Story and photos by Jerry Eagan
I was raised by World War II veterans who were "citizen soldiers," not warriors. Dad's tour in Europe began weeks after D-Day and lasted until V-E day. One of his future cousins was an artilleryman in the Battle of The Bulge; Dad had his own "Bulge" stories of Germans practically on his heels. He was among the liberators of Ordruf, a concentration camp, and after Victory in Europe, went to the Pacific. He was in Manila Bay, staging for the invasion of Japan, when the bombs were dropped on Japan; even so, he sometimes expressed doubt about whether they should have been used as they were.
For whatever reasons, I loved hearing the stories these men and women had to share about war. Their stories motivated me to enlist in the Army at 18, and in 1966, fight in Vietnam as an infantryman. I was "on point" the day I was shot. I loved the prowling experience that I had being "out in front" of everyone else, "on point." I was like a scout, and it felt like I was living out The Last of the Mohicans.
Looking back, it was an addictive experience for someone who later became an alcoholic and drug addict.
Even growing up, I was fascinated by warriors and war. Of the first three books I read, by age 9, one was about Julius Caesar; the second was about Alexander the Great. And the third was about the Apaches.
In my childhood reading, lost in my dream world of becoming a warrior, I never forgot a lesson Apache boys underwent: An elder, a mentor for a boy's warrior training, would instruct his student to take a mouthful of water, but not swallow. Instead, the boy was to hold the water in his mouth and run a loop of several miles. When he arrived back before his mentor, he had to spit the water out. If there was no water, or hardly any water left to spit out, he'd failed the test.
Part koan, part lesson, several objects were meant to be learned: First, how little water one could drink under stress in such a hot, parched land where holding that water in one's mouth could be the critical difference between life and death. Second, in a region where an Apache traversed mountains, canyons, mesas and arroyos, sometimes for more than 50 miles a day, it was important to breathe through one's nose, not the mouth.
Like lightning bolts, those images of young Apache boys enduring their trials stayed in my mind for more than 50 years. Since I've come here to Southwest New Mexico to live, I've hiked Apacheria on long day hikes, mouth open, mouth closed.
There's no doubt: When I breathe through my nose, I consume far less water and have far more stamina than I would have believed possible. I am, after all, 58 years old.
Those stories convinced me, even then, that the Apache were among the greatest warriors of all time. I'm not a warrior now, and am actually a Quaker and a practitioner of Kundalini Yoga and Zen Buddhism, but the respect I have for the Apache, as they moved across this land that I now see before me, around me, remains riveting.
You see, in hiking Apacheria, I've been where they've been, and seen what they surmounted every day, to live in such a gorgeous land.
I first came here in 1998, and wept when I had to leave, parking my car at Mile Marker 36, above SA Canyon, on New Mexico 15, just above the confluence of the Gila Forks. As Bob Dylan sang "A Restless Farewell" on my tape player, I realized I'd found a place that would allow me to roam the rest of my life, if I so chose. I had no idea then that the place where the West and Middle Forks of the Gila met was where Geronimo said he had been reared.
I returned in 2002, to live, and worked for nearly a year as a guide at the Gila Cliff Dwellings. I had no idea what to expect when hiking here. I suffered from fibromyalgia, but was determined to walk myself out of it. I carried as heavy a load as I could stand, to work off excess weight that steroids had packed on. I found, sadly, that I had a deep well of pain that came from the post-traumatic stress disorder I carried not only from Vietnam, but from layers of childhood abuse as well.
Since then, I've hiked hundreds of times, often twice a week-in canyons, arroyos and mesas. I've hiked the West Portillos and Tres Hermanas, the Mogollons, Floridas, Peloncillos, Sacramentos and San Mateos.
From the very beginning, as I hiked Apacheria, I watched for any sign of those great warriors who lived all over this part of New Mexico.
As luck would have it, I've met two other men who are "Apache nuts." Between us, we've read dozens of books, and jointly, independently, alone, before we met, walked this land in search of the Apache. We've been willing to hike off-trail into some remarkably rugged, isolated places, and we've experienced Apacheria in our bones, minds and souls.
We've each found some of those signs, ephemeral as they are. Of course, there wasn't much for the Apache to leave: The Apache were, after all, semi-nomadic. Home territories, yes, but ranges vast and expansive were their lives, too. Caves, with stacked rocks, which I've believed were caches, long since emptied by cowboys. Rock formations that appear to have been thrown up as breastworks, or holes along rim rock that seem to have been emptied of loose stones, to fashion a "foxhole" where a man could position himself to fire down onto people.
I've never found a complete arrowhead, but that's OK (laws caution: "leave them where they are"). The most meaningful experiences I've had in Apacheria are those where I've simply felt "led" to such possible locations. Make no mistake: I've never learned if they're Apache. No signs say: "A Warm Springs Apache made this firing hole." I really know of only two sites where present-day Apaches have told me, "Yes, I think these were places where our ancestors were." The pictographs I'd photographed, or the manner in which rocks were stacked, "told" them that these were consistent with the stories their elders had related.
Regardless, I don't ever want to take for granted that I've been "led" to these places. Those leadings have been a gift, whether you believe me or not. While still working at the Cliff Dwellings as an interpreter, I began chanting the "lament" that one hears at the end of the movie, Geronimo: The Legend. Sung by Mongolian throat singers, the lament symbolizes for me the deep loss those Apaches must have felt as they were hauled east, to Florida, a land nothing like this vast, empty region they had inhabited for centuries.
I sing to the spirits of the "N'de" (Indeh), "the people" who were here, in this spacious, empty region, to honor them. It was, after all, all their land. In the movie, Wes Studi, who plays Geronimo, says to his nemesis, General Crook: "With all this land, why is there no room for the Apache? Why does the White Eye want ALL land?" He receives no response, only a plaintive look skyward.
I'm convinced I've connected with the Apache spiritually, through my prayers and chants. How can I not honor their incredible survival and perseverance in this land? I always try to ask: "Lead me where you want me to go, if you want me to be where you were, to be with you, in this silent land, just us, not for gain or fame. I am just one warrior to another, here in this quiet."
And so it was that in the first week of August, my friend Peter Piñon and I were on yet another foray into Apacheria. This trip would take us through Grant, Catron and Sierra Counties, in one long day. Those three counties alone have a wealth of Apache history to learn for those of us who are willing to go to any length to get it.
Take a marker and draw a straight line across the lower part of New Mexico (but remember, ALL of New Mexico constitutes Apacheria), starting at Catron County, across Socorro, Sierra, Lincoln, Chavez, Otero and Eddy Counties. Include Grant, Hidalgo, Luna and Doña Ana, and you'll have a thousand places to hike that have Apache meaning. All of that territory, every mile of it, between 1300 and 1886, was Apacheria: Mescaleros, Chihinne, Chokonen, Chiricahua. Monticello, Apache Tejo, Santa Rita mines, Kingston, Winston, Chloride, Ojo Caliente. Rios Mimbres, Animas and Alamosa. Byers Springs, Teepee Canyon, Cooke's Canyon, Mangas Springs, Duck Creek, Sapillo Creek. The Black and Cooke's Range, Mogollons, Peloncillos, Animas and Floridas. Mangas Coloradas, Mah-ko, Victorio, Nana, Loco, Ponce, Juan Jose Compa, Geronimo (Goyahkla), Naiche, Ulzana, Lozen (the female warrior and perhaps the last Chiricahua Apache warrior left in the area, mistakenly labeled as "The Apache Kid" in the Sacramento Mountains-but who was really Masai).
Atrocities were committed on both sides. Scalping, torture, horrible, painful deaths of men, women and children. People being stabbed a hundred times before death; burned alive, upside down, on a wagon wheel, or hung from a tree limb. Just a tiny little fire. Enough to burn the skin oh-so-slowly.
Many a battle started when Apaches, like fraternity brothers on a sorority "panty raid," stole horses and mules for transport or food. Unmoved by pranks, the Spanish, Mexicans or American owners were like sullen parents watching over their daughters: They didn't take kindly to their property being stolen, and the killing began from that first raid.
The Chiricahuas and their allies, the Chihinne, Mescaleros and N'dnai fought for their lands as hard as any patriots would for their country.
Forts were posted to contain the marauding Apache, but they were only marginally successful. One such place was Ojo Caliente, called Fort Harmony by some.
Pete and I were traveling the North Star Road, otherwise known as Forest Road 150, which breaks off New Mexico 35 midway up the Mimbres Valley, and runs north as far as Highway 60, to Data and Magellan, on a long route there. Forest Road 150 slices through the Gila and Aldo Leopold Wilderness Areas. In the beginning, though, all that area-750,000 acres-was designated the Gila Wilderness Area. Within a few years, ranchers pressured the government to create a road for them to move their cattle north to market, and loggers wanted to move their timber south, from the well-forested slopes in the northern Black Range to the mining district around the Santa Rita Mines.
I'd been 12 miles up the road, to Rocky Canyon, where I'd hiked twice. The forest reminded me of Oregon's, with plenty of grass and shade, tall Ponderosas, ferns, lupines and stream beds that looked like they'd be trouble in the rainy season. That was as far as I'd gone in my Toyota sedan. Past that point, it looked risky; I didn't want to rip out my oil pan. As Pete slipped his Jeep into four wheel, I was glad I'd known my limits.
The road north of Rocky Canyon is absolutely a "vehicle with high clearance" track. Very rocky, with steep grades that rise and fall like a rollercoaster and dozens of twists and turns, the road cuts through some of the most remote land in New Mexico. Not a single vehicle passed us for the first 40 miles, until just a few miles south of the work camp and Forest Service station at Beaverhead. Trail signs were stained dark from decades of rains and deep shadows. Silent but to hunters or a few Continental Divide hikers who cross this empty region each year, it's as remote as Mars to most New Mexicans who never leave the populated areas of our state.
At that point, we'd seen a variety of scenery. Not just steep ridges and valleys thick with Ponderosa Pine, but rugged, rocky canyons on both sides of the road, as well as Wall "Lake," a large pond by Midwestern standards, but a lake on the map. Unlike Indiana ponds, though, this one had a nearly invisible Mogollon dwelling tucked 30 feet above the water on a rocky shelf. North of Wall Lake, the ground opened as we drove farther east, towards Winston. Ten miles west of Winston, it opened into rolling hills that eventually merged into the Plains of San Augustin, which were once grazed by bison, but of late, by cattle.
My reading had informed me that the Chihinne Apache, "Red Paint People," also known as "The Warm Springs Apache," had traveled from Ojo Caliente to the Black Range or Cuchillo Negro Mountains, then to the Mimbres, Cooke's and Florida Ranges and finally into Mexico by moving high along those ridges we'd just driven. From the ridge tops, they could see troops approaching; they avoided many battles by following routes soldiers disliked. Like the other Apache, the Chihinne had their own home territory, but moved about as they hunted and gathered to augmented their lifestyle of raiding.
Ojo Caliente, or Cañada Alamosa, as the Mexicans called it, was their home territory. Memoirs by two Warm Springs Apache, Jason Betzinez and James Kaywaykla, provide a wealth of knowledge about the Chihinne. Both confirmed that it was only when General Crook began using other Apaches that the Chihinne, led by Victorio, knew they were to be driven out of the United States, into Chihuahua, Mexico. And they knew, too, that the Mexicans in turn were driving them north.
In a vice-grip operation, Victorio, and many of his followers, were killed by Mexican troops at Tres Castillos. So, by the end of 1880, the Victorio Wars were over and the Chihinne finally broken apart as a cohesive force.
As far as Pete and I were concerned on our hike, the region known as "Ojo Caliente" was that area surrounding Cañada Alamosa, or the "Monticello Box," and included the disappearing adobe remains of Fort Ojo Caliente. Our goal was to return to the old fort and reservation lands at Ojo Caliente and photograph what was left. It was true that adobe seemed to "melt" under the relentless sun and monsoon rains, and not much was left. But in addition, the Sierra Club had recently put out a bulletin that a Colorado mining company sought to dig for beryllium, a mineral now sought after by the nuclear industry, and, of course, the ubiquitous, ever-powerful military-industrial complex, at Ojo Caliente. We'd both been to the place before, hiked and camped, but this time, under scudding rainy clouds, it felt more solemn.
I took nothing for granted. It might be another year before I could get back, and what little was left of the ruins might be bulldozed into oblivion by then.
The wind blew softly across tamarisk stands that bracketed the Rio Alamosa. Even with the monsoon, little more than a half-foot of water trickled east, towards "the Box" and Monticello. Pete went his way; I went mine. We walked up the bench that rose 20 feet above the Rio Alamosa, and he went east while I went to the southwest, towards what looked like the remains of a large pit house. Archaeologists have long since discovered the remains of cultures older than the Apache, as perhaps the first to live near the river .
Some have called this area a "transition zone," where Anasazi-like pottery sherds could be found among others more typical of the Mogollon, on both banks of the Alamosa. The depressions I'd thought were long-since-pot-hunted pit houses, though, didn't show a single sherd. Perhaps it had been a soldier's dump. Two years earlier, I'd found a soldier's dump site, for the fort.
Pete and Sadie, his faithful canine companion, were 200 yards away. I walked, paused, took pictures of the rapidly disintegrating ruins. I felt sad. Why hadn't someone preserved it long ago? While at the Cliff Dwellings, I'd read a report by archaeologists who'd conducted a survey, in hopes that the place would be nominated as a National Monument. The topos still showed the reservation demarcation lines.
But sectioning the area off for a National Monument hadn't ever been accomplished. It was still ranched by the same family that had been there since the 1880s. I didn't know what they thought of the prospect of beryllium mines ripping up the landscape, but I'd heard the citizens of Monticello, which derived its water literally from "the Warm Springs" on the north side of the river, were deeply concerned.
The wind picked up slightly and darker rain clouds warned us that we might get dumped on. I took a shot of a long stand of adobe walls that were worn down, by now, to little more than a height of two feet. The adobe was crude, speckled with straw or grass, with lots of ground pebbles, granular soil and stones. Amazingly enough, in one corner of a room block, I even found an incised pottery sherd. It looked Mogollon to me.
Whether it was from a crude pot the Buffalo Soldiers had made, or from the Anasazi-Mogollon "ancestors" who'd preceded the Apache, the sherd had been dug up, apparently, from this crude soil, and mixed right into the adobe walls of the fort.
I took two more pictures. It was a poignant moment. It didn't matter who'd made the sherd, or who'd dug it up and mixed it into the adobe mix. It was coming out of the crumbling adobe the way shrapnel works its way out of a war wound, steel driven relentlessly through flesh, to the surface.
What was the story with that sherd?
Pete and I affirmed how special, even sacred, this place was for us.
The wind blew across the damp soil. Rain was in the air. Occasionally, a bird soared overhead, but far too high to be heard. Once, a jet streaked above us; I looked up to fix the sound, which always came behind the actual location of the aircraft. I'd learned in Vietnam to always look ahead of the sound, and there would be the jet.
Pete called my attention to debris he'd found on the surface, 50 feet away, behind what had once been barracks of the fort. "Arrowhead," he remarked, pointing to a white stone object that showed a chip on the right side of an otherwise perfect point. Sherds lay around it, too. It was like the remains of a battle.
Amazing! Had the Chihinne themselves once situated their rancheria on these flat rises above the river? Or were these sherds even older still? If the former, then it was clear the soldiers, who had arrived in 1869 to monitor the movements of Victorio and his people, had evicted the Chihinne as the walls and quarters of the fort went up.
In 1872, in an attempt to bring peace to the region, all types of Apaches, from Geronimo to Nana and Victorio and even Cochise-in other words, Western and Eastern Chiricahua-had been asked to settle at Ojo Caliente. They'd essentially agreed, if their reservation was at Cañada Alamosa, but ranchers and miners had raised a ruckus, and Victorio's Chihinne were moved north, to Fort Tularosa, near present-day Aragon.
Conditions there were unacceptable to Victorio, and gradually he and his people wandered back to the Warm Springs. The pool, across the river to the north, along the western flank of the Box, was idyllic for bathing, and probably, for ceremonies where bathing was a key ritual.
My first visit to Ojo Caliente had been on Labor Day weekend in 2002. During that three-day visit, I'd actually bathed in the Warm Springs pool. A second gusher springs out of the ground slightly uphill, and to the east. The velocity of the water is such that a half-mile-long groove has been etched in the rock as the water flies down to the Rio Alamosa. Bathing naked in that groove, almost like a bathtub in places, I'd made the mistake of NOT holding on to the sides, and had my ass scratched like I'd ridden a sandpaper slide.
The actual Warm Springs pool, however, was large enough to bathe in. A man-made dam at the front end of the pool had raised the water level to five feet. My friend Bob and I raised the water level by another foot, messing around like two kids in our birthday glory. The water was pleasantly warm, and as pristine as any I'd ever seen in Oregon or Vietnam.
As we bathed there then, I understood in every pore why the Chihinne had fought so hard to keep this special spot theirs alone. I told my friend Bob, "This place really is like Eden." But Edens, apparently, are places meant to be ejected from. Only the idyllic memories remain for both Original Man and Woman, and the Chihinne.
Upon my return in 2004, this time with Pete, I was disappointed to see that the height of the dam had been lowered, and as a result, the water level in the pool had also dropped. The gravel bottom was unstirred; the water was pure and clear. But it would have been impossible to sit up to my chest in water in that pool.
Poignantly, my journey in 2004 had evoked feelings that mirrored those of Warm Springs survivors, as they'd returned there in 1911 to see if the location would serve as a modern reservation. One of them, Jason Betzinez, had recounted how he and the other men had faced the depressing realization that their Eden was no more. The Rio Alamosa, he'd said, which had previously been "a nice little stream," had been filled in with gravel, and had become "20 jumps wide instead of the one jump which it had been before." The whole country had been grazed to barren brown ugliness; gravel had washed down and filled the beloved Warm Springs, which had completely vanished. Betzinez and some of the other Chiricahuas and Chihinne elected to return to Fort Sill, Okla., or go to Mescalero, near present-day Ruidoso.
Ojo Caliente. Cañada Alamosa. A quiet place in August 2005, as it heated up, with those boiling stratocumulus monsoon clouds rising 30,000 feet above us, preparing to dump sooner rather than later.
The drive out, finally, that day, took us on into Truth or Consequences, then back home, over the Black Range, twisting and turning on Highway 152. Again, in the darkness of Pete's jeep, we remarked that the lifestyle Apaches had lived must have felt freer than anything we had ever experienced, felt, thought, or imagined.
Life as a roamer.
Not without risks. And not without a harshness most of us wouldn't have been able to survive a week in.
I've long felt that the experience Native Americans have had over the loss of this land isn't remotely conveyed by the words "loss" or "grief." Such profound loss is experienced, not intellectualized, as is the amputation of a limb. Their lives melded with the past and the present in ways that gave them the understanding that the "web of life" was real, not just a nice concept or descriptive phrase. Far more pervasive than even a deep soul sickness, the severance morphs from experience into a somber mood so deep it affects the attitudes and thinking of people who once roamed under endless blue skies, amid lightning and thunder and forest fires, through wars and peace, births and deaths, and centuries when stars fell like a cloudburst, too many to count, in a sky darker than anything we have ever imagined.
Somewhere even as a kid, playing war games alone, in a fantasy world I retreated to as someone under attack, I sensed there was a special experience awaiting me. It was solitary, and there was no real way I could ever share what I felt.
Today, I hike Apacheria so that I may roam. . . the silence.