Several years ago my son and I began a summer hike near Alamogordo, New Mexico. It was my second hike on the Dog Canyon National Historic Trail beginning at the foot of the Sacramento Mountains. Our plan was to climb for three miles out of the Tularosa Basin to the Fairchild Line Cabin, a small stone ruin at the box end of Dog Canyon. A steep desert trail on a morning in July can be brutally hot, so we carried plenty of water.
There was no shade or protection from the sun along the lower half of the Dog. Sounds were easily transmitted. Brent and I would see no other hikers till returning to the small state park where we began. We climbed the first 600 feet in four-tenths of a mile, careful that our steps did not disturb a napping rattlesnake. We paused at the first plateau to view “insignificant Alamogordo” 10 miles to the north. Around us grew Chihuahuan Desert shrubs like mesquite, creosote, ocotillo, agave, century-plant, and horse-splitter cactus.
To describe the area as a “rivertop” might be pushing the boundaries of definition somewhat, but below us was a canyon stream originating in the forested heights of the Sacramentos. On our south side rose 1500-foot outcrops of dolomite and sandstone. The plateau silence was punctuated only by the call of birds. A Scott’s oriole, yellow and black, warbled from a cactus stalk. Uncommon black-chinned sparrows launched from underfoot and fluttered across the arid, skin-cracked slope. To the north, white-throated swifts fed busily above the canyon.
Pushing toward the second bench (plateau) we switch-backed into grasses and the fragrance of scattered juniper. Until yesterday, the entire Lincoln National Forest of New Mexico had been temporarily closed to the public due to fire hazard, but now we climbed an open stairway into blue sky solitude. The trail turned and twisted through multi-colored cliffs. The Spanish had called this section of the Sacramentos the Canon del Perro, the Canyon of the Dog. Mescalero Apaches had known the country well. The canyon was said to have the finest water in this desert region, starting high above us and dropping toward the great White Sands below.
At the second bench we descended into juniper and cottonwoods toward the Fairchild Cabin. We were half way to the pine-clad summit, as high as we would go today. The trail beyond the cabin is known as the “Eyebrow,” a notoriously challenging path, especially in July.
The first cattlemen and European explorers of the region coveted the canyon springs. Brent and I also enjoyed the trickle of liquid gold and the trees and grasses sprouting from its sands. Resting at the cabin ruins, I heard the cooing of a whiskered screech-owl that echoed from the steep rock walls. Later I would learn that this owl, a life-bird for me, has a small home range but is common in Southwestern canyons.
The Eyebrow, above us, wasn’t meant for a summer climb. This extension of the canyon trail is known for ambush. When pursued closely by their foes, Apaches had scrambled up the trail and waited there. As enemy soldiers approached, Apaches wiped them out with a shower of rocks and arrows. They took delight, as one historian claims, in listening to the screams of men and horses plunging into the depths below. The natives fought off the Mexican Army here, as well as the U. S. Cavalry on at least three occasions.
Many men perished for want of Dog Canyon water. They wanted it for cows, for personal comfort, and for its power to separate gold from stone. But the stream, beyond the grasp of most, dropped quickly to the desert and evaporated. And so it seemed to me– beyond (far beyond) my world of trout and fishing with a fly.
That night, as Brent and I sat on the gypsum dunes of White Sands National Monument with Brent’s sister and her mom, I looked to the sky and the Milky Way, that band of pale light sweeping south to north across the heavens. Cooling air wafted over the dunes and felt like water. After the heat of day, the night air felt like a wash of mountain spring. In a place where water, scarce as quail’s teeth, was as valuable as life itself, I sensed the presence of a trout stream at home, or of a brook that stumbled out of Dog Canyon nearby. I could almost see the canyon’s stream again, inching over the flats, approaching the basin, then vanishing into the sand.