Have you ever tugged on a thread and found it tied to a hidden tapestry?
I live in Santa Fe, New Mexico, at the southern end of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. From a distance the Sangres are mostly rounded, soft-looking mountains. The exceptions are the Truchas Peaks, a little north of Santa Fe, whose polygonal shapes begin to evoke the Rockies.
Truchas Peaks from the south, near East Pecos Baldy
Spidery traces on the right, leading to Trail Riders' Wall, are traveled by bighorn sheep
Dr. Ruth Nutt
I came to Santa Fe to work for a cheminformatics startup named Bioreason. Dr. Ruth Nutt had been lured out of retirement to serve as the company's lead medicinal chemist. She had so many accomplishments to her name that she could have been arrogant and dismissive to my lowly B.S. C.S. self. Instead she was friendly and welcoming, a compact and bright figure with white hair, a perfect white smile, and a slight German accent.
It didn't take long to learn that, in her spare time, Ruth was a mean tennis player and an avid hiker. She loved the mountains, especially the Truchas Peaks. Her eyes would light up as she described their alpine meadows filled with summer wildflowers.
Ruth tempered her descriptions of Truchas with a warning: the nearest trailhead had a bad reputation. If you went there, it should be in a beat-up old car that contained nothing valuable.
That warning stuck with me. I never took my Subaru there, not even after it had accumulated 15 years of scratches and dings.
Yet the Truchas remained a temptation, always visible, always rugged looking. When I made my feeding rounds at the New Mexico Wildlife Center they were always in the background, often covered in snow and looking like Proper Mountains in the midst of rounded green hills. I kept hearing stories of elk, seeing photos of bighorn sheep. Sometimes, an inner voice suggested that a broken window was a reasonable entry fee.
Jack's Creek Trail, Pecos Wilderness
This past September I started searching online for alternate routes to the Truchas Peaks. The trails from north and south, through the Pecos Wilderness, seemed so long as to require multi-day hikes. But the route descriptions contained interesting anecdotes.
On the day we first climbed Truchas so long ago, my brother, his friend, and I met an old man on the scree on the mountain’s northern slope. He was old, ninety to the day in fact, and his name was Elliott Barker. Even as boys we knew that the Pecos Wilderness would not be in existence if not for that man. (Elliott Barker, a conservationist and author who helped make Smokey Bear part of American lore, worked for the Forest Service in New Mexico for 10 years as a ranger and a supervisor, and as Game Warden for 22 Years.) My mental image is of him looking down at us from a horse, white or pinto I think, on his ninetieth birthday. Some younger men had to lift him onto his horse, he said, and put his feet in the stirrups, and God help him if he fell off. He told the folks at home that he was going for a ride if it killed him, to his favorite place in his favorite place, Truchas Peak in the Pecos Wilderness. It was late in the day, and I was sure the ride would kill him indeed. Perhaps it did, eventually. Elliott Barker lived to be one hundred and one.
Elliott S. Barker
A search for "Elliott Barker author" turned up several books, including "Beatty's Cabin". I bought a copy from Amazon, started reading, and soon discovered that Mr. Barker was much more than a humble old man on the back of a horse.
He had worked for Aldo Leopold.
He seemed so familiar with Gifford Pinchot as to have known him personally.
He wrote proudly about Forest Service policies whose goals sound familiar today: stop big companies from raping the land; issue permits in a sustainable way, to help the poor, not the wealthy.
L. L. Dyche
"Beatty's Cabin" wasn't entirely Mr. Barker's personal story. He also retold stories from others who had known the Pecos just before his time.
One such story, derived from the "Camp-fires of a Naturalist," by Clarence E. Edwords, was itself extracted from the journals of an L. L. Dyche. It painted vivid pictures of the Pecos in the 1880s, when grizzlies occupied the top of the food chain.
(Much of this comes from Camp-fires of a Naturalist):
"Suddenly there came out of the forest, directly to the west of me and not over seventy yards away, a huge grizzly bear.
"Before I could realize what had happened, out came another, then a third, then a fourth, a fifth, a sixth and a seventh. Just think of it, seven big bears in sight all at once! I think there were four more which I saw, making eleven in all in that band. I knew I was in a desperate situation. On one hand was a bottomless precipice and on the other a herd of the most ferocious animals that roam the mountains. How the sweat did roll off my face! There was only one thing to do and I did it to perfection. I stood perfectly still and let those bears go about their business. They went swinging along in a sort of shambling trot or canter almost as fast as the gait of a horse. I no longer wondered at my not being able to overtake them. Some would stop for a second at a time, turning over logs and stones and then hurry on to overtake the band which moved right along. I was hunting bears but not these bears!
"As soon as they were out of sight in the woods, I hastened to assure myself that I was still alive and wiped the sweat from my face. I could easily have put a bullet through any one of them but what would have happened then? I might have been set upon by the whole gang and would not have made a fair meal for any one of them. I made haste to get into the woods and tried to head them off. I wanted to get a shot at them where I could get shelter in the trees if they attacked me. They unintentionally outwitted me, however, and went up a ridge while I was watching a stream."
After relating the amazing story of his unusual adventure to Brown, his camp companion, Brown suggested that if they were to get a grizzly at all, he had best go back over the long, dim trail to Harvey's Ranch and from there to Las Vegas and get a big bear trap. Dyche didn't like the idea of having to trap a grizzly but, since he had been hounded by such abominable luck, and they were about out of provisions anyway, he reluctantly agreed. So, early the next morning, Brown set out on his mission and left Dyche alone in the wild high country.
Nine days later Brown returned, burros loaded with provisions and a forty-two-pound No. 6 bear trap dangling from Old Reuben's pack saddle. Dyche hastily prepared a supper of hot coffee, biscuits, and broiled steak, and Brown went ravenously to work on them.
Brown was too late. The trap was not needed. Dyche told his story as follows. From "Camp-fires":
"To my great astonishment a huge grizzly bear stepped from the forest at the opening made by the little stream. What a monster he was! He must have been as big as a cow. The wind was in his favour, and getting scent of me he placed his front feet on a log and began sniffing the air. I could see his big head going up and down, and must confess that I felt a little chill run over me. The old Sharp's rifle always seemed so big and heavy before, but now I wished it was a cannon. I took the best aim possible, holding my breath to prevent muscular movement, and remembering the advice of my father to always see that the sights were on the gun before pulling trigger, then I fired. The gun belched forth its load with a roar which was echoed by another roar from the bear.
"Here he came growling, rolling, tumbling, falling, jumping, and bellowing, making a terrific noise. I slipped off my shoes [presumably to be ready to climb a tree -- Mitch], reloaded the gun, placed a handful of cartridges in the crown of my hat by my side, and waited. I thought the whole gang might appear and wanted to be ready for any emergency. The old fellow came on towards me, and I determined that if he ever crossed that stream I would give him another 520-grain bullet. He would get tangled up in a fallen spruce tree and would tear himself loose in a most wonderful manner. Now he was in the willows, rolling and tumbling and biting everything that was in his way.
"His strength and activity were simply wonderful. One blow of his mighty paw would have killed the greatest prize-fighter that ever lived.I have heard stories of men killing grizzly bears with their knives, but I don't think it possible for twenty men to have stood before that bear in his death-agony. I could now see him very plainly, and could see that he was covered with blood and was getting weaker and weaker every minute as he came on towards me. Just as he reached the edge of the water he spread himself out on all-fours, and there continued throwing up his head, uttering most horrible groans and guttural grunts, while I sat cold and spell-bound under the great excitement. At last he died, seventeen minutes after he had received a ball which would have been instant death to an ox. Then I got up and went over to where he lay.
"He was a monster indeed. Not fat but so muscular. Streams of blood were running from his mouth where he had broken his great teeth in his death-agony. I was under intense excitement, but I noticed that his legs were black while his sides and back were of a tawny tint. His tail was very short, so short, in fact, that he could not even sit down upon it.
Black legs, tawny sides and back, big as a cow, Pecos Wilderness
Ce n'est pas un grizzly
"It had been raining all day, but I never noticed it as I sat on the log watching the dying throes of the bear. I must confess that I had a pang of remorse as I looked down at the dead monster. I had at last outwitted one of the giants of the forest, but in his death I had seen the qualities of a grand warrior. After finishing my examination of the big fellow I turned about and went to camp, leaving him just where he had fallen. I reached the camp at dark, and would have given a good deal if you had been here to share the enthusiasm with me.
"There was no sleep for me that night. I went over that fearful struggle again and again, and when I dozed off I would wake with a start from a frightful dream of the bear. Next morning I was rested but not refreshed, and after a hurried break-fast I hastened down the cañon where I had left the dead bear. It seemed at times as if it might all be a dream — but no, when I got to the spot there he lay, just as I had left him the night before, dead and cold. Having spent about two hours in taking seventy measurements for future reference, I skinned him. I found that the old fellow had been shot before, for there were two bullets about the size of a forty-four Winchester imbedded in his body, one in his hip and the other in the shoulder. My ball hit him fairly in the neck, cutting the jugular vein and passed entirely through the body, coming out about six inches from the tail near the spine.
"I was almost worn out, but I carried the meat, skin, and head to the big snow-drift and buried them, and dragged myself to camp, where I ate a light supper and then rolled up in my blankets and slept until dawn next morning.”
Who was this L. L. Dyche? I thought it would be hard to find out, but the web is teeming with information about him. He was a naturalist, a professor at the University of Kansas, an explorer whose expeditions took him to Greenland and the Arctic. He was a member of arctic expeditions led by Frederick Cook and Robert Peary. He was an agent for the American Museum of Natural History, on an expedition to rescue Peary, for crying out loud.
- New York Times, 1885, describing Dyche's role in the rescue of Peary
- Biographical Sketch
- Biography from the University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute & Natural History Museum
- The Dashing Kansan - Amazon.com
- Dyche Hall - Natural History Museum
- Photo of Prof. Dyche, in a fur outfit that he wore on the Peary rescue mission
- Professor Lewis Lindsay Dyche died of Heart failure on January 20th 1915, aged 57
It seems Professor Dyche's adventures in the Pecos came very early in his career, since 1882 is given as the first year in which he collected specimens for the university.
But I digress. Let's return to Mr. Barker's story.
The Forest Service began changing how it handled wild fires in a serious way following the 1988 fire in Yellowstone. Although that was a while ago, many of us still remember Smokey the Bear and his admonition that "Only you can prevent forest fires."
Guess who took charge of Smokey's care in Santa Fe after his rescue in Riudoso, and who later sent him to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.? That'd be Mr. Barker.
Who was one of the founding members of the National Wildlife Federation? Mr. Barker again.
Mr. Barker also actively lobbied for the passage of the Wilderness Act, and he promoted wilderness trail rides with the American Forestry Association.
During World War I, Mr. Barker was both a Forest Supervisor and a deputy U.S. Marshal. In this role he arrested a man who, according to some, was an enemy agent of the Austro-Hungarian empire.
From New Mexico History:
Nagy asked if he could go to the house and get his coat and some other things that he had there. Barker replied, “Yes, I will go with you.” Mrs. Maupin was getting breakfast as they walked into the kitchen. The ranger paused to say “Good morning, Mrs. Maupin. I have a little business with this man here,” then started to follow him up the steep, narrow stairway that led to a landing opposite Nagy’s sleeping room. When the agent started to hurry, Barker did too, but he had on chaps and spurs as well as his gun belt.
At the top of the landing, the door to the room stood open and the fellow was throwing his coat off the bed with one hand and grabbing something with the other. Barker knew instantly that this must be a gun and, quick as anything, “I drew my gun, stuck it right in his kidneys, and said ‘Drop it you son-of-a-so-and-so, or I’ll kill you! Nagy half-turned around with his .45 cocked, but then dropped it to the floor. It struck but didn’t go off. The ranger-lawman had acted just in time and his six-gun got all of the attention necessary.
The criminal case file for Alexander Nagy, now in the Denver Federal Records Center, states that he stood trial in Albuquerque on December 22, 1918, the only charge being unlawfully pretending to be a Forest Ranger and granting permission to cut timber on a National Forest. He was found not guilty. Nothing in his file said anything about him being an enemy alien.
According to Barker, however, Nagy was sent to the penitentiary for the duration of the war while the ranger kept the .45 as a souvenir, only to have it stolen years later. He left the Forest Service and turned to ranching, until one day the agent, now out of prison, had the gall to write and say he wanted his gun back! Barker replied that if he thought he was man enough to come and get it. No one showed up.
The web's account of Mr. Barker is not entirely consistent. Remember the story from SantaFe.com that described meeting Mr. Barker on his horse, on his 90th birthday? A columnist for the Santa Fe New Mexican, Marc Simmons, differs on this point:
He once estimated that in his lifetime, he had ridden horses a total of 120,000 miles. His last ride into the Pecos Wilderness was made at age 89.
Down to the Embers
What is the point of this story? I don't know... It started with a search for recommended hiking trails to the Truchas Peaks.
Bighorn skeleton with scavenger droppings
The Truchas were here a long time before humans. Fates willing, they'll be here long after we're gone. But they sure have made a great backdrop for our fleeting adventures.