At the height of Covid-induced isolation, fueled by dreams of single track trail winding through endless stands of shimmering ponderosa pine, WildEarth Guardians adopted a section of the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) in the northern part of the Greater Gila bioregion. The Continental Divide Trail Coalition started an adopter program to harness the wider CDT community’s love of the national trail in service of maintaining it, and Guardians was eager to help ongoing efforts to steward the vast network of trails across the Greater Gila region. Our section of trail is 17 miles long, running from John Kerr peak north to Highway 12 in the Gila National Forest. Perhaps we bit off a bit more than we could chew with such a long section to maintain, but fortunately we were able to partner with Santa Fe Prep’s Teen Action Program (TAP) this summer, and a group of 11 high school students signed up to help us out in exchange for earning service hours.
Our team of 14 (11 students plus three adults) left Santa Fe on a Monday morning, driving south to Socorro, and then west past the Very Large Array, and across the graben (a down dropped volcanic block which subsided between parallel faults) of the Plains of San Agustin. Our arrival was remarkable for a number of reasons, this being the first trip to the Gila for a majority of the students, but most notably because we seemed to reach our campsite at the same time as the first of the summer monsoons. It rained, and then it rained some more. And then some more. For the majority of our four days doing trail work, we were sodden. But the students hardly complained. And despite the distressful feeling of multiple days of hiking in wet boots, we got a lot of trail work done, and the overwhelming sentiment was that of solidarity and appreciation for the wild landscapes of our home state.
I, of course, was as ebullient and effusive as I always get when I go to the Gila, eagerly spouting facts about Mexican gray wolves and internationally-designated dark skies to rain-soaked teenagers, and expounding on what a large protection designation could mean for the future of the landscape. The youths entertained my enthusiasm, nodding and feigning interest as we pointed to burnt trunks of pines and talked about the importance of disturbance events like fire in the health and resilience of ecosystems, while explaining the need for large, connected roadless areas as migration corridors and climate refugia for imperiled species.
But I saw a glimmer of recognition as our time on the trail came to a close. On our final day, after an absolute deluge (accompanied by some fierce lightning strikes) sent us running back to our vehicles, only to return to the trail to finish our projects once the skies cleared, the kids seemed humbled. Not in a shut down sort of way. But in the way so many of us are magnanimously invited into deference to the great wide world when we venture deeply into it. The Gila guarantees such humility. Her wildness subdues as it inspires, belittles as it expands, leaving the visitor quiet, contemplative, and full of something indescribably exclusive to this immense blue planet. On the drive home, the skies over the Plains of San Agustin opened up, the blue we hadn’t seen for days framed by towering cumulonimbus clouds, their peaks catching the peach and lavender glow of the setting sun. Our car was mostly quiet, the days of physical labor stilling the body, the prolonged time in the woods settling the mind. This kind of learning can only come in places like the Greater Gila, the embodied experience of being a small human in a wild world being so integral to the reimagining we need to chart a new course in terms of how and what we use our planet for. I can only hope these young humans will remember their time on the trail, and perhaps join the fight to protect these sacred landscapes for the next generation of Gila lovers and trail workers that will follow.