From Mogollon Cliff Dwellers to Geronimo and Billy the Kid to this author, we have all made our mark on western New Mexico. Well, maybe I haven’t made a mark on western New Mexico. That would not be environmentally friendly in this era of sustainability and concerns about climate change. But western New Mexico has certainly left its mark on me.
Based at the BearPaw Ranch, just north of Gila NM, this location offered a cornucopia of things to see and experiences not to be forgotten. I was looking for a place out of the city, where I could hike and bike without putting on a toque, gloves and three layers of clothes. I settled on the BearPaw Ranch. I reserved two weeks in the Pond Cabin back when the weather was warm and comfortable in the Yukon, but I knew what was coming in January! When I left it was near forty below in Whitehorse, and while it was cold in New Mexico at night, I had many opportunities to be outside during the day with no coat on. But the weather was only part of the attraction.
Gila (pronounced Hee-la) is located 28 miles north of Silver City, on the edge of the Gila National Forest. In 1924, a large section of rugged, forested mountains and rolling woodlands was set aside as the United States’ first designated wilderness – the Gila Wilderness. The original area would form the base of the almost 3.3 million acre Gila National Forest that exists today, featuring mountains and canyons, ranging in elevation from 4,200 to 11,000 feet.
Two of the destinations that I was lucky to experience were Mogollon (pronounced mo-goy-yone), a ghost town, sitting at 6,800 feet in the Mogollon mountain range, and the Gila Cliff Dwellings. Only a handful of people inhabit Mogollon year round. After a winding, twisting, climbing journey, during which I crossed my fingers that no cars would cross my path going the other way, arriving at this semi-preserved ghost town was both a relief and a bit of an amazement in this remote location. The additional 1.25 mile drive or hike up to the Mogollon cemetery gives more history of this town that was once occupied by 6,000 people, many decades ago.
The trip to the Gila Cave Dwellings is a little less nail biting, but the landscape is just as spectacular, with thick Ponderosa Pine forests, panoramic vistas and places where the roads are red from the water running off the rock formations. Mogollon Puebla people built their homes in these natural caves in the 1280’s and only occupied them for a generation. Probably not more than eight to ten families occupied the caves at any one time. They were occupied for such a short period of time, but we can still get a peek into their lives 700 hundred years later. Part of this was seeing the tiny corn husks still lying on the ground of one room.
While the Gila National Forest is an untamed, rugged, mountainous area north of Silver City, the land to the south and east provides a huge contrast. The land is as flat as a piece of paper – sorry, but flat as a pancake was not flat enough, the roads as straight as a pencil for mile after mile after mile and with nary a tree to be seen. What there is, though, is plenty of signage warning drivers of what to do in case of a dust storm and signs indicating bus stops in places where there did not appear to be any signs of human life for miles around. This is the Chihuahuan Desert. Stretching over parts of Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and almost as far south as Mexico City, the Chihuahuan Desert is the largest in North America.
But what about Geronimo and Billy the Kid? Geronimo was born near Turkey Creek, a tributary of the Gila River. Geronimo fought many battles and led many raids throughout New Mexico and was famous for being an Apache leader who would not give up his freedom, where most around him had given in to colonization. Billy the Kid spent much of his childhood in Silver City, committed his first crime there, when he robbed a Chinese laundry and was placed in jail by the town sheriff “to scare him.” Billy escaped from jail and went on to a short, but notorious life, ending in a gun battle with Sheriff Pat Garrett.
Other notable characters who spent time in this part of New Mexico included Butch Cassidy and Judge Roy Bean. Reading the history of this area, around Silver City, the Gila High Country and in Las Cruces, I found it remarkable how much of it is focused on resource extraction and even more so, on violence. But that is history. Being greeted as you enter Glenwood Trading Post or Buckhorn Last Chance Liquor and Pizza and talking to locals here, makes it clear that it is indeed, history.
The road running north of Gila is Highway 153 or Turkey Creek Road. This is, and has been for a long time, ranch country; where everyone waves as you drive by. It almost makes me want to buy cowboy boots and a rifle. Well, not really. But it does make me want to come back.