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Hiking Apacheria

A Hike Through History

Revisiting some favorite sites in Apache country.

by Jerry Eagan

 

 

It's been a helluva year. Late in 2011, I developed what was a running diagnosis of: bronchitis… walking pneumonia… congestive heart failure… and then, in late January, a long cascade into Hell. I was in Gila Regional Medical Center, then Memorial Hospital in Las Cruces, followed by almost a month in Mountain View Hospital in Las Cruces, followed by the University of Texas Medical Center in El Paso and finally Nazareth Hall in El Paso, a rehabilitation facility. There, after two months that took me down onto a ventilator for two weeks, and with five weeks totally "gone" from memory, I emerged to learn to walk again.

apacheria
Cooke’s Peak from the McKinn Ranch on Hwy. 35 in the Mimbres. (Photos by Jerry Eagan)

The tubes down my throat had also damaged my ability to swallow, so I underwent speech therapy and learned to swallow fluids heavier than saliva. When I left Nazareth Hall, run by the Sisters of St. Joseph, on May 18, I was wheeled to the car by my wife. I had, by then, learned to walk with a walker. Since returning home, I've progressed from walkers to a single-point cane. At home, I walk awkwardly without the cane due to "foot drop," the result of what may be permanent nerve damage in the left leg. I may never walk again normally. Right now, I have a prosthetic brace that allows my left foot to operate more normally — that is, more like it did before all of this trauma.

Alas, a separate side effect of meds and three months in hospital beds was dry gangrene on 8 of 10 toes. While the toes on the left foot have almost all healed, the damage on the right foot toes is more extensive. As a consequence, four of five toes will have been amputated either naturally or surgically by the time you read this.

At age 65, I've spent a total of one year plus three months in hospitals. The year was in 1966-1967, when I was badly wounded in a firefight in Vietnam, followed by malaria. The remainder of the time was, of course, this latest round of hospitalization. The difference between ages 19-20 and age 65 in terms of how I dealt with the hospitalization was significant. On the other hand, my wife Dorothy told the docs many times that I had been vigorous for years prior to this latest near-death experience, "hiking Apacheria" since 2002.

 

All of this has, of course, affected how I "hike Apacheria." I was reminded of a story in one of the many books I've read about the Apache of an Apache man who had been bitten by a rattler while out on a raid. As a consequence, he, too, developed "foot drop." The article mentioned that his utility as a warrior dropped dramatically and, in effect, he became a "ward" of the band.

apacheria
Hills surrounding Fort Bowie from where Cochise launched the attack of Apache Pass in July 1862.

I've now wondered: How did HE manage to survive for any length of time in a mobile, semi-nomadic, warrior culture with such a debilitating problem? No prosthetics were available to him, certainly. He would've had to hobble around as best as he could (as the informant noted) and was forever on the "back bench" for warfare. Did he become a superb lookout? Sniper? Trainer of novices? His life-expectancy would have been reduced significantly, and I believe the informant indicated he died younger than most Apaches of the time.

As a place where I've hiked, I was also interested in the story a friend recounted of a herpetologist who'd been bitten by a black-tail rattler in Skeleton Canyon, south of Rodeo, where Geronimo surrendered in September 1885. I've been there three times on my own. It's a rugged drive in, and I basically walked two or three miles after I couldn't drive my truck any farther. Documentary filmmaker Brian Huberman, his wife Cynthia Wolfe and I were there three years ago and we saw several black-tailed rattlers. According to my source, the venom of the rattler bite spread quickly through the woman's body, and by the time she arrived at the hospital in Douglas, Ariz., a good hour-and-a-half walk and drive from the bite site in Skeleton Canyon, the neurotoxins had destroyed enough nerve endings in her leg that she, too, developed permanent "foot drop."

As some readers will remember, I fell on Providence Cone on Dec. 21, 2009, and broke my ankle. I had to reset the ankle three times using my knee pads and all of the duct tape I carried to crawl off the mountain and through cactus, back to my truck. I was able to reset the ankle once I got to the truck with a spare disabled-veteran license plate and the knee pads and more duct tape, in anticipation that I'd have to drive myself to the hospital in Deming — from Akela Flats, a good 30-minute drive to the hospital. As it turned out, Luna County sheriff's deputies and ICE personnel were able to provide me with support just at dark on that shortest day of the year, 2009, and one volunteer drove me to the hospital. (See "Slip-Sliding Away," February 2010.)

But Apaches went out all the time on forays to "look around" — for game, a new route, water sources, etc. What happened to them when they fell, broke an ankle or leg, and they were miles from home?

One old cowboy told me once that when he had broken an ankle out riding the range — albeit, with another rider — they packed his boot with mud as tight as they could, so he could remount his horse and ride back to the ranch headquarters. From there, he was driven to a hospital. And another Hidalgo County source told me that his family, who had lived for decades in Skull Canyon, south of Rodeo, lost two family members to appendicitis in the early 20th century. The jolting Model T Ford ride out of that place and all the way to Lordsburg, to the nearest hospital, had been too severe. Both died of simple appendicitis.

Apaches have appendixes, too. How did they handle such situations? I suspect they all died.

In one interview Brian and Cynthia and I got from an old-time rancher/author, Tom Diamond, he informed us that bear grass was often used not only for "wiping" duties while the Apaches moved about like the wind, but could also be stuffed into a wound to serve as a compress to staunch the blood flow caused by a bullet wound. Of course, many Apaches, badly wounded in skirmishes with the Spanish, Mexicans and Americans, just crawled off somewhere to die. When I was shot in Vietnam, I had arterial bleeding and I doubt there'd have been enough jungle grass around to compress my blood letting. Bullet wounds then were caused by enormously destructive .45-.70 and other high-caliber rounds. Bones would have been shattered and exit wounds would have been massive.

 

When Brian and Cynthia visited this July, we went to the last few places they wanted to capture for the film they're making. Along with a friend, Randy Crawford, we hiked in the Peloncillos, the Mimbres and around Fort Bowie. We went to the Peloncillos the second day of filming. I wanted to show them the approximate location of the battle area (not the site), as the scenery is stupendous and as the site had become one of my favorites until I began to get sick. (See "In Loco's Footsteps," February 2011, and "From Water to Water," August 2011.)

apacheria
Possible hearth of the McKinn homestead.

The Northern Peloncillo site of my hikes is essentially a long, six- to eight-mile-long massif, rugged, minimally vegetated, with miles of craggy rocks located south of Hwy. 78 and west of Hwy. 70. The Peloncillos stretch from this spot all the way south to Skeleton Canyon and even a bit farther south along the eastern flank of the San Simon Valley. It was a favorite mountain range of the Chiricahua Apaches, who had many rancheria up and down the range. Rancherias would have been located almost any place that had some source of water. The Apaches knew where every drop of water could be had from the northernmost crags of the Peloncillos all the way into Mexico. They knew where these water sources were just as we know where our own bank's ATMs are located.

 
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