Sunday, November 29, 2015

A ‘wilderness’ pack trip

The living link
A ‘wilderness’ pack trip
Our Water
By Stephen L. Wilmeth

            I just finished building a fire in the shop wood stove and remain agitated.
            My woodpile is wet from the Thanksgiving rain, but anybody should be able to build a fire out of wet wood. It is the “safety matches” that have stirred my ire. Remember safety matches that could be struck by stropping them across the side of your Levi’s? “Safety” was the ability to actually strike them when conditions were real and dangerous. Safety has now entered the realm of “saving” some idiot by some grander idiot writing regulations from his or her west wing office. It is infuriating to attempt to strike a single lit match from five or six toys that break or fail to strike without holding your mouth right, your left foot in the air, and reading from the instructions of demands imposed on once grand old match company, Diamond!
            They even have a politically correct name, Greenlight. That’s right, and the light is so dim you have to put reading glasses on to see it. Greenlight, my … No, let’s make the best of this situation and saddle a horse and a mule and throw a diamond to make it somewhat realistic.
            The Greenlighters will likely stumble over the implications of throwing a diamond. On second thought, let’s throw a squaw. That’ll give ‘em hiccups.
            Saddling in the dark
            Since we saddled just a horse and a single mule, we were already rimming out from the Shaw Place before sunup. Sunup had us looking into the ridgeline of the Robledos on our backtrack. The sound of hooves on rocks was timeless. The mule was traveling easily and the horse, new to leading a mule in such proximity, had already been warned with a rowel raked across his right flank not to try to kick his traveling companion again. His lesson in good behavior was brief but lasting.
            The first opportunity for water was a drinker on the pipeline extension from Faulkner Well, but nobody was interested. It was by now light enough “to shoot” as it is described in ranchland vernacular.
            As we left the drinker, it occurred to me that every point of water should be named. This trough was nameless and that had to be remedied.
            The ride up the basin toward McCall Reservoir was easy going. The traffic from town keeps the two track beaten out and the gravelly clay bottom muffled most equine footfalls. Named for its concrete damn and spillway construction, McCall Reservoir was as full as sedimentation allowed. It needed cleaning, but the wet bottom has not allowed it. Using a dragline came to mind, but there is no such availability in this area.
            The climb out of the McCall Basin was halted twice to let the animals blow. They controlled the climb as long as they didn’t take advantage of the trust extended on them. That is an earned empowerment offered ranch horses. It is a silent respect of which most folks have no concept.
            Topping out and looking into the Coyote drainage was met with the first vehicle encounter of the morning. It was a Jeep replete with a lift kit, rock grabber tires, and a Yeti cooler likely filled with cold lubricants. The ride into the canyon detoured into the drainage that empties into Coyote Tank. Chris had walked the Cat up there to clean the tank and repair a breach on the northeast corner. I wanted to look at it.
            For many years, that tank was the only water in that reach of Coyote. The alternative was for cattle to walk to the Kimble Well miles down the canyon. Several years ago Leonard and I installed a pipeline from Kimble, a storage, and two drinkers at a point across the canyon. It was there the animals were again offered water. The horse played in it, but didn’t drink. The mule wasn’t interested.
            I got off to check cinches. A motor cycle came down the creek. I couldn’t see it from that vantage point because of the mesquite, but I could hear it. I had no interest in “looking” at it.
            Our continued ride was westward rather than down the canyon to Kimble. I had seen enough of Kimble in the days and weeks previous as we rebuilt pens for working cattle. The well there was now pumped by a solar system, and, even in the heat of summer, it has kept up with the cattle (and wildlife) demands. It is a critical, permanent water source.
            Our route took up upslope through the Coyote Pasture which has the capacity to carry the ranch’s entire cow herd for a month as long as enough water can be supplied through the infrastructure installed by the ranch. I like this pasture and like it more by the abundance of grass that has come in the aftermath of a brush treatment project applied the same year we installed the twin drinkers. Riding up the canyon west from the storage was purposely quiet and made quieter by intent to look, smell, and study the landscape. The brush treatment was sensational. We were beyond the necessary rest periods following the treatment which precluded cattle during the growing season, but that protocol would be continued because of rotation limitations. We don’t yet have enough water there to support large numbers of cattle in the heat of the summer.
            The next water was the Hackberry Tank that splits the Coyote and Hersey Pasture fence where the two track tops the ridge from the Hersey Basin. Our route now equated to only seven air miles from the morning’s start, but at least nine miles of actual travel. Every point of water encountered was there because of ranch efforts. It was at Hackberry, a tank that doesn’t hold water well, both the horse and the mule finally drank.
            Our route continued higher as we began the climb in earnest toward the top of the Las Uvas ridgeline and Magdalena Peak. We stopped and glassed the broad hillsides of Bell and Tailholt Mountains. On one of the two state trust sections in the basin below us, another permanent water source, a well, is desperately needed. Part of the binocular inspection was to conceptualize locations and routes of pipeline installation. That water is needed to bolster benefits to livestock and wildlife in summer months that can reach 105°.
            The remainder of the day crisscrossed a mosaic of infrastructure investments all designed around manmade water developments. Modern traffic traversed the canyon bottoms while the realm of only the horseman extended to the ridgelines with an increasing sense of wonder that all sides of the wilderness debate try to describe.
            It was there on the high points and ridges the essence of Aldo Leopold writings rang in truest form. “It is difficult for this generation to understand this aristocracy of space based on transport,” he wrote of his experiences in Arizona’s White Mountains and similar places where all other sources of transportation ceased and mounted horsemen emerged alone and “always found the frontier.” In this passage from the mindset of Escudilla and Mogollon, a true relationship of “wilderness” places the horsemen in full partnership, not separation, with the concept.
            “It (wilderness) was too big for foot travel …” he said.
            The ride could have taken in a swath of country dotted with an even dozen more points of water on the ranch all there solely because of livestock. In this story, I choose finally to reach the point of rocks on the mesa jutting off from Magdalena Peak and its massive FAA radar facility, south from Sugar Loaf, and upon the highest points of the massive watershed that eventually emerges as Apache Flats on our Butterfield Trail Ranch another seven air miles to the southwest.
            It was on the point I tied the mule and hobbled my mare bound gelding. They would each receive a ration of grain from the panniers and I would gather enough juniper wood to start a fire with my old style safety match. I’d listen to it crackle before it settled enough to set my folding wire grill to braise the cut of meat wrapped around a cold pack and stuffed into a little tea pot. A tortilla and a slice of cheese would complete my meal.
            Reclining in my sleeping bag from that vantage, lights on I10 would be visible throughout the night of relative sleeplessness. I never sleep well the first night away from home in any circumstance, but I would savor the surroundings and being there with only the horse and the mule. Tomorrow, we would ride another 18 miles to the Butterfield headquarters, and we would study the country through these rancher eyes that know this existence is actually part of the system that exists in permanence.
            Any disruptions, therein … have profound implications.
            La ultima
            This chronicle is fictitious.
            This ride was made not in a single event, but in a series of ongoing days of ranch life. The ride, though, is perhaps important for people who need to understand the complexity of our lives on this land that is now designated National Monument by executive order.
            We simply do not know what our future holds.
            If we are not extended the courtesy of the importance of an inescapable historic tenure, perhaps we should be granted the importance of our role in 99.9% of the available water that now exists in this setting. We are the water on our ranches and the water is us. We are absolutely surrounded by infrastructure that doesn’t exist in a void. We are the resident stewards and even science will eventually disclose the importance of our role in this modern setting.
            Is there interest in such a ride? We could make it two hours, a half day, two days or a full week. The outcome might just change some lives and beliefs.

                Stephen L. Wilmeth is a rancher from southern New Mexico. “Proponents suggested this area has wilderness characteristics. It is ironic that in the words of their gate keeper ranchers are the living link to the concept.”

I just can't get that image of Wilmeth striking those greenlight matches out of my mind.  I'm bettin' he turned loose with more carbon dioxide than a whole case of those damn things would save.


Tick said...

There are three things I will not leave home without. A pocket knife, a Bic lighter and a sidearm...screw a bunch of matches.

Floyd Traynor said...

The modern matches are useless...better carry a Bic and save your frustration for the Federales...