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Gila

Eager to resume my backpacking, I headed with Buddy to not only a place that promised relief from the desert heat, but a new frontier in my outdoor experience: the Gila National Forest of southwestern New Mexico’s Black Range.  Robert Julyan, author of The Place Names of New Mexico, writes that the relentlessly-forested range is so named because it is “conspicuously dark and foreboding.”  The range, he also notes, has also been called Sierra Diablo or “Devil Range.”  However, we were unfazed by such a reputation: we’d already grappled with the horned man in the red suit plenty of times in the flames of Anthony.

The Black was a two-hour drive from Anthony.  After winding up the steep east slope of Emory Pass, surely one of the Southwest’s loveliest passes, we parked at the pass’s summit, elevation 8,800 feet, on the eastern edge of the range. 

From there we hiked north for several miles along a ridge before making camp just south of the boundary of the 200,000-acre Aldo Leopold Wilderness.  From our campsite, dark with fir liberally draped with the moss known as old man’s beard, we gazed in sylvan coolness east into the glowing Chihuahuan Desert.  The panorama included the Rio Grande, its manmade aneurysm in that stretch of New Mexico known as Caballo Reservoir, and the harsh, naked Caballo Mountains overlooking the reservoir. 

From the start, Buddy was a fine backpacking companion.  At suppertime, before providing him his main meal of Science Diet, I offered him fragments of Milk Bones.  Yet, to my utter surprise, he gulped not a one of them down. With a determined brush of a forepaw and nudge of a nose, he shallowly buried each fragment, obviously for later consumption, beneath soil and pine duff―an apparent demonstration of canine delayed gratification that touched me.  (I could have used such a lesson a quarter-century earlier―when my grandmother left me $5,000.)  That night, curled beside the campfire, he softly growled at imagined―or so I hoped―threats just beyond the surrounding walls of the forest.  The following morning, I broke out some more Milk Bones, and he resumed his fastidious subterranean storage of biscuit fragments.  

After breakfast, I hoisted a day pack with water and snacks, and we continued north, entering the Leopold wilderness area, created in 1980.  It felt good to at last be in the place named after the man, a forester and pioneering ecologist, who in 1924 was instrumental in establishing America’s first “wilderness preserve,” the 574,000-acre Gila Wilderness, of which, I presumed, the Leopold Wilderness was a part.  Several years prior to the preserve’s establishment, it was Aldo Leopold who officially defined the modern American wilderness as “a continuous stretch of country preserved in its natural state, open to lawful hunting and fishing, big enough to absorb a two weeks’ pack trip, and kept devoid of roads, artificial trails, cottages, or other works of man.” 

Buddy and I continued up to 10,011-foot Hillsboro Peak.  On the peak, we encountered a fire lookout tower, sheet-metal storage shed, restored log cabin, and porta-potty―all of them obviously Leopold’s “works of man,” which meant we were no longer in official “wilderness.”  There, we met “Fred,” the fire lookout.  Fred, who “turned seventy up here,” informed me that he worked at the lookout from May to August.  He had been working there for four years, and his mother had worked there for nine before him.  He grew up in my new home, Anthony, on land that was once a “desert ranch.”  When not in this national forest, he lived in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, thirty-five miles northeast of the peak.  “Come up again to see me,” he said as we parted.  “And bring some women.  They don’t have to be good-lookin’ anymore.”  

That evening, back at our campsite, a steady rain fell, although Buddy and I remained dry in the two-person tent.  The following morning, after we broke camp, packed, and were about to leave, I realized Buddy hadn’t unearthed a solitary Milk Bone fragment.  I guessed that meant he was counting on us to return.  We never did.

Blow, ye winds of mourning / Blow, ye winds eye-oh / Blow, ye winds of mourning / Blow, blow, blow

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