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Things you find in “wildernes”

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The “wilderness” isn’t always what you expect. Here are some strange things I’ve found in and around the Gila National Forest. You probably have similar stories.

I found an old car frame with no visible road far upstream on Mill Creek. How did it get there? Our forests have lots of roads to nowhere with no recorded history.

There are no dates on the abandoned (or still used) roads, but apparently road building started very early. Some of them might be from the old mining days, but the steep ones had to be built with machines. Gas-powered tractors date from 1902, and the first bulldozers appeared in the early 1920s. It looks like people went crazy with those machines back when regulations were few. 

Another surprise is when you see a glass electrical insulator high on a tree in a place where it’s hard to imagine a phone or electric line. A power line to nowhere seems as unlikely as a road to nowhere. And you never know where you might find a concrete dam or a large, mysterious piece of mining equipment.

I’ve also been surprised by beautiful juniper stumps. Junipers seem to have a completely different story than ponderosa pines. Ponderosas rot and disappear. When I moved here almost 25 years ago, it looked like all the pines past Pinos Altos would be dead within a year. Old-timers attributed the brown patches on the hillsides to bark beetles. I lost about 20 trees near my house in one year.

Fortunately, the infestation eased, and the forest seemed to recover. But you’ve probably seen patches of dead pines. In other regions, dead tree clusters — some much worse than ours — may be junipers, piñon or spruce.

While I was living in the forest, I watched a beautiful tree 20 yards outside my window turn yellow and then brown over a period of six weeks. A rotten stump is all that’s left, and it is disappearing.

But the junipers don’t rot in the same way. I have juniper stumps all over my 21 acres. I’m guessing they’re over a hundred years old. Some of those stumps are on steep hillsides, where it would have been hard to haul the wood out for firewood or posts.

A hundred years of weather has painted a beautiful yellow and brown patina on the stumps. Recently, I discovered a juniper from that distant time that hadn’t been hauled off like the others. Apparently the hillside was too steep even for mules. Or maybe they forgot they had cut it. I’m always on the lookout for firewood, but it would take a helicopter to get this. It looks nice where it is.

At the start of Little Cherry Creek Road, you have a good view of a mesa to the north, at the top of rock hoodoos. What’s up there? I’ve climbed it, and to the top of similar mountains. What I found is probably the same as at the top of every mesa around here: Nothing. Nothing but brush so thick you can’t fight through it — the result of a hundred years of fire suppression. I’m told the deer can’t fight through it either, and that’s why they prefer Pinos Altos.

I know a secret place near my forest property with a flat concrete slab between trees, about 6 feet square. When the concrete was wet, someone scratched out “WPA 1938.” But why? It’s a lot of work to haul concrete and water to a remote place for no visible purpose.

Another remote spot has an ancient ruin that on a second look appears to be not so ancient. It has rock walls in good shape, but without the mud mortar you find in real ruins. Hidden behind one wall is a mirror wrapped in plastic. I suspect that hippy pagans built this as a place for ceremonies in the ’60s. Or maybe it was the 40-ish man who recalled 20 years ago growing up wild in the hills around my property.

That reminds me of a shallow cave on a steep slope above Bear Creek. You can barely see it from the road. But if you scramble up, it looks like people have used it as a refuge or a cathedral for a thousand years. Some of the smoke stains look ancient, but others appear to be from last week.

And that’s just the start. What about those Apache gun ports? What about the rumors of lost gold mines? What about the talkative hermit? What about Cross Mountain? Or the adjacent mountain with a huge water tank that must have been miraculously transported? 

Human beings are a weird species. You can never guess what they will do in the “wilderness.”

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Southwest Word Fiesta™ or its steering committee.

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Bruce McKinney

Bruce McKinney is a Silver City business owner, close observer of local government and occasional troublemaker. In his column, which appears every other Wednesday, he tries to address big questions from a local perspective. Send comments and ideas to
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We respectfully acknowledge that the entirety of southwestern New Mexico is the traditional territory, since time immemorial, of the Chis-Nde, also known as the people of the Chiricahua Apache Nation. The Chiricahua Apache Nation is recognized as a sovereign Native Nation by the United States in the Treaty of Amity, Commerce, and Friendship of 1 July 1852 (10 Stat. 979) (Treaty of Santa Fe ratified 23 March 1853 and proclaimed by President Franklin Pierce 25 March 1853).

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