Arizona backcountry: Chasing Apache ghosts – McComb Enterprise Journal

Second in a series:

I used to be fascinated by Apaches. In my college years I read countless books about Native Americans and the frontier. Among the most impressive tribes was the Apaches, denizens of the Southwestern deserts and mountains.

An Apache warrior could subsist on a handful of parched corn and a couple sips of water a day, vanishing into inhospitable wilderness and bedeviling American soldiers, settlers, Mexicans and enemy tribes.

In college I gave Angelyn a T-shirt with a print of Apache chief Geronimo. I was into leathercraft and made her a pair of knee-high moccasins like the Apaches wore.

On a recent backcountry road trip across southeast Arizona, my brother Robert, friend Dan and I got to see plenty evidence where this fearsome tribe once held sway.

Cochise Stronghold

After staying overnight in a portion of the Coronado National Forest north of Tucson, we journeyed southeast to the Dragoon Mountains, also known as Cochise Stronghold. 

Cochise was an Apache chief who led an uprising from 1861 to 1872. He hid out in these rugged cliffs that rose straight out of the scrub plain.

We stayed in a stone U.S. Forest Service house at the base of the cliffs, the same area where Calvary troops, also known as dragoons, no doubt massed when seeking the elusive chief and his warriors.

The next morning we hiked up the road and followed a trail up into the cliffs. We came to a shallow cave adorned with petroglyphs. These strange markings were applied long before the Apaches were known as a tribe.

If there were any ghosts lurking around, they would be here. Not only was this a shelter for prehistoric cave-dwellers, Apache warriors no doubt looked down from here to the dragoons assembled below.

It’s a wonder the Army ever managed to oust the Apaches from these redoubts. Robert pointed out that help from other Indian allies, who were also enemies of the Apaches, no doubt made a big difference.

Wonderland of rocks

The next day we drove east toward the Chiricahua Mountains, venturing into Chiricahua National Monument. The Chiricahuas were one of several bands of Apaches, who warred among themselves as well as with others.

The monument is known as a “wonderland of rocks,” which are visible from a winding road that wends uphill through cool forest, ending at a peak overlooking a bizarre tumble of formations. 

We ate lunch in the cool mountain breeze and explored the terrain before descending back to the plain. From there we took a backroad east across the imposing mountain range.

I was driving our rented Volkswagen SUV on the rough, stony road that limited our speed to 10 or 15 mph and covered the black vehicle with dust. Spectacular views of rugged wilderness made up for our discomfort — views that are all too common in southeastern Arizona. 

We crossed the divide on hairpin turns and made a long, slow descent to the far side, where we stopped at the Portal CCC House, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s.

Red on yellow

After we moved in, we went outside to the rear patio, which looked up to towering stone cliffs. Dan and I were sitting at a table when Robert, standing by the back door, yelled and jumped. “Coral snake!”

Right beside his foot he spotted the two-foot-long, finger-thick killer, deadliest snake in North America. 

He dashed inside to get his camera phone while the snake tried to escape the foot-high wall around the patio. I shooed it into the back yard, where it burrowed under a log.

Rob returned with his camera and I lifted the log for a photo.

Turned out to be a Sonoran coral snake. It looked different from the Eastern coral snakes I’ve seen, which have bright scarlet bands alternating with yellow and black. The red on this one was a deep burgundy that at first glance looked black.

As the saying goes, red on yellow, kill a fellow; red on black, OK Jack (or venom lack).

Robert was wearing shorts and hiking boots, so the snake easily could have latched onto his bare leg. That would have posed a bit of a problem as we lacked cell service here, though I did have a campers’ snakebite kit.

I suggested killing the snake since it was so near the house, but my buddies preferred to let it alone. You may be sure we watched our step and hoped it didn’t find its way into the house.

Next week: Desert oasis, border wall, mining camp.


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