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Silver City, New Mexico and the Gila Cliffs National Forest and Dwellings

Silver City, New Mexico and the Gila Cliffs National Forest and Dwellings

Silver City, New Mexico became a bustling town due to the discovery of gold and silver in 1870. One of its most famous citizens was Billy the Kid. We know of his reputation from Pat Garrett’s book The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid. Pat Garrett was the sheriff who killed Billy. I feel that Billy was greatly maligned. He moved to Silver City as a small boy in 1873 with his mother and stepfather William Antrim. Billy’s mother was sick with tuberculosis and died in 1874. Billy’s stepfather spent most of his time mining gold and silver. So Billy was left alone with his younger brother. Like any unruly young boy without supervision, he got involved in some petty theft. Sheriff Whitehill wanted to scare him and teach him a lesson. Put him in jail. Billy escaped by climbing the chimney. He was very slender; weighing only seventy-five kilograms and was constantly bullied. It happened at the age of seventeen when he shot a blacksmith who was harassing him in a bar in Arizona. Billy returned to New Mexico and was involved in the range wars in Lincoln County. This is where his legend grew.

Silver City is also known for its Ditch Park. This was the town’s main street and was carved out by a series of floods from 1895-1906. The Silver City Museum has photographs of the devastation caused by this flood. The museum is housed in the former home of HB Ailman, who made his fortune in gold and lost it by starting a bank. (Ahem!) There were no bailouts in those days. The museum has permanent and changing exhibits. Has an extensive research library on Silver City and its mining history.

Up the hill, Western New Mexico University has a wonderful museum in Fleming Hall at the end of 10th Street. It houses an extensive collection of Mimbres pottery and other artefacts. The designs on the pottery are beautiful, depicting animals and geometric designs. Many have holes in the base of the bowls. The bowls were placed on the heads of the deceased and a hole was made. This was to allow the spirit of the deceased to depart for the afterlife. No photos were allowed in the museum.

Sixty-five miles northwest of Silver City is the town of Glenwood, which Butch Cassidy frequented. Importantly for the town, it is the gateway to the Catwalk National Recreation Trail five miles east on 174. The Catwalk runs along Whitewater Canyon. Miners erected it in 1893 to work the gold and silver ore three miles into the canyon. They built a pipeline to bring water from up in the canyon to the base where the crusher was. Originally, 4-inch tubes were adequate. Later, when a larger generator was installed, eighteen inch pipes were put in. Some of these are still visible today, along with some of the rigging for the pipeline.

The area is called the catwalk because the men had to walk on the pipes like cats to do the maintenance. CCC workers in the 1930s built today’s catwalk and walkway. The trail is 1.1 miles long and takes between one and one and a half hours round trip. The first half mile is paved with a grade of 0 to 10%. The grade then rises with many steps and bridges. Elevation ranges from 4,923 feet at the parking lot to 5,234 feet at the trailhead. This does not count in the effect of the four or five times the trail goes to the water and then climbs thirty to forty feet up. Little kids were able to take the trail along with old people like me. If you have problems with your knees, I recommend walking only on the paved section.

There are many wild animals along the way: squirrels, birds, chipmunks and lizards. Not seen were the mountain lions, bighorn sheep, fox and wildcat they try to catch.

One stop you shouldn’t miss along the way is the Aldo Leopold Picnic Area, twenty miles into Silver City. There are beautiful views of the Gila National Wilderness, which he helped create.

The next day we went to the other side of the Gila Mountain (pronounced He la) to the Gila Rock Dwellings National Monument. We took Rte 15 through the Pinos Altos across the Continental Divide and into the Gila National Forest. DO NOT TOW AN RV ON THIS ROAD UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES. The road is at best a wide lane and a half with no median lines drawn. There are more twists and turns than a packed club dance floor on a Saturday night. We whites have gone all eighteen miles. The views, when I could see them, were incredible. After the bends the road meets rte 35 and becomes more manageable.

At the end of the road are the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, forty structures built in seven caves 180 feet above the creek bottom.

The tour guide, given daily at noon during the winter season, explains that these are most likely the ceremonial rooms and meeting places of the Mogollon (pronounced mugg e Yon) around 1270 during a severe drought. In one of the caves there are several pictograms. According to astrohistorians, one points to the Pleiades at the time of the summer solstice.

A cave was used for food preparation: nuts were shelled and ground, and corn and beans were processed. The Mogollon people were both hunter-gatherers and farmers, planting the three sisters: corn, beans, and squash.

The next cave was the kitchen, the holes of which were formed by the rock. Stones are heated and placed in these holes. The food is then placed in bowls and heated over the coals.

The third cave is almost sealed, but has a window reminiscent of the Anasazi culture. This window is in the shape of a Tao cross. No one knows its purpose.

The fourth cave has most of the buildings. Because there were no written records and the site was stripped of most artifacts before archaeologists got there, most of what is known is speculative. Most of the rooms seem to be used for various ceremonies. Some of these may have been dwellings for the medicine clan as they sought their visions and dreams. The cave is the largest of all and is quite impressive.

The National Monument is managed mostly by volunteers. Payable only to the supervisor. These volunteers are very knowledgeable and friendly.

They were talking about the pictographs at Lower Scorpion Campground, which was on the way back to the visitor center. There were three quite different ones painted in red paint.

The volunteers also said that an archaeological site with over three hundred building foundations was discovered on the territory of the National Monument. These were most likely the homes of the Mogollon people rather than the cliff dwellings which would have been quite indefensible.

We returned to Silver City via Rte 35 and 152. We decided that 152 was a great road and that we would take it the next day to go to Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.

On 152 we passed the Santa Rita Copper Mines near Bayard, New Mexico. These are open mines that stretch for miles. They are beautiful in their own way.

The next day we took Rte 152 with our trailer. It was a disaster waiting to happen, forty miles of winding roads that continued to rise up and to Emory Pass at over 8,200 feet. It took us five hours to cover the fifty miles and we almost lost transmission. I’m glad we have a transmission thermometer. That saved the day.

#Silver #City #Mexico #Gila #Cliffs #National #Forest #Dwellings

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