The mystery of brightness is more profound than the mystery of darkness, and that of stillness perhaps the most profound of all. In the noontime glare the heart of the Gila wilderness in southwestern New Mexico is both bright and still, the sole sound the drone of a circling horsefly, the only breath the imperceptible beat of its spotted wings. Six human figures seated at the extreme end of a rocky point overlooking the Middle Fork of the Gila River 500 feet down are annealed with the silence, the immobility of the day. The hawk poised on spread wings 100 feet below us seems motionless, the warm brown river frozen in its gravel bed by the early July heat. The white clouds with their gray undersides look painted on the blue sky, but the slate-gray cloud mass expanding above the eastern mountains and the thinly forested mesas are poised to bring the warm monsoonal rains of afternoon, pouring and nearly perpendicular, unblown by the circulating winds thousands of feet above the wilderness of ponderosa pine and live oak parched by the intense heat and drought of May and June. In the wilderness of the Gila, even the summer storms have a stillness, a silence of their own.
I had last traveled horseback in the Gila country in 1999, when I entered it from the southeastern corner, north of Silver City. The topography is different there, smoother, softer, more rolling, with lush parks spreading between big patches of forest. Here, north of Whitewater Baldy and Bald Mountain, the highest elevated points in the Gila, 50 primitive road miles southeast of Reserve in the northwestern quadrant of the national forest, the country is much rougher, cut by steep canyons carved into the high central mesas that produce violent drafts of air upward and down. Our party of six had packed in from the Loco Tanks near Snow Lake with Jim Mater and his crew of three out of Glenwood some miles south of Reserve, to U-Trail’s established camp below the head of Clear Creek, a nine-mile ride from the trailhead. We had been riding for four days already in the vicinity of the Middle Gila and the Jerky Mountains, which we’d circled the day before in a five-hour ride, Jim Mater on his black 18-hand mule leading the pack string of 15 other mules and horses and followed by myself riding a willful Appaloosa mare, Iva Jim’s friend on a tall black thoroughbred gelding and Melania her 13-year-old niece who lives on an island belonging to Spain in the Mediterranean, mounted on a spirited short-legged mule, and behind them Janey my sister and her husband Carl and Todd her brother-in-law and Julie his fiancée astride various horses and mules strung out in file along the trail with Iva’s friend Bea from Bavaria working rearguard. Sixteen straining animals, nine riders at differing levels of competence, and still that solid infrangible silence, like the relative heat, impervious to the chink of bridles, the clatter and thud of shod hooves, the creak of leather, and the occasional shout “Snake!” from the head of the line, or the snort and blow of an eager horse wanting to catch up from the rear.
From our present vantage above the Middle Fork, the country we’d traversed since leaving the Loco Tanks easily arranged itself in a coherent pattern around the salient landmarks it encompassed without the help of a GPS system, though my simple map was useful. It was really the reason Jim had brought us out here, the dramatic view from the promontory and the mysterious wreckage of an equally mysterious airplane along the trail being encouragements. No one can say how long the plane has rested here some 8,000 feet above Clear Creek, what brought it down at a 45-degree angle, though a sudden down draft is a likely explanation, nor what was the fate of its crew of two, supposing the copilot’s seat was occupied. The Forest Service has no record of the crash; no search was organized for the plane, for bodies, or for survivors; no family has reported the disappearance of a husband, brother, father, or lover. A U.S. Air Force belt buckle retrieved from among the brush and live oak tens of yards away from the point of impact close by the verge of the mesa overlooking the creek suggests the plane was a military craft. Parts of the wreck were carried away recently by two women retired from American Airlines for the purpose of further research, and many of the remaining pieces are clearly stamped with their numbers of manufacture. The single-engine plane’s 11 cylinders survived largely intact, and the nose wheel, tail wheel, and parts of the main landing gear are plainly recognizable. So are the empty frames of the pilots’ control pedals. Ragged sections of aluminum skin warped by the heat of the ensuing fire are scorched a ghostly gray color, and portions of the hollow frame, twisted and tangled, lie interspersed with the smaller bits, including two sardine cans, one with the top rolled partway back. We wandered among these objects, picking them up at random, turning them over, and setting them carefully down again, commenting to one another in quiet voices. The rock rubble surrounding the primitive catacombs abandoned 800 years ago, possibly in tragic circumstances involving hundreds or thousands of people, by the cliff dwellers of the Gila country 500 feet below along the river speak far more intelligibly than these pulverized remnants of modern industrial ingenuity do, and their silence is resonant. The shallow crater here on the mesa is a certain grave, the wreck itself a tombstone for two men vanished from the face of the earth, yet the silence surrounding it is an iron silence recognizing no more than the destruction of an elaborate machine. We remounted at last, rode on along the mesa, and a mile or so on jumped a big bull elk in his red summer coat bedded down by the trail 40 yards ahead of us. Jim drew rein, and we sat our horses behind him, watching as the bull bounded away downhill through the forest, the back tines of his rack scraping the croup as he went.
We rode by the plane wreck again on the return trip to camp later in the day, shrouded in rain gear while two electrical storms, south and north, boomed and rumbled along their curving monsoonal courses across the mountains and mesas. Traveling one July day in the Wind River Mountains in Wyoming, breaking at a lope across an open summit above timberline to find shelter from a summer storm lower down the opposite side of the ridge, I rode straight over four molten horseshoes lying together in the short grass, all that remained probably of a sheepherder’s unfortunate horse, and perhaps of the sheepherder himself. I have never felt comfortable since riding horseback through even half-open country during storms, and it was good to begin the switchback descent from the mesa to the camp on Clear Creek where Iva tended to the furloughed animals snubbed to a line strung in oblong form between the ponderosa pine trees and prepared to fix supper on white-gas stoves set up in the outdoor kitchenette beneath a blue plastic rainfly.
The rain commenced while the sweaty dismounted riders salvaged half-afloat cans barely cooled by the tepid creek and sat drinking warm beer in folding chairs crowded beneath the fly while rainwater poured from it into collecting buckets. The rain came hard and heavy and gray, darkening the straight black-striped trunks of the ponderosa forest and brightening the green grass between the trees, and it fell almost straight down, unslanting and nearly soundless, while Jim unsaddled and nose-bagged the horses and Melania led them to drink at the creek, and Iva and Bea worked in the kitchen. We ate at six and sat watching the orange flames struggling against the rain, smelling the wet ground, the freshened grass, and the piney woods while the storm lifted and moved off almost imperceptibly, masked by wraiths of pale mist that darkened as the evening light withdrew from the canyon. Dusk fell, the fire burned higher away from the dripping trees, and Melania, who had been fooling with Jim’s lasso, gave Julie a lesson in throwing rope. Then she tried teaching me, and for the next half hour I gave a satisfying impression of a rodeo clown while 9 people and 16 animals split themselves laughing, and Melania made a video of the show. (Lassoing is more difficult than it looks, somewhat like fly casting but trickier, though infinitely more useful to western life.) When the comedy was finished someone suggested horseshoes, which we tossed until it was too dark to see the posts. Throughout the gaiety the huge and infinite silence of the Gila prevailed, not resenting or resisting our laughter but not accepting it either, and blotting it finally into the deepening night. Falling asleep in the dripping tent I continued to hear that silence, a vague presence above the sound of muffled voices settling for the night and the hollow thump of an impatient horse striking at the softened hollow sounding ground beneath the wet pine needles.
We rose before six the next morning and drank early coffee as Jim spread each horse’s tack on a ground cloth beneath the trees and saddled every one securely, while Iva and Bea tended the damp still-dripping kitchen smelling of bacon strips curling in their own grease, and bars of sunlight pried the mists free of the canyon and raised them toward the soft blue sky, where they quickly dissipated. After breakfast we struck our tents, and Jim loaded them onto the mules with the rest of the gear to be packed out, and spread and dried at the trailhead. The pack train departed at ten, leaving behind in camp the kitchen, the folding furniture stowed in a nylon tent, and the thunder-box discreetly curtained by a plastic sheet for the convenience of the following party arriving 48 hours later. Only the familiar clink, rattle, and rumble of our passage along the trail disturbed the windless morning, but riding toward the head of the train I was aware of something like the soundless suck, an invisible vortex of silence closing rapidly behind us, like the sea over the vanishing stern of a foundered ship.