Rubies Among the Shooting Stars

A trip to the headwaters of the Pecos River in July 1976 resulted in the culinary surprise of a lifetime.

Rubies Among the Shooting Stars
Illustration By Lisa Kirkpatrick

Years ago, in my salad days, the cartilage in my knees was a lot friskier than it is now, and strenuous backpacking trips with hippie friends to the high mountain ranges of New Mexico occurred on a regular basis. One such trip to the headwaters of the Pecos River in July 1976 resulted in the culinary surprise of a lifetime. It was a taste epiphany of stupendous proportion, yielding vivid flavors that even now I can recall at will.

After some 35 miles of grueling dirt road above the town of Pecos, we arrived at Iron Gate Campground on an unusually sweltering summer morning. It was the trailhead for our 14-mile hike up to Pecos Falls (10,200 feet), a gorgeous, 60-foot horsetail waterfall cascading over quartzite fissures. To get there, we would have to endure a rough, rocky hike up countless switchbacks through highland forest of aspen, spruce, fir, and pine, with 40-pound packs weighing us down. Sisyphus had it better.

About halfway up on the trail map was Hamilton Mesa, a long, relatively flat expanse of high-altitude meadow where we had planned on taking a much-needed lunch and reefer break. At the outset of the hike we were in awe of the incredible vistas looking east over the Porvenir and Mora valleys, out to the flatlands beyond Las Vegas, N.M. With increased distance, heat, and altitude, we became more and more fascinated with the myopic view of one boot landing repeatedly in front of the other one, not really sure how it was happening, but glad that we were somehow able to keep momentum headed upward.

Hours later, when we crested the rise onto Hamilton Mesa, we went into scenic shock. In front of us lay acre after acre of meadow grasses mixed with wild irises, shooting stars, blue columbines, and dozens of other wildflowers in peak display, all forming a canopy of solid blooms as far as the eye could see. We reached a cluster of trees and collapsed in the welcoming shade.

After an uninspiring freeze-dried lunch and a sensory-inspiring smoke, I was lying prone on my back, looking up through a cloud of multicolored petals, when a flash of brilliant scarlet caught my periphery. Upon closer inspection it seemed that the entire meadow floor was a carpet of small, rubylike wild mountain strawberries, still glistening with the morning's dew. They seemed to be glowing ... so brightly that it was a wonder they had gone undiscovered until now.

Strawberries are easily among the biggest temptresses of the fruit world. You see them in the market, deepest red, big as a golf ball, slightly giving to the touch, sexy, with a pleasing nose. All is euphoric until that first bite, and then the disenchantment sets in. Once again you've been seduced by the visual and disappointed by the reality. But these wild crimson cousins seemed different. Would these petite, seductive berry jezebels tease or torment?

Imagine concentrating the flavor of the best, ripest strawberry you ever ate twentyfold. Make it so aromatic that its smell alone would be overpowering. Picture a taste that's the ideal balance between sweet and acidic, with layer after layer of perfect flavor that explodes all around the mouth. Realize that what created that sensation is a berry the size of a large garbanzo bean. There is no strawberry but the wild strawberry. Incredible!

We found ourselves stoned and looking over about 100 acres of delectable strawberry carpet ... they were everywhere we looked. We ate those darlings for what seemed like hours ... rooting along the ground like overgrown armadillos, scarfing every berry we saw, and squirreling away as many as we could carry while we grazed. We had garish red stains on our lips and hands and a belly full of the best berries that ever existed on this or any other planet.

It had gotten hotter, and we were only halfway along our climb to the top of the mountain, but we were restored and sated, ready for the challenge. We also had a few gallons of those luscious berries to feast on once we got to the falls. Along our climb, when we'd start dragging, all we had to do was close our eyes for a second, and we could transport ourselves back to the refreshing intensity of that ethereal taste sensation. I can still taste them today ... wild mountain strawberries, Lord have mercy.

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