We cross a saddle in a ridge from the trailhead and pass into the Gila Wilderness. Lying before us is almost three miles of flat mesa. Walking across that wide meadow of grasses and wildflowers, we follow a narrow trail, pitted by mule and horse feet, rocky and muddy thanks to impact of monsoonal drenching. The views are expansive from the slight rises, and intimate in the dips. I can tell we are approaching the edge of nothing when I start seeing, instead of the trunks of Ponderosa, the crowns. Through the crowns, a blue haze of air. The trail tends away obliquely, making me wonder how far this mesa goes and when it will drop away from under my feet.
Wilderness isn’t empty, not of people and not of things. To the right of the trail, silhouetted against the sky is a relic: a 40’s era truck driven out to the edge of the world and abandoned pre-Wilderness, fodder for curious hikers’ wonder and speculation.
Then we are there, where the flat becomes vertical. Approximately 1500 feet of rocky switchback trail lies between mesa and river bottom. There’s an overlook where we see our destination, a river-side meadow specked with the white kitchen tent secluded under a clutch of pines. The scary aspect of the view is that we have to get down there. As we pick our way among the trail rubble, we hear the mules coming with our weight of tents and bags. “Move to the downhill side. Mules spook if a critter is above them. Is that you behind a bush? Move out where the mules can see you.” Step down and out of the way, and watch the outfit step on by us, more surefooted than I am, for sure. Then, work our way on down to level ground, off the sun-exposed cliff-side and into the shade.
Our first night around the campfire and under the Milky Way. There’s a flicker on the far horizon that isn’t city-generated. By mid-night, planets, stars and campfire are overwhelmed by a strong storm cell that parks overhead for the next several hours. Lightning flashes my tent-sides bright, and thunder rolls overhead and on down the valley. The storm is centered right overhead and the ground vibrates under my sleeping mats. What’s to do except lie awake and in awe. Saturday morning, we stand under the kitchen tent, sharing storm stories, drinking cup after cup of coffee and looking anxiously for spots of clearing overhead. Suddenly – and there’s no way to recreate the noise and startle in words –
WHAMBOOM — a lightning strike about a football-field distance away. We all duck and, on straightening, see the smoke and steam rising from a single pine tree on the edge of the woods at the far side of the meadow. It still stands, but has been split in two and its roots boiled up out of the ground around it. Splinters scatter on the newly-bared earth. I’m not sure any of us have ever been that close a witness to the power of lightning’s electric impact. One by one, over the course of the morning, we go in ones and twos over to look at the result: at the split tree, the splinters, the upheaved earth and the scorched ground scar.
It’s late summer and in the meadow, along the river edges and under the pines, the earth explodes in bloom. We count perhaps two dozen species of wildflowers, all native because how else would they be, out here in the wild. Purple, orange, blue and more blue, seemingly a dozen shades of yellow, we wade hip-deep in color.
A diversion is suggested: a hike up river a mile or so to see a beaver dam. Beaver are coming back on the Gila; they are cutting trees, dragging them distances and lacing them across the river to catch up and slow down the flow. We find the dam stretching across most of the river’s width. A cheerful rush of water through the branches, a pond held up behind and extended wetlands. While we stand on the edge, a ripple surfaces and crosses the pond.
The day comes to leave the magic meadow retreat. Roll the sleeping bag and mats, drop and pack a dew-wet tent, sort my day-pack to its lightest possible weight and sip a last cup of camp coffee. Slowlyslowly climb up the cliff from river to mesa; take a last look over the edge at the kitchen tent, to be broken down by the outfitter the next day; face forward the long trail across flat earth and over the ridge to the trailhead.
There are additional images on my flickr page, linked below.