Who Walks with the Warriors?
Story and photos by Jerry Eagan
I'm in the Floridas again, hunting for signs of the Apache. I've hiked the Floridas 20 times—seven or eight in this canyon alone. I love the solitude and silence, and I know Apache were here, in this canyon.
As I struggle up a long ridge finger with a steep angle of ascent, I feel how heavy my pack is. It's always heavy when I hike alone. Every 20 or 30 paces I stop to rest. Whatever marginal shade there is, whether from scrub oak, juniper or piñon pine trees, it's welcome. In Ohio or Indiana we'd call these "trees" just "shrubs." The Florida Mountains are stark, parched, "rough." On a hiking guide scale, they're "strenuous."
I got a late start, which is never good for hiking in the Floridas.
In summer, the place is a blast furnace. In fact, this is the first time I've hiked here past April. The weather for this October day at first looked like it would be cooler and overcast. Around 12:30, though, the sun breaks out and that seven- or eight-degree temperature increase between Silver City and Deming kicks in.
What the hell am I doing here? Did you guys ever ask yourselves that in this desolate country? When I say "you" I mean the Apaches.
Hiking Apacheria alone, I pack sufficient gear so that if I get injured, or stuck in serious weather, I can ride it out under an overhang. My experiences in Vietnam as a combat infantryman left me. . . obsessed. . . with what I think I'll need to hike here. Before leaving the car, I look at my gear and ask: Can I leave anything here today?
Hiking alone, I carry roughly 100 ounces of water (bottles frozen overnight, then topped off with fresh water in the morning. The hotter the weather, the more fluids I carry, regardless of how much extra weight that adds. In "the Gila," when traveling along the river's forks, I take four water bottles (two 16- and two 32-ounce) and a water filter. If I got injured I could go a few days without food, but water will keep me alive even if food isn't available.
I also carry a Diet Coke or Pepsi, because that "bite" tastes so good out there, regardless of the weather. I take a Marine K-Bar knife; a smaller Buck knife for cutting or whittling; a roll of duct tape; a medical kit; a GI-surplus poncho; and a long-sleeve thermal underwear shirt, in case rain, hail or snow hits unexpectedly. I also take an extra pair of socks; food, almost always including some apples or oranges; 10 tubes of "GU," a sweet, sticky carbohydrate booster that bicyclists use (bought at Gila Hike and Bike); sunscreen, sunglasses and reading glasses; binoculars; pruning shears for cutting through scrub oak and other impediments in thickets that always grow in the worst places; sometimes a bolo knife, if there will be a lot of hacking; three to five topo maps and a BLM map of the area where I'm hiking; a headlamp; snakebite kit; small Motorola walkie-talkie; GPS; extra AA batteries; a small section of light rope, in case I break an ankle or leg and need to tie the rope to a tree, then loop around my leg or ankle, to "pull" a broken bone back into place (I broke a rib off Wildhorse Mesa two years back—saw stars and had trouble breathing for a bit); and chewing gum. So far, no guns. I carry a whistle to scare stuff off.
I also wear a safari-style vest, which allows me to carry items I don't want to go into my pack for, including a bright red strip of flannel. A Chiricahua man suggested I wrap two crystals in it and perform a ceremony, if I wished to get in touch with Apache spirits. In the vest I also carry toilet paper; two handkerchiefs; my Vietnam "boonie" hat; an Arab Katifyah (think Yasser Arafat), which keeps my head warm if a temperature drop occurs and I need to retain body heat; two small butane lighters and several fire-starter chips; and a camera and carrying case with extra memory cards.
Those are the things I carry. Total weight: 25 pounds.
Chihinne Apache James Kaywaykla recounted that after the battle of Tres Castillos, Mexico, where the famous warrior Victorio and many of his warriors were killed, his mother saved their lives by creeping slowly, all night long, through cacti and rough ground—no food, water, blankets or any clothing besides what they wore. She trained him to ignore hunger, cold, even cholla needles in his fingers. "Mother had a knife—nothing but a knife. But with a knife, an Apache can survive."
In Vietnam, I carried 500 rounds of M-16 ammo, a bayonet, three to five grenades, a trip flare and sometimes a Claymore mine. In my first fire-fight, I burned up all of my M-16 ammo in 20 minutes and had to crawl around to wounded guys, taking their extra ammo. The "old-timers" just laughed: "Short bursts. Never fire full automatic!" I got that!
Grenades. In each case where I killed or wounded someone, I'd used grenades. In the darkest of nights, a muzzle flash could give our position away. One night, on an outpost with three new guys, I told them, above all else, not to fire their weapons if we got hit. We were atop a steep ridge 100 meters above the rest of the company; the trail was crude, the monsoon upon us. If we got hit, we'd be on our own: No one could come up that trail at night, in a deluge, in time to save us from being overrun. Because it was so dark, I told my guys to use their grenades first. "We don't want to give our position away," I told them. They'd nodded, but I should've known that didn't mean they understood my instructions.
Around midnight, one of the new guys heard sounds in the bush around us. A few minutes later, all of us awake by then, a trip flare went off. Instantly, one of the new guys opened fire with his M-79 grenade launcher. As he did, the muzzle flash stabbed the darkness. A needle of blue-green tracers screamed directly at us, over our foxhole.
"God dammit!" I said as I triggered a Claymore Mine. Immediately a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) exploded so near our foxhole that the concussion bounced us around like ping pong balls. Cursing, I pulled the pin on a fragmentation grenade and pitched it. Then another. Someone screamed as shrapnel bit into flesh. I called for illumination rounds. The flares put an end to the fight.
In the morning, we found no bodies. They'd been dragged away.
That wasn't unusual. I was frustrated: Had we got anyone? I was also pissed at the guy who'd fired his weapon. The anger took my mind off the fact that I'd likely taken another man's life. My brain felt like a block of wet wood all day, though, with that knowledge. I was a 19-year old killer.
Hiking solo is a mixed blessing. Alone, my mind drifts to those thoughts. When hiking with someone, however, I don't have to fixate on, "How do I survive an emergency?" Even then, though, I seek a place to do Zazen (Zen Buddhist sitting meditation) for silence, prayer, meditation. If someone talks through the entire hike, I want to scream!
But, alone or with someone, I always talk to "them."
When I worked at the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, I wanted to learn all I could about the Apache of this region. Miners—Spanish, Mexicans and Americans—lusted for precious metals. Their lust was the catalyst that opened the region and the spark that triggered conflicts with the Apache.
The Apache considered it sacrilegious for "man to grovel in the earth for gold and silver." Hundreds of miners died because the Apache believed such activities disturbed Ussen (pronounced "YO-sen" or "Us-sen"). After the Chihinne leader Mangus Coloradas was murdered near present-day Hurley in 1862, all hell broke loose.
It must have been heartbreaking for the Apaches, who'd traveled routes that crisscrossed this land from the Chiricahuas to the Caballos for centuries, to encounter "civilized men" who stitched this land up in a barbed-wire quilt. Straight lines made by men with guns who said, "This land is OURS, not YOURS!" The great oval world of the Apache, where horizons always receded and centers were everywhere, was all cut up. Superstitious, the Apache were horrified Ussen was so disrespected. They retaliated with terror and murder.
As arid as the Floridas are, they became a glorious botanical laboratory this year, after last winter's rain and snow seasons. One day in February, as my wife and I drove to Palomas, we saw hundreds of Mexican poppies had burst out in patches along the western flank of the Floridas. By mid-March, I hiked the Floridas once a week, all day, among a spreading profusion of gold, yellow, orange, blue, purple wildflowers! And ocotillo, banana yucca, soaptillo yucca, cacti! Thousands of flowers!
I've been surprised by how many locals don't even know about the Floridas. Hard to miss, they're the jagged skyline two miles off New Mexico Hwy. 11 as you drive south from Deming, to Palomas and the border. I'd read about them, but was fascinated by them the from the first time I saw them.
I wasn't keen on hiking the Gila in the winter. I'd come to New Mexico from the Midwest to avoid those hard Ohio-Indiana winters. It was either hike in the cold Mogollons or go south. In November 2002, I hiked the first time in the Floridas. The coldest day there was like spring in Ohio.
Headed south out of Deming, you'll first see a small group of rocky hills I call the "Baby Floridas." Then come the "Little Floridas" and then the [Big] Floridas, all on 7.5-foot topographic maps.
My first hike took me to Spring Canyon. Leaving Deming, I watched for a brown State Park sign that pointed east, towards Rockhound State Park. I wasn't interested in rock hunting: I'd looked at my DeLorme Gazetteer and saw that "Spring Canyon" shot off to the south of the intersection for Rockhound Park and into the "Big Floridas." I followed signs until the pavement ran out, then found a very old BLM trail and hiked to the top of a saddle between Spring Canyon and Lover's Leap. It's easy to see why someone gave those rocks that name. Sheer cliffs, 400 feet high, it was a place to jump if you were a desperate, spurned lover.
A salient feature of hiking the Floridas Apacheria is that trails there, if at all, are primitive. The BLM has less money for trail creation than the Forest Service does, so whatever trails exist were probably animal traces first. Then came the Mogollon or Saladan, then the Apache. Then us. Trails cut for the last 10,000 years: Where there's water, animals and humans follow. So, yes, Spring Canyon does have water.
One account indicated a group of US Cavalry was at a spring on the western side of the mountains, hydrating themselves and their horses, while over on the eastern side an Apache group was doing the same. Some have speculated the former site was near Capitol Dome, a massive rock prominence that reminds one of—well, the US Capitol Dome. If the cavalry were there and there was water, then perhaps Apaches were in Spring Canyon, since in those days, water was more available in several canyons.
If a fire-fight of that profile occurred in the Floridas, there was apparently lots of shooting and desperate fighting between men. If Apaches had their women and children, and had returned to a trusted water source, it was probably a fierce fight. Apaches honored and loved their wives and children. Such behavior is recounted over and over in their history.
One such incident came with the group of warriors Geronimo had with him in Cañon de los Embudos (Funnel Canyon), in Mexico, in 1886. A debate about whether they should surrender to the US Army was settled when the Apache warriors under Geronimo learned from Lieutenant Charles Gatewood that their families had already been shipped off to Ft. Marion, Florida. Not the mountains—the state. Once those warriors knew their families were gone, they demanded that Geronimo, who wanted to fight on, surrender. That was in September 1886. Within a week, all those Apache warriors were sent by train into exile at Forts Marion and Pickens, near St. Augustine, Florida.
How it must have hurt to know your families were gone, so far away. All the fighting, killing and dying for nothing. Was your war worth it? Was my war worth it? I don't think so.
Spring Canyon whetted my appetite for hiking the Floridas. There was snow in the canyon that December day as I trudged to the ridge top. I scooped up some snow into my water bottles and set them in the sun while I ate and meditated, at the highest spot above Spring Canyon.
Later, I talked with five Hispanic men from Deming, who told me more about the Floridas. One site intrigued me: a huge rock formation called "the Needle's Eye." They said it was a place where the sun shone through the biggest rocks up near Florida Peak, at 7,039 feet, one of the highest parts of the mountains.
None had been there, but they said it was quite a site. It took me three hikes to locate the best route to take. In the meantime, Marilyn, a fellow Quaker friend, said she'd also wanted to go up into the Needle's Eye. It wasn't a hike to do alone.
Steep, with many talus slides, thickets of scrub oak, cat claw, mesquite and just about every kind of cacti imaginable, the path to the Needle's Eye was very strenuous. An aptly named feature, the Needle's Eye can be seen from I-10, once you know where to look. From the highway it's possible to look up into the Big Floridas and gradually, as you move east or west, see light breaking through a huge block of slanted rocks near the very top of the Floridas. That hike, barely five miles round trip, carries an elevation gain/loss of 2,700 feet! On the way up, we saw a pair of Peregrine falcons, and on the way down, a big rattler. It took true rock climbing to get up there. It was hard going up, far scarier coming down.
But we did it!
Today, I'm searching for a place in the Floridas I'd found two years ago. It wasn't much, but I'd seen it a week earlier, and wanted to check it out again. I feel at peace here, in these rugged mountains, as if I'd always been here.
I choose a route I'd never used before to get to the top. I'd been intrigued by a rock outcropping on the ridge line, and wanted to investigate it. I'm not let down. After eating lunch, I come around a rocky bluff and find what I believe were once Apache breastworks. Notches had been cleaned out beneath large boulders: spaces that gave shelter from sun, heat, wind, rain, snow, if one wasn't looking for luxury. Between those large boulders I spot the suspected "breastwork." From behind them I can see Camel Mountain, 20 miles to the southeast, in the West Portillos, directly on the border. Beyond Camel Mountain, in Chihuahua, lies Laguna Guzman—a favorite watering hole for the Apache on their annual migrations in winter and spring.
In battle after battle, the Apaches automatically built rock breastworks for cover. Breastworks have been used by white men for centuries, but Chihinne survivor James Kaywakla humorously stated that his ancestors "invented trench warfare" when they built these defilade to hide behind in a gunfight. Whoever built these breastworks, they knew what they were meant to do. Apache or American? Americans always leave trash. An absence of trash, to me, suggests Apache. Even so, no prize, because I won't dig to confirm the origins of this rock wall.
Defilade. An odd word very important for soldiers. Webster's Encyclopedic Dictionary says: "def-e-lade: n. v., protection or shielding from hostile observation and flat projecting fire provided by an artificial or natural obstacle [such] as a hill . . . to shield from enemy fire by using natural or artificial obstacles." Crazy or not, I'd asked "them" to "show me what you want," and my curiosity and instincts had paid off by exploring this outcrop.
Go there! Take your time. See what is there! the Apache seem to urge.
Facing southeast, behind such a defilade, a rifleman would be covered, and could see Mexicans coming north for miles. If the Mexicans were chasing Apache, one warrior could hold them off for awhile. Facing north-northwest, the same man could see Americans coming into the canyon.
My first personal experience with "defilade" had come in my first fire-fight in Vietnam. Moving across an array of rice paddies, my company was headed towards a village from which another unit had taken fire. As we trudged through the paddy water, we were all tensed, waiting for a hail of bullets to come.
Come they did. Like lightning, the tree line ignited with rifle and machine-gun fire—needles of blue-green tracers stabbed at us. I dropped into the paddy water, which was three or four inches deep. The muck also had a liberal dollop of human and animal feces—Vietnamese fertilizer. I recoiled from pushing my face farther into that water, even as several VC gunners got our range. Bullets trimmed the grass on top of a paddy dike, 10 feet in front of me. As I slithered forward, I pushed my chin into the slime, but only so low that my chin was just out of the water. I wasn't going to push my face into shit!
Bullets cracked like bullwhips over my head. I began to laugh like a madman.
I'd never heard bullets that close! What a goddamned unreal sound! I couldn't believe it. As I crawled forward, through rice shoots two feet high, I ran into another guy also crawling towards defilade—a paddy dike up ahead. "WE in it now, bro!" an African-American guy from New York City said. He, too, was laughing hysterically. "Gaaaaaddammmnn!"
"Damn straight!" I said as we got pulled in behind the paddy embankment. That embankment felt thick and secure. Safe. Three feet high and two feet thick at the base, the dikes were used by the Vietnamese to walk through their rice fields, so they'd stay out of the fields they'd planted.
I felt less secure as bullets thumped like hammers into the opposite side of the dike. A torrent of lead whacked again and again into the paddy dike or clipped the grass on top. I wondered just how long two feet of dirt would stand up to that torrent? I cringed at the sound as yet another round whacked the dirt. Some guys were firing, but to me, rising up above the top of that paddy dike would have been like sticking my head into a fan blade!
I wasn't nuts! As I hunkered down, in defilade, I remembered that "discretion is the better part of valor." I stayed put, and waited for the fire to shift elsewhere. When it did, I looked up and over the top of the paddy dike, and saw a battle going on a hundred yards away. The village was being ripped apart. War! Real war!
How was your first battle? Were you as a young warrior as me? Were you thrilled to be in a war?
Now, as I trudge the ridge line, I pray. That was then, this is now.
That's one way Post Traumatic Stress Disorder gets you. Self-talk was one way I worked it. Another hour and a half and 500 feet more in elevation gain, across several talus slopes, and I find the cave I'd been looking for. I feel satisfied that my memory had served me so well. Crawling into the cave, it's clear a man could lie on his back and look north-northeast, towards Cooke's Peak and Fort Cummings, where American Buffalo Soldiers were stationed after the Civil War. From this small cave, one could stash gear, water and ammo, and remain hidden to anyone gazing south, towards the Floridas. There'd be no risk of sunlight glinting off metal or glass (the Apache valued binoculars very highly) they'd taken from Mexicans or Americans they'd killed.
The cave, roughly seven feet wide, perhaps two and a half high at the mouth, but eight to ten feet high inside, feels cool and felt safe as I take off my gear and slip inside.
Cooke's Peak, which some Apache called "White Rings Around Mountain" or "Standing Mountain," is partially lost in haze. No wind and plenty of exhaust fumes from I-10. The old Buffalo Soldier fort had been located south and slightly east of Cooke's Peak, at the mouth of Cooke's Canyon, near Cooke's Spring. Plenty of history, carnage, isolation and madness. People from all over the world have come and gone through here with the winds of time. Desperate mail riders and balking stagecoaches. At least 20 graves still litter the canyon. From this cave, knowing where those features were, an Apache could have seen dust clouds rising from cavalry headed out of the fort, prowling for Apache. A few hours' warning and then maybe they'd get behind those breastworks and fight the soldiers.
Apache warriors who used this cave, what did you think as you lay here and watched for the cavalry to come after you? I remember when I waited for my enemies to come in Vietnam. How did you feel when you killed someone? I wouldn't have wanted to be tortured by an Apache. Would I have fought to the last round, or saved it for myself? Apache would've called me a coward for the latter.
I remember a nightmare I had when I first got to New Mexico. I'd dreamed the nightmare about the incident on that night outpost only a few times in 30 years. The guy who'd used his weapon against my orders said later that night, as we sat in the foxhole, rain pouring on us: "You got that son of a bitch, Eagan!" In the nightmare I said: "Yeah, you sorry ——! I oughta kill you for not doing what I told you!"
I'd never dreamt that part before. In a corner of my mind, I'd really felt like shooting him. The nightmare brought back how murder had been in my heart.
Did you ever want to kill one of your own people?
The Apache wars saw so much cruelty on both sides. And yet, the Apaches went into captivity for 27 years and there's no record of them ever committing murder again. Even Geronimo constrained his impulses for cruelty and violence. How did you get on with your lives, strangers in a strange land, men who lost a war, as we too, lost Vietnam?
Apaches were given ceremonies by their elders to return them as honored warriors, but also to welcome them as men who deserved peace. Men who wanted safety in which to rest their souls, and not bark at nightmares.
I walk now with the spirits who inhabit these places. More and more, the sting of war diminishes and I feel more peace. I take responsibility for my own healing. And I help others heal, too.
None of those warriors who went off to Florida ever—ever—returned to the Floridas. They would have been killed by the survivors of their depredations. The Floridas were left only in their dreams.
So I walk for them, and dream their mountain dreams.