Ron, Sam, and Jerome were friends who grew up together in and around Oklahoma City. All three were highly successful working professionals. Ron was a doctor, Sam an attorney, and Jerome some kind of high-falutin business executive. One afternoon, the three of them managed to meet up for lunch just to talk and catch up with one another.
During their little luncheon, Jerome mentioned to the other two that he thought they had all been working too hard here lately and that maybe they all three needed some kind of a getaway just to escape from civilization, with all its rules and expectations, for a little while; and he had just the plan in mind for them—a wilderness excursion, complete with real live horses, mules, and authentic outfitters who would provide all their grub and gear while catering to their every want and need.
How on earth they managed to make contact with Woody Hoge, I’ll never know. But we were happy to furnish the horses, the mules, and everything they needed for their trip into the Gila Wilderness; albeit, I’m not so sure about the catering to their every want and need part.
So, the three went out and bought em some cowboy boots, then booked their flights on good ole Frontier Airlines from OKC into Grant County Airport, south of Silver City. Woody met them at the airport in old Nelly—an adventure in and of itself—and transported them, and what few belongings they brought along with them, up to the Hoge cabin at the Gila Hot Springs. After enjoying Woody’s cooking at the evening meal, a pleasant evening chatting around the fireplace, and a good night’s sleep, they were rip, roaring, and ready to go. All three were excited about their little escape from the rules and regulations of civilization and up for making a few memories that they hoped would last them a lifetime. Little did they know just how “memorable” this little pilgrimage would turn out to be.
I met up with Woody and the gleesome threesome early the next morning at Woody’s corral, alongside the West Fork of the Gila River, just down below the Cliff Dwellings. I already had the pack animals saddled and ready to receive their panniers, but Woody had told me not to saddle the horses because that was all a part and parcel of the guests’ experience.
Well, after meeting up with these fellers, and being introduced all around, I summed up fairly quickly that, somewhere along the way, we were likely going to be in for a bit of comedy. To begin with I had an odd feeling—being just a kid and all—having to show an adult how to saddle his horse. I don’t know how many times I repeatedly demonstrated to Dr. Ron where to place the saddle blankets. For some reason, he kept wanting to scoot them way too far back, instead of letting them ride up high enough on the horse’s withers.
“So, just exactly where are you planning to ride this old cayuse?” I asked, “On his back, or on his butt?” … “No answer, hunh?”
While I’m sure the good doctor was not accustomed to some smart-ass kid talking to him that way, my punk rock attitude about the whole affair seemed to finally get his attention enough so as to improve the situation.
But then there was Sam, the attorney and the one I worried about the most, who just couldn’t seem to ever get his front cinch tightened down enough on his own. It hung almost as loose as a flank cinch. So, I told him the story about one of my best friends, Cecil, who’s saddle fell right off his horse while on a deer hunt, plunging him more than a quarter of a mile straight down the mountainside; all because he didn’t get that front cinch tight enough. But Sam just smiled incredulously at me like I had just made up that whole story or something. Well, okay, it may not have been quite a quarter of a mile plunge, more like five feet. Point is, I ended up having to repeatedly tighten Sam’s front cinch every single day of the trip to keep him from taking a similar kind of spill. I was tempted to just carry on with my own business and let him hit the ground somewhere along the way. But I didn’t because we didn’t need that kind of a wreck on our hands and because he was, after all, a paying customer—as Woody took the time to remind me ever so often.
By the time we were all set to go, I was already shaking my head and fearing the worst by days end. But Woody seemed completely relaxed and was rather enjoying the whole ordeal. I guess you gotta find your entertainment somewhere.
We finally got everybody mounted, and with mules in tow, we set out. First stop, just a few hundred yards away, the river—to let our critters get a good drink—then westward, on up the high trail toward McKenna Park. For the sake of time, Woody wanted to stay up on that high trail and follow the ridgelines into McKenna. But as we began to rim out, we could already see the makings of a mountain shower off to the southwest of us, just the other side of Granite Peak. So, for safety’s sake, we opted to take the slower lower trail and dropped off down into the bottom of Little Creek; and it’s a good thing we did.
As the day was drawing nigh on to lunchtime, that little mountain shower was rapidly developing into a full fledged thunder boomer just a few miles ahead of us. We could see the clouds moving in a northeasterly direction, so we slowed our pace; then found a nice spot for a picnic down along the creek and dismounted for some snacks. While we were eating, we could hear the ominous sound of distant thunder echoing down the canyon walls from some miles ahead. I told the fellers that I was glad for Woody’s wise decision to take the lower trail because, “Remembering Trotter Cabin, I wouldn’t want to be up on those high ridges with lightning flashing all round me.”
They made inquiry, so I related the Trotter story to them and watched as our three guests grew a bit more contemplative, trying to decide how much of it to believe. I could also tell that they were growing increasingly nervous about their little getaway and beginning to have seconds thoughts about this whole wilderness adventure that they had gotten themselves into.
Seeing that my storytelling was having its desired effect, I just leered at them and thought to myself, “Too late to back out now, boys, we’ve got you right where we want you!” But then Woody had to go and ruin everything by lightening the moment with some joke about needing to go feed the bung beetles.
About an hour later, we passed directly through the area where the thundershower had crossed the canyon ahead of us. Low and behold, and much to my delight, lightning had struck a tall ponderosa right beside the trail. There were no open flames that we could see, but glowing embers still littered the ground all around and there was a dark black streak that ran down and around the trunk of the tree. We got off of our horses and began tromping around trying to extinguish as many of the little embers as we could with our boots just to head off any possible flare ups that might have occasioned a full on fire. I was amazed to see fairly large limbs, several feet in length and about as big around as a 2 x 4, that had been blasted a good hundred feet or more away from the tree. A tiny trail of smoke could be seen wafting upward from the top of the tree where I noted the missing limbs must have come from.
This was exactly the confirmation that I needed. If our threesome had any doubts about the sincerity of my storytelling, all such doubts had now been summarily removed. “Sure glad we stopped for lunch when and where we did,” I hollered out; but there was nothing but silence from our awestruck adventurers as they pondered the ramifications of my statement.
The rest of that day’s trail ride was relatively uneventful. I was surprised that it wasn’t until almost 3:00PM that Woody and I began hearing the first, not unexpected, complaints of soft city legs being rubbed saddle sore. I wanted to say something about that being part of the price you pay for indulging in a REAL wilderness adventure but, after a glance from Woody, I thought better of it and just kept my mouth shut.
Around 6:00PM our merry little troop rolled into McKenna Park and finally found Woody’s prearranged campsite; and boy were our guests ever so thankful for the end of the trial that day. We were over on the west side looking off into Rawmeat Creek with a gorgeous view of Mogollon Baldy a way off out to the west. But our guests couldn’t seem to appreciate the wild beauty going on all around them, nor could they lend a hand to help set up camp that night. In fact, they couldn’t do much of anything, not even walk. It was about all they could manage just to sit up straight and moan and groan a bit. Of course, that was all okay with me and Woody; we had expected as much and figured that was what we were getting paid for.
So, Woody commenced to digging out pots and pans from under an old fallen tree trunk where they had been hidden out of sight from any nosey rangers that might have happened along that way; while I unsaddled horses and unpacked the mules, then led a few at a time down to the steam for their evening watering. We pitched a couple of heavy-duty tents and then Woody began building a fire and preparing grub, while I spread out bedrolls and blankets. The gleesome threesome, now not so gleesome, just sat and watched, taking it all in.
Suppertime gladdened everybody’s countenance and Woody’s hot Dutch oven biscuits, followed by his marvelous campfire shortcake—both made from the same box of Bisquick—drowned in canned peaches, of course, seemed to make our weary adventures forget all about their aches and pains. Soon they were in to telling lewd jokes; some crude enough to embarrass both me and Woody; and Woody was a veteran who had even served in WWII…soooooooo, yeah!
Their socially unacceptable attempts at humor were becoming so rank, in fact, that I even began to worry about the mules, who had been hobbled and turned loose but were still standing near enough to overhear. I thought to myself that I might have to go over and cover Fancy’s ears. And these goofy guys were supposed to be respectable professionals back home?
I quietly wondered to myself why getting off up into the wilderness sometimes tends to bring out the most ridiculous side of people. I know there’s a certain raw and exhilarating kind of freedom that one feels in just escaping the old rat race with all its deadlines, appointments, and expectations for a little while. I’ve felt it myself. It reminds me of a first-year college student who, having been raised with too firm a hand, gets his first little taste of freedom out from under his parent’s thumb and goes hog wild. I guess, out here in the wild, people sometimes do the same sort of thing. Being tempted to throw off the shackles of civility, they seem to cave in to an animalistic desire to return to the primordial swamp from which, some say, humanity eventually arose. Some people’s conduct almost makes me tend to want to agree with Darwin—by the way they behave you’d think that maybe we did descend from monkeys, or at least, THEY did!
Well, since it was starting to get late, and I had already had a belly full of their crazy antics, I bid our gleesome threesome goodnight and took my leave. As I crawled into my sleeping bag, I quietly gave thanks that I didn’t have to sleep in the same tent with those nut jobs.
But I’m happy to report that, by the next morning, our happy band of miscreants seemed to have snapped out of their uncouth reverie, settled themselves down, and returned to a state of at least half normalcy. In fact, that day, all-in-all, turned out to be rather enjoyable. All three were a bit leery of getting back in the saddle, but they were also aware of the fact that their time was short. So, they each remained commendably determined to take it all in while they could. We rimmed around McKenna Park toward the west and south, stopping here and there to take in breathtaking views of Mogollon Baldy and gazing down into Turnbo Canyon. Their cameras were just a clickin.
With Woody’s exceptional navigating prowess and skillful knowledge of the wildlife, we were able to track and come upon a heard of elk. You would have thought we had stumbled upon a goldmine. We also spotted a few deer here and there. The day closed with what I considered to be some far more enjoyable, and civil, campfire storytelling. We closed our eyes that night with a promise from Woody that the next day’s adventure would be even more exciting—a trip down to where White Creek emptied into the West Fork of the Gila.
So, the next morning, we hit the trial early, lunches safely packed into saddle bags, and all of us a bit head up about the grand experiences the wilderness held in store for us that day. We headed north out of camp, across Johnson Canyon, and then down a fairly steep trail; descending a thousand feet or more into the bottom below.
Much to our delight, just to the east of where White Creek joined the West Fork, we found the treasure that Woody had told us about. A beautiful waterfall, about twenty feet wide and fifteen to twenty feet high, dropped down into a gorgeous little lake with shimmering sky-blue and very, very chilly water.
We had been riding long enough that day that the fellers were a bit dusty, hot, sweaty, and ready for that sparkling mountain water. So, it didn’t take long for our happy little threesome to hop off their horses and doff their clothing. Swimsuits? Who packs swimsuits on a wilderness trail ride? After all, it’s “wilderness”—duhhhh! Well, fortunately I just happened to have mine (a hem).
Naked as jaybirds, they were all three splashing, playing, and jumping off the rocks into the water like a bunch of kindergarteners at a McDonald’s playground. And it was all great fun, too, until… and I kid you not, I am totally NOT making any of this up… a band of about twenty-five Girl Scouts came around the bend heading for the same watering hole. They were led by a stout and feisty little gray-haired woman who appeared for all the world to be Woody’s exact gender counterpart.
I was standing at the top of the waterfall, just getting ready to make a high dive into the pool below when I first spotted them coming our way. I probably should have warned the guys first, then headed for my saddle bags. Instead, I just stopped what I was doing and ran for my clothes. Even though I had on a swimsuit of sorts, well, cutoff jeans, the thought of being caught without my pants by a bunch of girls up in the wilderness certainly did not thrill me all that much.
By the time I whipped on some Wranglers and got back to the water, the girls were upon us. Woody was already striking up a conversation with the little gray-haired commando. I looked around for our fellers and spotted all three of them quietly lurking in the deepest part of the pool, gazing up at me with looks of sheer terror engraved upon their faces.
It soon became more than obvious that the ill-intentioned little lady leader was maliciously determined not to let this magical moment go to waste. She was all about taking her sweet time to see, I think, just how far she could push things, how long she could keep these guys in that water, and how we were going to resolve this somewhat embarrassing situation.
The fellers looked up at me again and I could see the pleading in their eyes. I looked over toward the woman who was grinning ear-to-ear as she continued to engage Woody in a wonderful and in-depth conversation on any number of different subjects. And then I looked back at the guys who were, by now, beginning to turn purple in the cold mountain water, and just shrugged—it was all I could do.
Some of the girls were beginning to surround me now; and asking a ton of questions. They were on some kind of a fifty-miler hike or something. I told them that I thought only BOY scouts did that; which nearly got me stoned and dumped back into the water right then and there.
“What, you don’t think WE can take long overnight hikes, TOO, because we’re GIRLS, or something?”
“No, no, no, I didn’t SAY that, exactly!”
“What do mean, EXACTLY???”
At this particular point I began thinking about my little mule, Fancy, who I had left tethered back at camp for the day and wondering to myself if I would ever see her again. But it doesn’t take very many years of living on this old earth for a young man to begin to realize when he’s in a losing conversation with the opposite sex—and this was one. So, as both a simple act of courtesy toward them and a fleeting attempt at my own survival, I buttoned my lips and responded no further.
Some of the the girls, sensing their apparent victory, started talking about how cute they thought I was; well, that’s what they SAYING, anyway. Personally, I think just about any boy their age that they had happened upon out there in the wilderness would have been cute to them; in precisely the same way that a hungry hawk out scouting for supper finds a cottontail rather cute! Fearing yet another trap, I broke off contact and simply walked away. I didn’t feel like being humiliated any further that day.
But my social dilemma at that moment was in no way comparable to what our three intrepid adventurers were having to endure; being trapped, as they were, in the icy waters of the high Mogollon. My mind drifted to that old adage about how to boil a bullfrog… slowly… so that he doesn’t notice the heat being turned up all around him until it’s too late. I wondered how long it would take before it would be too late for our three young professionals—slowly freezing to death in that frigid water.
I noticed the three of them seriously discussing the situation among themselves. They had seemingly come to a consensus that there was no way this side of the hadean realm that they were going to get out of that water in front of twenty-five young ladies—I’m pretty sure the old one was of little concern… and risk facing criminal charges of indecent exposure in the presence of a minor? Better to just die of hypothermia! But I had to laugh to myself at the thought that, apparently, civilization, with all its rules and expectations, had managed to catch up with them even out here in the middle of the vast, empty wilderness—who would have thought?
It finally became apparent to all concerned that neither Woody, nor I, nor any one of the three deep-bluish looking creatures hiding themselves there in the water were going to do much of anything; taken aback as we all were by the sudden and unanticipated irregularity of the situation. And I’m not exactly sure just how long those fellers were forced to remain in that water. But I’m fairly certain it was plenty long enough to have boiled a bullfrog or two.
And so, I suppose Woody and I would have experienced our first ever loss of a man on our watch—well three men actually—were it not for the gracious, relenting heart of that fine woman who, having surveyed the situation and deciding that she had probably inflicted enough emotional trauma on MANkind for one day, turned to her troop saying, “Okay girls, let’s head on up the trial. We’ll be coming back this way for a swim tomorrow!”
“Awwww… but we want to swim TODAY!”
I held my breath…
“Yeah, I BET you do, but we’ll be back tomorrow on our way out. Let’s go!”
So, the girls grabbed their gear, laughing and giggling all the while, and deliberately taking their sweet time about it, I noted, then headed on up the West Fork trail; while Woody and I commenced to rescuing our threesome.
“I, I can’t feel my legs anymore,” said Jerome, as he stumbled out of the water and collapsed in a heap against a pile of river rocks.
“I don’t think I even have a dingy anymore,” Sam whimpered.
I was trying my hardest not to be rude. They were, I reminded myself, paying customers after all. But holding in my laughter, which was dying to burst out, was perhaps the greatest feat I’ve ever accomplished on any wilderness trek.
We hobbled the three of them over to some large flat rocks nearby and set them out to dry in the sun and warm up a bit while we fetched their clothes. They bid us hurry, as all three remained wide-eyed scared that those mischievous girls might just return for one reason or another; or that someone else might be coming up the trial. When we were fairly certain that the three of them were probably going to live, we helped them get back on their horses and headed back up the trail toward camp.
I gotta tell ya, though, while I managed to hold it in for as long as any mortal possibly could, by the time we got back to camp late that afternoon, I could contain it no longer. When I caught a sudden vision in my mind of those poor fellers floundering about in that freezing water for nearly an hour, and the dire look on their faces, I couldn’t help busting out in laughter. I laughed so hard, in fact, that I had to stop and get out of the saddle to keep from falling off my horse. To them, I guess, it wasn’t all that funny because they kept looking back at me and grimacing as they rode on up the trail; which, of course, just made it all that much more hilarious. I tried to apologize, but I think they were probably mad at me for the rest of the day.
That evening, all three sat quietly by the fire, still shivering in their blankets as they downed their hot stew and fresh cowboy coffee. And then Jerome, the one who’s idea it was for them to embark upon this grand wilderness adventure in the first place, finally asserted, “You know, this has probably been the best weekend of my whole life!” I couldn’t help but smile. Woody smiled, too. The other two simply glared at him.
Well, we got everybody safely back down out of the mountains the following day; despite all the moaning, groaning, and bellyaching that Woody and I, not to mention our poor horses and mules, had to put up with. I did feel just a tiny tinge of compassion toward our three doughty musketeers, though, because we were bringing them home from their “authentic” little wilderness weekend authentically worn out, banged up, saddle sore, and still half frozen.
But I’m sure the gleesome threesome headed back home with all kinds of new wilderness memories to share and plenty of photos to boot. Although, I’m also pretty sure that any photos documenting what I, to this day, would consider the most entertaining part of the trip will likely be mysteriously missing. And, hopefully, I’m thinking that maybe their brief sojourn into the heart of the wilderness may have even sobered them up a bit to the pervasive reality of modern society—you just can’t outrun it anymore; these days, it’s likely to catch up with you no matter where you try to flee.
As for me and Woody, I guess we both gained a greater appreciation for always expecting the unexpected. You never know just what you’re gonna run into up in the old Gila. Besides the obvious food and supplies one needs to survive, it’s probably a good idea to always pack a few extras as well: snake bite kit, a camera, a firearm, oh, and a swimsuit!
I know it was probably awful of me, but when it came time to bid “adios” to those three fellers, I just couldn’t resist sending them off with one final word of exhortation: “Now you boys be careful not to ever let yourselves get caught with your pants down… again!” I grinned, they didn’t!
The facts related to these historic events are true… in so far as I recollect, and remain virtually uncolored by any manner of literary ornamentation. Some names, however, have been changed… to protect the guilty.
Copyright © 2022 Philip R. Stroud
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