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Hidden canyons and high meadows distinguish the Gila Wilderness, land once inhabited by the Apache. In 1924, the Forest Service designated it as the world’s first “wilderness area,” where people could visit but must leave no permanent mark.




We were camped in a grove of ponderosa pines and had built a fire from the deadfall. The horses had been tied up for the night, the dinner plates scraped; and we sat on our saddle blankets, hunched against the November chill, waiting for the coffeepot to boil. Shadows cast by the fire rose and fell on the enormous tree trunks, like images on a drive-in movie screen.
Joe, an Apache guide who like his ancestors had ridden this country and knew its secrets, was telling the story of a wolf. It had been killed not far from here. He spoke in a slow, deliberate cadence that gave each of his words a certain weight, like the river stones we’d carried to build the fire ring. And then, a wolf howled. The cry rose out of the night, as if the telling of the story had conjured it.


The sound was startling because for the past few days, we’d heard almost nothing. As we rode deeper into this landscape, it seemed that the forests and canyons swallowed nearly all sound, reducing our world to the river, the wind, the horses, our voices. Sometimes as we rode over the grassy bluffs and down the switchbacks into the gorges, I felt like I’d gone deaf or had started dreaming. But the howl triggered something, and suddenly, I was aware of every sound—the hiss of the fire, the murmur of the horses, my own breathing.

Instinctively, we looked up, trying to glimpse the animal on the ridgeline. But all we could see were the silhouettes of trees, framed against a pale spray of stars.

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Biologists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service prepare to administer vaccines to a Mexican wolf at a facility near the Gila Wilderness. The species is being reintroduced to the region after it was nearly driven to extinction.

We waited for the wolf to howl again, or another wolf to answer. But it was silent.
The story Joe was telling goes like this: In 1909, a young forester was surveying land in the southwestern corner of the New Mexico Territory, not far from where we were camped. He was eating lunch on a rock rim with some of his men. They spied a wolf and her pups in the canyon, grabbed their rifles, and shot them. Wolves, then, were considered vermin, the destroyer of cattle, elk, and deer, and eliminating them, and all predators, would create a better environment.


Near the end of his life, the forester wrote: “We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes … I was young then, and full of trigger itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.”

It’s possible to trace that dying wolf to the creation of the place where we were camped, the Gila Wilderness. That young forester was Aldo Leopold, part of a vanguard of rangers looking to employ the latest science to manage millions of acres of federal land.

His encounter with the wolf and other observations led Leopold in 1922 to write a letter calling for a new land designation. By then, the government had recognized two kinds of public lands: National parks were to be preserved for recreational use and could be improved with roads, lodges, and other amenities, while national forests were to be managed for their resources, including timber, minerals, grazing, and game. But there should be something else, Leopold argued, a place left unaltered by humans. He identified 1,200 square miles at the center of the sprawling Gila National Forest (pronounced HEE-luh), which contained the headwaters of the Gila River, and in 1924, the Forest Service designated it as the world’s first wilderness area.

My introduction to the Gila came one summer when I was a kid, staying with my grandparents in Colorado. News broke that a convict had escaped from prison. A neighboring rancher speculated the man would head south for the Gila Wilderness. “That’s Apache land, where Geronimo was born,” he told me. He described it as hard country, an endless labyrinth of mountain ranges and canyons, and home to monstrously large mountain lions. “If he’s in the Gila, they’ll never find him.”

“Wilderness” is a slippery term. It can refer to almost any environment: jungle, swamp, icebound tundra, open ocean. Often it’s synonymous with “wasteland,” especially with regard to deserts, but it can just as easily refer to a forest bursting with life.

Politicians dread being “in the wilderness”—it means you’ve lost power—while religious figures tend to seek it out. It’s where God spoke to Moses; where Jesus went to fast and pray; where the Buddha is said to have found “awakening”; and it’s where Muhammad’s parents sent him as an infant because it would be healthier than growing up in the city.

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Laney Lopez, 11, wears the blood of her first elk kill, daubed on her cheeks by her dad. Her hunt, just outside the wilderness area, was part of a program to bring young people into the sport. “Hunting is our family tradition,” she says. “It feels good to help put meat in our freezer.”

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One dictionary defines “wilderness” as “uncultivated, uninhabited, and inhospitable,” but the Gila is none of those things. Leopold proposed his own definition: “I mean a continuous stretch of country preserved in its natural state, open to lawful hunting and fishing, big enough to absorb a two weeks’ pack trip and kept devoid of roads, artificial trails, cottages, or other works of man.”

As COVID swept the planet in 2020, I thought a lot about wilderness. We’d all become prisoners of our cities, and some of us were fleeing civilization to return to our original home, the wilderness. I remembered the escaped convict. Did he make it to the Gila? Was he eaten by a mountain lion? Or had he somehow survived and was a grizzled hermit living out his days in a place without live updates on how soon the world would end.

(How to visit the Gila Wilderness)

And that’s how I found my way to Joe Saenz, who leads trips into the Gila backcountry. I called him and told him I wanted to see the place that had captured my imagination as a child and given rise to the modern notion of wilderness. There was a pause on the phone. Finally, in his careful, considered manner, he answered. It was late in the season, but we might squeeze in one last trip in mid-November, ahead of the snows that would blanket the mountain passes.

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Backcountry guide Joe Saenz leads a horse laden with supplies for a 10-day trip exploring the headwaters of the Gila River. Saenz descends from a band of Chiricahua Apache who lived for months at a time in these canyons. “When I’m here,” he says, “I’m in my home.”

With air travel near a standstill, I drove the 2,100 miles from my home near Washington, D.C., to New Mexico. I traveled through the heart of the country, crossing the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Mississippi River, and the Texas Panhandle. The route offered stark reminders of how radically humans change landscapes. I traversed miles of furrowed cropland and passed soaring wind turbines. I encountered bobbing pump jacks and flaring gas towers and feedlots so large that I could smell them long before I saw them. The Great Plains gave way to the Chihuahuan Desert, and the desert gave way to the Black Range. And there I left the freeway and climbed over the Continental Divide, following the serpentine road that led into the Gila.

I met Joe at dawn saddling his horses near a main trailhead on the southern edge of the wilderness. He wore turquoise earrings and a black cowboy hat with an eagle feather. The only hints he was in his 60s were his leathery hands and the flecks of silver in his tightly braided hair.

Two colleagues from National Geographic and I planned to be gone for 10 days and cover 70 miles or so, exploring the main forks of the Gila River. Joe had said the horses could carry only so much weight on the steep terrain and to bring just the basics. We’d sleep on our saddle pads, out in the open, and he could string up a tarp if it snowed or rained. He’d packed food, a bow saw, a first aid kit, and a rifle.

Once the horses were saddled and the gear stowed, Joe asked if he could perform an Apache blessing. He daubed yellow cattail pollen on our foreheads, shoulders, hands, knees, and feet, and then sprinkled the pollen in the four cardinal directions, chanting a few Apache words. “I’m asking to pass through the land safely,” he said. We mounted the horses and filed out of the corral, following the trail into a thicket of high willows.

We hadn’t been riding for more than 10 minutes when we passed the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, which is overseen by the National Park Service and sits just outside the wilderness area. I’d visited the previous afternoon and explored the maze of caverns modified with stacked-stone walls. An enthusiastic ranger in an immaculate Smokey Bear hat explained that people had been living in this region for thousands of years. Caves all along the Gila River bore ceramics, stone tools, and food caches, but these, overlooking a narrow canyon, were the biggest and most elaborately fortified. They’d been inhabited in the late 1200s by a culture known to academia as the Mogollon, but a century later, the people had vanished.

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Caves fortified by 13th-century builders from the Mogollon culture are now preserved as the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. Similar ruins are found throughout the region, attesting to the presence of humans here for thousands of years.


Read the full findings at

Naional Geographic Magazine - June 2023 issue

Into The WILD


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