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  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e  February 2011

Hiking the Peloncillos

Page: 2

Just about everything and anything a person can get stuck by in southwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona is here: cholla cactus; prickly pear of several varieties; low ground-cover prickly pears; higher, huge prickly pears as well. Ocotillo stand sometimes 20 feet high. There are nasty, very, very sharp-tipped Spanish bayonet, barrel cactus, banana yuccas, soaptree yuccas, bear grass and sticky grass with little burrs, as well as catclaw and mesquite of several types. Throw in giant scree slopes made of gravel or slab rock, with many arroyos crossing the flat lands, and you understand why this mountain was used by the Apaches, when they turned and fought the soldiers chasing them from half a dozen different locations, east and west.

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A snowy agave in the Peloncillos.

Without a doubt, I've never hiked in a place with so many cactus and other bushes and trees that stick you. The cholla are very nasty. Those little needles resist easy removal. I tried strapping tape, duct tape, painter's masking tape, Scotch tape, well-chewed gum and hot baths for three or four nights, before I made some progress on a wide swath on my left thigh. Several of the Spanish bayonet sticks opened up some interesting splotches on my left thigh, too. Mesquite thorns slashed the first three fingers on my right hand.

Knee pads and good rawhide or leather gloves are an absolute necessity. Walking over the majority of the ground forces you to trudge through and over literally millions of rocks that make the slog very tiresome.

Wildlife is scarce. We've seen a total of seven or eight deer, five to ten rabbits, a few birds, one golden eagle. The vast and enormous expanse of New Mexico lands around you can be totally devoid of any other humans. I, for one, can begin to understand why the Apache would have loved the place, particularly when water was running. And water did run, and most likely has always run over millions of years, until the cattlemen came, sealed up the natural springs, and piped water to their stock tanks.



It's hard for me to imagine how children were raised in such places. Apache children apparently weren't scolded loudly in front of others or physically punished. But Geronimo reputedly made young Apaches working to become dikkas, or novice warriors, crash through any ice that might be on a mountain stream in winter, or just go into the water in other seasons, when those waters would be fiercely cold. Some speculate that the point was to approach a state of shock, or jolt of fear. Others say that the point was to experience the inrush of a gasp for air, at the shock of the cold. Or perhaps the goal was to allow mind and heart to know one another in incidents involving the act of warrior battle with another.

Whatever the reason(s), suffice it to say that preparation for such an eventuality wouldn't have hurt one's training. I've waded rivers and streams in the dead of winter, both in South Korea, when I was stationed there, and in Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky, when I fell in or crashed through ice while hiking. As a kid, I fell through ice and into a frigid Indiana winter stream, clear up to my armpits. I did the same thing once, while doing a private weeklong retreat in Mt. Olivet, the refuge for the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, in Gethsemani, Ky. In both cases, I walked at least a mile, in very cold temperatures. My clothes began to build up a layer of ice. I was glad, in both events, I had a warm fire to return to.

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A butte in the Peloncillos.

Somehow, Apache children learned to navigate such an ouchy environment, and grow to adulthood: avoiding and dealing with deadly rattlesnakes much of the year, Gila monsters, mountain lions and bobcats, wolves, coyotes, falls down talus slopes, all without bandages or modern antibiotics. How did they do that? Did many children die, as they tried and failed to reach a level of adulthood that represented one of the cruelest rites of passage there could be?

Hiking in January, Dennis and I walked all day long, roughly six miles, round trip, climbing up into the rocks of the Massif, where we found snow sometimes as much as six inches deep. As we moved around on the steep slopes, we scared up deer and rabbits. The slopes were often loose gravel, and at such an angle that one had to walk as if traversing a slope, horizontally — by walking sideways, sinking your boots into the gravel, as you do in snow.

Everywhere I turned, there were chollas, prickly pear cactus, barrel cactus sometimes as big as a 50-gallon oil drum, agave with a spread of jagged leaves eight feet in diameter, and Spanish bayonets that stab with such a sharp bite that you just want to scream.

We had on several layers of shirts and/or a jacket, jeans or tough hiking pants, heavy-duty leather boots, thick hiking socks, knee pads and gloves. The average Apache in warrior training, dependent on the season, might have outer garments, too. Or he might have only a loin cloth and breechcloth.

Coming into one canyon, along a very steep slope, two deer bounded down the steep slope, 10 to 12 feet at a running jump, all the while traveling without much hesitation. Apaches, in order to cover 30-40 miles a day, would also have to make split-second decisions about going through thickets of sticking bushes and cacti. How many needles might they get stuck by, as they trotted all day long? The Apaches moved across this land at a pace that often involved jogging for hours.

My sources indicate that Apaches regularly carried rawhide and "thread" made from various fibers harvested and gathered, most often by the women of the band. On the other hand, each warrior had to know how to not only find the source material for such "thread" but also how to turn it into that product, as well as sufficient amount of rawhide and leather to keep replacing moccasins as they wore out.

The famous upturned toe of Apache moccasins undoubtedly saved many an Apache toe or foot from painful stubs, as well as from direct puncture by those types of cacti that covered Apacheria.



In April 1882, a band of Chihene N'de Apaches led by Loco, reluctantly — in fact, under threat of death — was making its way down into the Sierra Madre Occidental, of Mexico, to join an ever-larger group of Chiricahuas there, when they encountered American soldiers in the first of several firefights in the rugged Peloncillo Mountains. Sweeney estimates that somewhere between 250 and 350 Apaches, including men, women and children, with perhaps 40 to 60 warriors, may have engaged Lt. Col. George A. Forsyth's Fourth Cavalry, about 15 miles west of what was then known as Richmond, NM (present-day Virden), near Doubtful Canyon.

 



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