Here before me

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.

Rusted metal sleeve
Metal sheet

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.

Tin can with lid

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.

Grinding stone

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.

Bowl or pot lip
Bowl or pot lip

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.

Pottery sherds — Mogollon People

Beyond the Gate

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.

From the CDT, looking toward Bear Creek Canyon and Tadpole Ridge

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. 

Cottonwood – Pancho Canyon on the Gila River

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.

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