The PUP Chronicles, Part 2: Dark But Not-So-Silent Nights

Our second adventure with the pop-up camper (PUP) was a 3 day affair in the northwestern section of Gila National Forest. At more than 4 hours drive time from Las Cruces this area is out of range for a day hike and happened to be a place we hadn’t visited with the RV on our way in or out of New Mexico so seemed to be a perfect choice for a long weekend. The map also showed that we’d have a variety of options for hiking and things to look at – including fire lookouts and archaeological sites – depending on what we felt like doing. And with numerous forest roads radiating through the San Francisco River Valley we knew too we’d have a plethora or potential places to disperse camp below 7,000 feet where we could avoid below-freezing overnight temperatures.

Our first excursion the week prior had been a great success, but dare I say that this second time around we nailed it? We had given ourselves plenty of time to locate a camp spot, and a mile or so down the first forest road we tried we spotted a promising secondary road trailing off into a grassy valley abutting the foothills of the Tularosa Mountains. A small crimp in our plan occurred when the dirt doubletrack disappeared into a wash about a hundred yards from the junction but this turned out to be a blessing since it forced Tom and I to explore the road on foot (to determine the feasibility of going forward) and gave us the opportunity to split up further ahead, ultimately leading Tom to find us the perfect spot in a ponderosa grove down the road that we would not have turned on had we been driving. After regrouping and determining the PUP could traverse the wash as well as the large ruts ahead with some careful tire placement, we crept forward with Tom spotting me from alongside the truck as I negotiated the terrain on the way to our spot.

Nestled in a lovely valley under the towering canopy of pines we agreed the campsite was perfect in every way as we set about unpacking under the warm afternoon sun. Set up complete, we each grabbed a beer and sat down on our camp chairs to read for the remainder of the daylight hours luxuriating in the silence, the light breeze, the heat from the sun, and the freedom from distraction. This routine, which we repeated each afternoon over the remainder of our camping weekends, was relaxing in a deep way, enriching to my brain as it was rejuvenating to my body.

After many wonderful hours the sun disappeared behind the mountains to the west and the glow of twilight was replaced was replaced by inky black sky, shrouding the outlines of the hills around us. The stars began to make an appearance and it was deliciously quiet – until we heard the clopping of hooves and the beginning of what was to be an all-night (though thankfully intermittent) conversation amongst the free range cattle. There were also – as far as we could tell – a lot of location queries made by the calves and obligatory replies made by the mothers as the cluster moved around the valley over the dark hours. Since I was awake anyway for most of the night it didn’t bother me, rather making for a nice change from the traffic noises of Las Cruces nights, but I much preferred listening to the coyotes sing which some group or another seemed to do just about once an hour. I also greatly enjoyed the bright spray of stars across the black canvas overhead, learning quickly to bring my glasses when I had to leave the PUP in the dark in order to see the millions of points of light dotting the black sky.

Our first full day we made our way north to Quemado Lake, ascending through the deep volcanic canyons of the Gallo Range up to the higher plains of the Datil volcanic field where we easily located the reservoir. Because we visited during the early days of COVID all the recreation and camping areas were closed but we located a trailhead nonetheless and started a trek to and around the lake. The southeast corridor was marshy, involving some quick stepping and deviation from the most direct path on our quest to circumnavigate the water, but we found our way around the horn to the long west side where we rejoined the (mostly) dry path, eventually progressing upland enough to be walking in the trees. As it was a warm day Abby had multiple occasions when she dipped into the lake, but with my encouragement she began paddling across the inlets as well instead of following us the long way around. I swear I’ll make a swimmer out of her yet. On the return through the mucky wetlands she even voluntarily swam through a stretch of Largo Creek instead of following us 4 or 5 minutes out of the way to cross. I like to think she’s a smart dog. Maybe smarter than us because we chose to cross the mucky area twice.

Our second day we attempted to summit the fire lookout on John Kerr Peak, walking the last 3 miles after the access road got a little dicey – it had taken us 50 minutes to travel the preceding 8 miles. We successfully hiked up to the nearly 8,800 foot peak but found that the lookout complex was no more; evidence of 4 bolts on a concrete pad, some stairs, and a few miscellaneous items were all that remained of what had been. Though my hopes of ascending another fire tower were thwarted it was quite a pleasant hike up a moderately steep peak, offering expansive views of the valley once we started winding up the apex. The top was heavily treed however so without having the advantage of a tower, we were unable to get a 360-degree view.

The morning of our departure day we lounged, taking full advantage of the warm spring morning by reading in the sunshine before we packed up and went to hike the (very) short Apache Creek Interpretive Trail. Though I was unable to find really any information on the petroglyphs etched into the volcanic boulders, they were probably created by the semi-nomadic members of the Mongollon culture in the late 13th and early 14th centuries who are better known for their construction of the Gila Cliff Dwellings. The peoples of this culture have also been credited with other rock art in the national forest and surrounding lands so it’s probably a good bet. The attribution is also bolstered by the proximity of an under-documented small pueblo that shares characteristics with the upland Mongollon culture. Irrespective of the creators, it was a neat little trail and we enjoyed visually-scouring the fractured volcanic boulders in search of carvings.