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Arizona backcountry: Desert not so barren after all – McComb Enterprise Journal


Last in a series:

On our recent backcountry road tour of southeastern Arizona, we expected to find lots of desert. What we saw instead was plenty of lush growth even in cactus country.

Nowhere was more surprising than the woods outside the tiny town of Portal. We had scheduled two nights in the U.S. Forest Service’s Portal House at the eastern edge of the Chiricahua Mountains in the Coronado National Forest, so we had time to explore.

After our first evening — when my brother Robert narrowly avoided being bitten by a coral snake — he, our friend Dan Banks and I set out for a morning hike.

The South Fork Trail followed a creek bed through cool forest flanked by sheer stone cliffs. Tall Douglas firs and ponderosa pines loomed over smaller maples, locust, cypress and a wealth of other vegetation. Swainson’s hawks soared among the cliffs, whistling.

The creek ran through it all, sometimes tumbling over small waterfalls into clear pools. The setting reminded me of Zane Grey’s idyllic novel, “Man of the Forest.” 

Limping through the forest

We walked a couple miles before my feet started giving out. I was suffering from plantar fasciitis — inflamed ligaments under the heels — and the rocky ground was killing me.

I stretched out on the creek bank while Robert and Dan went on. I dozed off, then opened my eyes to see a prairie falcon light on the branch of a dead tree over my head. If it noticed me, it gave no sign.

Cool air, running water, fragrant trees, wildlife — this was bliss.  

Hiking back was not. I limped behind my sturdy companions, using a hiking stick borrowed from my brother for support.

That night we walked up the road (I hobbled) to get a glimpse of the harvest moon rising behind a cliff. We heard a rustling in the grass, and a flashlight picked up a javelina, or wild desert hog.

As we passed the edge of the cliff we saw the big, bright moon rising over the Chiricahuas — the same moon my wife Angelyn was watching back home through the tall pines of Amite County.

A glimpse of the wall

The next day we stopped at a stone monument to the surrender of Apache chief Geronimo. This land would be hard enough to live in without the threat of Apaches. The pioneers who settled here were some kind of tough.

We continued south to the border town of Douglas, where we drove smack up to the fabled wall — a grandiose structure of concrete, mesh and steel with a deep concrete moat in the middle, loops of barbed wire on top and huge floodlights towered overhead.

A local guy named Martin (pronounced mar-TEEN) told us he helped build the wall, which failed to pass inspection as it turned out immigrants could tunnel underneath in places. 

Holding a green glass Sprite bottle, he said with a grin, “They call me the Buzzard because my worst nightmare is being sober.”

Across the wall was the Mexican town of Agua Prieta, which means brown water. Unlike other places on the border, no immigrant hordes were visible here.

We had hoped to walk across into Mexico but found out you must have a passport to get back into the U.S., unlike the old days when a driver’s license sufficed.

Driving west we entered the town of Bisbee, once a copper mining hub, as evidenced by a deep, gigantic pit beside the highway. 

Bisbee is a quaint, touristy hill village stretched out along a narrow valley. This was our town day: We stayed at a bed-and-breakfast, ate at restaurants, and I rested my aching feet.

At night we could see the lights of the border wall marching into blackness.

Old Mining camp

Our last stop was the most remote: Kentucky Camp in the Santa Rita Mountains.

Miles of washboard road led to a locked gate to which we, as official cabin renters, had the combination. We had two nights in a rough-hewn 1904 cabin that lacked indoor plumbing.

This was originally a gold mining camp, later a cattle ranch. Now it was national forest, though the trees were short and scattered.

As night fell, the silence was uncanny, undergirded only by the low sound of crickets, a screech owl or two and some nameless bird whose monotone notes chilled the soul.

The morning dawned cool and rainy, so Robert and I sat on the porch and played guitar. When the rain cleared away we went hiking.

We set out down a short stretch of the Arizona Trail, an 800-mile path through this magnificent state. The hills here were low and rolling, the narrow path leading through chest-high prairie grass. 

Doves flushed as we walked; hawks wheeled overhead. We stopped to eat fruit from a prickly pear cactus.

“This trip has certainly dispelled my preconceptions about Arizona,” Robert said, referring to the lush growth we found almost everywhere we looked.

Final journey?

Earlier we had listed the trips we had taken over the years as a trio: the Appalachian Trail, Arkansas Ozarks, New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness, Honduras backcountry, Oregon’s Ollalie Lakes, Minnesota’s Boundary Waters, California’s American River, Montana’s Glacier National Park, Mississippi’s Homochitto River, Alaskan backcountry (twice).

Robert had billed this as possibly our last trip. But considering how well we had fared, it didn’t surprise me when he started talking about the next one.





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