Riding the Gila Wilderness
by Audrey Stogsdill Beggs
R-A Mule Ranch, Sims, Arkansas
Our DNA says we are first cousins, but our hearts say we are closer than sisters and the best of friends. Our dads were brothers, Claude and Clyde Stogsdill; her name is Claudia Stogsdill Sharp. We are neither one considered “a spring chicken” and one of us is already on Medicare. We not only share DNA, but we share a love of riding and a sense of adventure. So, that is how we decided on an all-girl/ride pack trip at Gila Hot Springs Ranch located in the Gila Wilderness of New Mexico.
Becky on Dashee with pack mules Star and Molly
This all started when my husband, Rickey and I drove to Cliff, NM last July and bought a wagon advertised in Mules and More by Russell Dobkins. I wrote a story about that trip (see “He Wanted a Red Wagon for His Birthday,” in the October 2016 Mules and More).
Returning home I was telling our farrier Travis Coffman,about the trip and he asked if we went to Gila Hot Springs. When I told him we didn’t go that far north, he then told me about an outfitter there, Becky Campbell. Later I “Googled” Becky and found she had an outfitter company for hunters, but also took out riders furnishing Tennessee Walkers, and packed mules into the Gila Wilderness.
The Gila Wilderness is 558,014 acres of unspoiled land, with deep canyons, rugged mountain peaks, hot springs and a thick forest. This remote part of southwestern New Mexico became the first designated wilderness area in the United States. The Gila Wilderness lies in what is known as a transition zone, between desert and alpine forest; all of this makes the Gila very unique, offering a wide variety of life forms and magnificent scenery.
Sierra on Rebel with Pardner crossing the East Fork of the Gila River
After doing the research I sent Claudia an email and asked, “Is this something you would consider doing?” I sent the link to the website and our plans began to take form. Claudia and I had drifted apart since we were kids, but reconnected about three years ago when she had a cousin’s get together when she lived in St. Charles, Mo. I attended the get together and we have seen each other a lot, and talked at least once a week since then. She has been to our little mule ranch, and rode our mules twice in the last three years. She loves to ride, so naturally we had a lot to talk about. Claudia is retired but volunteers at an Horses for Heros facility that has therapeutic horseback riding for veterans and children with special needs. She doesn’t own equine and she says this scratches her itch to be around horses.
Audrey on Slim and Claudia on Mindy
I made reservations to fly, meeting up in the Dallas-Ft. Worth airport. From there we flew to Albuquerque and rented a car. We spent the first night in Old Town. We had planned on a sunset ride on the Sandia Tram, but it was cloudy and we were exhausted after our long trip, so we stopped at the little restaurant below the tram for a drink and snacks. We decided to go ahead and do the tram since it was too early to check into the motel. We boarded the tram with about 30 others; the ride up was a lot of fun. We got off at the top and walked around looking at the surroundings. We were at 10,000+ feet elevation and the air was pretty thin. After our long day, with very little sleep, and our drink, we were feeling the effects of it all. We had the chance to take the first tram back down, but decided to wait for another. That was not the best decision as after boarding the tram, and we were about halfway down, the wind came up with a vengeance. The tram was swinging and swaying so they had to stop the tram about halfway down the mountain; wind gusts were in excess of 80 mph, and this was not the most pleasant place to be. They let us hang over the mountains at least 30 minutes before we could get to the landing. There were at least five little ones, under five years old, and they were not happy. One gal just sat and looked at the floor and cried…I felt like joining her before we got down! Finally they got the tram moving; it was quite the experience and not one we plan to do again. It was a memory for a lifetime!
“Our Holiday Inn in the Gila Wilderness where Claudia and I slept. Spud and Pardner are beat after a long day of riding in the Gila Wilderness,” said AUDREY
We were up early the next morning and drove the old Route 66 through Albuquerque. They are restoring the old area and it will be magnificent when finished. We left Albuquerque, drove to Socorro and thru the mountains on the western side of New Mexico, the same route Rickey and I had taken to get the wagon at Cliff. I wanted to show Claudia the mountains, and stopped to say “hi” to Russell Dobkins, having a great visit with him and his wife, Ada.
We left their place and headed to the Gila Hot Springs Ranch, hoping to get there before dark. We decided we had enough gas in our Nissan Versa to make it to Silver City, not knowing there were some pretty big mountains to cross to get there. I was driving, and all of a sudden I see a flashing light on the steering wheel that said 40 miles to empty…this was an “Oh Crap” moment. We had just passed a sign that read, Silver City 29 miles. When I panicked Claudia looked at the gas gauge and said not to worry we still had two bars on the gauge, explaining as long as you have a bar there is nothing to worry about. When it went to one bar I started worrying, then there were no bars and I was really worrying. Then the miles reading went to a straight line. We turn off the a/c and Claudia said to just coast when we go downhill. I told her we had to go UP hill to be able to coast. I told her now was the time to pray. Of course, we had no cell phone signal, and there was not a house, a cow, horse, or mule to be seen. We did make it to Silber City, but I swear we got there on a prayer and gas fumes. From then on when the gas gauge showed half empty we filled it.
Becky with nieces Sierra and Christy getting ready for the trip
We arrived at Becky’s about 7 pm, after 40 miles of narrow road that had many switchbacks and at times it felt like you were going right off of the road into the canyon. Claudia is afraid of heights and was white knuckling it all the way. We spent that night in the apartment at Becky’s and she informed us where to meet her the next morning to get our horses for the trip.
When we got to the trail head Becky, her brother Angus, and a niece Christy, plus Christy’s three children, Sierra, Cayden and Lanie were all helping get the horses and mules ready for the trip. It was a family effort. Claudia and I put our stuff on a table to be loaded into the panniers and we just stood back to watch and take pictures. Fifteen year old Sierra went with us on the ride; Claudia and I were impressed with the teamwork everyone displayed.
It turned out to be Becky, Sierra, me and Claudia on the ride. We all rode Tennessee Walkers, and Becky had two pack mules, Molly and Star loaded with all the supplies. I had not ridden a horse (only mules) since 1990. Becky put me on a 7-year-old by the name of Slim, and Claudia rode Mindy, a mare. Sierra and Becky rode Rebel and Dashee (named after Cowboy Dashee in the Tony Hillerman books. We were accompanied by Ginger, an Australian shepherd, Pardner, a Great Pyrenees and Spud, a precious mixed breed. Spud had a horrible cut around his neck where he had supposedly got into a fight with a pit bull. It did not look like a dogfight, but like someone had taken a knife or box cutter and tried to decapitate him. He had about 60 stitches in his neck, but he was a fun dog, and even though he had some age on him he loved the ride.
Not long after we left camp and headed up the mountain, Becky turned around and told us to look down at the trail. There were mountain lion tracks on the same trail, going the same way we were going. They were not real fresh, but it was still a little unnerving way to start our three day ride. All we saw were tracks, never any real mountain lions.
The first day we rode about 14 miles into the Gila Wilderness. Becky has 25 acres and a cabin she has had for many years. Her dad came to this area in 1929, when he was 16 years old. He started the outfitting company in 1940 and it is still run by his children. Her cabin is in the East Fork Canyon of the Gila Wilderness. She took her first outfitters out at the age of 15, and is still going strong. Her dad’s store, Doc Campbell’s at Gila Hot Springs is still open and ran by family members.
We had beautiful and awesome scenery on the trails. Claudia said later she thought we cross the Gila River at least 150 times in three days; I’m not sure how many times we crossed it, but we did so many times a day. The dogs loved the water and would be waiting on us when we got to the river.
Audrey with Slim
We had wonderful lunches prepared by Becky and Sierra for the trail, and would stop and sit for a while at a beautiful spot Becky selected. This was a time to take pictures and see the beautiful scenery. We arrived at the cabin about mid-afternoon on Monday. We helped Sierra set up the tent and get stuff unloaded off of the mules. Becky’s water supply is a pitcher pump and it had to have some work done before we could get water. It gave us a chance to have a glass of wine and help with what we could to prepare dinner. There was a propane refrigerator and propane cooktop. Later that night Pardner, the young dog started barking. Claudia worried that we had chocolate energy bars in our bags and that was a sure sign of having bear bait in the tent. I assured her that it was just the young dog, and if there was a bear there, all three of them would be barking. The older dogs never barked so I wasn’t very concerned. Spud slept right next to the tent on my side and I could hear him moving in the leaves during the night, so I felt pretty safe.
Claudia with Mindy
We were amazed that Becky took the halters off the horses and mules and turned them loose into the 100 acres; it is totally fenced, in the middle of the Gila Wilderness. She put cowbells on one of the horses and one of the mules, and off they went. Claudia said she sure hoped they came back the next morning, as we had two more days of riding. The next morning they were there for their feed.
As were just riding the canyon on Tuesday, Becky didn’t take the mules, we left them on a tie line. We rode about four hours and crossed the Gila River at least 20 times. We had lunch at an old dwelling that looked like something the Pueblo Indians had built. We felt some spring water coming out of a mountain, and it was very hot. We saw beautiful wild flowers and native plants to the area. We had dark clouds that morning when we left camp and by the time we returned we had encountered very high winds and sleet, which didn’t last long.
Claudia and I had a glass of wine and it didn’t take any time to get to sleep that night. The moon was full, but we were too exhausted to stay up and enjoy it.
As we were unsaddling a lady came by on a mustang and three pack mules, plus a young black and tan hound. She was repairing fence for a guy that owned the neighboring cabin that had belonged to Becky’s brother. This was quite unsettling to Becky’s horses and mules. The next morning Becky had to put on her boots and go after her stock; they were not happy that we had the company within our little area. The horses, especially Slim, was not a happy camper. Becky rode over to the lady’s camp and asked her to come get her horse and mules. She had been using a chainsaw and it was a little unnerving, not only to me, but to the horses. After she got her horse and mule, our bunch started settling down. While Becky and Sierra saddled the horses and loaded the packs on the mules, Claudia and I put the bear boards on the windows and cleaned the cabin.
One of the neighbor’s mules stayed behind and followed us all the way out of the camp, until we got past the gate and into the wilderness area. He was braying the strangest bray the entire time and wanted to go with us. We were very glad to get out into the wilderness area and get started back to base camp. I know I had a sigh of great relief to be away from the strange animals. I was ready to lead Slim and cross the Gila River. I told Slim it was not only unsettling to him, but to his rider also!
We took a shorter way back to camp, down a very steep mountain with lots of switchbacks. Claudia didn’t know what a switchback was, but I assure you she does now. As I stated earlier, she doesn’t like heights, so I told her to just look at the trail in front of her horse, to not look to the side, or in front. When we got to the bottom I would say she didn’t just have sweaty palms; her palms were dripping with water; but she was a trouper and she did it. We didn’t have sleet this day, but it did rain just before we got down the mountains. We didn’t worry about putting our slickers on, as we had been in these clothes for three days, and it wasn’t going to hurt us to get wet. All we needed was a bar of soap to go with the rain shower.
This was an awesome trip and we had such a wonderful time. We are already making plans to go back next May. Becky hopes to retire soon, but has assured us she will be there next May to take us on another wild adventure into the Gila Wilderness.
Life is a journey…enjoy the ride