Evergreens hunched low against the wind. The haunting laugh of a canyon wren. A canopy of bright blue sky arched over a burning red desert. This is Chiricahua National Monument, a unit of the National Park System located in the Chiricahua Mountains east of Tucson in southeastern Arizona, USA. In 1976, the United States Congress designated the 9,440 acres as “Class I Pristine Wilderness”. The Wilderness Act of 1964 defined the wilds as “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, and where man himself is only a visitor who does not remain.” According to the law, “Designated Wilderness” is protected from human developments which alter the land, such as roads, buildings, utility lines and mines. Here, a place a previous AZ article declared is the state’s most energized, engaging landscape, thousands of naturally sculpted rocks line canyon walls, as expansion and contraction due to temperature changes, the wedging of ice and plant root growth contribute to this break out of the earth’s complexion. The weathering of softer layers have left harder layers to stand out in relief, often taking dramatic, unusual forms. Erosion will continue as long as there are rains, ice, wind, and temperature fluctuations. Today’s rock faces are exposed and weathered away, others will be exposed to take their place, and on and on.
In the 17th century, as the Spanish frontier expanded northward, missionaries along the San Pedro River heard of the fierce enemy peoples living in these mountains to the East, moving into the homeland of the Chiricahua Apaches. The priests made no attempt to extend their missions in this direction, and by mid-century, the Spanish abandoned missions bordering the river. Good thing, for at the same time the Gasden purchase of 1853 settled our international border with Mexico and opened up a new frontier, the people were exposed to this fierce new band of semi-nomadic hunters. Separated from other Apache bands around 1690 and ruling the wilds of Southeast Arizona, the Chiricahua Apache were in constant movement, subsisting chiefly on the products of the chase and roots and berries. The ability of the Apache as foot warriors was exceeded by few native peoples. Masters of the art of concealment, they could appear unexpected at any time. So when my friend Chris Ferris and I celebrated our shared birthdays of April 8th stomping around the Sonoran Desert, checking out Arizona’s unique history and terrain, I had the thought that It’s always good to run with - rather than away from - the Apaches for a bit.
Going from the Phoenix area up to Sedona and Flagstaff, back down to Jerome and ‘Preskitt’, then down to the Southeast area of Bisbee and Douglas, there were those many moments of muted desert grace. Just after the sun disappears over the horizon, Saguaro cacti shadows stretch long and thin over apricot colored sands, during the fleeting interregnum between the blast-furnace heat of the day - still ramping up in April - and the cool, star-draped immensity of the nights. Silent stillness descends over the land of the lesser-known but equally grand canyons and into oneself, the bedrock bathed in a special kind of light, the uplifting winds sounding like blown notes on a native flute. It was good to celebrate growing a little older amongst the hoodoos and balancing rocks in a wilderness place that, in the Monuments words, “offers a superior kind of pleasure, where nature remains untarnished and undepleted.” People, too.