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The Trip That Changed My Life

How the Gila National Forest eased into my soul

By Preston Bates

I spent most of my growing up years in Virginia and Kentucky, it’s a wonderful and beautiful country. My roots run hundreds of years deep in those mountains. My childhood was spent riding, hunting, fishing, and exploring the Blue Ridge. Those mountains made me who I am and prepared me for the life I now live. But it is also the land of heat, humidity, ticks, chiggers, fences, and grumpy neighbors. I grew up before air conditioning was common so there was nothing to be done about the heat and humidity. You just lived with hot and damp clothing during the day and sticking to your sheets at night. It was just the way life was, we didn’t know any different.

If you went out the house door chances were you’d get a tick or two. If you sat on the ground, you’d have a rash of chiggers before the sun went down. That just made those sticky sheets that much more special. Even back then the place was plenty filled up with folks and they all put up fences to keep their stuff in and yours out. There was once a time that all the fences in that country had coops built over them that you could jump over, so you could ride your horse unimpeded. Gates were unlocked so you could walk and roam at will. But, as time went on different types of folks moved in. The coops were taken down, the gates were locked, and the folks got grumpy.

But that was the way things go and the way things are. Or so I thought. In the mid-1970’s I was working for a trainer in Maryland. Now you talk about a hot, humid place! That was just about as bad as it gets, surrounded by rivers and ocean - come mid-summer everything was damp, the air was thick, the heat never dissipated even at night. It was like a swamp in hell. I was living in my van at the racetrack and there was no escaping the heat and no relief. It was my second miserable summer there. I hated it. But nothing could be done about it. One steaming day in early July my boss called me into his office on the shed-row and told me he was sending me with Tom, his assistant trainer, to Santa Fe, New Mexico to be his exercise rider, groom, and a hot walker. While he ran a few horses there for the summer meet at the Santa Fe Downs. I’m sure my jaw dropped. I almost quit right there as I was thinking to myself, “What the hell did I do wrong? New Mexico! The desert in the middle of the summer! NOOOOOO!” “You’ll like it.” my boss said. Well, for two years he’d been really great to me and had never steered me wrong before.

A couple of days later I headed my hot rod van West.

My first trip West. I’d been to Louisville, that was the farthest West I’d ever been. I swear when I crossed that big muddy river something came over me and I felt different.

Missouri and Arkansas were pretty, but I was suddenly in a hurry to get farther West and roared on, only stopping for a few hours sleep at rest areas and grabbing burned coffee at gas stations.

The land leveled out as I rolled across Kansas and on into Oklahoma then the Texas panhandle. I was a day into it when I realized I had never seen a horizon other than ocean horizons and they’re kinda boring. My world had been surrounded by either trees or buildings. If you wanted to see open space, you had to look up at the sky...

Now here it was spread out as far as my eye could see. This was the America that was sung about. This was the West that was written about. This was amazing!

Then there it was, the big yellow and red sign welcoming me to New Mexico! Within a couple of miles, the country broke up into canyons and mesas, rimrock, and red cliffs. This was so cool! It all looked like a backdrop to a western movie. I expected to see Indians on painted war ponies riding the rims. Later in the day, the country started to rise and change as I left the interstate and took the state highway up to Santa Fe. In the distance, dark timber-covered mountains rose above the mesa land with the clouds of thunderstorms sitting like caps on their peaks. Suddenly I was in Santa Fe. I hadn’t seen it coming as I drove into the foothills. Building codes keep the buildings less than 3 stories tall and all neutral colors so the city itself blends into the hillsides. How cool was that! I thought. I easily found the racetrack and parked at a door with signage saying "Office". When I got out the air was warm, dry, and pleasant with a wonderful smell. The manager showed me to the stalls we would be using and knowing my horses were still a day or two out I asked about campgrounds. He looked at me kinda funny and said that there weren’t any campgrounds but that I could go camp on the National Forest.

“How much is that?” I asked.


"Nothing?! How do I find it?"

“Just go to the edge of town and past the dump. You’ll see a sign that says entering Santa Fe National Forest.”

“And where’s the campground?”

“There is no Campground! You just find a place to park and camp.”

“That’s legal?”

“Of course, it’s Public Land.”

Public land. Camp wherever you want. Free! This sounded too good to be true.

But it was true.

After a stop at the Piggly Wiggly for some food I drove down the road he’d told me and soon it turned to dirt and sure enough there was the dump and not much farther a sign telling me I was entering the Santa Fe National Forest. It was beautiful and just got better. The land was scattered with a small pine, many of which were twisted into confusing shapes, the ground was sandy and dry, I just keep going to see what was around the next bend. A huge jackrabbit, my first, jumped into the road and checked me out before he ambled on his way. That was cool. A couple of miles on I came to a small stream and right there was a well-used campsite. I parked alongside the stream and opened my side sliding door. Waterfront bedroom. I sat and listened to the gurgle of the stream and watched the shadows grow long on the mountainsides. This is crazy! I thought to myself. Here I am camping next to a stream, in the desert, in the mountains. As the sun went down, I was swept over with a breeze of cool air, and soon I was building a fire and digging my winter coat out of the under-bed storage. It was damn near cold! In July! This was great! As dark came on I cooked up some dinner. A fat steak cooked over my first western wood fire. It was the best steak I’d ever had. Full of good beef I headed to bed but first I closed the sliding door against the chill and pulled my sleeping bag up to my chin. I grinned to myself... this was awesome. After having driven for 20 hours with little sleep I was soon off in a dreamland of pretty women and fast horses, but in the wee hours of the night, I was roused awake by the most horrific, terrifying sound I had ever heard! It took a moment, but old western movies came to mind - and the answer of coyotes. The howling and yipping and barking seemed to be right out my door. And it was. I had thrown my steak scraps into the brush and that, it seemed, was cause for celebration. Truth be known they scared the bejeezus outta me that first night. I was so green. But before dawn, I came to love their sound and still do to this day. A chilly summer night, a piñon pine campfire, and coyotes on the yip. That’s New Mexico.

The next morning was glorious! A red glow swept the mountains as the sun came up quickly chasing off the morning's chill that had caused me to huddle close to my coffee fire. Once it was well up, I headed to the racetrack and to get breakfast at the always present track cafe. But the menu was not what I was accustomed to... Breakfast Burritos? What the hell is that? Hmmm, damn good is what it is! Huevos rancheros? Hell, I’ll give it a try. Damn! I’ll try that again! Green chile? I finally found a vegetable I like! New Mexican food isn’t Mexican food. It’s not Texmex. It is its own thing. Hard to describe the difference other than saying the emphasis is on flavor rather than heat. Something you just gotta try for yourself. It sure suited me! The days were in the low 80’s with 20% humidity. And blue day after blue day with occasional thunderstorms rolling in off the mountains that you could watch approach from miles away. My boss was right, I liked it. In fact, I loved it. I wasn’t being punished for being sent to New Mexico in July. I was the chosen one sent to the promised land. It was all about the elevation I learned. Back East I never really gave a thought to elevation. There wasn’t a whole lot of serious change going on. Oh, sure if you left the coast and went to the mountains there was a bit of a difference, but nothing like in the Southwest. Santa Fe was at a bit over 7,000ft, just down the road an hour was Albuquerque at a bit over 5,000ft. There was always close to a 20-degree temperature difference. A pleasant 80-degree Santa Fe day was a blistering 100 just 60 miles away. It seemed crazy.

It was a GREAT summer, one of the greatest in my life. My days were spent riding great horses on a great track in a great place. Everywhere I looked the vistas made me hitch in my breath. The people were warm and friendly, the food delicious, the weather as fine as could be. I spent every night of my eight weeks out there in my van on the National Forest. Brilliant sunsets, awe-inspiring sunrises, 50-mile views, starry nights so close and deep you could almost sink your hands into the Milky Way. I moved camp a few times, each place with a special sort of something to it. I also made a good friend at the track who came to my camp every night to drink mescal and play music. We watched many-a sunrise together then went and rode really, really fast horses. Life could not get better. But alas the racing season came to an end, and the horses and I were headed to California. But my friend told me there was one place I had to see before I left. The Gila. “The Gila?” “It’s a huge National Forest down in the Western part of the state near the Arizona border.” “Sounds hot! Gila Monsters?” "It’s not and no. Trust me.” So, I did. We first went into the southern part of the Gila National Forest around Silver City. That is a cool town! Something for everyone - a small college town, surrounded by ranching, with an art and retirement community, also known as a mining town, in the foothills backed up to the National Forest. It was a town I could live in. We then went to the Gila Cliff Dwelling National Monument. A month before we had gone to Bandolier Cliff Dwelling National Monument where we had snuck in after dark and spent a night in one of the dwellings which were beyond cool. But the Gila dwellings were so much better. Sitting in a tight, deep canyon with a small river flowing through I knew why the ancient ones wanted to live there and I kinda wanted to myself. One day we rented horses and went with a local guide on a long day’s ride into the Gila Wilderness Area, the world’s oldest designated wilderness area I learned. Amazing! Sandstone hoodoos, towering cliffs, ridge-stacked-on-ridge of crazy rock formations that boggled the mind. How the hell did that happen?! I’d never imagined anything like what I was seeing existed. After a couple of days, we drove around to the Northern part of the Gila National Forest. It took all day.

We headed up into the mountains from the village of Reserve, a bustling little mill town. Right away the road climbed through several switchbacks and gained almost three thousand feet elevation. Everything changed. We soon were in the tall timber country of Aspen, Fir, Ponderosa Pine, and alpine meadows.

“What the hell was that?!” I asked.

“An elk.”


This was not what I was expecting from a place called the Gila!

We set up camp near a new lake, Snow Lake. There were elk by the hundreds every night all around our camp. The sound they made at first had me confused as to just what the heck it was - a delicate bird-like whistle out of a huge animal.

For a couple of days, we rented horses from a man who, a decade or so later, would become my nearest neighbor, mentor, and good friend. At that time, we were just green goofballs from the East coast to him. We rode a lot of miles those days. It was beyond anything I had ever dreamed. We rode for miles and miles with never seeing a fence or road. There were no houses, no grumpy neighbors. There was no underbrush, you could ride as far as you could see, nothing to impede you.

This was horse country! Millions and millions of acres of pristine National Forest and Wilderness that anyone and everyone could explore, camp, ride, hunt, fish. I sure liked this public land deal! And that's the trip changed my life.

On one of our rides, we rode one long loop and we topped a ridge and we're looking down into a beautiful little valley and there in the middle sat some sort of ranch outfit. There were a couple of houses and barns and some old corrals. There were elk grazing in the pasture at midday. “Wow! Look at this place!”

We rode on down and read the sign at the gate...


The gate was locked so we headed back the way we came up out of the valley and as we topped out, I looked back and thought “Man, oh man I’d give about anything to live there!”

We slept under the stars with our sleeping bags on a tarp and had no ticks or chiggers or anything. I hadn’t seen a mosquito or sweated in months. It was paradise!

If you’re of a certain sort the Gila will ease into your soul. It’s that way with different places for different people. For me, it was only a day or two before I knew I never wanted to leave. I wanted to get deeper into my soul. But I had to leave. I had to go back to the real world. But, I knew deep down I would return... I now knew there was a place with no heat and humidity, no chiggers, ticks, or noseeums, not many fences, and no grumpy neighbors. A bit more than a decade, and a whole lotta living, later I was back in New Mexico. I was living in Pie Town, (yep, it’s a real place and one every person should visit if you like pie. And who doesn’t?). I was living in a cabin we built with a chainsaw and hammer way down a dirt road in nice piñon and juniper country. I was doing some guiding, running a string of mules, and cutting timber when I heard there might be a job at the N BAR RANCH. At that time the ranch belonged to a small family-owned oil and gas company in the Southeastern part of New Mexico. I went there, talked to a man, and next thing I knew I was working at the N Bar Ranch! I guess I worked out all right - I never got runoff and a few years later they offered to lease the ranch to me. I went out on a limb, and I suggested they sell it to me (You never get much without ask-and-try). They did! The owner financed it with a down payment of the sweat I’d already expended. If it hadn’t been for the generosity of this family a fella like me would never own a place like this. At the time I had $400, a 25-year-old truck, a bunch of four-legged hay burners, and a lot of plans and ideas. That was over 30 years ago now and it’s been a hell of a ride. We’ve run 3,000 head of cattle, weathered blizzards, droughts, and fires. And we’ve had a guest operation the entire time. We’ve gone broke, we’ve reinvented ourselves and we’re still here. Thanks to HTCAA for some of that, too. We become HTCAA Business Members few years back and it changed our business. You should come down and see us sometime. Especially if you're an official HTCAA Member. You can RENT THE RANCH for a week or more, or rent the GUEST CABIN with a discount. We can sit around a campfire and swap some stories. I’ve got a handful and I bet you do too.

And, when you think of the Southwest don’t think it is all heat, rocks, and rattlesnakes. It’s all about elevation. If you want someplace cool in the summer come to New Mexico and enjoy summer, but stay above 7,000 ft elevation. If you want someplace warm in the winter come to New Mexico and stay below 5,500 ft elevation. If you come to New Mexico eat and enjoy the local food, too. And, don’t be afraid of green chili! Explore the small towns, many are a step back in time.

New Mexico is the land of mañana. No Stress, no worries, if we don’t get to it today then maybe mañana. Hope to see you soon.

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