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!

Pay to Play
The fledgling Las Cruces Vaqueros' field of dreams

Kiss of the Prairie Dog
Black-tailed prairie dogs once numbered in the billions

Columns and Departments
Editor's Note
Desert Diary

Business Beat
Noble Steeds
Holy Vortex, Batman!
Tumbleweeds Top 10

The Starry Dome
Ramblin' Outdoors
40 Days & 40 Nights
The To-Do List
Guides to Go
Henry Lightcap's Journal
Southwest Gardener
Continental Divide

Special Section
Arts Exposure

An Artistic Apprenticeship
Arts News
Gallery Guide

Body, Mind & Spirit
Here, Have a Placebo
Growing a Healing Tradition

Red or Green
Curious Kumquat
Dining Guide
Table Talk

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.)

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?"

"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.

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.

Return to Top of Page