Sep 202007

I found it! High Mountain Herb Heaven is very nearby! Yesterday, Loba and I were on a mission to find local Apples, mostly because they taste better but also because the cardboard Apples in the store are something like $1.50/lb. We asked around and all the usual suspects had lost their Apple flowers to late frost this Spring, which is fairly typical of this mountainous area where temperatures are erratic and seasons unpredictable. Finally, we heard a rumor that their might be some Apple AND some ripe Blackberries up past this tiny mountain village about an hour away. Now this particular village is an old mining outfit long gone defunct. It’s only about five or ten miles from the Canyon, as the crow flies. But you have to take the Saliz Pass to drive there, and brave a REALLY curvy, incredibly narrow, halfway washed out road with no guard rails to get there, there’s even a sign on the road that says “Night Travel Discouraged”. The village has about 15 Winter residents most years, and a bit more than that during the snowless warm seasons.

If you go through the village you find yourself on National Forest land, on a dirt track that leads up to one of my favorite and highest peaks in this region, up past Aspens, up to Osha, and up to the black cliffs where the Bear Fire nearly burned the whole damn mountain down last year. I’ve spent time up on this peak and the surrounding area, and the land there remains one of my two favorite mountains to gather high elevation plants and to spend time with the sub-alpine and alpine Gila. Did you know there’s Ptarmigan in New Mexico? Well there surely is, hard to get to, but there nonetheless. But I hadn’t spent hardly any time with the lower (about 7,000 feet) but narrow and cold canyon that lies just above the village and just below the peaks.

So, off we went. Through the twisty, rapidfire curves of the Saliz Pass, and then up that switchback spurred track into the mountains. Something I love about the Southwestern montane ecology is just how quickly everything can change. At the Pass, the land is defined by Ponderosa Pine, Alligator Juniper and Evergreen Oaks. At the bottom of the road leading to the village, it’s grasslands with a thousand wildflowers ranging from Evening Primrose to Sweet Clover to Mexican Poppy, further up the road it turns Prickly Pear, Evergreen Oak, Juniper and Acacia. All along this stretch, fat purple Prickly Pear fruits beckoned to us. Pressed for time, we could only gaze longingly at them as we sped around another curve. Seven miles up, we could see the whole damn Gila, with its golden grasslands and its towering green ridges, its sparkling rivers and its rolling woodland hills that stretched out before us in shades of purple, green, mauve and cream. Pressed against the sheer cliffs in our little gray truck, the landscape was like a vast embrace, an incredibly lucid dream, or perhaps, like waking up from some b&w dream to see all the actual colors of the world.

Nine miles in, right near the village, the land suddenly shifted again, all Goldenrod, Yarrow, Spruces and Periwinkle. The village itself is amazing, and I don’t say that very often about any place where more than a dozen people live at one time. It’s some strange time warp back to the late 1800’s with a bit of the 1960’s thrown in. Big gardens, a little cafe, fruit trees and genuine Old West storefronts line the one road that leads through town. That lasts for about two minutes and then we’re in the woods again, hugged by the narrow canyon walls laced with lichen and moss. Sure enough, there were literally miles of berry crowded creek. First, there were blackberries, well past their prime but still holding a good amount of fruit. Then Raspberries, with only a few tender berries remaining. Wild Motherwort, Plantain, Red Osier Dogwood, Figwort, Alum Root, Violets, Wild Roses, Yarrow, Mint, and many other plants I only vaguely recognized. To top it off there was a whole colony of False Solomon’s Seal erupting from the rock walls, with happy fat roots just below the rich soil surface.

Loba and I spent an hour and a half standing in the creek gathering berries before we had to head back so as to find the apples before dark. Along the way I harvested some Blackberry and Raspberry leaves, a huge handful of Plantain, a bunch of Motherwort and few choice chunks of False Solomon’s Seal root. And on the way home we found the Apple orchard or our dreams, free access to several dozen trees with their branched weighed nearly to the ground with fruit. We have about a hundred pounds of Apples to still haul up the hill to the mesa in packs tonight.

And we’re going back tomorrow. And we’re getting some Prickly Pears this time!
It’s amazing to have such a range of herbs to work with, from the desert to the sub-alpine mountains, it’s all within an hour of my doorstep. And while nothing can compare to the innate magic of the Canyon herself, the whole Gila feels like home and I’m so grateful to intimately know a portion of this place’s spirit.

 note: For the Local Herb Blog Challenge I meant October 3rd not November 3rd, so sorry about the slip. 

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