Feast of Thorns (Part Two): Tramping the Sonoran Sierras

editor’s note: We interrupt the ongoing coverage of The Frank Holton Memorial Road Trip for a much desired update from our favorite Copper Canyon correspondent.

The camino real we had been following up and down, and in and out of arroyos and up and over ridges finally ended at a rancho with a corral, a cattle chute and a couple of buildings. The metal cattle chute and trash from store-bought snacks were an indication that a road wasn’t far away. As we passed the buildings, a side trail heading up the steep slope branched off of our more distinct route. Moments later a bigger trail branched off heading up the other canyon wall and still our trail was good but it ended in a box canyon and forced us to start climbing. It crossed a trickle of a stream and we stopped to refill. Now that we were climbing, water was foremost in our minds. We sat and watched an industrious army of leaf-cutter ants carry bits of leaves and branches from one place to another until black flies showed up and hurried us along. Our trail climbed steeply and steadily, and after 30 minutes or so we got a view of the lay of the land. The first trail went up and over a ridge and on to the vado through the Rio Aros at Rancho Primavera. The second trail was just joining ours after going to another rancho that was hidden before, and ahead of us was the dirt road we hoped to take back to town. We hit the road and continued climbing. It was getting late in the day, and there was no flat ground. After an hour and a half of climbing, the road made a tight bend, and in the bend was a little promontory with an inviting flat spot of rock. The 360 degree views were spectacular, and the last rays of sunlight lit up the sky and the clouds with stripes of vivid pink and purple. Far to the north, the lights of Nacori Chico twinkled serenely.

Sunset in the sierras.

This patch of rock was as flat as a sidewalk, and about as wide, but it needed some work before we could sleep on it. While we were policing it, our dog was out exploring, and suddenly she started barking ferociously. We calmed her down, and made dinner, but once again she got agitated and ran off into the dark night to bark at something. We figured that we had evicted some cows, and they were back to check us out. The barking stopped and Remo came back into camp, but she was acting weird and started rubbing her head on the rock. That’s when we smelled skunk. That little dog is good with most domestic critters, but she’s never seen a skunk- until now. There was a greasy spot on her neck where she got zapped. Our sleeping bags were laid out to loft, and all our gear was scattered about, and Remo was looking for something soft to wipe that smell on. Quick as a flash, we folded the bags in the ground tarp, packed the sweaty clothes away, and leashed her to a tree. It was easy to tell that she was mad. She turned her butt to us and pouted, not being able to wrap up in a nice warm sleeping bag. We couldn’t stand the smell, and finally decided that the only thing we would do would be to give her a dust bath. The road below us was composed of fine, powdery, pulverized rock, and after the second bath the oily secretion was beginning to lose its powerful pungence. Make no mistake, there was still a strongly aromatic undercurrent, so we selected an especially sweaty shirt for our spoiled little dog’s bed, and with the dog still leashed to the tree, we retired for the night.

Next day we continued our climb up and out of the Aros River watershed. We noticed cat tracks as soon as we got on the road and we followed them a while. Actually, we had seen lots of cat prints on this hike and lots of scat, too. The tootsie roll segments of pure hair and bits of bone are unmistakable. No nuts and berries for the true carnivore. It seems like one of the benefits of cattle grazing is keeping trails open. The vaqueros use the trails to follow the cows, and at night the lions, bobcats, and jaguars use the same trails to follow the same cows. It’s quite an equitable situation for all concerned. The demise of ranching may have an unintended deleterious effect on the native feline population in this remote corner of Sonora. Let’s hope not.

Probably the best imprint we got of a mountain lion hiking near the RIo Aros.
Near the next ridge at a gate was a tinaco. We tapped it and it was full. The last night’s camp had been dry, and not keen to forego coffee in the mornings we were starting to get thirsty and the daytime temperature was rising fast. We figured out a way to reduce pressure from the lave and filled all our bottles. We drank heartily, refilled, and headed up. The next ridge was the summit and offered us excellent views of our starting point, and the way back to town. We were way east of the sinuous road we had taken in, but this new route offered a relatively straight exit. As the temperature rose we headed south, hour after hour after hour. We found a fetid cattle tank and I tried to jump in but the mud was too thick and the water level was too shallow, so I had to abandon the idea. We filled up, and I had to dry off and chip off the caking mud. On and on. Eventually we came to a gate, and a rancho, and a road junction. Civilization, yeah! Not so quick. We were on the main road to Cebadilla, but there were no fresh tracks on the road. We saw a road runner and a Gila Monster. We saw a beautiful palm tree valley stretching forever with golden grasses glowing in the fading sunlight. We found a wide arroyowith running water and knew we’d be OK for the night, but we decided to push on a bit.

This part of the Sonoran sierras is primo habitat for the Gila Monster
Toward sunset we met a man riding a horse and driving a burro. He said he was on his way to the arroyo to get water and should we want to spend the night we were more than welcome, and his rancho was just down the road on the right. Just a couple of kilometers further on we found his gate and sat down on a rock to wait. Jesus motioned us in while he tethered his mounts to a tree just outside the clearing that served for the front porch. A dilapidated car bench seat sat under the open sky and a wooden chair was propped against the middle support of the roof of an outdoor kitchen. Adjacent to the kitchen shelter, a open door led to the main room constructed of particle board and old tarps. Outside the door, he was drying bright red chiltepin berries on a barrel lid. He unpacked the water jugs and turned the stock loose in the pasture across the road, and invited us in the main room for coffee. This room was an indoor kitchen with steam rising from a kettle on the coals. Another doorway led to the recamera, where there were a couple of cot frames leaning against the wall with a sheet strung across the middle to partition the room. A refrigerator was being used as a mouseproof pantry in the corner, and had a string tied around it. Various coolers were stacked and tack neatly hung on pegs or nails in the vigas. In the kitchen was a chair and a bench seat around a little table with covered containers of coffee, sugar, salt, and pickled escabeche. I got the chair from outside as Jesus put a coffee cup and a spoon in from of each us. Jesus fed some more wood into the fire and poured hot water into our cups. We spooned in Nescafe by the last light of the day, and talked in the dark. Jesus had stoked the fire, but he seemed oblivious to the billowing smoke. He said that this Valle de San Jose used to have 30 or so families, but that all but 3 had left. He said the younger generation had no interest in the cowboy life anymore. He had about 40 head of cattle on his spread, but 30,000 hectares of the adjacent rancho was for sale. He said his wife was in town, and that he had already eaten, so we brought out some snacks to munch on as we talked. Presently the conversation waned, so he unfolded the cots for us, and after walking many miles that day we slept long and soundly.

Hiking in Sonora, a valley of palms in the dry desert
We were up before dawn and fortified with coffee and pinole, we were walking before sun-up. After a couple of hours we found an arroyo with a nasty, stinky pool of concentrated liquid spawned from water. Following the arroy odownstream, we found a big respectable pool of the nectar of life and filled up. The day stretched out long and hot, and just after midday we reached a road junction. This was THE road junction we had been passing for years, and we knew just where we were. We were a long way from town. We were 3 hours by 4 wheel drive from Sahuaripa. We sat down to survey our situation and wait, but wait- what’s that sound. We heard a truck in low gear, or thought we did and then it stopped. Then we heard it again coming from the gate we had just crossed. Sure enough, a big cattle truck came into view, and stopped in front of us. Of course he had to because we were in the middle of the road. The driver turned off the truck and got out. The two guys beside him got out, and we all shook hands. The driver Felix and his crew said that Jesus had told these guys to be on the lookout for us, but they were surprised that we had gotten so far. They were grading the road, and the grader had broken down. They were going back to town to get parts, and sure, they had room for a dusty dirty couple and a dog. We climbed up and nestled in amongst diesel cans and tools and tarps as the dust plume rose behind us. It was the perfect time for our own well deserved dust bath. And so ends another adventure in the sierras of Mexico. The only danger is not getting out and enjoying yourself, and wishing you had.

Join us next time as we hike a new route from Divisadero to the Caballo Blanco Ultramarathon in Urique. Or we’ll see you there- the first Sunday in March, every March.