AV Adams, All Rights Reserved
If you have never been to the Southwest of the United States, one thing that you may find surprising is the seemingly odd mixture of plant types that you can run into. Being from the Northwest originally, and having lived in both the high mountains and the desert, the experience of tromping in silence through snowdrifts alongside cactus, sotol, manzanita, and pine trees under a crisp, blue sky with 50 mile visibility in all directions still seems like a novelty even after a quarter-century.
This story takes place in a transition zone situated between the dry, cactus-covered rocky hills along the San Francisco River far below, and the deep, old growth forest of the Gila Wilderness farther up the mountain. Perched on the edge of a limestone cliff, our campsite enjoyed the benefits of both extremes to some extent: shade provided by a healthy distribution of Pinon pine and Ponderosa-relatives, interesting (but sharp!) flowering desert plants and clumps of mixed grasses, and enough openness to take in the layer upon layer of different landscapes falling off into the distance.
To get to this sweet little spot was no picnic. Sure, the ride up from Las Cruces through Silver City and then on to Glenwood is easy enough, if a bit monotonous on the interstate and on the straight run past Glenwood and the Santa Rita mine, but as usual with New Mexico, get just a little ways from any main route and you enter a virtual time-machine, with a fast gradient away from safety and toward adventure.
The road that ascends from the San Francisco River just past the shaded little community of Glenwood starts from a fairly fast two-lane highway and shifts successively down the hierarchy of road states through no-shoulder paved road, to at times single-lane paved road, eventually turning into a dirt road just past the almost-ghost town of Mogollon, a former boom town built on Silver and Gold mines. The boom was initiated by a fascinating character of the surname Cooney, and both his history and physical tomb built out of high-grade ore from the local mines following his death at the hands of vengeful Apaches are worth a visit. Perhaps another time.
One particular section of the road that makes the steep climb from the long riverside table mesa up to the Mogollon foothills transition zone is particularly treacherous, having all the qualities of a “nope” per my usual standards, save one: it is paved rather than gravel or natural dirt and rock. The decision to take a 4-cylinder Subaru hauling a heavy-framed tent camper up the steep, single-lane, winding route devoid of guardrails and the ability to see around any of the corners was nearly a very exciting one – exciting in the sense of the apocryphal old ‘curse’ along the lines of “may you live in interesting times”. The decision to do so in a vehicle equipped with a manual transmission was even more dubious. For, as the dictum that “irony is the strongest force in the universe” requires, we of course met oncoming traffic on that exceedingly steep and windy excuse for a road, themselves hauling a trailer as well.
In such situations, you usually only get one chance to make your move before running out of options, and we both picked wisely: he stopping as quickly as possible and me actually accelerating a bit to quickly nestle our smaller rig in a small roadside nook before we might otherwise have met. Shock diminished, our uphill dance partner then slowly maneuvered past us, mirrors almost touching, and went barreling on down the mountain. Problem solved, right? Wrong. Now we had to see if we had enough power in our mighty 4-cylinder engine to get us moving again from a dead stop on a very steep hill. Breath held in, I recruited the hand-brake and all my experience with similar mountain fun to desperately get our little train moving again. The game is to keep the engine revved so it does not stall and slip the clutch, though not so slowly as to burn it out, or too quickly as to blow the engine – the handbrake acting as Referee to prevent rolling backwards off the cliff. Once engaged, I swear we could literally feel the discrete hit of each slowly-churning piston, one after the other, as our little mount slowly stumbled to its feet, lurched forward, and began to climb once again. A much closer call than I prefer, all-in-all.
As we rose ever upwards from the mesa to the more wooded slopes of the mountains, the effects of our adrenaline surge subsided, and I was able to sneak some quick backwards glances at the increasingly wide and amazing vista coming into view behind us. Only a few blind corners later, we arrived at the setting for the strange and unexplained aspects of this little tale: our campsite. The camp was a small affair, situated at the end of a little point on a high shelf at the very edge of the vegetative transition zone, reached through a short dirt road. Backing the trailer to near the edge of the gentle cliff, we quickly unpacked and readied camp, popping the top up on the tent trailer, but leaving it connected to the car’s hitch as we had no plans to drive anywhere. This decision would prove important later, as it made retrieving certain important objects from the car’s back hatch very difficult.
At the time, August of 2003, Mars was on approach to be the closest to Earth that it had been in the last 60,000 years, and we wanted to get a clear-sky view of it. After setting up camp and snapping some pictures of the beautiful vista as the cliff’s edge, we geared up for a quick hike to pass the time as we waited for it to get dark and start our stargazing. Across the main road from the entrance to our camp was another spur road, this one likely constructed to access the many gold and silver mines dotting the area around Mogollon. Shouldering our packs and orienting ourselves on some skyline landmarks, we started up the steep spur road to see what we could see. Gravel crunching beneath our boots and our own breathing were essentially the only sounds in the world as we slowly hiked up the mine road, save the occasional call of a random assortment of transiting songbirds.
A ways up the mountain, on one of the larger outside road turns, we slowly became aware of the sounds of a far-off vehicle. As the road was narrow, and just to practice a bit of stealth, we decided to step off the road and watch the vehicle as it went by from a place of concealment behind one of the larger pinon pine trees. As we patiently waited, the vehicle crawled closer and closer down the rocky mountain road, weaving in and around the turns of the mountain until it was nearly abreast of us, at which point we carefully shifted our position to accommodate the changing lines of sight and maintain our concealment. As we did, ironically, a new aspect of the situation revealed itself, for there was something apparently hiding from us, as we were hiding from the vehicle!
From behind a pinon pine farther down the slope, but not more than 15 yards away, emerged a large black figure, with one eye fixed steadily on us. It was large enough that it must have been using every last scrap of concealment, and as it emerged, my brain went through the usual process of trying to digest something unexpected. My first thought was “cow?” My second thought was “but there is too much grass”, for the grass all around us was knee high, which is not usual at all where cattle graze in the arid Southwest. Then I recognized our companion in stealth: a very large black bear, transitioning from two legs to all fours as it emerged from behind the tree. With a seemingly-implicit agreement to leave well enough alone, we waited for the bear to move down the hill a bit, which it did quickly, and then continued up the road after the vehicle had fully passed us.
We eventually reached the end of the road, where we found a nice vista to the south, and considered whether or not to take the trail down into the rugged canyon below. Deciding against such an endeavor so late in the day, we lingered a bit, had a snack, and turned around to go back to camp.
On our way back to camp, past where we had played hide-and-seek with the car and subsequently realized that we had unknowingly been in a second game of hide-and-seek at the same time, we found a sign that is never a welcome one. Smack dab in the middle of the road was a very fresh pile of bear scat, clearly indicating a route for the bear exactly in line with our own. The sign put us on guard a bit, as there is a big difference between a random bear encounter in the middle of nowhere and a bear lurking around the vicinity of camp. At that point, I decided that we would have a cold dinner that evening, to avoid generating any tempting smells for Mr. Bear.
On the way down the mountain, we took time to examine some of the many old mine workings scattered around. We found signs of Amethyst and more abundant white quartz with rusty mineralization, and took a few pieces with us back to camp to examine in more detail. At camp, we settled in and waited for dusk to fall. Usually, dawn and dusk are very windy times in New Mexico, expected in part because of the very large temperature swings that happen many days of the year. Surprisingly, dusk came on very still, with thin, continuous gradations of beautiful red, orange, and purple lines of faint clouds stretching from horizon to horizon. We enjoyed a long, slowly-fading sunset experience, ending just as the early celestial dancers made their welcome appearance, bright and sharp in the high mountain air.
As the evening darkened, we began our star-gazing, as Mars was an early arrival that evening, and the conditions were perfect, despite still being a bit warm out – again an unexpected anomaly with no wind whatsoever to cut the soaked-in heat of the day. We hung out for a while, taking in the brightening wheel of the sky as the evening transitioned to an inky-black, moonless state. When the novelty of stargazing faded, we retired to the pop-up to eat sandwiches, corn chips, and salsa. The inside of the camper was very bright, and we had most of the large window openings zipped down in a bit of a vain attempt to get some airflow in the yet-still evening air.
As we finished our sandwiches and transitioned to reading books, still seated at the table and enjoying chips, it came upon us that the night was incredibly quiet. In such conditions, once accustomed, you can literally hear insects crawling through dry forest debris, plant limbs slowly creaking, and even ice groaning, in the colder seasons. In the case of this still summer night, however, only the chirping of a few lonely crickets provided any sound, until the hair went up on the back of our necks when it dawned on us that we had a visitor.
As we sat reading, blinded to the outside environment surrounding our humble camp, something at least medium-sized, if not larger, unhesitatingly tromped right through the center of camp, footsteps thudding along. Though of course the bear we had “met” earlier was fresh in mind, the gait seemed too fast, and out of time for a lumbering bruin. With a wide-eyed meeting of our gaze, we at first silently conferred on what the other thought just happened. After some nervous mutual conference and reassurance, we both apparently decided to play it cool, and simply shrugged and went back to reading. However, I was now engaged in a mental inventory as to the possible location of our only firearm: a shotgun, located in the very back of the Subaru, and still somewhat hard to get at due to the presence of the still-connected trailer hitch.
No matter, I had spaceships to fly and my wife had horses to ride, in our respective works of entertaining fiction, so whatever little creature that had just sounded so very large as it passed mere feet from our door could go ahead and get on with its night as we would with ours. At least that’s what we thought, before the insanely-loud screeching cackles first pierced the night and redoubled our unease!
If the footsteps had raised some neck hairs, then the screeching, seemingly only yards away and originating at what seemed like an appreciable height off of the ground, almost made the hairs jump clean off our necks. Imagine a perfectly-still, perfectly quiet, pitch-black night, and then imagine something that you can’t see making huge, raspy half-simian, half-avian screeches at a height higher than the camper, but almost close enough to contemplate flinging a stick at.
Now, imagine that the source of the noise seemed to have no regard whatsoever for your actions. That is, most animals will interact with your presence, if made clear enough. Perhaps this was just a strange bird (of what type I could not imagine) or some member of the cat family – those might be capable of such a horrific cacophony? In any event, the screech sessions went on for about 1-2 minutes at a time, with breaks of about 3-5 minutes between them. As it continued, I kept going through my internal encyclopedia of critters, and kept coming up totally stumped. It sounded like a bird, but at the same time, a monkey (and yes, I get the howlers going at the zoo, for fun…)
The absolutely most disturbing part is that it was apparently totally inured to our presence, immobile and unresponsive in any way. As the encounter went on, I became increasingly annoyed, especially as my first-grumbles, and then yells back to the thing seemed to be totally ignored. Yes, I grabbed the big kitchen knife, and yes I did plot my route to retrieve the awkwardly-stored shotgun, and yes I did graduate all the way to banging pots and pans together to try and break up the screeching sessions by garnering some sort of attention from what I figured was a typical critter that I simply did not recognize. No luck. After about the seventh time the thing belted out its bizarre call, interrupting our evening read and freaking me out, I finally kind of snapped – I could not stand the suspense!
Just as I resolved myself to make the mad dash to the Subaru and root around for both a flashlight and the shotgun, the screeching came to an abrupt and final halt, breaking the consistent 3-5 minute intervals. No sound of retreating feet, no flapping of wings or creak of branches, no lowering the volume knob from 13 slowly down as whatever intergalactic dorm party mating frenzy going on slowly subsided – just stillness and silence and the seemingly empty black of the high-desert night once again.
We read for quite a while that night, upright at the table. I eventually did retrieve the flashlight and shotgun, though I did not venture forth into the night any farther than the usual “call of the wild” warranted until the next morning.
The next day, first thing, I examined the vicinity around camp. Though loose and a little powdery, the immediate area around camp and the unused campfire ring showed no tracks. Neither did a wider search radius – no trampled grass, no snapped twigs, no hair, no scat, no feathers, no turned rocks, nothing. A large solitary pinon pine tree sits next to an old, unused watering tank for cattle at the top of the rise where our little camp road tops out and meets the main road. The tree seemed like a great perch for something to be at about the height that the sound seemed the night before. Carefully tracking my way up there, which would be a natural draw given the presence of water, I again found nothing.
I have been face to face with large hawks, and this thing was an order of magnitude louder than that, if not more. Besides, how could an avian stomp though camp? And what bird sounds half like a monkey or mammal? What mammal sounds half like a screeching mega-bird? If it was some sort of mating event, enthralling enough to ignore my yells and such back at it, why was there only one apparent “voice”? If it was really large enough to make noise going through camp and produce that much sound, then where were the physical signs? Sheesh. But, maybe it’s better that I did not have the flashlight after all; I guess I will never know.
So, there is my Mogollon Monster story, though all in all, the episode with the stick shift was maybe the more scary and dangerous of the two notable events that weekend. Feel free to check out either, if you want, or even Cooney’s tomb, nearby. Camp: 33.394887, -108.819337. I have been back to the area, and even underground in one of the nearby mines just below the camp, but only in the daytime.