Five Things to Love About Backpacking in the Gila

by M John Fayhee on August 29, 2011

When my pack-toting Colorado buddies heard that I was moving back down to Gila Country after 24 years in the Centennial State, they all scrunched up their faces and wondered aloud what manner of madness had possessed me this particular go-round. For, you see, the main publicity in recent years that has made its way out of the Gila National Forest into the Outside World has centered around things that are not exactly perceived as positive: the battle over cattle and the concomitant war over wolves. Not exactly enticing from a marketing perspective. And, before that, 15 or so years ago, there was the wonderful news from Gila Country about homemade bombs being placed on trails by Forest-Service-hating ranchers looking to explode the legs off unaware backcountry rangers. That really made everyone in Colorado want to come down here for a little walk in the woods.

My reaction to the articulated incredulity of my Colorado backcountry chums was to simply nod my head and agree that, yes, things might be a tad too dangerous and acrimonious down in Gila Country and, therefore, everyone should stay away, just to be on the safe side.

When you’re a backcountry loner like I am, bad publicity is the best publicity. And, since we have just come off a wildfire season so world-class severe that I’m certain anyone even considering coming down to these parts for a look-see has opted instead to visit Scotland, I feel pretty safe in herein listing five things I love about backpacking in the Gila, a place, I should note, where there are at least six species of rattlesnake, most of which are very aggressive, often exceed 45 feet in length and regularly kill and eat young children and family pets, at least those few children and family pets that have not already been dispatched by the mountain lions, scorpions and herds of meth dealers.

In no particular order:

• Despite the fact that there are certainly more people visiting the Gila’s backcountry than there were when I lived here 35 years ago, the wilderness hereabouts is still by-and-large unpeopled. You break your ankle on a trail in Colorado and all you have to do is make yourself comfortable and wait for the next senior-citizens’ hiking club or Brownie troop to amble by, which they will in less than 15 minutes, guaranteed. You break your ankle in the backcountry around here, and, well, think in terms of that scene in “Jeremiah Johnson” where Robert Redford finds the frozen guy with the Hawkin rifle. There are certainly many people who would view the inherent loneliness of the Gila as a bad thing. I am not one of them.

• Now that I think about it, there has been some other publicity about the Gila Wilderness, stuff besides acrimony about wolves. Backpacker Magazine, for whom I worked as a contributing editor for more than a decade, once did a piece on the darkest places in the country. At the top of that list was the Gila. Of course, given the perpetual state of fear that pretty much defines the U.S. these days, that story did not necessarily translate into increased visitation, which is weird, because the Gila’s lack of ambient light does translate into the very best night-sky viewing imaginable. I have seen the night sky here so clear and star-filled that even the major constellations were unidentifiable, lost as they were in a dense celestial setting the spanned clear to the center of the galaxy.

• In Gila Country, the concept of building a campfire is not only still permissible, but is actually de rigueur while backpacking. In most of the West, campfire-making has been relegated to the status of Mortal Sin among the truly holy backcountry users. This is because of the influx and influence of an entity called Leave No Trace. Now, I have nothing per se against LNT, except that they frame their credo in an ethical context — meaning that, if you don’t buy into their scripture, you are unethical. That scripture actually states, with regards to fire, something fairly benign, like “Be judicious in the use of fire.” But the anointed proselytizers of LNT have bastardized that ambiguous benignity to the degree that, if you so much as light a match in the wilderness, you’re a sinner destined, ironically enough, to backpackers’ hell. Here, people just build campfire and sit around them and chat the night away, the same way humankind has been doing since our species started walking upright.

• Since I’m already treading on the cusp of backcountry political incorrectness, I might as well wholeheartedly take the leap to the dark side. One of the best things about traveling in the Gila is that people who go there still pretty much consider tobacco products to be essential gear. I smoke cigars while camping, and, in the more genteel parts of the West, you pull out a stogie or, heaven forbid, hand-roll a cigarette, while you’re camping (especially if you’re doing so while sitting next to a fire), and the full force of PC self-righteousness will descend upon you right then and there like a rat pack of vengeful angels, like out of the crescendo scene in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” In the Gila, people just light up during trail breaks and the only thing anyone else says is, “You got any extra cigars?”

• Most people who venture forth into the Gila backcountry do not spend much time eyeballing the latest glossy magazines for fashion and equipment tips. Go hiking around Missoula or Boulder and you will actually be scrutinized by other trail users vis-à-vis your attire and gear. If you are not wearing the latest Patagonia color-coordinated ensemble complemented by your brand-new state-of-the-art GoLite backpack, then you are considered irreparably gauche. Here, people still use their 20-year-old Kelty external-frame packs. People venture forth into the Gila wearing $2 cut-off shorts procured at a thrift store nine years ago. It speaks well of a place that it does not inspire people to think they have to own the latest and greatest gear and clothing just to go for a hike or to go fishing.

Whatever you do, don’t let any of this make its way to the Outside World. Some things are best kept secret.

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M. John Fayhee is the editor of the Mountain Gazette. He lives in Silver City, New Mexico.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Linda Flanagan August 29, 2011 at 6:12 pm

Damn – just donated my 20 year-old external frame backpack, figuring if I ever showed up anywhere w it on my back I’d be exiled to the suburbs forever. Well, OK, that’s pretty much where I am anyway… Tried to convince the hubby to retire to Silver City but he wasn’t buyin’. For pretty much all the reasons you list.
Trying to figure out why we haven’t met – my sister is Tara.

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Charles Clayton August 30, 2011 at 12:59 am

We saw people once per day on our jaunt down there a few years ago. Half of them were all by themselves. One guy got down on his belly and slurped right out of a mud hole when we told him there was no water beyond it. Minimal trail maintenance (the trail did indeed disappear many times, sometimes under giant mounds of fallen snags that we crawled under/climbed through like ants), lotsa ankle busting cobbles, and yes, plenty of rattlesnakes. My buddy has made fun of my “bitch poles” (hiking poles) since I started using them in 2002, but on this hike he was glad I had them, as I was able to check for snakes around boulders and behind logs. Never heard so many rattles in my life. One of the best times of my life though.

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Chris Benoit September 6, 2011 at 2:54 am

Mr. Fayhee,
We met in the mountains this weekend. I was running my girlfriend’s food in by Redstone. You and Gay were on a short hike from Bursum.

So first, I apologize for being one of the few people you had to run into on the trail. And I apologize for the odd voyeurism of an autobiographical writer and his fan. An ex-Coloradoan, current-El Pasoan, I was a little star-struck to run into my contemporary Edward Abbey. But I hope to run into you again. And next time, Sarah and I will make sure you and Gay stay in our campsite to enjoy a good bottle of tequila and some hand-rolled. (yes, some runners smoke occasionally)

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Steve Bodio September 25, 2011 at 7:42 am

Home– I love it. Was it Ed Abbey who used the phrase country “with the hair on”? As long as you celebrate it this way we are still probably safe!

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Charles and Debra July 7, 2013 at 3:04 pm

I stayed the night at the “ole shooting range” a box canyon right off NM Highway, in sight of the Gila Visitor Center. It is, indeed, used for shooting by the NPS and USFS personnel shoot at targets stapled to two wobbly tables. Up the wash is a exquisite series of box canyons curving into the Gila Conglomerate, and remember this is just 3/4 of a mile to the east of Cliff Dweller Canyon, so rock shelters abound. The surprisingly rock free mesa top, a veritable meadow is full of debitage, and the confluence of the Gila’s Middle Fork, running clear this 5 of July and the roiling, ash filled water of the West Fork is evident of last summers Whitewater fire…. So I broke camp drove to the Middle Fork trailhead and promptly went to the rangers swimming hole, complete with a still roofed ruin, in the deeply metamorphosed rhyolite and conglomerate rock. Even here the narrow leaf cottonwoods suffered from fire but fish still swim here, as I release several smallmouth bass.. As its a holiday weekend one too many family groups come by. Gilbert, the longtime maintenance worker for the Gila waves from his truck, I wave back, and head for the homemade ice cream at Doc Campbells Post, the first Gila ranger home where his daughter Isabel and her german husband Peter hold court, selling local wool and wood products, apache books and the afore mentioned dessert, this time I chose coconut, as they stopped making the pina colada in 2005. A NPS volunteer, Xavier tells me my former friends, the Riley’s have left for Oregon, where their son Alan now lives. Steve, the former superintendent was a mentor, constantly flummoxed by my non-orthodox methods of rangerin’… I miss he and his wife dearly. I drive on, seeing too many people at Grapevine Campground, where the Middle Fork and East Fork give birth to the Gila River proper, so I leave the Gila Hot springs and head to Sapillo Creek, which hides in plain sight, coursing from lake Roberts to its blending with the Gila miles downstream. Thick willows and lush sedges and horsetails mark its path. I park under a huge ponderosa pine, with a torn sleeping bag marking another campers spot. I fill my camleback, string up my fly rod and venture in sight of NM Highway 15, into a narrow canyon, soon the first fishing hole, hidden by a massive rock is aproached but bull frogs croak and scare a sizable gila hybrid trout under the overhang. I try but to no avail head down stream. The flow is perennial but much deminished from my last visit, two years before, a September day after the Gila River Festival and at the suggestion of Dutch Salmon, i escaped the crowds and found huge(for a small stream) 18 ” Gila hybrid trout, and the water surged. Now its trickling, but still filled with spinedace minnows, and crawfish from the reservoir upstream. Improbably, there are still trout, many pools I try , and small fish dart out from cover, taking my fly. Just a handful of pools had enough habitat but i still catch and release over a dozen trout, many resembling pure Gila trout, golden and speckled in the late evening sun. The thunder subsided and I grudgingly slogged back up the stream and stop at pools where fish before failed to bite, this time fall for a different fly, but it soon will be dark, as only the Gila can be in this narrow moon phase. Responsibilities beckon, a new load of groceries, prescriptions, and chores to be done at the Albuquerque house and Lincoln County Ranch, despite the flooding rains, the drought still persists … but a respite was endowed on me by the waters and sylvan shade my quick trip “home” to the Gila has recharged batteries and brought peace to my frequent un -still soul…

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M. John Fayhee July 9, 2013 at 9:54 pm

Charles and Debra: I wrote this so long ago, I had forgotten all about it. We must have just missed each other at Sapillo Creek, as, last Saturday (or was it Friday?) I also saw the remains of the sleeping bag to which you refer. Maybe we’ll cross paths on the Gila trails some time. I’ll be the one with the cigars.
MJF

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