By Suzanne Olson
That Christmas Eve, we made Korean picnic rolls: thin, dry rice tortillas dipped in warm water to soften, filled and rolled up with bean threads, scrambled egg, cucumber, chicken and cilantro, some spicy radish; everything sliced into elegant long matchsticks. We all put our hands into it, this new tradition for a holiday celebration in a new place. Our housemate, Mun-Hee, was born in Korea and shared stories of how her mother would make this lunchbox meal for school field trips; it was a special treat. We were heading to Cochise Stronghold in the morning to open stockings filled with desert creosote air, pink salmon granite and a nice hike together.
Mun-Hee gave each of the kids an early gift to unwrap: a blank sketch book and pencils. She used to love her school trips to the countryside, often to temples and their cemeteries, where the class would sit and sketch for the afternoon, eating the picnic roll lunches their mothers had lovingly prepared for them. Her mother would always pack a tiny cloth bag with salt in it to sprinkle over her shoulder and along her path so that the spirits wouldn’t cling to her. There were such things as angry spirits, lost souls, she explained, who haven’t yet found their way to the peace of the afterlife.
The drive from Tucson was beautiful in the early morning light of Christmas Day, the kids nodding off to sleep in the back seat of our trusty Subaru. The desert palette of soft browns and a thousand shades of green appeared extra sharp in the winter light. No traffic or animals out to break the trance of saguaro, organ pipe and ocotillo flicking by, just birdsong as we wound our way to the park on small dusty roads: the sound of the mourning dove: coo-woo-HOO! Coo-coo-hoo.
I had been rock-climbing on Baboquivari Peak nearby and heard tales of Cochise Stronghold, but hadn’t been to see for myself yet. The kids might have preferred the shiny false front storyland of nearby Tombstone, but this was our first Christmas after the divorce, and I was determined to establish our own new traditions. I wanted it to be outdoors, simple, non-materialistic and a shared adventure. I would’ve preferred to camp overnight and wake up in the desert, but it was late December and the thin crust and big sky of the Lower Sonoran Desert – especially at 5000’ elevation – gets surprisingly cold at night.
The Dragoon Mountains of Southern Arizona are a striking fortress of pink granite hoodoos, spires and boulder piles, once a stronghold for the Chiricahua Apache and famously where Chief Cochise held out with 250 warriors to defend his people’s homeland during a period of skirmishes between natives and settlers and, especially, after being falsely accused of kidnapping a rancher’s son.
The stronghold stands as a sky island in the desert, maintaining a unique diversity of species who are, essentially, stranded in the isolated habitat by the “ocean” of desert between like archipelagos from the Rockies to the Sierra Madre. Because of the Sky Island’s geographical location at the crossroads of the temperate and sub-tropical realms, rare species found nowhere else in the United States occur here: the quetzal’s cousin, the elegant trogon; gray hawk, buff-collared nightjar, and thick-billed parrot – even jaguars and coatis call this place home. Other species, like mountain lions, depend on the separation these islands provide to maintain and protect territory and genetic diversity.
After a quick study of the park signage, trail and species information, the four of us headed out on the Cochise Indian Trail, which seemed doable for our group at five miles. My son, in the lead with the absolute confidence of a twelve-year-old, and zero information. My daughter, nine, was happy to skip alongside Mun-Hee and me. As we approached the park, I had told the kids the story of Cochise and his band, hinting that there could be some angry spirits in the rocks and that they should stay close. Cochise himself was laid to rest there, lowered into a rocky crevice with his weapons and food for the journey; no one knows exactly where.
The strategy worked. My son turned back up quickly, saying he wanted a snack, but the look on his face when he first came into view told another story. That, and the fact that he was practically walking forward with his head turned backward. We stopped and drank some water from our bottles, ate a couple of oranges and some Reese’s peanut-butter-cup Christmas trees.
My son was scrambling around on the rock pile above us. “Watch out for Gila monsters up there,” I warned, baiting him with a smile. He was very proud of the Gila monster project he had done in school and considered himself an expert. “No, Mom,” he said with some condescension. “They are underground in burrows now. They would never be out here in winter. Did you know they are the largest lizard in the US? They can be two feet long and weigh five pounds!” He jumped down and chased his sister with a grabbing hand. “They don’t kill but they can really mess you up. Once they get their teeth into you, they don’t let go. They chew on you to put neurotoxins into the bite – and it hurts like crazy!”
The kids scrambled back up the boulder pile and called for us to come see the view. From the top, it was a wonderland of salmon-colored granite features and brushy gullies, a crisp breath of dry sage air. A red-tailed hawk surveyed our party from above and drifted off. My daughter pointed out a nearby flat-topped mound that stood like an open palm above the sea of mesquite and pinion pine. “Can we climb that?” she asked? My whole life philosophy can be summed up as “following the worm,” so, of course I said yes. Looking at the thorny, brushy route, Mun-Hee opted to continue on the trail, and we agreed to meet up at the big alligator juniper on the divide at midday for lunch.
We walked around the granite mound and decided it would be perfect to practice a long traverse. It was made like a layer cake: stacks of ledges with the cake crumbling into the center and a pretty good face all around. The kids have been bouldering since they were tots and love a challenge. We would circumnavigate the structure and see if we could make it all the way around without having to jump or fall off: hot lava. The kids got onto the mound from a crumbled section that made easy steps to reach the face, about ten feet off the ground. I stayed below to spot them until I could see they felt comfortable, helping them find foot and hand holds among the ledges, wedging a hand or just a few fingers into a crack to get through thin sections. “Pee-eww!” said my daughter. “Something stinks!”
“It’s probably just a pack rat all tucked in for the winter,” I said. “Keep your eyes open – you might find something shiny.”
I hopped up and followed behind the kids. Occasionally, chunks of the crumbling ledges would pull out and give a thrill, but no one fell, and we were making good progress around the structure. The kids were around the corner when I heard a crinkling sound stirred up on the wind and noticed plastic bags all wrapped around some mountain mahogany below. Thinking some rude climbers had littered, I climbed down to pick them up. I found myself ankle deep in snake-skin sheds. I knew before I knelt to get a closer look that they would be rattlesnakes. Sure enough, you could see the arrow shaped head in some of the sheds, and even a pit between the eye and the nostril on one. Some of them were five to six feet long. Western diamondback, probably.
“Kids! Get down now!” I hollered with enough danger terror in my voice to get their attention. I ran over to where they were, now a little more than 15 feet up, and helped them down. “Snakes,” I said. “I think this rock pile is full to the gills with rattlesnakes all tangled up together for the winter. That smell – it’s snake shit.”
My son was all over the snake sheds, handling them and asking if we could take them home. I let them both have a good look, but said we’d leave them there, mostly because they smell so bad. Our hands were completely funky with snake musk, my son already wiping them all over his pants. We tried to look into bigger cracks and listened for a rattle – or mass snoring – but all was quiet, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
“Snakes can’t control their body temperature,” I explained. “So, they have to get under cover and snuggle up to avoid freezing. There could be dozens in there – and we were shoving our hands right into their hidey-holes!”
Everyone was hungry and thirsty. I had to find a way to get our hands cleaned before we could dive into our packs. Seeing Cottonwood tops a little way off, I led the kids down toward a wash, hoping there would be some water pocket this time of year. Flushing out a family of Gambel’s quail in a neat line of bobbing top knots, we bushwhacked through mesquite to find a dry ravine that must flood in the summer monsoons. Willows and Cottonwoods held weirs of debris and uprooted trees. Luckily, a shallow basin in the smooth rock held just enough water to wash up with. We all rubbed our hands in the silty dirt like soap, then rinsed off. We still smelled pretty bad, but that was the best we could do for the moment.
After a snack and some water, the sun was directly overhead, and we needed to get up to the divide to meet Mun-Hee. Triangulating the mound, the wash and where I thought we had left the trail, I set a course that I thought would get us back on track. An hour later, it was clear I had no idea where we were or how to get back to the trail. The picnic rolls came out and we went ahead with our Christmas feast.
The kids asked if we were lost. “Not exactly lost,” I said. “But not on the path, either. We’ll get there. Why don’t you sketch this spot in your new books? Or the rattlesnake mound.”
I had gotten lost on that trip to the Baboquivari Peak Wilderness. After a long day of climbing, I took a pause at the top before heading down. I wanted a quiet moment all alone to listen to the place where the Tohono O’odham believed their people emerged from the navel of the earth. They consider it the center of their cosmology and the home of their creator I’itoi (EE-toy) who is said to live in a cave below the base of the mountain. Dark fell quickly and I lost the thin trail on the way down. Boy, did I hear spirits! As soon as I thought I was lost, the rich spiritual experience I was seeking turned into monsters at every turn. Blood pounding in my ears, I heard drumming, chanting coming from inside the rock. Every dark crevice was the creator’s cave and I was an intruder. I chose DOWN as my only direction and before too long I could see the short bus we’d come in below and familiar people milling around. Absolutely nothing happened. I wasn’t really lost, just off the path. But, thinking that I was lost was terrifying.
At that moment, I saw Mun-Hee’s shiny black hair bobbing up down along a ridge. The trail was that close. “Mun-Hee!” I shouted. The kids jumped up and down waving their arms. “Mun-Hee! Mun-Hee! We’re over here!” Mun-Hee gingerly wound through the manzanita to join us and we finished our lunch together, the kids telling our epic adventure story.
When we were ready to head back, Mun-Hee pulled out a zip-loc bag of salt and we all sprinkled it over our heads, giggling, and threw some over our shoulders. The kids played the rest out along the trail as we started off for the car. I kept a bit in my pocket to rub between my fingers and say a prayer of thanks to all of the monsters who had let us pass.
Copyright Olson 2021