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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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