There we were, deep in the meanest, roughest country in the southwest, and an 83-year-old fanatic was our leader…
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This will be our routine, I’m sorry to report. Very early every morning, at an hour when the
This is the first morning of our adventure in the Gila Wilderness, half a million acres of rugged mountains, steep canyons, and nearly inaccessible meadowlands straddling the continental divide in southwest
The members of our party who chose not to risk the box will travel by horseback over the Mogollon (“Muggy-own”) Mountains, leading a caravan of pack mules that will haul most of our equipment and be used for day trips and for the return to civilization five days from now. In all, about fifteen of us are sharing this adventure. With the exception of me, my wife, Phyllis, photographer Wyatt McSpadden, and his thirteen-year-old son Trevor, everyone in the group is a relative or close from of the old man’s. They live either in
Our starting point is Rick Cheney’s
An adventure in the Gila Wilderness is not to be confused with, say, a trip to Yellowstone or
The Cougar is as lean and spare as a buggy whip, a condition he attributes to the fact that he has never smoked or had a drink of alcohol in his life. He’s never even tasted coffee or Coca-Cola. He was the captain and star of the
The Cougar hits the trail up the Sapillo wearing khaki pants, a long-sleeved dress shirt, and a pair of rubber-soled shoes that probably came from Payless. Everyone else spent hundreds of dollars in recent days at Oshman’s and REI, purchasing the finest boots, backpacks, and outdoor gear available, but the old man is dressed for puttering in his garden. He carries his lunch – a can of C rations that he picked up for a few pennies at some surplus sale – in his pants pocket. A canteen of water that nobody ever sees him drink is slung across his bony shoulder. He can hike for hours without resting or even looking back to see if anyone is following. In this same box canyon two years ago, the Cougar’s group was attacked by a wild bull, which so unnerved one woman that when they finally pitched camp hours later, she went to her tent and cried hysterically. “We were in serious danger of getting gored or even killed by that damn bull,” recalls the woman’s husband. “But old man Cox just watched it all and laughed.” The Cougar has been known to strip naked and scamper like a goat up the side of a cliff, just to shock his companions. Those who have made trips with him in the winter say that his idea of a high old time is breaking the ice in a frozen lake or pond and diving in for a morning bath, then rubbing himself dry with moss, which he claims gives him the proper smell of bush. On this trip he carries a small tent and blanket, but he prefers to sleep in caves, using a plastic garbage bag he fills with leaves as his only bedding. His habit of “denning up” in caves or hollow logs is the reason this group calls him the Cougar. As we start into the canyon, the Cougar set the pace, his gait stiff and jerky but his resolve that of a man possessed. I quickly lose sight of him, but I can hear him far down the trail, cackling: “We take no gripe, we take no bitch/Or we’ll pack you out with a diamond hitch./And if we do, you ain’t coming back/’Cause we’ll meet you at the road with a rubber-tired hack!”
By the time the sun finishes crawling above the mountains, we have walked for several hours, crossing Sapillo Creek a dozen times as it winds downstream from canyon wall to canyon wall. The canyon is still a hundred yards wide, and in places the cottonwoods, pinons, and junipers grow so thick that the trail disappears, at which point it becomes necessary to wade along the creekbed. The water is ankle-deep, cold but refreshing in the summer heat. “Sapillo” is Spanish for “little toad,” and hundreds of thumbnail-size toads skitter about on the slick green rocks. On the cliffs high above, violet-and-green swallows practice their takeoffs and landings. The air smells sweet and spicy.
Deeper into the canyon, giant ponderosa pines and Douglas firs crowd out the smaller lowland vegetation and in places blot out the sky. The air is cool and moist. The silence overwhelms; the only sounds are heavy breathing and the scuff of boots, in harmony with the rattling of the breeze in the boughs. The terrain is becoming much rougher. The floor of the canyon is strewn with rocks – rocks the size of baseballs, grapefruits, watermelons, armchairs. You can’t move your foot without stepping on a rock. Tangles of brush, stumps, and fallen logs in all stages of decay block the trail and must be negotiated at some cost of time and energy. The Cougar has slowed the pace a little so those of us at the rear can catch up. He walks like an old turkey gobbler, waddling and leaning slightly forward. Sometimes he stumbles and falls, as do we all. One of my knees is already bloody, and the heel of my right hand has been skinned raw. The canyon starts to narrow and eventually the trail disappears entirely. We follow one side of the creek until it meets the canyon wall, then cross over and follow the other side back and for the more times than I can count. In some places the only way to move forward is to wade the creek. The water here is waist-deep, and we step carefully among the slippery rocks, probing with our walking sticks for unseen holes in the creekbed.
After five hours we stop to rest. I glance at Phyllis and see that she is losing her normally sunny disposition. Me too. Soaked to the waist, I sit down on the trunk of a fallen ponderosa and pour gravel from my hiking shoes. It occurs to me that I’ve been so busy watching my step that I’ve neglected to enjoy the scenery, which is magnificent. Behind me is a tree stump that must be four feet in diameter. I try to calculate its annual rings but lose count. This old fellow was already an impressive size in the 1830’s when the Apache leader Geronimo was a boy growing up along the Middle Fork of the
By midafternoon we can no longer see the sun or feel the warm rays of summer. We are seriously into the box: No turning back now. The exquisitely carved walls of the canyon – mostly slate gray, except for patches of moss and fern – bend and twist and loom above us like the corridors of a city of permanent shadows. As the walls close in, we can almost reach out and touch both sides. A sycamore tree grows sideways out of sheer rock two hundred feet above our heads, and above that a cave as large as a living room yawns like a hungry black mouth. The only sound is our feet on the rocks and the gurgling of the creek as it eat away at the barrancas. In places, the stream riffles into rapids, then quietens into shimmering pools. The scale is spectacular. Boulders as large as boxcars rise out of the streambed, sometimes one on top of another, sometimes piles of them, deposited like enormous cannonballs millions of years ago by the eruptions of volcanoes a hundred miles away. Our progress is made mostly hand over foot, up one pile of boulders, down another, back into the water, slipping, sliding on our tails down chutes of rock, trying to brake ourselves, looking for places to plant a foot or lock a hand.
The water is getting deeper, more treacherous. In the narrowest passages, the creek is twelve to fifteen feet deep. Our choices are to climb the cliff and detour around the deep water – or swim. Most of elect to swim, even though we are not certain how far we’ll have to go before we can touch bottom. But even with our heavy boots and packs, swimming seems safer than scaling a cliff and inching along a ledge so narrow that you’re not sure it’s even there. The Cougar seems spooked by the deep water. He has never seen it this deep, he tells us, blaming the new dam upstream at
At a particularly difficult spot, where the creek cascades over an enormous sheet of rock – a sudden drop of about twelve feet – most of us decide that it is wiser this time to take our chance on the cliff, fifty feet above the creekbed. We creep along a narrow ledge less than a foot wide, pressing our bodies against the rock, feeling along the wall for pockets to hold on to. Fortunately, Kim Cox is an accomplished mountaineer, and he leads the way, helping us across the most hazardous stretches by extending his walking stick for us to use as a handrail. When we are past the waterfall, we work our way back down to the safety of the canyon floor – all except the Cougar. For some reason, he elects to continue along the cliff face, though the narrow ledge is about to peter out. “You can’t make it,” Kim calls out to his father. The old man pays no attention. He reaches blindly along the wall, his fingers searching for a handhold. As he tries to shift weight from one to another, loose gravel spills down the cliff and he seems about to lose his balance. For an instant I think that the Cougar might plunge to his death, and in a rush of professional curiosity, I wonder if the photographer has him in focus. But the old man manages to regain his footing. After more urging from those of us below, he listens to reason and comes down – refusing the hands that are offered to support his descent.
The final half mile of the box is the most difficult. Progress is measured in feet and yards. To negotiate one stretch, we are forced to rig a rope over an outcropping of rock and hoist our packs and cameras overhead before swimming a span of about fifty yards. Beyond this pool, the canyon bends sharply and the terrain appears less hostile. One wall recedes into a shallow cave, partially concealed by a waterfall. The water flows from a spring somewhere within the canyon wall and is cold and pure. Standing waist-deep in water, we hold our nearly dry canteens under the flow, gradually realizing that the water here is much colder than the water we’ve grown accustomed to. Shivering in the deep shadows, teeth chattering and skin turning blue, we push on toward a patch of sunlight. Soon the canyon begins to widen, opening into a small valley of boulders and trees. After eight hours of extremely hard traveling, we’ve made it to the end of the canyon.
Zigzagging through a forest of pine, we come eventually to a large open meadow at the confluence of Sapillo Creek and the
Exhausted and battered, we fall onto a grassy slope, tired beyond words. Both of Phyllis’ knees are bruised and swollen, and there are tears in her eyes. In another hour the sun will start sinking below the mountains. Our campsite is still three miles upriver, but the Cougar takes no notice of the time or our pathetic condition. Seeing this place again has rejuvenated him. He dances about , looking for relics of the past, excited as a schoolboy showing off a secret place. A horseshoe driven into the trunk of a giant cypress catches his eye: The cabin where he found Ben Lilly’s bank records was over by that tree, he says. Later he had located one of Lilly’s caves. “It’s upriver a ways,” he said, and for a moment I’m afraid he’s going to insist that we go there right now. Instead, he says, “Let’s climb up there,” pointing his stick at the caves a hundred feet up the side of the cliff. “There’s some Indian ruins I want to show you.”
Long after dark we make camp, eat a cold supper, and crawl into our sleeping bags. The night is crisp and clear. For a few seconds I lie on my back, looking at the three-quarter moon through a window in our tent, listening to the chirping of crickets and the babbling of the river, feeling the weight of the day in my aching joints and bones. Then I fall into a dead, dreamless sleep. The next thing I know, the Cougar is stomping through camp, beating on a cup, and singing out, “I’ll tell you now if you can’t keep pace, /Get some water and wash your face!” Must be the start of another glorious morning.
The Cougar has brought along a packet of photographs and memorabilia, as well as copies of four books that he has written about his service in World War II and his hunting and exploring adventures. Over the next four days I read through the material, enlightening myself about Alex Cox and his generation. I know something about his generation already. It was my parents’ generation too, a time of sacrifice and hardship, when the frontier was still a living reality and nature was sometimes regarded as the primary enemy of man. I am not surprised to learn, therefore, that Cox is a hunting enthusiast, that hunting in his view is more than just a sport; it’s a religion. Born in 1910, Alex grew up listening to tales of how his great-grandfather and family came by wagon from
Already in his thirties when World War II broke out, he was commissioned into the Army as a second lieutenant and sent to the China-Burma-India theater, where he trained a Chinese tank battalion and led it across the
After the war, Cox tells me, he returned to
His writings exhibit an eye for detail, a sense of humor, and a sensitivity to the human condition. Only one of his books has actually been published, Deer Hunting in
Dobie observed that Ben Lilly went out of his way to make himself conspicuous, blatantly fueling his own legend. Similarly, these yearly trips to the Gila Wilderness are designed to celebrate the legend of the Cougar. He lays down the rules and exercises the discipline. As an initiation ritual, he sometimes requires rookie campers to gather rocks from the river and scrub them clean. At night the entire group gathers around the campfire and listens to the old man read from a well-thumbed book of poetry by Robert W. Service, the Shakespeare of the
The cougar’s innate curiosity and zest for competition have been passed along to his son Kim and his two granddaughters, and while these traits have not diminished with each generation, they have changed direction. Kim Cox is a life master bridge player as well as a mountaineer, and although he hunted as a young man, he confesses that he would rather shoot game with a camera than a rifle. A lawyer by profession, Kim is also an vocational anthropologist and archaeologist. In the seventies he photographed the Indian pictographs of the Gila Wilderness and turned over his work to the National Parks service. Both of Kim’s daughters are trained in wilderness survival, though neither has much interest in hunting. Whitney is named for Mount Whitney in the
“The Cougar likes to test people,” says Parnell McNamara, a regular member of this group. “He thinks that because he can do something, everyone else should be able to do it too.” Parnell and his brother, Mike McNamara (if the names sound familiar, it is because they are the U.S. marshals from Waco who led the search for killer Kenneth McDuff last year), have been following the Cougar into places like this for years and have the scars to prove it. The first time that Parnell ventured up the Sapillo, the temperature was 25 degrees. Before they reached the box, McNamara slipped on the ice and ripped his knee open to the bone. “I didn’t think I could make it,” he recalls, “But the Cougar showed no mercy. He told me, ‘You have two choices. You can walk out with me, or you can stay here and die.’”
For some, the highlight of this trip comes on the third day, when party or parties unknown – Parnell McNamara’s daughter Mandy is a prime suspect – plants a talking alarm clock behind the Cougar’s tent. Half and hour before the old man would normally awaken, a recorded voice of impressive volume begins bellowing: “Wake up! Rise and shine!” followed by an extended bugle call. For a full hour, as the message repeats itself, the Cougar stumbles about the woods, frustration mounting as he is unable to determine the source of the ungodly racket. Once the recording has run its course, the old man makes his usual tour of camp, somewhat subdued but nevertheless determined to get in the final word: “Hear ye! Hear ye! Lord, I wonder/Who would try to steal my thunder.” It’s good to see that the Cougar can take it as well as dish it out.
The Cougar conducts daily wilderness expeditions, during which nothing is too trivial to escape his notice. See those scratches on the trunk of that aspen? A black bear stopped within the last three days to sharpen its claws and mark its territory. A hungry elk has nibbled bark and rubbed velvet from its antlers on that spruce. The Cougar sniffs the air tentatively and informs us that there are no deer or elk nearby at the moment. His eyes are usually trained on the ground; he is so absorbed with the floor of the forest that he occasionally bumps into limbs. From time to time he stops to inspect an animal track or examine a rock, which, if it looks interesting, he drops in his pocket. A jawbone discovered under a bed of pine needles is from a deer that died before the age of two, he explains. Exploring a pine forest, he introduces us to the mysteries of the pine knot, a club-shaped chunk of wood that is found near the decaying trunks of fallen trees. The knots are the oil-filled joints where the limbs connect to the tree; long after the tree has died and rotted away, the knots remain. Indians used them in a variety of ways, including as medicine. The Cougar raps a pine knot against a rock to knock off the top, exposing its interior, then shaves off a sliver of oily pulp and lights it. It burns fiercely, filling our immediate vicinity with pine scented perfume. “You can start a fire in any kind of weather with one of these things,” he tells us.
On a horseback trip to Ben Lilly’s cave, I realized that my feelings for the old man have undergone a metamorphosis. IN the four days since we started out, I’ve gone from a palpable loathing to a drudging admiration. He grows on you. He’s like the wilderness – unpredictable and unapologetic, one of a kind. In his way, this old man has taught us a lesson about rocky trails and wild places, and about our own capacities to survive and endure.
We’ve been talking about the trip to Lilly’s cave all week, but none of us had the slightest idea if it’s an hour’s ride from camp or if we’ll be gone all day. It’s not far, the Cougar says, which means bring a lunch. We follow the river downstream, past the confluence of the Sapillo and the Indian caves, turning southwest at the U-shaped bend where we rested the day we came out of the box canyon. I am constantly amazed at the rich and complex diversity of the wilderness ecosystem, how it harmonizes and makes peace with its own violent geophysical history. Ancient riverbeds of rock and brush fan out toward the mountains, whose hardscrabble southern slopes are tangled with pinon and juniper and contrast starkly with the moist northern slopes that are dense with ponderosa pine and fir. Giant cottonwoods and willows arch along the high-pitched banks of the Gila, amid patches of fern and wild mint. We ride across grassy valleys where wild cattle graze, through oak woodlands. Wild turkeys eye us with suspicion and then scamper into the trees. A solitary hawk watches from the charred steeple of a pine zapped by lightning. At higher elevations we pass by groves or curiously deformed aspen, their trunks twisted from the compressive effect of high-country snowdrifts that overlap the growing season.
After about two hours, a rider appears over the mountains to the east, eventually crossing the river to join us. The rider turns out to be Sue Kozacek, the ranger in charge of the wilderness district. She has heard of Alex Cox and wants to meet him. She, too, has wondered about the location of Ben Lilly’s cave and asks permission to ride along. The Cougar mumbles his consent, then without another word turns his mule up a steep hill and continues his relentless quest. Having no choice, we follow. I’m seriously wondering if he knows where he’s going. I’ve lost all sense of direction. There is no sign of a trail, no landmark except the river, which we see only occasionally. We climb long slopes, level out along narrow ridges so thickly forested that you can’t see the rider in front of you, then descend again down perilous slopes to the river, which, for no discernible purpose, we cross from time to time.
At one point we start up a canyon, then the old man changes his mind and turns back toward the river. They canyons in this part of the wilderness are some of the wildest and least accessible, heavily forested and teeming with bear. Many of the caves contain Indian ruins that only the Cougar and those under his command have explored. “If you dug into the floor,” Kim Cox tells us, “I’m sure you would find bodies and a lot of pottery.” At one site we find shards of the distinctive black-on-white pottery crafted by the Mimbres people, scattered among flakes of shiny black obsidian used to make arrowheads. Mimbres pottery is considered the most beautiful and vital (and expensive) Indian pottery in the Southwest, depicting not only geometric forms but fish, humans, insects, and composite creatures. “They were the only North American Indians that I know of who depicted figures in motion,” Kim says. “The difference between these people and other Indians of the Southwest is similar to the difference between the Romans, who painted figures in motion, and the Greeks, whose drawings were stiff and rigid.”
We cross the river again and stop below a limestone cliff to inspect what Kim calls the
We dismount in a grove of willows, tired and hungry, assuming that we’ll look for Lilly’s cave after lunch. But the Cougar didn’t com all this way to eat. “C’mon,” he says, thrashing his way into a thicket of underbrush. “It’s up here.” He no sooner gets the words out of his mouth than he loses his balance and falls backward. Ranger Kozacek’s instinct is to help him to his feet, but she thinks better of it, and the old man is allowed to regain his footing while we pretend we didn’t notice what happened. Part of the group ahs lunch as Kozacek and a few of us follow the Cougar, climbing over rocks and fallen logs, wading through high grass. The cliff where the cave is located is straight ahead, but first we have to cross a ravine about fifteen feet deep. While we are looking for a new way across or around, the Cougar studies the situation, remembering something from long ago. “There it is!” he yells, indicating the trunk of a long-dead tree that has topped across the ravine. “That’s where we used to cross!” The rest of us have already found an easy path to the other side and are waiting for him there, but the Cougar is dead set on tightroping his way across the log bridge, just like he did forty years ago. The log is obviously unstable and probably rotten, and we call out for him to take the long way around. But he ignores our pleadings. Arms out for balance, he starts across. Again, I’m sure we are about to witness a tragedy, but he makes it safely to the other side, then begins climbing on all fours up to the cave.
Ben Lilly’s famous cave is nothing more than an overhang. There’s not even room to stand up. Two poles once used to dry hides are wedged between the floor and ceiling, and some brittle deer hides lay against the back wall. The only other signs that someone lived here are the remains of a bed, a few rusted tin cans, and a hearth of blackened rocks. Ecstatic to have found this place again, the Cougar strikes a pose for the camera.
When we have returned to where we tied the horses – the Cougar again by way of the rotten log – the old man acknowledges that, yes, he does feel the need for some nourishment. He removes from his pants pocket an olive-drab once-ounce tin of Army-issue peanut butter and a slightly larger tin or crackers, both of which were probably packed about 1938. To no one’s surprise (except the Cougar’s), the peanut butter is rancid. I ask him if he would like some of my trail mix, and he gives me a blank look and says, “What’s trail mix?” Maybe he’s putting me on, but I don’t think so. I offer him the bag of raisins and nuts, and he takes a small handful and eats them without comment. That’s all he wants. Time to start back.
Reading from his book of Robert W. Service poetry our last night, the Cougar has a catch in his voice. “The kid that handles the music box was hitting a ragtime tune,” he reads aloud, stumbling over the words. The light from the campfire flickers in his glasses and his eyes look moist. Maybe it’s the smoke. Someone has tossed a pine knot into the fire and the woods are filled with its sweet fragrance. The sky is a tapestry of light, cooled and swept clean by an afternoon rain shower and illuminated by a full moon. At the edge of the clearing, a fox pokes his nose from behind a tree, gives us the eye, the trots off into the shadows.
It’s raining the next afternoon as the Cougar packs his saddlebag and mounts his mule. The ride out is perilous but much quicker and far less difficult than our hike through the box canyon five days earlier. We climb steadily for nearly an hour, the heroic little mules and horses slipping and sliding on bare rock, heaving under the weight of their riders and the strain of the steep grade, stopping to catch their breath every few seconds before lunging up another short stretch. The final fifty yards to the top of
As the others mount up and start down the opposite side, the Cougar pauses for a moment, wiping the rain from his glasses and allowing his eyes to roam across the hazy blue-gray top of the wilderness, wild and untamed and timeless as the earth itself. “Every year when I reach the top of this canyon,” he says to no one in particular, “I always wonder if I’m packing out for the last time.” Then he turns his mule toward home and doesn’t look back again.