ACROSS THE
CONTINENTAL DIVIDE

Coronado National ForestMarch 1, 1988
 
NEW MEXICO: Hidalgo County
 
Coronado National Forest three miles east of the Arizona border and fifteen miles north of the Mexican border, in the Peloncillo Mountains. Elevation between 6000 and 7000 feet.

Leaving Big Bend, now we head north through Alpine and Marfa, then at El Paso enter New Mexico and continue west on I- 10. At Las Cruces we climb fast toward a moody, close-up horizon. Clouds boil over some kind of earth-rim, then skate low right above us. Eighteen miles west of Deming a sign reads "Continental Divide/ Elev. 4585 feet." I look around at nothing but some low hills miles away and along the road a grassy flatness punctuated with a few scattered Soaptree Yuccas about fifteen feet tall and I ask Henry how anyone could make a divide out of this. A few miles later I notice that the chugging sound emanating from the little hole in Henry's muffler isn't as labored as it was before the "Divide," so maybe earlier we were climbing up, and now we began coming down. Still, this seems a pretty tentative way to divide a continent.
 
We're heading toward the Peloncillo Mountains Wilderness Complex in the easternmost unit of Coronado National Forest, the southernmost national forest in the western continental U. S. It's down in the boot-heel of New Mexico, where New Mexico, Arizona and Mexico all come together. Two of my books place this area in the Chihuahuan Desert but another shows it as an undefined spot between the Chihuahuan and Sonoran. I consider it a transitional zone between the two great deserts. I'm curious to see what kind of forest might exist in such an out-of-the-way place, but the main reason for going there is that after Big Bend I'm aching for cool, shaded moistness.
 
Twenty miles of rough gravel road south of Animas brings us there. Suddenly the wind gushing through holes in Henry's rusted floorboard feels surprisingly cold. A heavy overcast forms above us for the first time since leaving Amistad, and then about a hundred raindrops splash onto Henry's windshield. Though we must be high in elevation, at no time during the last fifty miles have we climbed steep slopes -- it's all been gradual, with the only hints that we've been climbing being the change in weather and Henry chugging a little louder than usual.
 
Coronado is a laid-back national forest with no formal campgrounds and nobody around -- no rangers and no campers. Rolling, windswept, grasslands break into medium-size hills, trees appear, and that's the forest. The feeling is more of suddenly penetrating a region of valleys with incidental hills between them, than that of entering a place where hills rise from a plain. Maybe the distinction is more important psychologically than ecologically. On the
valley floor trees stand between ten and twenty feet tall. On the slopes they're more scraggly and widely spaced, and seldom rise higher than ten feet.
 
This forest feels strange. A certain disjointed or "crooked" feeling permeates the cold, tingling-fresh air. It'll be fun to identify things, to see if the plant and animal species here are as exotic as the forest's feeling.

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