Sunday, June 25, 2017
Never the Same
By Stephen L. Wilmeth
The summer of 1967 was transformational.
Viet Nam was roaring and Hugh was going off to college. I had ridden with him on his first wilderness patrol hitch and we had agreed we would repeat the same thing later in August. The days had been beautiful with a break from the later summer rains that can make the Mogollons downright cold. We rode the places we wanted to see and always made sure there was a creek by evening. The first days were all bonuses. As they stretched out and the end was near, an edge began to build. The trail to Gila Center on the last ride from White Creek was somber.
It would soon be over.
To the First
On the first ride in June, we left from the Double S side of the mountains with Woody Hoague. Woody had ridden that wonderful little mouse colored molly mule he called Tracy. He was also leading a black colt that would experience the mountain trails for the first time. We had packed up only to have one of the government mules jerk loose and pitch around the trap. She had bucked until the cans stopped rattling, the sleeping bags unrolled, and the panniers empty.
We repacked her, pulled the diamond down tight, put her in the middle of the string and left before she could think about anything else.
The ride over 74 and off into Bud’s Hole was my first. I enjoyed it immensely. Before we dropped off into Mogollon Creek, we met Terrell coming home from taking some clients fishing. We stopped in the trail and sat horseback talking before we parted. He told us to tell those “dudes” somewhere trailing behind him to “hustle up”.
Above the Kemp Place, we left the creek bottom and followed the trail up Trail Canyon. Near the top of the ridge, Woody pulled his saddle off Tracy and threw it on the black colt. From there he trailed along behind us. In Raw Meat, we noticed they had dropped back only to reappear with Woody leading him giving him a break from carrying his weight. My respect for Woody Hoague was sealed.
We got to White Creek in time to unsaddle, feed the stock, get our gear situated and start a fire in the stove before dark. Woody disappeared only to reappear with his hair combed and carrying a big can of hominy and a can of stewed tomatoes. He had retrieved them from his cache up the creek.
We cooked supper and sat there with the door open listening to the night. The full moon came up over the canyon rim. It was one of the great evenings.
What followed was one of the great ten day stretches as well.
To the Last
We had ridden into the Gila Center corrals late in the evening on the last ride only to encounter people in numbers. Part of the fire crew was still on and we would bunk with them. Being around strange folks never appealed to me and that evening was just an endurance contest. I unrolled my bedroll and hit the sack. I laid there with my eyed closed listening to the chatter. I was still awake hours later when the big end of the chatter was gone.
We were saddled and ready to ride early. Our trip was planned to cross Little Creek, take the Brushy Mountain trail and head to Little Turkey Park.
Being in the saddle brought relief. The big 7 V Bar red horse mule that I had ridden on that first trip was again my partner. He wasn’t mine but he was of my family. His was solid and tough. The initials on the brow band of his headstall were for ‘Rolland Ray Rice’, but after years of using it on Red it had been altered anecdotally to suggest ‘Rough Ridin’ Red’.
Little Creek was live at the crossing.
The trail was in good condition. There was very little discussion. Our attention was around us. It was a quiet time. Climbing out of the next drainage, Little Turkey Creek, Hugh pulled up and sat quietly until I could see what he was watching. One of those great bucks that we used to see on Brushy Mountain was in the trail looking away from us. He had no idea we were there.
For most of a minute we watched him before he turned and saw us. He tilted away and was gone.
At the park we tarried looking for a grave. Not finding it we found blazes that led in the general direction of Murtocks Hole to the south. We attempted to follow them. What should have been only about four miles to the river took us several hours to break through. There never was a real trail and we went for long stretches never seeing blazes. Off the slope, though, was the river and that is the direction we slipped and slid and clawed our way down and through.
At a point a mile or so from the bottom, we found what had to be a poacher’s camp. There were bleached deer heads hanging on limbs and logs around what served as a campfire ring. Whoever had done it had worked awfully hard not to be found.
Back into the tangle we went with no thought of trying to follow a blaze. There was no trail and if it had ever been worked it was a half a century before when Henry Woodrow was alive or Heart Bar cowboys were working cattle. It was so thick there were times we couldn’t see each other, but just hear limbs breaking and panniers rubbing against brush.
The last drop into the river bottom was tortuous. With no alternative Red would just back his ears and push through the tangle. It was an exercise in finding a hole big enough to stick his nose in.
I could smell and hear the Gila before I saw it. When we broke through, Hugh was sitting horseback on Snooper on the river bank and the mules were looking with their ears up back at us.
He was smiling.
The ride down the river was pure enjoyment. Not a soul was seen from where we emerged above where the trail comes in from Granny Mountain to where we decided to spend the night above the mouth of Water Canyon. That was where we had paused long enough to watch a bunch of bucks cross the river and stand together watching us before they left in a hurry.
We unsaddled, staked and grained the stock, and cooked supper on a sand bar. The meal consisted of stewed tomatoes, the last of our longhorn cheese, a jar of the swirled peanut butter and jelly, and crackers. The tomatoes were dipped steaming out of the can with our pocket knives. It was a great supper.
We listened to the crackling fire and the river while looking into the summer night sky. In no time, sleep came. About midnight we awoke to lightning, thunder, and rain. Without hesitation we rolled deeper into the pack tarps and attempted to go back to sleep.
We awoke wet and stiff. Everything was wet.
Again, we grained and saddled. Even if we had something to eat neither of us were hungry. We had to meet Sam at the mouth of Turkey creek by midday. We laid on our bellies and drank deep from the river. We were horseback before the sun broke over the canyon rim above us.
In succession, we rode past the drainages that emptied into the Gila and named by our Great great-grandfather. Nearest the camp there was Water as noted followed by Wild Cow. Then there was Hells and then we made Utah Bill. We pulled up and drank big where Shelley Canyon itself runs in from the south side in a westward bend.
We paused and everybody stretched. Saddles and pack ropes were checked and we were ready to make the final ride. As it warmed, the smell of leather and horse was stronger. The sounds were entirely us traveling and the river. We watched intently every bend of the river and drainage entrance.
At the mouth of Hidden Pasture our trip was nearing completion. Neither of us said much. Words weren’t necessary.
At the mouth of Turkey Creek we heard the first sounds of people. At the second crossing, we saw Sam.
As Red and I crossed the river behind them, Hugh pulled up and was sitting there horseback on Snooper. He and the mules were looking back.
He was smiling.
Stephen L. Wilmeth is a rancher from southern New Mexico. “Hugh had one
more ten day hitch by himself in the mountains before he started to NMSU that fall. I went on to football camp and my junior year of high school. Our world was never quite the same again.”