A man I went to grammar school, junior high and some high school with, then several decades later became reacquainted and huff-puffed a lot of up and down mountain canyons recently began visiting this blog. If no other reader enjoys the tale, at least he will, because he was there:
The following is copyrighted material from a book I wrote once. I give myself permission to use it here. [ Crazy Lost Gold Mine-ism]
I’ve never concerned myself much with the dangers of wild animals during my extensive time in the woods. Mostly they’ll mind their own business if a person takes reasonable precautions and doesn’t go out of his way to provoke them. In New Mexico backlands of the late 20th century the real threats usually come in the form of humans. When those happen they usually come as suddenly and unexpectedly as finding one’s self in the middle of a herd of elk.
Grasshopper Canyon and Stinking Springs are on the northern end of the Zunis below Oso Ridge on the west face of the mesa. Two canyons run north and south, parallel to the face, half a mile apart, separated from one another by steep, narrow walls several hundred feet high. These two walls consist of coral reef from some ancient time when Oso Ridge was an island. The canyons aren’t easily accessible, so I prospected there a while.
The land below Oso Ridge around Grasshopper Canyon is checker-boarded in ownership. Grasshopper is all National Forest, but immediately south is a section of Navajo tribal land. Adjacent to the Navajo section is a section belonging to the Zuni tribe. Fences between these sections allow a person to always know whether he’s on public land or tribal land.
I was working Grasshopper Canyon with my friend Keith, a stockbroker from Santa Fe. We separated and worked the arroyos southward parallel to one another, gradually moving toward the fence delineating the Navajo section. Occasionally we’d call out through the woods to make certain we weren’t out-distancing one another. The last thing either of us expected was an encounter with another human in those woods.
I was bent over taking samples from the bed of a shallow arroyo, just deep enough so when I straightened I could view the small meadow around me. I stood getting my breath and stretching the kinks out of my back when I saw a man dressed in cammies backing out of the woods at the edge of the meadow. He was being stealthy, carrying a .22 rifle in a ready position. He had twenty to thirty colorful birds hanging on a string around his neck the way a fisherman carries a stringer of fish. As I watched, almost invisible to him with only the top of my head showing above the arroyo, his eyes searched the woods to his right where Keith was working. Keith had called out from there a few moments previously.
Still watching Keith’s direction the man backed toward me until he was only a few feet away from me. “Nice string of birds.” I scrambled up the bank while he spun and pointed the .22 in my general direction.
“My partner’s in the woods back behind you. You don’t want to be firing in that direction.” We studied one another. He eyed the shoulder rig I was wearing and the butt of the 9 mm automatic showing from the bottom. “’You out here killing songbirds?”
Mister Songbird was a young man and from appearances, a Zuni. He stared a moment longer before answering. My impression was that he was considering whether I was a game warden or other law enforcement official. “I’m getting them for Zuni New Year. They let us do that.”
We talked for a few minutes, me accepting what he said at face value, and the tension gradually dissolved. He agreed to get the hell out of the canyon because we were working there and wouldn’t want any shooting. Besides, we’d probably messed up his hunt with our yelling and bustling around the woods. I watched him back into the meadow to the south and allowed myself to sigh with relief.
Back in Santa Fe I called the US Fish and Game Department. I thought there was a remote chance the feds were really allowing Zunis to kill protected species birds on National Forest land. If so, I was prepared to be indignant.
When I told my story the fed was silent a moment. “You are a lucky man,” he observed. “You confronted an armed man committing multiple Federal felonies and he didn’t shoot you.”
* The following didn’t make it into the final draft of the manuscript: The fed also observed the Zuni lad would have spent a lot more years in prison for killing those songbirds than he would have for killing me. I drew a good bit of comfort from knowing that.
Eventually logic won out over the other appeals of the Zuni Mountains as a location for the lost gold mine I was searching for. Although the Zunis were handy for me, being only a few hours drive from Santa Fe, they were too far from Tucson.
Also, too many prominent landmarks in the area would have immediately brought the original survivors back. The route I imagined them following would have taken them within sight of Los Gigantes and enough other one-of-a-kind eccentricities to make the location unmistakable.
Even the Big Notch and Little Notch in the Continental Divide can be seen from miles to the west. There’s nothing else similar to it in North America.
Marty Robbins – Little Green Valley