A Night On The Mountain



I'd been working at the power company in Tucson for a couple of years when our teams got switched all around.  One of my new co-workers was a man named Joe Whitedove.  One evening after work he asked me if I wanted to stop for a beer on the way home.  I said it sounded good to me.  We stopped at a little beer joint at the edge of town and took turns buying beers and shooting pool.


After that we started doing the same thing every Tuesday evening.  I was on in a bowling league on Wednesday's and Fridays so I enjoyed the difference.  Joe had fairly light skin but he was one half Apache Indian.  His dad had been full blooded Apache and his mother a minister's daughter from the Indian Reservation at San Marcos.


He said that he hadn't had a very nice childhood because of his mixed blood.  He said that the other Indian kids had made fun of him a lot because he was lighter skinned than they were.  When he was about 12 his folks had moved off the Reservation into Tucson .  He said that life had been better after that but he often regretted the loss of his heritage. 


One Tuesday after we came to know each other pretty well Joe asked me if I wanted to go camping for the weekend.  I didn't have anything else planned so it sounded like fun to me.  I had most of the equipment from when my first wife and I used to go and it wouldn't take long to get it into condition.  I asked Joe where he had in mind, "You want to go up on the Mogollon Rim and camp near one of the lakes up there?" I asked.


"Before I tell you where I want to go I need to tell you what I want to do," Joe paused... "I want to try to get in touch with my ancestors and the way I want to do it, I need someone to watch out that nothing bad happens."


I had no idea what he was talking about and while I knew him pretty well, I was concerned about doing anything real dangerous.  "What do you mean?"  I asked.


"I want to go into the Chiricahua Mountains over south of Wilcox and spend the night on a mountain top."


"That doesn't sound too dangerous," I replied.


"Can I trust you?" he whispered.


"Yeah, of course."


"I've got some peyote that I want to take while I'm up there and I don't want to go wild and fall off a cliff," he whispered.


"Shit man!  Now I see why you're concerned.  Where'd you get it?  Never mind.  I'm just looking for someone that I can trust to go with me and spend the night around a fire on the top of a mountain.  It has to be someone that agrees to not get drunk or stoned in case anything starts to happen.  You wanna' do it?"


I paused for a moment and thought back to a few years before.  I'd done something similar in high school.  I'd gone with some guys that were doing acid up to a forestry lookout up in the Tonto National Forest.  We'd gone in the early spring before the place was open and cut the lock off with a hacksaw.  There were three of them and me.  We'd climbed the 150' tower in the early evening and after we were up there and settled I had locked the trapdoor so no one could get down until they were straight again.  I'd even tied a rope to each of them in case they fell over the side. 


It had been a wild time but no one got hurt.  One of the guys kept seeing the skin on his feet and hands peel away until he could see the bones.  He'd hold his hand up and stare at it for 15-20 minutes at a time.  Another one of the guys kept having tracers on his eyes.  He said that any light source had rays radiating out, kind of like a car's headlight on a rainy night.  When morning came I unlocked the door and we came down and went home. I figured if I could handle three guys I could at least take care of one.


"Sure I'll do it.  It'll be fun," I said.


We planned the trip for a three day weekend early enough in the year that the place wouldn't be crawling with other campers and yet not so early that we'd freeze to death.  I packed enough equipment and supplies that we could also spend a night at a campground when we got off the mountain.


Early one Saturday morning, about two weeks later, I found myself driving toward the New Mexico state line.  The area where we were going was located in the southern part of the Coronado National Forest.  Looking on a map we found that Chiricahua Peak is at the north end of the Pendregosa Mountains .  As we entered the area I was struck by the extreme ruggedness.  The very steep mountains were sparsely covered with small scrub oaks and pines.  Following Joe's direction, we wound our way around many, many switch backs as we slowly climbed higher and higher into this natural fortress.   This is the area where both Cochise and Geronimo had kept the U.S. Army at bay for several years.  I could see why.  There were all kinds of box canyons and sheer cliffs scattered throughout the area.


Finally we rounded a turn and saw a peak looming above all the rest.  "That's Chiricahua Peak .  It's almost ten thousand feet.  That's too high.  But that one over there ought to do just fine," Joe explained as he pointed off to the right of the Peak.


"How long do you think it'll take to get up there?"  I asked.


"Probably four or five hours of steady climbing.  It's nothing too difficult.  There's a trail all the way to the top.  All you have to do is put one foot in front of the other," Joe said with a smile on his face.


"Hope we get there before dark."


"Oh we will.  There is one thing you've got to remember though.  Indian custom says we can't step on the very top of the mountain and we have to leave a gift.  Anything as long as it's a gift"


I looked around the car and found an old postcard from a girlfriend that had gone to Europe for a few months.  It was a picture of the Eiffel Tower.  I thought for a moment and realized the contrast between a manmade structure and one of nature‚Äôs masterpieces.  I could think of no better gift.


We pulled into the turnout where the trail started.  There were two other cars already there. 


"Think those people will be wanting to spend the night too?" I asked.


"I doubt it.  If they do we'll just have to play it by ear."


We soon had whatever gear we were taking stowed inside our backpacks and were walking up the trail.  It really wasn't too bad to begin.  The trail was fairly well maintained with just a few places that had rutted from rains of the previous winter.  About every fifteen minutes we'd stop for a short break and switch leads.  After a couple of hours we were getting way up above the surrounding mountains.  The view was unbelievable.  Row upon row of mountains stretched to the horizon.  By now we were in the hottest part of the day and it was still cool because of the altitude.  I thought about how cold it was going to be that night and shivered.  We had stopped along the trail and loaded our packs with what firewood we could carry.  I knew that fire was going to feel good.


After another hour of climbing we looked back down the trail and could see all kinds of the switch backs which we had traversed getting to this point.  "Amazing country isn't it?" Joe asked.


"It's unbelievable.  You can see all the way to Mexico," I replied.


"About another half hour we should be getting close."


I hunched the backpack a little higher on my back and kept on moving.  Just as Joe had said, we soon rounded a corner and could see our destination looming ahead of us.  The final portion of the trail followed a very narrow ridge-line.  It was only about three or four feet wide and fell off sharply on each side. 


"A guy would fall a long way if he lost his footing here," I observed.  If Joe heard me he didn't answer and just kept moving up the trail.


There's a feeling of satisfaction, almost exhilaration, when one reaches the summit.  I can only imagine what it must be like for real mountain climbers that spend days reaching their goal.  It was still early afternoon but a haze was starting to shroud the base of the mountain ranges all around us.  When I looked toward the north I saw a band of dark clouds building in the distance.  "You know, we might get some rain and then again we might just get a lightning show we'll never forget," I noted.


"Uh hu."


Joe was starting to act very reserved.  "You haven't taken anything yet have you?"  I asked.


"No, I'm just trying to make my mind get as peaceful as possible before I do," Joe said with a grin.


I unloaded the packs and got the firewood ready.  I was surprised to find someone else had left some behind.  I scouted around the area which was about as big as a football field.  I had expected to find someone else here but decided they must have taken one of the turnoffs to other mountains further down the trail.  The top was covered with piles of bare boulders.  I noted the highest point around and made a note to avoid that area out of respect for Joe's heritage.


In less than an hour the dark clouds were boiling down toward us.  We had only a short wait before thunder rolled and lightning cracked across the sky.  I felt weak and sat down as Joe joined me.  What a show as the sky continued to darken and every few minutes a brilliant shaft of energy would explode across the horizon.  As I sat there I wondered if Joe's ancestors had done the same thing.  What would have gone through their minds as they witnessed the awesome power of nature? 


We sat quietly waiting for the rains but they never came.  As quickly as it had started it was over.  You could see rain falling from the dark clouds which were over Mexico by now but not a drop fell where we were.  By this time the sun was going down and the fading rays of its brilliance reflected off of the lingering clouds.


After a long period of silence Joe said, "I think it's time to begin.  I'm going to take these with some water and sit quietly.  I haven't had anything to eat all day.  The main thing for you is to not let me get into trouble.  Otherwise I'm going to try to forget that you are even here."


I nodded in agreement and moved away from him to the other side of the campfire area.  I made a comfortable spot and just relaxed.  I figured I'd wait until it was really dark to light the fire because we had to make the wood last all night.


Joe settled down after taking the peyote.  I had looked at them as he took them.  They were shriveled up and dark.  They were bigger than a raisin and smaller than a prune.  We sat there in the fading light and watched the mountains evolve from hues of dark blues and grays to black.  Finally when the sky was filled with the early evening stars and the mountains had become distant abysses, I lit a small fire. 


I watched Joe in the flickering light and everything was fine until he doubled over in pain holding his stomach.  He looked at me with a slight grin as he recoiled from another stab of pain.  I wondered what I was going to do now.  We had brought nothing for poisoning.  I offered him a canteen of water and he took a sip.  This continued for about fifteen minutes and then, as quickly as it started, it stopped.  He returned to looking out across the wide expanse and I did too.


As my eyes scanned the darkness below, I studied the areas for any sign of light.  There was nothing, just black.  To the south I thought I saw the glow of ground lights reflecting off the sky, but I wasn't sure.  I knew the town of Douglas was down there somewhere on the border with Mexico .


I went back to watching Joe and realized that something was happening.  One moment his expression would be almost angelic.  It was like he had an inner peace that you rarely see in adults.  The next moment his eyes would show troubled concern or even stark terror.  I didn't speak but couldn't help wondering what was going through his mind.  One thing was certain, Joe was oblivious to anyone or anything around him. 


As it got chilly, I pulled on a jacket.  Meanwhile, Joe took his shirt off.  He picked up a handful of dirt and rubbed it on his face, chest, and stomach.  He continued to stare into space.  In a few minutes he put his shirt back on. 


In an hour or so, the fire started to die down.  I was getting ready to put a little more wood on it when I noticed Joe studying the fire very intently.  He was staring into the coals when he said, "I see a village.  There's main street... there's cars... there's the town square... and across the street is a field with little huts.  People are on all the streets and there's people coming out of the huts."  He reached out with his hand like he was going to put it into the fire and I moved around the fire to grab his arm.  He paused and pointed into the fire but made no further movement toward it.


I waited patiently to learn more about these people but Joe fell silent.  I waited until the fire had almost burned out and then put some more wood on it.  By this time he had returned to looking into the darkness.  I sat back down and looked all around.  I reclined on the ground and looked into the heavens.  What a spectacle to witness.  There were millions of stars everywhere.  With the clarity of the midnight skies I realized why Kitt Peak Observatory was located over south of Tucson .


It was well after midnight when a sliver of a moon crept upward to sprinkle a dusting of moonlight across the mountaintop.  I looked over toward Joe and he appeared to be asleep.  I took his jacket out of his pack and covered him.  I used my own pack as a pillow and pulled my jacket closed in an effort to stay warm.  After a while I drifted off into a restless sleep.


I startled awake and looked over toward Joe.  He was gone.  "Oh shit!" I thought, as I jumped up.  "Joe, where are you?" I yelled almost in a state of panic.


"Over here watching the sun come up," he replied, from the other side of a pile of boulders.


I walked over to where he stood as the panic subsided.


"Are you OK?"  I asked.


"Sure, but just look at the beauty of the sun as it first rises beyond those mountains," he said pointing into the distance.


It was a sight to behold.  At that moment I couldn't decide whether I liked sunrises or sunsets best.  From where we stood, they were both outstanding.


"You wanna' talk about it?"  I asked.


"I don't think so.  Not now anyhow.  Maybe later.  It was an experience I won't soon forget.  Everything is jumbled up together.  I've got to sit down and think about it some more."


I walked back over to where the fire had been and wondered what he saw in the fire.  By this time the mountains were drenched in sunlight and the entire panorama had come alive in color.  I stuffed my things back into my backpack. 


"You about ready to go?" I yelled at Joe.




We cleaned up the area and got ready to head on down.  Joe had started down the trail when I remembered something.  "Hey, wait a minute.  I'll be right with you," I called after Joe.  Walking back to the pile of boulders, I pulled the postcard out