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.


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

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