Posted by: Brad Nixon | July 28, 2010

The Counselor Off-Roads It

Many years ago I went to visit a friend in Boston. This friend, heedless of my interests, was in the position of having to go to work during the weekdays, so I was on my own every day until evening. I made what I could of Boston, which, for a 25 year-old in the daytime, was not a great deal. After having glimpsed all the important local sights – Faneuil Hall, the Old North Church (and the lesser-known New South Church), Cotton and Wool Mathers’ graves and Li’l Toot the Tugboat – I drove up into New Hampshire on a grim October day to see the White Mountains. I had checked the map and found a spot at which the Appalachian Trail came down near the road, and I headed there. I pulled into a small unpaved parking area holding a few cars, with the autumn slopes of the mountains, topped by low clouds, rising above me to the east. I parked my car there and surveyed the scene.

Yes, I did hike up on The Trail for a bit, and, as far as I can recall, that was the only time I’ve set foot upon that continent-spanning path. I’m sure I had no gear of any kind, and, it being the 1970s, bottled water was yet to be created, so I probably didn’t even have any water with me. I was probably wearing whatever I usually wore during the daytime, which, being 25 or so in 1976, wasn’t all that distinct from what an average hiker on the A.T. might wear. My only clear memory of that walk through the dank October forest of New England is that, although I gained a lot of altitude,  I never crossed over the ridge into the truly wild side of the mountains, and so I was never for an instant beyond the sound of traffic on the highway below me. I may have covered three or four miles, but it was all parallel to the road in the valley, and the sound waves probably only had to cover five or six hundred yards at most. A rather suburban portion of the A.T.

The memorable portion of that day occurred when I got back to my car in the middle of a dull-gray New Hampshire afternoon. I was getting into my car when a man about my age walked up to the pickup truck parked next to me, reached under the right rear tire of the truck and pulled out a key that he used to unlock the truck. He was carrying a big trail pack and he looked tired and dirty. Keep in mind that it was October, and that the daytime high temperature there was maybe 45 degrees. He told me that he had been hiking the trail for nine days, and was just ahead of four friends who were coming behind him. Whenever I think that I know something about hiking in the back country, I remember the casual nonchalance of that guy and his buddies about covering 20 miles a day on the Appalachian Trail in some grim Fall weather, and camping in the persistent, penetrating cold.

My reason for framing today’s post with this memory is to point out that, although The Counselor and I consider ourselves reasonably active hikers, we do not spend nights out on the trail. Our hiking gear does not include tents, portable stoves, freeze-dried food, more than a gallon of water, gaiters, 40-pound backpacks or rope of any kind. We’re day hikers. We drive to a trailhead, park, hike for a few hours, and then get back in the car and head for the motel and/or restaurant. Although there might be black bears or mountain lions or rattlesnakes or other threatening things somewhere near us, our deal with The Wilderness ends at about 5 p.m., after which we head for the hot running water and food cooked by other people over stoves and served on plates.

Last week’s trip to New Mexico, though, challenged at least one of our conventions. Usually we drive on paved or reasonably graded gravel roads to our trailhead. For one of our hikes, we determined to climb as far as we could up the slopes of Cerro Pedernal, a basalt butte 9800 feet tall that dominates the landscape around Abiquiu, New Mexico. You can see the Pedernal featured prominently in the paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe, who lived in Abiquiu.

“Pedernal” is the Spanish word for “Flint,” a substance which is found in abundance on the slopes of that mountain.

Cerro Pedernal

Cerro Pedernal

Cerro Pedernal has a classic profile that betrays its volcanic origin: steep sides and a flattened top, thrust up by the same cataclysm that formed the massive Valles Caldera near Jemez Springs, 15 or 20 miles due south. As the big basalt dome rose, its heat rendered organic material from the surface into glassified flint, obsidian and jade.

Knowing that the first hiking stop on our brief vacation was Chaco Canyon (see yesterday’s post, HERE), we prepared for the fact that getting to Chaco requires an 11-mile drive on a gravel road. We’d rented a big Ford Explorer so we’d have the extra clearance that unpaved roads make advisable. As it turned out, getting to our hike on Pedernal raised the off-road stakes.

Now, I’m not exactly clear on how this happened, but the deal between The Counselor and me is that if the road is unpaved, she does the driving. This practice dates from our first trip to Chaco Canyon in 1993, and has persisted through trips to the Kelso Dunes in the Mojave desert, certain roads in Anza Borrego, Saguaro National Park and elsewhere. There’s no reason she shouldn’t, after all. She’s a good driver, and goodness knows that I didn’t develop any off-road driving ability on the roads of Ohio. Like all guys, I figure I could take any vehicle anywhere, but, other than the fact that I’ve read an occasional article about how the Land Rover people train drivers, I don’t have any practical experience in doing it.

The directions to the trailhead were something like, “Take Forest Road 100 5.7 miles to the left hand turnoff to Forest Road 160. Follow the Road 160 up to the meadow …” etc. Forest Road 100 was a well-graded gravel road that climbed steadily up the slopes of the Pedernal from the southwest, circling around to the south side. No problemo. But our first sight of Forest Road 160 was:

Forest Road 160 turnoff

Forest Road 160 turnoff

Hmmm. Challenging. I pointed to the dash and said to The Counselor, “Press that button.” Turns out this bodacious machine had 4WD Auto, 4WD High and 4WD Low. We opted for high range, and she wheeled up the rocky track. That track got quite narrow, with brush on both sides rubbing the car as we bumped over rocks. Now, there were thunderstorms in the area, and we certainly didn’t want to get wedged in there with no way to turn around, so we did pull off at our first place where we could point the car back down the road, and hoofed it farther up the track.

Eventually, we reached the end of the truck track and walked up through the pine-covered slopes and got a good look at the peak of Pedernal, although we were still a long way back from the big basalt dome. It was steep going. Pine forests are especially fine places to hike. It’s cool, the wind makes interesting sounds, and it smells good.

You can see a video I shot as The Counselor drove us up the slopes of Cerro Pedernal along, first, the graded gravel Forest Road #100 and then, in 4WD, the narrow, rocky back road Forest 160 HERE. For once, like good scouts, we came prepared.



  1. Good camera work. You guys were lucky FR 160 was one way!


    • Trust me, I thought about that. We’d’ve probably lost any game of chicken with anything else that was going to be out on that road!


  2. I think we hit the AT in VA with you for part of an afternoon once, somewhere in our 98-04 Virginia days.


    • By golly, you are correct. Thanks for that.


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