In Loco's Footsteps
Hiking the rugged, cactus-studded Peloncillos, where Apaches on the run held off — for a time — the US Fourth Cavalry.
Story and photos by Jerry Eagan
"To the different Apache tribes there were, in addition to the four seasons of the year, six time divisions having to do with the gathering of food: Little Eagles (early spring), Many Leaves (late spring and early summer), Large Leaves (midsummer), Thick with Fruit (harvest time, late summer to early fall), Earth Reddish Brown (late fall); Ghost Face (winter) . Late spring was an especially busy time for nearly all the Apache because their single most important food plant, an agave or century plant known as mescal (Agave utahensis), was ready then. Prickly pear fruit was rubbed clean of its spines with sand or leather and eaten raw, or it too could be dried and glazed for later use. All the sweeter cactuses could, alternatively, be prepared into a buttery spread."
— Apaches: A History and Cultural Portrait
by James L. Haley
I've been hiking Apacheria a lot in Hidalgo County, as I realized I've never written about that locale. In December, on the first anniversary of the fall I took on Providence Cone (or, as the locals call it, Rattlesnake Peak/Ridge; see "Slip-Sliding Away," February 2010), I took a group of guys there, to return to that spot that chastened and humbled me. I told Dennis Jennings, my hiking partner, that the fall was a wakeup call. I've decided that most often, I'll hike with someone. Knowing one's limits seems like a good place to be when it comes to man vs. nature.
The rugged Peloncillos.
Another change since the fall: a SPOT transponder. SPOT, which stands for Satellite Personal Tracker, is "the world's first satellite providing location-based communication to friends, family or professional services." The SPOT offers four valuable features: SOS/911 (threatening life emergency), Help (non-threatening life emergency), I'm OK (check in to reassure loved ones) and Track Progress (allows contacts to track your near-real-time travel). The SPOT communicates with satellites set to provide a specific longitude and latitude where you're at. That would have been handy for several of the most recent major rescues undertaken in the Black Range, Floridas and Gila. I recently sent a series of "I'm OK" signals to my wife, while I was in the Peloncillo Mountains hiking, and she was in Park City, Utah, on a visit with a friend. I may add the "Track Progress" feature this year.
Dennis, by the way, also has a SPOT, even though we generally hike together. Let's face it: Dennis, at 57, has six years of energy more than I, at 63. When I was 57, I was doing what I see Dennis do — bounding up slopes, climbing and hiking all day, with no seeming impact and a curiosity that matched that energy. Now, while I've not lost my curiosity, I often suggest that Dennis check something out he's obviously intrigued by. In those cases, it's not only better to have a SPOT for each person, but a walkie-talkie for each, as well.
While I'm not sure of all the details of the four college-age kids who got into some very serious trouble in the Floridas a month and a half ago, I can say this: Having hiked in the Floridas, from north to south, mostly on the east slopes, that range is among the most rugged you can tackle. And so are the Peloncillos, one of the many mountain ranges in Hidalgo County, including the Animas, Alamo Hueco, Hatchets and Pyramids.
Hidalgo County has seen tremendous history associated with the Apaches and the earlier Mogollon peoples. There are some incredible pictograph and petroglyph sites along the Lower Gila Box Riparian area.
We hiked into one canyon and one major rock art site in October. It was hot both days, and wading the Gila to get to the first site felt really good. You should have plenty of water, hat, sunscreen, poncho, space blankets, etc., when tackling these hikes, plus SPOT. With SPOT, you don't need to worry about the lack of cell-phone coverage in this area. In October, as we crossed the Lower Gila near Virden ("Richmond" during the Apache era), a flock of 30 to 50 sandhill cranes was in the river, bathing, fishing and sunning.
The Saladan peoples, perhaps the Payan people, were among the first to build pueblos, pit houses and even more elaborate structures in what's now Hidalgo County. By the time the Apaches were raising hell with the Spanish, Mexicans and Americans, their travel routes south, into Mexico, often used the flat San Simon Valley as their thoroughfare. The eastern side of the San Simon Valley is bordered by the Peloncillos, while the western side is fringed by the Whitlocks and Chiricahuas.
The Peloncillos form some of the most austere, rugged peaks I've been in. They're also very unused, and that's just fine with me. We've made six hikes, thus far, in the Peloncillos, searching for the site of a firefight described in detail in Bud Shapard's relatively new book, Loco: Apache Peacemaker, which Ed Sweeney likewise covers in his new powerful book, From Cochise to Geronimo: The Chiricahua Apaches, 1874-1886.
Coincidentally, that firefight, at the base of what I call Peloncillo Massif, is within a few miles of one of the best-preserved sites of the Butterfield-Overland-Giddings Stage Line, in Doubtful Canyon. (In the 1880s, the name applied to many of these mountains was Steins Range). Be aware that there's plenty of private property at critical locations in there. Try as we might, we've not yet been able to contact one ranch owner for permission to hike his land. We've used public or state land to hike, and we've been out when the weather was hot enough, even in our beautiful late fall, to allow us to walk in T-shirts — and also in the cold of January. When we go out, we leave an itinerary with our wives, unlike one of the most recent "experienced" hikers who wound up having to be rescued.
With jagged, steep, rocky cliffs, ridges, mesas, canyons, hills and flat grazing lands, this area is undoubtedly overrun with rattlers once the weather heats up. A friend said he'd also seen Gila monsters, which sounds cool to me. Based on some scattered bones of large cattle, and one old desert mountain sheep that was most likely eaten after it had died, we speculated on how many mountain lions were in the area.
The Chiricahua Apaches who passed through these canyons and mesas we've been hiking in were on the move. In the case of Loco's band's fight with the Fourth Cavalry under Lt. Col. George A. "Sandy" Forsyth, in already-blistering April 1882, the Apaches were on the run. Having been sucked into the Geronimo outbreak of that year, Loco's people, who were pulled off San Carlos under threat of death, really hadn't wanted to get engaged in yet another war ignited by Geronimo, Juh, Chihuahua, Naiche, et al.
Most if not all the Apaches were traveling on horses — albeit, in most cases, stolen ones. Those who resisted the theft of their horses were invariably killed ruthlessly. Sweeney's book makes it crystal clear: The Apaches by 1882 were brutal, capable of torture and known to bash victims' brains in (often women and children not yet dead) with rocks. Not having their hearts fully engaged in the outbreak, however, Loco's people suffered heavy losses.
From the rough, sandy but passable road (even with two-wheel drive vehicles, in dry weather), one can hike cross-country north, south and east. The private property adjacent to the Stage Station locale would cause you to do some detours, to the south and west, definitely around the base of Steins Peak. Our hiking has been primarily to the north, and up. And into a thick, barb-wire-like cactus hell field. I feel fortunate that most of our hikes have been since the rattlers have gone underground.