Juncos flit from the roadside, the conspicous flash of white tail feathers disappearing into the cover of brush as the bus engine approaches. The tires crunch and rumble as we creep over the moderately — by Arizona standards — washboard road. The road winds its way through dry desert grassland, interspersed with yucca and thorny mesquite trees, up into the foothills of the Dragoon Mountains where Arizona Oaks and Alligator Juniper cluster around the dry river beds and on up the rocky slopes of the mountains.
I’ve been into Dragoon Mountains several times, from both the east and west side. The west is my favorite, but that road is far too rough for both the big blue bus and the Volvo. Both sides have access to the same central cluster of rock gardens and peaks in the middle, but the east is home to Cochise Stronghold, the place where Chihuicahui leader Cochise lived, later hid and eventually died and was buried.
By all accounts this is where Cochise loved to be and I happen to believe Cochise still wanders this place.
Every time I’ve been here odd things have happened. I have seen strange shapes in the shadows, heard whispers whipping through the wind, and found some downright hard to explain things. If I were of the scientific-materialist type I’d have a really hard time reconciling my experiences in the Dragoons with my worldview. Whatever the case, there is something here. As happens with some places, there is something more here than is elsewhere. Call it what you will.
Our plan was to boondock a few nights at some spots on the way into Cochise Stronghold, but they ended up being already occupied by the time we go there, late afternoon on a Friday. We continued up the road and snagged a spot in the campground proper, which is a little densely packed, but it isn’t too bad. The cold drove most people away in short order anyway.
And it was cold, down near freezing nearly every night and well below it for a couple of them. We have a propane heater that we use to take the edge of morning, but during the night all we can do is pile on the blankets. Fortunately we have a lot of blankets.
During the day the temperatures were nice, great for hiking. We trekked up above the stronghold area into the canyons and passes.
It’s hard to walk in this place though without thinking of the Chiricahua.
As with most of American history, learning about what happened to Cochise and the Chihuicahui-Chiricahua makes for a dismal read. The United States suffered heavy losses every time it engaged with the Chiricahua, and eventually managed to capture leaders only by resorting the lying and murder under white flags.
Cochise was once almost captured for a crime he didn’t commit, but he slashed his way out of an Army tent and escaped. The Army held some of his relatives though and later killed them, which marked the beginning of what would best be called relentless guerrilla warfare, which Cochise kept up for 11 years, reducing, as Dan Thrapp puts it, “most of the Mexican/American settlements in southern Arizona to a burned-out wasteland”. Thrapp estimates the total death toll of settlers and travelers in the region may have reached 5,000, but that’s apparently a controversial figure.
Cochise was never captured or defeated by the U.S Army. In 1872 the Army negotiated a treaty granting Cochise and his band some land here in the Dragoons. That land was later taken away, but Cochise died of natural causes before that happened. Geronimo continued to fight long after Cochise had moved on from the obvious parts this world.
The less obvious, who knows.
We decided to move on when the temperatures in the area threaten to drop below 20 degrees. We wanted to get over to the Chiricahua Mountains, but they were even colder at the time so we decided it was time to hit the road again, bound for warmer climes.