The Peloncillos and Me

Okay, for all you non Arizonans out there, here’s an Anglo version of a pronunciation guide for that particular word. Pell on see yos.  With the emphasis on the see.  That pair of double Ls in the middle of the word turns into a Y, and don’t bother asking me why.  If that’s turns out to be some kind of cultural misappropriation, bite me.  Because the Peloncillos–a forty-mile-long mountain range that straddles the Arizona/New Mexico border—and I have a long history.

Speaking of long histories—I’ve been writing this blog for a long time, which is to say eleven years or so.  That’s a lot of blogging.  I have a sneaking suspicion that somewhere along the way may have written about a long ago Sunday ride with my folks, one that went horribly wrong, when my father decided to take his wife and five of his seven children on an afternoon excursion to Skeleton Canyon. In the Peloncillos.

After church we drove from Bisbee to Douglas and then headed east from there through the San Bernardino Valley on The Geronimo Trail. We were riding in my Dad’s several year-old 53 DeSoto which, I have it on good authority, was traded in shortly after this adventure. My folks were in the front with my baby sister, Janie, while my three brothers and I rode in the back, without the benefit of a single seatbelt among us, duking it out as to who got to sit by the window. Two windows four kids? You can bet there was a whole lot of sniping and griping going on

At the time Geronimo Trail wasn’t much of a road—it still isn’t—and not far out of town it got a lot worse. There were plenty of switchbacks and plenty of washed out washes to cross, but there wasn’t water in any of them. It was slow going, but we finally made it to Skeleton Canyon where we exited the car in order to have our traditional traveling snack—dead store-bought, day-old sweet-rolls, studded with raisins, and luke warm pineapple grapefruit juice. Whoever thought even one of those combinations was a good idea.

If you have a nodding acquaintance with American History, you may have heard about the Mormon Battalion, a group of people who traveled by wagon from St. Louis to San Diego.  You may be assuming that this was a group of pious religious zealots, Books of Mormon clutched in hand, setting out to save the West.  I have no doubt that there were a few devout Mormon missionaries in the group—none of them wearing white shirts, ties, and riding bicycles, I’ll wager—but the majority of the people there were looking for a cheap and easy way to get from St. Louis to San Diego. And the route they chose, took them across the wilds of west Texas and southern New Mexico and straight into Arizona. Through the Peloncillos. At Skeleton Canyon.

When they got there, the grade was so steep that they had to dismantle the wagons and use a block-and-tackle arrangement to move everything, livestock included, from on side to the other. Does this sound easy to you? Cheap maybe, but definitely not easy.

Our father, Norm, was a history buff, so while he was regaling us with all these interesting details, a rainstorm blew in—and out again, almost immediately. When it was time to head home, my mother who always served as co-pilot, took over—not driving but directing. Evie was a woman who didn’t chew her cabbage twice and didn’t like going the same way twice either. So instead of turning around and heading back to Douglas—the easy way—she wanted us to go home by way of Animas.

And so we did. We headed off down the mountain. Did I mention this was the Fifties? Did I mention there was no such thing as THE WEATHER CHANNEL? And just because it hadn’t been raining in Bisbee and Douglas on the west side of the Peloncillos didn’t mean it hadn’t been raining on the east side.  As we started down, we began going through running washes. At first there wasn’t a lot of water, but pretty soon there was  a whole lot more. That’s how you get flash floods in the desert—water runs downhill. At one point, after we had almost high-centered on a boulder I heard my dad say soto voce to my mother, “I don’t think we can get back up this.”  And that was a problem, because to get to the town of Animas and get home, we had to drive across the Animas Playa.

A playa in the desert is an alkali flat or a basin with no outlet that periodically fills up with water which, in this case, was exactly what had happened. When we finally made it down out of the mountains and into the desert, we had raging floods behind us and a long flat expanse of water stretching ahead. My father said nothing, although I’m sure he was sweating bullets. Instead, he took a heading in the middle space between the tops of two sets of parallel fence posts sticking out of the water, on what he hoped was either side of the road, and away we went.

The fighting for position in the back seat came to an abrupt halt as soon as water started seeping in under the door.  When we made it to Animas finally, the whole town—all twenty-five people or so—were standing on the deserted railroad track, waiting to greet us. We were the first car that had come through in a week.

That trip was one of the highlights of my childhood, and it’s one of the reasons there’s a flash-flood in the Joanna Brady book named Skeleton Canyon. In fact it’s the whole reason there’s a book by that name at all!

So why am I talking about the Peloncillos this week? Because in the course of the past few days, Joanna Brady and I have spent a lot of time lurking around a crime scene there. Actually that’s not true. The crime scene is fictional. In reality I’m sitting on my patio in Tucson, imagining the landscape and writing about it.  And it turns out, Joanna isn’t there either—at least not yet and it may end up that she doesn’t get to go. After all, she’s still off work on maternity leave.

But if you somehow decide to visit Arizona and want to have an idea about the Old West, the real Old West—take that trip from Douglas to Animas. Imagine crossing that stretch of trackless desert in a wagon.

You might want to schedule your trip at a time when the John Slaughter Ranch Museum is open.  When Texas John Slaughter was elected to the office of sheriff, it was a forty mile horseback ride from his ranch in the San Bernardino Valley to the county seat in Bisbee.  Tombstone was another thirty miles beyond that.  He had one of the few phones in the county.  If someone called reporting trouble in, say Tombstone, he’d get the combatants on the phone and tell them they’d better straighten it out on their own, because if he had to come all the way there, they would be sorry.

Skeleton Canyon is where the Clanton Gang of Wyatt Earp fame hung out.

If you decide to go, give yourself plenty of time. Take food and water—no fast food joints anywhere around. You could just as well leave your cell phone at home, because there won’t be any service. Your preferred vehicle should be four-wheel drive, and by all means pay attention to the weather reports on both sides of the Arizona/ New Mexico border.

Even with all those cautions, however, I promise you, it’s a trip you’ll never forget.

I certainly haven’t.

And with all that, if it turns out I’ve written some version of this some other time?  I’m sure someone will let me know. Unlike my mother, I don’t mind chewing my cabbage twice.

So thanks for the memories, Norman and Evie.

You made growing up great.

15 thoughts on “The Peloncillos and Me

  1. I had to Bing the mtns’ name, being from San Diego, I thought I knew the word. Seeing the cones of brown sugar was all I needed. Thanks for the great story. Love Joanna Brady.

  2. I’ve been down Geronimo trail but not all the way to Animas. Those mountains out there are spectacular but the road is still sketchy during monsoons.

  3. Totally agree with the other comments about enjoying the blog as much as your books. You are a great storyteller! I must admit that Joanna Brady has always been my favorite especially since I live in Sierra Vista and I hang out in Bisbee.

    Certainly hope you weathered the flu and are feeling better.

  4. Did your dad carry an old canvas water bag on the front grill of his car, like my dad did? Those were Desert Water Bags that sold for a buck .99 at every gas station in the Southwest from the ’40s-60s. My dad never went on a road trip without one.
    They’ve gone the way of milk boxes and roller skate keys, but I still have one for grins, hanging on my back porch.
    Thanks the for trip down memory lane.

  5. Thank you for the information about the off road trail from Bisbee, AZ to Animas, NM. Since we are always looking for a new adventure we will be trying it soon. Have 4wheel drive and will take plenty of food.

    Thanks for your blog,
    V. Stansberry

  6. Ok. As interesting as your story was, it made me break out in a nervous sweat.
    I’m a city (actually small town) gal. I can’t even imagine (although your description was like a movie in my mind) what that trip was like “back in the day.”

  7. Forty years ago my husband and I took our children on a cross country trip from the Massachusetts to California. Two scary things stick out in my mind. The first there are NO guardrails on the mountains. Second, driving through the dessert, its a long way between gas stations. Still the most memorable thing we done as a family.

  8. When I was growing up in Iowa, my dad would sometimes take us for a drive on Sunday afternoons. He always smoked a big cigar. My sister and I sat in the back seat coughing and blinking, but we didn’t open the windows because it would mess up our hair.

  9. I’ve been to Skeleton Canyon. I scattered my husbands ashes there. It was his familys place to go hunting when he was growing up in the 50s.

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