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

Car Camping

Page: 3

 

"You're going to camp up there?"

"Sure am."

"By yourself?"

"I prefer camping by myself. Less arguments."

"Well... you know it sometimes can be a little dangerous around here, right?"

Despite the fact that I don't always agree with them politically, I love talking with cowboys. I do not generally subscribe to the Edward Abbey-an philosophy that those who speak the least most often say the most. Generally, I seek out the company of fellow gabbers. But I am amused by understatement. Most people I know would go on and on for an hour reciting every single instance where that dangerousness was made manifest, clear back to the time when Geronimo was being chased through these hills by the cavalry. But cowboys, no, they will distill gun battles and major drug interventions and Border Patrol helicopters flying overhead to "a little dangerous."

"I have been told by some people that occasionally there's some excitement," I said. (Always best to meet understatement on its own terms.)

"Yes, there can be occasional unpleasantness and anxiety that is known to make its way up to where you're thinking of camping," the cowboy stated.

"Well, I'll keep my eyes open," I responded. He nodded, knowing that everything that need be said had indeed been said — except that, a few miles up the road, I realized he had not answered the question I originally asked.

 

Forty miles south of Animas, just west of the towering (and entirely privately owned) Animas Mountain Range, the Geronimo Trail branches off and heads circuitously through the Peloncillos toward Geronimo Pass and, eventually, to Douglas, Ariz. I had been told there is a hiking trail near the pass, so I drove slowly looking for evidence — like, you know, a sign. But the only signage again took the form of several more of those "smuggling and immigration" warnings.

I made it all the way to the west wide of the Coronado National Forest, turned around and drove slowly back. No trail that I could see. I pulled over often to ogle the vistas of mountains so remote and rugged that my jitter gland actually started secreting trepidation enzymes. There were dramatic cliff faces, rock formations, drainages and pine-covered mountainsides in every direction. And I had passed only one other car: a Border Patrol vehicle driven by a young man so surprised to see someone else on the road that he almost went off a cliff.

Just off the Geronimo Trail, I spied a nice car-camping spot and decided to lay claim to it. By dispersed car-camping standards, this place was not too bad. There was a well-constructed fire ring, home to a surprisingly small quantity of bubba-based detritus — smashed Bud Light and Vienna Sausage cans, cigarette butts and Skoal canisters. There was a flat spot where I could sleep, and a nice patch of sun where I could sit, smoke, drink and read the afternoon away. It's as though I were camping in Rocky Mountain National Park, rather than in the heart of the drug and immigration wars. And there was a good view of the road, which follows Clanton Gulch — named, I assume, after the same Clantons who earned infamy for their part in the OK Corral gunfight in 1881, a few hours west over in Tombstone.

Before settling in, I went for a firewood-gathering stroll and soon saw that I was camped near a small water impoundment constructed by the New Mexico Turkey Hunters Association, according to a very modest sign well back in the woods.

Finally, after about three hours of kicking back, I started to relax. I heard melodic vocalizations by bird species I did not know and I noticed an astounding rock spire across the valley.

But just as I was finally chilling out, a distant roar caught my attention. And it got louder and louder. At first I thought that maybe it was a poorly mufflered car driving down the Geronimo Trail. But, no, it was a pair of military jets, and for 15 minutes, they used my camp as an epicenter for an aerial tour of the Peloncillos. It doesn't matter where you go, the long arm of empire will always find you and pay you a visit, just to remind you of the perpetual score. It might be uniformed forest rangers making a "public contact" in a remote wilderness area. It might be ATV-riding Border Patrol agents giving you stink-eye on the supposedly non-motorized Divide Trail in the Burro Mountains. Or it might be a couple of faster-than-the-speed-of-sound fighters dancing in the jet stream directly above your supposedly primitive campsite in the middle of nowhere.

The jets came back once more an hour later for an encore performance that had me very much wishing I had taken up my buddy Cameron's offer to lend me one of his firearms. Except I know one of two things would have happened had I discharged a weapon in even the most general direction of those planes wrecking my solitude: Either their bright-red incoming-bogey lights would have starting flashing like crazy, necessitating a response that would likely have resulted in someone one day finding my charred remains, cigar stub hopefully still in hand, in the middle of a large crater. Or I would have defied all laws of nature and military probability and actually hit one of them — likely forcing the pilot to jump ship (with the distinct possibility that his parachute would take him into Mexico, setting off an international incident). This in turn would have caused a national uproar, replete with Congressional hearings, about the supposedly mighty US Air Force's inability to defend itself even against a single random discharge by an annoyed drunk man camping 12,000 vertical feet below. I would, of course, be captured, charged with treason, prosecuted to the full extent of the law and imprisoned in Florence Supermax, alongside Manual Noriega and Ted Kaczynski, for the rest of my life. Which is not exactly how I pictured this little car-camping foray into the combat zone turning out. So I just flipped them the bird and returned to my reading, smoking, drinking and pondering.

Shortly after the jets left the second time, two cars drove by at a rate of speed that was not merited by the conditions of the Geronimo Trail. Though I had no better luck identifying their exact species than I did identifying the birds whose sweet vocalizations I heard before the jet onslaught, they were definitely of the Buick LeSabre-variety. When they crossed Clanton Gulch, which, due to recent rainfall, held water, they both bottomed out hard, splashing mud like a damned Jeep commercial, but the drivers did not even ponder slowing down.

I do not think those inappropriate automobiles were piloted by people whose mission was completely legal. Smugglers of both people and illicit substances are said to often steal cars to move their inventory. That way, when you beat your ride all to crap, you care not one whit, because, well, it's not your car and, when you're done with it, you're going to abandon it anyhow.

My mind wandered back to a conversation a few days prior, wherein a chum told me there were plenty of people down in the twilight zone of the Bootheel who would happily dispatch me for my Land Cruiser and its contents. I thought just how desperate things must truly be if someone would hork a rusted-out hulk of an ancient Cruiser incapable under any circumstances of exceeding about 50 mph, containing some of the grungiest, dirtiest, dustiest, oldest, stinkiest, crustiest camping gear this side of a Darfur refugee camp. But, since no one ended up killing me or stealing my gear, there must be some standards among the shadow residents of border country.



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