Monsters of the Gila
We dropped into the canyon by moonlight on a switchback trail through pines and tall grasses. A ribbon of river meandered serpentlike through the gorge. We hefted our heavily laden touring bikes and splashed through up to our knees, then set up our tents and fired up the camp stove. That’s when the barking began.The noise was unlike anything I had ever heard in the wild – a squealing whine that dropped to a low, guttural yap. The bark came from a large animal silhouetted on a ridge only a hundred feet away.
“Wolves!” I said, jumping up to gather rocks – also jumping to an alarmist conclusion from an article I had read about Mexican gray wolves migrating into the Gila National Forest. What else would be barking at us from a moonlit ridge? The bark came again. This time I barked back with my own snarling rendition, a sincere and visceral response to the hulking shape on the ridge. Then another shape joined it, then another and another. Soon there were five shadows on the ridge in what had become a vocal territorial dispute.”Hey! We’re the top of the food chain!” I shouted. “Don’t you know we’re the superior species?””Not here,” murmured Graeme, who watched with alarm as the lead shape moved down the ridge toward us. “Not here.” It was early May when Graeme and I began our annual spring bike tour in Zuni Canyon, near Grants, N.M. We set out on an old railroad grade ascending to a plateau of juniper, cedar and ponderosa. A chill headwind drove us at dusk into a side canyon trashed with car parts, broken bottles, and scattered fire rings.
“Let’s hope the high school kids don’t show up for a kegger,” mused Graeme. They didn’t, and our camp was quiet that night except for a coyote yip and the hoot of an owl. The next morning we topped the mesa and rode through tall ponderosa pines fragrant with sun-baked pitch. We crossed the Continental Divide at 8,000 feet, a routine we would follow a dozen times during our weeklong expedition to Silver City, some 270 miles south. We rode most of our miles on dirt roads of varying quality and surface, about 10 percent on primitive trails and another 7 percent or so on pavement. As is typical on our desert tours, water became a serious issue. A winter drought meant that neither springs nor intermittent streams would provide a drop. During the first four days of our ride, we saw no natural water at all. Our first refill came from a rustic outpost at the El Malpais National Monument.El Malpais (“badlands” in Spanish) are marked by a volcanic crater where a massive eruption 10,000 years ago gushed lava across a vast plain. We hiked up to the crater, then climbed down into the Bandera Ice Cave, where an emerald-blue pond of ice 20 feet thick lies sheltered in a volcanic vent. Lava tubes, hollow channels formed by flowing magma, twist and bend for 17 miles underground – a spelunker’s paradise.Our next water stop (we could carry enough for about 36 hours) was Pie Town, a quaint little gas stop on the Continental Divide that boasts a century-old tradition of pie-making. Arriving parched and ravenous at the Pie Town Café, we gorged on a home-cooked Sunday supper followed by succulent slabs of hot strawberry-rhubarb pie topped with chocolate ice cream.
We were directed to the “gingerbread” house of Nita and Don, who serve as informal trail hosts for the popular Divide route. Their rustic cabin was marked by a gate festooned with a dozen old toasters, harking back to an inexplicable tradition. Don beckoned to us with a cold Corona and Nita appeared barefoot and beaming with motherly warmth.”They call me the ‘Trail Angel,'” she said. “We help hikers when they come through, and we’ve met hundreds. You are welcome to stay, take showers or do whatever you like. We believe in opening our home to adventurers just so we can hear their stories.”Graeme and I learned that the Divide Trail linking Mexico to Canada is a draw for people from all walks of life, a proving ground for coming-of-age youth or a crucible for gray-haired, midlife nomads. Graeme and I fell into the latter category, and more than once we were taken for “section riders,” those who cover the 3,100-mile trail piecemeal.A few miles down the road from Pie Town we met our first hiker, a young man from Boulder, Colo., whose skin was burnt dark brown. He had started his four-month trek at Antelope Wells in Old Mexico two weeks before. An hour later we met three men and a woman huddled in the shade of a piñon tree. They had met last summer on the Pacific Crest Trail and banded together this spring for a half-year sojourn across the spine of the U.S.Our next water was supposedly the spring at Valle Tio Vences, on the edge of the Tularosa Mountains, but it was only a mud puddle. We met an affable man camped in a trailer with his wife and dog. He wore a weathered Stetson and a sidearm. Before they pulled out, they provided us with large glasses of iced tea and 2 gallons of cool, clear water. “We’ve had the whole forest to ourselves,” he smiled, “and now we leave it to you.” The Plains of San Augustin spread out below us that afternoon as we rolled down from timbered hills into a vast, open expanse also known as The Depression. The basin is 50 miles square, barren and desolate. An antelope jogged along with us for a while, then veered off through the heat shimmers.
It took us a day and a half to cross the plains, which gave way to dry hills of brown grass and rock outcrops that led into Beaverhead, a remote Forest Service workstation. Our first sight of spring green cottonwoods felt as refreshing as the cool water in the East Fork of the Gila where it spilled out of Wall Lake.Desert touring requires plenty of water, and water is heavy. By the time we made Beaverhead three spokes had snapped on my rear wheel, all of which I had replaced. Broken spokes cause a wheel to wobble, and if too many spokes break, the wheel rubs against the frame, making riding impossible. On the long hill out of Beaverhead another spoke popped, and it seemed likely that my wheel could fail altogether. This brought us to a critical route decision.”Our best bet is this shortcut,” suggested Graeme, pointing to a trail on our forest map. “It’s only five miles. How hard could that be?”The question was rhetorical because Graeme and I have pushed our bikes before – from desert canyons to snow-capped peaks. The shortcut would get us to a more-traveled road, easier for hitchhiking, if that proved necessary. There was also a hot springs marked on the map. Decision made, we found ourselves a few hours later camped in the moonlit canyon where the mysterious barking had me woofing like Old Yeller.
As the shapes came down off the ridge, Graeme and I stood ready with rocks and clubs. But there was no attack, no slathering, blood-thirsty jaws encircling our camp. The barking shadow on the ridge turned out to be an elk, but we didn’t learn that until examining tracks in the morning. We slept lightly that night, and at one point I heard something tromp across the river 50 feet away. Then all was silent except for a coyote chorus at first light.In the morning, Graeme noticed he had a flat tire, punctured by a thorn. While he patched, I fabricated a new spoke with one of Graeme’s spares. We have different wheel sizes, but by twisting his spoke into one of my broken spokes and wrapping it with duct tape, the repair held.Venturing into the unknown without a detailed map is an invitation for either glorious adventure or complete disaster. There is usually no middle ground. Blithely ignorant of what lay ahead, we set out in the blazing sun along a narrow, sandy path packed by elk hooves. River crossings were frequent (we crossed it at least 50 times), and each time my shoes filled with gravel, a recurring discomfort that would grind down the skin on my feet and cripple me for weeks, but at the moment seemed as irrelevant as a mosquito bite.Soon we got into the pace of pushing, portaging the river, pushing, portaging – always looking for the middle branch of the Gila, where we thought our trail would intersect. This went on for several hours until I noticed that we were heading south instead of west, as the map indicated. When the canyon veered east, I knew something was wrong.At close inspection, the map showed a squiggly blue line that had veered from the trail many miles back. Instead of following the trail up a side canyon and over a ridge, we had mistakenly held to the river. Now we were halfway down a canyon with no marked trail. Backtracking up the canyon was out of the question, so we pushed on.
At the next bend in the canyon we spooked 30 elk from grassy beds beneath sheltering cottonwoods. We would see elk herds regularly on a trail that soon had an overlay of fresh bear tracks the size of my hand. We would follow these, or they would follow us, throughout the canyon that day. In one clearing a golden eagle lifted off just ahead, only to fend off a ferocious airborne attack from a hawk. At one river crossing, I hefted my bike onto the opposite bank and nearly set it down on a colorful, banded serpent that to me shouted coral snake! It turned out to be a harmless Western king snake, but we didn’t know that at the time. Late that afternoon, pushing through thick brush, Graeme stopped suddenly.”Javelinas!” he hoarsely whispered.A pair of wild pigs scrambled down the canyon ahead of us – pigs with 4-inch-long, razor-sharp tusks. Pigs that can become vicious and aggressive and pack up like dogs. Pigs that can grow to 300 pounds, pigs that can eat your freaking’ lunch! We began to wonder about rattlesnakes, scorpions, mountain lions, jaguars. Survival became a vivid preoccupation, charging us with a rare vigor that blends fear with fascination. We were exposed, isolated, vulnerable and peaked for the experience.
As dusk fell, we were pushing down a wide gravel bar where the river appeared to bend finally to the west. We marked our location on the map with some certainty, but were still miles from any road. While setting up camp, the quiet canyon was punctuated by a loud bellowing grunt and the simultaneous digging of gravel.”What the hell was that?” demanded Graeme, wide-eyed as the sound came again.We wrote it off to an errant elk, but later learned that javelina boars dig pits in gravel bars while rooting for food. We pitched our tents close together that night and built a big fire. We collected river rocks for throwing and stout clubs for beating away whatever might come at us in the night. Suddenly it was dark. Stars filled the gap between the canyon walls. The hoot of an owl echoed like a ghost.We were awakened the next morning by the gobbling of a wild turkey, whose tracks we found in the sand by the river. After oatmeal and coffee, we pushed another five hours along bear tracks, past javelina pits, over fallen timber and through 20 river crossings. Then we came upon a road – hallelujah! – and the strangest-looking house either of us had ever seen. Built of adobe bricks, it stood on a grassy bench above the river and sported a pair of ornate, fluted chimneys rising up from a rusted metal roof. A nearby hot springs was piped into a galvanized cattle tank; odd iron sculptures dotted the lawn; and there was a chicken coop full of clucking hens. The place exuded a strange mystique, otherworldly and secret. This was obviously private land, and our worries now focused on guard dogs and hostile ranchers.Soon we came to another house, shaded by trees with a car outback. We steeled ourselves for an encounter and warily pushed our bikes up to the front stoop. The door opened and out stepped a shirtless, suntanned, well-muscled man with a scowl.
“I’m the caretaker here, and my orders are to escort anybody off this property – armed, if necessary,” he warned.”Not necessary,” I assured him.”We didn’t plan it this way,” apologized Graeme. “We got a little lost.””How did you get in here?” he asked, looking at our bikes.”We came down the East Fork,” I said.
“You came from where?”We told him our tale, and as our adventure unfolded, his scowl turned into a smile. “Nobody goes up there,” he chuckled. “And you mean to tell me you came through with bikes? I want to hear more.”Bryan invited us to stay in the bunkhouse next door and to share dinner with him and his wife, Theresa. He explained that the big house – The Lodge – is owned by the former manager of the Kingston Trio. The property has been a private in-holding for 200 years. Among its many manifestations, it had been a hippie commune and a lesbian enclave.”Are you sure you came down the East Fork?” he asked again, shaking his head in wonder. “Did you see any diamondbacks? They’re everywhere around here. My wife found one this morning right under our window. And the javelinas are thick up there. They didn’t bother you? I never leave the house without a 12-gauge for snakes and a handgun for pigs. We roasted one last week. Delicious!”As Graeme and I soaked that afternoon in the 110-degree hot springs of “The Lodge,” the what ifs filled our thoughts. Snakebites, javelina attacks, bear maulings. The story could have ended differently, and we felt like Lawrence of Arabia entering Aqaba by the back door.
As we pedaled down a tree-shaded lane the next morning, sunshine slanting through poplars, the river running pure and clear, the air fragrant with spring blooms, I glanced at Graeme.”How do we top this tour? How do we match the lava flows, volcanic craters, ice caves, tall forests, huge deserts, barking elk, bear tracks, hot springs and javelinas? What’s in store next year?””That’s up to fate,” mused Graeme, “and whatever gods are watching over us.”Paul Andersen is a columnist and contributing writer for The Aspen Times.
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