There are bones under this tree. Broken bones, bones eaten down to the marrow. And why shouldn’t there be bones here? I’m sitting under the only tree in miles. If I were dying and looking for shade, or preparing to feast, I’d seek out this tree too. I spent all morning hiking here to this tree. All morning hiking towards San Antonio Dome, all morning before it got any closer. Damn, this must be a big mountain.
San Antonio is deceptive because it looks like a giant hill- a free-standing rounded prominence looming above the high Taos Plateau, slopes so rolling and gentle that from a distance, it looks like you can stroll up and roll back down, laughing. Now that I’m sitting at the base of it, after taking all morning on the unexpectedly long approach through the trackless sagebrush, I give the beast its due. This is not a hill; it’s a mountain.
Undaunted, I head up, stepping from the flatlands up onto the slope. One foot in front of the other, up and up. Lots of rocks underfoot, all sizes, pebbles and ankle rollers, mostly angular though, not easily turned, crusted with lichen, a few wildflowers. High desert flora.
Fauna too: pronghorn antelope startle at the sight of me, but can’t seem to place my sight or smell. They bolt to a safe distance – among the fastest land animals on Earth, for a moment – then turn towards me, so slim they disappear, impossible to photograph, and watch me. It’s possible they’ve never before seen a person on their side of this mountain. Dio watches quietly beside me, off-leash and keyed in to their every movement, but I don’t have to tell him not to give chase, though both he and the pronghorn could probably use a good run.
There’s a road to the top of this mountain, to the crown of radio towers, but I’m not on any path. Hiking off trail, solo, in remote country isn’t something I take lightly. Before I set out this morning, I had spent a whole day studying this mountain, tracking up the slopes through my binoculars, finding my route to the top. I decided on a ridge to the left of a deep gully, then to cut over at the base of an outcrop to the edge of the summit aspen forest. Based on my map, I thought I would intersect with the road to the summit somewhere up there, but I wouldn’t see the track until I was on it.
I’m hiking straight up the southeast flank of the mountain, taking a route little traveled, if ever. Soon I spot a dash of bright white on the slope above me and make my way up to a 5-point deer antler, bleached by at least one season of sun. I take a few photos, holding the antler up against the valley view, then after easily talking myself out of keeping this treasure, I make my way over to the gully to find a safe spot to stash it. I wedge it into a tree stump and take a few more photos. If pass this way again someday, I’ll be delighted to see it again, like visiting an old friend, unless something eats it first. Finder’s keepers, for the wild things.
Up and up. This mountain is an exercise in the sheer stubbornness of mountain climbing. Every step is the same: up and up an endless hill. I climb for hours, taking short breaks every few minutes, always feeling that upwards pull. My legs are tired, here and there, now and then, but they never quit on me, the muscles sliding and locking with indefatigable strength born from seasons of high altitude hiking. It’s taken more than a decade to tune this mountaineer’s engine.
I work my way upslope, keeping to the open spaces, where I can see and be seen. Pronghorn scatter when they see me, the same small herds crisscrossing ahead of me and behind me as I reappear and disappear from view over and under the rise and fall of the mountain. I’m not alone on this dome; I’m with the bones and the pronghorn and probably at least one mountain lion. Plenty of space for all of us. Onward and upward.
Finally I come up over a rise and to the edge of the summit woods. Here in the desert is a reverse tree line: only the summit gets enough rain and snow to sustain woods and though the flanks of this mountain are all but bald, the summit is a toupee of trees. At the edge of the aspen, backed by spruce, I stop. I like the wide vistas and I don’t want to be enclosed. I skirt the edge until I reach another tall grass meadow with a faint road curving up through the middle.
I follow the road to an old sheep camp marked by rusted frame cot, some metal trash and a grove of arborglyphs. Just beyond, the road enters the woods, and at the top of a rise, I spy upright metal frames. The summit weather station. I’m almost there! But I don’t want to go. I don’t want to enter the woods, leave the views, to stand at the foot of humming metal towers. So I don’t go. Within striking distance of tagging the summit, I turn my back on the top and face the endless vista of northern New Mexico: Tres Piedras, Mount Wheeler, the Taos Ski Basin, the Enchanted Circle. This is what I came up here for: to see what I can see.