Gila Hell

There we were, deep in the meanest, roughest country in the southwest, and an 83-year-old fanatic was our leader…

This will be our routine, I’m sorry to report. Very early every morning, at an hour when the
Mogollon Mountains are still velvety silhouettes against the star-smeared sky and the predawn tranquility of the Gila Wilderness has swallowed us into the deepest valley of our dreams, we will be jarred awake by the abrasive voice of the Cougar, reciting one of his incessant rhymes. “Grab your britches and get ready to go./We’re packin’ into the Sapillo,” he sings out, beating a spoon against a tin cup as he stalks through camp, calling his followers to action. Those who drift back to sleep risk the shock of a bucket of cold river poured into their sleeping bags. The Cougar hates malingerers and slugabeds.

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
New Mexico
. The Cougar, whose real name is Alex Cox, is 83 years old and far too stubborn to act his age. Even in a place as isolated as the Gila Wilderness, he is a menace to society. Nevertheless, part of our group will follow him down Sapillo Creek this morning, through a dangerously narrow box canyon that is sometimes inhabited by bear, stray cattle, and cougar – the relatively harmless four-legged kind. Though the U.S. Forest Service considers the box canyon impassable even in the relatively dry month of June, the Cougar has been hiking it for 45 years. The trip has become a ritual, the central theme of a personal myth that he has created and enjoys perpetuating. The few of us who are fool enough to follow him become accessories to that myth. The Cougar claims this is his final hike through the box canyon, his swan song, but then he said the same thing a year ago. We’ll see.

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 Corpus Christi, where he lives, or in Houston, Dallas, or
Waco
. Most have done this trip before. The Cougar’s son Kim Cox, a
Corpus Christi
attorney, made his first trip up the box canyon 34 years ago, when he was just 6. Now Kim’s wife, Susan, and his two daughters, Whitney, 12, and Mallory, 9, are enduring the same adventure, apparently with anticipation.

Our starting point is Rick Cheney’s
Lake Roberts Motel and Outfitters, a hard hour’s drive northwest through the mountains from
Silver City. From
Lake Roberts, we will follow Sapillo creek along its westerly course through a seven-mile-long canyon to the creek’s confluence with the
Gila River. Our base camp will be another hour’s walk upriver, on a grassy meadow near the trailhead to 7,752-foot
Granny Mountain. From there we will make daily explorations of the wilderness. We will examine the cliff dwellings and ancient ruins left by a race of the Mimbres people, who lived there a thousand years ago and mysteriously vanished around A.D. 1270. We will search for signs of the legendary bear hunter Ben Lilly, who in the early part of this century lived in the Big Ticket and later in the Gila Wilderness and was the subject of a book by J. Frank Dobie. Mostly, we’ll just test ourselves against nature – and against the Cougar’s unbending standards.

An adventure in the Gila Wilderness is not to be confused with, say, a trip to Yellowstone or
Yosemite. Except for two winding mountain roads, one to the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument and the other to
Lake Roberts, there are no roads into the wilderness and few on the periphery. There are no trails, no picnic tables, no campgrounds, and no water except the river, the creeks, and the springs. The only concessions to civilization are a few trail markings and an occasional corral left by some forgotten rancher. This is not a trip for the fainthearted, as the Cougar will remind us repeatedly.

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
University of
Texas
track team in 1934 – he held the UT quarter-mile record for 24 years. While he is not especially pious in his temperance, he does take a perverse pride in obstinacy. He is unfailingly polite, even courtly (I never heard him use profanity), but for reasons known only to himself, he delights in flaunting his political incorrectness, in particular his deliberate use of racial slurs. His attitude can drive you mad.

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

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