SI Vault
Bil Gilbert
January 14, 1980
Trailing, or tracking animals by their signs, is unrivaled in Arizona's Huachuca Mountains, which contain an astonishing variety of habitats
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January 14, 1980

A Range Of Diversity

Trailing, or tracking animals by their signs, is unrivaled in Arizona's Huachuca Mountains, which contain an astonishing variety of habitats

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(We talked recently about that first meeting. "I figured you were a smart Yankee," Will said, "who was probably surprised a dumb redneck would know a chulo bear from a prairie dog." Chulo is the border name for the coati.)

Had they seen any chulos recently? Will did another slow study, with Wayne body English. "About 10 minutes ago, if you count that recent," he said.

For us, it was as if somebody had said yes, indeed, I saw a little fellow with a funny hat burying a pot at the end of that rainbow over yonder. The coati study had begun as a gamble. Though these mountains are one of the few places where they are ever found in this country, they are not always present. Tribes of the animals move north from Mexico, stay a while and then either return south or die out. When we started, the considered opinion of game wardens, forest rangers and field biologists was that the coati population in the Huachucas was very low or nonexistent. We were very lucky, having arrived at the beginning of an inexplicable up cycle. The animal hanging around the Sparkses' mine was a male, a member of a tribe of 25 coatis that we were to find later and live close to in the upper part of Montezuma Canyon. That morning all of this was unknown, but Will's report was the best one I had heard and I had a lot of questions that I began asking.

"Probably the best thing would be to go look at that rascal," Will said after I had carried on some. "He ought to still be there in a tree if," and he fixed his brother-in-law with a deadpan stare, "he isn't dead from eating those biscuits Bobby baked this morning."

The chulo was draped over the limb of a sycamore in a somnolent state. I gawked for a while and then spent the rest of the morning talking to Will, both of us making the surprising discovery that despite a lot of obvious differences we were very compatible. In the course of conversation, Will said that he thought chulos were the perfect animal: "They take good care of their little ones, and they don't bother anything that doesn't bother them. But if it comes to trouble there isn't anything in 700 miles that is going to have much luck tangling with a tribe. I've seen lions back off from chulos."

That opinion alone recommended Sparks as a sound man. Everything since has confirmed my first impression. In fact, so far as I know, he has only one serious character defect. He is what is known locally as a "workin' sumbitch," and it is hard to drag him off into idle pursuits of the sort that are my specialty. The mine (zinc) is no longer economically viable, and Will now owns an earth-moving and construction business. He operates under the theory that no job will be done exactly right unless he does it all himself. Because of this, he has a good business but one that usually occupies him 12 or 14 hours a day. Last winter, fortunately for me, Will decided God would probably not strike him dead if he took a day off and went trailing in the mountains.

"Good," his wife said. "I've never understood why you should go through all the grief of working for yourself if you can't do what you want when you want sometimes."

We took Will's best four-wheel-drive truck to see if we could get to Copper Glance, a canyon 10 miles to the north on the western side of the mountain. There are times in midwinter along this border when the weather compares favorably with anything any poet has seen in June or October anywhere. We hit one of those days. A storm front that had been dropping snow showers for the previous 48 hours had passed on to the northeast. It left behind skies so blue they seemed almost black in contrast to the few wisps of clouds that hung around the peaks. The air is usually dry and refreshing in this high country, but on a poststorm day it seems to crackle in the lungs. The sun was hot enough so that we could walk through the snow in shirt-sleeves. The snow, pure white and soft, was so dry and powdery that if you picked up a handful and squeezed it, it spurted out of the fist like fine flour or dust. A few inches of this delicate precipitate lay on the ground above elevations of 5,000 feet.

The rutted road we were traveling is the only public one along the western beach of the mountain island. It overlooks the San Rafael valley, and there are 30-mile vistas south into Mexico and west to Santa Rita mountain. As we were slithering along we saw another truck coming toward us from the rolling grasslands below. "That's CR," Will said and stopped to wait. Especially in the winter, it is rare to meet anyone on the west side of the mountain, and people who are not strangers invariably stop to pass the time of day. CR was a bull rider on the professional rodeo circuit and is now foreman on a ranch in the San Rafael valley. In addition to saying howdy, CR was interested in a piece of six-inch steel pipe that Will had shaped and fixed to the truck as a rear bumper and tow bar.

I really got to get me one of those. That is a slick job," CR said several times and then asked what we were up to. We said we were thinking about leaving the truck and walking up Copper Glance just to see what was happening there. CR was almost as astonished as if we had said we were going to try to swim to the top of the Huachucas. This is riding country. People used to ride horses across it, and now they mainly ride pickups and ORVs. Beyond what it takes to get to a corral or a garage, very little walking is done at all, and there is no tradition of walking for pleasure. When my student researchers and I first came to the mountains and began hiking around them looking for coatis, it raised doubts about our sanity and trustworthiness, because people on foot are apt to be illegal aliens, radicals, environmentalists or worse. After we established ourselves as harmless eccentrics, we received well-intentioned warnings that if we kept on walking we would probably be struck down by rattlesnakes, lions or heart attacks. In time, we earned a certain amount of respect, though no converts. We began getting inquiries about what things were like in odd corners of the island that people had seen from a distance for years but had never investigated because there was no way to ride into them.

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