The road heads north, from the pass of El Paso to the cross of Las Cruces and farther to the spot where you turn west and leave the Rio Grande’s fertile sides. As you travel towards Hillsboro, the road rolls and twists, breaking the straightness and monotony of the Interstate. Now it’s time to pay attention; driving becomes work and fun, a test of your attentive ability. It takes effort to escape; the efforts can test your reactions and the fitness of your vehicle. Small trees start to appear. The feeling of going upward gradually becomes obvious.
Beyond the small town which celebrates the autumn festival of apples you find rocks, small canyons, some trees. As the miles pass, the scenery turns greener. Trees are now plentiful and taller. The dullness and tans of the desert are behind you; great mountains of granite and diverse forests of iridescent greens lie ahead. Unknown narrow highways challenge the virgin traveler. It takes physical effort to make your small vehicle climb upward; it takes confidence to slow it before a curve.
Straight lines on maps, showing a distance of forty miles, are deceptive; it will take over three hours to cross the Mimbres and reach The Gila Wilderness’ valley of serenity. Narrow hairpin curves keep you alert as the smallest mistake can hurl you down deep forested chasms. Despite the demands at hand I begin to relax, knowing each mile takes me closer to my destination; nearer to peace, calmness and nature’s wondrous beauty. I deserve this. I earned it, and I will enjoy every minute of it.
The quiet valley of destination is perhaps a quarter mile wide. It is easily seen that this was once a very wide, deep and fast flowing river. The sides are smooth, grown over in spots where the mountains contained softer materials, still hard and jagged in other areas. Trees grow on the softer sides, close together and straight up, nourished by the saturation of today’s stream - a small trickle of its past might. Along the sides lay rocks, washed and slowly worn from rough to smooth. Now they feel water only at times when nature sends rain or melting snow. A flood came through here recently: Weaker and dying trees were uprooted and tossed downstream by violent waters. Many lay at the base of stronger trees which were capable of withstanding nature’s violence. Campers will cut the fallen trees, haul them away and make evening campfires throughout the summer. I will camp, cut and clear wood here.
A young girl dressed in green walks gracefully through the stream below me. She reaches the far side, looks down to note the wetness of her dress and continues away from the small children playing in the shallows of water’s edge. Further downstream she settles and casts her bait into the water, knowing the children have chased the fish away with their splashing laughter. A lone black and white crane passes over my shoulder and continues down the center of the stream to where the fork meets the deeper waters of the Gila River.
Listen to the thunderous roar of water as it awakens your senses, flowing over barriers of small rocks, cascading as a small waterfall a few feet away. Watch the water as it flows over rocks, turns to momentary liquid diamonds, spreads floating bubbles and circular ripples outward, only to be broken and created again when it crests the next barrier. Lean back on a massive boulder at the stream’s side and study the colors in the water. Look upstream and find the small deer pair dipping their heads, then raising them cautiously and scampering back into the thicket at the sound of the joyous children. Raise your camera and take a picture. Try to capture this kaleidoscope of soft motions and serenity your mind will vividly remember long after you have left the valley of nature’s living harmony.
Late at night, breathe the smoke from a camper’s fire, sweet, glowing embers of dry mesquite. Squint your eyes in the musky illumination created by a three-quarter waning moon, smoke-hazed dark shadows below canopies of tree branches. The absence and dilution of light. The presence of light in the openness, creating crystal reflections when breaking over a half sunken log a short distance upstream. As the moon’s light leaves the small valley, layers of stars will take its place, the sky solid with light ending its long journey, some of the rays having started their trip earthward before the valley was created.
Several miles north of the peaceful valley are flat-faced cliffs with hollow caves where Indians lived eight hundred years ago. They built walls in front of the caves for protection from the elements. They climbed to the mesas above in their daily routine of tending crops of corn, squash and beans. A narrow foot trail will take you to the caves; much of the Indians’ daily life can be seen and surmised. Sadly, early travelers and settlers to the area plundered valuable clues of the past, leaving many questions of the Indians’ existence unanswered. With certainty, they absorbed, studied and enjoyed the same stars, waters and scenery we see today.
Nature lives, works, creates and dies here in the Gila Wilderness. She allows us to visit, observe, and replenish our spirits. Valleys and forests such as these are not unique; they exist in many places; there are thousands of them. Pull the plug and go find yours . . .