We awoke to a clear cold dawn in the moon shadow of Casa Grande and made coffee and stamped our feet and watched the thin aqua line on the eastern horizon grow and color the early morning. Our plan today is to continue Glenn Springs Road to the south, finally arriving at the Rio Grande, visit the mystical hot springs and Boquillas Canyon, before returning north through the eastern section of the park on the Old Ore Road with the Sierra Del Carmen Mountains to our east and the ever present Chisos to our west, and the high desert underneath us.
My dear friend Tom gave me two instructions for this journey, one of which included a requirement to “tell [him] about the hot springs on the river bank where mystical people get healed and the walls of the canyon glow…” Or something generally like that. Not one to have ever, more or less, denied him, we headed out for the hot springs.
Communal hot springs purporting healing mineral waters generally draw an interesting crowd. When one such place is on the banks of the Rio Grande, 50 shallow yards from Mexico, at the base of 300 foot white sandstone bluffs, you can count on it being very interesting indeed. Past an abandoned Adobe hotel and spa that looked to have once held about 12 rooms, beside the towering bluffs, and through a narrow gap in the 10 foot cat tails, there is a small stone pool about 20 feet square, filled with clear water and painted with black algae. In the pool is an itinerate camp cook who feeds hunters in West Texas and Northern New Mexico depending on the season, her niece from Washington state who smiles, is reasonably attractive, and never – not once – says a word; and a 90 year old retired roofer with a service dog named Allie and a permanently broken back from a failed attempt at fixing the main beam on a barn roof. He says to be careful because this water will make you 30 years younger. To be honest, he doesn’t look a day over 65. The camp cook, however, is clearly on her first visit. We slip off in the reeds to get shorts on, plunge in the waters and are soon joined by a family of Japanese who are busy setting up camera equipment on tripods to film their experience, and middle age man who stops halfway through removing his pants (he had a suit on underneath) to stare at both the cook and roofer and proclaim that he knows them. Here’s the funny part: he does. The cook had served him a meal at a hunting camp some years ago, and he and the roofer shared a temporary job for an oil company somewhere along the way. He hugs the cook as lovingly as wedding receiving line guest, sits down next to the roofer and they began to reminisce. Turns out the oil field guy stops by anytime he’s in the area and has the time. Since he took a drill bit in the neck on a job in the Dakotas and was paralyzed for seven months and sent back to Texas where the nurse told him he could walk whenever he was ready. He dumped the wheelchair, went back to work and started visiting the spring. The guy is fit as a fiddle, tan, and tells his stories with no hint of surprise. The white scars on his neck are more than diminished by his permanent smile and open, welcoming face. I don’t know about mystical healing powers of the water, but the power of the human spirit is here in spades. As for the glowing bluffs, I suspect they require a different light than we had this morning, or perhaps herbal substitutes.
Back on the road, amazed at our smooth, elastic skin, we swing by Boquillas Canyon where old mine shafts dot the high sandstone and the sun warms columns of air for the vultures to ride higher and higher. At the spot where the canyon walls are behind you and the Rio Grande makes a big turn at your feet, you can stop and get out for a picture. On the ground there is a blanket spread with snakes and other animals carved from dried sticks found along the edge of the river. A box and a sign ask that you please buy one and leave $5. Instead, we walked to the edge to take a picture and look at the river. On the other side, maybe 75 yards away, an old canoe bounced softly in the current, held fast to a stump with a hemp line. On the shore near the boat, a tarp was tied into a lean-to, populated with cans, bundles of sticks, a low campfire, and a man in a chair carving animals and painting them the vivid colors of his native Chihuahua home. Daily, I expect, maybe at night, he loads the boat with new carvings, paddles across and collects his money if there is any and updates the inventory. I rather doubt he knows a tariff from a tortilla, but he does know that if he works during the day and advertises his worth in a humble and trusting way, that Americans will buys his art. Because he is Mexican, and they are American. Given his resourcefulness, I am sure he could choose to stay on the American side, but instead, he always returns. Aware of the differences and comfortable making a life, if not a living, because of them.
We find the entrance to the Old Ore Road and start our rocky climb to the high desert and a place called Roy’s Peak Vista. I don’t know who Roy was, and I’m completely uninformed about the production and transport of ore of any kind, but following this ragged two track road into arroyos and back out, across desert stone and juniper scrub, I imagine them on this road. Roy and the ore haulers. What danger they faced, what discomfort, what reward they received. At Roy’s Peak Vista when we parked next to the ruins of a stone homestead and set up camp as the sun set over the Chisos and dusky smells of a high desert in full bloom filled the early evening air, my imagination was less required.