SEARCHING FOR DESSERT IN THE DESERT
Ghosts of the past soothe a weary city girl
The houses soon gave way to pistachio and pecan orchards, and another husk of my tired urban soul disappeared in the row of trees.
I traveled 250 miles to taste the wine and pecan pie, but the ghosts of Fort Bowie had other plans for me. Weeks before, Fort Bowie Vineyard’s Web site had tempted me with mouth-watering pictures of homemade pecan pie, cinnamon-dusted pecans, and sweet local wines. I needed a break from city life. Home cooking and the slowed pace of a small town sounded perfect.
I left for Bowie one Sunday morning and soon realized that the curvy, two-inch blue line on my Yahoo! map was much longer than I’d thought from my home in Tempe. I’d been to Willcox, Bowie’s neighboring town, years before and recalled it being just outside Tucson. Well, an hour and half past Tucson, I finally reached Willcox. Only 20 minutes remained before the winery’s doors closed on my pie and wine.
As I drove down the town strip, I passed Skeeter’s Tavern, the Teepee Cafe, and not a single person to ask for directions. Although Fort Bowie Vineyard’s Web site included many tempting pictures, not one of them was a map. I was beginning to think that bad directions and miserable luck would ruin my long-awaited plans.
Photo by Dianna Nařez
The cemetery at Fort Bowie National Historic Site stands as a sobering reminder of the brutal Indian wars and those who lost their lives in the desert all those years ago.
A wooden road sign pointing to historic Fort Bowie seemed like a good bet. The city in me began to peel away as I drove along Bowie’s vacant streets. I grew up in farm country and remembered that rural streets are abandoned on Sunday afternoons, neglected for football, family feasts, or a hard-earned siesta. It was comforting to see that Bowie, Arizona, population 706, was keeping with small-town tradition.
The houses soon gave way to pistachio and pecan orchards, and another husk of my tired urban soul disappeared in the rows of trees. As a child, I had sat quietly in the back seat of our family car, lulled by the kaleidoscopic illusion created when racing past orchard rows. As an adult, I found the effect equally soothing.
A defiant and dripping green desert engulfed the land, nothing like the parched suede of a city desert. It yielded a stubborn surrender to the horizon where the northern Dos Cabezas and southern Chiricahua Mountains stood firm.
At the mountains’ base, a crooked dirt road led up to a dusty clearing. Parked alongside the road, across from an outhouse and a lonesome steel bench, were two cars—one from Georgia, the other from California. Their drivers had abandoned them for the Fort Bowie Trailhead.
The driving force
I shrugged off my nervousness and walked over to a plaque that described the history of Fort Bowie Historic Site. These mountains were once home to the Chiricahua Apache and their leaders—Geronimo, Cochise, and Mangas Colorados.
The Fort Bowie Trail head led into Apache Pass, once a Chiricahua Apache stronghold. The tribe’s survival depended on access to water at Apache Spring and the natural travel route that separated the mountain ranges from the San Simon Valley to the northeast and the Sulphur Springs Valley to the southwest.
The struggle over the valley’s natural resources spurred a bloody 30-yearpstruggle between the U.S. military and the Chiricahua Apache. It ended with the surrender of Geronimo in 1886 and the expulsion of what was left of his Chiricahua family to Florida.
Lost in a history lesson, I was startled by a tapping to my left. I turned to see a traveler drumming his hiking stick up the cobble steps. His spectacles and reed-thin legs gave him an owlish appearance.
John Wilson introduced himself. He had worked for UPS until last spring, when he reached a “personal financial goal.” An outdoorsman whose knees were getting old, he decided he would visit America’s mountain passes while his legs were still strong.
How had he ended up at this spot? “I know a little bit of history and saw it on the map. I couldn’t find the vineyard, so I took a hike instead,” he said. He assured me the trail was gentle, with lots of history. Even if I could make it only halfway to the fort, I’d still see some old ruins and a small cemetery.
I told him I’d also traveled to Bowie for the vineyard and been sidetracked to this same spot. We laughed at our shared coincidence and wished each other good luck.
Brief history of Fort Bowie
A diverse landscape
The diverse ecosystem supports a wide array of plants and animals—about 30 species of reptiles, 65 types of mammals, more than 150 bird species, and 471 types of plants. Desert-dwelling creosote bushes and mesquite trees mix with gramma grasses. Cacti and succulents speckle the rocky slopes. Chaparral and woodland species, such as mountain mahogany, oaks, pines, and junipers, climb the hillsides. Velvet ash and netleaf hackberry thrive in the canyon bottoms.
I walked past crumbled rock ruins, all that remain of a station on the Butterfield Overland Mail Company’s southwest route. In 1858, John Butterfield won a multimillion-dollar government contract to carry mail from St. Louis to San Francisco. The Butterfield Station at Apache Pass was a stop on the southwest trail, which bypassed the harsh winters of the northern Rockies. For $200, adventurous travelers could make the 2,800-mile, 25-day trip. Mark Twain made his Butterfield journey famous in the 1861 book Roughing It.
Years of fighting
In 1862, Col. James H. Carleton led a group of California volunteers east to fend off a Confederate invasion of the New Mexico territory. An advance company was dispatched to secure Apache Springs as a vital water source. Chief Cochise and his father-in-law, Chief Mangas Colorados, led fellow Chiricahua Apache in a fierce two-day battle against the Army. The Apache succumbed to overpowering shelling by military howitzers and retreated to the mountains.
The Battle of Apache Pass motivated General Carleton to begin building Fort Bowie in July 1862. In 1863, Mangas Colorados was captured and murdered while trying to negotiate peace with Army officials. Cochise continued his battle against the Americans until 1872, when he secured a reservation for his Chiricahua family in their mountain homelands of southeastern Arizona.
Little remains of the original Fort Bowie. In 1868 a second, more spacious fort was built southeast of the original location. Weathered remains of the barracks mark its 26-year existence.
Photo by Dianna Nañez
Weathered and worn, this headstone marks the grave of 28-year-old R.W. Wells, who died in 1863.
Fort Bowie served as a central base for the Indian Wars and was instrumental in the Army’s ultimate removal of the Chiricahua Apache. In 1876, two years after Cochise died of natural causes, the U.S. government closed the Chiricahua reservation and forced the Apache to move to the San Carlos Reservation.
Geronimo, a revered Apache medicine man, escaped the move and led his people in a decade-long fight against the Americans. In May 1885, Gen. George F. Crook launched a 10-month pursuit of Geronimo and his followers. After a failed attempt to secure Geronimo’s surrender, the general resigned, embarrassed and defeated.
In 1886 Crook’s replacement, Gen. Nelson E. Miles, captured Geronimo and his remaining 34 followers and brought them to Fort Bowie. On September 8, 1886, a photographer documented their loading into wagons for exile to a Florida reservation. Geronimo died on February 17, 1909. He was never allowed to return to his homeland.
In memory of RW Wells, Died May 23, 1863, Age 28.
In memory of Marcia, an Apache child, Died July 3, 1885, Age 3 years.
In memory of Little Robe, Son of Geronimo, Apache Chief, Died September 10, 1885, Age 2 years.
I read each cross, comforted by the presence of the ghosts that had led me astray. The wind circled through the trees and stirred ancestral whispers. I felt the love and loss of the Apache and the hopes and dreams of the settlers. The final trace of my city-self vanished in the company of the lonely souls.
IF YOU GO
On June 4 and 5, 2005, Bowie will host the Second Annual Southeast Arizona Western Heritage and Wine Festival, with live music, poetry readings, fresh peaches and cherries, free wine tasting, and local arts and crafts.
The Devil’s Tale showcases the coursework of individual students at ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism & Mass Communication.
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