the regional economy, and biodiversity.”

She went on to assert that in order to address this shortage, cuts of 2-4 million acre feet of water allocation from the Colorado River Basin will be necessary next year. For reference, California draws 4.4 million acre feet of water from the Colorado every year, Arizona 2.8 million. Add it up and we’re looking at the potential for half the annual allocation of water from the Colorado being pumped to California and Arizona next year.

There are plenty of opinions on what is to be done, but I will not be throwing my weight in any of their directions. Yes, agriculture consumes about 80% of water from the Colorado River Compact allocation, with roughly 80% of that going to water-intensive crops such as alfalfa. And yes, cities like Phoenix and Tucson, whose constant and unmitigated growth are putting an immense strain on a delicate balance of desert life with their golf courses, climate controlled homes, and swimming pools.

But do we abandon agriculture? Do we run people out of our cities? Is the energy production required of desalination sustainable or merely a bandaid? There are no clear solutions in the inevitable great reckoning of the American West, but it is with an absolute certainty which one can assert that this grave danger to our present way of life will have a massive effect on our future and the future of America’s aridlands.