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

Car Camping

Page: 4


Just before dinner, I decided to stretch my legs, so I strolled up the road, hoping that no more speeding LeSabres were on the horizon. Fifty yards from my camp, I noticed bootprints heading into the woods. My heart raced! Oh boy, thought I, a genuine illegal immigrant scenic vacation route! Maybe I would soon have the opportunity to make a moral decision that was more practical than theoretical!

Truth be told, I have actually helped transport illegal immigrants northward on two occasions, so I guess I've made that moral decision already. But, both times, they were not "illegal immigrants" I was helping, but, rather, human beings in need of assistance, and I make a point of lending a helping hand to those in distress, no inspection of citizenship papers required. But that was 30 years ago, back before the latest politically motivated war was declared on the northward-moving immigrant hordes. Given the fact that Americans now lending even the most basic humane help to those thirsty people trying to gain entry into the US without going through official channels are being handcuffed and tried in federal court, I don't now know what my reaction would be if confronted with the same choices I faced in my ignorant youth, when the moral sightlines of life seemed so much clearer. I do know what my reaction would be if I didn't help someone in need out here in the far southern edges of the American Dream: I would go into a degree of self-loathing that would likely haunt me till the end of my days.

I followed those tracks and, maybe 100 feet in, came upon, of all surprising things, an official Forest Service trail sign. There was no indication out on the road that a trail was located hereabouts; a week after returning home, I asked a Forest Service friend why that likely was. She said the Border Patrol probably didn't want to advertise to the greater world that there is a nice, fairly well-maintained trail available for outdoor recreational use by anyone, including, but not limited to, backpackers, dayhikers, birders, illegal immigrants and drug runners. My friend told me there had been some internal governmental dialog regarding pulling from the market all the BLM and Forest Service maps available for the border region, lest the wrong people get their hands on them. People, I guess, like me.

Next morning, at the crack of about 10:30, I donned my day pack and hit the trail. Though hot and rough, it was beautiful. In little more than a mile, I came across a signed intersection where three trails came together. I followed the one less traveled and, in another mile, came across yet another signed intersection. I pulled out my subversive maps and could find no evidence of this apparently extensive trail system. But I could find the actual geophysical features described on the trail signs, and, by simple extrapolation, I determined that there must be dozens of miles of system trails back here in the heart of the Peloncillos. What a find!

After eating a quick lunch in the shade next to a nice pool that would soon be bone dry, I started back. Then, suddenly, a heart-stopping thought belatedly dropped into my cranial mainframe like a laser-guided missile: I'd been following the efforts to establish critical habitat for the endangered jaguar, and, despite the fact that I've penned a half-dozen stories on that subject, it inexplicably did not dawn on me until that moment, by myself on a trail few people know about two hiking hours from the only road for 50 miles, that the very place I was now standing was the exact freakin' center of where the only known population of jaguars in the US lives!

According to researchers I have interviewed, there are likely only four to six jaguars on American soil, but, when push comes to shove, all you need is one to impact your otherwise pleasant day hike. I recollected as I sheepishly made my way back to camp how quaint it was that, only a few nights before, I was worried about dangers as relatively benign as killer bees.

I also got to thinking how the anti-immigration people and the environmentalists pushing for protected jaguar habitat could work together: By reintroducing a couple dozen of the world's third-largest feline species into the border country, you'd damned sure see a significant drop-off in illegal crossings.



Upon returning to my surprisingly un-stolen/un-vandalized vehicle, I drove as far south as I would go on this journey, to the southernmost reaches of the Peloncillos, to the old Cloverdale town site, maybe five miles from the border. There used to be a school, a store and several hundred residents here, but now all that remains of a once-vibrant agricultural town is a boarded-up adobe schoolhouse and a few scattered ranch houses. This is literally the end of the road, borderland style. It's 42 miles to Animas on the only road in and out.

I set up camp in the shade of an astounding oak grove that afforded views of the massive, pine-covered Sierra San Luis and the Guadalupe Mountains, which form the northern part of the Guadalupe Canyon Wilderness Study Area, one of the least-accessible WSAs in the country. In this part of the Coronado National Forest, the only trails are definitely not part of any official system, and the only signage takes the form of a unique oral tradition: the songlines of illegal entry.

It is hard for people who have not traveled into the boonies of the northern Sierra Madre to fully comprehend how wild that terrain is. Our conceptual world ends at that contrived line known as "the border." But this area is far less a part of the artificial construct known as the United States of America than it is part of the artificial construct known as Mexico. The mountain ranges visible here lie mostly in Chihuahua and Sonora.

I had been told that all you have to do to find yourself on the receiving end of Border Patrol attention down here is to build a fire. So I proceeded to build one the size of a middle-class, well-fed house, just to see what would happen. But if anyone saw my flames, they did not act. Coyotes howled. Two owls the size of pterodactyls flew by, entrails of some kind hanging from their beaks. And, in the deepest recesses of my psyche, several jaguars sat atop the closest hill and made their carnivorous mental calculations as I sat alone next to the red heat of the fire, smoking a fine Dominican cigar. I fully expected to sleep fitfully in my tent that cost more than most annual incomes down in Mexico. But, even though I could almost hit the border with a rock, I dozed off fast and slept soundly, a joyful rarity in my insomniac life.

Next morning, I left early, a plume of dust following me as I made my way home. On the way out, I passed two Border Patrol SUVs going the other direction, one right after the other. They both slowed and scrutinized me in leaning-forward, squinty-eyed fashion. They may have turned around and followed me, but my dust wake was so thick, I could not tell. By the time I reached blacktop, the only thing in my rearview mirror was the wild expanse of the Bootheel dissipating into a distance populated by people who would give their left arm to be riding shotgun in my old beater piece-of-crap Land Cruiser. I wouldn't have minded the company one bit.



Adapted and abridged from Bottoms Up: M. John Fayhee's Greatest Hits From The Mountain Gazette by M. John Fayhee (Round Mountain Publishing, $15.95, www.RoundMountainPublishing.com)



Editor of The Mountain Gazette, M. John Fayhee is the author of Mexico's Copper Canyon Country, Up At Altitude: A Celebration of Life in the High Country, Along the Colorado Trail, Along the Arizona Trail, Along Colorado's Continental Divide Trail and A Colorado Winter. He worked as a newspaper reporter and editor for 15 years and was a long-time contributing editor at Backpacker magazine.





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