By Brennan Davis
I like to think I’m about as New Mexican as it gets. I was born and raised in Las Cruces, one of many in a long line descended from some of the first Spanish colonizers of this land. The Organ Mountains were my backdrop growing up and, for a few years anyway, the Lincoln National Forest was my backyard. Thanks to my outdoorsy dad, I think I had recreated in every national forest in the state by the time I was 12 or 13. As an adult, I’ve put in around 10 (give or take) field seasons in what I thought was every corner of this state.
Suffice to say my roots here run deep. It was long a point of pride – the feeling that I knew this place and, by extension, knew what it was to be New Mexican.
Boy, was I wrong.
I remember how excited I was to get an interview for the Cibola Ranger job. I’ve spent years both working and playing in the Sandias and Manzanos, so I was thrilled at the opportunity. During the interview however, Tisha and Will mentioned that the Cibola Rangers would be primarily assigned to the Apache Kid and Withington Wildernesses.
The what? Where?
A couple google searches later, I was surprised to discover that I could be working in a part of New Mexico that I had never been to, much less heard of. My excitement instantly went from a 10 to a 12. When I was offered the job, I knew in my heart that it was the perfect fit for me.
I’m glad to say that, in retrospect, it was indeed the perfect fit. My season as a Wilderness Ranger on the Cibola National Forest helped me define myself in ways I could not have imagined; my identity as a New Mexican, as a musician, conservationist, and human being have all undergone rapid change over the summer. Much of the change still needs to be unpacked, felt, and understood – an exciting prospect for me.
The Apache Kid and Withington Wildernesses were, for many reasons, the perfect place for me to be at this stage in my life. The bird diversity was impressive – I saw and/or heard several Mexican Spotted Owls in remote canyons. I was lucky enough to have seen my first Red-Faced Warbler, on my first hitch no less. I saw old growth forest that I never imagined could exist in this state, with White and Douglas Firs rivaling those I felt so dwarfed by in Oregon. The wildflower diversity was absurd, as was the sheer size of the elk inhabiting the steep canyons. I’m pretty sure that I saw more bears on the trail than I saw human beings, and danger-close lightning was a near daily occurrence. There wasn’t a day that went by that didn’t seem to bring with it some profound sight or circumstance. Being immersed in such raw, powerful, indifferent beauty is doubtless enough to change any person.
More than all that, however, was the serendipitous nature of the location and its proximity to my own family roots. My paternal grandmother was born and raised on a ranch in Winston, NM, around 20 miles southwest of the Apache Kid as the crow flies. Her older brothers used to ride their horses in the San Mateo Mountains and my grandmother, a former rodeo queen, met with other rodeo queens from around the state at Springtime Campground, where I myself spent many nights this summer.
Somehow, seeing all of the same sights that my forebears had made those experiences that much more significant. Every single time I was awestruck at the scale and beauty of the sheer canyon walls, or the size of this tree or that, I would very quickly start to wonder: had my ancestors been there? Had they viewed this land through the same lens? Were they, too, humbled by the beauty and the unforgiving nature of this place?
It also made me grapple with the uncomfortable. The Apache Kid Wilderness is so named for the Apache Kid (better known as Haskay-bay-nay-ntayl), an Apache man who was a scout for the U.S. Cavalry. His life story is confusing to say the least, but it is alleged that he was killed by ranchers on Cyclone Saddle in the Apache Kid Wilderness after continually being accused of crimes with little to no evidence of his involvement. He’d spent many of his earlier years on the lam or in prison, so it’s my inclination to think he was a convenient scapegoat for the wrongdoings of others thereafter. There is some debate as to whether or not the man killed was even Haskay-bay-nay-ntayl himself, or an Apache warrior named Massai. Make of that what you will.
It is an ugly, albeit par for the course, bit of history of this state and country and one that begs a very personal question for me: what was my family’s relationship to the Apache people that lived in the same mountains I got to know like the back of my hand? It’s a question that bears more conversation with my grandmother about our family history. And certainly a question that bears more self reflection about how I walk through life in this state today.
This summer was a thoughtful one; it was both excruciatingly long and impossibly quick, a paradox I hope to understand someday. I daily felt the full spectrum of emotions which was indescribably enriching, if somewhat intense. My connection to my home has grown more than I thought possible, and I’m humbled to admit that I now have no idea what it means to be New Mexican. I gotta admit that it’s an exciting feeling.
While I have a long way to go towards fully understanding what has happened to me this season, I can say one thing for certain. My time in the Apache Kid and Withington changed me, but I feel more like myself than I ever have before.
I think that is the power of Wilderness.