Cochise Stronghold is a part of the habitat of the Chiricahua Apaches. When settlers began to make their way into the area, destroying the lives of those who lived there, a “war” eventually broke out.
To put it briefly, Apache raids could be conducted from these safe rugged mountains. Cochise, who was initially prone to a peace, found himself accused of a crime. Then, members of his family were taken hostage. He then saw futility. There were white betrayals, which lead to more decades of war.
Eventually, Cochise died and was secretly buried in these mountains.
As I walk through this incredible landscape of fortress-like boulders and hoodoos, I watch water leach out of rocks and then stream down them. I sit in the shade of many types of trees and consider the abundance hidden here. I hold thoughts of Apache lives. I ponder some nebulous foreign peoples beginning to force the takeover of my own homeland. I can imagine how I might feel and how I might react.
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We start the afternoon, driving down to Dragoon to the Amerind Museum. The building is filled with artifacts of Native Americans, ranging from Alaska to Peru. There are a couple of continuous reel documentaries, one of which I listen to as I browse. There is a fixation on the historical wars between settlers from Mexico and back east, both of which fought the locals. Native American prehistory and culture, less known, is left behind in most of the Dragoon area. The dominate culture is interested in Cowboys and Indians.
This is the land and the wars of Geronimo, too. About a dozen years after Cochise died, he and what was left of the free Apaches finally negotiated surrender. They were told that they would be returned after two years to live in their homeland. They, with others, were stuffed into cattle cars as “prisoners of war” and shipped off to Florida. Only after 27 years a few were returned.
Geronimo was celebrity at every stop along the way. People would want souvenirs. Cochise would sell buttons off of his jacket. He would sell his hat off of his head for a good price. Then, as the train pulled away, he would reach into a bag and pull out another hat.
I look down at a prized handmade bow here in the museum. There, in hand painted capital letters, was the name “GERONIMO”. I just have to wonder about marketing this rockstar.
After they were taken from their lands, the white Americans took their children away and shipped them to Pennsylvania. The first thing these native kids were put through was a uniform. Then like a bootcamp, their long hair was taken from them. I look at before and after photos, as a woman on the small movie screen tells of her grandpa telling her of that day. “When they cut the hair, it was meaningful. At that moment, I knew that there would be no return.”
I think back to those in my own family tree in the plains, whose fate was similar. They too were told that their culture was ignorant and savage and their language was forbidden. My heart aches. It feels personal.
Later, as I walk the trail through Cochise Stronghold, I picture naked children running before me. They are attached to life and the nature in it.
We leave this grand hacienda building nestled in the rounded orange boulders and tall green grass given by monsoon rains. Around the corner, we stop in the dark shadow of a lone tree next to an old graveyard and re-undress. We are heading to a sanctuary of freedom and intend to better understand what that meant, during those many years ago.
But first! We remember a billboard along the highway. “The Thing” was only two miles down the Interstate. There, on this warm day, we will find “Dairy Queen.”
After slipping into coverings outside in the parked SUV, we saunter to the counter for our treats. We dip and lick the creamy smooth bliss in a cone as we tour. The home to the mysterious “The Thing” has been newly refurbished.
I admire the stuffed jackalopes, the famed horned rabbits. I quip about how I had desired one since I was a child and how the price has shot up dramatically. One hundred forty dollars, just for a horned head to hang on a wall!
There were of course t-shirts among the curios. One in black had a picture of Geronimo which read, “We’ll take care of you. Give us your guns.” Another has Geronimo and his band with weapons, “ The Original Homeland Security.”
The Stronghold trail loops around the southern face of the dramatic rock mountains rising about 1200 ft. to a crest and then dropping back down. We are taking the more frequented eastern trailhead. There is a built up campground there. It is closed from May to September 1st. The ranger told me that is because so few people show up there when it is hot. Knowing that there would be fewer people is always a cue for a naturist romp.
The other factor is that we are in a monsoon. Sometimes overcast will drop the temperature, or clouds will give frequent shade. The elevation starts around 5000 feet, which makes it about ten degrees Fahrenheit cooler than Tucson. The forecast was partly sunny and low 80F’s, perfect for a nude body to roam.
The alternative is a long drive on back-roads which are unstable in the rains, but lead to the west trailhead. We’ll do the west trailhead later. This trip, we’ll head to the crest and spend some time looking around.
We wander through miles of pecan orchards. The rains have turned everything green.
A major storm blew through just a few days before. This floodplain has us slowing down often for debris that has collected as the waters had flooded across the road.
The distance shows us more of the orange rocks. They become more dramatic and a canyon is seen as we draw closer. “That must be it!”
We turn off onto a dirt road, which shortly begins to wind through thick vegetation and trees. In a wash, there is a layer of thick black sludge that has been graded off of the dirt conveyance. It is about a foot thick. This has been a powerful storm.
There are still homes down in this pleasant valley in the middle of a National Forest. These were homestead settlements grandfathered in. As we pass through, we are greeted by a smiling old woman with a walking staff. Standing off the low side of the road, she is too short to see into the truck at our nakedness.
The Ranger on the phone has misled me in his descriptions. At the campground there is a steel gate. The campground is not just closed, but closed off. It reads that parking is a mile back down the road. We have driven for a couple of hours to get here and see no camping, plus an extra mile is added to our hike. Evening is approaching and campsites on public lands are miles and hours away, as far as we know. Frustration rises, then prayer.
In the back of my mind, I remember what looks like a camping spot from the satellite image. DF remembers a Forest Service road sign.
We search our way back down this lane and in a mile and a half, there is the Forest Service road sign. It wanders back through a green meadow accented with scrub oak trees. There is a system of loops between trees and several camping spots.
We find one next to an impressive rock wall of a mountain. I turn off the motor and we climb out to inspect. We hear the sound of a small waterfall echoing from the rock face. There is a trail leading down to a stream. To the southeast and to the west, through the framing of trees, we see mountain peaks and more of these fascinating orange rock formations. Our prayers seem to work very well.
The main road is in the far distance. With little chance of the intrusion of others, we set to work in our private park. Ants are wandering around, but we find a less populous place to pitch our tent.
Listening to the water, we wander about in wonder, down the slippery slope into the creek’s forested bed. There is a campsite there, up on a short knoll. We approach and find plastic five gallon water bottles under the trees. Pondering why, my first guess is so called wetback smugglers are leaving these. Could we have visitors traveling through in the night using of the cover of the stronghold?
We attempt several times to find the source of the sound of the waterfall, but with darkness falling, we decide to make another attempt later.
The sun has illuminated the rocks in the east and we try getting pictures of our glowing red bodies.
This is a special place.
The 40% chance of rain and overcast have dissipated. Stars are coming out to join a half of a moon in a hazy sky.
DF heats up soup, I play guitar. We comment on the complacent behavior of the deer that we have seen.
I had bought a book in the store at the museum. Into the sack early, I read out loud about the many edible and medicinal plants wild in Arizona. I think about Apache families. We tire and fall to sleep.
We awaken to the orange cliff wall illuminated by the sun, which is already warming our tent.
I’m feeling a bit sleepy. There are miniscule ants around. They somehow found their way into the tent. We search and watch them, but their entrance can’t be found. Fortunately, they don’t bite, but through the night, I had been brushing the feel of something crawling on me and wondered why.
We breakfast and drive to the closed gate and park in the shade. The ranger has told me that they only come around periodically, “To see if anyone has been there.” On the gate there is a sign telling us no parking.
It seems ridiculous. There is no one here. We’re standing in the turnaround loop naked. We make sure that any huge motorhome can turn through, nothing is blocked.
As I start to grab my backpack rig, there are two dogs with a couple of humans in tow coming up the road. My plan “B,” to drape the sarong around my waist instead of shoulders begins, DF grabs her sundress.
Just then, a tri-wheeler motorcycle pulls up. We chuckle at the passenger sitting up above the driver, calling her the green hornet. She is wearing a florescent green suit head to toe. Only the visor on the face is black. As we struggle with the coverings, their conversation tells us that she doesn’t want to walk. They pull away.
I woke up hazy and still am. After a few hundred feet, I have to return to the truck for something forgotten.
There is no way to overtake or keep ahead of the couple and dogs, or know where they have gone at this point. Their trail isn’t fresh, so to speak.
The now paved road becomes a curbed road meandering through a scrub oak forest with asphalt parking areas. There are signs for a nature trail, signs for each plant, species, and big signs about the history of Cochise. There is a horse trail, and an historic trail of signs. All of these and we can’t find the stronghold hiking trail sign.
Eventually, partly through a process of elimination and conjecture, we are brought to a trail that appears to follow what I saw on satellite.
We see footprints for sneakers, but no dogs. After a while some of the sneaker prints are heading back and we joyfully strip fully. The place is suddenly much cooler and pleasant. I have the rig on my back, so it is easy for me to volunteer to carry the backpack, the water and everything. DF is happy to continue with only her camera and shoes.
We continue on.
The trail is marked with notifications every ½ mile. This more detailed mile marker system is unusual and indicates that this can be a busy trail during the tourist season.
In this remote canyon, DF’s cell phone goes off. Surprised, she answers with a stunned look on her face.
It is a member of the Tucson Family Sweat Alliance needing a phone number. She stands and politely fiddles with the mundane technology. A cell phone in the middle of our primitive experience is just incoherent. Here in this natural wonderment, it is also a fluke. The signal is gone a few feet down the trail.
At one mile, under the dark shade of some trees, we find the box for the first spring on the side of the trail. It is empty, just an old concrete box with a rotting lid.
The creek is dry today, but shows signs that water does flow through here with rains. All along it there are trees to shade us.
Often, a break opens up to the awe of the granite formations towering above.
The trail up the slope has many stair-steps, but all in all, it is a comfortable grade.
I think of two rooms back at the museum. They held stories and pictures of the Native American’s culture of running. They ran like the Tarahumara in the Copper Canyon in Mexico still do. They ran for tens of miles along rocky trails like this. They played games running and kicking a ball ahead. They created long sticks and played a sort of hockey. They stayed healthy by moving. In part, that is what we are here for. We are training in increasingly more difficult climbs for a crescendo up into the Huachuca’s.
We agree to pick up our pace, to march for a while, to get a cardiovascular workout.
We do make some time, occasionally stopping not to rest, but by the compelling need to imbibe a fascinating flower, admire a vista, a rock formation, or just feel the place.
This is an enchanting place. It would be extremely easy to hide, to wait to attack, to ambush, or to disappear, sitting but a few feet away in the silence.
Several times, we catch the scent of a large wild animal in the air and wonder how close we are and who it is.
At two miles, we are ready to find the “Half Moon Tank,” which is a dam on this creek. There is definite water there in a monsoon and we will need some. We are also hoping that the cattle are not scheduled to use this area. There is a slight possibility to dip to cool off.
Soon enough, I recognize a peak that I have seen pictured in the reflection in the pond and know that we are near.
Suddenly, water appears and we are relieved to find our goal and lunch.
Next time, I’ll publish the tale of the rest of this day of magnificent natural treasure. It will start with the invitation of a playful young host greeting us as we step into its living room.