We drive until the pavement ends and then drive some more through an old mining town turned touristville where dilapidated cabins mingle with refurbished lumber and general stores. Alongside a creek running under and around this narrow road, past the crumbling foundation and steps of a life before, until finally we are in the pines.
My shoulders drop with the cell phone signal and I know I am where I should be – here in the open air. And I’m smiling. It seems like it’s been a while.
The world looks different at 9,300 feet. At 10,000 feet. The ripples, waves and waterfalls of a hard land below appear soft and by the time we reach camp the hills and mountains lay in the shadowplay of sunset.
We sleep tucked into the Gila National Forest, home of the Mogollon and Apache, and in the morning ride higher into the mountains.
Branches and roots dangle like crooked chandeliers and boulders pile on the hillside - talus fields of loose rock. A half-moon sits high in the sky oblivious to its daylight surroundings and the road moves like a serpent through the trees.
We do 11 miles up and back, but this ride is not about the miles. There has been a turn in my life. An eye opening if you will - and the forest washes me clean.
Scrubbing every nook and cranny of my soul until I find myself in the arms of the cottonwoods and the breath of the sun. Sending what weight I carry into the deep, cyanic blue above. Tossing it over the mountainside to tumble through the valley and canyons below. Across shattered cliff lines and rock outcrops where ghosts whisper between long ago pines and even the horse halts to listen before deciding it’s safe to carry on.
Returning to camp, we ride past stumps uprooted and upright, walls of deadwood and old tree trunks where yarrow mingles with trumpet flowers and a hummingbird with his curved beak and shiny green armor stops for dinner. The dogs race ahead now, chasing a leaf or some other treasure lifted by the wind.
In this I find equanimity and above all abundance – an underrated joy these days it seems. A thing lost but not forgotten, forgotten but not lost.
There is no flippancy in wilderness, only authenticity. The young and the green and the old all stand clear and tall - waiting for their time to grow or fall and start the cycle all over again.
And the forest is stronger because of it. I am stronger because of it.