Sunday, March 18, 2012

Sacaton Mesa Run

Nana’s Influence
Sacaton Mesa Run
The Secret Divulged
By Stephen L. Wilmeth

             The Gila Valley at Cliff, New Mexico is one of the great places on Earth.
 The best place to take it all in is at the Mesa Cemetery.  There, against the backdrop of the Mogollons, the Valley can be viewed.
Starting on the northeastern horizon is Tadpole Ridge and the western extension of the Pinos Altos Range.  Dipping further east and south in succession are Hell’s Half Acre, LS Mesa and the Treasure Mountains. Bear Mountain is the sentinel on the northern thrust of the Treasures. 
Next come the Greenwood, Cottonwood, Cane, McKeefer, and Mangus drainages. To the west from there is School House Mountain.   Then there is Brushy and then Bald Knoll. 
On northward is Black Mountain.  Then there is the Duck Creek drainage.  The LC’s contemplated an empire there only to be derailed by a ball peen hammer murder in McKelligon Canyon in El Paso.
Dominating the northern horizon, the Mogollons are magnificent.  Sacaton and Whitewater bow to Mogollon Baldy that dominates the center of the ridgeline.  Haystack, 74, Shelley, and Watson lay in the forefront of that big, beautiful mountain. 
Before we leave the cemetery and the magnificence of its view, though, we always visit with the residents.  Their names are as familiar as the memories they left with us . . .
The High Mesa
Sacaton Mesa lies southward from the Mogollon ridgeline.  It is a benched alluvium cut with canyons.  It is the historical homeland of the Shelleys and the Rices.  Peter McKindree Shelley first settled there on the edge of Mogollon Creek in 1884. 
Four years later in 1888 Peter’s eventual son-in-law, Lee Rice, arrived with cattle from Texas.  The cowboy who rode with Lee was Boze Ikard, the black cowboy who was characterized in the western series, Lonesome Dove.  Mr. Ikard would go home to Texas, and Lee would settle on Sacaton Creek.
For nearly 50 years the area was accessed only by horseback and primitive two tracked road.  The road off the ridge into Mogollon Creek was so treacherous that even brave men would get out of the first motor cars and walk.  Riding a horse off the ridge was one thing, but riding a car was something much different.
All of the Peter Shelley grandkids remembered the early road.  Two of Lee’s sons, Blue and my grandfather, Carl, told me how they hated it.  It wasn’t because of where it led, it was because they had to walk along in front to the wagon or car for years and throw rocks out of it.  The road constantly ‘grew’ rocks!
From the High Mesa
Sacaton Mesa has two dominating features.  The first is the high mesa.  Several miles from the edge of the Gila Valley the road descends to the lower mesa.  That winding descent holds nearly as many memories as do the conversations with the residents of the Mesa Cemetery!
Every descendent of Peter Shelley who spent any measure of their youth in or around that area has a memory of that descent from the upper to the lower mesa.  At issue are the unwritten and largely classified attempts to set world record coasting records off that precipitous ridgeline!
The practice in those black operations, though, was not promulgated by the unwary and innocent youth of the family.  It was introduced and perpetuated by those who should know better . . . the elders of the family.
My first memory of those ‘runs’ was in our family car.  My parents, upon returning from ‘the ranch’ at Blue and Minnie Rice’s, were prone to run at the decline and shut the engine off and let the car coast.  The experience was always associated with first merriment and then ‘English’ as we all tried to help the car make a few more feet before it came to a stop on the lower mesa. 
I guess I thought we were the only ones to experience such sport until one day I was about to go over the drop off with my grandmother, Leona Rice.  I warily divulged the story to ‘Nana’ and she first scolded me for my mother’s recklessness.  “How dare her for doing such a thing with my grandchildren!” I seem to recall her saying.
  She then asked me how far we had coasted.  She was quite interested and I tried to tell her.  She didn’t seem to be very impressed with my account of the episode and, after a pause, inquired if I would like to see how it should really be done.
 “Sure, Nana . . .”
It was surprisingly apparent she knew what she was doing.  She gunned the car but didn’t really get after it until she navigated the first two curves in the decline.  After that and we were flying off the hill.  She then shut the car off.  Wow, what a ride!
Nana’s expertise put us well beyond the point of any previous success I knew.  In fact, Nana’s technique was far superior and it continued to be perfected when I rode alone with her.  It never failed, though, that when we finally coasted to a stop she would always remind me not to tell my mother. 
Interestingly, it was the same warning that I got from my grandfather, Uncle Bill, Sam Reed, Betty Reed, Frank and Clyde, and even Grandma Lewis.  How Grandma Lewis ever knew of such things remains a mystery to me.  She wouldn’t put up with any nonsense.
The Hallmarks
My cousins, Hugh and Jim Reed, were as good as or better than any competitors in the clandestine coasting derby.  I’m not sure where they perfected the craft because it surely wasn’t from their Gramp or Granny, Blue and Minnie Rice.  I couldn’t imagine divulging such frivolity to Blue.  There was no way he would indulge in such hoodlumism . . . or at least I thought for the longest time.
 It was even more so with Minnie.  She was so straight-laced that we couldn’t even think of something bad around her.   They must have learned the whole thing from somebody else.  Maybe Frank or Clyde or some other hooligan, but they were well taught! 
I am one of the few living souls who know of their trip off the hill on Blue’s John Deere A.  Jimmy was driving and Hugh was standing on the draw bar.  They had discussed it as they discussed so many things.  Hugh was telling Jimmy that ‘Mama’ was gonna’ find out when Jim just couldn’t stand the temptation.  Off the hill he gunned that old piece of iron.
Hugh relived the story through the first two corners, but neither would discuss anything after that.  Both of them got real quiet  . . . and pale at that point.  Hugh described how the tractor was bouncing like an uncontrollable jumping bean from one side of the road to the other.
I do know that when they got the old tractor stopped at the bottom of the hill neither had to remind the other not to tell ‘Mama’.  In fact, neither could say anything for several minutes.  Jim quietly started the tractor and carefully drove on home.  After a while, Hugh noticed his hands were cramping.  They were as white as Jim’s face and had the marks of the seat springs where he continued to hold a death grip.
The Truth
My grandfather and I took a run off the hill another day and set what I was told was a record.  The mark was compared to a point that he and Blue had reached in a Model T Ford. 
“Blue, knows about this?” I had asked, incredulously.
It seems they had come off the hill and were about have to crank the Ford when Blue spotted a herd of wild horses.  Boppy was in the back when Blue got the truck in gear and popped the clutch.  Off they went across the flat.  They hadn’t gone a hundred yards and Blue hit a bump that threw Boppy out.  The story ended with Blue yelling for his brother to “shoot, shoot!”  Of course he couldn’t because he was sitting on his saddle in the middle of the empty flat where he and the saddle had landed.
“How do you know it is a record, Boppy?” was my next question.
“Because this is beyond the spot we left the road to chase the wild horses and we always thought that was the best mark ever,” was his calculated response.
I was happy and perplexed at the same time.  A world’s record was one thing . . . but Blue Rice indulging in nonsense was another . . . the world was never quite the same again.

Stephen L. Wilmeth is a rancher from southern New Mexico. “I am suggesting strongly that any reader never . . . ever attempt this foolhardy nonsense!  Ride a pitching mule off it, but do not coast a vehicle off that mountain!”


J.R. Absher said...

Especially provocative introduction--the view from the Mesa Cemetery--a special place indeed for anyone who has lived in the area or explored the canyons and ridges of the Mogollons. And, probably like you and others, I find myself greeting many of the inhabitants there aloud each time I visit. The Alma Cemetery affects me similarly...

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