Sunday, June 25, 2006

Saturday & Sunday

On Saturday I drove down the western side of the Gila National Wilderness, going past four raging forest fires. At one point, smoke poured through my windows and I had to roll them up and turn to interior air. A ranger reported to me that the fires were caused by lightning strikes, but a local resident confided that one of the fires, while started by lightning, was a controlled fire that had swept out of control.

All along the drive, on just this one day of my entire outing, everyone I passed waved a greeting of hello. Did they know it was my birthday?

It is worth your stop in Buckhorn to visit the trading post there. A concrete floor supports sundries including a dairy case that sports a “Help Yourself” sign. The nearby chopping block with part of a tomato and a sliced onion gave evidence that customers were used to doing just that. Next to the soda fountain was a portable cooler with ice and a scoop, again for helping yourself. As I paid for my drink, I noticed the open Bible displayed there complete with highlighted verses for customers to read. It seemed a contrast to the rough guns, chewing tobacco and alcohol atmosphere of the place. Indeed, for a moment I thought that I was lost and had been transported back to the dueling banjo mountains of Appalachia.

“100 Hikes in New Mexico” gave me a clue to check out Turkey Creek Hot Springs. It warned against going during the rain season, which wasn’t relevant to me this 17th day in June. But at the end of the paved roadway, a sign recommended high clearance vehicular travel only. A Chevrolet Aveo hatchback is high clearance, right?

It took 45 minutes to drive 8 miles on the rock pathway used as a road to maneuver up and over the Brushy Canyon ridge that stretches north of the small town of Gila. With sheer cliffs dropping dangerously to either side, I used 1st and 2nd gears all of the way, occasionally hearing a rock try to sear the gas tank of my car. The drive was exhilarating and completely worth it as I dropped down parallel to the Gila River.

Parking the car at the end of the gravel roadway, I began the 5-mile hike up Turkey Creek. Fortunately, a four-wheeling man gave me a lift and I had to take my shoes off only once to ford the 4 crosses of Turkey Creek. Alone, again—and I would not see anyone else on the ill-marked trail for the rest of the distance—I easily spotted the dry Skeleton Creek coming in from the west. I passed a couple of great camp spots, but was convinced that I had not gone far enough. Even so, after the next mile, I was depleted. Not having hiked for quite some time, combined with the intense dry heat, left me ready to set camp, hot springs or not.

I left my pack to scout out the terrain ahead. It did look inviting, so I retreated and shouldered my pack for another stretch. Out of energy once again, and this time a bit shaky in my footing, I stopped thinking to pitch my tent. Still, my ever-nagging curiosity to see around “just one more bend” or up over “just one more hill” led me to leave my pack behind to scout out more unmarked trail. I discovered the overhang mentioned in the hiking book and so knew that the hot springs were still further ahead. I retrieved my pack and plodded on.

At one point, I had to take off my pack and drag it behind me to fit through a rock crawl space. After that, I was convinced that I was thoroughly done hiking for the day. Resting on a rock and munching on almonds, my energy slightly returned. With it came the resignation, “Okay. Just one more bend.” I scouted it out and to my delight, began smelling the sulfuric scent of hot springs. Soon I could feel the heat coming up through the shallow, rocky riverbed. Once more, I went back to shoulder my pack and walked on.

At last, I did discover a campsite next to the hot springs. I pitched my tent and enjoyed a refreshing soak. Sleep came quickly and I slept soundly until awakened in the morning by a wild turkey roaming through camp and calling out for me to get up. Dutifully, I crawled out to soak again in the hot spring.

As nice as it may sound, the springs were a bit of a disappointment. Too shallow, too hot and lined with about 4” of slimy silt. I decided to forego a second night and began the hot hike out of the canyon. Completing the reverse crawl under the rock, I found that I had previously passed a perfect swimming hole. It was cool. It was deep. It was refreshing and most welcome. I stayed for about 2 hours, dipping into the water and drying out in the sun on nearby rocks. This was worth the hike.

I left Gila, passing through Silver City, and went north on Route 152. This passes by the spectacular San Rita strip mine. I have never been a fan of cutting down a mountain, but I must admit that this is something to see. Exposed mineral made for a surreal palette, artwork reminiscent of Hockney.

From there, I stopped in at Truth or Consequences (yes, believe it or not, named after a television game show—and we think things today are too commercialized!) and there visited one of the half dozen or so hot spring bathhouses. At $6 for a half an hour in a tiled and serene private pool, it made up for the lack of hot spring comfort at Turkey Creek.

Next to T or C, I visited Elephant Butte to view our state’s largest lake. Besides being a barren land of rock, dammed river lake and a landscape worthy of a Star Trek film, Elephant Butte is near the newly purchased land for building a space port: a proposed rocket launch that private citizens will be able to use for vacations to outer space. “You Can Get There From Here!” a sign proudly proclaims.

Turns out, the sign was correct. I was able to get to Albuquerque from there. As the sun set to my left in the west, I completed my birthday tour de force and drove the final miles north to home.

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