Car Camping in the Combat Zone
Who in his right mind would go camping solo in the Bootheel?

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About the cover

  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e   July 2010

Car-Camping in the Combat Zone

Who in his right mind would go camping solo in the Bootheel, home to drug-runners, coyotes (both kinds), killer bees, jaguars and law-enforcement firefights?

Story and photos by M. John Fayhee

Editor's note: From the banks of China's Yangtze River, to the depths of Mexico's Copper Canyon, from the lofty summits of Colorado's highest peaks, to myriad dimly lit watering holes throughout the rural American West, M. John Fayhee has spent his entire 30-year writing career telling stories about his offbeat journeys. In 2000, along with two partners, Fayhee helped re-launch the Mountain Gazette, where he still works as editor-in-chief while splitting his time between Leadville, Colo., and Silver City.

Now Fayhee has compiled his favorite tales into a new collection, Bottoms Up: M. John Fayhee's Greatest Hits From The Mountain Gazette, released in June by Round Mountain Publishing. We're delighted to excerpt here one of Fayhee's adventures from his new book — set right in our own backyard of the Bootheel.

There were two main reasons I decided to reconnect with Southwest New Mexico after a 24-year absence: the climate and the fact that, a few miles north of the town where I went to college — the very first place in the Mountain Time Zone I hung my ratty hat — is located the massive, astounding, wild and relatively unpeopled 3.3-million-acre Gila National Forest, which, in 1924, became home to the first legally designated wilderness area in the world.

car camping

A funny thing has happened since I returned my attention to Gila Country: More and more, as I stand atop the little knobs that pass for peaks close to Silver City, I find myself looking at least as much toward the southernmost part of the state, known as the Bootheel.

This is some seriously lonesome country I'm talking about here. There is not one town — not so much as a cluster of houses — below the east-west axis that marks the northern border of the Bootheel, though Rodeo comes close, as do the blink-and-you-miss-them hamlets of Animas, Hachita and Playas.

All told, I'd be surprised if more than a few hundred people call this Delaware-sized part of the country home. (Delaware has almost a million people.) Even though I consider unpopulated isolation to be a perfectly valid reason in and of itself to visit any place, there are two other things to note about the Bootheel region: 1) This is some US Grade-A stunningly beauteous terrain and 2) a serious percentage of that beauteous terrain is located on public land that is open and available to Joe Blow the Ragman and his pack, bike and cooler full of beer.

And yet few people come down here to recreate, to hike, to bike, to bird, to just hang out and sniff the air and take in the views. I've long wondered why more of my backcountry-traveling brethren look upon all lands south of Interstate 10 as terra incognita.

Author M. John Fayhee will have a reading / signing for his new book, Bottoms Up: M. John Fayhee's Greatest Hits From The Mountain Gazette, on Wednesday, July 21, at 6 p.m. at the Parlor at Diane's, 510 N. Bullard St.

Part of the reason so few folks venture into the Bootheel is that much of the public land thereabouts is owned and operated by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) rather than the US Forest Service or the National Park Service. The BLM, though part of the same uber-agency — the Department of the Interior — as the Park Service, is only peripherally in the business of providing esthetic experiences for America's hiking and biking masses. Its mission has always been to "work with" the nation's extractive industries (feel free to read between those lines). When you pull out your handy-dandy Rand McNally Road Atlas, you will rarely notice any BLM lands adorning the maps therein.

Yet the BLM administers 261 million acres of public land, compared to the Forest Service's 193 million acres. Those stunning figures aside, it is uncommon to find BLM maps in gear shops — and this is not because they do not exist. They do, and, in most cases, they are better than their Forest and Park Service counterparts.

Another reason few people explore the Bootheel is that it's on the border — ground zero for the immigration war. Down there is where the moving vans first get filled with so-called "illegals" looking for a better life in El Norte. Down there is where 500 people a year die trying to walk through the desert in search of a better life. Down there is where there are so many attempted incursions into the US by drug-runners that public roads are being gated and locked. And down there is where more than 6,000 armed agents of the US government drive Humvees, fly helicopters and man portable radar stations in hopes of catching those making their furtive way up the arroyos and through the rugged mountain ranges that bear names that even folks interested in mountain ranges have never heard of.

Who wants to go hiking in a place where highway signs warn visitors of the potential for violence? Who wants to risk being stopped by suspicious Border Patrol agents who not only don't want you there, but can't understand why you'd be there in the first place? Who wants to go to a place where the vibe is so scary?

Well, you know: me. So I decided to pack up my old Land Cruiser and head down for a week of recreational car camping in America's latest combat zone.

If there is one part of this terra incognita that outsiders have maybe heard of, it's Arizona's Chiricahua Mountains, which are almost always accessed via the hamlet of Portal from Rodeo, NM. I stopped in Rodeo for a quick bite at the one café in town, which also functions as a desperation-level grocery store.

As I sat there trying to grunt down a barbecue sandwich so hideously bad I got to wondering just what sort of hapless creature they had cooked up and placed upon this soggy bun (the specials board merely stated "barbecue" — no species), it appeared that the weekly meeting of the Crazed Desert Rat Society of the Bootheel was transpiring all around me. It is not often that I boast the most managed coif in a given room, but during that 30-minute repast, I was Richard Gere compared to my dining-room compadres. This is likely yet another reason why even moderate members of Middle America are a tad wary of venturing into the tattered remnant lands of Apacheria: There aren't many inhabitants, but what few there are can make sane people a tad nervous. The dominant physical characteristic there in the Rodeo diner seemed to be wild eyes pointing in different directions simultaneously, like chameleons. This may be a selected-for evolutionary trait among folks who dwell in a place populated by rattlers, scorpions, coyotes (of both varieties), drug-runners and Border Patrol agents.

The Chiricahuas, which reach an elevation of just under 10,000 feet, are among the most biologically diverse mountain ranges in the country. According to the Forest Service, more than 300 species of birds either call this area home or migrate through. As well, there are 1,400 species of plants and 500-plus species of vertebrates, including numerous varieties of rattlesnake.

But what's most captivating on the faunal front is that this is ground zero for Africanized bees, otherwise quaintly known as "killer bees." Even understanding the likely exaggeration of the potential of getting agonizingly stung to death by 10,000 severely agitated insects, I really, really wish there wasn't such a thing as killer bees. The farm upon which I grew up sported many beehives. Except when actually removing the honeycombs, my stepfather could tend to those hives dressed in only shorts and a T-shirt with nary a worry of getting stung. The bees knew him and loved him. Yours truly, however, could be walking 100 yards in the opposite direction and those little bastards would seek me out and happily give their lives up for the opportunity to sting me, preferably on the face, neck and, yes, lips.

And here we have a particularly malevolent variety of bee, inclined to swarm and sting anyone trespassing close to their hive — and they, unlike their non-Africanized cousins, boast the ability to sting multiple times. I know a lady in Silver City who was Gila Country's first confirmed killer-bee victim. She sustained 28 stings before reaching the safety of her parents' home and described the experience as heavily laden with severe panic. And this is one tough chick I'm talking about here.

The Forest Service propaganda warns visitors to avoid these bees, if possible (glad they mentioned that!) and to "watch and listen for concentrations of bee activity." If you are attacked by a swarm of killer bees, the Forest Service recommends that most-tried-and-true of survival strategies: Run away!

There are few places in the West like Cave Creek, located on the Bootheel side of the Chiricahuas. In addition to thousand-foot-high rock formations that in and of themselves would merit a visit to these parts, this is a perennial creek, a rarity hereabouts. The floodplain boasts dense concentrations of a wide variety of trees, the most noteworthy species of which is the Arizona sycamore, the craziest-looking large tree imaginable. (For you fans of "Star Trek: The Next Generation," Arizona sycamores resemble rooted versions of the Crystalline Entity — the creature that basically ate the entire planet on which Data was first assembled.)

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