As youngsters, we loved motion pictures of all kinds: musicals, westerns, mysteries, and so forth. This is how we were introduced to Jean Kelly, Fred Astaire, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope. We would go the movies as often as we could and enjoy every aspect, including the newsreels.
Western movies were our absolute favorite. We loved any actor/actress with a cowboy hat, cowboy boots, guns and a horse. We sang along (loudly) with Gene Autry in “Cow Town” and with Rex Allen, the Arizona Cowboy. We were enamored with Roy Rogers, Dale Evans, James Stewart, Gabby Hayes, Walter Brennan, Kirk Douglas, John Wayne, Hopalong Cassidy, the Lone Ranger and many others. One of the two of us loved strutting around the house, and sometimes the neighborhood, in a pink cowgirl hat and two guns in a pink holster.
On our 21-month cross-country journey, it was no surprise that we stopped in Deadwood, South Dakota, and many other places that were familiar to us. On our list of places to see, we included forts such as Fort Mandan, a replica of a stockade fort built by the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and Fort Clatsop, a replica similar to the 1805 fort built by Lewis and Clark. We also explored a stockade fort built in 1832 during the Blackhawk War in Illinois. Every fort we discovered brought back many pleasant childhood memories.
When we arrived in Arizona in 2010, we were delighted once we made the decision to become residents of the “Old West.” Within the first three months, we reviewed the pile of information we had acquired from the Chamber of Commerce and developed a list of places to see. Fort Bowie, east of Willcox, was at the top of our list.
In no time, we packed the cooler, printed out the directions, charged the camera battery, put the walking sticks in the car, located the bird book, placed band aids and tweezers in the backpack, and packed the book that illustrated and identified the desert flora. We went east on Interstate 10 to the town of Willcox and headed toward the base of the Chiricahua Mountains. On that day, we fell in love with the Sulphur Springs Valley, with its salt flats (the remains of Cochise Lake), the sand dunes, and the wide open spaces between two very impressive mountain ranges. After stopping to take dozens of pictures, we arrived at a sign indicating our destination: Fort Bowie National Historic Site.
Along the trail
We located the sign indicating the start of the 1.5-mile trail to the fort and we smiled: what a beautiful, clear and comfortable day for an outdoor adventure. Off we went on the gravel trail that would twist and turn, change elevation, and escort us through rolling hills and desert flora.
Our first historical find was the remnants of a mining cabin owned by Jesse Millsap, a local prospector and well digger. The cabin was occupied from 1863 to 1929, at which time Millsap was accidentally killed. At the site, there is a rock outline of the cabin and signage about mining activities throughout the years in Apache Pass. Millsap is interred in the Fort Bowie cemetery.
Continuing forward, we took pictures of the rolling hills, the mountain ranges, the golden grass, the unique rock formations, and the desert flora. We also photographed the signage about the Parke Camp Site, the Bascom Affair, and the Battle of Apache Pass. The info gathered from the signs added to the experience.
The next historical site — Apache Pass Stage Station — got our full attention. We had read about it in the book “Blood Brother,” by Elliott Arnold. Built in 1858, it was a stop on the Butterfield Overland Mail route. The station offered meals for travelers and fresh mule teams for the stagecoaches. The station with its 6-foot-high walls contained a kitchen, dining room, bedrooms, storage room and mule corrals. Today, partial stone walls and the outline of the building are visible.
Next stop was the Post Cemetery, with the graves of 23 civilians and three Apache children. Originally, many more individuals were interred in this beautiful and serene valley, but many bodies were reinterred in the San Francisco National Cemetery. The fenced and well-maintained cemetery contains white markers with the names of the individuals interred there and the date of death. We spent time reading the grave markers and stopped for a minute at the grave of Little Robe, the 2-year-old son of Geronimo. What a beautiful and honorable place of rest.
Further up the path, we discovered the remains of the Chiricahua Apache Indian Agency that existed from 1875 through 1876. In 1876, the United States Government relocated the Chiricahua Apaches to the San Carlos Indian Reservation near Globe, so the Indian Agency was no longer needed. The 19th century adobe building was excavated in 1984, and today the footprint of the three-room building is visible. The signage at the site provides excellent information about the Agency.
Up ahead, we could now see some thatched wikiups, and soon after we arrived at a replica of an Apache camp with residences, a ramada and signage explaining their way of life. Here we stopped to rest and enjoy the beautiful scenery, the warm sunshine and a drink of cold water.
A little farther up the path we thought we could hear flowing water. Sure enough, we had arrived at Apache Spring. This is the reason this valley was inhabited! We stood by the clear, flowing water and enjoyed the scenery: the lush foliage, the moss, the mature trees and the tiny waterfall. At that moment, the significance of this location dawned on us — Thomas Jeffords, Lieutenant Bascom, Geronimo or Cochise could have stood in this exact location!
The path became steeper and we could begin to see some buildings up ahead. Our next stop, however, was the first Fort Bowie, built in 1862. The fort, commonly referred to as a military camp, consisted of a collection of tents and a stone guard house that was surrounded by a 4-foot stone wall. We found remnants of the stone wall and some semi-intact stone structures.
“Wow!” was our initial reaction when we saw some of the remains of the fort completed in 1868. We could not wait to wander through them, but we headed to the Visitor Center to pay our park admission. The young ranger smiled at us and said there was no daily fee for those who had walked up the trail and recommended that we return to our vehicle via the ridge trail. We explored the exhibits, looked at the historical photographs of the fort, then it was time to discover this historic military site.
We wandered through the area, exploring several of the well-preserved remnants of the original buildings. We took many photos of us near the remains to show the size of the remaining structures. We discovered partial stone walls, footprints of buildings, and we wondered in what building Geronimo and his band were held prior to being transferred to Florida. Once we were satisfied that we had seen the entire remains of Fort Bowie, it was time to head back to the vehicle, and we followed the Park Ranger’s recommendation.
Near the Visitor Center was the sign for the Ridge Trail, and we started up the steep, narrow, rocky and uneven trail to the top of the hill. Before starting up this trail, we had missed the entire concept of the term “Ridge Trail.” Along the edge, we were walking a lot slower than we had this morning, but from here, the scenery was spectacular. We could see Apache Pass, the surrounding mountains, Fort Bowie, the cemetery and incredible rock formations. From this vantage point, we could see the entire fort, including the visitors wandering amongst the remains. What a great vantage point for Apache warriors!
We traveled along the rim and eventually arrived at the switchbacks that would bring us to the flatlands. Going down the narrow path, we were passed by several people who were obviously faster (and braver) walkers than we were. We continued on our way, and stopped to take pictures of the mule deer, the moss on the huge boulders, the desert flora, the blue sky and the mountains.
Eventually we arrived on flatter ground and our last obstacle to reaching the vehicle was climbing up the steep incline to the parking lot. To our surprise, a group of people were sitting in the parking lot, awaiting our return. They actually clapped when they saw us arrive at the top of the hill. Looking a bit disheveled and dusty, we simply bowed and smiled.
Years later, we still fondly remember our Fort Bowie experience. The hike, with its signage and historical sites, introduced us to an abundance of Southern Arizona history. Seeing Fort Bowie rekindled some childhood memories, but made us remember that motion pictures sometimes embellish and portray a variation of history. Our experience on that day reinforced our knowledge that forts do not necessarily have a stockade fence.
John Wayne spent a lot of time in the state of Arizona, and many locations broadcast that “John Wayne slept here or ate here.” At Fort Bowie, John Wayne, to our knowledge, did not sleep there, but Geronimo did!
Travels with Two Sisters is a series of adventures in Arizona with Green Valley residents Marie “Midge” Lemay and Suzanne “Sue” Poirier. For more discoveries, check out their first three books: “One Mile at a Time,” “A Gypsy in Our Souls,” and “Connecting Dots.”