Wandering in Apache Country

San Mateo Mountain and Vick's Peak at sunset, San Mateo Mountains, New Mexico

Southwestern New Mexico starts feeling remote about half a mile off the interstate. Venture off the pavement and it starts feeling really damn remote, really quick. Venturing off the pavement is not hard to do: draw a triangle connecting the towns of Silver City, Socorro and Springerville, AZ, about 120 miles on each side; you’ll find precisely eight paved roads in it, an area the size of Massachusetts.

Thanks to my family connections, this region has started feeling like a second home to me. To the old ranch families, it’s been home for several generations; a few Spanish settlements can claim several decades more than that (unlike northern New Mexico, this area wasn’t settled by the Spanish until relatively late). But the only people still living who can claim longer acquaintance with this country’s high dry valleys and crumpled, craggy mountains are the Apaches.The Chihenne Apache centered around Ojo Caliente (not the famous Ojo Caliente north of Santa Fe; New Mexico toponyms can be a bitch to keep straight), a warm spring and box canyon on Alamosa Creek, about equidistant between the Black and San Mateo Ranges. It’s been remote country since time immemorial, and the area’s population today is probably less than 150 years ago when the Apaches were still in residence. It’s country that’s hard for an outsider to love, but the Chihenne loved it to the utmost, repeatedly escaping from other reservations to the east and west and incurring the full wrath of the U.S. military in order to remain there.

A couple weeks back, I drove a long, dusty, increasingly stony road into the ghost mining town of Hermosa in the foothills of the Black Range. Past Hermosa, the road got really dismal. I don’t enjoy 4-wheeling and rock crawling for its own sake; I’m willing to do a certain amount of it to get somewhere good, but I don’t consider it fun. A small spring was eroding the track, leaving a streambed not too far from a state of nature, followed by some really steep pitches up to a ridgeline. I parked at the top and walked, hoping to find some good sunrise vistas of the mountains from their eastern foothills. A little exploring in the evening followed by a pre-dawn bushwhack put me on a ridgetop watching dawn hit the Black Range Crest, North Seco Creek and Victorio Park Mountain (upper left).

First light over North Seco Creek and Victorio Park Mountain, Aldo Leopold Wilderness, New Mexico

Victorio: he’s never attained anything like the name recognition of Geronimo, or even Cochise, but it’s generally agreed that he was their equal or better as an Apache warrior. After repeated attempts to move his people away from Ojo Caliente to other lands they could not love, he had had enough. In 1879 he abandoned his attempts at peace and led his band into the wilderness strongholds of the Black Range and Upper Gila, with forays throughout southern New Mexico and northern Mexico. His 400 Apaches, with  100 warriors at the most and generally fewer than 50, thwarted the best efforts of 4,000 American and Mexican soldiers. In September 1879, just over the ridge in the photo above, he fought and won the Battle of Las Animas Canyon.  As much I tend to sympathize with the Indians, one has to spare a thought for the soldiers, mostly black Buffalo soldiers, sent far from home into a war that was not their own, to fight some of the finest guerilla warriors on earth in country as convoluted and unforgiving as any in North America. The graves of these soldiers at Las Animas Creek may still be visited today by determined wilderness hikers.

It’s impossible not to think of this history while traveling in this country. As rugged and remote as it remains today, it was only more so in the 1800s, and the mind boggles at the determination and bravery, or pigheadedness and stupidity, depending on your point of view, of the miners and ranchers who settled in such marginal land peopled by a hostile tribe of expert fighters. Victorio was by no means the only Chihenne of renown. The group’s famous names also include Mangas Coloradas, who harried settlers and forged unprecedented alliances among Apaches throughout the 1840s and ’50s; Lozen, Victorio’s warrior sister, a healer, medicine woman and fighter of rear-guard actions whom Victorio called “my right hand… a shield to her people”; and Nana, who after Victorio’s demise in the deserts of Chihuahua led a brilliant extended raid of vengeance in 1881, riding an average of 50 miles a day and dominating vast swathes of western New Mexico, all at an age of over 70. This is still their land. Though they were unable for all their brilliance as wilderness fighter to stem the endless tide of American men and resources, neither were the Americans able to make much of the their hard-fought conquest. The territory of the Chihenne remains remote and barely populated, and virtually unknown except to a few stubborn ranch families and eccentric wilderness travelers.

Vick's Peak towers over Luna Park at dawn, San Mateo Mountains, New Mexico

A day later I was 30 miles to the northeast (three hours’ drive, remarkably, through the idyllic town of Monticello, a 19th Century Mexican settlement much victimized by Chihenne raids), shooting another of Victorio’s namesakes: Vick’s Peak, the imposing and precipitous southern rampart of the San Mateo Range. The San Mateos are slightly higher but less vast than the Black Range, but certainly no less rugged and no better known. Nana used the range as a refuge in his great raid, and almost two decades after the theoretical end of the Apache wars, another renegade may have taken advantage of these mountains and possibly met his end here in today’s eponymous Apache Kid Wilderness.

Looking south from New Mexico's Apache Kid Wilderness

Looking south from San Mateo Mountain, over the Chihenne country (May 2009).

Every time I visit this New Mexico outback, I become more enchanted with the place. But it’s humbling to be a mere landscape photographer and desert rat in this country, country that hard men risked torture and and murder to settle, country whose original inhabitants loved more than life itself, preferring war and death to life in any other land.

For those who are interested, you’ll find some more impressions of this country below the fold, though the quality of the photos may leave something to be desired. I hope to rectify the situation in the future.

Looking over Hermosa Valley, from the Black Range over the Sierra Cuchillo to the San Mateos, New Mexico

Turn 180 degrees away from Victorio Park Mountain, and you’ll be staring 30 miles over the Sierra Cuchillo at Vick’s Peak. The ghost town of Hermosa lies in the valley below. As if two weren’t enough, there is another Victorio Peak off to the east in the San Andres Range; but that 50-mile spine of desert pinnacles has the misfortune of lying on the White Sands Missile Range, and access is forbidden.

Looking down North Seco Canyon at sunset as it heads to the Rio Grande, Caballo Mountains in the distance.

Dawn on Lake Mountain in New Mexico's Black Range

Lake mountain at dawn, with the main crest of the Black Range behind.

Reflections in North Seco Creek. Such a scene probably meant comfort and relaxation to the Apaches, vital water combined with extreme danger to the Americans.

We landscape photographers don’t generally like to include roads in our pictures, but they can be aesthetically pleasing. This is the Burma Road, which winds through the southern foothills of the San Mateos, in and out of canyons and over the finger mesas that fan out at the range’s foot.

Garcia Falls Canyon. Did Mangas, Victorio and Nana stand on this spot? Water in the desert, you bet they did!

My favorite campground in New Mexico. I’ll refrain from dropping a Google bomb by naming it, but I’m sure anyone interested can figure it out. It has rock pinnacles at its back, and its access road plunges immediately down 500 feet of switchbacks. It’s free, and may well be empty on a Friday night.

Campground centerpiece. Apache depredations may be a thing of the past, but this country still has predators.

The most scenic outhouse in New Mexico?

The thrill of discovery: I stumbled on this unnamed, unmapped arch off trail in the San Mateos. It’s actually a double arch, the top is really two spans of rock with a yard-wide gap. I’m not sure there’s any light or angle that would really do this justice in a photograph, but it was thrilling to find it in person.

Rock outcroppings in the San Mateos. They’re visible from a distance, but they look like mere pebbles in front of the massive cliffs of Vick’s Peak. But up close they’re pretty stunning. Though you never know, I would not be at all surprised if no one has ever climbed these formations: they’re obscure, access is difficult, no feasible scrambling routes were apparent, and given the nature of the rock, any technical route might have to be bolted.  I definitely want to get back here, preferably near the winter solstice in stormy weather. In the unlikely event of mist or low cloud, these could start looking like a Chinese landscape painting.

Evening twilight on Vick's Peak and San Mateo Mountain, New Mexico

Last light on San Mateo Mountain and Vick’s Peak.

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11 thoughts on “Wandering in Apache Country

  1. Having just watched a special on the Owyhee Canyonlands on Idaho PTV I’m really missing the high desert. I like the narrative and history lesson but I really like the wide range of photos. All are very nice views but I think you saved the best for last! Keep on exploring and sharing New Mexico…I love it.

    • Thanks Aaron! Your work from the Idaho high desert is the best I’ve seen from the region, and I’d love to see more. Wish I could make a quick trip up there right now.

  2. Wonderful stuff– why I have been addicted to my adopted home’s terrain for decades, and nothing else seems right…

    One amused thought re: “…has [the] misfortune of lying on the White Sands Missile Range…” Misfortune for us, maybe. But, despite all my love for ranch culture, the range’s restrictions have allowed much of that country to revert to almost pre- Columbian splendor. The grass is belly- deep, the herds large and fat– and I expect predators are too.

    Try getting in one one of the semi- annual Trinity tours. Only comparable place is Sevilleta, and that may be even harder to access. Maybe I should blog it…

    • The real answer I think is to get on one of the volunteer projects on the San Andres refuge; wish I’d done that one back in February. The Trinity tours would be fun just to see the country, but I expect it would be a frustrating experience for a photographer.

  3. Great post. Interesting words, fine photographs — what more can you ask?

    I’m not familiar with your part of the country, but this makes me want to get acquainted with it. Be careful or you might attract all kinds of riff-raff like me ;-)

    • Thanks PJ! That country’s in no danger of being overrun yet. If anything, the trails in the Aldo and Apache Kid could really use some more boots before they all disappear. And the Forest Service could stand to hear that some people are actually interested in visiting those places.

  4. Man, this makes me totally envious. These are some gorgeous images, and it looks like you found some sweet light. I think the first three are my favorites (although I like them all), and although macabre, I really like the mule deer image. It holds sort of a certain subtle beauty.

  5. Pingback: 2014-10-18 San Mateo Peak | New Mexico Meanders

  6. Thank you for sharing your excellent photos. I am a Forest Service Landscape Architect working on a document that portrays the scenic character of the Cibola National Forest. I am interested to know if you have any photos we could use? I was unable to see the San Mateo area during my site visit. As you most likely know the Forest is vast and very spread out. I also didn’t make it to the Zuni, Bear or Gallinas Mountains if you happen to be interested in supporting this project. This document will be public information when complete. Photo credits would go to you of course. Take care, thanks for your consideration.
    Jan Spencer
    307-734-1432
    jspencer@fs.fed.us

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