VIP: Fort Bowie NHS

VIP: Fort Bowie NHS

I am remiss in taking 7 months to write this post.

January 1 2019, I had purchased my ticket to get down into Mammoth Cave. This was going to be a stop on my way south to Tucson to get the trailer before I started my first Volunteer-in-Parks (VIP) position on January 7th.

Remember what was happening with the government then? Yep, the Shutdown.

I still was going south though, since it could open any day and wanted to be at the ready for starting. But I meandered. I stayed with a friend Michele for two nights in Las Cruces, NM, and then stayed with Suzy in Tucson for a week… then I needed to get some work accomplished on my laser cutter, so I pulled out the trailer from storage, and unfurled the sails so to speak at a campground in Tucson.

And the Shutdown continued. This was the point where there was no end in sight, it had already passed the point of being the longest shutdown in history.

At the end of the week, I wanted to get out of the city and enjoy some saguaros, so I stayed a few nights at an Arizona State Park, definitely in my favorites: Picacho Peak SP. (And showers were free, fyi, big perk)

I was booked for a few nights, and enjoyed a few hikes, and the scenery. I popped into the VC to see what exhibits they had. Because I fly by the seat of my pants, I asked the lady at the desk if they had any short term volunteer positions open. Low and behold, they did!

After some deliberation (my budget included free parking for 3 months in the winter, not popping around to Arizona campsites – which were lovely… but), I started going down the path to Volunteering at Picacho.

As soon as I parked in the Volunteer campsite, across the radio came the news that the shutdown was over, a deal had been reached. I would have had a great time at Picacho, but my position at the Fort was waiting. I stayed one night then hit the road east to Cochise County.

Becoming a VIP took a lot of paperwork. I underwent an intensive background check, that at government speeds took about 6 months for all pieces of the puzzle to fall into place… and even at the start of my position, we were still waiting on some items.

Some general information about Fort Bowie National Historic Site: FOBO is one of the only parks that you have to walk in to get to the Visitor Center, which makes it not only a destination for history buffs, but hikers and local hiking clubs.

Fort Bowie’s walk in trail is a tour through history – of the significance of the region, use of the land prior to the Fort’s existence, and of course why the Fort was built.

The land was originally Chiricahua Apache territory, then Mexico, then through the Gadsden Purchase became US soil for the purpose of a trans continental mail line: the Butterfield Overland Mail Route, of which there remains the shell of a stage station at the Site. An army presence was determined for needed to protect the water source, Apache Spring, and the Fort was built in 1862 for both protection and native relations.

Of note, prior to the building of the Fort, the grounds include the site of the Bascom Affair (US name) or Cut the Tent (Apache name), leading to a confrontation between Lieutenant George Bascom and Cochise in 1861; as well as the Battle of Apache Pass, 1862. [Apache Pass was originally known by its Spanish name Puerto del Dado: Pass of Chance]. Both events led to the Apache Wars.

Geronimo when finally captured was first taken to the Fort, then later to Bowie Station for transport to Florida for his imprisonment.

What struck me was how in such a short amount of time, the land saw so much change, from the native view of seeing the land as resources, from the Apache Pass, and the Dos Cabezas range down to the Sierra Madres in Mexico. There were no boundaries and when the white man came, the Apache could not understand the obsession with a line on the map.

This land that I stood on was in a very short time ago Mexican soil, which in light of the current struggle with the Border felt strange, if you were a rancher on the land at that time, you went from one citizenship to another, but still your focus was tending the land and your livestock. I tend to side with the Apache view of the land holding no boundary.

Since that time, the high desert has pushed back to reclaim the land that the structures were built on. The National Parks system is maintaining the ruins, but not restoring. There are several structures that are no longer: when the Fort was decommissioned, locals salvaged the resources. There is a local home in the area that was rebuilt with materials from the Captain’s home. Most other structures were built with adobe, and what’s left standing has been encased in a plaster to preserve what’s left.

Bittersweet, during my time there, a few walls did collapse. There is an effort to re-plaster those walls (wonderful volunteers from Cornerstones Community Partnerships work across the southern US preserving these types of walls, and are very willing to share their expertise if you want to volunteer with them), but it was almost like an autopsy to see the original adobe bricks. In one section of the Post Trader’s store there was a small bit of timber that was left, underwent inspection from the Park archeologist, then was sent off for testing. (See their handy work in the photos below, section “FOBO Various Assundries.”)

My role as VIP was to work in the Visitor Center during high peak visitation, as well as coverage for the VC when the Interpretive Ranges were holding programs, ooh, and I also got to run a register for WNPA circa 1989 – using a knucklebuster credit card “machine.”

Do you know what it’s like to have your own personal Ranger? I was so lucky to work with the three Rangers on staff, and did I picked their brains! and maybe we had too much fun.

I also learned fully what the title “Interpretation” means to each of my Rangers. Admittedly, I didn’t have first hand knowledge of what that term meant in regards to the title. Each team member brings their scope of knowledge and applies it to the Park. Amy’s passion was History, which makes obvious sense at a Historical Fort; Theresa was focused on the flora and fauna of the area, and Suzanne’s length of tenure brought administrative knowledge as well as organizational/regional/historical focus to me.

My work week began on Saturday to cover the Visitor Center while Amy gave her Walking Tour. I worked 32 hours in exchange for my RV site. Sundays were spent with Suzanne, and Mondays and Tuesdays were spent with Theresa, covering also for Theresa’s Monday Walk.

Arriving the day after the shutdown, I drove east from Tucson, and exited at the Town of Bowie. Pecan trees abound. And I really can’t say there’s much else. Head down Apache Pass Road 12 miles. Roads turn to red dust, and locals include herds of steer, horses, and packs of javelinas. Visitors always wanted to know where I lived. At the end of my tenure I finally told someone “that’s creepy.” In reality, I was just over a ridge a couple minutes walk, a nice slight of hand so that you keep looking at the Fort and the surrounding vistas and not worry about where people live for heavens sake.

Weather ranged from perfect, to me yelling out the door to the wind, “Enough already.” The trailer rocked, and you could see haboobs approaching the pass. And we had snow which was delightful.

But mostly it was beautiful.

The Visitor Center sits at 5000 feet elevation, the trailhead off of Apache Pass Road where you start your hike in is a 1.5 mile hike to the VC, where you can choose to walk the grounds, then head back a different 1.5 mike route. A visitor can also choose to walk an out-and-back trail that follows the Butterfield Overland Route that crosses the Park, or you may be lucky enough to get a ride from one end, which I did one delightful afternoon.

Usually though, Kioko and I would hike a 2 mile loop that cut off the spur back to the trailhead, we’d start on the return trail, then would cut across the Butterfield in Siphon Canyon, head to the graveyard, then back up to the Fort.

This part of the Butterfield was where we came across a lovely specimen, quite a large one, one left from a cat. I was on a mission to know more. You can see said specimen in the gallery “FOBO Various Assundries.” I ended up seeing evidence twice, and I know I head this noise the second to last day of my tenure.

I was weirdly determined (with precautions) to see this animal.

That last day, I had a treat waiting for me: Felix was caught on our wildlife cam!


Named Felix, as one of the cast of characters in the story of Fort Bowie was Felix Ward, (aka Mickey Free), the kidnapping of Ward was the tipping point for the Cut the Tent, Ward was not found at that time, but later it was learned he grew up with Apache, and later became a scout for the US Army.

I also named the first rattlesnake spotted for the season. I named him Rambo: Did you know that the character Rambo is from the town of Bowie, AZ? This fall Sylvester Stallone released another of the Rambo franchise, which interestingly enough takes place in Bowie. Filmed in Bowie? No, Bulgaria (Sly, what’s up with that?). This dude packs a bigger punch, he rattled at me, and I’ll stay away. It is my understanding that this is a Mojave Rattlesnake, and both Rambo’s are Bad Ass Mothers. This one happened to live in the ruins of the Ice Machine. 

Generally quiet, we’d have some days that big hiking groups came in, or a group of Road Scholars. We also had a great line up for Junior Ranger Day, and guest, and first Ranger to staff Fort Bowie, Bill Hoyt came to tell stories of the first years. Pointedly he said: “If we do our jobs it [the Parks] will always be here.”

One not so quiet day was when search and rescue came to the Fort, answering a distress call of someone who was lost. A helicopter lingered for an hour with out finding the lost party. Also onsite that day was a group of horseback riders, with experience in search and they kept their eyes open on their trail ride back. We figured the people found their way back and left before search and rescue even got to the Site. The place is only 1000 acres with well marked trails, and barbed-wire boundaries, but well, it takes all kinds I guess.

I did a few “design-y” type projects. One where I was able to work with Theresa to help implement an idea she was working on (and get jiggy with a little Massimo Vignelli) : an ethnobotany interpretive tablecloth.

Suzanne’s Picture of Theresa presenting her handiwork!

One of my favorite endeavors, Theresa and I put our noodles together and came up with a special Plant Identification and Macro Photography Program. We experienced quite a bloom, my head exploding from trying to remember all the names of the flowers. It was gorgeous that spring in the high desert, and I know I left before the best stuff came it. See below for some of the sweet blooms!

Fort Bowie was part of the South Eastern Arizona Group, in which three Parks share resources in Cochise County. This also included Chiricahua National Monument and Coronado National Memorial. Chiricahua was close, just a drive through Apache Pass, but Coronado was an hour + away, but I did get down there twice. Once for a lovely CPR training, and the second was to tag along on a cave tour given by Interpretation Ranger Kim. The Chiricahua SEA Intern Kelsey and I journeyed down for the day, and we got to see some cave graffiti from the 1800’s Coronado is a park that sits on the International Boundary, with stunning views across the Mexican desert.

On days off I’d try to explore Cochise County or pop down to Tucson to visit family. I had to remember to keep the gas tank full – the closest gas station knew they were the only game in town, so the closest moderately priced goods and services were in Willcox or Safford. Kelsey and I hung out as often as our non-overlapping work days allowed, tried not to get into too much trouble, and went rock hounding in BLM land outside of Safford.

Towards the end of my stay, I got to know my neighbors, Jackie and Greg (featured in some wall repair picts), just a trip down the stairs, with delightful dinners!

Prior to my extended stay I stocked up on canned goods and dry goods, and was generally good practice for the coming winter where my closest town with goods is an hour away.

It was my desert sabbatical and it was a delight. Beautiful scenery, tactile history lessons, and wonderful people.

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Another photo album coming, but I need dedicated internet access, and not cell.

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