Crossing the Middle Fork of the Gila River in New Mexico's Gila Wilderness.

Crossing the Middle Fork of the Gila River in New Mexico's Gila Wilderness.

This month, I had the opportunity to do three things I’d always wanted to do: I hiked and camped in New Mexico. I toured authentic cliff dwellings (Mogollon, not Anasazi). And I completed my first assignment for Backpacker magazine.

In early September, my husband and I headed for New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness, a unique crossroads where the Sonoran Desert meets the Chihuahua, and where the southern Rocky Mountains merge into the northern Sierra Madre. We were eager to explore Little Bear Canyon, the Middle Fork of the Gila River and remote Jordan Hot Springs so we could prepare an article for Backpacker‘s “Rip & Go” department. Our mission was to thoroughly document the hike through GPS tracking, waypoints and personal notes, and then share that information with readers so they could simply rip the page out of the magazine and head for the Gila to undertake the same hike.

In the process, I learned quite a few valuable lessons:

1. Practice with the handheld GPS unit before blasting off. Trying to figure out if the darn thing is working properly while you’re on the signature hike isn’t much fun. No matter what anyone says, these units are not intuitive. At all.

2. Try to exercise somewhat regularly prior to undertaking a 12-mile hike over “moderately strenuous” terrain. Otherwise the wilderness will continually remind you that you’re not 25 anymore.

3. Have extra plastic bags for your camera and any “cheat sheet” paper notes you plan to take, because if you don’t have such things, the rain will come. Let’s just say my camera no longer works (thankfully, my professional-photographer husband’s does), and my notes look miserable. Fortunately, they’re still legible.

4. Bring a rain fly for the backpacking tent. It doesn’t matter if you empty an entire can of please-God-don’t-let-the-tent-leak spray onto the canvas. Bring the freaking rain fly.

5. If you plan to explore the Gila, plan on river crossings. Lots and lots of them. We had 15 crossings in the two miles between the Little Bear/Middle Fork junction and our campsite, and by crossing No. 3, we were laughing hysterically at our attempts, on No. 1, to keep our boots dry. How adorable. Bring neoprene socks to wear inside your boots, or pack an extra pair of lightweight trail shoes for the crossings. Comfort is everything. (And I would hazard a guess that no blisters are as awful as wet-socks-and-boots blisters.)

6. No matter what, ENJOY EVERY MINUTE. We experienced Biblical amounts of rain; a river that was running high and muddy due to runoff in the northwest section of the wilderness area (where the 300,000-acre Whitewater Baldy fire complex burned out of control earlier this summer); a tent that performed more like a shower head; and thunderstorms that doused our fire and sent us to bed by 8:30 p.m. What did we do? We laughed. We splashed in the mud. We still managed a hot dinner and hot breakfast. We drank wine from a thermos. We channeled our inner children, because it’s not often that we get to be explorers in truly adventurous circumstances.

And never, ever forget: No risk, no reward.

Earlier this summer, I received my monthly e-newsletter from Boating Writers International. In the president’s letter, respected marine editor and journalist John Wooldridge described a multiple-day cruising assignment and wondered if he would have undertaken such a trip as a freelancer rather than as editor in chief of Passagemaker magazine. When freelancers have to pay their own expenses, they stand to lose money on projects… and therefore have to make sure they have multiple outlets, and even multiple markets, for stories generated from the assignment.

But there’s more than money involved, as it turns out. John put it eloquently. He said, “These kinds of experiences are important… if for no other reason than the adding to your credentials as a seasoned writer, and as an authority who has been there and done that. Is it worth it? My answer: Absolutely.”

His words influenced my decision when the opportunity came to pitch a “Rip & Go” destination hike for Backpacker. True, I would likely lose money on the deal… fuel, food and hotel rooms on either side of the hike would add up to more than my writer’s paycheck. But this was my opportunity to write for a title I’d admired for more than a decade, and it was my chance to expand on my areas of expertise as an outdoor-adventures writer.

The article will appear in the March 2013 issue of Backpacker, and I’m already researching a hike in South Dakota’s Wind Cave National Park for the May issue. I’m building a relationship with my editor, and we’re discussing future gear tests and story assignments. And I’m weaving yet another passion into my writing life, as I did with sailing, powerboating, scuba diving and Native American issues.

So, when I look back at my first visit to the Gila Wilderness of New Mexico, do I think it was worth it?