Ruth Rudner
Ruth Rudner

David Muench's National Parks


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The population of Pie Town is under 200. But it provides a break in the trail for hikers on the Continental Divide, most of whom find their way to the Daily Pie Café. David and I stop at the Daily Pie on our drives from Albuquerque to Arizona’s White Mountains. And the locals go there. The wonder of Pie Town is that there is a place for the locals to go. The café is the kind that once existed in small towns across America. Now that most of those cafes are closed, or replaced by Subways and McDonalds, it is a treasure to be cherished. Pie Town is in the heart of Catron County, the most violently vocal anti-wolf county in New Mexico. Catron County is ranching country. I care about ranching almost as much as I care about wolves.

"Did you hear about the rancher who won the lottery?" I overheard a cowboy at the Daily Pie counter ask his buddy. His buddy shook his head. "His neighbor asked him what he was going to do with all those millions. ‘Guess I’ll just keep ranchin’ ‘til it’s all gone,’" he said.

A board on the café wall shows what pies were baked today, and how many pieces are left from yesterday’s pies. Apple pie with green chili and pinon nuts is one pie you’re not likely to find in the rest of America. This one is worth a trip to New Mexico.

In the course of work on a Mexican gray wolf article for Arizona Highways, Pie Town was a natural stop on my way into the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area straddling the Arizona/New Mexico border. When Michael, conservation advocate for an environmental organization involved with wolf restoration, offered to meet me in the area to explore, I automatically suggested meeting at the Daily Pie.

The Daily Pie is not a place to talk comfortably about wolves.

I hadn’t thought about that.

Michael and I had never met before. It is odd to meet someone in a place where you can’t talk about why you’re meeting. We drank coffee, then headed west, aiming for a spot on the map where the weekly flight of Arizona Game & Fish had picked up telemetry signals from the San Mateo pack. On the maze of dirt roads, we ended up a couple of miles south of our intended destination.

But it was already late, so we decided to walk where we were, just to get a sense of the country. We climbed up through forest on an overgrown two-track, steep at first, then leveling out onto a bench. Walking about half a mile through old autumn leaves, we talked so much about wolves that no wolf in its right mind would have appeared anywhere near us. Then, tired of the track, we headed up the slope through forest to the top of a ridge. I thought we might have some sort of view from the ridge, but there was only more forest up there. Millions of acres of forest. When it was time to turn back, we decided to follow the ridge, which seemed to parallel the track. We imagined easily making our way down as we neared the road where we left our vehicles. In the cloudy afternoon, the sun was amorphous at best. As it lowered, the clouds becoming grayer, we bushwacked through forest to reach our track. From the beginning, the track did not feel familiar. Nevertheless, I willed it to be correct. It was too late in the day for it to be wrong. Michael must have felt the same way. Noticing a pile of coyote scat, he said, encouragingly, "We’re going right. I saw this pile on the way up."

I’d seen both piles, too. "That pile was flat," I said. "This one is rounded."

Guided by shit, we knew it was the wrong road.

Neither of us much wanted to climb back up to the ridge, to retrace our steps in the darkening late afternoon, but Michael, pointing out the edge of a hill ahead and to the right of us suggested that going around it might bring us to the right place.

I am always ready to assume that other people know what they’re doing. This, in spite of the fact that I also know that virtually everybody guesses at virtually everything. Some people do this with great confidence, finessing their way through. Perhaps I remain ready to believe because I am lazy. Believing Michael was easier than trying to figure it out myself, easier than going back up the ridge and retracing our steps. And, after all, I barely knew the man. Wasn’t it possible he could be right?

We cut through woods, rounded the hill, found another old track and followed it. It began to rain. A white truck with a red line painted along its side, passed on the road far below. I had seen that truck parked at the Daily Pie Café. Maybe it will come back, I thought, if we need it.

The track we followed led us to the road, but there was no hill to descend to get there. Wrong track. This was not where we’d left the vehicles. We had no idea whether it was even the same road. The white truck with the red line did not come back. The last light, faint enough in the cloud covered sky, faded as we began walking uphill on the road. The rain increased. By the time we turned around half a mile later, it was dark. And raining hard. Now we walked downhill. I wondered what – other than not finding our cars – had led Michael to turn around. I didn’t ask. Having no instinct myself about the correct direction in the dark, cold rain, I figured his instinct was really all we had. Michael reminded me of many of my hiking buddies, wonderful, bright men, most of whom had his dark hair and beard. Of course, whenever I hiked with them, we always became benighted. When I hiked alone, I always got to my vehicle before dark.

Why is that?

I was tired. I had driven 3 ½ hours to get to Pie Town, another hour on the back roads of Catron County. I had now walked somewhere between three and four miles, which is not very far, but under the circumstances of the dark, and the cold rain, seemed a long way. We still had a drive to get to Reserve, where we had reservations for the night. I had no idea where Reserve was. I was hungry. I wanted to go home. I refused to complain. I would prove I was tough, able, confident and brave.

Something glinted around a curve. The cars! Two silver cars, glinting in the rain-dark night. I told Michael I thought he was wonderful. I did think he was wonderful. He had known to turn around . . .

How often have I tried to make the wrong direction be right? How many extra miles have I hiked, or driven, headed the wrong way before forcing myself to acknowledge I am wrong? How often have I retraced my route only to find the point where if I had turned one way instead of the way I did, I would have been so close to my goal?

We got into the cars, made u-turns, drove downhill, Michael first. After stopping at a crossroads to talk to someone in the only other vehicle we saw that night, he told me were going the wrong way, that we needed to turn around and follow the truck to get to the road to Reserve.

Several miles farther on, the truck turned off the dirt road, first giving Michael instructions to keep going straight ahead. We did that. For miles. Dark, wet miles, in which no other vehicles appeared. The rain increased. When, finally, we reached the paved road to Reserve, I felt great relief, imagining we were almost there. The rain turned to snow, the blizzarding sort of snow that blows directly into your windshield. The wet road turned icy. Reserve did not appear. We drove (slowly) miles along the paved road, passing through a small community I thought would be Reserve. It wasn’t. A sign at the edge of town said -- Reserve --26 miles. I thought it was too far to drive. I couldn’t imagine driving another mile. Then, suddenly, a sign announced "Reserve." Michael did not turn into town. We kept driving. I wondered if our trip so far had addled his mind. I wondered if he forgot we were staying in Reserve. I wondered if he was asleep. I continued following him.

And then we stopped. A motel simply in the middle of the night. A restaurant that closed at 2:00 p.m. I was too tired to eat anyway. We got into our respective rooms. I fell asleep.

In the morning, I had an enormous bowl of oatmeal and we went on, looking for wolves.

Copyright © 2011 Ruth Rudner