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Sheer Frontier

Harsh terrain. Outlaw hideouts. Bear tracks. The Gila Wilderness is no place for tenderfoots. But you won't find solitude like this in Tarzana.

September 14, 2008|Hugo Martin | Times Staff Writer

GILA WILDERNESS, N.M. — I was bushwhacking through a tangle of shrub and trees, following the Gila River in southwestern New Mexico, when I came across fresh bear prints in the wet, sandy shores.

Big bear prints.

I shouldn't have been surprised. After all, the wrangler who led me on several horseback trips through the Gila Wilderness the previous three days packed a shotgun on his saddle.

Alone, unarmed and pushing through a snarl of brush, I was searching for a hot spring along the riverbank. Aldo Leopold, the legendary ecologist and forester who campaigned for the protection of this untamed land, soaked in this and other nearby hot springs more than 85 years ago. But I couldn't find it amid the trees and bushes.

As the shadows lengthened and the woods came to life with sound, I saw nothing but limb-biting branches and more animal tracks.

Like thousands of travelers who visit the wilderness annually, I had come to see the hardscrabble patch of New Mexico that became the model for every protected wilderness in the country. I came to explore the same rocky trails cut by the Apache warrior Geronimo, homesteaders and gun-packing fugitives. But most of all, I wanted to see whether America's first wilderness area -- protected 84 years ago from roads, cars and other modern intrusions -- was still as pristine and untamed as Leopold had intended.

Surrounded by towering canyon walls and clawing tree branches, I could see that Leopold's vision for this land prevailed; it was beautiful, wild -- and even a bit scary.

East of the Big Nothing

From a nighttime satellite photo, these half a million acres of arid mesas and canyons look like a huge, black hole bordered by the scattered blinking lights of Silver City to the south and Truth or Consequences to the east, and a big nothing to the north and west.

Cars, roads, railroad lines and cellphone towers are prohibited in the wilderness. To reach this heart of the darkness, you strap on a pair of hiking boots or mount a horse.

Leopold preferred the latter. As a forester in the early 1900s, he defined a wilderness as a protected area "big enough to absorb a two weeks' pack trip."

The Gila is certainly that big, but I didn't have the patience for a two-week trip, so I planned a four-day outing in late May, joining a group of about 30 horse enthusiasts from South Carolina who were visiting some of the best riding trails throughout the nation. They had no set agenda except to explore the wilderness on horseback for several days while camping in the national forest on the outskirts of the wilderness. They welcomed me into their camp, and by the end of the visit, they had me -- a native Californian -- speaking with a twang.

To get to our campsite, just outside the wilderness area, I drove three hours southwest from Albuquerque followed by an hourlong, teeth-jarring trek along a washboard dirt road through the Gila National Forest. Along the way, elk the size of ponies bounded across the road and into stands of ponderosa and juniper trees.

As I pulled into the campsite -- a collection of tents, horse trailers and pickup trucks -- I was greeted by Ben Marlin, a wrangler and former rodeo champ whom I had hired as my guide through an outfitter called Gila Wilderness Ventures.

Despite losing a thumb in a cattle-roping accident years ago, Marlin gave me a vise-grip handshake, and I knew instantly he was the right man to show me the wilderness.

Marlin, wiry and energetic, rode and roped bulls in Nebraska before he dropped by this corner of New Mexico 15 years ago. He came to visit a buddy and never left. This land -- rugged and genuine, just like Marlin -- fits him, he says, like a pair of worn jeans.

That night, I wrapped myself in a down sleeping bag on a cot in a roomy tent. He slept on a tarp on a patch of dirt next to his horse.

The next morning, Marlin was eager to ride into the wilderness to show me a cave thought to have been used by Native Americans as a granary. We didn't wait for the South Carolinians to finish a leisurely breakfast. Instead, we ate quickly and rode across a long mesa studded with juniper trees and short, golden grass.

At the end of the mesa, we zigzagged down narrow switchbacks to the banks of the Middle Fork of the Gila River.

After two hours riding a dusty single-track trail, we found the granary burrowed into the side of a rocky hill. The opening of the 2-foot-tall cave was shaped by aging masonry. Marlin was unsure whether the Mogollon or the Apache had stored corn in the cavity. It might also have been a hideout for Geronimo or for fugitive outlaws. After all, Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch were also known to roam these parts.

"There's a world of history in this wilderness," Marlin said as I poked my head into the cave.

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