Above: Hikers head to Horseshoe Lake after bagging the state's highest mountain. Photograph by Ellen Miller.
YOU JUST REACHED THE SUMMIT of Wheeler Peak, at 13,160 feet. Perhaps you ambled up the four-mile, 3,000-foot ascent. Maybe you were the ardent trail runner on a mission. The sky might be clear. It could be snowing—or blowing so hard you have to crouch behind the permanent cairn for ballast. Read its brass plaque commemorating the peak’s status as New Mexico’s highest point. Then take a selfie. Or call a friend and ask, “Guess where I am?” Surely, like the untold thousands who have climbed the peak, near Taos, since it was first surveyed in the 1870s, you unscrew the top of the metal tube that’s always there and record your achievement.
Several times a summer, Richard Holmes, a recreation technician for the U.S. Forest Service, Questa Ranger District, hastens up Wheeler Peak, replaces bedraggled notebooks and pens in the tube, and brings all he finds back to the office. There, for the time being, the official notebooks and (after those logs have filled) scrap paper bearing hikers’ names are unceremoniously stashed in a white kitchen trash bag, along with a hodgepodge of photographs, drawings, and odd gifts.
Many hikers merely note their names and a date. For some, Wheeler is a tick mark—one of 50 national highs they feel compelled to conquer. This one stands eighth among the highest points in each state. Alaska’s Denali tops it, at 20,320 feet. Britton Hill, Florida, drags in last, at 345 feet. In the summer of 1999, Marc Asch, of Marlborough, Massachusetts, wrote, “This is my 10th high point (others are Massachusetts, Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, and Delaware). Only 40 more to go!”
Many write just enough to express joy over their achievement. “Booya!” “Wow!” “Woo Hoo!” Or they extol the beauty of their surroundings. “Amazing view.” “Best view in the world.” “Epic view for two newlyweds!”
Others feel compelled to give thanks or praise. “My God is an awesome God!” “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me (Philippians 4:16)!” “Jesus helped me overcome my chronic illness enough to get up here.” And “God is good,” to which someone else answered, “all the time.”
When Army first lieutenant George Montague Wheeler’s surveyors measured the peak (he himself was never there), they kept detailed scientific records of every animal, bird, and insect they saw—a pursuit shared by modern visitors, albeit less scientifically. “What are those friendly gopher-like critters?” Allison Buckle, of Edinburgh, Scotland, wondered on July 24, 1999. (They were marmots, Allison.) “Saw my first marmot! And wild sheep!” José Archuleta wrote in 2015. “P.S.,” he added, “a marmot peed on my sleeping pad!” “Marmots have it tough up here, I’m sure,” wrote someone from Los Gatos, California, “but they don’t have mortgages and they don’t have opposable thumbs so they don’t have to carry a bunch of stuff around.”
Some pull words from literature to express their thoughts. “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings (John Muir).” “Because the world will always be too big and we will always be too small, the least we can do is try (Carla Pelastree).” Beth Rhodes, of Roswell, left her own poetry: “To be engulfed by the majestic mountain, covered by the fragrant breeze, and surrounded with the flora redolent with fragrance is to be home in the bosom of the earth.”
In addition to the artworks, mementos, and trash left behind (pack it out, people!), a few leave helpful advice. “Eat more fiber, drink more Ovaltine.” “Don’t take the wrong trail, it may take six hours.” “The trail can be tough and the mountain daunting, but if you put your head down and keep pushing, you can make it to the top.” “Respect our wilderness. Leave no trace. Take only photos, leave only footprints.”
In July 2015, Calder Conrad wrote, encouragingly, “Take time in nature to ease anxiety, depression, and mental obstacles. It is necessary to be clear on what you want in life and why you want it. Set high goals and strive to achieve them. Much like the journey you have accomplished today.”
Someone named O.G. noted, “Here is where I let go of all the regrets and pain of everything that has shoved me down and everyone who has let me down. Here on the rock, it’s time to let go of the horrible experiences that have held me back from a bright, beautiful, and hopeful future. Here on this rock in the wilderness, I am free. I am changing. I am strong.”
Several made the trek during the August 21, 2017, solar eclipse. A surprising number log in each winter, but Charlie Haas made it his 2002 goal to be that year’s first: “Midnight, January 1, 2002. Happy New Year!”
And then come the random thoughts likely wrought from exhaustion. “Where is the beer?” “My hand is so cold I can’t write!” “My feet hurt, my legs hurt, I can’t breathe well and I feel dizzy but other than that, I’m just a huge ray of sunshine!”
One fellow seemed surprised to enter his name at all: “So there really is a sign-in. I thought everyone was yanking my chain.”
Download National Forest Service information about Wheeler Peak at nmmag.us/NFSwheeler.