Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Middle Fork of the Gila River: CDT 2013 (November 18-21, 2013)

Plains just north of the canyon entrance
"Home is where the heart is," my friend Kate said a couple of nights ago as we were talking about the trail and places to live. "Of course," she continued, "your heart could be in multiple places at once."

Pieces of my heart are in so many places around this incredible country of ours, that I don't know if I will ever have what is considered a "home" again. The latest place that felt like home was the Middle Fork of the Gila River. It came as a total surprise to me, especially since I heard the area was devastated by flooding this September. I entered the canyon feeling apprehensive, reminding myself to be patient, to expect low mileage days, to expect cold, wet feet, as the trail crosses the Middle Fork 100+ times during a 40 mile stretch.

It is true, the trail has been completely decimated by the flood. There are pros and cons to this situation. The number one "pro" in my opinion is that it completely freed me up from any restrictions that following a trail may place on a person. It was a complete free-for-all traveling through the canyon. The trail appeared at times but it was almost pointless to rely on it. Reason being, huge piles of debris, perhaps 10 to 20 feet high at times, blocked the trail due to the flood, creating gigantic roadblocks. It made more sense to simply follow whatever route one could find through all the piles of dead trees and branches. When I felt like crossing the creek, I would cross it. When I felt like traveling along a river bank, I would do that. When I felt like exploring a particular area, I would explore. For three days, I never saw another human being. For all intents and purposes, I had the canyon to myself which allowed for an incredible, unexpected spiritual experience of sorts.

The first such moment occurred on my first night in the canyon. Once again, camp sites were hard to find at times in the canyon. I wanted to rely on my instincts rather than picking any old flat spot I could find. There were plenty of those on the river floor, but looking at the surrounding devastation, it made no sense whatsoever to camp on the floodplain. Of course, chances were slim that another flood would come barreling down the canyon, but I knew I would not rest easy down there. Not only that, it was guaranteed to be cold and damp next to the river. I needed to climb.

A fascinating pictograph. Above shows a small being holding what appears to be a large pine tree. Below a being holding a geometric pattern. What do they mean?
Just as it was getting dark, I found a spot that allowed me to climb away from the river bottom. I found a spot that would suffice, but it still did not feel right. I needed to get a little higher. Eventually, I found a spot that felt simply perfect. Just as I was setting up my tarp, I turned around and caught site of a cave directly behind me. Since there was just a little bit of daylight left, I decided to check it out before setting up camp. It was a perfect dwelling, I mean perfect! I was blown away to still see artifacts inside, remnants of pottery, cooking and food preparation stones, pieces of acorns, squash, fire scars on the cave's walls. Also small walls were constructed on both sides of the cave. I was pleased to notice a complete absence of human graffiti on the walls. If modern humans had also visited this cave, they had the respect to leave it alone and resist the temptation to scribble their names on the inside. It was incredibly exciting. As it became dark, I decided to explore a little more. Once again, I was blown away to find another larger dwelling, containing more artifacts, and a larger man made wall inside. There also appeared to be paintings on the wall, although at the time I wasn't 100% sure. One of the beings looked like a person with large hands and feet. I camped nearby and had one of the warmest, most restful night's of sleep in a long time. Whoever these people were who lived here, knew what they were doing. (I later found out the builders of the cliff dwellings were called the Mogollon.)

Rejuvenated and refreshed from a perfect night's sleep, I continued down the canyon. The former inhabitants of this area were on my mind. The place seemed like a perfect place to live. Water was abundant, caves offered shelter, game was most likely plentiful in and above the canyon. There were even several hot springs in the area! After a cold, wet day hiking through the canyon, I came to Jordan Hot Springs. God really knows how to take care of his people! The hot spring was a deep pool of the most clear, turquoise blue water I had seen since Yellowstone. Just to look at it brought intense feelings of joy. To get in was almost heavenly. There were strange white crystals all over the bottom of the pool. A small waterfall created the perfect, natural hot shower. I had to believe the people who lived here were in a Garden of Eden.

While taking a hot shower underneath the small waterfall, suddenly a couple of hornets fell into my lap. I looked up to see several angry hornets buzzing wildly above my head. I jumped into the pool in front of me. I turned around to see an angry mob of hornets filling the air around the waterfall. As it turns out, I think the splashing water from sitting in the waterfall disturbed an underground hornets nest a couple of feet from the falls. Thankfully, the hornets were taking their rage out on the waterfall rather than me. The falls were the obvious winner in this battle. I had to laugh again at the sublime and the lethal, once again coexisting on the CDT. I had to vacate the hot springs before the hornets discovered who the real culprit was.
Stones for grinding corn, corn cobs, and blades
An incredible pictograph of a mountain lion standing on two pyramids, triangles or pedestals. This painting was very large,  perhaps as long as 12 feet or more?
That night, I was once again looking for a place to camp. For 45 minutes, I couldn't find anything that would suffice. Once again, it simply didn't feel right to set up camp along the destroyed flood plain. It was beginning to sprinkle. I walked until it was completely dark, and then I felt stuck. I resigned myself to setting up camp on the floodplain. After setting up my tarp, I still felt extremely uneasy. I decided to see if I could climb just a little ways out of the canyon. There were several caves above me, two which I could not reach without risking my life. A third which I eventually found a route to in the dark. It consisted of a few small rooms. Once again, I was shocked to see evidence of human habitation. There were fire scars, and what appeared to be a small storage room with a small, man made wall in the front. This spot seemed to make so much more sense than sleeping on the flood plain below. I retrieved my gear and decided to cowboy camp on the canyon ledge, not going completely into the cave, but just enough to stay out of the rain.

As I drifted off to sleep, the rain began to subside, the stars came out, and an almost full moon began to shine it's reflected light onto the canyon walls before me. To see the arch of the cave above my head, the stars below the arch, the shadows of the moon, the ancient man made storage rooms behind me, the sound of the Gila River below, the relaxation of my muscles from the soak in the hot springs a few hours before, the image of the pictographs still fresh in my mind: The universe seemed so much more mysterious and wonderful than I ever could have imagined in that moment.

The next day, pictographs began to reveal themselves on canyon walls all along the canyon. It felt like a dream. What do they mean? Who were these people? After talking to the rangers at the Cliff Dwellings National Monument, it was fascinating to discover that there is still a lot of mystery surrounding the Mogollon people. For one, the canyons may have been inhabited by humans for as long as 10,000 years, when humans first entered the Americas via the Bering Straight. The fire scars on the caves may be 10,000 years old the rangers informed me. Secondly, the Mogollon people who painted the pictographs and built the dwellings inside the caves only remained in the area for one generation before moving on around 1300 AD. For every hypothesis for why they left the area, a thousand more questions could be asked.

Handprints on far left along with other symbols.

Eventually and reluctantly I had to continue heading south. My food supply was extremely low. A cold wind and overcast skies moved into the area. There was a big winter storm coming. Several inches of snow were predicted to fall in the canyons, more in the surrounding mountains. Several locals warned me not to continue hiking down the canyon due to the oncoming weather. I decided it was probably best to heed to their advice. After visiting the Gila Cliff dwellings National Monument, once again I was hiking along the roads. The area however, left a strong impression on me, and I hope to one day get a chance to return.

Typical scene along trail and valley floor: Flood devastation
To future hikers of the CDT I will imagine that the trail will be decimated along the valley floor for years to come. If you go to the canyon expecting to do big miles, it will be extremely difficult and frustrating I would imagine. I would suggest to hike the Gila with patience, with the Mogollon people on your mind, to keep an eye out for remnants of their presence. Hopefully, you will be rewarded as traces of their lives reveal themselves to you!

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