Thursday, August 20, 2015

~ Granite Mountain Hotshots ~

This was to be a big trip out Texas with stops in Arizona and New Mexico.  North Texas is more accurate.  I have never been to Texas before and I want to see a State Park in North Texas called Palo Duro.  Some say, it is like a little Grand Canyon.  

The weather has frequently pointed me in another direction and this trip is no different.  Palo Duro is near Amarillo and the day before a tornado hit the town.  The winds are wild so I leave that trip for another day.  Hopefully my brother Gilbert can join me.  Riding with a partner is always safer, but I am comfortable riding solo.

Nature has once again made a change in my direction of travel, but fate will make this a memorable ride to honor the men of the Granite Mountain Hotshots.

My first day is a long one but I make Ash Fork, Arizona before dark.  My stop in Barstow was spent with my brother Leo where we eat some Mexican food at Plata's.  Leo is a regular and is frequently given "extras", so we eat well.  I order the big dinner plate -- enchiladas, beans, and rice.  Ash Fork is a small town with one restaurant where I usually have a hardy breakfast the day after my fist camp.  My dinner tonight is cooked over an open fire.  Upper Satellite, our usual camping spot on the Kaibab Forest, is closed for restoration, so I push on a few more miles until I see a USFS road.  This is a prime spot that I have not seen before and I call this Cow Pie Camp.  

The Native American Indians burned "cow pies" to wart off the flies and mosquitoes but I did not know how well they burned, so I experimented.  One large "cow pie" burned all night long.  Imagine a candle burning slowly and you have an idea of how slow they burn.  The smell was like a cigar being smoked, nothing really bad.  Sleep comes easily as my bike has taken me 550 miles on this first day.  It feels good to be in the higher elevations of Arizona and the Window Rock radio station playing country music and Navajo chants puts me to sleep.  Being a late sleeper has always come naturally for me and the warm sunshine wakes me up.

Today New Mexico greets me near Gallup where my bike turns sharply South on some isolated country roads towards El Morro National Monument.  Leo said that it is well worth the detour so I drive on, seeing such beautiful New Mexico country with an abundance of high platues and piñon pines.  The sweeping vistas are beautiful and I see only a handful of cars along the way.  The National Park Service has done a great job protecting this historical landmark and telling its story over time.  

On page 10 of Los Griego de La Joya is some history of our early Griego family led by the Spanish explorer Juan Oñate.  His name is carved in the sandstone and that's what really brings me here.  At marker number 12, his name and his Spanish words carved into the sandstone appear -- The translation is "Passed by here the Governor Don Juan De Oñate, from the discovery of the Sea of the South on the 16th of April, 1605."   The small campground is one of the best I've ever seen so I make a mental note to camp here another day.  

El Morro NM is in my rear view mirror as my odometer changes from 79,999 to 80,000 miles, so I stop and take a picture of this moment.  The back roads pointing South, towards Fence Lake and Quemado, are new to me and very peaceful; I do not see anyone until I reach Quemado.  I dream about the coconut cream pie that awaits me in Pie Town.  Keith and I had some pies a few years ago and it was the best ever.  If you blink, you past Pie Town.  The little store at Pie Town is closed so I slow down a bit to remember earlier trips and push on towards Datil, New Mexico and the small general store that sells meat. 

The young man asks "how thick to you want your steak" and I nod as he cuts off a good size piece.  My T-bone steak is slow cooked over my open fire at Whispering Pines.  It is dark, quiet, and a slight breeze is blowing.  My bed is set-up and I look up at the stars, first finding the Big Dipper, then the North Star, and what Gilbert and I fondly call, the "Circle of Eight."  My camp is exactly as I left it last year, and the year before that, and forever it seems.  The rocks surround my fire and the dirt dug is piled on the side should it be needed to smoother the fire.  My stirring stick is there in the same spot from before and waiting to be used.  There is no cell reception here but the little transistor radio is soon playing country western songs from an Albuquerque station.  My steak is ready and it melts in my mouth -- such good flavor.  The bone goes into the fire and the rest of my food is hung on a high tree branch away from the little critters that wander during the night.  The fire keeps me company well into the night; I hear no sounds tonight and the stillness of this place let's me sleep well.  The sunshine in the morning nudges me towards La Joya.  I stop for a short rest in Socorro where I buy a cowboy belt at the Mercantile and ride onto La Joya.

Actually, I take short detour to Belen where my cousin Tudie and his wife Erlinda live.  Tudie is my first cousin and we have a good visit.  He looks good and walks every day since his injury last year. 

La Joya is a magnet constantly pulling me back to my roots.  This little village on the Rio Grande River takes me back in time, a journey I willing take.  My first stop is always at the cemetery where I walk slowly remembering the families who are buried here.  The stop at our grandfather, Pablo Griego grave site is deliberate.  I want to be sure that the petrified tree and metal plaque that Gilbert, Ruben, and myself cemented in the ground is still there.  I am relieved.  

The sun and water and time have weathered the stone and metal perfectly.  It is as we left it a year ago during the Fiestas.  My random walk thorough the cemetery fills my head with memories of long lost relatives.  I hope they sense that I'm here but I'm not sure.  I say goodbye to them none the less and head for Jewels Camp.

The fire is strong and the water hose is nearby should the winds blown dangerously wild.  This can be a very windy area.  My cooking pot is gone, so I must improvise.  The chicarones and beef jerky from Leo's in Socorro complements my meal for tonight.  Before too long, Stanley Esquibel arrives and a smile is on my face.  He tells me about the work he has done on my mom and dad's house, all to stabilize it.  He proudly shows me what he has done and I marvel at his work.  He is a gifted carpenter but his company is even better.  Soon his brother, Vincent joins us and we talk well into the night.  Vincent brings three chair and a very large piece of wood for our fire; all the comforts of home.  

We eat the chicarones and drink beer from Veguita's Trading Post.  The owner, Carolyn Rogers remembers me from earlier trips and has a warm friendly greeting.  She always attends the La Joya Fiestas and enjoys the dancing and music.  The morning sun wakes me again and today I'm off for Abo to see my sister Elva and Robert Esquibel.  I pack quickly and stop to say hello to Marcello Abeyta who lives on the farm next to ours.  He lives alone and the walls are filled with family pictures.  There is one of me on my bike sent to him years ago.  Some of his pictures fill gaps in my genealogy records, so with his permission I take a few pictures.  He then tells a story about my grandfather, Silvestre Moya...."One day when I was at Magdalena running for county commissioner, a friend asked if I knew a man by the name of Moya from La Joya.  When I said yes, he showed me a 'mochila' or blue denim duffle bag that had been in his basement for years.  The man said that Silvestre was passing though Magdalena one day and asked if he could leave it there for a bit but never returned for his mochila."  Perhaps my grandfather forgot about it or it was too far to travel back to Magdalena by horse.   Marcello offers to make a pot of coffee but I accept a cool glass of orange juice instead.  He says that the drought in New Mexico is one of the worst he's seen; there is not a cloud in sight as I say goodbye, and head for Abo.

Elva and Robert's home has comforts far from what I am use to on this trip.  The shower feels very good and soon I am eating huevos rancheros topped with red and green chili -- so good.  That evening, the winds pickup dramatically and dust is blowing everywhere.  It is so dry that the ground can not compete with the fierce winds without water.  Soon the clouds get darker and we smell rain.  It seems to be raining towards Albuquerque but not here.  The winds shift again, and in the blink of an eye, we see lightning and hear thunder.  I am mean the kind of thunder that makes you feel alive.  The storm is directly above us.  With out much warning, the rain drops begin.  At first there is hail, hitting the ground violently.  The lighting and thunder continue and rain, rain, rain falls at last on some very dry earth.  Elva and Robert are so happy.  For me, I had sense enough to move my bike inside there garage where I'll sleep comfortably tonight.  "What if my camp was in La Joya tonight I think";  the roof over my head will keep me dry.  This is the first good rain storm in several months and the dry ground agrees.

My bike is packed quickly, and right after breakfast, I'm gone.  My ultimate destination is not clear but a decision needs to be made by the time I reach Socorro.  The wind is blowing hard against me, from South to North.  My goal is to ride towards West Texas but the wind convinces me to save that trip for another day so I point my bike West.  

I love this ride from Socorro towards Magdalena, Pie Town, Quemado, Springerville, Show Low, Heber, Payson, Pine, Strawberry along Highway 260.  I hope to ride as far as Happy Jack Camp, some 50 miles South of  Flagstaff along Mary's Lake Road. 

Happy Jack Camp is on USFS land and there is a small store and restaurant nearby.  Arizona officials have closed down the all forests to camp fires, so I cook my meal with a sterno can.  My normal routine is to lay out my sleeping gear first before dark sets but I have an unpleasant surprise; I do not have my therm-a-rest.  This mat keeps me off the ground and assure a restful, dry sleep.  My choices are limited so I begin to collect pine needles for my bed.  My rain gear is placed on top of the pine needles and this will have to do for tonight.  Thinking back, I must have left my therm-a-rest in La Joya.  The wind was up, so I wedged my therm-a-rest inside the gate to prevent it from blowing away.  It is red, so with my color blindness I did not see it.  Sleeping on hard ground is not easy but the pine needles help considerably.  It is a restless sleep, a little on the cold side too.

Morning is slow to arrive and I move even more slowly.  I break camp without haste, head for the cafe.  Eggs over easy, hash browns, corn beef hash, sour dough bread, coffee, and water is my order.  It arrives very slowly as there are maybe 50 firefighters in this small cafe.  These are young men and they are busy eating their breakfast so I wonder if there will be any food left over for me.  They are from Prescott, Arizona and heading for fires in New Mexico.  I share with them the lighting and rain near Abo, just two nights ago.  In a flash, the firefighters are gone.  There must have been lots of eggs in that small kitchen as my order arrives and I eat, drink coffee and think about my ride towards Flagstaff, Arizona.  Mary's Lake Road is very scenic with pine trees, meadows,  and lakes.  There are bicycle lanes along the highway so this is a popular route for bicyclist from Flagstaff.

Flagstaff is one on those spots on earth where snow can fall anytime of the year, so I push on quickly towards to Williams.  Near Ash Fork, I scout out some future camping spots in the Cibola National Forest; there is a good one off of Monte Carlo road.  

Needles, California is my next stop where my high school friends Bobby and Sandy Martinez live.  It is good to see them again.  It is about 98 degrees and Bobby gives me a frozen water bottle for the road.  It thaws near Ludlow and the water I drink now is cold. 

My sister Paula and Veronica and David's son, Joshua, join me for lunch at Plata's restaurant.  Paula insists on buying me lunch which is a repeat of my other trip, enchiladas, beans, and rice.  They both look over the pictures from my trip and we take a few more.  This one is of Paula and me.

Though I still have another 5 hours ahead of me before I get home, this has been a great trip.  I did not get to Texas but I did see El Morro National Monument.  But perhaps the best part of this trip was seeing Joshua who is now in the 11th grade.  It has been awhile since I've seen him and I now look up to him; he is a good foot and half taller than me.  I remember when I first saw him the day he was born at the Barstow Community Hospital.  I also remember seeing Veronica with her long hair and she did not look like she just had a baby. 

The odometer records 2,253 miles . . . . .



This is an open letter to the families of the elite Granite Mountain Hot Shot Crew.....all twenty members.

I am a biker and on June 3, 2013 I was camping on some USFS land near Happy Jack, Arizona.  I had forgotten my therma-rest in La Joya, New Mexico so my camp was especially hard.  The pine needles I gathered helped to soften the ground, but only by the smallest margin.  I did not mind too much as I love camping under the stars.  However, I did move slowly the next morning.  There is a small cafe nearby and I'm looking forward to a hardy breakfast, the next day.  I think it is called the Long Valley Cafe, but I've always called it Happy Jack.

The fire trucks parked out front do not register in my mind....I am only thinking of coffee, and hot food.  As I walk into the small cafe, I quickly see a whole bunch of fire fighters.  "This is a big mistake I whisper to myself."  I see one waitress moving quickly and I can only image how long it will take for my breakfast.  The waitress is very fast and coffee and water is on my table.  Time is on my side so I relax.  I begin to look at the young men next to me.  They appear to be very well fit, happy, and so enjoying their breakfast with such enthusiasm.  Secretly, I hope their are a few eggs left over for me.  They all look like they could be movie actors in this period of time.  They remind me of my son.

When the waitress hears my order -- eggs over easy, hash browns, with corn beef hash, she writes down my order quickly and pours more coffee.  The young firefighter next to me says "that's what I ordered; it was very good."  I see this as an opportunity to make small talk, so I ask...."what fires are you coming from?"  Many quickly begin to talk at once....what, where, and how they left the last fire.  I am impressed.  "Where are you going now?"  "We are going to fires in New Mexico" they say almost at the same time.  I tell them that I just came from New Mexico and that two days ago there was severe lighting and rain.  I tell them that I like their shirts, and the words Granite Mountain Prescott Fire sticks in my mind.  I wished them well and say lastly "be safe."

Quickly the fighter fighters move towards their trucks and are gone, or so I thought.  A young man comes back into the cafe and simply says, "thank you sir."  At the time, I thought he must be a bit homesick but I appreciate his comment immensely. 

On July 1, 2013, the headlines immediately caught my attention.  Nineteen firefighters die in Yarnell, Arizona.  They are the elite hotshot crew from Prescott, Arizona.  I read slowly knowing that the guys I met earlier were part of the Granite Mountain crew.  Maybe this tragedy involved another crew.  The words became harder to read but I continued and at the end "....the elite firefighters are known as the Granite Mountain Hot Shot Crew..."  They are the same guys I had breakfast with at the cafe; tears fill my wife comforts me but does not really know why I am upset.  I begin to explain the news and my connection to these young men.

Even now, days later, I can not stop seeing those young firefighters in my mind having breakfast at that small cafe.  To their family, my tears do not stop and I send at you my most heartfelt condolences.

To the survivor of the twenty-man Granite Mountain Hot Shot Crew, "thank you, I am so proud of you and your service."

  /s/ Robert Griego

Robert Griego

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