New Mexico’s Boot Heel — scenes of yesteryear

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Serene mountains in New Mexico's Boot Heel

As I drive, twisting through mountains and leaning around curves, having turned westward at Hatchita towards Animas on N.M. 9, which then leads to Rodeo and to Portal, Arizona, I bask in the warmth of an autumn day. I am taking a one-day vacation to leisurely revisit the sites of Old West tales in the boot heel of New Mexico.

This land has been eagerly explored for God and money by the Spanish, fiercely defended as their homeland by Geronimo and his Apaches, mined for profit and greed by Anglo gold and copper seekers, and researched in earnest by biologists of various specializations.

On this sparkling day with its cloudless blue sky and brilliant sun, I approach the Playas turnoff and savor the panoramic view before me. The grayed plums and muted blues of New Mexico’s Peloncillo (pronounced “Pel-own-cee-oh”) Mountains rise solidly on the horizon line. Behind them are Arizona’s Chiricahua (“Chee-ree-cah-rah”) Mountains, mystical as they recede in the distance, their soft lavenders merging with the mist surrounding them, their peaks jutting up to 10,000 feet as they try to touch the sun.

No cloud is in sight in this “Land of Little Rain.” Mine is the only car on this two-lane road. Silence reigns, for I drive with no music playing. I prefer my own aloneness and the meditative quiet. The other-worldliness of the landscape contributes to my feelings of timelessness.

As I travel along, I smile as I see mama and papa quail with their covey of young ones following them, all hurrying beneath a barbed wire fence to hide beneath a mesquite bush. Prickly pear cacti dot the rangeland. Candles of the Lord, the yucca - New Mexico’s state flower - grace the sides of the road.

Two cows stop grazing to watch me. No one else is about. Disinterested, they return to their feeding. A black bird sits atop a yucca stalk, a lonely sentinel watching . . . what?

I continue on. I pass the Reed’s convenience store, the Animas Post Office, and Animas Public Schools where I teach, research, and write during the school week. In the ten years I’ve been here, I have come to know this land, its people, and its lore.

Taking a jog on N.M. 9 at Animas, I note the Animas Mountains to the south. There, in a box canyon in the late 1800′s, a rancher and his hands recovered horses and mules that had been stolen. They found an indication of the thieves at Indian Creek: a cow’s paunch filled with acorns that only the Apaches used as food. The rustlers had disappeared.

Peloncillo Mountains

As I go westward to Rodeo, I am reminded of two more tales set in the Peloncillos. The first centers on the infamous Smuggler’s Trail. Beginning in Janos (in northern Mexico), this winding trail was used by outlaws to bring in bullion and Mexican dollars to exchange for merchandise in Tucson. One old-timer, Ena Mitchell, recalls tales of two ambushes of the smugglers’ pack trains. Some folks continue to believe its buried treasure is still to be found.

The second story concerns a violent and abhorrent crime. In 1889 a horse herder and ranch hand named White, known as Comanche, was found dead in Skeleton Canyon, shot in the back, with one ear and his nose cut off. He had been dead for days and his murderer was never identified, but was thought to be the Apaches.

Animas Postmistress Susan Ashley related a third tale of an unusual mailbox that demonstrates the ingenuity of the ne’er-do-wells. At her recommendation, I visited the Rodeo Post Office to pick up the documentation of this story, which was recorded by one of its former postmasters.

In the 1880s, bandits and cattle rustlers such as Curly Bill, Old Man Clanton, Dick Gray, and Bill Lang hid out in canyons and caves in some of the wildest part of the boot heel. They needed to stay in contact with others of their ilk, but could not use conventional means.

What to do?

They simply developed their own private mail system. In a canyon about eight and one-half miles southeast of Rodeo, they found the perfect mailbox: a black oak tree with a large knothole in it where messages could be left. Subsequently, the canyon was named, and is still called, “Post Office Canyon.”

No stamps were needed.

Portal, Arizona

After I finish visiting Rodeo, I continue my journey in the early afternoon and drive up on the two-lane road to Portal (only a few miles away from Rodeo). I leave the desert and enter the Chiricahuas, our Southwestern Shangri-La - a mystical place of lush vegetation, innumerable birds, and an assortment of wildlife. It is obvious why this area was a sacred place to Geronimo and is a mecca to today’s tourists.

But the Chiricahuas also have tales, two of which are humorous.

As we all know, law and order was needed in the Old West, but it did take different stripes, as the occasion demanded. One story I enjoy is about “mavericking,” which I found in A Portal to Paradise, Alden Hayes’ well-researched history of the Chiricahuas and its mining communities.

As used in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, mavericking was legal - that is, putting your own brand on unbranded, weaned cattle of unknown parentage. Unacceptable behavior was set forth. Hayes writes that if mavericking was practiced on a “sleeper running with a bunch all wearing a single brand, it was frowned on, and of coarse, putting your brand on a calf that was sucking a cow wearing another’s brand was out-and-out stealing.” Hayes refrained from stating the penalties, but they can be left to the imagination.

Hayes also tells of a special watering hole for cowboys and miners and for the passengers and drivers of the “Rocking Stage.” This stagecoach ran between Rodeo and a cordwood camp in the California Mining District that surrounded Portal and Paradise. Ed Epley saw promise in a huge sycamore with a trunk ten feet in diameter, hollowed out with rot.

Perhaps public-spirited, Epley may have simply wanted to accommodate the thirsty passersby. He placed a keg of whiskey in the hollow, nailed a board across the open front for a counter, and began selling his liquid refreshments.

Needless to say, he had low overhead and prospered.

As I rest for a bit in a small park area, I contrast the scenes of yesteryear with those of today. Now travelers from throughout the world visit this area to refresh themselves. They savor the peacefulness of the boot heel of New Mexico and the tranquility of the mountains. But a century ago, rascals, rustlers, the militia, and the Apaches stalked these parts, breaking the silence, killing, stealing, and waging war.

I listen. I hear only the twitter of birds. The rustle of leaves. The sighing of a breeze. The horses, the guns, the coaches, the pickaxes are silent.

Slowly, with the sun setting, I get into my car, go north to I-10, and then turn east to Deming and Luna County where I reside. I visualize the courageous men and women who, not so long ago, came to this hostile desert, this valley, these mountains, to live, love, work, have families.

And I say a prayer of thanksgiving for them.