I hadn't planned it carefully, not really at all, but I kind of like it that way. I filled my trunk with provisions, tucked $400 in my wallet, and embarked on a journey out of winter. It wasn't so much an escape as a destination, a ten-day date with myself through the warmer wildness of New Mexico. I was intent on two things: soaking in hot springs and being alone. Of those I was successful and so much more.
I arrived in the Gila Wilderness late at night, threading hairpin curves tucked between cliff and canyon. There is a certain romanticism in driving through rugged landscapes in darkness. The ensuing sunrise reveals the indescribable beauty of a scenic new world. My journey through southern New Mexico was no exception. The tan weathered vistas of my waking view were awash with the warm light of a cool desert morning. I stepped out of my tent and inhaled the fragrant air of pinyon pine and alligator-bark juniper. There were so many plants to meet, so many rocks i did not know, and countless animals hidden from my novice eyes. As my limbs warmed in the morning rays, I plotted the course toward Jordan Hot Springs. I'd fixated on this lush warm oasis through cold Minnesota months, warming my soul in the idea, and I was finally here. I began my hike through a hardscrabble mix of prickly pear and yucca, relishing in the occasional shade of a gnarled juniper or a stunted pine. I walked the parched trail through fields of lichen-covered boulders that camouflaged the presence of tree lizards who basked in the sun. Around the next bend I began the descent into Little Bear Canyon. The wide sandy creek bed channeled only a trickle of water, but the subtle change in moisture was apparent. Ponderosa pine and Douglas fir towered overhead and delicious runners of watercress held tight against the flow. The gurgle of the stream soon gave way to a roar as I approached the Middle Fork of the Gila River. The Gila is a wild waterway contained on its edges by three hundred foot cliffs of volcanic tuff. After hiking a short way down the riverbed, I was faced with my first of fifteen crossings as the bend of the river met the cliff wall. I hadn't planned particularly well for this part, but managed to wade through the the knee-high currents with the help of flip-flops and a stick. Before and after each crossing laid logjams of debris from a 2013 flood that had wiped out most of the trails. But between these remnants of nature's destruction stood the surviving stands of elegant floodplain trees. Long curvy sycamores and rugged burly cottonwoods were flush with dormant brown wildflowers. There was beauty around every meander of this amazing river. Twice I scared up a bevy of Montezuma Quail. I marveled at the early spring flowers of candy tuft while an orange butterfly dried its wings in the sun. And I picked chalcedony roses from the rocky beaches as I approached the cairns that signaled i was on the right track. After six hours of hiking, I finally saw the greening of vegetation consistent with the presence of a nearby spring. My first step from the stingingly cold river into a ninety-seven degree stream was truly sublime. I dropped my pack and followed the warm flows to the verdant pool of Jordan Hot Springs. I was there!
Throughout my trip, I'd been thinking a lot about the value of being alone. I don't desire loneliness, but solitude with a view is self-love at its finest. In times by myself I've learned to be a better observer, becoming more aware of the subtle changes in my surroundings. But most importantly, being alone has taught me to let go of the negativity absorbed in daily life and to listen to the positive and creative thoughts that have been waiting to come out and play. A 2013 study by the British Psychological Society showed that boredom and daydreaming actually stimulate creativity. While I wouldn't describe my travels as boring, I did experience ample amounts of idle time and full days of dreaming. Three-thousand miles of driving, quiet nights after six o'clock sunsets, and long daily hikes gave me plenty of time to get "bored". After soaking in the healing warmth of the the hot spring, I began wading through the rising currents of my brain. I was surrounded by beauty, submersed in happiness, and completely disconnected from modern culture. In times like these, I feel evermore connected to the natural world. I remember that I am a species interacting within an ecosystem of other species. As a human, I can exploit the beings around me or I can strive for a more mutualistic approach, in which my prosperity also benefits the surrounding environment. In Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer refers to this type of cooperation as reciprocity. She challenges people to use reciprocity as a basis for their interaction with the natural world and shares indigenous stories of a life lived in harmony with nature. For centuries, conquest-oriented humans have become more and more consumptive, commodifying habitat after habitat. We've become the most atrocious parasite on the planet. We must remember that we are just a very intelligent species among other intelligent species and we must fill our niche appropriately. It is not smart to exhaust "natural resources" and to extirpate countless beings whose roles in the ecosystem cannot be replaced. As for my choice, I will not follow the heavily trodden path of my European ancestors, but will seek to live a life rooted in rich species diversity. As I ate my dinner that night in post-hot spring bliss, a bat swooped near my head to eat his. I was laying back against an uprooted sycamore whose hollow was home to a swarm of mosquitoes. The bat was simply filling its niche in the food web, but it was also reducing the number of mosquitoes that could feast on me. I felt fortunate to be a part of nature in the richness of the wilderness and was reminded of my reciprocal duty. How could I give back in a place where humans have so readily taken. In the Midwest I could pull some buckthorn or garlic mustard, but I did not know the invasive species of the Gila. I could, however, seek to undo a few missteps of my fellow kind and pack out the spare gas containers and random trash that had been left behind. It was a small token of gratitude, but it was a start.
My experience in the Gila Wilderness had swollen my heart and stimulated my mind, and it was just a part of my ten-day getaway. Throughout the remainder of my trip I visited three other hot springs, hiked to the tops of mesas, and marveled at the majesty of the Rio Grande. But my stay at an unassuming hostel in the tiny artist town of Arroyo Seco was perhaps the icing on the cake. After nestling into an old chair near a faux fireplace, i began a conversation with one of the amazing women who call the hostel home. Rosalinda traces her roots to the Mayan people and works with suicidal youth in Santa Fe, reconnecting them with their culture as a means of healing. Sitting around the fire, she told fantastical tales of her childhood, confided would-be hardships of her adult life, and shared spirited stories of her culture as if they were coming from the pages of a great novel. Rosalinda is wise woman. She listened as I talked about my life in Minneapolis, my work as a naturalist, and my passion for environmental education. As midnight approached and our sleepiness took hold, Rosalinda encouraged me to use me voice. She reminded me that it is not just a privilege but an obligation. If i want to see change in the world, I can't just live it. I need to share it too.