The Ghost Divide Expedition II: Exploring The Old West With New Mexico BackroadsPosted in Features on July 11, 2017
We left the Overland Expo West in Arizona, an annual event for do-it-yourself adventure travel enthusiasts, in the early morning light on a 500-mile, mainly off-pavement journey from Mormon Lake, Arizona, to Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, with Jake Quinones, owner of New Mexico Backroads. Jake’s company is devoted to vehicle-supported exploration throughout remote areas of the American Southwest. Jake provides years of valuable knowledge and experience for the expedition member seeking to better their skills in the lifestyle of overlanding. Not unlike the gunslinger in Stephen King’s The Dark Tower novels, Jake transported us into another realm rarely seen.
The expedition included five days of professionally guided overland/expedition (4WD vehicle-dependent) travel across rugged backroads of Arizona and New Mexico, exploring areas of the Gila National Forest, White Mountains, and Mogollon Rim. Jake provides training sessions and instructions on subjects including driving techniques, toolkit overview, and vehicle maintenance; in addition to interesting information about the land and history as well as self-sufficiency for remote stretches.
Our group headed south on Highway 3 and turned off-pavement a few miles south of Long Valley. After airing down, we treaded lightly toward the east, then stopped at a lookout on the edge of the jagged cliffs of the Mogollon Rim. Jake took this opportunity to describe the details of the Dude Fire, one of the most tragic days in U.S Forest Service history in which six firefighters lost their lives.
There were seven vehicles in our group. Dusty Weathers, a cardiologist, was driving an ’11 Toyota Land Cruiser and Scott McAndrew, an advertising executive, joined the expedition in his ’04 Lexus GX470. Debbie Wilson, a volunteer at Homeward Bound Dog Rescue, drove her Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon, while Bryan Hutchinson, a former police officer, was in his AEV-equipped ’13 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited. An old friend, Yves Furbringer (“The Swiss”) had driven down from Canada in his ’06 Land Rover Defender 110 to join us. We were accompanied by first-time overlander Breck Stremmel, and were driving an ’07 Hummer H3 equipped with 35-inch General Grabber tires, a Smittybilt XRC winch, and Turtleback Trailer. Jake Quinones used a ’12 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited to serve as his transport, basecamp, shelter, and office. His AEV-outfitted Rubicon rolled on 37-inch BFG All-Terrain T/A KO2 tires and had a custom homebuilt interior platform to maximize storage and provide sleeping accommodations in the field. We followed Jake on the Rim Road toward Black Canyon Rim Lookout (elevation 7,744 feet) and stopped at a campground to have lunch and get better acquainted.
Later that day we arrived at our campsite in a meadow at nearly 7,000 feet in elevation. We went about our business of setting up camp and preparing dinner using the Turtleback’s propane cooktop. Afterward, we sat around the fire pit, stargazing and telling stories of past adventures.
Shortly after sunrise, we had breakfast and discussed the route and itinerary for the day. We motored over the Mogollon Plateau and dropped into Show Low for fuel and supplies. Once back on dirt, we traveled southeast over the White Mountains toward that evening’s camp near the New Mexico-Arizona state line. During a brief stop near Hannagan Meadow to view the burnt landscape, Jake described the details of the Wallow Fire, the largest blaze in Arizona history. Pushing on, we headed northeast through the Blue Range and arrived at camp a few hours before dusk. Jake gave an informative presentation on his tool and recovery kit, one of the more comprehensive setups we’d seen. Later that evening we had dinner and then played cards under a clear starry sky.
The next morning we wandered east toward Beaverhead and navigated through the Red Hills and over the San Francisco Mountains into New Mexico. After a fuel and lunch stop in Reserve, we turned south and slowly traversed the eastern side of the Tularosa Mountains. As a boy, Jake had become familiar with this part of the Gila while riding shotgun in his dad’s Bronco, a story he told over the radio as we traveled to the night’s camp near Bearwallow Mountain. Once at camp, we set up the trailer, showered, and had dinner on the stove within minutes. That night, Jake delivered an interesting tale about Ben Lilly, a legendary mountain man that spent most of his life hunting mountain lions, wolves, and bears in the area.
We awoke well rested, had breakfast, and then joined the drivers meeting. Jake detailed our route through T Bar Canyon, over Aeroplane Mesa and into the Canyon Creek Mountains. Along the way, we enjoyed a lunch break near Loco Mountain (elevation 8,329 feet) and later passed through the Wolf Recovery Area. In 1998, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released captive-reared Mexican Gray Wolves (once an endangered species) into the wilds of the Blue Range for their historic journey of repopulation.
After a long day on the trail we arrived at the night’s camp near Wolf Hollow where Scott McAndrew asked Jake if he’d give a winch recovery presentation. Jake placed his Rubicon near a large tree and staged the recovery for those interested in a lesson. Some of the others in our group opted for a scenic hike to a cliff overlooking the Plains of San Augustin and stayed until sunset.
We departed camp shortly after our morning coffee and made our way over the Continental Divide and Black Range before descending into Chloride Canyon. Jack described the canyon as a hideout for bandits, outlaws, and Indian raiders in the 1800s. Billy the Kid was said to have frequented this remote region while running from the law. Nearing the tiny town of Chloride, we stopped to view ancient petroglyphs that adorned the towering rock walls on each side of the trail.
Our dusty adventurers emerged from the backcountry with a deeper understanding of the land that we had explored. Thanks to Jake, we gained a practical knowledge of overlanding, acquired new friends, and traversed historical landscapes through the remote backroads of the Ghost Divide, a surreal and forgotten area of the American Southwest.