November 9, Wednesday
We are pulling off I-10 into The Thing, a dot on the Arizona map in the middle of nowhere, as the warning light on the Prius flashes zero. No more miles left in the gas tank. Luck is with us. A Shell gas station sets atop the hill. We are maybe 10 miles north of Cochise Stronghold as the buzzard flies, and I say to myself, “There is no Curse of Cochise after all.” Not that I ever heard there was one.
The land of Cochise is all around us. The famous Chiricahua Apache chief is said to be buried in an unmarked grave south of here in the Dragoon Mountains. Cochise is most noted for his reign of terror on white immigrants and stage coaches passing below the Dragoons in the mid-1800s and is the subject of numerous books and Hollywood westerns.
Nebra and I have both lived in Arizona for more than 30 years and now for the first time we have taken a few days to travel this region which is about an hour’s drive southeast of Tucson. It’s a neglected land but far more important in the state’s history than popular Tombstone with its Wyatt Earp and gunfight at the OK Corral.
We’re on our way to the little town of Willcox, about 18 miles ahead. We plan to spend two nights there and look around the area. But first we need gas. The Thing is more than a gas station. On one side of a long building is a Dairy Queen. On the other is Bowlin’s, a souvenir store that sells jewelry, trinkets, T-shirts and other stuff. “The Thing” itself is in a shed in back, the subject of numerous billboards between Tucson and El Paso. What is “The Thing?” I pass on it this time. Maybe on our way back to Phoenix. It’s sunset, the end of a long day and I want to get to Willcox.
We check in at a motel off I-10, have a big meal in town at Big Tex BBQ located in a railroad car on Maley, and finally turn in watching the big news of the day on TV: The firing of the legendary Penn State football coach, Joe Paterno.
November 10, Thursday
In late morning we drive up to a small, wooded valley where Cochise once lived before his death in 1874. The place is 33 miles southeast of Willcox near the eastern end of the Dos Cabezas Mountains. We leave the lonesome pavement of Arizona 186 and traverse the last eight miles on a washboard road of dirt and scattered rock, crossing Apache Pass at about 5,000 feet elevation then down into the triangular valley.
It was a perfect place for Cochise and his band of Chiricahua Apaches, protected on three sides by mountains, opening up along an intermittent stream on the southwest. Near the high end of the valley, at an elevation of almost 5,000 feet, spring water emerges and spills down five feet over mossy rock into a shallow pool. There would’ve been ample plants and game for food, wood and rock for weapons. The area is protected now by the federal parks and is known as Fort Bowie National Historic Site.
We park along the dirt road, across from the trailhead, with five other cars, two vans and two white buses. Fort Bowie is so remote, so far off the beaten path, that it is no wonder to us that it is one of the least visited national parks in America. Even then, arriving at the entrance, you must still hike a dirt trail of 1.5 miles up the valley to reach the visitors center. The elevation gain is only about 340 feet of gentle ups and downs until the last 300 yards which requires more effort. Whatever the effort, it is worth it.
The water from Apache Spring was the innocent physical feature that led to all the tensions and bloodshed that followed. That precious water attracted Cochise and his band to the spot, as it did the ’49ers and other emigrants on their way to California’s gold rush and the establishment of the Butterfield Stage Route in 1858 with its mail deliveries and stage coaches. The animosity between Cochise and the white “invaders” blew up into the Battle of Apache Pass in 1862. The bloody fight between Apache and 96 soldiers of the California Volunteers led directly to the construction of the first Fort Bowie in August of that year. And once the U.S. military shifted from defense to offense, the larger fort was established a short distance to the east in 1869.
Nebra and I walk down the meandering trail and come upon various ruins with historical signs beside them.
- A sealed-up old mine, the “Harris Lode,” discovered in 1864.
- The Parke Camp Site, where Lt. John Parke and a survey crew camped in 1854, seeking a route for the transcontinental railroad. Parke noted only a friendly curiosity at that time by Apaches.
- The Bascom Affair, a sign near the site where Cochise was held captive and escaped in February 1861. George Bascom, a second lieutenant in the U.S. military, was attempting to recover a kidnapped white boy and stolen livestock. Cochise was said to be so incensed over his treatment that it set him on the warpath for the next decade.
- The Stage Station Ruin, a foundation of the first Butterfield station built in 1858.
- The Butterfield Overland Mail, a sign near the old trail leading up to Apache Pass.
- The Post Cemetery, built months before the first fort was constructed and now fenced off. After Fort Bowie was closed in 1894, the remains of all known soldiers were transferred to the National Cemetery in San Francisco. Graves of 23 civilians remain, including that of a 2-year-old son of another noted Apache leader, Geronimo.
- The Chiricahua Apache Indian Agency, foundation of the agency building. Agent Thomas Jeffords oversaw about 900 Apaches here in 1875-76, shortly after Cochise’s death.
- The Battle of Apache Pass, sign describes the fight which was fought nearby at Apache Spring.
- Apache Spring.
- First Fort Bowie, on a side trail leading up to a hill full of ruins looking down on the Valley.
- The Valley of Apache Pass, identifying Government Peak and other landmarks. The valley’s most prominent landmark, Helen’s dome to the southwest, is not identified here.
- The second fort, ruins, white washed adobe walls, the parade ground with a large U.S. flag in the center.
At the top of the valley, we at last reach the Visitors Center, manned by a female ranger. Here there are maps, books, souvenir T-shirts and caps and artifacts from Fort Bowie’s past. A mannequin is dressed in the uniform of the day and three rifles and different ammo are encased nearby. On the front is a log-in book. I count the number of visitors that day at 47. Most came from Fort Huachuca, near Sierra Vista, military types, the ranger says, here to study the terrain because it so resembles Iran and Afghanistan where they may end up pulling duty at some point. The civilian visitors hailed from Arizona, the exception being a couple from Spokane, Washington.
I ask the ranger about Cochise, about him living here in the valley or in the Dragoons. It is her understanding Cochise used the Dragoons only for strategic and perhaps religious purposes. But his base was here by Apache Spring.
We head back down by a different route, this one steeply rising behind the Visitors Center. It is late afternoon. Shadows are long and a stiff chilling wind catches us near the top of Overlook Ridge. We sit on the bench for a moment and look down on the valley and the trails we’d covered earlier. There is a photo of Fort Bowie taken in January of 1894, the year it closed. It was a humming place, large. Steam rises from some buildings on the far side. You could almost feel the way it was 125 years ago.
Back at the car, I check the time. It is 4:20. We’d been out there more than four hours, exploring, reading the grave markers, taking an occassional off trail. And still I want to go back some time. I didn’t feel like I saw it all. And it is such a beautiful place to hike.
We ate supper at a very good Mexican restaurant on Rex Allen Boulevard near the I-10. The place was bright and colorful with posters and photos of Rex Allen dotting the walls.
Allen, the former film star and singer, was born on a ranch about 40 miles outside Willcox, but more or less adopted the town after citizens paid for a successful operation to cure slightly crossed eyes, the story goes. There is a Rex Allen Museum and the Willcox Rex Allen Theater.
A full day in Cochise Land is now behind us. We hope to get up into the Dragoons tomorrow.
November 11, Friday
We’ve driven deep into the Dragoons, parked at a campground covered with scrub oak and now we’re hiking up toward the Cochise Stronghold five miles distant. It is the middle of a cool afternoon, and I’m certain we won’t have time to reach the Stronghold and return to the car before dark. As usual we have dawdled too long. It was noon before we left Willcox and the solemn Veterans Day festivities along Railroad Avenue. And then at the scattered community of Sunsites we shot past the Stronghold access road to visit the ghost town of Pearce. A sign near the old mining town said the population in 1920 was 1,500 and in 2000 only 15. Nebra, a journalist, wanted to see if the place was named after kin of the recently recalled Arizona Senate President, Russell Pearce. If it was, no one there seemed to know. So by the time we back-tracked and reached the trailhead it was already after two o’clock. Stopping along the trail we decided on a turn-around time of 10 minutes to 4.
The Cochise Trail follows a beautiful intermittent stream lined with small oak, red-wooded manzanita, bear grass, yucca, alligator juniper, skunk weed, prickly pear, cane cholla and some other plants we didn’t recognize. Leaf color was changing to orange and yellow on a clutch of deciduous trees, all of it surrounded by high mounds of fragmented granite in hues of blues and grays. It is the cloudy kind of day that is great for photography, and we stop often to fire up our digital cameras and shoot, shoot, shoot.
The Cochise Stronghold, higher up in the mountains, was a sanctuary and strategic point for Cochise and his band of Chiricahua Apaches. As the valley I’m hiking through narrows, I get the picture. It would be easy in this rough country for a few Apaches to hold off hundreds of soldiers or attackers. And this land has everything we saw yesterday near Apache Pass and Fort Bowie National Historic Site far to the east Food, firewood, water, rock for arrowheads.
There are three other landmarks on the way to the Stronghold. The Spring, Half Moon Tank and the Divide, 1, 2 and 3 miles respectively from the trailhead. We stop for a late lunch of half an energy bar at some flat rocks alongside the trail. It is time to turn back. My GPS says we’re at 5,369 feet elevation and roughly two miles out. But we still haven’t seen Half Moon Tank. No matter. We start down and arrive back at the car a few minutes after 5 with plenty of daylight.
If nothing else, seeing the beauty of the Dragoons, I think I’m beginning to understand Cochise’s anger with the white culture. To live in this desert Garden of Eden and have his culture threatened, well, it would be more than a white man could bear if the moccasin were on the other foot. In any case, our visit to the Stronghold will have to wait for another day. Maybe in the spring when there is more daylight.
On our way to Benson to spend the night, we actually stop at The Thing to see “The Thing” at Bowlin’s trading store. We pay the clerk $1 each for a visit to three sheds in back. The clerk, a balding man of middle age, takes our money and warns. “Try to be quiet. If you wake it, I’ll have to feed it.” I ask, tongue in cheek, “Do you think we’ll be all right?” He replies with a smile. “Yes, you’ll be OK.” I’ll write more about “The Thing” in a separate blog.
Back in the car, we head west in the darkness, and arrive 18 miles later in the little city of Benson, population about 5,000. We’ll spend the night here off I-10, our flying trip to the land of Cochise over for now. It was nice trip, and Nebra and I vow to return, maybe in the spring when the daylight lasts longer.