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Discovering the Gila

by Matthew Rickert ’18

The Gila Wilderness is America’s first wilderness. Designated June 3rd, 1924 the Gila has changed little in the nearly 100-year span since then. From desert mesas to lush canyon bottoms, the Gila demonstrates the wide variety of American landscapes.

It was in this landscape that 6 fellow students and I found ourselves. Flying into Albuquerque was an easy enough experience. We had all come off difficult and work intensive semesters. We had been shut-ins, found in libraries, study rooms, and slumped over books. The long flight was a fine respite of forced nothingness and many took advantage of the time for sleep or entertainment reading.

Now out in the New Mexico sun and air we ventured forth on the first leg of our journey, the Frontier. It’s a common misconception that the Frontier has to be in the middle of nowhere as we found the frontier near downtown Albuquerque. The Frontier is a New Mexico restaurant in all ways. From the pots filled with green chili to the Navajo made rugs. We piled our plates high with burritos, enchiladas, and hash browns, dug in, and left full and satisfied.
That night we got ourselves prepared and packed for a small day hike up a mesa known as Cabazon. This volcanic plug looms out of the desert with size and magnitude, a steep and striking contrast to the flatness that surrounds it. Scrambling up, we had people outside of their comfort zone, and as in many outdoor trips, there is a risk of injury. Cabazon was no different. Thankfully, we reached the top without incident and were greeted with views far greener then normal. The desert grass waved to us under the power of the wind as birds glided beneath us. The climb down was uneventful with only a few close calls with cacti to keep us sharp and on our toes.

Once again, we spent time repacking pack, ensuring that all necessary materials were with us and that any extra weight was left behind. Waking up the next morning we all loaded into the van and drove out into the expanses New Mexico for our six-hour drive to the Gila. As we glided past rock outcroppings, canyons, and patches of prairie it was easy to see the ghosts of long forgotten settlers, looking for the next oasis, searching for the fertile ground to put down roots, questing for a better life in an unknown world. As the hours passed we reached far different ground. Flat lands became rolling mountains, desert grass became pinons and junipers. This was the point we knew we were in the Gila, as the land grew our anticipation went with it.

Finally at our start we began walking. It was a short day, having spent most of it in the car, and with a fresh spring in our step we quickly made our way toward the creek we would be spending the evening. Rolling through elevation we passed two older gentlemen on horseback, big handlebar mustaches adorned their faces, their eyes protected by wide brim cowboy hats, their horses tall and long use to mileage. These two men would have fit in in any old west town, it would not have surprised me if they had gone to a saloon that night.

We made our beds that night next to a clear creek. Tamales were had for dinner, cooked easily with a fire and served with no additions needed. Sleeping beneath the stars on the first night of a camping trip always fills me with anticipation. It is the excitement of catching another glimpse of the Milky Way, seeing stars that most people have long forgotten, reading constellations and knowing their stories. Laying there in the middle of the wilderness with nothing but the sound of the wild speaking and no sights but the stars above makes for a nice backdrop, a meditative feeling of being.

Dawn awoke a handful of us. Letting most of the camp sleep, we quietly began out morning routine, preparing for the day and cooking breakfast. An hour or so later, the group was prepared and ready to get underway. Walking away from the creek we began trekking through ponderosa and junipers. Due to the longevity of the Gila’s wilderness status and the resistance to fire of ponderosa and juniper, many of the trees we saw were hundreds of years old. Having claimed the land long before our arrival we walked around them with quiet recognition, looking at the knots in the bark, smelling the wind as it carried ponderosa. That day for lunch we sat beneath these trees, with a spot for our backs we rested and napped, each of us content to be in our own thoughts supplemented by the Gila’s presence.

The afternoon brought understanding of how the natural world can change and create. We passed through several miles of burnt forest. Ashes strewn across the ground provided fertility the plants just now permeating the ground. The skeletons of trees stood from the ground as remnants of a storied past. Birds flew overhead flirting between charred branches, rediscovering a section of forest that up until this year had been desolate. It was after walking through this land that we arrived at a new segment of the Gila, the canyon bottoms.

Reaching an old forestry cabin that night we warmed ourselves by a fire. The nights always get colder than one would think from the day. That night we camped up above the cabin on a small plateau. The wind howled through the pines, the turkeys gobbled from over the hill, and the stars shined down on us. It was in the morning that we saw the possible predators that lurked in our surroundings as we discovered a Mountain Lion skull not 200 yards from where we had slept. A stark reminder of our role as visitors this skull brought with it both an understanding of the unknown that laid out in the woods and a reassurance of the power of nature.

Waking the next morning we prepared for a long hike through lost trails. With towering sycamores and cottonwoods, this portion of our journey was filled with lushness and green. The babbling of the creek ever present in its quiet yet unrestrained manner. Signs of its power were present along the banks as trees were toppled over and logs lodged into rocks. We scrambled and bushwhacked our way along the canyon bottom as we lost and found the remnants of a trail that the creek had recently reclaimed. Following this path we crossed the stream to avoid a cliff only to have to do it again a short while later. The entire group was in good spirits as we made our way through our new scenery.

For our bed that night we remained near the creak. It was nice to find some deeper pools to clean ourselves, washing hair and body from several days worth of grime. Freshly washed we spent another night under the stars, our bedtime routine long established. The next morning brought with it the familiar and kind routine of our morning people waking up and preparing for the day. Breakfast settled and people packed we made our way forward. Walking along the canyon bottom to start the day was now comfortable, the familiarity with the style of the trail allowed for a greater degree of viewing, looking up can be surprisingly difficult on a path filled with roots and rocks.

It wasn’t long before we made our way upwards, climbing atop a canyon ridge. With height comes perspective. Our new vantage showed us the enormity of the creek basin, the miles of twists and turns, the slots and tributaries all feeding into last night’s home. The desert of this area demonstrated the rich wonder of the waterway beneath us, the necessity for that creek to keep flowing. After a time the trail returned us to the canyon bottom and our ultimate destination. The hot springs.

We arrived at the hot springs in the early afternoon and quickly found comfort in the warm waters. The creek providing the temperature control, these hot springs made for an ideal soak. Beyond their natural comfort was the understanding of the history of these hot springs. It is known that Geronimo and Victorio had spent time in the hot springs, with rituals and belief these hot springs had acted as holy healing waters for their tribe. Today, it acted as a spiritual founding for our group.

The remainder of the day was spent between relaxing in camp, a little ways up the creek, and soaking in the hot springs. The next morning the people who were normally awake at dawn moved down for another long soak in the hot springs. Relaxing in their waters and letting the Gila wash over them. I laid there allowing myself to wash away the worry and doubts of a long year. I allowed the hot springs to take away the stress and angst that comes with hard work and pressure to succeed. I laid there and allowed the hot springs to feed me a little life from the Gila.

Having taken all the hot springs could offer I left, feeling completely at peace. We walked out that day, meandering along the creek, eventually crossing the Gila River. We made our way to the van, having been moved by a kind shuttle driver. We piled in and prepared to reenter the real world, one filled with much more pressure than our trek had ever held. We drove the six hours back to Albuquerque, passing pronghorn, ancient seas, and long forgotten volcanoes. We passed through and by towns that were no longer anybody’s home.

Before the flight the next morning we made one more stop at the Frontier, green chili rained down upon our breakfast and cinnamon rolls found their way to our plates. We watched as people filed in, a couple of kids still dirty from their soccer game, an older couple who seemed to have a long ritual of times at that particular table, a group of college students a little too sensitive to the light and noise. A new understanding was present at the table of what the world held and could look like, the Gila had impacted all of us, it had provided every one of us with new thoughts and ideas. The Gila had given us a new perspective on what our world could be and what nature held. We had found New Mexico: the people, the culture, and the land.

Matthew Rickert  ’18 came to W&L from Cincinnati, Ohio where his brother, dad, and he spent much of their time together outside. When he left for college, Matthew wanted to start his college career off right and explore western Virginia, so he signed up for the App Adventure pre-orientation program. Deciding that this was a great place for outdoors, Matthew joined both the Outing Club and the Crux Climbing Team, where he continues to participate and lead many trips. In the classroom, Matthew is a Public Accounting and US History major. This summer he plans to both intern at the accounting firm Ernst and Young and take a trip to Nepal.

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