Guest Bloggers Ken and Gail Henning Demming, New Mexico
We have been rock hounding for the world class fluorescents at Miller Canyon for several years. We have made a few trips each spring and a few each fall since 2012. Even though the Nelly James Mine is at 7500’ elevation on the north side of Miller Peak, the three-mile long hiking trail starts in the desert where temperatures easily reach into the 90s during the summer. The hike isn’t bad on the way up; it is coming down with one or two backpacks filled with fluorescent treasures that takes its toll. On the way down it is always a fine balance between carrying water or rocks. You don’t want to run out of liquids, but water does weigh a lot.
In 2011, the Monument Fire swept through the canyon, burning trees and other vegetation on the ridges and along the canyon walls. The following summer brought monsoon rains with no trees to absorb any of the runoff, and the canyon became a river. Since we started glow-hounding the location after the loss of vegetation, three places have become particularly bothersome. Two of the areas are large arroyos that cross the lower part of the trail and are so deep and wide that you need to scramble down and back up the other side. The other trouble spot is farther up the trail, where the streambed has completely washed over the pathway. The 4-inch water supply line to Tombstone, AZ was also laid along the ground there in 2011 when the line was replaced. With all of the erosion each summer, the line is now almost a handrail as 3 to 4 feet of sand, dirt, and rocks that made up the path have been swept away. Coming down you need to scramble up and around boulders with the weight of your packs filled with rocks. Your knees and legs feel the strain with every single step.
Just before the arrival of Chris Powell and his son, Kevin, Ken & I were beset with a stomach virus that was quite severe. For four days for me and over a week for Ken, eating or drinking was very unpleasant. The night before we drove to Sierra Vista, Chris, Kevin and I went for a night hunt at Mahoney Mining area, south of Deming, NM. Ken didn’t come as he was still weak from the virus. We also decided not to do a side trip to the King Ainsworth Mine the next day to conserve our energy, especially Ken’s, for the Miller Canyon hike.
We stayed overnight in Sierra Vista so we could get an early start on our hike. We woke Chris and Kevin up at 6 AM, and had a quick breakfast at the hotel. Although they were not happy about getting up so early, we made it over to the parking lot at the start of the trail by 8 AM. It was cloudy and cool and the weather forecast was for a potential shower at 4 PM.
The hike up was uneventful except that a birder came up to tell us to tell us that the spotted owl was just across the canyon. We were interested in seeing the bird, but not any extra hiking, so we declined the additional walk. We covered the three miles, 1500 ft. elevation gain, up to the mine in good time around 10 AM. The weather remained cool and overcast, perfect for lamping fluorescent rocks under a barbecue cover. We even had a close encounter with a hummingbird as Ken was wearing a splash of color. It sprinkled on us a few times while we collected but nothing too significant. By one o’clock we had stuffed our packs and bags and started heading back down.
We always take longer on the way down than the way up due to the weight of the rocks, and so we take several rest stops. We generally stop about halfway down for a longer break. We also use the time to have some lunch, water, and energy drink. Kevin, who is about fifty years younger than Ken, was quite far down the path ahead of us. Chris went ahead to slow him down while we sat on the rock pile. We may have had a shorter break than we normally do as Kevin was ready to move.
We made it to the bad section where the trail is washed out beside the four-inch water line and you need to scramble up and down rocks and boulders. Ken was stepping down from a rock when he tripped over a boulder in the trail. He yelled as he fell, and Chris and Kevin came running back. I was very close to Ken and could see his right foot was twisted around backwards.
“My leg is broken”, he said.
Chris, Kevin and I all looked at each in terror. What should we do? Kevin took charge of looking for a walking stick. Chris and I talked with Ken telling him to take it easy. It felt like the earth had stopped. Ken slowly moved his leg to a normal position. We helped him get his pack off and get him to a standing position on one leg. Kevin brought several sticks for Ken to try. When he finally brought one that was strong enough, Ken tried a few steps and with the aid of the stick he was able to put some weight on his right leg, which had swollen considerably in the meantime. Kevin took Ken’s pack and started down the trail. Chris and I assisted Ken in his slow progress down the path. The worst two areas to traverse were the deep arroyos; Chris assisted Ken from below and I was above to stabilize him for the mile and a half back down to Chris’s truck.
We hadn’t seen Kevin for some time and when we arrived at the truck we were surprised to see that he wasn’t sitting comfortably waiting for us. Ken figured that he must have missed the turn-off to the parking lot and continued on down the trail. Meanwhile the sky above Miller Peak was getting very dark and we could hear rumbling of thunder. We decided to drive down the road and see if Kevin had realized that he had missed the turn-off and either back-tracked on the trail or made it over to the road. We drove about a mile down but no sign of Kevin either on the path or on the road. We drove back to the parking lot and the sky was getting more ominous and the thunder louder. A few drops of rain spattered the truck. Chris was understandably getting very anxious over the whereabouts of his son.
It is very scary being up Miller Canyon with any significant amount of moisture. The Monument Fire left the canyon with very little vegetation to absorb a rainfall. The big arroyos would be unpassable quickly while the road down from the parking lot is scarred with many places where water has run across. I went back up the path calling Kevin’s name. As I walked, I said prayers that Kevin would show up soon and that no harm would come to him. Then I heard a vehicle come up the road and arrive in the parking lot, and the slam of a vehicle door. I knew then that my prayers were answered and Kevin was back.
Sure enough as I got close to the lot, Kevin was looking for me and saying exactly what Ken had thought had happened. He finally realized that he had missed the turn and went down to the road. He had made it to the bathrooms which are about two miles down the road from the fork in the trail.
I was so thankful that we all made it out all right or should I say alive. It was after all Good Friday, April 18th. Ken’s leg needed to be checked out, but that we could do in Deming. As we started to drive down, the rains started increasing. When we were on the highway leaving Sierra Vista, it was raining so hard at times the windshield wipers couldn’t even keep up. Who knows what would have happened if Ken hadn’t been able to walk out. A rescue mission in the rain could have been a disaster as the arroyos could have been flooded and the path could have become a river in spots. Thankfully we didn’t have to experience that.
Ken went to the emergency room the next day and found out that indeed he had broken the fibula bone in his leg where it attaches to the ankle. He decided to have surgery on Thursday, April 24 – a plate and seven screws – and he is recovering slowly. We will see next fall if we go up Miller Canyon again. Every year the trail is getting worse and we aren’t getting any younger!