However, it's a rare place that can make a person feel like the past is reaching out to touch you instead--with an invisible force that you feel into your bones. Where a silent but thrumming vibration calls out to every cell in your body, soul, and mind repeating "you are here now, but once, so were we."
Southeastern Arizona is that place for me. The sky is huge; the clouds low enough that I find myself unconsciously lifting a hand to touch them every so often. The horizon is far off, but never without some jagged mountain range interrupting the flat land in between. The history here is long and complex, but rotates on the axis of the Apache people. No doubt it did not begin with the Apache, but they were the penultimate masters of this place. It's like the geological forces of a few billion years made this land just to fit the Apache people.
Now, I'm not particularly drawn to Native American cultures. I enjoy learning about them, and will read every interpretive sign at any given roadside stop or museum, but I'm not so avidly curious or even admirably fascinated as to venture much deeper. What I do jive on, though, is the feel of a place. It's the Taurus in me--the bull whose feet are planted in Terra Firma.
So, when I do venture to southeastern Arizona, I am definitely planted in its sense of place. However, it is one of the rare landscapes where I can't help but feel drawn to, and fascinated by, the associated culture and history of the native Americans who called this place home. Each time I go, I begin feeling a thrumming in my core. If I come from Tucson, it's when Interstate 10 rolls through the massive boulders of Texas Canyon (where a hundred miles of billboards in either direction invite travelers to see "The Thing!!"). Or this last time driving from home via Safford, it hit me west of Willcox (surrounding billboards: "home of famous son, Rex Allen!!"), seeing the expanse of white, alkaline, and seemingly empty hardpan that is the Willcox Playa. These invisible vibes get stronger as I leave the interstate behind and see the ragged, yet billowy, rocks of the Dragoon Mountains--the epicenter of the Chiricahua Apache home, and last resting grounds (exact location within these boulder piles unknown) of its revered leader, Cochise.
The Apache were scattered across much of eastern Arizona, western New Mexico, and northern Mexico, forming multiple tribal units based on geographical and cultural separations; Mescalero, Tonto, White Mountain, San Carlos, and Chiricahua, to name a handful (to say nothing of the bands within these larger groups). It is here in southeastern Arizona where Cochise, leading the Chiricahua Apache in the latter half of the 1800s, gave the U.S. military a run for their money--one of the last native American peoples to do so. Skirmishes and outright warfare were held throughout this region, with Cochise at one point lying low deep within the Dragoons for two solid years, craftily resisting military scouts as they actively sought to capture, imprison, and put down the Chiricahua Apache once and for all. The craggiest, rockiest, ruggedest canyon within the Dragoons is known as Cochise Stronghold. Now managed by the U.S. Forest Service's Coronado National Forest, a campground and 5-mile trail invites visitors to explore this magical place, where rocks the size of buildings pile precariously upon each other. One visit and it's easy to not be surprised that a group of people, actively pursued by the U.S. military mind you, could remain hidden and untouched for two years.
|Meet the Dragoons|
Cochise, Chiricahua, Apache....are you sensing a theme?
Why this place and why right now--in the middle of winter? Well, the wineries for one. Need I say more? A second major draw is the thousands upon thousands of wintering sandhill cranes that lay claim daily to the fallow (and at times actively-growing) agricultural fields. Between the cranes and the dozens of wintering raptors (a red-tailed hawk seems to be silhouetted on every third telephone pole, while northern harriers and ferruginous hawks prowl the fields for rodents), the Sulphur Springs Valley is a birdwatching mecca in the winter months, and hosts an annual birding festival (Wings Over Willcox) every January.
|Cochise --- check!|
|Cranes --- check!|
|Cabernet --- double check!|
Between our comings and goings, we were able to visit a friend who owns and operates--with help from his entire family--the well-known Apple Annie's Orchard (you-pick fruits and vegetables), meet up with other friends from nearby Sierra Vista for our Fort Bowie visit, and stop at the Bonita Bean Company to pick up some ten-pound bags of mixed dried beans. Yum. Future soup!
It was a packed weekend, and made just a tad more interesting as we drove out of the White Mountains smack dab into an enormous winter storm that left snow in low elevation places that rarely see the white stuff and cold temperatures in its wake.
|Really, winter? You had to pick this weekend?|
Coronado Vineyards was our first stop, just off the interstate east of Willcox. The oldest active vineyard in the Sulphur Springs Valley (2006...), their tapas menu was impressive and the wine tasting was a perfect hit after a near 5-hour drive through lousy weather. We had made it through wintery weather into the valley, and our weekend had begun!
|Vineyards awaiting summer sun|
My excitement grew as we approached the Dragoons and began looking for our B&B. The closer one gets to the Dragoons, the lower the jaw drops. It's a stunning place, but again, it's made even more so by the sense that not much of the land itself has changed since the days of Cochise. The wind blowing through the rock crevasses could easily be the spirits of Cochise and his band. These rocks--they have seen much. Their stories are still there, and will remain there, for millennia.
Closer and closer into the Stronghold we drove, looking for our B&B and being surrounded by darkening gray skies, massive rocks, and a quiet that was almost deafening. We drove up the signed driveway to a cluster of adobe dwellings. A chalkboard written with with our names hung next to a casita door and beckoned us to enter. We walked into a warm, inviting living room with a fire crackling in the wood stove. Bird feeders placed outside our patio door attracted everything from songbirds, jays, and woodpeckers to deer and the B&B's chickens.
|Our casita at the edge of Cochise Stronghold|
Our weekend had begun. The next morning, the sun barely creeping over the horizon, we grabbed our cameras and binoculars to catch the early morning flight of sandhill cranes. They leave their nightly roosting spots on the Playa, and fly in flocks to feed in agricultural fields throughout the valley. Their gangly, yet graceful, silhouettes coupled with their almost prehistoric cackling calls made us feel positively happy to be alive.
|Unexpected beauty of a power station...|
Returning for breakfast (a beyond-delectable cuisine cooked and served at our casita by a youthful Cassie--who grew up in Willcox, moved to the big city, decided the big city rather sucked, and was drawn back to Willcox to make a go of it), we cleaned up and prepared for a day of hitting wineries, then meeting up with our Apple Annie's friends (John and Anne [or "Annie"] Holcomb).
The wineries were pretty darn impressive. Most were start-ups by those intrigued by the soils and climate of southern Arizona--business folks that were either already knowledgeable about wine, or entrepreneurs that did their research and decided to take a chance--and now have families ensconced in the Sulphur Springs valley. Bruce, the designated driver, found himself wishing he had a dolly to help lug numerous bottles of wine out to the truck that I, the designated drinker, determined needed a home in my wine rack.
|An old bank transformed!|
|Marty Robbins AND Rex Allen??? Whoa!!|
|Aerial view of 20-acre corn maze at Apple Annie's --|
The photo can't capture how huge this really is
The next morning, it was time to meet my former coworker and good friend Brooke and and her partner Al in our quest to see Fort Bowie for the first time.
The National Park Service doesn't make it easy to see the historic fort site--which is great, in my opinion. While there is an ADA-access road to a visitor center on the far eastern side of the saddle, most people must make the journey to a parking area up a winding dirt road coming from the west. From there, grab your water and camera, because you're going on a hike. A 1.5-mile trail, peppered with interpretive signs at key points along the way, takes you to a cemetery (words can't describe this site where more than 100 people are interred and the prevailing sound is wind rustling the overgrown grass), old stagecoach trails, remnants of a Butterfield stagecoach stop, and Apache Spring. Ah...that's why this fort is located in the middle of freaking nowhere. Water.
|Apache Spring; it doesn't look like much,|
but without it, here'd be nothin'
|Corresponding sign to above photo|
|Corresponding sign to above photo|
|The Fort, and above, what stands now|
|Perhaps my favorite sign ever|
|The Fort was active throughout the days of both |
Cochise and Geronimo
After a long meander through the ruins, we hoofed it back to the truck, and headed to the small town of Bowie, where hey, what's that? Another vineyard! One last tasting at Fort Bowie Vineyards, a purchase of a bottle or four of wine and some local pistachios and pecans, and time to head home.
Cochise County. There is no doubt history is part of its present, because you can feel it. Seeing the fallow, scrub-filled agricultural fields, one wonders what the future holds, as water--once again--is the driving force that makes all things possible. Then, dig just a bit deeper and meet the people who have been drawn back, like Cassie--or who refuse to leave, like the Holcombs--or who come to start anew, like any of the winery owners. There is indeed a sense of future here. One can only hope that they, too, are okay with bringing the past along for the ride.