Horseback through the Gila Wilderness – 90% magic, 20% terrifying — Day 2

30 miles in 3 days – Day 2

Prior Creek to Lilley Park. Hells Hole Terror. Along the West Fork Gila River

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. 

Smoke is loaded and ready. Carol finishing up with Raider
Allyson preps Young Gun

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.

West Fork, Gila River, Gila Wilderness

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.

Joe and Corbin — bedrolls
Campfire 2nd night — one cook pot and one coffee pot.

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. 

West Fork, Gila River Gorge, Gila Wilderness

About the Author

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I grew up and lived in the DC Metro area for most of my life. For the last 20-some years of my career, I worked for the Federal Government. Much of that time, I worked with the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the US Forest Service. Visiting refuges and National Forests around the country, working with the folks whose jobs were to protect, restore, and manage the wild lands, forests and creatures that depend on them is where my heart resonated. I didn't know it then, but that's where my public lands advocacy must have been born. I moved from DC to southwestern NM in 2008. I continued to work until 2013, when I left the government in December. Now I spend my time volunteering for various conservation non-profits. And advocating for the protection of these lands that belong to all of us. I enjoy hiking, tracking, writing, photography, reading, birding, and driving bad roads in my big-girl 2013 F150 4x4.

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