Around 1990 at age 60 I had spent the last five years doing nature photography- canoing and hiking Florida localities and fancied myself a competent 'outdoorsman'. I had always been attracted to the grandeur of the western landscape and had been thinking about taking a trip somewhere out west. By chance, in the November, 1990, Southwest Art Magazine, I came across the story of a lady artist who spent two and a half months creating pastel landscape paintings on a back-packing expedition in the remote Mongollan Ridge in New Mexico accompanied by her two pack-llamas and two dogs. Kirsten Hardenbrook had wound up opening a wilderness retreat for artists north of Silver City just inside the Gila Wilderness and I decided to drive out for a week long session of day-hikes to take photos for landscape painting I had been thinking of "getting into". See update Kirsten Hardenbrook . Of course not too far back in my head, I had some fantasy of making the acquaintance of this very attractive, remarkably adventuresome young lady but kept realistically motivated on the opportunity for a genuine wilderness adventure.
When I arrived, I had to leave my van and got picked up in her off-road to drive across the Gila River to the hunting lodge she had converted to accommodate her clientèle for llama back-packing excursions. Since this was December and off-season- except for her llamas and dogs- she was living alone. After a night's rest I was eager to begin exploring the surrounds and with no compass, proper survival gear or the most basic orientation- struck out for a day's adventure with my camera, woefully unprepared to safely navigate some of the most rugged and wild terrain in the lower 48. I was about to discover why it was the first area in the continental U.S. to receive official designation as wilderness.
This time of year, the average day temperature was in the 50s but the nights could get below freezing. It was perfect weather, sunny and brisk and I wore suitable hiking boots, jeans, flannel shirt and denim jacket and planned to simply follow the topography along the banks of the Gila and return well before dark. Four hours into my hike it became clear that I wasn't going to capture any landscapes showing an expanse view because the riverbank became increasingly confined by towering cliffs on either side of the river and decided to try to find a route up one of the mesas to capture some panoramas. As I scrambled up a slope, on occasions having to do some improvised rock-climbing, I imagined that I would be able to remember my route back down to the point where I had started my ascent and thus retrace my route back along the river to the lodge. I finally broke free to the plateau on the summit and started composing camera views and typically became so entranced in the aesthetics that after about an hour realized I had failed to properly orient and trail mark to retrace my route around the plateau. When it was time to start my return I discovered I was unable to locate my marker at the point where I had arrived at the summit and couldn't even approximate where I had emerged on to the plateau so was faced with the challenge of finding a completely new route down the precipices that would carry me back down to the river.
If you imagine the plateau surmounting a dome- shaped like the Devil's Towers of Wyoming- with the Gila River at the base following a highly convoluted, snake-like course at its base...depending on where I chose a different descent route I could emerge on the river many miles up or downstream from where I had started my ascent. My first challenge was to find a descent route by following one of the now dry ravines that had been eroded into the mesa flanks by cascading water. After navigating the first ravine for a few minutes it abruptly dropped off in a sheer vertical cliff which I started to traverse but after making it a ways down found I'd have to make a 20 foot free fall to a bare-rock platform so with great physical effort clambered back up to look for a different descent route.
By this time I became aware that the sun was falling along with the temperature and that there was no way I could expect to make it back to the lodge before nightfall. The possibility of having to spend the night in freezing temperatures caused me to become rather frantic to find a way to descend. I tried following a couple of more dry stream beds to find a path but each time the bed led to a precipice too hazardous for me to attempt descending. Recovering back on the plateau with dusk rapidly approaching I decided I had to abandon the notion of following stream-cut ravines and should try to find a wide moraine slope between the ravines for a passage down to the river.
It was now so dark that I could only guess that the spot I choose for my descent would avoid breaking up into unnavigable cliffs so I stumbled, slipping and falling down what I hoped was a continuous moraine- not being able to see more than a few yards down-slope. At times the incline exceeded sixty degrees and at one of these points I was suddenly sent into an uncontrolled tumble over the schist-strewn incline and wound up bruised and shaken. Somewhere during my tumble I had clutched the limb of what felt- in the pitch-blackness- like a branch or root of a tree that I had fortuitously grabbed in an effort to slow my fall. When I was finally recovered and was able to stand, I realized the object I had grasped formed a perfectly shaped cane with a handle shape at one end and the exact length, which I could use as a probe and support to navigate down the rock-strewn slope. The limb was even more exceptional in that most all the deadwood that littered the landscape was so old and rotted that it would easily shatter if subjected to any strain. This specimen had the integrity of hickory and securely bore my weight so with its considerable help, I was able to carefully probe my way finally to the rocky plane of the riverbank.
The combination of my bruising fall, the pitch-blackness and rapid approach of near-freezing temperature had put me in a state of confusion and although I was grateful to have reached the river I now faced my greatest dilemma. Not only did I have no idea of how much further I was up or down from the point on the river I had started my ascent but that I had never confirmed- from any map of the area or when first arriving at the lodge or my hike along its bank- as to which way the river flowed past the lodge. I had never even mentally mapped the location of the lodge- whether it was on the South, West, Middle or East Fork of the Gila River or even which side of the fork it was on. As I write this account twenty years later it seems logical that headwaters would begin in wilderness and flow out into inhabited areas and since all during my hike the river was on my right- that I could return by keeping it on my left. Now where I stood facing the river, although the flow was to my right- my confused brain was exclusively fixated on trying to recover some memory of the flow direction as the best chance to know I was heading back to the lodge- but I utterly failed to recall any such awareness. In my semi-frantic state I conjured up possibilities for conflict - that this could be a tributary that had folded back to present its opposite bank against the wall of the escarpment. For all I knew, the lodge was in the middle of a river that ran in wilderness in both directions and I had no idea which way the headwaters lay. My decision would determine whether I had a chance to go home or freeze to death wandering deeper into the blackness of the Gila wilderness. With no tangible memory of any instance in my hike from the lodge that provided a clue to flow direction, I had to make an intuitive decision- devoid of any of the aforementioned logical/analytical percepts. Without reverting to prayer and with serious trepidation- I turned right and headed downstream.
With nothing but the shadows of the monoliths on either side of the river against the starry sky to guide me, along with my sturdy walking stick for support, I hobbled over the treacherous riverbank. It seemed more than a half dozen times, where the canyon walls overran the bank I had to forge across the boulder-strewn, knee-deep torrent, relying on my staff to probe for the footing ahead. After several stumbles into deeper pockets, I was now totally soaked in icy water that increased my risk of hypothermia. There was no way I could determine if I was back in familiar territory but after several hours and what seemed like three times the distance traveled over the first leg of my hike along the river- at the point where I could feel my strength failing- I saw a tiny light in the distance and knew I was going to survive.
I burst through the door of the lodge where Kirsten was doing some evening chores and unceremoniously stripped off my freezing wet clothes to huddle naked and shivering next to her fireplace- too frozen to speak. I don't have a clear memory of the moment but assumed she brought me a blanket and something hot to drink.
During the next week I made daily hikes photographing the surrounds with much greater respect for keeping oriented and over the years out of all the photos I made and sketches for paintings that were never realized- my treasured memento is my sturdy walking stick that mystically appeared- perfectly fashioned in my right hand like the staff of Moses- to deliver me out of the wilderness.
Postscript to this account:
Kirsten Emailed me 04 12 09: "The Lyon's Lodge where we were is on the North bank of the East Fork of the Gila River, about three miles up stream (at the most) from its confluence of the middle fork. From there the river flows through the Wilderness west into Arizona."
With this I was able to Google up more facts and for the first time actually see the layout of the various forks of the Gila, where the various headwaters were, where the lodge was located on the East Fork, the flow direction relative to the path of my hike- all details any idiot would acquire before prancing out into the wilderness. This ignorance caused a major logical conflict at the time, in that without knowing which way the headwaters were relative to the lodge, I couldn't know whether home was upstream or downstream. It was the priority I gave to returning with the river on my left and a faint impression about where the greater wilderness lay which serendipitously resulted in my heading downstream. That and my good luck that the river had no tributaries in the locality (plus the synchronicity of my miraculous staff) is what allowed my salvation.
Lyons Hunting Lodge interactive map. A strange coincidence that this map places the graphic key indicating the location of the lodge on the wrong (south) side of the East Fork of the Gila River. (Had this map provided my orientation for my route along the river I'd likely have perished- confidentally heading in the wrong direction in a misguided effort to reach the lodge.)
Gila Hot Springs Ranch Resort on the West Fork of the Gila- west of Lyons Lodge.