Falling to my death doesn’t scare me half as much as being helplessly trapped in a tight space. You could say I’m claustrophobic. The thought of living out my last days unable to move, dehydrated and starving to death is more than I can even imagine. It’s no wonder that I feel squeamish as I peer into a dark pit on Tonuco Mountain, careful not to slip on the loose sandy dirt and fall to my final resting place.
|Open mine shaft|
Tonuco Mountain is located just west of I-25 half way between Las Cruces and Hatch, NM. The flat topped peak is about 5000 ft above sea level and rises 1000 ft from the Rio Grande that flows along the western slope. I began my adventure just after sunrise by running through a sandy wash lined with desert willows. The going was tough as the sand was deep, but I enjoyed the view of a high escarpment awash in a warm glow.
I took a turn into a side canyon and spooked three mule deer that bounded high up onto a slope so they could keep a sharp eye on me. Mule deer are different than the white-tailed deer I grew up with in Virginia. Mule deer have a black tipped tail and larger ears to help radiate heat away from their bodies. The high temperature today is supposed to top 100 degrees so I’ll need to be out of here by mid morning. (My ears aren’t that big.)
The canyon was adorned with hackberry bushes full of bright orange berries and the fragrance of sweet acacia filled the air as I watched the deer from afar. Soon the canyon narrowed into a rocky outcrop that I had to scramble up where I came upon some shallow caves carved from eons of rushing water. I climbed around on the surrounding rocks and discovered a metate in the rock that was no doubt used by Native Americans to grind seeds or corn. On further exploration, I chanced upon some interesting petroglyphs, some naturally colored by lichen growth.
I continued on through the gully climbing gradually until the surrounding mountains finally came into view. Rock formations towered around me in every direction and soon I ended up at a dead end. I turned around and found a steep trail that took me higher onto the mountain where I found some abandoned mining operations. I followed a jeep road and stumbled upon the open mine shaft that so terrifies me.
The open hole is beside the road just around a blind curve where an unsuspecting mountain biker could end up having a really bad day. The area surrounding Tonuco is very remote so the prospect of anyone finding you is slim to nil. After wondering the number of skeletal remains at the bottom of the pit, I snap a few pictures and continue down the jeep road to find the way to the peak.
|Greater earless lizard|
Before long I see the road to the top and start hiking up the steep hill. A bird takes flight and I recognize it right away as a common nighthawk or bull bat as we call them. When they are on the ground, they completely blend in with their surroundings appearing as a lifeless rock, but as you approach they burst into flight. The underside of their wings have a white stripe on the end that is only visible when they fly.
The climb is tough and the heat is getting more intense. When I make it to the top, another mine shaft appears so I investigate. It seems to me that mining companies would be required to clean up or at least close the mine shaft when they are finished. I was taught to leave my campsite cleaner than I found it. Unfortunately, this is not the case and according to How Stuff Works, around 30 people die each year from accidents involving abandoned mines. Granted, one was a teenager who tried to jump over a mine shaft in one of those famous last words incidents: “Hey Ya’ll, watch this!”
The top of the mountain is rugged and other-planetary looking. Ocotillo, prickly pear cactus and creosote bush are interspersed between large rust colored boulders. However when you look down from the edge of the plateau, you can see the irrigated river valley below with neatly planted rows of pecan trees and other fields of green crops. What a contrast between the lush valley and surrounding barren mountains.
After enjoying the scenery for a while, I begin my journey back. The road leading down is steep with crumbly sandstone which causes me to lose my footing several times. I decide to take the jeep road instead of the canyon to make a loop back to my truck. Eventually the road turns into an eroded jumble of rocks, where I spook a roadrunner, and then comes out into a sandy arroyo. Deep sand seems to surround the entire mountain so I do my best to jog and walk back, though it’s difficult. I return at 9:30 and the heat is already off the scale.
Tonuco Mountain is an interesting place to explore and well worth the visit. The route is about three miles one way and you will definitely want to take the canyon which begins from the north of the mountain and travels south. (Follow these links for the route and driving directions.) Be sure to watch out for open mine shafts and please don’t say, “Hey Ya’ll, watch this!”
See you on the trail.