The river had been so fun, I was determined to keep following it as long as possible. The road followed the river a few miles. I passed another hot springs area that was along-side the road and privately owned. Hand-painted signs advertised “hot springs”. A bunch of rusty trailer-homes were parked nearby, the ground had that packed and worn look that came from too many footsteps. The place held no appeal to me. The point of hot springs wasn’t just to soak in hot water, I could do that in a bathtub. The point was that they were out there, natural and free. By making them commercial, people had removed that essential element.
The road headed away from the river, up the side of the canyon. I got off the pavement and continued following the river via the trail. The three forks of the upper Gila had merged together, nearly tripling the flow of water I had to cross. The river was now about 40 feet wide and reached to my knees. The flow wasn’t dangerously swift though, it just made my pace sluggish every now and then.
By crossing #175, I reached an area where there was reported to be another hot spring. I searched up and down the cliff-face, eventually spotting a slope of neon green slime on the rocks – there it was. A strong flow of hot water poured out of the rocks and into a catch-pool below. Melanie Hot Spring. The pool was only a couple feet deep, and just large enough for one person to lie down. I set down my things, and tested it out. The water was quite hot, but the bottom of the pool was covered in a layer of black muck that I couldn’t help but stir up. In less than a minute, the water was so cloudy, I couldn’t see an inch through it. I decided to donate a little of my time and energy toward cleaning and “improving” the pool. I figured if people like me didn’t do it, then who would?
I set up a quick camp and returned to the spring. I went to work. I scooped out the slimy muck from the bottom, mixed it with sand, and used it as a mortar to hold rocks in place. I used the same strategy as the beaver, adding a little more goop wherever I saw water flowing over the side. After spending an hour bending my back and moving heavy rocks, I had raised the depth of the pool a few inches, thickened and strengthened the wall, and cleaned up a good portion of the muck. “Somebody will appreciate it…”, I told myself.
In the morning, I took another look at the pool. The clear hot water had cycled through, and the remaining muck had settled to the bottom again. It was not perfect, but it was better. Hopefully, I thought, somebody else would be inspired to finish the job. I couldn’t spend anymore time on it, I had a river to follow.
The canyon had grown huge, grown in proportion to the flow of the water. The grassy banks of the river extended an average of 150 yards on either side, then rose to thick forests just below the steep canyon walls. The trail was generally routed in the forested area, but the whenever the river took a bend, it buffeted the canyon wall, and the trail crossed to the other side. Finding the trail again after a crossing proved to be quite a challenge. I often found myself zigzagging through chest-high grasses, interspersed with thorny bushes and broken trees… only to realize the trail had once again flipped back to the other side of the river. The tall brittle stalks of dead grasses crunched as I pushed through them. After a while I didn’t even hear the continuous crunching sound. Possibly the most annoying aspect of the grasses was the abundant variety of burrs that seemed to gravitate toward my socks and shirt. I often had to stop and pick out the sticky seeds one by one – they were so thick that they made walking through the grass a nearly unbearable chore. click to enlarge click to enlarge
I started to categorize the burrs, and curse them by name. First, there were the “big fuzzies” – mostly found at the water’s edge, they were the size of almonds and covered in the kind of hooks that had inspired somebody to invent velcro. The worst burrs were what I called the “sputniks”, they were the size of peas, and their sharp sticky spines pointed out in every direction, making them painful to remove with bare fingers. Then there were the “fat blacks” and “skinny blacks”, solid black seeds with a set of gripping pinchers on one end. They were both abundant, but easy to remove. The “spikes” were really annoying. They were pointed tiny toothpicks covered with gripping hairs. They worked their way into my shoes and socks, digging deeper with each of my steps. Finally, there were multitudes of minuscule burrs, grass seeds, and sticky green leaves which I never bothered to remove.
At crossing #218, I found another unexpected gift – another hot spring. It one wasn’t on any map, and it wasn’t mentioned in any “guide to the hot springs of New Mexico”. In a way, it felt like I was the first person to stumble upon it. The water gushed out the of the canyon wall into a series of natural pools filled with peeling sheets of green algae. Just before the water dumped into the Gila River, it was caught in a riverside pool about 2 feet deep and 8 feet long. The water was nearly scalding and absolutely clear. I had to ease into the pool an inch at a time. I stared at the clouds riding the sky while a billion excited molecules massaged my every cell.
I got out of the pool, and laid down on a rare patch of soft green grass by the river’s edge. The wind and sun quickly dried my skin. A kingfisher – a small blue bird with a big head and long fish-piercing bill – hovered nearby, scanning the water for an easy meal. The canyon extended all around, like a giant pair of giving hands. I shook my head and marveled at the perfection that was the world untamed.
At Sapillo Creek, I crossed the Gila river for the last time, #225. A part of me wanted to follow the Gila to the ocean and beyond if it was at all possible. The Gila once supported a long swath of green through an otherwise parched land, an oasis that extended all the way to the river’s junction with Colorado near Yuma, Arizona. The Gila River was THE river of the American southwest. It was a living metaphor that reflected the times through which it flowed. Soon after it left the national forest it was dammed and drained by the insatiable appetite of an ever-growing human population. Once, the entire Gila flowed as a gift from that Santa Clause god… but we’d played it to death. It was broken, patiently waiting for our time to pass so it could resume its original course.
I climbed out of the canyon along newly re-graded tread. It was nice to be climbing again, I slowly got a view back over the land of canyons I’d just walked through, there was so much of it. The land was always so difficult grasp, so difficult to put in human terms of thoughts and words. I often felt cheated by my limited human scope. I made camp on top of the ridge, under a grove of enormous ponderosas. A steady breeze that blew through the pines made a soft sound that matched that of the crickets. The clouds dissipated and a low full moon lit up the tops of the trees, I looked up to a small circle of stars and made a private wish. And although I knew it would never come to pass, the false hope at least temporarily eased my fears.
In the early morning, the path entered an area that had been logged a few years prior. The loggers had spared a few trees on the otherwise mulched mountainside. Those trees were left standing in the hope that they might naturally re-seed the land… eventually. They looked naked and lonely, hardly up to the task of which they’d been burdened. I wondered where all the wood had gone. How much of had found a useful purpose equal to the longevity of the trees?
The trail I was hiking was still in decent shape though, and I gradually rose to a prominent height, Tadpole Ridge, where I got my first unobstructed view south since John Kerr Peak. The horizon looked hot, dry, dusty and flat. The plant life south of the ridge changed abruptly. Century plants, cactus, yuccas… all suggested a story of blazing heat and little water. I descended along a trail that was slowly being covered by branches from overhanging bushes. The trail levelled-off in a small patch of forest, then became a series of small cairns that rested on a bed of pine needles. It was only somebody’s “best guess” of where the trail was supposed to be. I reached a relatively large cairn on the border of an area that had burned a number of years back. A thick network of thorny bushes blocked any possible advance. My luck had run out, any hint of a trail had been consumed by the fire and resulting re-growth of thorns.
I walked back and forth along the edge of the thorn-wall, looking for an easement. After a good half hour of no progress, I just said “fuck it”, and plowed ahead into the den of pain. I did my best to stomp on the brambly madness with my size 13’s, but it continuously popped-up and took stinging swings at me, scraping my flesh and clothing until they were raw and ruined. The piles of fallen scorched trees made things worse, breaking when tried to rely on their strength and remaining intact when I tried to bust through. Gladly, the worst of it only lasted around a mile. After that I was just winging it, as my map showed little topographic detail… I heard Obi-Wan whisper in my ear, “Use the force”, and just hoped I’d cross something “trail-like” somewhere ahead.
I started following a dry forested streambed. Some of the trees were actually blazed, but it looked like the cuts had been made around 1930. Only the oldest trees had blazes, and those were now just hardly discernible scars. Still, as best as I could tell, it was where the trail was supposed to be. Then, I got my big break. A cairn pointed the way uphill to my left, exactly where I thought it should have been. A trail re-emerged, the force had paid off.
The land was one of giant boulders worn round by the harsh forces of heat, wind and infrequent deluges of rain. Between the bare rock grew scrubby trees and cacti – prickly pear, cholla, and dozen small varieties that surely were no strangers to the well-informed. The colors were dominated by brown, grey and a dull shade of green. Occasionally, a bright yellow cholla fruit or purple prickly pear advertised their juicy flesh. I didn’t know exactly what was edible though, and decided not to risk a random taste. click to enlarge
The rudimentary trail led to a corral – cows? here? And from there it became a well-worn ATV track that endlessly wound through the boulders. The trail crossed an intermittent stream, Bear Creek, timed perfectly to coincide with my need of water. I then rose back up, on gradually widening roads toward the divide. Nearly without warning, a man on a motorized dirt-bike flew by at full speed. I had the thought that if was not a nimble man, but rather two horses side-by-side (as tracks in the dirt suggested had recently passed), there would have been a gruesome accident. A few moments later, his friend puttered past under reasonable control, and tipped his head hello.
I rose to what I thought was the divide, and wandered off the now truck-navigable road into a forest that had recently been thinned to prevent fires. I was amazed to find the swept forest floor littered with aluminum and broken glass – every couple feet. I took care to remove the sharpened shards, and laid down to rest.
In the darkness, around 12am, a truck filled with rowdy weekend revelers pulled off the road nearby – unaware of my presence. They blasted their stereo, and laughed and drank until 3 in the morning – all one pathetic cry of social immaturity. When I passed them in the early morning, a part of me wanted to rouse them from their slumber… but, they didn’t deserve my help.
As I neared Silver City, the crap slowly took over – pavement, litter, piles of old pipes, barking dogs, dead cars, old bits of plastic… It was Sunday morning. I passed a garage sale, and saw a man carrying away a big metal tube. He was grinning. “That’s a nice metal tube you got there”, I said with unabashed sarcasm. I didn’t think that he heard me though. For the fun of it, I asked a woman, “So… is that Silver City down there?”. I pointed toward a grid of buildings that extended below. She looked at me like I was deranged… it was exactly the cheap thrill I’d been looking for.
Silver City sprawled out in the shadow of the Gila. It had one major thing going for it – there was a university – and that meant there were good cafes, book stores, and little trendy shops that specialized in coffee and incense. I spent the rest of the day stinking up the town with my dirty hat, unkempt beard, and ripped shirt. I had ceased caring too much about the way I looked – It had become so irrelevant to the rest of my routine – I hadn’t even laundered my clothes since Grants. I found a motel room, and flipped through the TV stations – still nothing on.
The next morning, I hoisted my pack and simply walked down the highway, south, determined to give the speeding cars a good show.