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The Soothing Waters of Ojo Caliente

By Leonard Padilla

Last updated on Friday, July 18, 2003

An Inviting Pool at
Ojo Caliente
Photo by the Author
An Inviting Pool at Ojo Caliente 

“These waters, they soothe me.  I could stay here."  With those words, hope dangled before a New Mexico frontier wracked with Indian wars.  Though not within his traditional homeland of southeastern Arizona, Cochise, the venerated and feared Chiricahua Apache leader, liked what Ojo Caliente offered . . . sanctuary and soothing waters to mollify his spirit and body.

Unfortunately, in spite of evidence that the Apache had used Ojo Caliente for generations and that they were willing to settle there peacefully, the U.S. government failed to see the benefits of establishing a permanent reservation.  In fact, the Chiricahua were one of the few Apache tribes in the Southwest that did not get their own reservation.  The White Mountain Apache, the Jicarilla and the Mescalero all received at least some portion of their traditional homeland as a reservation.  Only the Chiricahua were forever banished from the land so dear to them.  They were shipped far away to prisons in Florida, Alabama and Oklahoma, never to threaten the Southwest again.  One has to wonder if the relocation could have been avoided if only the government had made good on its promise to allow the Chiricahua to live at Ojo Caliente.

Ojo Caliente gushes forth at the foot of the San Mateo Mountains in south central New Mexico.  Ojo Caliente is Spanish for “Hot Spring,” although, in this case, warm spring is a more accurate description.  Just east of New Mexico State Road 52 near Dusty, the fissure of Monticello Box stands out from its surroundings.  Without even knowing what awaits them, visitors are drawn to the startling rock formations.

Entrance to Monticello Box
Photo by the Author 

Entrance to Monticello Box  

What awaits is a multitude of warm springs that issue forth from an unassuming ridge, joining up to form the tepid Alamosa River .  Soaring rock walls awe the senses and fire the imagination.  In places, the springs are slowed enough by human endeavor to form small pools for soaking and bathing.  In other places, the springs emerge enthusiastically and cascade down rock flumes in a noisy rush to the valley bottom.  It is green here, the footing is often mushy, and it smells slightly of decaying organic matter. One visitor remarked that this was the first place he had visited in New Mexico that reminded him of the cranberry bogs of Wisconsin.  Animals flock here too.  In fact, as we watched from no more than a few feet away, a snake devoured a frog who had grown too complacent.

Slip into the waters.  Listen.  The gurgling and swirling liquid carries the talk and laughter of Apache men, women and children who once used these waters to relax and recuperate from the trails, whether it be hunting or raiding.  One band of the Chiricahua Apache was called, appropriately enough, Warm Springs Apaches, though they referred to themselves as “Chihennes.”  A nearby mountain peak is named for an esteemed Apache leader who utilized these springs, Victorio.  The Apache Kid Wilderness is nearby as the crow flies.

Listen harder.  The jingle of spurs and bit are also here.  The U.S. Army recognized the importance of these springs, establishing Ojo Caliente post in 1874.  The post was more or less an outlier of Ft. Craig to the east.  The famous Apache warrior Geronimo was captured here in 1877.  Geronimo was believed to be a seer, or one could foretell future events.  So Apaches believe Geronimo allowed himself to be captured.

Monticello Box
Photo by the Author
Monticello Box 

A temporary reservation was established at Ojo Caliente in the 1870’s.  The reservation agent resided at Monticello, downstream from Ojo Caliente through the Monticello Box.  Perhaps relenting to settlers and politicians who desired the springs for their own, the government later abandoned the reservation, and along with it, any hope for peace with the Chiricahua.  The Apaches were forced to move to the Tularosa River near present day Aragon, New Mexico.  This proved to be a bad decision by the government.  Cochise complained, “ I want to live in the mountains; I do not want to go to Tularosa.  The flies in those mountains eat out the eyes of the horses.  The Bad Spirits live there.  I have drunk of these waters and they have cooled me.  I do not want to leave here.”  Tularosa was far removed from the Rio Grande valley , supplies were scant and accommodations unsuitable.  The Tularosa reserve was abandoned after only two years. Many of the Apache returned to the warpath.

Today, Ojo Caliente is in private hands.  While some partial walls still stand, the ruins of the army post slowly melt back into the earth from which it rose.  Even though located on private land, the warm springs are still used by a variety of people on any given day.  A road runs through Alamosa Canyon from the springs to the village of Monticello , so people are apt to approach from either direction.  Modern day hippies, families, hikers and Indians from the Alamo Reservation mix in a friendly gathering.  The no trespassing signs slow visitors down just long enough to open the gates and drive through.  The area appears remarkably free from rubbish and the usual litter that often accompanies popular outdoor recreation sites.  Perhaps it is respect for the springs and the private property on which they are located that keeps it so clean.  We can only hope that the owners appreciate the respect shown by visitors and that we can continue to be soothed by these waters.

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