The West Fork

I picked Ben and Luke up at the Sunport around 9:45 PM. On the drive down the hill I was merging between lanes doing 85 and still managed to get passed by lifted trucks on both sides at once. You get used to it. When they got in the car I asked if they were hungry. “We could grab a slice of pizza at the Brickyard. They have beer”, I suggested. “Rudolfo Anaya used to write there”, I added, though I was privately unsure whether this second-hand story were true. “I could go either way”, Ben said. “But when you get to be my age, it gets pretty tempting to just go home and get to bed.”

It took us two days of driving and walking to make it to the middle of the West Fork of the Gila, where the canyon walls are steep and tall and hoodoos rise above a linear forest of sycamores and yew-leaf willows. The willows filled in the most shaded parts of the floodplain and propagated outward from mother trees in concentric rings of saplings with velvet green needles. A pillar of tuff stood erect on the rim a half mile away, improbably tall. I gave in and made a dick joke. “Everyone describes things as phallic”, Ben said from three paces ahead, his voice quiet. “I think we should call things yonic more often.” I pondered this, noticing for the first time a faint mist of droplets against my face despite the cloudless sky and low flows of November.

For a time we hugged the west face of the canyon but were eventually forced back down to the river, the trail faintly visible in tall grass on its far side. We forded it. I had been keeping a running tally of these crossings but lost count somewhere between 40 and 45. Away from the willows banana yuccas sat in dry corners and in these same dry corners Luke began spotting desert tarantulas, some rearing defensively and others unconcerned with our presence. The sourceless mist of droplets continued. “Where the fuck is it coming from?”, I asked, starting to feel a little crazy. Ben looked up. “I think it’s coming from the trees”, he said. I paused, visibly confused. “Transpiration, buddy!”, he shouted, disappearing around the corner.

We began to climb and on the rippled plateau that met us at 7800’ I marveled as for nearly 10 miles we passed through beautiful spacious woods where every tree bore the subtle scars of overlapping low intensity fires. There are a minimum of 186 Mexican wolves in the greater Gila, and radio collar data suggested that two weeks ago the Colibri pack had been in the area. I thought about the first handful of reintroduced wolves in 1998, running out from their enclosures into a landscape that was both utterly new and bone-deep familiar. We talked about how turning 30 feels like something; about hurting people; about the trouble of figuring out what you want. If you’re lucky things have burned before and you escape the crown fire. But not everywhere, not every time. To the southwest the outline of Mogollon Baldy was tined with toppled matchsticks.

In seeps along the cross section of the plateau were copses of old oaks with lichens in their fissured bark. Ben and Luke had both read a book that described how scientists were discovering many lichens were symbioses between three or more species—not just two as previously thought—and were talking about it. I made a note of the title on my phone and we lapsed into silence as Luke stopped for a photograph. Four liters of water sat heavily in my pack. How old are you? I asked Ben at one point, suddenly curious and surprised I didn’t already know the answer. “33 and a half”, he responded. The next three years must be big ones, I thought.

We went back down to a different river, this time pearled with beaver ponds where the channel kinked back and forth. For the third night in a row we lay our sleeping bags down in thick ponderosa duff and from them watched the Milky Way suspended across the tops of the pines. Around two in the morning a pack of what I assumed were coyotes moved through to our west, a lone soloist rising above the electric background static of arrythmic yapping. I had trouble breaking out of a dream and their songs melded into its fabric. Could they have been wolves? The two species can sound very similar, my friend told me a few days later when I texted her with the question. They might as well have been, she said. No one can know for sure.