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Galiuro Wilderness

Galiuro Wilderness

Galiuro Wilderness, Arizona

The following is a brief article about my favorite chunk of public lands, the Galiuro Mountains. The Galiuros are located in southern Arizona, about 60 miles east of Tucson and most of a world away. They are part of the Coronado National Forest. Approximately 90,000 acres have been designated as wilderness and the region's inaccessibility has kept it mostly wild. They are an outstanding example of public lands managed not only for recreation but for those intangible values associated with wilderness: solitude, habitat preservation, the joy of navigating through trackless catclaw and manzanita thickets... Bob Van Deven
Cory and Dorita are the last to leave, grinding down the cratered jeep trail in the í78 pickup weíve affectionately named Skyota. I watch them cross Jackson Creek and begin the steep climb up the ridge, engine noise carrying like the grief of some Pleistocene giant. A sparse cover of oak and manzanita is not enough to screen their progress and I can see Skyota lurching as she crests a saddle. A pause, just enough to spin the wheel hard right, then she noses over and disappears. Miles overhead two parallel streamers unspool behind an eastbound jet, the only marks on a sky bracketed by cliffs of pink andesite and volcanic tuff.

I limp back along the road to the cabin which sits at the base of a hill surrounded by primrose buds. I push open the door, rusted knob ratcheting uselessly in my hand, and emerge moments later with an old spindle-backed chair. In the hour before dusk cold air begins to slough off the peaks, coiling around my legs and prying open the primroses to reveal whorls of yellow petals and stamens like tiny swabs. The process seems counterintuitive---flowers opening at night---but within a few minutes the yard is jeweled with dozens of three-inch blossoms, each awaiting the arrival of the sphinx moth. Itís been a good season.

In the past three days my friends and I have hiked through some of the most severe country imaginable, carving a route through Redfield Canyon and traversing the foothills on an old jeep road before heading over the West Ridge. Weíve soaked our bones in a warm spring and recorded no less than 52 species of wildflowers, including three species of primrose. Weíve seen a male bighorn (a first for most of us), gone swimming under an icy waterfall, and slept in a stone house set deep in the hollow of a cliff. But somewhere along the way a tendon parted in my right ankle.

I knew it was about to go, have even scheduled surgery for the following month, but still I intend to spend the next three days in the mountains by myself. The ankle is swollen, the pain a dull presence under 800 milligrams of ibuprofen. Seated in the yard I find myself wishing for beer, then abruptly forget my thirst as a trio of sphinx moths flits into view.

Sphinx moths are large, about three inches in length, and often mistaken for hummingbirds because of their ability to hover. With their straw-like tongues they are the only creatures able to siphon the nectar from a primrose and because they cool themselves by transpiratio---a curiosity among insects---they need all the liquid they can find. They zip around my legs, following some mysterious pattern or perhaps no pattern at all, never spending more than a second at each blossom. To a sphinx moth this must look like a landscape studded with giant pina coladas. Twilight comes and still they chase each other from flower to flower, their frantic search mirrored by the zigzag paths of bats swooping low over the valley. Itís a sublime performance, yet in the long history of the Galiuro Mountains there have also been episodes of startling violence and human struggle.

About 25 million years ago a series eruptions fractured the ground where I sit, sending rivers of magma across the landscape and throwing up tall cauliflowers of ash. Rather than creating lofty cindercones, these eruptions laid down sheets of andesite and rhyolite, the ash settling and curing under its own weight to become a cap of welded tuff. Millions of years later a process called block faulting would cause these layers to rise and tilt, building a pair of high ridges in the same way many other mountains in the basin and range province were born. Thus the Galiuros took shape, subsequent years of erosion carving two deep canyons between the ridges---Redfield draining to the south and Rattlesnake to the north---so that today the range appears as a narrow, elongated ìHî. Early Spanish maps labeled this the Sierra de San Calistro. The name probably refers to Saint Callistus, a third century pope who gained favor within the church for purchasing and expanding a Christian cemetery on the Via Appia. With the arrival of Anglo settlers the name ìCalistroî slowly metamorphosed into Galiuro (pronounced gal-oor-o), yet centuries would pass before anyone took up residence among the jagged peaks.

One of the first Anglos to pass through and record his observations was James Ohio Patty, a 19th century fur trapper who wrangled permission from the Mexican Governor in Santa Fe to trap beaver just west of the mountains. Patty is credited with killing the first grizzly in Arizona as well as a great many other animals, but by the spring of 1824 he and his men were starving. Frequent Apache raids had convinced them to gather the lightest of their possessions and make a break for it, heading directly over the Galiuros. Wrote Patty in his journal:

"On the morning of the first of April, we commenced descending the mountain, from the side of which we could discern a plain before us, which, however, it required two severe days to reachÖ We had nothing to eat or drink. In descending from these icy mountains, we were surprised to find how warm it was on the plains. On reaching them I killed an antelope, of which we drank the warm blood; and however revolting the recital may be, to us it was refreshing, tasting like warm milk."

With reports like this coming back itís no wonder Americans steered clear of the Galiuro country. For decades afterward the mountains were ignored, left to the bears, ringtails, Apaches, and antelope.

The next morning a cold wind blows through the cabin. I rise, dress, and make coffee. Stepping into the yard I find the primrose flowers wilted by frost, the valley lidded with clouds. By 11:00 it is snowing. I put on all the clothes I have and start a fire in the fireplace. Two miners built this shelter in the early 1900ís while working a nearby claim and as I warm my hands it occurs to me their dreams of gold were probably inspired by William Blake, a Territorial Geologist who attempted to develop a lode along the very same fault line. Not one to be encumbered by facts, Blake took to promoting his mine and in 1902 he declared: ìIt is not our purpose to exaggerate or misquote the facts, and we say without fear of contradiction that this is the largest ledge of gold ore in Arizona, if not in the U.S.î In fact it was one of the smallest and Blakeís company went bankrupt, but the only thing harder to wrest from the land than gold is the rumor of gold. No one would do more to prove the truth of this statement than the Power family.

The Powers arrived in the Galiuros in 1909 after ricocheting around the west for nearly ten years. In Rattlesnake canyon they found a place that would hold them longer than any other, a green and sinuous corridor leading away from civilization and deep into history. For a while they ran cattle but in 1917 Jeff, the father, acquired an abandoned mine in the heart of the range. His wife and mother had both died and his eldest son had moved to New Mexico leaving him to tend his herd with the help of a daughter, Ola May, and two younger sons, John and Tom. Before long Ola May would also pass away, her death unexplained even after a coronerís inquest. Jeff may have read Blakeís shining report and he had certainly heard the legends of vast mineral wealth hidden under the mountains. Striking it rich must have seemed the only way to redeem a life of misfortune and poverty.

The men labored to build a wagon road through 25 miles of rugged country, then purchased an old stamp mill and brought it to the mine piece by piece. Headstrong and suspicious, the old man kept his sons from registering for the draft so that they could begin work in the main tunnel. In the midst of WWI this was considered a serious crime. On the morning of February 10, 1918, the local Sheriff and three other men surprised the Power men at their shack and a gunfight broke out. When it was over Jeff Power had been mortally wounded and the Sheriff and two others lay dead.

Tom and John dragged their father into the mine and attempted to make his last moments as comfortable as possible, then lit out for the Mexican border. After three months on the run Tom and John Power were captured by the army just south of the Mexican border, about 60 miles from the Galiuros. After a brief trial they were both convicted of first-degree murder and remanded to the federal prison in Florence, Arizona where they lived for 42 years.

I shiver all night in the cabin and awake the next day determined to move camp. I load the truck and head out of the valley, morning sun blazing on the snow-covered East Ridge. Once over the saddle I can see the south end of the range, a jumble of hills and draws arranged perpendicular to the road so that the muddy ribbon is soon lost in endless folds of green. Blooming yuccas stand like candles on the slopes but give way to uniform groves of pinyon and juniper where the land rises above 6,000 feet. I drive slowly. Over my left shoulder I can see Bassett Peak and for some reason I think of the B-24 bomber that lies crumpled on its flanks.

Cottonwood leaves flutter in the drainage where I leave my vehicle. I have a map but I donít really know where Iím going, only that the stream leads west into a narrow defile and that there is no trail. I find half of a geode, coppery green and lined with quartz crystals, and spook a pair of mule deer who go bounding up a slope covered with shin daggers. How any mammal can run through a field of these plants without skewering itself is beyond me. River cobbles give way to shelves and channels of water-worn stone, making for easier passage. My ankle throbs. Iíve gone a mile, maybe two, when I come to a confluence. With no schedule and no clear destination in mind I turn left and am soon forced to detour around a pool by clambering over a cliff. The rock here fractures into large plates and I kick one free, hearing it break like china in the canyon below. I stand and squint at the route before me, amazed to see the creek issuing from a what appears to be a wall of solid tuff in the middle distance. I descend once again and continue walking.

Soon I come to a five-foot sill and I lever myself over, discovering at once my mistake. The creek does not issue from the wall ahead, rather it pours over the wall at the back of a perfect, U-shaped grotto. A trick of the stone renders the little amphitheater invisible from anywhere downstream, yet now I can see bunches of scarlet penstemmon growing nearby and hear the seductive patter of the waterfall. I sit by the shallow pool at its base, remove my boot and plunge my foot into the cool water. The pain in my ankle fades and the sun hovers just beyond the opening of the grotto, pouring an ingot of warm light into the shadowy bowl. I feel lucky. In a mountain range named after a saint who purchased a cemetery, not all have been able to find such peace.

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