Celebrating the centennial of the nation’s first Wilderness through personal narrative.


I first experienced the Gila Wilderness on horseback. It was August 2004 and everything was in bloom and brilliant green as we wound our way through the two-lane highway in the Black Range, then down toward Mogollon. The mountains were thick with monsoon storms and the yerba, called fireweed by the woman from Santa Fe, was in orange bloom. I’d finally “earned” my way into being “invited” on a Gila trip. This is part of a much longer story, so let’s just say for the sake of this piece, I was a girl among men, traveling deep into the wilderness to conduct fish surveys and habitat restoration efforts.

Despite being a native of New Mexico, I’d never set foot among the Gila’s trails or pinion or ponderosa until work took me there. My parents didn’t take my brother and me camping there, nor did my father hunt there. Instead, I was introduced to the Gila outside of my cultural upbringing, through a profession that even today my own Mama still doesn’t quite understand, because quiet Chicana girls don’t work as fishery biologists, don’t work in the mountains with men. But it was who I was, a time, and the Gila landscape revealed more to me about myself than any church or IQ test or therapy session.

The Gila National Forest, containing the Gila Wilderness (pronounced Hee-la), located in southwestern New Mexico, is a vast 3.3 million acres of both desert and ponderosa mountain, a rugged and rich landscape belonging to the American public. First home to the ancient Mogollon (A.D. 200) and Mimbres culture/people (between A.D. 1000 and 1130), it later became the sacred homelands of many Apache bands (including Chiricahua, Warm Springs, and others).

The Gila Wilderness also happens to be the first formally designated Wilderness in the U.S. This protection, granted by the U.S. Forest Service on June 3, 1924, meant the 755,000 acres of mountainous landscape would forever remain “an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions …” as later defined by the Wilderness Act of 1964. Distilled down, it meant this landscape would remain, in essence, wild. Eventually, the original parcel was split and expanded to add the adjacent Aldo Leopold Wilderness. Today, the Gila (557, 873 acres) and Aldo Leopold Wildernesses (202,016 acres) combined have 800 miles of trail.

As New Mexico, as well as the nation, celebrates the Gila’s centennial in 2024, I consider what it means to celebrate the centennial of a place. And what is it about the Gila that still has an ordinary Nuevomexicana like me still daydreaming of its mountains and rivers despite being years removed from the work I once did there? The American Southwest—its landscape, people and complex culture—is my querencia, my native homeland, and it seems honorable to approach this place again from a personal perspective. But still, it is daunting to give voice to a landscape and place so remote, so vast in acreage and pine and pinion. It’s a struggle familiar to one of our country’s most famous conservationists and authors who first wrote the story of capital W Wilderness more than a hundred years ago.

Around 1912, a young Forest Service employee named Aldo Leopold was transferred to the Gila and spent several years among its landscape, coming to know it intimately. He traversed the Mogollon Mountains, peaks of the Black Range, and the San Francisco Mountains on foot and horseback, converging with Chihuahuan and Sonoran deserts.

According to the National Forest Foundation, when cattle ranchers proposed a road to improve grazing access into the undeveloped Gila’s headwaters, Leopold wrote to the Journal of Forestry expressing the country’s need for wilderness and arguing for “a continuous stretch of country preserved in its natural state.” In addition, he mailed a wilderness proposal to his Washington D.C. superiors. On June 3, 1924, the Forest Service designated more than three quarters of a million acres of land surrounding the Gila River as Wilderness, the first designation of its kind and a model for future ones like it.

Like Leopold, I too traveled into the Gila on horseback. It was work that introduced Leopold to what today’s maps name the Gila and it was work that first took me there too, into the deep time landscape that is the Gila. While over a decade removed from my work and experience as a fishery biologist there, it remains a landscape I still think about often—places like Turkey Creek, Langstroth, Raw Meat Canyon, Iron Creek, Half Moon Park.

My old field notes reveal this in a trip into the Gila from May 2005: Rode over twenty miles and [made] it to the White Creek Cabin. [Woke] at 6 a.m. and packed and rode out of the Heart Bar at 9:37am…no stopping at all, no lunch nor pee breaks, 4:24pm arrived a White Creek Cabin. 7 hrs of straight riding. We still had to unload and feed too. It is Tuesday.

What I want to tell you about the Gila is this—it was a place that helped me grow up, a place that revealed to me the experience of horseback and mountainous miles between our group and any help from civilization. Terrifyingly pitch-black night skies and the howl of darkness; wind across canyons and through pine; rushing streams over rocks, bending with gravity and gradient only the earth knows. My old yellow-book entries remind me of this, like this one from Sept. 12, 2005.

…Sitting near the high cliff wall in Raw Meat Canyon, a tributary that meets in with Langstroth, and I am thinking of how upon my arrival here, a gathering of about 12 small lavender butterflies scattered into the air and made the morning’s pain all worthwhile. This canyon is too beautiful to have a name as ugly as Raw Meat. Maybe it’s on account of its remoteness that it gets its cruel name? It’s a bitch of a hike to get here from White Creek Cabin, but now that I’m here I realize its power. It has sprinkled a little rain while I’ve been here, and not nearly as much thunder as yesterday. Maybe the rain is saving itself up for later this afternoon or evening. Last night our sky had a moon just shy of half-full. Maybe by tonight, or tomorrow, that is, if the clouds let us see it. As it always has been on the Gila trips, I had strange dreams last night.

There’s a concept of “blood memory,” the belief that we carry the wisdom and memories of our ancestors in our blood. While I know my ancestral blood runs deep in the American Southwest, while in the Gila I’d often get the brutal tug of rattling spirits, and all I could do was hold close to the whiskey I’d keep hidden in my pack, it’s brown-caramel vision dreaming me into sweet oblivion when the time was right. I often think too of deeper time, the generations and millennia when this landscape had another name, an Apache name, a Mogollon name, a Mimbres name, and before that, no name at all, simply essence.

The complexity of this place, and others like it, clouds the idyllic myth of Wilderness in our West. It’s a place riddled with a violent history of conquest, theft, conflict and death. The American Southwest is my birthplace, and the landscape my ancestors for many, many, generations, and yet I never deny or look away from the brutalities and injustices of the past.

In a February 2024 interview with the Colorado Sun, author Betsy Gaines Quammen says it best:

“…We live among myths. We are a myth- making species. Number two, western myths inform Americans whether they are aware of it or not. Hollywood has taken all of these western chestnuts, and made us revere ideas of western cowboy culture, rugged individualism, open spaces with endless opportunities, the proving grounds of the frontier, and unimpeded freedom. But the West is far more complicated and fragile than these impressions. It also has a history much older than the cowboy— it is the home of countless generations of Native people with their own traditions, myths, and ongoing resistance to settler colonialism.”

I can’t discount this truth, even when trying to describe the Gila, a place I’ve grown to love, revere, consider sacred.

Today I think of the Gila without name, without map or spoken story. It is a landscape that embodies a certain querencia within me, within us, my fellow New Mexicans, and anyone who has traveled into the Gila and been taken by its spell and its spirits. And it’s true, the Gila does have the five characteristics of “Wilderness” as defined by the Wilderness Act of 1964 as prescribed by research and policy: untrammeled; natural; undeveloped; opportunities for solitude; and primitive. Yet what about other characteristics beyond this legislative definition that make the Gila uniquely special? Why care about it, or advocate for it, or even write about it? Looking back to my field notes, seemingly far removed, but always, always, my true and raw experience, reveals this:

… Hands smell like tree sap and purple flowers. The rain has stopped, for now, and you wait for Richard to arrive from the upstream duty post. You listen for the sounds of his arrival—the splashing of water and gravel and rocks, the occasional breaking of branches, his movement downstream. There is stillness again, under a grey sky of occasional thunder, and we work through it, a color green.

Saw a snake on the trail up to Langstroth, light green with black bands…

What do you say to these mountains when darkness creeps in behind the mist/fog that follows the day’s rain, and a perfect half-moon can be seen slightly through the clouds but only after someone you know drinks too much whiskey and reveals fears and frustrations and anguish to the cigarette rolling companion? I am not in the conversation, but I hear it all, while eating green beans sitting close to the fire. What do you say to these mountains after such a revelation? After learning the truth? What do you speak to the mist that is seen and left even at 11 p.m. darkness? Hands are dirty, and tomorrow I might ride out of these mountains.

In 2022 I took my boy to the Gila. I was no longer a biologist traveling to work there. I was someone else entirely, and yet, never removed from the girl I first was when I set foot into the landscape of the Gila. Taking my boy to the stream of the West Fork of the Gila River, I watched him there, on the edge, putting his hands into running water. What new ways will my generation think about and contribute to the protection of wild places such as the Gila? I watched my boy’s hands in the water, the profile of mountain in the distance behind him. And we were wordless, humans at the water’s edge, in the mountain’s shadow, in the moment as ancient as the landscape we were a part of.

LeeAnna T. Torres is a native daughter of the American Southwest, a Nuevomexicana writer with deep roots in New Mexico. She has worked as an environmental professional throughout the West since 2001. Her creative nonfiction essays have appeared in various print and online publications including Torrey House Press anthology First & Wildest: The Gila Wilderness at 100 (2022). Her ties to the Gila Wilderness include working on Gila trout recovery efforts from 2003-2008.