Our road winds to an end and, from across the meadow, I spot a familiar quaint cabin. Nestled at the foot of the tree line in a spacious meadow, Urraca is one of 35 staffed backcountry camps on the Ranch, offering a challenge course and infamous evening campfire. We reach the cabin and packs are quickly dropped, boots are extracted, swings are swung, and cookies are eaten. My sweaty clothes attempt to dry while I swing back and forth. I notice their Camp Director, Jake, heading for the campfire ring, the sun beginning to set over the mesa. He epitomizes camp-staff spirit, wearing garish sweaters and responding to silly questions in equally silly voices, his positive attitude is force to be reckoned with. The show begins and I grab a seat in the front row with my back to the fire warming my still slightly damp shirt. Seems the sweater thing is practical too.
The show comes to a close and the scouts pack up and head back to their campsites, for many of these weary traveler's bedtimes have been surpassed. For the staff, however, the night is young and quiet. I grab my jacket and head over to the storage shack where the rest of the staff has started to convene out in front. Cookies and cigarettes are being passed around in some sort of ironic attempt to negate the copious clean air and constant exercise. Silently, we scan the sky, searching for shooting stars and satellites. The milky way beams down upon us; a Cheshire Cat grin. A warm glow emanates from the local town of Cimarron, we are less than three miles away from civilization. I crunch on some stale cookies and recall I was helping raise the flags earlier today. A distant memory becoming rewritten by time and miles.
The air and ground have gone cold, drugging us with slumber. Most of the staff have decided to turn in for the night, some still buzzing back and forth between the cabin and their tents, caught in bedtime ritual. The last light disappears behind a canvas flap and the three of us remaining take out our sleeping bags and make our way to the cabin to bed down for the evening. My tried and true plan of borrowing a pad has backfired due to the amount of guests; not an inch of free foam for miles. Painfully, I lay my bony waist and shoulders on the wooden floor. Suddenly, I am not sleepy anymore and I sense the other two aren't going to sleep for a while either. Beyond the tin roof, stars deftly streak by while we feverishly talk about camp politics and future positions. Running out of steam, the calm of sleep beings to wash over me and my comrades. I attempt to reflect on my first free day as I feel my eyelids droop with insurmountable weight.
I wake feeling far more refreshed than I had anticipated. The sun has just barely risen over the mesa, compelling me to start packing my gear. A quick breakfast of strawberry Pop-Tarts warmed in cowboy coffee is scarfed down before we bolt. Our goal is to make it back to basecamp before 8:15 A.M., before the select few vehicles departing into different regions of the backcountry leave the dock and are gone for the day. Boots on, we smoothly and efficiently sail down yesterday's struggle, stopping only to shed warmer outer layers. I notice a caterpillar rapidly inching through the unprotected dirt, long wiry tufts wildly sprouting all over his miniature body. I smirk and figure we are ahead of schedule for early birds. The trail starts to become wider and flatter as we press onward. We are getting close.
The four of us make it back to our parked cars in record time, still on-target to intercept the suburbans in basecamp. I make it to the dock and join up with some other recreating staffers who are planning on bumming a ride which loops through the camps in 'central country', the middle of the Ranch. I find out the driver for today's run is Stephen, one of four Backcountry Managers. He is one of my superiors and thankfully aggressively friendly. I jump at the open spare seat, knowing the ride will be nothing short of an experience. The doors slam, low gear is engaged, and we take off like Indy's Jeep, bumping, rattling, and crashing through narrow and winding dirt roads while popular 90's Disney soundtrack songs are played at eleven. I find myself sitting next to the CD of French Henry; Corey , a man with an intensity which marathons and ice hockey cannot satisfy. I poke my head and arms out of the window and enjoy the cool mountain air rushing over me. This certainly beats hiking up steep hills.
Having made all but one delivery, the nearly empty suburban crashes toward our last camp on the schedule; Crater Lake. Nestled between Fowler Mesa and Trail Peak lies this hospitable logging camp set in the early 1900's. I met up with John to see how the summer was treating him. From the cabin we survey the lake, it is nearly the fullest it has been in three years; hopefully an indication the subsiding drought. The air is cool from the altitude, the warm sun bursts through patches in the dense puffy clouds. Although our meeting is brief, his casual demeanor tells me everything is going well. I make a mental note to pass along the positive sentiment to the CD who will most likely be at the bar tonight along with everyone else. The suburban's few passengers and I climb in and continue back towards basecamp, our excursion close to ending. It's looking like I might even have some time to take a shower today.
The breaking sun hits my tent wall waking me instantly. Begrudgingly, I throw on my uniform and shuffle off towards the dining hall. I walk in, politely turning down familiar warm gruel from the kind and chipper staffers, making a beeline for the fresh fruit cart. I sit down at a table with a few people I recognize and hear them calmly talking about their plans for the day. Discussions of “a real breakfast, Taos, and The Gorge” pique my curiosity, and I inquire about any open seats. Fortunately there are a few and we plan to reconvene in just little over half an hour. I quickly bus my dishes, retreating to my tent to change into my civvies and grab my essentials. Wallet and sunglasses, jacket and camera, my pre-flight check is completed and I exit my tent once again. While en route to the parking lot, I spy a few white poppies sunning themselves. Not being a morning person, my last full free day has thankfully started off well.
Bellies full of huevos rancheros and sopapillas, we leave the greasy spoon and pile back into the minivan. Our next stop is Earthships Taos, completely sustainable and eco-friendly homes intended to minimize if not eliminate man's dependence on local utilities and fossil fuels. We pay the admittance fee and take a very short self-guided tour through the magnificent structure made for the public. Most of the science and intriguing machinery which keeps the place running is kept behind closed doors with polite “Staff Only” signs. We exit and find a few houses in various stages of being built and put on our best impressions of “politely-curious tourists” to sneak a bit closer. Rammed-earth walls dense with balding tires and aluminum cans stacked in haphazard patterns seem to be the building material of choice in most of the structures. Trash sits in neatly organized piles waiting to have its purpose recognized.
The gang continues to inspect the roof and my attention drifts to the horizon and its contours. Walking down the steep embankment of tamped dirt, I wander out past the parked cars and trash collection heaps. The western face of Wheeler Peak distantly looms while dust devils errantly spiral into a vast cloud-covered sky. Grasshoppers loudly crack and snap, drunkenly flying from one bush to another. A warm breeze flows through my damp button up, nudging me and the group back into our van. Chatter about “The Gorge” continues to build; thankfully our next stop shall put an end to my curiosity.
A massive bridge spans a gaping chasm as the sun shimmers and glints in a muddy ribbon of water far below us. I feel very silly when I realize we are at the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge. Parking the car, we venture out onto the magnificent steel and concrete arch. Suddenly, I become acutely aware at the lack of substantial railing between stable ground and dangerous void. My palms immediately begin sweating. Knowing that I am safe, I sit down, hang my head and feet between the bars and try to erase the bridge from my mind. Thousands upon thousands of years of evolution is responsible for the dryness in my mouth and the queasiness in my stomach. I remind myself of the simple fact I have never been scared of heights, but my subconscious isn't fooled. It seems my fear is rooted in the nothingness.