The Place I Left My Heart: The Gila Wilderness

I fell instantly in love with the Gila Wilderness, the first designated Wilderness Area in the US on my very first hike. And every day of the weeks we spent here, I fell harder and more completely in love with this place.

It is a wild beauty, the Gila.

Sitting in the woods watching a pair of red-naped sapsuckers tapping away on a juniper tree, catching glimpses of elk and mule deer and black bear (and the occasional errant cow) is all I need for heart filled with happiness. Leaned against an alligator juniper with a mug full of wine listening to nuthatches and wrens or delighting in the crunching noise of fallen leaves beneath my feet makes me smile. Canyon wrens and white-breasted nuthatches sing from the pines, Javalinas roam the hillsides, coyotes yip by moonlight. Knowing that the Mexican wolf roams these woods fills my soul with awe.

This is the stuff of dreams for this girl.

On our final day in the Gila Wilderness, John was feeling unwell and so I set off on a 18-kilometre hike along an undulating mountain ridge.

To John’s surprise I returned to camp many hours early. He asked why.

“Because I was nearly gored by a javalina boar.”

John’s response to this news? “Did you get a picture?”

“No John,” I say incredulously. “I was busy deciding whether to climb the flimsy juniper tree I was hiding behind or jump five feet down a cliff into a canyon.”

My final day of hiking in the Gila Wilderness will forever by my most memorable day in New Mexico. I don’t think anyone forgets the day they were nearly gored by a javalina boar.

Any place where I am made small and insignificant, amid a great big grand and wild world, where wild things like tarantulas, javalinas and endangered Mexican wolves roam, where people come second is where I yearn to be.

“Like winds and sunsets, wild things were taken for granted until progress began to do away with them. Now, we face the question whether a still higher ‘standard of living’ is worth its cost in things natural, wild and free.” Aldo Leopold

Rarely Is It About The Summit

One of our first hikes in New Mexico was unexpected. We intended only to hike the four miles to an alpine lake but once we realized the trail continued to the summit of New Mexico’s tallest peak, well, there was no question whether we would continue. I had packed a ridiculous amount of food and water for our hike anyhow so we were, happily, unexpectedly, well prepared. We had parked at the ski valley and walked the steep road to the lake trailhead so it allowed up to hike, from the summit, the long way down the alpine ridge. What had begun as a eight-mile hike, by the end of the day was closer to 16 miles with almost 4000 feet in elevation gain to 13,000+feet.

Reaching the summit, however, was only a blip in a lovely, full of adventure day.

Picas ran around in the rocky hillside and we caught a weasel, already in his white winter plumage, hunting near a frozen alpine lake.

And on the rocky alpine slopes near the summit large flocks of grey-crowned rosy finches and ravens were hopping about, gobbling up moths. So many moths. The birds flitted all around us, so fixated on their prey.

And then there were all the bighorn sheep, females with young as well as a bachelor band. One one hillside we came across two full-curl rams standing together, starring down two other full-curl rams. We hoped we might see some rutting action, always a remarkable sight and sound. They stood starring at one another for quite some time then one male stepped forward. The opposing male advanced. We thought, “This is it. Shit’s gonna go down.”

The two groups approached. And then began licking each other’s muzzles. And after a few moments of that, they trotted off together down the ridge. And that was that.

We only inadvertently ended up on the summit. It wasn’t our destination. We only intended to go wandering for the day, to let whatever happen propel us forward or back. It was seeing the finches above us that had us climbing upwards. We hoped to spot some buntings or horned larks. That was when we spotted the first group of sheep.

From what locals told us after this hike is normally ridiculously busy in the summer. Apparently, us seeing only six other people the entire day is a rare lucky day. I suppose it helped that we went hiking during the first winter cold snap and the winds were fierce and cold. Extra puffy jackets, mittens and toques were definitely necessary.

As much as we love canyon country, mountains are where we are happiest, even if the altitude starts to kick our ass. The high altitude only means our frolicking about in glee is at a bit slower a pace.

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