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.