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Gila

Eager to resume my backpacking, I headed with Buddy to not only a place that promised relief from the summer 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, reveals that the relentlessly-forested range was so named because it is “conspicuously dark and foreboding.”  The range, he also notes, has also been called Sierra Diablo or “Devil Range.”  However, I was unfazed by such a reputation: I’d by now grappled with the horned man in the red union suit in the flames of Anthony.

The Black Range was a two-hour drive from our home.  After winding up the steep east slope of Emory Pass, surely one of the Southwest’s loveliest, Buddy and I parked at the pass’s summit, elevation 8,800 feet and poised on the range’s eastern edge.  From there we hiked north for a stretch before making camp just south of the boundary of the Aldo Leopold Wilderness. 

From our campsite, dark with fir generously draped with the moss known as old man’s beard, we gazed in sylvan coolness east into the glowing Chihuahuan Desert far below.  The panorama included the Rio Grande, its artificial aneurysm in that stretch of New Mexico known as Caballo Reservoir, and the harsh, naked Caballo Mountains overlooking the reservoir. 

From the outset, Buddy was a fine backpacking companion.  At suppertime, before providing him his main meal of Science Diet dry, I offered him fragments of Milk Bones.  Yet to my surprise, he gulped not a one of them.  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.  

After breakfast, I hoisted a day pack with water and snacks, and we continued north, entering the 202,000-acre 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, which explodes to the west of the Leopold Wilderness.  Several years prior to the preserve’s establishment, it was 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 then headed 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 75 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 the New Mexico Anthony, on land that was once a “desert ranch.”  When not in this national forest, he lived in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, 35 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.”

Eventually, Hillsboro Peak would become the annual home of fire lookout and fine writer Philip Connors.

That evening, back at our campsite, a soft and steady rain fell, although Buddy and I remained dry in our one-person-and-one-dog 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 returning.  We never did.  Delayed disintegration?  “The world is easily lost.”