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I'm traveling through the country just north of the Gila doing some research. I decided to camp out at Apache Creek. There is a small store and a taxidermy shop. A campground lies across the road and over a narrow bridge. The sign says Apache Creek Camp.
I believe it's a Forest Service campground, but in any case it is free. It is located at the junction of NM highways 32 and 12. That puts it about 40 miles south of Quemado and 60 miles southwest of Datil.
There are mountains virtually surrounding the campground, making cell phone use impossible. The sky is very, very dark when the moon is not visible. When I was there the moon was so bright there was a wonderful soft glow to everything.
There is no water available in the campground. There is a modern outhouse, fire rings, and picnic tables. The campground is on a flat piece of ground, in a stand of huge ponderosas. The grass was high…about two feet high, in fact. It was dry at this time of year. I did not make a campfire. The overnight temperature got down to 25 degrees, so I did think about it for a minute or two.
The Gila is not like any other forest in New Mexico. It is so large that almost anything could be living in it and never seen. And people can do almost anything here and never be seen either. What I did see was the remnants of The Hunt: an elk skeleton left by the roadside and the meat taken. Poached? Who's to say. I saw another one in the same condition less than a mile away.
I used to hunt deer in the Gila. Besides whatever else one thinks about hunting for sport, the are a couple of big problems with it:
• You have to carry a gun around. They are big and heavy. The longer you walk the heavier they get. And if you are lucky enough to find some game…well, that brings us to the second big issue.
• Kill something and now you have a really big problem: you have to deal with that dead body. Oh I know, do as the hunters with those elk bodies I saw. Just cut them up, take the head, shoulders and hind quarters. Leave the rest to nature. It will be picked clean before warm weather comes. Still, it is not how I would envision spending an enjoyable afternoon walking in the woods. Taking out a whole elk or adult male mule deer is difficult: an elk is the size of a horse.
But life and death are all part of the Gila experience. This is no city park. Sanitized versions of nature are found elsewhere, but not in the Gila National Forest.
That said, Apache Creek is lovely. I always stop there if I'm passing by on the road between Datil and Reserve. It you are not familiar with that part of the state, take a few days this summer and check it out.