Gila National Forest

Gila National Forest
Jon Ruffolo

"Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language." - Aldo Leopold

The Stars and the Storm

There's a very desolate stretch of land in western New Mexico. There are very few roads, there are no towns, no lights -- if you were to look at it from outer space all you would see is a massive dark plane of trees and grass rolling over hills and descending into deep canyons.

The winding roads between the Arizona - New Mexico border.

We'd been on the road for nearly two weeks at this point, having driven from Chicago to Carson National Forest to the Grand Canyon to Los Angeles to Coronado National Forest and then finally to Gila National Forest, our final destination. We arrived at the southern edge of the forest on Route 15 at around 5pm MT on January 10th, 2018. It was dark by then, and it took another hour to drive a mere ten miles through the forest's very dark and winding roads.

We were headed for the Jordan Hot Springs via Little Bear Canyon trail (as it's called on All Trails). It's a decent 13.3 mile there and back that we figured would take us about four hours to get to the hot springs. After finding a spot to pitch the tent about a quarter mile from the trailhead, we started setting up.

A forty minute exposure of the sky from our campsite.

That night was a blast. The temperature was a brisk thirty degrees fahrenheit and there wasn't a cloud in the sky. The stars were incredible. I'd seen a sky full of stars a few times in the upper peninsula of Michigan and northern New Mexico but nothing like this.

Stars.

We got a fire going and started to cook the food we had. Tortillas, refried beans, and vegetable soup for dinner, and yams for desert.

Nick and Arthur enjoying a meal by the fire.

After what started out as a calm night, it quickly turned vicious later on. I woke up suddenly and the roof of the tent was right in front of my face. The wind was so powerful I thought for sure the tent was going to collapse (keep in mind, we'd been using a $50 tent from Walmart with holes in it over the course of the trip). I tried to go back to sleep but the wind was so loud I couldn't block it out. And then it started pouring rain. Little beads of water were making their way into the tent. I thanked myself for covering my backpack with my rain cover outside.

The Aftermath

A landscape out of a fairytale.

Waking up the next morning was interesting. We hadn't gotten a good look at where we were yet so it was like waking up and getting a surprise view. But while the scenery certainly was beautiful, Arthur and Nick didn't cover their bags with rain protection and everything got wet. Worse yet, the sky was still thick with clouds that looked ready to continue raining at any moment. The ground was also obviously muddy and we weren't sure if we should set out on the hike.

Nick looking a bit defeated after the storm.

But then while we were eating breakfast, the sun started to peak out and warm the air and ground. We unpacked everything and lay it all out on the ground in an attempt to dry it.

At noon a few hours later we decided to set out on our way.

Nick walking ahead.

It instantly became one of my favorite trails. We were walking through fields of grass with giant, rolling hills everywhere in sight. And it was perfect weather, maybe 45F with a slight breeze. I could not have asked for a better start.

The entrance to the canyon.

We reached the peak of the hill and looked out at the canyon we were about to enter. I was excited -- I'd never hiked through a canyon before. Little did I know the challenges ahead...

Little Bear Canyon

The canyon was indeed incredible. Little Bear Canyon it was called, and being in the middle of it is one of the most humbling things I've ever experienced.

It was hard to capture the scale of the walls with my 25mm lens. If you look closely, you can see Nick in the bottom right hand side.

I felt small. Insignificant. Massive walls of rock surrounded me in every direction. My claustrophobia started to kick in. Despite how wide open the canyon was, I felt trapped, secluded, hidden.

I often feel a sense of strange yet comforting loneliness when I'm out in the wilderness. It's a different sense of loneliness -- you don't feel alone or lonely but rather in solitude. It's as if you exist alone amongst the trees and the sky. It's just you and nature. The wind cools your face and wraps around your body, howling in your ears. And you stand there and listen. Listening to how much silence there is until you hear ringing in your ears. You're a tiny little dot on a massive map with nothing for miles.

The sun barely peeking out over the top of the canyon walls.

The Water

We continued on through the canyon. But then we came to the river. It was a small river, maybe twenty feet wide and two feet deep, but it was cold. There were also fast moving rapids with a riverbed of sharp, slippery rocks. We looked, but found nothing to cross over; no logs, no bridges, no rocks to jump -- just cold, dark rushing water. The sun was setting quickly and there were two simple options: stop and go back or walk through the water.

Arthur crossing the icy water.

We decided to take our shoes off. I'm not sure what we were thinking, or who thought it would be a good idea, but the freezing water on my bare skin is one of the most intense feelings of pain I've ever felt. What made it worse were the sharp rocks beneath the water. I wanted to move quickly through the water but couldn't because I didn't want to cut my feet open or fall into the water due to the force of the rapids.

The strangest part was the pain didn't come immediately. I took a few steps in and at first thought, "Oh, this isn't too bad." But then my pain receptors registered the coldness. It was brutal and sharp, as if someone were sticking buring hot, razor sharp needles into my skin. It was so cold it burned. I audibly groaned and felt my entire body tense and lock up. I needed to move but seemingly couldn't -- it hurt too much. I started moving my feet, wanting to move quickly but was afraid of the sharp rocks cutting my feet and the fast current pushing against me. With each step I took the pain became more and more unbearable.

Finally I reached the edge. I shakily stepped out onto the cold, dry dirt, bending over and resting my hands on my knees, breathing a sigh of relief. My feet stung. They were a white, pale color. Every nerve below my knees was pleading for warmth. I felt my body temperature fall as a shiver went through my spine. My hands were shaking as I bent down to put my socks and boots back on.

Arthur gazing up at the light hitting the walls.

And on we went. Until we came to the river again. And so reluctantly we crossed. And on we went. Until we came to the river again, and again, and again... The river was snaking through the canyon floor, flooded from the rain.

At this point it was almost dark out. The sun had disappeared behind the skyscraper sized canyon walls and all that remained was the glow of the pink sky. With every river crossing I got colder and more tired. I ripped my jeans and backpack while scaling the canyon wall attempting to avoid the water. I broke my walking stick. My camera smashed into the canyon wall but thankfully was okay. I needed rest but had to keep going before it got dark.

On and off the shoes went. You may be wondering, "Why didn't you just keep your shoes on?" Great question. At the time, we kept thinking it was "just one more crossing. Just one more time through the river and we'll have made it. No point in getting the boots wet after all this." Plus, the idea of the hot springs sounded really, really great. All we could imagine was finally getting there with our aching, cold feet and dipping them into the warm water.

Almost there...

The Hot Springs

And then finally we made it. Fifteen river crossings later and there were the glorious hot springs steaming with heat. There wasn't much room to set up camp but we made due at the edge of a small ledge on the side of the canyon. My feet were numb and bleeding. I hadn't realized how much it hurt to walk until I sat down on a rock. My pants were wet and I was shivering -- not the best conditions to be in after the sun's already set and the temperature is dropping rapidly.

I think Nick is part caveman. The cold doesn't bother him. The skin on his feet is so thick he usually walks without shoes anyway. He was the least affected by the water so he went out to find wood to build a fire so we could warm our feet and cook some food.

That night it rained again, but thankfully I didn't even hear it through my deep sleep.

In the morning it was time to go in the hot springs. Nick and Arthur got in quickly but when I woke up I found my socks stained with blood. My feet had been bleeding on and off all night. I remembered that there are lots of parasites and bacteria that live in hot natural spring water so I wasn't sure if it was a good idea to expose open cuts to it. Instead, I just put my hands in to feel the warmth.

Nick and Arthur enjoying sliced pineapples in the hot springs.

The Hike Back

We decided to keep our boots on this time. I wasn't very concerned with getting them wet now that I knew I wasn't going to be using them after this hike. This made the journey back so much easier and faster. While it took us six hours to get there, it only took a little over four hours to get back despite how tired we were.

From left to right - Arthur, Nick, and me

As we were walking back and nearing the end of the trail, talking about memories from high school and summers past, the setting sun cast this beautiful yellow light over the long grass rolling over the hills. I remember taking shot after shot with my camera, determined to get one last picture for this nearly 5,000 mile long journey we had set out on. And then suddenly I got it -- the perfect final image. I looked at my camera and smiled, shutting it off and bending over to put it away in my bag. I stood up and straightened my back, grabbing the straps of my backpack and closing my eyes, breathing in the cool New Mexico breeze before setting off after my friends. It was time to go home.

Goodbye New Mexico, see you soon.