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

Net Positive
New sustainability director Nick Sussillo

The Great Wasp War
The call went out to the lads of Silver City: This means war!

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Black-tailed prairie dogs once numbered in the billions

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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

Page: 2

Even though it was early enough in the year that most of the trees were still leafless, temperatures hovered in the 60s and the myriad avian species that dwell here were out and about en masse. This is a place that attracts birders from all over the world. I still don't know a chicken from a penguin, but I certainly do appreciate sitting next to a babbling creek, smoking a cigar, drinking a beer, soaking in the comfortable rays and watching colorful birds of indeterminate species going about their business, which, hopefully, consists to a large extent of eating killer bees.

In the Cave Creek area, you can only camp at designated sites. I landed a fairly secluded spot in Sunny Flat, where, this early in the season, there were few other campers. Though I've not been here in the summer, it's my guess that, when temperatures rise into the mid-200s in Tucson, Cave Creek gets more visitation than any other part of the Bootheel area.

The night was peaceful and quiet and the stars on this new-moon night were so bright it was hard to make out the major constellations. The best star-viewing should take place at altitude, and, indeed, up in the High Country, you can eyeball plenty of heavenly objects (just remember to bring your coat — even in July). But for reasons I assume center around a combination of a lack of localized ambient light and a lack of humidity, in my opinion, the best star-viewing takes place down in desert country. I have literally been kept awake at night because the stars were too bright. This is a place where it's easy to envision Native Americans dropping peyote, looking up for long periods of time and actually seeing celestial scorpions and bears and dogs.

All was seemingly perfect, yet I still slept with one eye open. Driving into the Cave Creek area, after all, there was a sign that read: "Travel caution. Smuggling and illegal immigration may be encountered in this area." (If they truly wanted to discourage visitation, they would have placed upon that sign a giant picture of a screaming baby with a swarm of killer bees Photoshopped onto its face.) That's a sobering notice, since there's no denying that it bears some seeds of accuracy.

The night before I arrived at Cave Creek, 30 people trying to enter the country sans documents were apprehended after a high-speed chase just a few miles south of Rodeo. Over in Tucson, a Border Patrol agent was on trial for allegedly shooting an alleged illegal in the back. Local ranchers estimate that thousands of people cross the border every year into Cochise County, Ariz., and Hidalgo County, NM, and, no matter your personal views regarding immigration, there is no argument that violence and property crime are common and escalating in these parts. On March 27, Arizona rancher Robert N. Krentz, Jr., was shot and killed on his spread very near Cave Creek by a suspected drug smuggler from Mexico.

There's no denying that this area is Wild West, which, of course, is one of the reasons it's so compelling. There are folks who go into Glacier National Park at least partially because of the grizzly bears, not in spite of them. And, after living a quarter-century in hyper-civilized and overly regulated Colorado, I find myself attracted to lawless lands, especially those with scenic vistas.

At the same time, the borderlands have become essentially the de facto private domain of the Department of Homeland Security, and that is not a governmental agency inclined toward wanting a whole lot of civilians wandering around unsupervised in the backcountry. After all, night-vision goggles and infrared radar can't tell if you're an illegal crossing into the land of plenty or a well-fed child of the land of plenty out in the woods for a little R&R. (A week or so after Krentz was murdered, several members of Congress seriously proposed transferring management of the millions of acres of environmentally important public turf in the border region from the federal land-stewardship agencies to, yes, you guessed it, the Department of Homeland Security.)

By now, some of you are likely wondering what is possessing me to pen a story that amounts to a "destination piece," in the vernacular of the glossy outdoor-magazine industry. That is the reason: I do not want this area to become (any more than it already is) an unsupervised private hunting ground for the Border Patrol, a law-enforcement entity that, where I live, is not exactly held in universal high regard, even by those who fundamentally agree with the notion of controlling immigration.

Nothing happened that night, unless you consider spending a relaxed evening in camp to be "nothing." And nothing happened the next day, which I spent hiking very much by myself up into the heart of the 100,000-acre Chiricahua Wilderness Area. You'd have to be one seriously tough and motivated smuggler or aspiring immigrant to make your way though the Chiricahuas, a mountain range as rugged and strong as any you will ever see. You break your ankle here and you might not be found for some months.

The only Border Patrol agent I saw near Cave Creek was parked alongside the road, napping in his car. I felt like walking over and rapping on his window and yelling some righteously indignant verbiage about how there's too much trouble these days for Border Patrol agents to be caught napping. (Where are the Minutemen when you need them?)

After spending another uneventful night in a Forest Service campground along the tranquility of Cave Creek, I packed up and moved deeper into the combat zone, to a long dirt road named after the area's most-infamous resident, a man who had the singular distinction of being an illegal alien in two countries simultaneously while never leaving his lifelong home.

There is no direct way to drive from the Chiricahuas back over into the Bootheel proper, primarily due to the Peloncillos, one of the longest mountain ranges in the Southwest. Along the crest of the Peloncillos can be found the Gray Peak Wilderness Study Area, the Central Peloncillo Mountains WSA, the Central Peloncillo Mountains Area of Critical Environmental Concern and the Antelope Pass Research Natural Area. Nearby can also be found the Cowboy Spring WSA, the Big Hatchet Mountains WSA, the Cedar Mountains WSA, the Granite Gap Area of Critical Environmental Concern and the southernmost several hundred miles of the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail. All told, there are hundreds of thousands of acres of public land, and, as I make my way toward the village of Animas, I'm betting there's not one single other person out there recreating, unless you consider sneaking your wary way up some arroyo to be recreation.

I eat a quick breakfast in Animas, where I make the acquaintance of a lifelong local cowboy. When he sees me pull out my BLM map, he comes over to my table. There is nothing that lends itself so well to initiating conversation among small-town locals as pulling out a map. The man gives me not only a geophysical tour of the area, but also a cultural tour. He shows me on the map where his wife grew up. He shows me where his grazing allotments are, and which roads are open. I can tell he wants to ask me what I'm doing in a greasy spoon in Animas eyeballing a BLM map. I help him out.

"So, you know of any good camping spots near the Geronimo Trail up in the Coronado National Forest?"

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