My friend Rob Hunt is a field ecologist. As such he spends many days and nights outdoors, around 200 each year. In this adventure, written from his field notes, he found Edward Abbey’s blessing: “may your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view.”
— Richard Pritzlaff, President, Biophilia Foundation
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9/20/2014: Excerpt from field notes taken in Cajon Bonito, Sonora, 10 miles south of the Border…
Rancho El Pinito: upper Cajon Bonito at the base of the Sierra San Luis. Weather: cloudy; warm, but cooling quickly; intermittent storms, some powerful and accompanied by high winds.
I totally underestimated this landscape yesterday, particularly its canyons. My goal was an all-day vigorous reconnaissance in a loop route that would take me uphill out of the cajon (box canyon) and away from the ranch quarters, and east atop the flat-topped foothills of the Sierra San Luis. (The Sierra and Cajon Bonito are about an hour’s drive east of the twin cities of Douglas, Arizona and Agua Prieta, Sonora). Then I planned on exploring a couple of canyons to the south, following one of them until it met Cajon Bonito somewhere upstream (south) of the ranch quarters. From there, it should have been a relatively easy jaunt back home.
Whatever chubasco (Mexican hurricane) had infiltrated the area, it now spent its remaining strength across this region, casting a heavy cloud cover. Scattered storms and bands of clouds streamed across this section of the Sky Islands Ecoregion with roaming patches of sunlight and shade. There was a light rain sprinkle on my way up the switchbacks to the rim above and east of the ranch. I reached a small line shack along the dirt road that ran east through scattered pinyon/juniper woodlands and oak/grassland savanna. Three mules and a horse idled near the shack, but they didn’t let me approach too closely.
The Hills of Cajon Bonito
On the way up, I observed the hills rising in tiers. I could see the tilted rock strata that gave them their flat-topped form. I counted four tiers including the broad cap of the flats on which I now stood. The tilt that would have actually led “downhill” towards the base of the main mountain chain was hidden beneath the outwash alluvium that spread like broad aprons from the mouths of the higher canyons. Interrupting this broad, gentle slope upwards towards the Sierra San Luis was a line of small but steep hills. Then beyond the hills came the broken foothills of the mountain range.
The details of the surrounding country in all directions were occasionally obscured by passing rain squalls in the distance. In fact, from this vantage point I had another typically stupendous view of the sky islands region. My altimeter read ~5700 feet, already nearly a thousand feet higher than the ranch and canyon floor I left earlier that morning. The Sierra San Luis was massive and impressive to my east as a series of both rounded and saw-toothed ridges.
The rhyolite (volcanic rock) escarpments, cliffs and spires among the long line of peaks had a discernible tilt to the east, just like the hills I was walking among. The flat-topped heights leaned towards Chihuahua. The entire area was a series of tilted and normal-faulted blocks with the Sierra San Luis and ranges to its south remaining in place while the surrounding country sank probably 15 – 25 million years ago. Below me the box canyon of Cajon Bonito stretched away to the north looking like a suture upon the landscape. It undoubtedly was following one of the fault lines created by that ancient mountain-shaping processes.
To the north, the lofty Animas Mountains, which lay in the boot-heel of New Mexico, beyond the international border, were being quickly cloaked by dark clouds. I turned my gaze counter-clockwise. Directly north, the lower Peloncillo Mountains were also quickly covered by another rain squall. Beyond them, the dark mass of the Chiricahua Mountains lifted, the tallest mountains in my view. Continuing counter-clockwise: further away to the west were the Mule mountains and beyond them the much taller Huachucas. The Sierra San Jose directly west was in sunlight even as storm darkness flooded over the Sierra Cananea beyond them. A line of tall hills partially obscured the Sierra de los Ajos in the southwest. Then in the foreground the 7500-foot mesas, mountains, slopes and spires blocked the south and continued into the Sierra San Luis above me.
In front of the southerly heights, Cajon Bonito and several of its tributaries cut into the mountains becoming deep, spectacular canyons and barrancas. I could see vast cliffs enclosing hidden depths that teased me to explore them. Within some of the nearer side canyons of the Cajon lay dark green stringers of 100-150 foot tall cypresses and pines, fingers of montane vegetation flowing like green water out of the heavily forested slopes of the San Luis. Everywhere below me the alternating slopes created a hypnotic mosaic of heavily wooded, north-facing slopes opposite yellow grassy, drier south-facing aspects.
From savanna to low woodland
I started to move towards the mountains in the distance, and as I did, the trees and shrubs changed from scattered savanna to dense, low woodland. I strode along the dirt road towards the line of low hills in front of the main mountain mass. Here both the tree and shrub density and diversity increased. Then the road slipped down along the flank of a cerro and into a canyon named Junta Las Cajones and to one of the canyon-bottom forests. Where the road reached the bottom, the canyon was constricted between opposing cliffs. The road trailed through this gate of 200-foot tall rock walls and into a forested world beyond dominated by Apache pine, Ponderosa Pine, the massive spears of Arizona Cypress, Chihuahua Pine, and half a dozen species of oaks.
I walked up a fence line atop a hill between the junta and a mysterious and daunting looking canyon to the immediate south. Before I plunged further into that part of the forest, I gazed at the Sierra San Luis through my binoculars. They were bonito, beautiful. They were composed of a mosaic of tan and orange cliffs, oak woodlands, dense blankets of pine forest and areas that had been burned in large forest fires. A lot of American forest managers say that “healthy” fires do not incinerate the trees, but just creep along and clear out the undergrowth. I have always been suspicious of this paradigm. The mountains that towered above me now defied these rules. Many of the slopes had been fried by incinerating fires. Other slopes had evidence of the “creeping” fires. These mountains have never been managed. The fire ecology of Southwestern forests includes the full spectrum of devastation, and not just the narrow parameters that are convenient to logging companies and silviculturalists.
Down the canyon to Cajon Bonito
ENOUGH!!! I plunged into this unnamed canyon from the saddle by following a precipitous barbed wire fence (can barbed wire precipitate? horrid thought). It was now 1:10 p.m. – make a note of that… this was a much bigger canyon than the one I had left earlier. Here the cypress trees were abundant and huge. My topographic map gave me the impression that this canyon plunged rapidly to Cajon Bonito. With a good pace, I probably had time to make the route. When I reached the canyon bottom, I entered a wilderness primeval. This dark forested habitat looked utterly untouched by the hand of humans. The stream was dry, but the habitat was much lusher than even the Cajon back at the ranch. Giant cypresses towered over a dense understory of several species of oaks, innumerable shrubs and a tangle of vines. This deep, dark woodland was overtopped by bright orange cliffs and spires spattered by lichens and mosses of several neon-intense colors. Despite the lack of flowing water, the humidity was thick. This was the most beautiful place I had stepped into so far on this trip. This place would be my wilderness template by which I would assess all other habitats in the region.
By now the clouds above this canyon had grown thicker, the sky was much darker. It had rained last night, and it still might do so this afternoon, I thought. I made my fateful decision and turned down the canyon, past the point of no return. As I stumbled and walked downstream that afternoon, I realized with a gradual sinking feeling that the distances that I thought I was walking were taking longer than I had anticipated from my map study. This canyon was not only tremendously beautiful, it was also difficult and slow to get through. There were numerous dry waterfalls, large boulders and an endless stream of slick cobbles and soft sands to negotiate. At one point, I stopped above a 30-foot waterfall. I looked at the sky – too cloudy. I plunged past it on a steep, dangerous slope. I slid to the bottom and kept moving with more determination.
Where light barely reached the ground
All of the time the canyon constricted ever so slightly, hemmed in by increasingly more gigantic cliffs of orange, gray, tan and red. Most of the cliffs rose at least 300-400 feet high. Some lofted up to 800 feet above my deeply incised lost world. Below, I plunged pell-mell through a deep green world with startling rock formations and large boulders. These were rendered into elfin abstract art by coverings of multi-colored mosses and lichens. The trees above me were draped with curtains of more lichens and bromeliads. The green corridor soon started to be punctuated by the intense red, orange and yellow of maple trees in their early autumnal glory. The vegetation grew extremely thick along the narrow banks of the dry stream until it came to resemble a forest of the Pacific Northwest. Here, barely any light reached the ground.
“A storm approached. I did have a poncho, but little else. I was on a trek for which
I had done no proper preparation.”
I heard the gradually increasing rumble of thunder. A storm approached. I did have a poncho, but little else. I was on a trek for which I had done no proper preparation. I kept referring to my map and soon realized that, at this rate of movement, I’d be lucky if I made it to the confluence of this stream with Cajon Bonito before nightfall. And then I still had three or four miles to go to reach the ranch. I had not brought a lamp. Such hubris! I increased my already brisk pace. Thunder nearby and I knew I’d get wet. I pulled out my poncho just in time for a good, wet dumping – it poured. The creek even flooded for a short while forcing me further into the dense brush and tree cover. I stood miserably beneath an oak and the less sheltering cypresses. I lost a precious 40 minutes. When the rain eased up, I plummeted downstream as quickly as I could. I visualized having to stay out here all night in this canyon in wet clothes and only a poncho for shelter. I crushed the thought and threw it away. On and down, boulder-hopping, cobble-stumbling, waterfall-leaping, I kept trying to increase my pace. I now knew that the maps could in no way adequately characterize the true length of this canyon. On the map it was called Canon Quebrado, Rugged Canyon.
More beauty on the hike to Cajon Bonito
As I rushed frantically down the rocky corridor, I could not help but gasp repeatedly at the incredible beauty all around me. My God! Each kilometer, each stretch, every corner was ever more beautiful than the last. Every turn in the canyon, and it changed again with new shapes, new colors, and more spectacular natural architecture and changing textures.
There came a curious rock formation that was a large glassy obsidian-like black rock, like a volcanic sill. It was a dark blue-black with bright orange streamers like the swipes of a paintbrush throughout the matrix. Sometimes this brownish orange inclusion became the matrix itself with broken chunks of the darker material scattered within. There were large, surreally colored boulders of this obsidian substance scattered across the gray and tan canyon floor and snugged up under dark green trees. Sometimes the orange inclusions looked like streams of orange beads, other times like swirling lines of unmixed paints.
The tall limestone walls above me looked as if they had been squeezed in some mountain-building event because they had an unusual sheen, and the strata were squeezed tight and twisted and swirled. There was colorful orange breccia with gravel of many colors embedded within. Above all of this towered the massive orange and tan rhyolite cliffs that lifted one above another.
Finally running water
I regret not being able to spend more time appreciating the kaleidescopic, immense beauty of this lost world canyon. If there is such a thing as “old-growth” cypress forest, then it is here in these barrancas that it reigns supreme. And nowhere did I see but the faintest few signs of the hand of humans and their ubiquitous cattle.
I yelped for joy when the canyon I was in met another larger one, though it wasn’t Cajon Bonito yet. At least it was a recognizable feature on the map, a sign of progress. I had been expecting it for far too long. My ankles, feet and legs were beat, and I really had no time to rest, but this place was worth it! AND I finally heard running water. There was a sudden return of the more lush, water-loving trees such as willows and sycamores, which had been missing in the canyon I just quit. The sun had returned, although a bit lower in the sky.
Here, the towering cliffs and rock formations lifted up over 500 feet and blazed orange in the late afternoon sun. Everywhere the psychedelic moss and lichen colors clashed or blended with the colors and shapes of the equally disorienting and odd rocks. As I sat resting and gulping water, I heard a “kwaw-kwaw-kwaw!” I immediately thought, Thick-billed Parrot! No, on second thought, not loud enough. Nevertheless, the bird was almost as exotic, an Elegant Trogon.
I groaned as I levered myself upright on tired legs. I gazed upstream at this newer canyon – how I wished I could explore it. It probably rivaled the one I just left by every measure. I shouldered my pack and blasted downstream along a flat creek bottom with occasional flows and small pools. The appearance of water in this section of the canyon apparently coincided with exposures at or near the surface of that colorful obsidian-like rock formation. It was an impermeable contact layer along which ground water flowed within the seams of rock until erosion exposed the flow.
No cows, no horses, no humans
Initially, I had hopes for easier walking after the seemingly endless hopping, skipping and jumping of the earlier afternoon. NO WAY! After a short respite, I was back to scrambling with ankle-busting, knee-twisting plunges down the canyon bottom. For the rest of the trek, including even Cajon Bonito later, I flew across soft sand bars, cobble piles, and up and over huge boulders. I ran as fast as I could, and when I couldn’t, I scrambled like a rat through the maze of rocks, kilometer after kilometer. Nowhere was the surface of these flood deposits and sediments broken by any tracks but those of a bear or a deer: no cows, no horses, and no humans.
The beauty got better
As if what I had seen already was not beautiful enough beyond adequate description, it got better. All I could do was glimpse at it as I tried to monitor the leg-straining, ankle-breaking terrain that I moved furiously across in the encroaching darkness. The cliffs closed in and grew taller. I half-ran across the sediments of violent flooding of times past. After each twist in the canyon’s progress, in the lee of abrupt walls of rock, grew thick little islands of maples and oaks.
Caves began to appear at ground level and far up the sides of the cliffs. I quickly checked a couple, my curiosity damning my good sense. The caves breathed – a telling sign. One huge cliff, bathed in the warm golden light reflected to it from a sunward-facing cliff across the canyon had several of these caves. One had a T-shaped opening that led to nowhere but the abyss in which I now stood gaping upwards. I speculated about the possible use of these caves by paleo-Indians. I turned and continued to trek frantically.
“Es muy, muy bonito!”
How can I begin to describe to you the most beautiful place I have been to in years, maybe in my life? Words can’t adequately portray this place, and I do not have the patience nor the time to do so in this little field journal. “Es muy, muy bonito!” I would later exclaim in exhaustion to Francisco and his wife back at the ranch. And I had only seen the lower, drier portion of that country ON THE RUN. I can still barely do more than babble about it. And nowhere did I see a sign of the fell hand of humans, at least not recent humans.
Finally, after sunset, I reached the confluence of this second canyon with Cajon Bonito. I looked again with longing at the upstream portion of Cajon Bonito, where it disappeared between huge mountain masses. No time. I ruthlessly jerked my attention back downstream and into the lowering gloom of twilight in a wilderness canyon. I renewed my frantic scramble down the larger streambed of the Cajon. Across cobble piles, up and down slippery, slowing banks of sand, around more boulders. Darker, yet closer to Rancho El Pinito, I was now bent over trying to see a path across the wooded terraces or to watch for ankle-popping rocks.
The Ranch: Cajon Bonito
When I finally reached the ranch, it had been full dark for about an hour, and I was stumbling very painfully, at the utter end of my strength. I let out a hoarse whoop of joy. Francisco and Norma and their two ninos had been sitting up waiting for me and watching the stars. They bustled me into their house, sat me down and made me eat two burritos con mucho guacamole and a stout cup of Cafe Combate. I croaked out my adventure to Francisco in my Tarzan Spanish. Then I excused myself. I wobbled bowlegged after Francisco to the little rat-infested shack I was staying in. He cranked up the oil lamp. I thanked him profusely. Then I stripped out of my ruined, wet clothes, collapsed into the saggy old bed, and dreamt weird dreams.
Rob Hunt, Ph.D., has worked along and around both sides of the Border conducting naturalist research on plants, birds and habitats for the last 20+ years. He has also participated in conservation activism and environmental education, taking ecology classes from Prescott College to the region for exploratory learning. His most recent project was a study of the ecology of the Border Wall within the Sky Islands Ecoregion.