Listening to the Land

Soft spoken backcountry guide Joe Saenz journeys into the Gila to explore the truths of his ancestral Apache homeland

Joe Saenz, the top guide in Southern New Mexico, holds a loose rein on one of the horses he raised from a colt.

In the middle of a piñon pine cluster in the southwest New Mexico high country, Apache wilderness guide Joe Saenz was explaining traditional sources of Vitamin C in a voice so soft that I, a relatively novice horseman, had to lean dangerously sideways to hear him. “Pine needles when necessary, but what my people traditionally really liked were these sumac berries,” he explained.

We were nearly midway through our 12-mile ride through the Fort Bayard Elk Refuge and the Gila National Forest. Saenz reached across his horse’s mane to pick and then offer a handful of fuzzy berries from an eight-foot tall bush, each the size of a BB and the color of a clown’s nose. The ponytailed, fiftyish Saenz, with his turquoise earrings, fringed shirt, and flowing hair, looks like a color version of old photos of Apaches. Seeing my contorted face as I chewed a berry, he added in a tone midway between amused and apologetic, “Bit tart, but it works.”

The nutritional demo was Saenz in a nutshell, because it covered two subjects he focuses on every trip: natural and cultural history. For Saenz, they are intertwined. This is due, no doubt, to his being a guide in his ancestral home. He’d told me before our trip began that his family was not among those Warm Springs Apache people forced into exile in Florida and Oklahoma in the 1870s and 1880s.

“They fled into Mexico a generation earlier, surviving the best they could, and made their living through livestock and saddle making.” For a while, they were refugees few knew about. “It was considered too dangerous to enter back into the United States,” he said of their decision to remain in Mexico.

Despite the family’s decision to live incognito for two generations, Saenz, who was raised nearby in West Texas, believes he never lost connection to the Warm Springs Apache homeland (now the Gila National Forest) because, whether he was ranching in Texas or guiding across the Southwest, he was never far away. Fifteen years ago, he repatriated himself to his ancestral home for good. “I finally realized that the time had come; I was ready to educate people about Apache culture. So I came home. Immediately, it felt like the most natural occurrence.

“Appreciation for who I am was part of how I was raised,” he’d told me that morning as we tightened saddlebags and packed lunches. “Growing up hearing my grandparents’ and uncles’ stories planted a seed in me which grew into a deep calling to return and teach about managing our land.”

Saenz attended college at the University of Texas, El Paso, for a couple years before graduating from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, with a degree in natural resources management. He then traveled around North America to learn how other Native peoples were addressing exile and repatriation. “Hearing descriptions of the land, the plants and animals, people’s place in the land, from people who had lived there, made that calling a part of me.”

Hugging the east slope of the Continental Divide outside Saenz’s Arenas Valley home 10 miles from Silver City, we rode past budding cholla, blooming purple milk thistle, and copious clouds of butterflies. My horse dipped her head for a drink in one of the high-desert creeks, and I was just beginning to think I could hear individual wing flutters, when a family of javelina, the small Southwest boar, startled us by darting through a thin thicket of cottonwood and juniper trees. Dancer, my dark brown mare, didn’t flinch. This wasn’t luck. Saenz has raised all his horses from colts. Perhaps because of this, Dancer has the most spirit and best habits of any horse I’ve ever ridden.

Saenz’s Wolfhorse Outfitters never takes a group larger than four, in order to ensure an intense, intimate education that’s both cultural and natural. But what Saenz really provides, by guiding a different route every time through the millions of acres of the Bootheel’s Gila National Forest, is access to quiet in a noisy world.

Though he welcomes all skill levels and is himself as comfortable on a horse as a day trader is at a keyboard, Saenz doesn’t baby you on the trail. In fact, he somewhat objects to the idea of trails, and teaches his clients to ride alongside him in the backcountry according to what he calls Indian Style.

“There’s less impact that way, if you vary your course and keep the groups small,” he said. “Plus, this is how we Apache rode when we last lived here.”

Though he encourages riders to fan out and choose their own way through the tight willow thickets and wide meadows of America’s first federally protected wilderness, if Saenz feels that Point B is better for the overall immediate ecosystem than your Point A trajectory, he’ll let you know, even if it’s in that quiet, measured voice.

“Make sure you cross that creek at a different spot than I did,” he called to me just before we saw our first elk of the day. He told me that he uses the taciturn delivery to modulate the distance between horses on a trip. “If you can’t hear me, you’re too far.” He allowed himself a smile when I asked, mock innocently, “What was that?”

It’s all in the name of showing that proper backcountry etiquette is not just the way to have the lowest impact on his ancestral back yard, it’s the way to have the most sublime ride.

“I try to teach people how to get along without too much equipment or unnecessary gear,” he told me as we climbed out of an arroyo and the world opened up into a vista three mountain ranges wide. “If you have the heart, I’ll take you out there and try to direct you to push yourself and still have fun.”

It is surprisingly hard to choose new paths—on horseback and in life. As part of his own life, Joe Saenz has stayed remarkably close to that one journey: returning home and educating non–Native Americans about Apache culture. “I live in both worlds. American and Native culture exist under very different philosophies,” he said. “Taking the best of each and using them in cooperative efforts is a way to come to a creative understanding that maintains the land. I take it as a responsibility that l be involved in that.”

Our goal this day is to visit one of the biggest known junipers in New Mexico, a 600-year-old living megalith that had the added advantage of providing a shady, streamside resting place exactly halfway into our ride. We weren’t riding an hour before I saw that if silence is truly one of the most precious commodities in today’s world, you get a five-star trip when you hop of one of Saenz’s horses. Lack of synthetic noise is a prime feature of the Land of Enchantment wilderness.

Riding blissfully in a comfortable, easy silence, we came to the Big Tree, as it’s known locally, and dismounted. We got our lunches out of our saddle packs and reclined under the juniper. “For a number of generations, many Apache were very reluctant to discuss our culture—especially our rituals—with outsiders,” Saenz told me over lunch. “But once I realized this was my calling, elders began telling me that we’re back now, and it’s important to teach historical truth.”

Among the important truths for Saenz is the fact that the Apache, before their diaspora, had sacred places such as the Monticello area, for his own Warm Springs Apache, and were at most seminomadic. “We followed the natural food cycle in our territory—both plants and animals—but we had very clear roots here. The Pueblo people north of us knew it, the Comanche to the east knew it, everyone knew it.”

Then, toward the end of the 19th century, the Warm Springs Apache, after decades of guerilla warfare against the United States and Mexico, and failed attempts to create reservations in New Mexico, were exiled, one of the last North American native groups to surrender their land.

I learned that the Apache people were expert food cachers (“we always prepared for the worst”), and only hunted prey animals. “Even these javelina we’re seeing were taboo,” he said. As for the culture’s famous fierceness, Saenz replied unapologetically, “We had and have a very ritualized, spiritual culture. We did not practice random raiding and killing. But if enemies came to our land, it often didn’t work out for them.”

I wondered if these century-old wrongs were being addressed in any way in 2012. “What say do Apache people have in the land’s management, for example?” I asked Saenz as he unhitched the horses for our return ride.

“First, let’s acknowledge and teach what happened here,” he said softly. “Then let’s show people how to treat the land in such a way that it is healthy. Then, we can go from there.”

In addition to rookie saddle soreness, I came away from a full day riding the Gila alongside Joe Saenz with practical knowledge about my southern New Mexico back yard (the streams we crossed feed the river that flows outside my own ranch, 25 miles away). I learned that yucca roots can be ground into a frothing soap, and the needle-sharp bristles, when frayed, make pliable and quite functional paintbrushes.

But I came away with more than that: I got a reminder about the visceral power of land, and how it carves our identities almost as indelibly as time carves the rocks in our New Mexico canyons. Joe Saenz is of this place, as are his family and others returning after a century in exile. <