The hoodoos were still in shadow when the sun finally woke us to a warm New Mexico morning. Our rock ledge overlooked tall pines in the valley below and a phalanx of huge, weird stone sculptures. They stood like a crowd of watchers, silent witnesses to life and death in the canyons. It’s hard not to think in anthropomorphic terms when looking out over a forest of giants, even if they haven’t moved in millennia.
Our hike that morning took us onto a ridge and to the meeting of the trail from Columbus, New Mexico. There are three places to start the Continental Divide Trail and Columbus is the furthest east. We had started at Crazy Cook, part way down the boot heel of New Mexico, the “official start” a week and a half earlier. The third common starting place is Antelope Wells, the furthest west. The final destination of all three is Canada, nearly three thousand miles away.
High on that ridge, my hiking friend Nancy hoped to meet someone, anyone, hiking up from Columbus, but the trail was empty of people as it’s been all along. We had only met two other hikers on trail in the past week and a half, a far cry from the hundreds on the Pacific Crest Trail, or the thousands on the Appalachian Trail each year.
On the south side of the hill, we hiked through cactus, agave, yucca and chaparral, all plants eking out life amid the rocks and weathered sands of a landscape whose wind still whispers the memory of people. The Mogollon culture had flourished in these canyons for centuries. Their pottery and buildings are a high point of Pre-Columbian art in America. They were replaced by the Apache in relatively recent times, a tribe related to the Athabascan peoples of Alaska and British Columbia. The Apache’s determination to remain free had given them the strength to fight off the U.S. Army for more than 40 years in some of the bloodiest battles of the “Indian Wars.” Raiding continued into the 1920s, even after the confinement of most of the tribe on reservations. Here in the windswept hoodoo country we felt their presence still.
Cresting the hill and descending the cooler northern slopes we entered tall pines, ponderosa, Jeffery and eventually even Douglas Fir shading the path. With our limited knowledge of the deserts of the Southwest, it always seemed incongruous to find ourselves so quickly in a forest that seemed like it should be growing on the lower slopes of the Sierra. But that’s partly why we’re here, to get that foot step by foot step knowledge of the place. The desert has always looked so much more desolate when I’ve driven across it than when I’ve walked it. Even the most forsaken landscape takes on a freshness when seen slowly, a foot at a time, bush by bush.
After several miles, we reached Sheep Corral at the end of a dirt Forest Service road. This was a small unimproved campground with a large wooden corral on one side. The grass was green here, evidence of spring water in abundance. A large tank for watering cattle stood in the center and we used a hose to fill our filters, a real luxury. Just down the hill we saw llamas, three of them, each one a beauty and we struck up a conversation with their owner Rinda and her friend, David. Over the next half hour we learned a lot about llamas and met two new friends.
They had planned a llama trek down to the Gila River, seven miles from Sheep Corral, but their llama truck had broken down a few miles from camp and they decided to be prudent and go back to deal with the truck instead of trekking into the canyon. We told them our plans to hike the Gila River as far as the Cliff Dwellings over the next day and a half and then leave trail for the ADZPCTKO (Annual Day Zero Pacific Crest Trail Kick Off) near San Diego. It’s the yearly weekend of hiker trainings and reunions that takes over Lake Morena campground, where seven to eight-hundred thru hikers and potential thru hikers get to mingle. People come from all over the world and all over this country and it’s one event neither Nancy nor I wanted to miss.
The conversation with Rinda and David was brief, but we learned that both were retired and that she was an artist who owned twelve llamas. She had been an art professor at several universities and David was from Sacramento, not far from Nancy’s home. More locally, he is related to the Burtons who ranched much of Contra Costa County in the past century and owned Burton’s Nursery in Walnut Creek, a place I remember from childhood. He’s been retired for many years and describes himself as a full time volunteer, an expert in all aspects of the aspen forests of America.
Rinda complained that the usually deep grass at Sheep Corral had been eaten to the ground by too many cattle and felt that the National Forest Service was not properly caring for the resources in the Gila National Forest, calling it “the National Barnyard.” Her llamas carried in their own food when trekking. In spite of the brevity of our conversation, by the time we headed off down trail, it was as if we had known them for years and we left with the possibility that they might join us at the Gila Hot Springs Resort campground if they were able to extricate their truck in time.
Over the next seven miles Nancy and I traversed a dry plateau that had once been a pine forest. Much of it had burned and it was hot and bare, not conducive to the growth of new pines. Only a few saplings dotted the land even though the burn was quite old, evidence of the long recovery for a forest in this dry climate. Eventually we rounded a bend and there below us was a winding river in a deep and lush riparian canyon.
The trail dropped quickly to the river. It was still so early in spring that most trees hadn’t yet leafed out and the brilliant white bark of the towering sycamores twisted and gnarled like ice sculptures for trolls, strange and wonderful.
Almost immediately our path led us to a pair of rock cairns, one on each side of the river. That was the trail, and we didn’t bother taking off our shoes as we knew the reputation of the river route. Over the next few hours we forded the Gila 23 times, often nearly waist deep and swift, but at others an easy wade through peaceful shallows. The water was cool not cold and refreshing to tired old feet.
We made our way traipsing through fields of mint near the water’s edge then up onto the flood plain through forests of alder, sycamore, pine, oak and willow. Nancy nearly stepped on a rattlesnake slithering into the deep grass on the bank and it rattled in fury as I tried to climb out of the river a bit too close. The abundance of water in an overwhelmingly dry environment made the canyon seem like a bit of Eden laced into the parched land. We tasted the crunchy sweetness of cattail shoots and let the cool of the river seep into the dryness of our skin. Even the air seemed gentler down in the Gila Canyon where everything breathed out moisture.
We camped on dry grass above the river, and watched at dusk as bats, flit, fluttered an aerial routine designed to outwit bugs foolish enough to come out for a night flight.
The early morning light of the next day shimmered over the moving river water, at times reflecting golden around our feet. We were wet in the cool dawn air but warmed by the beauty in which we walked.
Fifty-eight fords and we made it to the road and a several mile walk into the Gila Hot Springs Resort and Doc Campbell’s Post, a quirky little store that sported books on the old west with a large collection on medicinal uses of native plants, knickknacks, a small assortment of food, some art, and a very friendly proprietor. She held food boxes for hikers and let us use her phone, no charge, to call the Gila Cliff Dwelling’s National Monument Visitor’s Center. Rinda had left a message there that they were on their way to meet us at the hot springs campground nearby.
After a lunch of canned goods and hot dogs, we had nothing better to do than hike out to the campground and wait. I soaked in one of four natural hot springs on the edge of the river and Nancy napped on a picnic bench. We were both dead tired.
The abundance of hot water in the area is believed to be caused by an anomaly in the geothermal gradient, and not a magma body near the surface. In most parts of the world the temperature of the earth raises approximately one degree per thousand feet of depth, but along this stretch of the Gila, it increases at the rate of three degrees per thousand feet. That’s enough to heat any ground water to over one hundred and thirty degrees by the time it reaches the surface. Here all the homes are heated by the abundant hot water. Now we knew why the water at Doc Campbell's had been hot out of both spigots.
Rinda and David drove up just as I was turning into a hot springs prune and we all sped off for a late afternoon visit to the cliff dwellings. Rinda had worked as a docent, and lived at the site for nine months a number of years ago and she became our personal tour guide. A short walk led us up a narrow spring fed canyon shaded by oaks, cool in the low, late afternoon sun. It was easy to see why people would want to live here, it’s gorgeous. High above us, caves began to open in the sweeping rock face, and eventually we saw the smooth masonry walls of the Mogollon dwellings.
It is speculated that they moved here because it was a defensible spot, but I think it is also a wonderfully placed system of caves that was just too tempting and too beautiful not to live in. It is shaded from the high summer sun and warmed by the low rays of winter and the fire blackened cavern roofs are evidence of human occupation long before the dwellings were built seven hundred years ago. The Mogollon only lived here for a generation or two, a very short time for having built such a magical home. What drove them to abandon the place is only a matter of conjecture. Drought or predation by other tribes are both possibilities.
The path took us right up and into the homes and ceremonial chambers, past a wall that was dynamited by a miner who wanted to get in and wouldn’t take the time to climb to the doorway. You feel the intimacy of a small community, working in clay to create pottery decorated with the richness of their world, cloistered in the beauty of natural stone. They were architects with an eye for enhancing, not destroying the world they modified. Rooms led into rooms, the walls rounded to fit the natural space or squarely metering out the extent of a families living chamber or the communities granary. The little grinding holes in many of the large natural rocks may be evidence of an artist’s palate, for the powdering of different pigments. They might have been the mortars for a shaman’s herbal medicine and magic, maybe a place where children played a rocky game of marbles, or something altogether different that we have not yet imagined, or possibly all the above. The life sense is still strong in these homes. They were lived in and loved for a time, and then left behind as a culture changed.
In a country whose treasures are most often its natural wonders, preserved as National Parks and Monuments, it is good to see something human and worthy of the same designation.
Rinda gave us a wonderful tour, and I couldn’t help feeling the personal magic of our meeting, a fluke of only minutes at Sheep Corral. Had we rested longer on trail or slept in, we would have missed that meeting. Something else would have happened, but as it was, we spent the better part of two days hiking in the area and later being treated to a tour of Rinda’s llama ranch, a shower, laundry and finally dinner, a gift from David. They were lovely people, trail angels and friends in such a short time. The serendipity of that meeting and the genuineness of the connection are all part of the experience of living on trail. Magic happens everyday of our lives at home, but on trail it’s just a bit more easy to see.
"One touch of nature makes the whole world kin." John Muir