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Article: Road Trip: Gila Wilderness

Patrick Smith

Road Trip: Gila Wilderness

I set out for the Gila in a blazing crimson desert dawn, heading west on I-10 across the barren southern New Mexico wastelands. The Gila lies in the Gila National Forest along the Black Mountain Range in southwest New Mexico. I wanted to experience as much of the Gila National Forest as possible so I opted to travel due west to Lordsburg and then north on HWY 90 in order to cut through the southernmost reach of the Forest. Eventually I left the desert and began the climb into the mountains.

Although I had never visited the Black Range the flora was familiar. Back in the Mountainsmith Dirt Clinic days I had traipsed extensively in the Chiricahua Range at the same latitude just across the border in Arizona. The Gila National Forest contains both the Gila and the Aldo Leopold Wildernesses—side by side with a thin strip of National Forest north-to-south separating them. I intended to explore both. But first the Gila. Soon I was among pines and aspen. And very little snow. Certainly the Gila is ramble-worthy in early March. My home mountains still slumbered beneath feet of snow—all creeks thickly iced. In the Gila surface water in the form of creeks and ponds was not abundant—unlike Colorado—but adequate.

The Wilderness Visitor Center is at the end of a narrow corridor of Forest Service and some private land that projects up into the middle of the Wilderness. A road wends its way along the corridor. The route overlooks arid mountains, but not nearly so arid as Big Bend. The views in the Gila are closer, a bit more “intimate” than Big Bend or the ranges in Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Alberta…the Rockies further north. But there is plenty of charm for the senses, with the valleys between the mountains featuring desert-like aspects. And the Gila River tributaries flowed through such valleys. The Visitors Center is located at the confluence of the West and Middle Forks, and is literally the end of the road. If one were to backpack either fork he would be assured of water. I set out up the West Fork afoot for a reconnaissance. And soon found that the foot traveler must engage in LOTS of wading fords, as headwalls are constant. Backpack-grade sandals are required footgear for travel along the West Gila in my opinion. I didn’t have any. But I had the “lay-of-the-land” in hand, and knew what to bring along on a return journey.

So I sat awhile and read the maps I had purchased back at the Visitors Center—for both the Gila and the Aldo Leopold Wildernesses. And discovered that there is NO FISHING! In either Wilderness. Yes, there are trout—but they are protected. Can’t catch ‘em. That, dear readers, is anathema to Rambling’s provisioning principles. So right there on the bank of the West Gila I decided to pack up and head out. I would check out the Aldo nevertheless…I was down there, and in no hurry.

I'll interrupt the Road Trip narrative to advise readers that Sarah and I are in Hawaii--specifically Maui, our favorite island in the chain. Several years ago I made a solo Ramble across the extreme desert southeast coast of the island. It's a long trek--involving at least an overnight camp. One must carry water as the seriously arid stretch of coast has no fresh water sources at all. I nearly ran out of water on that trip. The terrain is jumbled pumice the entire way, resulting in hard going and lots of water consumption. The pumice nearly destroyed a pair of boots and did grind off the carbide tips of my trekking poles. I tried coastal fishing on that trip, using spin casting kit suitable for Colorado no avail whatsoever. Soooo...whilst here this time I'll visit some local fishing shops and query them about methods for cove fishing. I intend to do the trip again--this time with better chances for feeding myself from the sea. I hope. ALSO, the next crossing will feature a portable desalinization kit so that I can linger along the way as long as I like. Might even climb from camp(s) to the higher elevations and try to collect a goat--which inhabit the south slopes of Haleakala volcano. By the way, the route is trailess and NOBODY goes there. It's amazingly remote; quite unique on an island noted for major-grade tourism. 

Regarding our Road Trip story, the next installment features my journey between the Gila Wilderness and the Aldo Leopold Wilderness. I'll try to work on that while I'm here...overlooking the timeless Pacific Ocean. Wish y'all were here....

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