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Brandon Perrault provides the soundtrack for Grant County

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The Gila Back Country Horsemen celebrate 10 years

Ready to SNAP
Is the Spay & Neuter Awareness Program running out of time?

In Loco's Footsteps
Hiking the Peloncillos where Apaches held off the US Cavalry


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About the cover

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


In Loco's Footsteps

Hiking the rugged, cactus-studded Peloncillos, where Apaches on the run held off — for a time — the US Fourth Cavalry.

Story and photos by Jerry Eagan

"To the different Apache tribes there were, in addition to the four seasons of the year, six time divisions having to do with the gathering of food: Little Eagles (early spring), Many Leaves (late spring and early summer), Large Leaves (midsummer), Thick with Fruit (harvest time, late summer to early fall), Earth Reddish Brown (late fall); Ghost Face (winter) . Late spring was an especially busy time for nearly all the Apache because their single most important food plant, an agave or century plant known as mescal (Agave utahensis), was ready then. Prickly pear fruit was rubbed clean of its spines with sand or leather and eaten raw, or it too could be dried and glazed for later use. All the sweeter cactuses could, alternatively, be prepared into a buttery spread."

Apaches: A History and Cultural Portrait
by James L. Haley


I've been hiking Apacheria a lot in Hidalgo County, as I realized I've never written about that locale. In December, on the first anniversary of the fall I took on Providence Cone (or, as the locals call it, Rattlesnake Peak/Ridge; see "Slip-Sliding Away," February 2010), I took a group of guys there, to return to that spot that chastened and humbled me. I told Dennis Jennings, my hiking partner, that the fall was a wakeup call. I've decided that most often, I'll hike with someone. Knowing one's limits seems like a good place to be when it comes to man vs. nature.

loco 1
The rugged Peloncillos.

Another change since the fall: a SPOT transponder. SPOT, which stands for Satellite Personal Tracker, is "the world's first satellite providing location-based communication to friends, family or professional services." The SPOT offers four valuable features: SOS/911 (threatening life emergency), Help (non-threatening life emergency), I'm OK (check in to reassure loved ones) and Track Progress (allows contacts to track your near-real-time travel). The SPOT communicates with satellites set to provide a specific longitude and latitude where you're at. That would have been handy for several of the most recent major rescues undertaken in the Black Range, Floridas and Gila. I recently sent a series of "I'm OK" signals to my wife, while I was in the Peloncillo Mountains hiking, and she was in Park City, Utah, on a visit with a friend. I may add the "Track Progress" feature this year.

Dennis, by the way, also has a SPOT, even though we generally hike together. Let's face it: Dennis, at 57, has six years of energy more than I, at 63. When I was 57, I was doing what I see Dennis do — bounding up slopes, climbing and hiking all day, with no seeming impact and a curiosity that matched that energy. Now, while I've not lost my curiosity, I often suggest that Dennis check something out he's obviously intrigued by. In those cases, it's not only better to have a SPOT for each person, but a walkie-talkie for each, as well.

While I'm not sure of all the details of the four college-age kids who got into some very serious trouble in the Floridas a month and a half ago, I can say this: Having hiked in the Floridas, from north to south, mostly on the east slopes, that range is among the most rugged you can tackle. And so are the Peloncillos, one of the many mountain ranges in Hidalgo County, including the Animas, Alamo Hueco, Hatchets and Pyramids.

Hidalgo County has seen tremendous history associated with the Apaches and the earlier Mogollon peoples. There are some incredible pictograph and petroglyph sites along the Lower Gila Box Riparian area.

We hiked into one canyon and one major rock art site in October. It was hot both days, and wading the Gila to get to the first site felt really good. You should have plenty of water, hat, sunscreen, poncho, space blankets, etc., when tackling these hikes, plus SPOT. With SPOT, you don't need to worry about the lack of cell-phone coverage in this area. In October, as we crossed the Lower Gila near Virden ("Richmond" during the Apache era), a flock of 30 to 50 sandhill cranes was in the river, bathing, fishing and sunning.

The Saladan peoples, perhaps the Payan people, were among the first to build pueblos, pit houses and even more elaborate structures in what's now Hidalgo County. By the time the Apaches were raising hell with the Spanish, Mexicans and Americans, their travel routes south, into Mexico, often used the flat San Simon Valley as their thoroughfare. The eastern side of the San Simon Valley is bordered by the Peloncillos, while the western side is fringed by the Whitlocks and Chiricahuas.

The Peloncillos form some of the most austere, rugged peaks I've been in. They're also very unused, and that's just fine with me. We've made six hikes, thus far, in the Peloncillos, searching for the site of a firefight described in detail in Bud Shapard's relatively new book, Loco: Apache Peacemaker, which Ed Sweeney likewise covers in his new powerful book, From Cochise to Geronimo: The Chiricahua Apaches, 1874-1886.

Coincidentally, that firefight, at the base of what I call Peloncillo Massif, is within a few miles of one of the best-preserved sites of the Butterfield-Overland-Giddings Stage Line, in Doubtful Canyon. (In the 1880s, the name applied to many of these mountains was Steins Range). Be aware that there's plenty of private property at critical locations in there. Try as we might, we've not yet been able to contact one ranch owner for permission to hike his land. We've used public or state land to hike, and we've been out when the weather was hot enough, even in our beautiful late fall, to allow us to walk in T-shirts — and also in the cold of January. When we go out, we leave an itinerary with our wives, unlike one of the most recent "experienced" hikers who wound up having to be rescued.

With jagged, steep, rocky cliffs, ridges, mesas, canyons, hills and flat grazing lands, this area is undoubtedly overrun with rattlers once the weather heats up. A friend said he'd also seen Gila monsters, which sounds cool to me. Based on some scattered bones of large cattle, and one old desert mountain sheep that was most likely eaten after it had died, we speculated on how many mountain lions were in the area.

The Chiricahua Apaches who passed through these canyons and mesas we've been hiking in were on the move. In the case of Loco's band's fight with the Fourth Cavalry under Lt. Col. George A. "Sandy" Forsyth, in already-blistering April 1882, the Apaches were on the run. Having been sucked into the Geronimo outbreak of that year, Loco's people, who were pulled off San Carlos under threat of death, really hadn't wanted to get engaged in yet another war ignited by Geronimo, Juh, Chihuahua, Naiche, et al.

Most if not all the Apaches were traveling on horses — albeit, in most cases, stolen ones. Those who resisted the theft of their horses were invariably killed ruthlessly. Sweeney's book makes it crystal clear: The Apaches by 1882 were brutal, capable of torture and known to bash victims' brains in (often women and children not yet dead) with rocks. Not having their hearts fully engaged in the outbreak, however, Loco's people suffered heavy losses.

From the rough, sandy but passable road (even with two-wheel drive vehicles, in dry weather), one can hike cross-country north, south and east. The private property adjacent to the Stage Station locale would cause you to do some detours, to the south and west, definitely around the base of Steins Peak. Our hiking has been primarily to the north, and up. And into a thick, barb-wire-like cactus hell field. I feel fortunate that most of our hikes have been since the rattlers have gone underground.

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.

loco 2
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.

loco 3
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.

The photos I've taken simply show a massif that extends five or six miles in length and rises to at least 6,000 feet. Within that bulging jumble of rock, the Apaches had come, time and again, to a rancheria that provided them not only with clean, fresh, consistent water from springs, but also many of the plants they harvested throughout the year.

loco 4
Prickly pear and Spanish bayonet make hiking a challenge.

On April 23, 1882, the forces of the US Cavalry and the Warm Springs Apache clashed in one of the canyons I've hiked in. In I Fought with Geronimo, Jason Betzinez described the firefight as vividly as one can:

"Those of us who were watching the skirmishing from high up on the mountainside grew restless. When the soldiers had reached a point about a mile from our hiding place our warriors stripped off their shirts and prepared for action. I heard the leaders calling all able-bodied men to assemble for battle. Of course, the way the Indians fought was all voluntary. The chiefs were not able to order any man to fight, as the officers could do the soldiers. But the Indians would go into battle to keep from being shamed and to protect their families.

"Soon we saw our warriors moving down toward a steep U-shaped ravine. The soldiers were approaching up the caon while our men were on the rim. The fighting began. Three of our men who were wounded were carried back up the mountainside. Maybe some were killed but I did not see any. The fighting grew very heavy, almost continuous. The soldiers fired ferocious volleys. Those of us who were watching were shivered with excitement as our men slowly withdrew under this fire."

The US forces were parched. Forsyth chose to withdraw sometime around 4 p.m., to Richmond, again, where his men and horses could slake their enormous thirst. The Apaches, on the other hand, prepared to exfiltrate the area, empty after dark of all soldiers. Moving as only Apaches could, under cover of darkness but a full moon, they traveled for 36 hours, until they went through the southern end of the Peloncillos, exiting on the eastern side, above Cloverdale. Utilizing a commonly used rancheria, the men rested, and, thinking they'd outwitted and outrun the Americans, danced. The women, on the other hand, went into action, as they saw that their most important staple, the "mescal sheets of the agave, were growing green." It was time to harvest and, tired or not, the Apache women harvested and began roasting the mescal hearts.

The hubris of the Apaches cost them dearly, however. Rather than having fled to safety, they were battered first by the pursuing Americans, then ambushed and slaughtered by Mexicans along the border. In the next few days, to the end of April, Loco lost 40% of his band. Within two days, the Americans and Mexicans killed, wounded or captured as many as 145 men, women and children.

The tragedy of this "outbreak," in later years, was blamed on Geronimo, who had come up from his own departure from the San Carlos Reservation and forced the Chihene N'de to come with him — under pain, he warned, of death. To this day, Chihene N'de blame Geronimo for the many lost lives of their loved ones.

The years 1882 and 1883 would be among the costliest in the history of the Chiricahua Apaches. By this time, also, Geronimo was the primary culprit who insisted that they not change their lifestyle; they continued to raid, kill, plunder and pillage both in Arizona and New Mexico, as well as Mexico.

Say what you might about the injustices (and they were countless) that the Americans perpetrated upon the Apaches, leaders like Geronimo, Naiche, Juh, Chihuahua and Ulzana just would not surrender to the reality of their day.

For me, I treasure beyond words the silence, and beauty and tathata (essence) of these places. I cannot alter history, and perhaps everyone involved simply did what they did with the outcomes they got. But I can sit silently and practically hear the Apaches in happier times — calling across the canyon to one another with joy, happiness and reverence for what nature gave them as they "moved like the wind."



To read previous "Hiking Apacheria" stories, visit www.desertexposure.com/apacheria Jerry Eagan's website, www.hikingapacheria.com has a blog and also, through the assistance of his web designer, Teri Matelson, has a slide show that features several hundred photos of where he's "hiked Apacheria," in 2010-2011. If you're interested in fully developed photos of "Apacheria," write Jerry at skyminder.eagan805@gmail.com

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