A Little Wilderness

An essay from the June 2018 issue of Arizona Highways. | By Kelly Vaughn | Photograph by Jack Dykinga

A Little Wilderness

Recently, a friend spoke of walking with wilderness, instead of walking across or through it. That prepositional shift was a thing of beauty, the idea lovelier still. 

Down in the Pajarita — so near to Arizona’s border with Mexico that a person could sneeze and have it echo in Álamos or in foreign canyons — that sort of wild intimacy, that walking with, is a natural thing. 

The space — in comparison to others — is tiny, as is its name. Pajarita. “Little bird.” 

At 7,499 acres, the wilderness is home to more than 660 species of plants, as well as an impressive canyon, Sycamore, through which a seasonal stream struggles to wind. 

In years when the rains are rich and weighty, the stream swells. The plants grow fat and green, the grasses greener still. In drier times, the water trickles. The world dances in shades of yellow and brown, as though autumn is the sticking season. Sometimes within this wild, quiet space, the temperatures and the terrain conspire to make the Pajarita a place of violent beauty. 

Two friends and I traveled there in early December, when the region choked on dust and dryness. We went in search of water on behalf of the Sky Island Alliance, a nonprofit agency whose mission is to protect and restore the biodiversity and natural heritage of the Madrean Sky Islands, 57 mountain “islands” surrounded by desert and grassland “seas.” Most of the sky island ranges in the United States are tucked within the Coronado National Forest, where you’ll find the Pajarita. 

Armed with measuring tape, water quality testing supplies, maps and a constellation of GPS points where water could be, we found a route deep within the wilderness, tracing the mostly dry streambed, boulder-hopping into side canyons. We looked for wells and springs. We scrambled up and over ridgelines and cliffs and through beds of dried sycamore and cottonwood leaves. We passed our packs down to each other when we needed to, wiggling our bodies through too-tight spaces.

Along the way, silence. Breath. The longing for the cry of a bird or the slow hum of a passing airplane or the call of some wild creature. 

The water was — in spots — elusive, the quiet palpable. 

But there was evidence of movement within the canyon, along veins of trail where water once was. The detritus of human migration. Abandoned backpacks. Jugs of water. Cans whose labels were bleached by sun and time. 

We saw the remnants, never the people — they must move so quietly through time and space, from darkness into and through darkness and back again.

Eventually, we found a well. I rested in the shade of a nearby mesquite while the men made measurements and photographs. I wondered when the water was last used and whether by people or livestock or wildlife or just the dragonflies that shimmered against its surface like ghosts. 

Later, and within a mile of the border, a man moved toward us. He was in search of birds, and we were nearing our turnaround. Our voices broke the quiet — our collective dream — the way drums do, echoing through the canyon and off cliff walls before bouncing away and into the past.