If I were writing this song today, I have found the perfect inspiration. There are one or two singular outcroppings of quartzite rock just off the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) — big ol’ white knobs of rock standing each one alone above the ridge just south of the Burro Mountains. Those knobs remind me of a mountain of rock candy, shattered and spilling bite-sized bits down the sides of the ridge in river-flows.
There are old tracks that go up to the outcroppings if I wanted to venture up for a closer look. And actually, I have – had a closer look, that is.
Couple of years ago, when I was hiking pre-Covid days with the Tuesday Group, we ventured off the CDT up the old track to one of those quartzite outcrops. The ground was scattered with chunks of quartzite, some of which were very pretty – some solidly snow white, some bits darkly-veined. Taking our mid-hike snack break, we sat on the larger blocks of rock while some in the group rock-hounded, filling their pockets or packs with manageable chunks. I refrained from collecting only because of the added weight that I didn’t want to carry 2+ miles back to the trailhead.
It wasn’t until we were packed and ready to start back to the CDT and our vehicles, that our resident historian-slash-geologist told us a bit more about this formation, its history and its mineral makeup. “Did you know that this area was mined for uranium?” he asked us. Umm…uranium? Isn’t uranium radioactive? And we have pocketfulls of the stuff?? “Well,” he reassured us, “not very high level.” I noticed a few of the group covertly emptied their pockets of the now-suspect rock, diligently brushed off their fannies where they had been sitting, and headed back down the track, quick-stepping to abandon the area.
This region is known for copper mining, along with silver and gold. All the way back to the Apaches who ranged this area, copper was extracted. But the fact of uranium is not as well know, probably because the metal was not found in enough quantities to warrant major investment. Still, there were, and possibly still are, a number of mining claims in the area that proved out for limited uranium deposits. I was curious and Google came through with a 1952 report by US Geological Survey on the geology, the formations, and the mine claims that is an interesting bit of history to read. And looking closely at my cell-phone picture, mining piles show evidence of abandoned hopes.
Now, I just admire the Big Rock Candy Mountains as I hike the CDT just below them. I step past the flow of candy quartz and hum the tune remembered.
Dog, Friend and I, and one additional friend headed out this week to a section of the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) that we haven’t hiked before. It’s a roughly 3-mile segment between C-Bar Rd and Knights Canyon Rd. We struck off up a track pocked with wide-mouth tire treads and eroded from too-frequent atv-ing; the CDT often shares with such as this. Wasn’t long, though, before we came to two huge cairns, one on the right side of the track and one off to the left appearing to direct us up a gully. Fortunately, 20 feet or so up the gully, we spotted the CDT/Forest Service trail marker heading off to the right.
A rabbit trail: Friend and I have a now-ongoing joke about cairns. Are they: navigational tools? spiritual exercise? or a Facebook post, as in “lookie, I was here!” Well, yes to all but in context. They can do ecological damage; they can keep hikers on the right path; their construction goes against “Leave No Trace”; they are ego statements for a picture and a post. It’s all context. I don’t pass one by without notice. Some I appreciate. Some I kick down. And I have repaired one or two. In this case, the cairns were directional to keep us from plodding down this unlovely track that paralleled the highway 100 feet away.
We hiked through three habitats: juniper/pinion/mahogany groves in the dry creek beds; trail that hugged the side of the ridge, offering long views; and rock outcrop. The trail was expressed in two directions: steeply up and just as steeply down, with some modest sections modestly level. There were two rocky crevices to descend into and to climb out. One of them made me think of the Great Rift Valley in Tanzania. The trail through this area was accommodating with switchbacks to make breathing in transit a little easier.
While we were in the shelter of the groves, we commented that it felt like a rock garden planted by a large hand. We frequently stopped to bird-spot. Up on the ridge-hugging trail, we took advantage of our 360° views of Mexico borderlands, the Floridas, Cookes Peak, Jacks Peak, and the rocky ridges above us.
On crossing the rock outcropping, I thought of a trail called Billy Goat at Great Falls, MD. While walking, I didn’t register beyond my feet, which demanded all my attention. Stopping, I looked around at raw stone painted with several shades of lichens; the trail was etched across the face of the outcrop. Each territory had its unique beauty.
Our turning-around point was just shy of 2 miles and was marked by Dog alerting on several cows with calves. Dog sometimes forgets that she’s on a leash; she throws herself to the end of the line in wished-for pursuit. Throws my shoulder out, too, if I’m not expecting it.
Coming back, we crossed the rock, hiked up then down the switchback through the small Rift, and started on the ridge-side trail.
A roar became louder until it crashed over our heads, followed by a fighter jet cresting a few hundred feet over the ridge and starting to drop toward us. Pilot may have seen 3 humans on the trail and pulled up slightly. As the jet screamed overhead, banking slightly south, its buddy-jet howled just over the next ridge down and the pair headed east, low and fast. Too fast for us to get out phone cameras. Too fast to mentally record aircraft profile. Too fast to see my middle finger waving. Not 15 minutes later, jet-noise drew my eyes southward a few miles to two more jets pulsing across the landscape, safely higher in altitude, hot-dogging it across the Forest and private lands. Three friends standing stunned, one dog sitting low. We marked our location on gps with the intention of reporting the overflights. We believe that this is not a legal training MOA for any of the military bases in the region.
Before we could move on too far, that roar came again. Fumbled for my camera, thinking that the jet would appear in front of us where the last low-flyer did. Suddenly, I realized that the roar was leading the aircraft from behind us; I turned quickly to see this jet coming at us, following us on the trail, so low my natural instinct was to duck. I tried to get my phone up and aimed as the jet passed overhead. I may have hit the shutter button, I may not have. I didn’t record anything with a jet in it, though. We singed the leaves on the trees with our blue language for the next mile or so down the trail. I was particularly incensed, having been similarly and dangerously buzzed by two fighter jets in the Gila Wilderness on a steep canyon rim trail on horseback.
Top Gun may be the most viewed movie for wanna-be fliers, and Top Gun Maverick may break viewing records. But hot-shot Top Guns are not welcome at minimum altitude and maximum speed over a wilderness area.
There is much in my natal state of Maryland that is not archaeologically permanent. I imagine it’s in part because of the weather which decomposes materials in short order, in terms of generations and eras. Surely, though, the tramp of human history obliterates most of that which came before in the course of plowing, logging, scraping, building, paving and all the development inflicted on the land. During my growing-up years, I never heard of, let alone saw, stuff like arrowheads and pottery bits just lying around on the ground. Read about it, sure, but never heard-tell that it was a common phenomenon.
It’s a different story here in the southwest, where the weather plus the expansive and uncluttered landscape contribute to preserving history by way of what is left on the ground.
When I hike in the forest, I find myself poking under trees, around boulders and on flat spots that have good views to see what has been left behind by those who were here before me. Even better when I’m with friends for whom this is natal country and whose eyes are accustomed to picking out the smallest fragments of people long past.
There is both a timelessness and a time-bound nature to the left-behind. Rarely, though, is there an explanation for the leaving. I often find myself standing, pondering, wondering who left this and why, and when? Miners explored this area, looking for gold, silver, copper, turquoise. They left mining claim markers and tin cans stripped of labels. It not uncommon to find metal sheets, purpose unknown but shot full of holes by bullets and rust. But then again, these artifacts could have been left by hunters in past years.
Older still, evidence of the first people to live in these mountains. The Apache were here and long before them, the Mogollon people and their ancestors, the Archaic. All left their legacies. If you know where to look, and how, you find pottery sherds, arrow heads and spear tips and sometimes the chipping and scraping stones that made them. Grinding holes in granite boulders and slabs, where grain for eating was prepared.
I pick up a sherd or stone and feel the energy of the user of these bits. I admire the artistry and skill of the maker, the painted sherds with black and white or red on white lines and geometrics; the pottery pieces that still show the coils that created them; the lips and holes that were integral to the function of the pots and bowls. But don’t take them. Ethics require that those ancient relics be left as they were. Pick them up, admire them, and then put them right back on the ground. This is where they belong. Not my pocket, not my shelf. Here, where they were before me.
I have my favorite hikes, each starting at a trailhead in the Gila National Forest. I mark multiple turn-around points on each trail, depending on my energy level and the anger of arthritis in my hips. A modest turn-around might be shy of one and half miles; on more energetic days, I might turn around at two-plus miles. Most of these trails are so familiar that I often don’t set my meter because I know just where I’ll turn back based on how far I want to hike.
The furthest endpoint of three of my favorite hikes is at a gate. I guess I never thought about going through those gates to see what lay beyond. Not that I’m not curious. But I remember the advice of a long-ago friend: “Hike until you’re half-tired.”
The first gate breeched was on the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) near my home. This is a section of the CDT I prefer when I’m hiking alone and want to just do a quick in-and-out. Dog needs her exercise and Sunday mornings are good opportunities to get her on this trail just long enough to work her nose, to wear off a little of that energy. Not long ago, my friend and I decided to hike this trail to the gate, just two miles from the trailhead. Good weather and good conversation, plus a good pace, and we got to the gate before my hips had a chance to complain. We decided to see what was on the other side. The CDT continued, of course; the gate simply marked the boundary of the rancher’s grazing lease. On we walked for another, oh, maybe half a mile and then the trail began a switch-back down into a deep arroyo. We turned back, but not before I took a picture of the view. This was one of those times when I kept thinking: just a little farther – just around that big juniper – just a little up that hill – and we’d get a great view of Bear Creek Canyon. That hike, having gone beyond the gate, added up to just about five miles.
The next gate was at the end of the trail in Pancho Canyon, on the Gila River. Another favorite hike, Dog, Friend and I retreat to this trail in the heat of summer, always ending up with our feet in the river watching the idling birds. This section of trail is not much more than a mile one-way but it’s shady, rife with Common Black Hawks and warblers and perfect on an early morning before the temps hit the 90s. A couple of weeks ago, we headed out there in cooler weather to leaf-peep at the golden Cottonwoods and white-barked Arizona Sycamores.
Lower temps are conducive to longer walks so when we reached the gate at the far end of this stretch of river, we decided to keep going. I knew what was on the other side; I have driven up and over the ridge and down to the river, ending at Ira Canyon at the far end. I have never hiked from one end to the other. This seemed like the day to try. Once through the gate, we dropped down to the river on the only obvious trail – and came to a dead end. Retracing our steps, we found another spur through the weeds. That spur wandered through a small copse of Sycamore, Cottonwood and coyote willow, only to end at another point on the river. We stood listening to the water moving over the rocks in riffles while Dog hopped around chest-deep in the river. Filled with river-music, we turned back for that gate and Poncho Canyon.
A final gate marks the two-mile point on the CDT heading south from Gold Gulch Rd. This section of the CDT is not one for summer. The trail is exposed to both sun and breeze, traversing the sides of a ridge, dropping into two meadows and climbing out before finally relaxing through a forest of waist-high bear grass. On this clear cool morning, Dog, Friend and I decided that a sunny trail was just the thing. We hiked until we reached the gate and contemplated returning to the road where we were parked. But neither of us had been beyond this point and, having plenty of time and the best weather for hiking, we slipped the chain on the gate and went through, securing the gate behind us. We had rather anticipated we might connect with Rt 90 and the cross-over to C-Bar and the CDT on the east side of 90. Or at least see 90 in the near distance. Once up on a little hillock, we could see that Rt 90 was still a long distance to the southeast. After hiking about three-quarter mile through an unchanging landscape, we decided to head back. Back at Gold Gulch and the truck, we recorded almost five miles and one tuckered Dog.
Not all gates are made of metal. Not all gates demark grazing leases. Some are just there to mark the way and to bring a smile to the next to pass by.
My friend, Dog and I had a full day to devote to a hike, giving us the time we needed to head a little further afield. When we have that luxury, one of the first and favorite places that pops to mind is Railroad Canyon up in the Black Range of the Gila National Forest.
Another luxury is going to the same trails throughout the seasons to watch the changes in water, in plant life, in color and smell and sounds. When we hiked Railroad Canyon last it was probably in late August, when water in Gallinas Creek still ran freely across the river rock and the wildflowers were still in their summer progression. In August, the Ponderosa still smelled like vanilla when the sun warmed them. Birds were still calling, showing us glimpses of Painted Restarts, Robins, a shy Hermit Thrush, a Red-tailed Hawk sailing on the air currents above us.
This fall day was clear and bright with a New Mexico blue sky. We found, at the entrance to the trail, an artform that someone had created since the last time we were here. This is not a trail cairn because none is needed here, but a balancing act of rock on rock.
We beat the sun into the canyon, feeling a chill for the first quarter mile until the uphill slant to the trail warmed us. The first creek crossings were dry. Gallinas Creek runs over and dips and slides under the creek bed so except in the very wettest spring, when snow melt has swelled the creek, many of the creek crossings are really rock crossings, showing only the evidence of dried algae to remind the passer-by that this ephemeral creek can run charged.
Although the sun had yet to light the canyon floor, it was filtering through the Ponderosa above us.
The south-facing canyon sides were already ablaze with golden oak in brilliant display. On the north-facing slope, seed-headed underbrush was still dully lit with the sun sitting just below the ridge. The fuzzy heads would soon be backlighted as soon as the sun edged over the hill.
But tarry we didn’t and by the time we hiked back down-trail, the sun was high and the light was lost.
We walked to the point where the trail splits into Railroad and East Railroad Trail with directional signs pointing up to the Crest Trail on the ridges of the Black Range. A good place to sit. A good place for Dog to go digging after whatever small dark creatures lived under the duff. And eventually we started back down-trail.
The sun had moved further overhead, as it is wont to do. The canyon was now warmed, and the pine needles were fragrant. Friend and I kicked at dried oak leaves on the trail, as though we were still 10 years old. Birds were moving around – Juncos, Wrens; Jays were calling. A few lingering, late-season wildflowers caught our attention: Purple Aster, Larkspur, white Yarrow, a couple of wild Geranium and one small offering of Cinquefoil. North-facing hillsides of oak and seed-headed underbrush were now limned with gold light.
And pools of water, layered with fallen leaves, reflected color back to the morning light.
Dawn came softly. I had just closed my eyes to a deep sky full of stars, and now I opened to a sky just lightening. Carol’s and Allyson’s sleeping bags were not moving, suggesting that they were both still in the Land of Nod. Behind me, though, I could hear firewood being thrown onto the morning fire. Looking past my feet into the trees, six horses moved at a hobbled pace through the grass, heads down and cropping. They had been released from their ties and sent out to breakfast.
I resisted the urge to immediately go looking for coffee, instead rolling up my sleeping bag, folding my tarps, gathering my stuff into a coherent pile and taking my saddle pads over to where the saddles and tack were stacked. My saddle blanket went with me to fireside to provide my seat cushion on the log.
Other than a bright good-morning, Corbin and Joe continued getting ready for our day: building up the fire, filling the coffee pot and the cook pot with water and setting them on the coals to boil, cutting fruit for our breakfast of oatmeal. Corbin had made a comment the evening before that there’s something therapeutic about sitting and staring into a campfire. I practiced a little pre-prandial therapy, since there was little I could do to help the preparations. Eventually, we were all gathered, coffee mugs and oatmeal in hand and the day properly begun.
As we sat and compared nighttime noise stories – I had heard a Great Horned Owl and wondered if anyone else did – occasionally either Joe or Corbin would count to six. If they only counted to five, Corbin would go in search of the missing horse. This was something I had observed previously while in camp. Even though hobbled around the front feet, a horse can make quite a bit of headway, often ranging out of sight. He would encourage them back, usually with little trouble. His horse, Biscuit, had an investigative nose. She was often poking around the food stores, poking at Corbin’s bedroll, or at anything else she found interesting. Poor Smoke, on the other hand, had little patience for her hobbles. This morning, as she tried to move forward, she stumbled over her front feet, sat back on her haunches, and stood in a quiver. Joe looked at her and just shook his head. When I curried and cajoled her later, I noticed that she had a little scrape on each front foot, just above the hoof.
Well fed, once again, and it was time to pack up for our last day. As we were ready to leave the fire, Corbin – or was it Joe? – told us that not long after we left the camp, we would come to a part of the trail that runs along on the side of a steep hill for about 1/4 mile. Looking right at me, he said, “But Smoke is an old pro at this.” Well, yes, maybe she is. But I surely am not.
Oy vey. And here I thought the rest of our ride would be a stroll along the river, with the terror of yesterday’s Hells Hole put behind us. Well, as an old country song goes, “If you got your confidence with you, you can do anything.” We saddled up, mounted up, and headed out on our last 10+/-miles, including that 1/4 mile of hillside. I started working on my confidence right away.
Sure enough, it wasn’t long before the trail trended upward along the side of a partially wooded-partially rocky slope. It wasn’t steep enough to switchback and we weren’t climbing to the top. Rather the trail continued laterally. However, the challenge became obvious quickly. Most of the hillside was composed of talus slumped down from the top. Here was a difficulty for the horses that they didn’t have to navigate coming down Hells Hole trail. The trail was etched in across loose rock that clinked and slipped under their feet as they minced their way along. And then there was about 8 feet of slickrock slanted downhill to cross.
I engaged in both an out-loud and an under-breath conversation getting across that quarter-mile. “Watch your feet, girl. Ok, Smoke, be careful. You can do this.” Alternating with, under my breath: “f**kohf**kohsh*tTrust Your Horseahsh*tTrust Your Horseahf**k.” “Good Smoke, watch your feet, girl. Take it easy, Smoke.” Well, she did and Joe, who’d been leading on Jet, with Kissee tethered to him, was waiting on the now-wooded and pine-needled gentling slope to give me a thumbs-up. I grinned and announced the obvious, “I made it, white knuckles and all.” Allyson, riding behind me, had heard my overt exhortations to Smoke, but fortunately not my self-talk.
The West Fork Gorge is stunning. The walls are crenelated and hoodoo-ed. The river slips between the walls, sometimes pushing the trail up against the foot of the cliffs, sometimes forcing the trail up and over little ridges. A lot of rock on the river edges and in the river bed, rock of not insignificant size. Some of the riversides are a drop from a level trail, down a rocky slope and up on the far side. Smoke picked her way carefully down the rock, stepping between rocks in crossing the river and jostling up the far slope. Occasionally, her foot would step into a hole, pitching us forward. I did a lot of standing in my stirrups – stand-and-lean-back going down and stand-and-lean-forward to get up the other side. I peeked at the walls and spires of the gorge as much as I could. We stopped at several river crossings to water the horses and took advantage of those moments to pull out cameras and make record of the beauty and drama. This was part of the magic I didn’t want to miss.
Eventually we encountered people. And dogs. And noise. Backpackers setting up camp under a rock overhang. Hikers with two loose dogs; they held the dogs as we walked by. More hikers, casual as they stepped off-trail. Just as we were plunged into the vibrant fall colors and through the flood plain covered with Chamisa as we left the Gila Cliff area, we rode back into that environment after crossing the boundary out of the Wilderness.
Coming into Woodys Corral, we were met by Joe’s support team with their trucks and trailers. I got my last dismount assist, took Smoke to a rail and tied her up. I unloaded my personal gear and put it in Carol’s car. Then, I unbridled Smoke and with Corbin’s help, pulled off the saddle, the saddle pads and blanket, saddle bags, rope and all the accoutrements of the trail and took everything to Joe’s truck. Time to say goodbye to Smoke. I rubbed her muzzle and scratched her forehead and down between her eyes. I reached under her chin and gave her head a hug. Another muzzle rub and another attempt at a head-hug. I guess Smoke isn’t a hugger; she tossed her head up and away from my attention. So, ok, I get it. Well, bye, Smoke. And thanks.
The half-moon set sometime early in the night. The temperature dropped and my head got a little cold. Solved that by pulling my fleece vest from my “pillow” stack of clothes and wrapping it around my head. Peeking through the armhole of the vest, I gazed up at the star-struck night sky. Saddle pads do not a soft mattress make. Hips sore from being launched onto and sliding off a saddle do not an easy rest make. But the stars made up for a lot. I must have fallen asleep because suddenly, it was dawn.
The fire was crackling as Corbin moved around in front of the flames, throwing firewood on. Horses were released from their overnight ties and hobbled, turned out to graze on the sparse grasses. I got dressed in the confines of my sleeping bag, pulled on socks and shoes and rolled up the bedding. Stumbled over to the fire to find my cup left on a rock and made a cup of instant coffee. No creamer but mocha/chocolate powder made a sweet substitute. Rocks were fireside patio chairs, topped with saddle blankets for cushions. Breakfast was foiled and laying on the coals to heat. Red chile beef tamales, bread and fresh fruit.
We didn’t hurry breakfast, taking time for coffee and a bit of conversation even though we had about 10 miles over 5 or so hours of riding. What’s the trail and schedule for today. What is our destination. Where will we find water for the horses and for ourselves. And for me, what terror awaits.
I went to find Smoke, who was hobbled and befuddled. I tried to lead her back; she stumbled and mumbled. Once I took the hobbles off, she was happier and came along peaceably. We curried, saddled and packed. The packhorse, Kissee, was loaded and strapped. Breakfast fire was extinguished. We were up and off.
We had several miles of quiet, peaceful Ponderosa pine forest to travel along the Prior Creek drainage. Prior Creek was full and running, and the horses slurped water up through their “straws.” Upstream a little further, we dismounted, let the horses graze and filled our own water bottles at the spring source. Joe and Corbin trusted the spring water and only filtered it through their kerchiefs into their bottles. The three of us took advantage of Carol’s filtration system to remove all doubt, filled 3 water bottles each for a total of about 6 liters. This water had to last us until tomorrow.
I rode second in our line, behind Corbin in the lead. Behind me, I could hear Carol, Allyson and Joe in conversation, though I could not hear enough to follow. A word or phrase but not a thread. I let that go and just rode, staying present and holding in memory my surroundings, my experience of Wilderness, and my body’s movement in concert with my horse. Looking at the Ponderosa forest, seeing an owl take silent wing from a low-hanging branch. Knowing in the moment that this would be one of the highlights of this trip.
We cut across from Prior Creek trail to Lilley Park trail, somewhat reversing direction and headed for our lunch stop.
Hells Hole. There is only one way to get from the plateau to the river and that is down. Hells Hole is the point Joe chose to make that descent. It is called Hells Hole because when you are on the edge of it, you can’t see the bottom. One and one-quarter mile down the side of the gorge. A narrow trail switchbacking along a sheer face and definitely no gentle fall-away. And me with my fear of heights and edges. Compound that by being several feet off the ground on a horse and not in control of my own fear – um, feet.
Of course I knew it was coming. Joe told us the route well in advance and I had the topo map. He had ridden the route a couple of weeks before to check the trail conditions and water sources and confirmed that even he was a bit nervous going down; he assured me I could walk if I needed to. From our lunch stop to the edge of the abyss, I repeated my mantra: “Trust your horse. I can do this. Trust your horse. I can do this.” I got as far as the first switchback, looked down into an eternity of empty space and called out, “Joe, I can’t do this.” We stopped the horses, he got me down off Smoke, neither of us went over the side in the process. For the next 1/2 mile or so, I walked at a horse’s pace behind Joe, the pack horse and Smoke, followed by Allyson, Carol and Corbin on their horses. Joe walked too, to slow the pace enough for me to keep up. I could hear the breath of Allyson’s Young Gun at my back and her frequently calling “Ho” to slow him down. Finally, I could see trees and a slight leveling of the trail. Joe stopped the horses, came and boosted me up on Smoke and I felt, whew, we’re almost there. No. We rode the trail for a few hundred yards around several more switchbacks and then out onto open edges again. Back off my horse, back on my own two feet, down another 1/2 mile at horses’ pace. Until finally, the river was in sight – and a most wonderful sight it was. I got back on Smoke, to let her do the walking and to rest my burning thighs.
We dropped into the river, literally, crossed over and continued for a mile or so to the campsite Joe had planned for the night. Repeating the routine of the night before, we unsaddled and hobbled the horses, staked out sleeping areas, gathered firewood and started the dinner fire.
This night, the sun set on the cliffs and hoodoos of the West Fork gorge. We sat by the fire later into the night, talking and sipping hot tea. I found a spot for my sleeping bag that had a nice little concave area, perfect for resting sore hips. I crawled into my sleeping bag with my saddle blanket on top for warmth, wrapped my head in my fleece vest again, and watched the stars brighten until I found sleep.
I’ve never backpacked. I am not a horsewoman. So I’ve never been able to experience true Wilderness. Last year I decided that I wanted to take a pack trip into the Gila Wilderness on horseback for my 70th birthday.
We didn’t get out on the trip until the last weekend of September this year, thanks to a full schedule last year and two forest fires this summer that forced postponements.
We gathered at Woody’s Corral at the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. We started with lessons on currying our horses, slipping the bit between unwilling teeth and getting the saddlebags on either side of the horse as close to equally weighted as possible. Everything we would have at our disposal for three days and two nights was loaded into those saddlebags. In addition to our clothing and personal items, that included one bowl, one cup and one spoon, one roll of TP, one small knife, one flashlight, one bandana and one pair of work gloves, all provided by the outfitter. Be sure to put the bowl, cup and spoon in spots where they wouldn’t rattle and clack against each other.
Joe, our outfitter, is Warm Springs Chiricahua Apache and is a practicing advocate of the historic and cultural ways. Once everyone was packed, balanced, bitted and bridled, Joe came to each of us and our horse. Stand, hold hands out in front and receive the blessing, with pollen touched on forehead, chest, each hand and each foot, while Joe whispered the prayer. Each horse was just as solemnly blessed with pollen on the forehead. I and my horse wore our pollen for the rest of the day; the spirit of the blessing surrounded us through the entire trip.
We mounted up, all except me. Joe and I led my horse to a large rock, from which I was boosted into the saddle, stretching to get my leg up and over, not just the saddle, but the pack behind the saddle that held my sleeping bag. This would become the ritual for the remainder of the trip: find a rock or log, be boosted into the saddle and likewise assisted down. For Joe and his wrangler,Corbin, this was a lot of boosting and assisting, since we stopped for breaks morning and afternoon as well as lunch and for the night.
We headed out of the corral and along the trail that passed by the foot of the trail up to the Cliff Dwellings. Cars, picnickers, dogs all making noise I would be happy to leave behind. And we did – we left all behind within a mile. We plunged into verdant growth of narrow leaf cottonwood, willow and undergrowth. The Virginia Creeper made scarlet notes on the trunks of trees showing gold and yellow. Another half-mile and we were in the flood plain of the river and a meadow of Chamisa, colloquially called rabbit bush. Chamisa is a sage-green bush with bright yellow flower heads which usually attract every species of butterfly in the county. Evidence of the severe drought and uneven weather, we did not see a single butterfly as we rode through.
We reached the boundary between the National Monument and the Gila Wilderness and took the trail to the right, starting up Big Bear Trail. Boy, do I mean UP. Joe stopped us briefly to tell us just how to “help” our horses climb 540 feet in less than ½ mile. “Stand in your stirrups. Lean forward. Grab the mane. The horse must run up the hill; she’ll never make it if she tries to walk. Keep her moving. Oh, by the way, there are steps she has to scramble up.” We stopped on two sort-of flat stretches between switchbacks and steps to let the horses catch their breath. Smoke was sweating and breathing heavy, sides heaving between my knees. At the top, we rested again until all horses were cooling and breathing normally.
We were now on top of the plateau in a dry-grass landscape. There was no water here. We had enough for ourselves, but none for the horses. It’s 5+ miles on Big Bear trail to the next trail juncture. At about 2+/- miles per hour, that’s a little over two hours. But I wasn’t in a hurry; I was too busy looking around. Plus we had a lunch stop to look forward to and a chance to go two-legged for a little while.
We stopped at Eagle Point. From this vantage point, we could see down into the Middle Fork of the Gila River. Views were stunning. Although I couldn’t see the River itself, I could follow the lushness of the Cottonwood trees until both river and tree fringe turned into the heart of the gorge.
We didn’t have a lot further to go before we stopped for the night. There were about two hours before sunset to unpack and unsaddle the horses, get the saddle pads and blankets on the line to dry, drag over firewood to get a dinner fire started, and choose our “sleeping quarters.” Joe and Corbin got the fire going and started dinner. The saddle pads served as our mattresses, with a saddle blanket as “pillow top.” Throw down a sleeping bag, put clothes into a little pile for a pillow, and go eat dinner. Joe traveled lean but he fed us well: beef stew with corn bread for dinner, plus fresh fruit. A little time by the fire, a cup of tea and into the sleeping bag under a half-moon.
Here are two pictures, taken a very short distance apart on a trail along the Gila River. Which belongs? Which does not?
Fair warning: I am going to rant a bit. Live up to that tag line I believe in: A Public Lands Advocate.
I have been hiking and camping our National Forests, National Parks and National Monuments for the last several years. In fact, that’s what motivated me to start sharing my stories and photographs. Mostly, my stories are about my personal experiences, my photographs share my awe and wonder. Occasionally I lapse into “trainer” mode. I try to avoid “preacher” mode. Today, I’m all of those: storyteller, trainer, preacher.
I am wedded to the Gila National Forest, including the Gila River because that is my door-step. I have found my solace and soul here during these last difficult months when we are socially distant from our friends and family, not traveling, zoom-stuck and zoom-weary. If you’ve read any of my stories this year, you have traveled these trails with me, my dog and a friend or two.
It seems we are not the only ones moving into the Forest and along the River. Folks are coming from neighboring states and from farther away. Sadly, many who are finding their way this way are not here for the quiet and solitude that a Wild and Scenic River or a Wilderness experience can offer. They come, rather, in clusters and groups and occasionally, hordes. And it’s not so much that folks are coming. These wildlands and waterways are, after all, open to all of us; we all own these public lands. It is what folks are leaving behind when they go. Here are the most recent pictures I’ve taken of the trash that they’ve left. Trash that includes human waste (I blurred one part of one picture that was explicit).
And here are some excerpts from recent news coverage in our local paper of what others who, like me, are passionate about our wildlands, have found—and removed.
She pointed specifically to trash littering the sides of forest roads, recreation areas, and stretches of the Gila River. [She] invited the Daily Press to visit the Mogollon Box Day-Use Area last Friday, where about 150 to 200 people were posted up in a variety of groups, both large and small — but nearly none below the state-mandated size of five or fewer.
…half of the 20 people we spoke to were from elsewhere. Ohio, California, Arizona and Texas were a few of the states folks visiting the Gila last Friday called home.
…10 pounds of trash that [she] picked up during a 30-minute walk… Toilet paper and unburied human feces were seemingly everywhere on the riverbank, just yards from two sets of bathrooms maintained by the Forest Service.
Besides the obvious problems of trash and waste ruining the aesthetics of the outdoors, and noise pollution disrupting the peace that at least some visitors are seeking, there’s the issue of wild creatures getting used to trash as a food source.
What happens when people leave garbage…is that skunks, bears and other critters habituate to it. Having those animals getting used to being around people — that’s cute to some degree, but only until there’s a bear jumping on someone’s car. Silver City DailyPress, 6/15/20
If you are escaping to the Gila National Forest. Or to any Forest. Or Park. Or Monument. Or Bureau of Land Management wildland, here are the guidelines for Leave No Trace.
7 Leave No Trace principles to minimize impact:
Plan ahead and prepare
Travel and camp on durable surfaces [Note—Respect USFS signs for no motorized vehicles, including ATV, UTV and dirt-bikes.]
Minimize campfire impacts [Note–open fires are currently forbidden in the Gila National Forest]
Leave what you find
Be respectful of other visitors
Dispose of waste properly
Please be a Public Lands Advocate. The animals depend on you. The rivers depend on you. The forests depend on you. I depend on you.
Summertime in southwestern NM in times of social distancing, closures and forest fires. Challenges about where to hike. Criteria include an amenable temperature, amenable air quality and amenable solitude.
Summer temps typically lead me higher into the Gila National Forest where trails can be 10 to 20° cooler at 7,000’+ than in town, at 6,000’. However, since lightning strikes on June 6, there is a 6,000 (and growing) acre wildfire 12 miles from town that has caused the closure of the main road into the forest from here. Tailheads are all inaccessible, and some favorite trails are engulfed as the Tadpole Fire smolders and flames along the ridge and runs up Rt 15 to Signal Peak and Meadow Creek forest roads. We worry for our firefighters – notice how easy it is to take possession of what we value – out there fighting a so-far uncontained wildfire in the time of a coronavirus pandemic.
credit USFS Gila National Forest
Smoke becomes a fact of daily life and a factor in where to hike. If I can’t head “up the hill” into the forest, I’ll head west to the Gila River for a walk IN the river, the river now being much reduced and more compatible to wading.
On Wednesday, my friend, Dog and I head to a campground on the Gila which provides easy access into the river for a cooling walk. We comment as we drive west that the smoke that had been so oppressive in town has lessened this morning. Then we begin to notice that the air is thickening the further away we get from the Tadpole Fire and the closer we get to our destination. At some point, the Mogollons disappear in the smoke and we begin to wonder where all this smoke is blowing in from. We arrive at the crest of the road down into the river-side campground only to see smoke blanketing the cottonwoods, the river itself now invisible. This is not what we anticipated nor where we want to exercise our lungs.
We decide to go back to the Gila Bird Area, the stretch of river we hiked along yesterday. We can dip our feet in the river there and wander along the shallows and wade the riffles. Back down the road, with Dog in the backseat getting a bit antsy. We turn down the track that leads to the giant sycamore that shelters the trailhead and river at Pancho Canyon. Round the last little bend to encounter a virtual tent city. Where the hell did all these people come from; they weren’t here yesterday! Six, maybe seven tents all crowded under the sycamore arms, facing each other as though creating a thoroughfare. Ice chests, camp chairs, other miscellany scattered around tents and a couple of children wandering along the “street.” While it’s not my thought to deny others the enjoyment of “my” (there’s that possessive again) Gila River, this is unexpected. Because so many official campgrounds are closed and because NM is surrounded by states that have taken no health precautions against Covid-19 and thus have soaring rates of infections, we are seeing campers in tents and rv’s and vans with out-of-state license plates pitched up in dispersed camping areas in the forest. No problem. Except when folks congregate where there is no bathroom, no water and no trash containment. Where are they going to poop? Behind a tree, in the weeds, among the rocks – and then leave it and the paper they used. Ugh and disgusting. One would think…but then most people don’t.
Needless to say, we leave only the dust of our quick departure, head back out to Rt 180 and now try to figure out just where the heck to go.
The Iron Bridge! We joke that we can see my truck tracks coming and going as we once again backtrack west. Fortunately the Iron Bridge is just down the road a couple of miles and we find the parking area deserted!
The Iron Bridge is on the old Rt 180, now in disuse except for swallows and hikers. It’s a beautiful old structure. The Gila runs under the bridge, along private ranch land and through property now owned by The Nature Conservancy. No official trails, but paths that are trod enough to keep the weeds down. It is getting warm, though and we are pretty exposed. We encounter a young man coming toward us as we stand uncertain, trying to discern where through the weeds we are meant to go. We head down the parting in the weeds that he just left.
We reach a cluster of trees and find a small citizens science project underway. A teacher and kids from Aldo Leopold High School have set up a bird-banding station. They have caught birds in mist nets and “bagged” the birds, one each in little bags hung from the branches of the tree. When we arrive, they are just in the process of banding four sibling Yellow Warblers, recently fledged. We stop and watch, and get a brief lesson in tagging each of these little guys with US Fish & Wildlife numbered tags. These small birds don’t ruffle very much as they are held, weighed, banded and finally, taken back into the cluster of trees where they were netted to be released.
Encountering this group of young scientists-to-be and environmentalists-in-fact is a treat and a pleasure. A reassurance that our world hasn’t entirely gone up in smoke, pestilence and overcrowding.