The Sandoval Signpost

An Independent Monthly Newspaper Serving the Community since 1988


Sarah on a road less traveled

Sarah on a road less traveled

Wheeler Peak

Wheeler Peak, within reach


Among the marmots


“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” —THOREAU

We went into the Wheeler wilderness to live among the marmots. Eighteen years old, my boyfriend Evan and I were already veterans of those mountains. I had been weaned on Mount Wheeler, New Mexico’s highest peak, and I knew more about marmots than I did about people. I tended to enjoy their company a bit more, too. Marmots and I understood each other, for the marmot mind distilled all of my desires. “Scout!” the mind would order its marmot. “Sniff, scamper, squeak, scurry, steal that child’s chocolate!” And when night came, softly the marmot mind would murmur, “Snuggle, sigh, sink into slumber.” Now that’s a life. I too would happily pass my days perched on chubby, hairy hind legs, surveying Taos’ treasures from on high. Indeed, I suppose that is exactly what I did do over the course of the next four days of backpacking: I became a marmot.

Our trip began as a human enough endeavor, of course. Evan and I planned it out a whole night in advance, having been overwhelmed by a wave of restlessness while watching “Top Chef.” We needed an adventure, an adrenaline rush that artistically-diced celery could never provide. We needed to be tired, starving, and miserable. I suggested that we flee to Taos, where we could happily be all three. We started searching the Internet for the appropriate topographical maps, and then we searched the maps for the wispy blue threads that meant water. Where water flowed, we could count on a campsite. We picked out three camps in a flurry of joyful acquisition, the way I had often seen my sister pick out clothes in a J. Crew catalogue. The next afternoon, we headed out.

The first two miles of backpacking hurt, even though the terrain was the easiest we would encounter. We trudged past the Taos Ski Valley lifts, shut down for the summer, and up a gravel road that dwindled to a forest footpath. The two of us walked beside each other until the track became so narrow that our packs bumped. Then Evan took the lead. I silently cursed his obscenely large lungs, but as I settled into the rhythm of his gait, I began to enjoy the serenity of following. Following freed me from the burden of speed-walking in order to show off; it let me hike at a brisk—rather than blistering—pace.

By the third mile, we were back in shape. We laughed delightedly at the adaptability of our bodies, happy to be young, fit, and in love. We remembered aloud the last time we had hiked that path; it had been winter, and I had slipped and shivered while Evan slid merrily along on an imaginary snowboard. He had even had the grace to catch me sometimes when I fell. Now it was warm out, though, and monsoon mud lay in patches on the path instead of snow.

We reached William’s Lake before we were ready to stop hiking and scrambled to a site above a waterfall to pitch our little blue tent. Evening fell as we cooked dinner. We made too much rice and made ourselves finish it. In the dark, we washed our dishes, smiling secretly at nothing. At everything. Then we crawled into our tent and fell asleep as close together as we could get despite our separate sleeping bags.

The next morning, we clambered up Mount Wheeler. We passed a single hiker heading in the opposite direction; he greeted us with the encouragement, “You should try going down, it’s much easier.” To be sure, going up was anything but easy. Going up was an hour on the Stairmaster with fifty pounds on our backs. The marmots peeked over their rocks to watch our ascent. I can only assume that they heard my panting and thought that I was either dying or going into labor, neither of which they wanted to miss. When the marmots realized that I was not about to expire, however, they began whistling their support. I, like they, had decided to pit myself against the mountain in hopes of finding a cozy place to make my home for the night. The marmots sensed our kinship. As their squeaks continued, Evan grinned and started squeaking back in conversation.

A hailstorm reached the summit just as we did. For a moment, we stood still at thirteen-thousand feet and basked in our accomplishment. Then thunder shattered our spell, and we took off running down the ridgeline, glancing often at the sky as if we could dodge the lightning. Two soggy miles and one near-electrocution later, we hit the La Cal Basin, our campsite. We ate lunch and fell asleep for four hours, waking just in time for dinner.

By the third day, we were following a routine. I woke up first and boiled water for hot chocolate, which we sipped as our oatmeal simmered. After breakfast, Evan and I pumped water, packed up, and hiked until noon. Then it stormed, and we slept. When we emerged from our nap on that particular day, camped in a valley behind Gold Hill, we froze as we realized that we were not alone. Three hundred yards away, a mountain lion stalked across the reborn earth, pausing to lap at the stream from which we planned to pump our water. Evan and I sat on a rock, too scared to move, and promised to defend each other. Finally, the lion prowled away, and later that night we dared to draw water from its stream.

So it was that we survived to see our fourth day, on which the trail abandoned us in the middle of a boulder field. The mountainside was rough, and the surrounding growth dense. We went the only way we could: up. It was like Wheeler Peak all over again. Three times we thought we were summiting, only to discover that we had reached a false peak. Just as my feet began complaining, we popped up on the ridgeline that led to Gold Hill. Long Canyon unfolded below us, a path snaking down its center: our road home. We reached the trail’s end three hours later and stepped out onto the main parking lot of Taos Ski Valley, a ten-minute car ride from the trailhead where we were parked. We hid our packs on the side of the road and started walking. As our backpacking adrenaline subsided, we realized how much it hurt to walk, and we decided to hitchhike instead. Four cars passed us by before a Ski Valley truck took mercy on us. Welcome back to the human world.

The human world. The world that was supposed to hold “big things” for us: grand plans, deep meanings. But back in the city, I found myself at a loss for meaning for the first time in a week. The meaning of life had been so terribly clear when we were living among the marmots: stay alive. Survival had been struggle enough to give life meaning in itself. We needed no complex creed, no radical philosophy. We found our daily purpose in routine, in companionship, in good food and warm nests. Only when we returned to civilization did such a purpose seem wanting, for civilization so distanced us from our struggle to survive that we had to search for a meaning beyond life itself. And to be honest, I still haven’t found one. So here’s to the marmots; perhaps they’ve got it right

Mike Huff's sailboat

Mike Huff (left) captains his Alberg 30 sailboat into Fairport Harbor, on Lake Erie.

Mike Huff

Cruising Lake Erie

You may have noticed a conspicuous absence of big news stories in this issue. It wasn’t our fault. Mayor Jackson finally quit in July, so we can’t kick him around anymore. We beat up on Sandoval Broadband again last month, and monsoon flooding did not wash out the crossing on Las Huertas Creek. No news is good news.

All that, and we spent most of August in Ohio—a lot longer than we usually stay when visiting relatives. Our long-time New Mexico friend Mike Huff (another Ohio boy) had his thirty-foot sailboat docked in Fairport Harbor, east of Cleveland. We had planned enough time in our vacation for a little cruise down to the west end of Lake Erie, where I come from.

Mike has been planning for years to live on a sailboat when he took early retirement and quit his teaching job. Recent conversations with him always seem to swing around to sailing—after he finished railing about the war, corrupt politics, and social injustice that were driving him to sea.

He read stacks of books on the subject. He picked his fully-keeled Alberg 30 from a book about “boats under thirty feet that are best for sailing solo around the world.” According to much of what Mike read, it is possible to live like a king in some tropical ports for even less money than he would get from Social Security. Mike said, “I didn’t retire—that’s for people with money—I just quit working.”

Unfortunately, he found that he was working harder than ever. Rigging his boat for ocean sailing was also much more expensive than he planned. Worst of all, sailing solo was more difficult than he had envisioned.

When we arrived on the dock, Mike announced that he hated his boat; that he was selling it, and flying to Vietnam to live in a grass hut for even less money than he gets from Social Security. “I guess I screwed up,” Mike allowed. “Owning a boat and house are the only things holding me back.”

He hadn’t been sailing during the previous week—not since he and his brother-in-law were pulled off the rock pier by the Coast Guard. Mike came to his epiphany about the boat while dangling from a bosun’s chair, sweating in the heat and humidity, while untangling rigging at the top of the mast. Record-breaking rainfall also cut into his plans.

Nevertheless, it wasn’t raining that day, and there was a nice breeze blowing off the lake, so we went sailing. According to the original plan for our Lake Erie cruise, I was to lend my sailing expertise, while Mike honed his skills for his eventual embarkation to paradise. I was a bit rusty after all these years away from Ohio, and the thirty-footer handled much differently from my windsurfer, but we managed to clear the pier, go swimming, sail around, and dock the boat without any major problems. Mike was starting to think that his idea of sailing around the world might work after all.

He downsized the planned trip to western Lake Erie to a less ambitious cruise along the north coast to somewhere exotic, like Ashtabula, maybe later in the week.

We left him there and drove to Port Clinton—the town where I was born and raised. It was suggested to our son that if he would move to his ancestral home, he could be a sixth-generation Port Clintonite. Evan did not show much enthusiasm for the idea, even though eighteen-year-olds, accompanied by their parents, are allowed to shoot pool and drink beer at Bel Mel Tavern. His girlfriend made the understated observation, “It’s interesting how beer is such an important part of the Ohio culture.”

That aspect of the culture was still the same, but other things had changed a lot. Wal-Mart had destroyed most downtown businesses, and the infrastructure is crumbling. A huge influx of tourist dollars and residential developed in “Vacationland” has bypassed Port Clinton. City fathers plan to renew prosperity by building a giant water slide park, condos, a marina, and a hotel on the historic lake shore where my great-great grandfather climbed aboard a warship to fight the British in the War of 1812. Developers promise three hundred low-paying jobs and a good casino location when gambling becomes legal.

But the homegrown tomatoes, sweet corn, and peaches were still the world’s best. We had a good time visiting my mom (the last Belknap in town) at her old house across the road from the aforementioned water slide. We avoided the other tourists by recreating during the week, while cutting grass and fixing the plumbing on the weekends. On the clear moonless night of Barb’s birthday, we celebrated by watching the Perseid meteor showers from an old friend’s Bertram, adrift in a dark part of the lake.

Then it was back to Cleveland to stay with Barb’s parents on the night before the cruise. Upon returning to the dock in Fairport Harbor, we found that Mike had done some more thinking while we were gone and decided that his boat wasn’t really ready for cruising—sleeping berths filled with tools and cans of varnish. Anyway, he was busy fixing up the boat for a quick sale (not sail), so he would have some money to live in Mexico this winter. He figured he’d eventually move back to his home in the South Valley and maybe even go back to work. Mike missed his dog and the bosque. He missed happy hour microbrews with friends downtown and the music scene. He will probably write some good songs about what he did during his retirement.

So the great cruise of ‘07 never happened. No news is good news. Mike did, however, take us for another nice sail. His relationship with the boat had improved considerably, although he still had not given her a name. (I suggested, “Maggie Mae.” Remember the Rod Stewart song? “It’s late September and I really should be back in school.”) We hope the intrepid retiree moves back to New Mexico and keeps the boat in Ohio. Maybe we’ll cruise Lake Erie next year.

All New Mexico State Parks now fitted with defibrillators to help save lives

New Mexico State Parks announced today that all thirty-four state parks across the state are now equipped with at least one Automated External Defibrillator (AED). An AED is a portable electronic device that automatically diagnoses life-threatening heart-related issues by applying electrical therapy which stops cardiac arrhythmias, allowing the heart to re-establish an effective rhythm.

“Visitor safety at State Parks is our top concern,” said State Parks Director Dave Simon. “We hope that we never have to use them, but AEDs are worth having if they save a single life.”

State Parks are equipped with a total of fifty-one AEDs (some larger parks have more than one), which are the Philips “HeartStart” model. State Parks First Aid/CPR instructors are now qualified and equipped to provide AED training and do so biennially to all State Parks Department field personnel. Funding for purchase of most of the AEDs (forty-seven units) came from federal funds administered through a grant to State Parks by the Rural AED Consortium, while the remaining four units were funded by the State Parks Division.

AEDs are highly computerized; the system uses voice prompts to instruct the rescuer on how to apply the two electrodes to the victim’s chest, and then monitors the victim’s heart rhythm. If a defibrillating (shocking) rhythm is detected, the machine will charge itself and instruct the rescuer to stand clear of the victim and to press the shock button.

State Park’s AEDs meet the American Heart Association’s newest (2005) guidelines which direct a ratio of thirty heart compressions to two rescue breaths (updated from the 15:2 ratio that was used previously).

Studies have shown that bystander CPR plus defibrillation within three to five minutes of collapsing can improve survival from sudden cardiac arrest. According to the American Red Cross, more than two hundred thousand Americans die of sudden cardiac arrest every year. Up to fifty thousand of these deaths could have been prevented if an automated external defibrillator (AED) had been used.

For more information, contact New Mexico State Parks at 888-NMPARKS (888-667-2757) or visit






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