My birthday had come and gone when I moved to Santa Fe in 2001, but the following year, a former student asked what I’d like to do for my birthday. I didn’t hesitate.
“I’d like to celebrate being 66 by hiking somewhere beautiful.”
“Great,” he responded enthusiastically. “Let’s go to Nambé Lake.”
It’s a beautiful, high-altitude lake at the base of steep mountainous cliffs and sounded good to me. I didn’t think about whether I could do it, nor did I think about his being 40 years younger than me. He led, I followed. We had a wonderful time.
I decided to make it an annual event.
Since then, every year, I’ve celebrated my birthday by hiking to Nambé Lake, the exception being 2006 when I was recovering from yet another bout of leukemia and the effects of chemotherapy. After I turned 80, six years ago, each time I planned the birthday hike I wondered if I could still do it.
The day after turning 86, four days after the Santa Fe Forest reopened due to the easing of the drought, a friend and I began my birthday hike on a sunny cool morning. As we hiked up the relentlessly steep Winsor trail, I felt nervous and excited. She’s 24 years younger than I am and in great shape. Although I knew she’d be kind, I didn’t want her to have to wait for me. I’ve been told my misguided notion of someone waiting for me is less than two minutes, but it doesn’t feel good when I can’t keep up.
She set a fine pace and I followed, grateful when we got to the gate separating the Pecos Wilderness from the Santa Fe national forest. We hiked down for about a mile and then started up a steep narrow trail toward the first stream crossing. En route, we met three people who told us the stream was a raging torrent and not crossable. They said someone had been swept away in their attempts, which persuaded them to turn back.
My friend, an experienced mountaineer who has climbed high peaks all over the world, is not easily given to turning back. When she suggested we try to keep hiking, I agreed. The people were right. The stream, normally a bubbling brook, was a wild torrent and not safely navigable. Just to see how deep the water was, I put one of my poles into it, holding tight to keep it from being swept away. The water came up to my thigh. She proposed we take off our socks and boots and cross the tributaries, (I didn’t know they existed) which meant walking in a cold swampy mess for about 25 minutes, feet freezing, jumping over tributaries, hoping there was solid ground to land. I was incredibly relieved when she yelled, “I found the trail.”
We dried ourselves, put on our socks and boots and continued up the steep trail. We got to another stream, also rampaging, and hiked up beside it until we found a place we could cross. Although this too had challenges, it paled in comparison to the first crossing. Then up more steep, steep, steep, until we got to Nambé Lake. The lake was beautiful and peaceful, but I was tired and didn’t feel the same exultation I felt in past years—the difficult stream crossings, made the hike much harder and much longer. I sat down to eat something while my friend ate a few nuts.
Normally the return hike is more down than up, but given the arduous stream crossings, I was filled with dread, not looking forward to walking for almost half an hour with cold wet feet. So, I suggested, forgetting just how steep it was, that we climb up the “wall,” an escarpment that’s a vertical climb of 1000’ elevation gain in about 1000 feet. I did it two years ago with friends who zig zagged so although it was extremely difficult (class 4), there were places we could stop for a moment. There’s no trail and you have to wend your way carefully or you end up facing an impenetrable stone wall.
When we started up, my friend went straight up for a bit, then waited for me, then went up for a bit, waited for me. It felt like I was going to be climbing straight up forever. At one point I saw a beautiful pink flower and told her, “I’m gonna have a little conversation with this beauty.” I lay down, my face close to it, wondering what in hell I’d been thinking when I suggested we climb up the wall. Still, once you’re on the wall there’s nothing to be done but to keep going. It’s far more dangerous to go down. I started up again one foot in front of the other, trying not to fall.
When she got to the top and yelled she’d found our trail, I felt a surge of energy and made my way to where she was waiting. She congratulated me. I felt grateful that I did it, although not finishing wasn’t an option; I’d rather die than be rescued. We started hiking back on a path of steep ups and downs. Every up felt like a mini-mountain. We even missed a short cut turn and ended up hiking an extra half mile.
When we got to our cars, she was full of praise and admiration. “It was a brutal, epic hike,” she said. “What was supposed to be 6 ½ miles, 2000’ elevation gain, to the lake at 11,200’ above sea level turned into an 8+ mile climb, an elevation gain of 3500’, to a trail at 12,100. I’m so proud of you. I promise—I’ll escort you to Nambé Lake every year for your birthday.”
I felt thankful and appreciative. “I wouldn’t have been able to do it,” I told her, “if you hadn’t been supporting me every step of the way, knowing how to cross the streams and find the trails. You’re the best.”
Please visit https://www.nancykingstories.com/ where you can order her books, read about her memoir and novels, learn about her nonfiction exploring the power of stories, imagination, and creativity, and find information about Nancy’s workshops.
You can also order signed books from Nancy by contacting her at firstname.lastname@example.org