Like a Mountain

An essay from the July 2017 issue of Arizona Highways. | By Kelly Vaughn | Photo by David Muench

Like a Mountain

Escudilla Mountain curls like a sleeping bear along the Arizona-New Mexico state line. Its name translates to “basin” or “bowl,” so without having hiked the mountain or read about it or seen it up close, you might not know it’s the 12th-highest summit in Arizona. 

But, at 10,912 feet, it is. And I knew it. And I saw it burn. 

Six years ago, the Wallow Fire torched the mountain, turned aspens to tinder and shrank fledgling pines to ash. The editor of this magazine — my dearest friend — and I went to talk about the fire on national television. Well, he did. I was the kid who went along for the ride and to write about it later. But. We stayed to follow a hotshot crew that was working to build a fire line around the town of Alpine, to try to protect its people and structures from the violent, wind-fueled flames. 

The air draped so hot around our bodies, and the smoke so choked the curves of the Coronado Trail, we binged on lukewarm bottles of orange Gatorade just to try to stay hydrated.

For about a week after we touched the kindling edge of wilderness, campfire smell clung to my clothes and skin and hair, and I couldn’t shake the image of elk in a meadow. There were so many of them, pushed from the forest, forced to open grass. 

Unquiet meals make ill digestions, Shakespeare said. 

But, somehow, the elk seemed OK.  

A year after the fire, maybe longer, I drove a portion of Terry Flat Loop, one of the scenic roads that cut across Escudilla. It was late summer or early fall, and although there was so much char from the burn, thin tufts of grass sprang from the earth like hope. Something fragrant and vaguely familiar filled the air — imaginary mimosa herbs or my own perfume — and I remembered the way Aldo Leopold wrote about the mountain before it burned. Before I worried that it would crumble from the erosive effect of fire. 

Leopold, who’s often considered the father of conservation ecology, spent the early part of his U.S. Forest Service career in the Apache National Forest in Eastern Arizona. It’s the forest that lays claim to the mountain, to the Blue Range, to places like the Bear Wallow Wilderness. 

So, as far as Arizona’s forests go, it is my favorite. 

And as I’ve visited those trees in my working years, I’ve used them for inspiration. For love letters. For essays. For things that never were. 

It follows, then, that when Leopold wrote about the death of Arizona’s last grizzly, Old Bigfoot, in A Sand County Almanac, his words hung in my brain for a while. 

“Old Bigfoot was a robber-baron, and Escudilla was his
castle,” Leopold wrote. “Each spring, when the warm winds had softened the shadows on the snow, the old grizzly crawled out of his hibernation den in the rock slides and, descending the mountain, bashed in the head of a cow. Eating his fill, he climbed back to his crags, and there summered peaceably on marmots, conies, berries and roots.” 

The bear’s affinity for cows proved his demise, though, and he shot himself. Tricked to trigger a government trapper’s set gun, Old Bigfoot walked right into the line of fire and was no more. But his skull is in a museum somewhere, far away from Escudilla. 

These things make me wonder. 

Today, the reintroduction of wolves in the region bears a vague resemblance to the stress Old Bigfoot’s presence caused. Leopold also reflected on the death of a wolf in his hallowed Almanac, in his essay Thinking Like a Mountain. He — even he — was among the men who killed it. 

“We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes,” he reflected. “I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes — something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.”

Ultimately, Leopold rejected the killing of wolves: “I now suspect that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer.”

This is a delicate subject, though — a story, maybe, for another time. 

Just weeks ago, I put myself near Escudilla again. It was a fleeting thing — minutes, really — a stop on the way to another destination. Still, there is something about the mountain, about the glossy gray spirits of the bears and the wolves and, now, the aspens that in autumns past covered the mountain in gold filigree. 

The things that never were but might someday be. 

From Hulsey Lake, midday, the sleeping bear looked raw, leafless. Empty. Neither tufts of grass nor the hum from the wake of hibernation moved the mountain. 

Still, I saw Escudilla differently. The fire wouldn’t claim this mountain or its spirits. 

It wouldn’t crumble. Because mountains don’t.