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Between a Rock And a Heart Place
In New Mexico's Gila Wilderness, you'll be in good spirits – and among them.

By Roger Piantadosi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 27, 1997; Page E01

One of the things you realize when you travel is that ghosts and spirits -- the good ones, that is, not the ones who diabolically compel normal people to hire hit men, or become journalists - are very much like rivers and rain forests and other elemental forces: It's real hard get them to show up for meetings downtown.

Ancient cliff dwellings in southwestern New Mexico, however, seem to be one of the more accessible venues for the solidity-impaired.

In fact, near the end of the only paved road to the 570,000-acre Gila Wilderness area, as my wife and I pause in the shaded cool of a prehistoric kitchen on this clear and breezy afternoon, it almost seems as if we three-dimensional folks are intruding on one of their meetings. Not that I can see any spirits (Charmaine and I share the household tasks, and that's one of hers). But, as I take my wife's advice and lower myself onto an angled, flat stone polished to gloss by many who have squatted here before me, gazing out at the steep, ponderosa-speckled mesa across this quiet sheltered canyon, I cannot explain why else I would feel this overwhelming sense of peace, of benign welcome and, most inexplicably, deep sadness.

Some places have more soul (or souls) than others, and as we sit here among the cool dirt floors and precise masonry walls of the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, I can feel that something serene and wonderful -- and likewise inevitable and tragic -- happened many centuries ago in these connected, open-sided caves some 175 feet above the canyon floor.

The scientists say these cliff dwellings housed only 50 or 60 people, likely part of the prehistoric Mogollon culture otherwise known for its pottery and pit houses here and in nearby Arizona, for a relatively short time in the late 1200s -- toward the end of the Mogollons' notably nonviolent millennium. Tree-ring dating of the dwellings' roof timbers, which were carried up by hand along with all the water and stone needed for the masonry, tells archaeologists that the caves were abandoned after only 30 or 40 years -- but of course it doesn't say why. There are theories about catastrophic droughts, or about how these nomadic mountain dwellers succumbed to the lure of walled cities -- most of which were built by their northern neighbors, the Anasazi, whose time on Earth would thus be easier for we people of the Motorola-zoic Age to reconstruct. In any case, the spirits aren't saying much about it today.

But they are feeling something.

Charmaine's and my joint reverie on these seats of stone -- which has brought me to goose bumps, and her unexpectedly to tears -- is eventually ended by a young couple who, we notice, are waiting impatiently for these two odd, inappropriately reverent squatters to move on, so they also can have a look into the stone-and-mortar storage bin behind us.

The bottom of the bin is covered with dusty, ancient corn cobs. From where I squat, I could scrape the dried kernels off an ear of corn, for grinding, and flip the cob over my shoulder into the bin. As we rise, I have a vivid picture in my mind of this movement repeated, with an easy grace, by women who grew the corn, along with beans and squash, atop the same mesa they lived on, and gathered berries and edible herbs in the canyons and meadows, while their husbands hunted elk and smaller game in the uplands, and told stories beneath the big fire-blackened stone ceiling in the flat, dirt-floored "hall" in the cave next door.

Maybe the sadness I feel is just from knowing that this long-gone culture's stories -- and the purposeful love for these rugged high-desert canyons and riverine forests that I imagine such stories contained and engendered -- will never be heard again. These still sparsely populated canyon lands would become Apache country in the centuries after the Mogollon culture disappeared -- Geronimo was born just a few hundred yards down the nearby West Fork of the Gila River, they say. And after the arrival of the Spanish and English, the native stories would retain their deep connection to the elements but would also come to dwell on holy wars and the heroes therein, as the Apaches and others struggled fiercely to rescue their old world from the ever-growing hordes who kept pronouncing it "new."

Finally, if not for the holy war fought earlier this century by American environmentalists, notably former ranger and Forest Service administrator Aldo Leopold (for whom they named the wilderness area that adjoins the Gila, making this a 1,000-square-mile roadless refuge), these cliff dwellings might look out instead onto the kind of open-pit copper mines we passed on the drive up to Silver City, 40 miles south. Or maybe a newer version of the walled city -- say, the walled suburb -- with a toll-road connection to the interstate, and, one would hope, those ecologically correct water-saving flush toilets.

Anyway, after letting our cousins from the Tribe Called J. Crew pass into our briefly sacred ground, Charmaine and I head back into the sun and climb down the big log ladder (a hand-hewn reproduction, part of the Forest Service's significant restoration work at the site), which leaves us on the path back down to the West Fork. It's one of those beautiful, impossibly sharp days, with serious dappling of sunlight in every direction, so we take our time heading down, shooting dozens of pictures of the organically eroded exteriors of the caves, all of which make Georgia O'Keeffe's work seem less creative than I once thought. When we get to the river, Charmaine takes off her shoes and stands in the cold, fast-moving shallows while I sit on the pebbled bank trying to imagine life before the Forest Service.

Yes, we're from back East, and we don't get out much.

Our first time together in the American Southwest -- which turned out to be, more specifically, this comparatively tiny but vast southwestern corner of New Mexico -- we couldn't get out enough. And it still wasn't much -- in three days, I think we got to see maybe two of the thousands of known Chevy truck commercial locations in the region.

Seriously, though, the East has its wilderness areas, but few of them routinely expose you to so much raw earth and sky -- and so few other tribesmen -- as this one does. If you wonder why so many UFO sightings originally sprouted here in New Mexico -- or why it has always seemed odd and unnecessary to the locals, from the ancient Anasazi to the still-practicing Zuni, Acoma and Navajos, to erect something called a "house" for God to dwell in -- then you have not stood on the brown earth, with an endless yellow-blue sky around you, someplace in the middle of nowhere in New Mexico.

Between the otherwise Amtrak-proscribed legs of a trip west, Charmaine and I had a few days to make the drive from the definitively hot low-desert town of Tucson to the cooler, higher (but likewise artificially watered) oasis of Albuquerque. On the recommendation of friends, we aimed that first day for the lower end of the 3 million-acre Gila National Forest, which is organically watered by natural springs and the converging forks of the Gila River, and which encloses both the Gila wilderness and its cliff dwelling site as well as numerous trout-laden streams and lakes, private lodges, grazing rights-of-way, and mining and logging concerns. This route would take us to Silver City, an incongruously red-brick Victorian hillside college town just north of I-10, where the big industries include ranching, outdoors-oriented tourism and, still (though the veins have changed since Silver City was named in the 1870s), mining.

Whining -- more of an East Coast industry -- about not feeling entirely welcome in Silver City is something I hesitate to do. This friendly small town (one of America's 100 best places to live, according to the book put out by one of those marketing geniuses not long ago) has a legitimate historic district (this is where Billy the Kid was an actual kid), two small but dedicated museums (one specializing in local Victoriana, the other in Mimbres/Mogollon pottery, which is an entirely apt New Mexican contrast), a handful of cafes and offbeat shops and galleries and a few family-owned downtown inns to supplement the endless supply of motels along the main highways.

It's not Silver City's fault that Charmaine and I are vegetarians who, on the road to town, pass a very large white billboard with big black letters to remind us who really made this part of the world what it is today (it says, simply, "EAT BEEF," and I'm sure I'm imagining seeing the words "Or We Might Shoot You" printed underneath). And it's my own guidebook co-dependence that brings us to a restored old downtown hotel for a quiet night's rest, realizing as we arrive that it is indeed cozy and friendly but also has stood for the past century directly on a busy stagecoach route. (If only today's stagecoaches didn't have to wind through so many lower gears when they're in town.)

After losing a brief walking argument, during which we actually get to see quite a bit of downtown Silver City at sunset, I make a call from the pay phone outside the dangerously alluring Buffalo Bar (country rock pulsing through the open-wide front door, pool table in use, a near even split of jeans-and-boots and shirtsleeves-and-ties at tables and bar), and a half-hour later, we are where we were supposed to be all along.

We know this because we are greeted by a Prince. That's the dog's name.

Bear Mountain Lodge is about three miles north of Silver City. You only have to go about two miles to pass the places where they're building new roads and homes for people who apparently took that book literally, reentering at this point the original, less reliably paved version of New Mexico. And here you will meet, most likely at the front door of her two-story 1920s ranch house on the northeast corner of its rolling, pinyony 160-acre spread, Ms. Myra McCormick.

Then again, you might instead be met at the door by Norm and Inez, a flooring contractor and pharmacist from Colorado, who are picking through the piles of New Mexico magazines and birding books in the front lounge because McCormick is busy on the phone taking a reservation, or in the kitchen making dinner, or in the windowed "bird-watching room" grilling an unsuspecting amateur about the precise difference, according to Peterson's, between a scrub jay and a Mexican jay. It doesn't matter. As the sole owner and operator the past 20 years of this singularly sylvan, remote and organically grown bed and breakfast (which she and her husband bought in 1959, thinking at the time that Albuquerque was getting just too big), her presence is everywhere.

And will continue to be, in a way, even after she isn't.

Not long after giving an impromptu, humiliating and more or less kindly lesson in how little I knew of the eight different kinds of owls I might see in New Mexico, McCormick explained to me before we left that she and her husband, who died in 1978, had no children -- and though she does have some family, "none of them ever really cared much about this special place." Thus, she said, last year she donated her acreage in living trust to the Nature Conservancy, which in return will allow her, and the inn, to stay here for as long as she lives. "It was the right thing to do," she says.

Meantime, the right thing for Charmaine and me to do with our day here is to hike -- and you can spend half a day just roaming the property, climbing through arroyos and up the gravelly slopes of pinyon and juniper. Led by the leaping, bounding Prince, who is a cross between a border collie and a pinball, we're half-heartedly in search of the small Mimbreno archaeological site discovered on the property a decade ago. We never find it, but it doesn't matter. At dusk, a family of javelina finds us, allowing Charmaine and me, and Norm and Inez, to watch as they happily and noisily mistake a pile of birdseed for wild boar food.

Having had the perfect prelude to our day in the Gila, we take Norm's advice to follow an alternate route up to the cliff dwellings, returning by the more direct Route 15 to Silver City. The alternate takes us through two hours of nearly continuous scenic mountain vistas -- I have to stop myself from pulling over after the first hour or I will run out of film -- and on past Lake Roberts, where we buy ice cream at the small general store, waiting to pay for it while the proprietor weighs and measures an angler's entry in the lake's trout derby.

After our afternoon of climbing and communing with the spirits of the Mogollon at the cliff dwellings, the route we take homeward -- a twisting, steep mountain road not recommended for RVs or towed vehicles, which are of course exactly what's in front of us and behind us -- follows the old stagecoach trail to Pinos Altos. Pinos Altos is now one of southern New Mexico's many "ghost towns," and as good a place as any to realize, once and for all, the difference between ghosts and spirits.

A century ago, the combined lure of gold and silver, and the danger of Apache raids this far up into the canyon lands, made Pinos Altos a place that embodied the Wild West in many senses. There was an Army fort here, and at least one saloon, and many people shot at each other, or at least swore at each other, because this was during the chaotic days before Realtors.

Today, there is a saloon here -- the Buckhorn Saloon, restored and refined into a well-regarded restaurant serving those who take that billboard literally, meaning beef prepared in every way. It also has an attached 1860s-style opera house built about 20 years ago. The guy behind the bar, who says he is actually from New York, is more than happy to let us use the restroom and points us through to the opera house, which is dark and unnervingly realistic. When we walk back through the bar, which is crowned by a stuffed elk head, the stereo is blasting something by Tchaikovsky from National Public Radio in Washington.

There is also a fort in modern Pinos Altos -- or a privately owned, three-quarter-scale replica of the 1804 Santa Rita Fort and Trading Post, built in 1969. But it is closed when we walk up to it, and there, hanging from the ramparts, is a big "For Sale" sign. Hmm. I have never seen a fort for sale before, and that's pretty much when the theory begins to take shape:

Today in Jurassic Park-Age America, it goes, ghosts are generally issued period uniforms -- soldiers, miners, sheriffs, nurses, outlaws, etc. -- and are assigned to specific buildings (providing the buildings have owners who can afford to staff the concessions and bookstore), wherein they are expected to repeat the same dated maneuvers over and over until their shift ends.

Spirits, on the other hand, are generally found outdoors, and are rarely unionized. Their dress is harder to characterize, though it's usually something that looks good when wind blows through it. Most important, their actions are neither dated nor mechanical, and are in fact meant to be so broad and generic that any member of the family can relate to the message, which is always the same.

"Hey," the message goes, just as it did for us up at the cliff dwellings. "Don't I know you?"

Details: Gila Wilderness

GETTING THERE: Silver City, N.M., is a scenic and side-trip-heavy five-hour drive from Albuquerque, which is reachable by most major airlines from Dulles, National and BWI; for one of the few direct (one-stop) flights, TWA is quoting $198 (from National, with restrictions). (With one of those half-price-on-a-second-fare coupons found on certain General Mills cereal boxes, we took Amtrak to Albuquerque -- a two-night trip, with most of a day's layover in Chicago on the way there -- for $266 per person, round-trip. Economy sleeping compartments, which include meals, would add about $400 per person to the tab.) For the drive from Albuquerque, take I-25 south about 15 miles past Truth or Consequences, then head west on Route 152 and U.S. 180. The cliff dwellings and visitors center, which function as the main trailhead into the wilderness, are about 40 miles north of town at the end of Route 15, which is paved but steep and slow; allow at least two hours.

BEING THERE: As part of the 3 million-acre Gila National Forest, the 570,000-acre Gila Wilderness Area attracts only about 12,000 visitors a year, not including the 70,000 who make day trips to the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. You can do the math, or just believe that once you're a mile or two from the cliff dwelling visitors center (and two basic campgrounds nearby), you won't be seeing many fellow travelers. You will likely see more elk, mule deer, great blue herons and red-tail hawks around the more than 300 miles of trout streams and 700 miles of hiking and horse trails, most of which branch off three main trails that follow the three forks of the Gila River. The trails take you from rocky, forested river canyons, some with ancient shaded hot springs and pools, to mountainside spruce and fir forests, to high meadows and mesas, and the tangled canyon lands below them (many of which have served through the ages as excellent hideaways, including for Geronimo, Cochise and Billy the Kid).

Permits are not required for back-country hikes or camping in the Gila, and the Forest Service (see below) can provide you with a comprehensive list of the many outfitters who take visitors into the wilderness on anything from day hikes to weekend pack trips and longer horse-and-mule safaris. (You can start with the veteran Gila Hotsprings Ranch, which also offers cabins and private hot springs, and whose guided horseback trips cost $220 a day for two people, including everything but sleeping bags; 505-536-9551 or http://www.insomniac .com/gilaranch.

May through September is peak visitor season, but at lower elevations (the wilderness base elevation is about 5,000 feet, and the four mountain ranges in the area rise to peaks of close to 11,000) some of the most private and picturesque times to visit are in the fall. (Note: There are brief bow and rifle hunting seasons for elk and deer in September and October, and for mountain lion and bear in November.)

For private outfitter and Forest Service campground information and to order maps (ask for the particularly detailed, water-resistant "Visitors Travel Guide and Map of the Gila Wilderness," $6), contact the U.S. Forest Service at 505-536-9461 or

NEARBY: Lake Roberts, a serene 71-acre reservoir lake that's a haven for canoeists and fishermen -- and has better campgrounds than those at the cliff dwellings -- is about 25 miles southeast. Harder to find but even quieter (unlike Lake Roberts, motorized boats are prohibited) is Snow Lake to the north. For information, call 505-533-6231 (Snow Lake) or 505-536-2250 (Lake Roberts). Biking, cross-country skiing and jeep trails abound within the national forest (but outside the wilderness area); start with a call to Silver City's Gila Hike & Bike, which rents mountain bikes and other equipment, at 505-388-3222.

WHERE TO STAY: The Silver City-Grant County Chamber of Commerce (see below) can provide you with many more suggestions, but here are three non-franchise alternatives: The Carter House Bed and Breakfast/ AYH Hostel (505-388-5485) has a novel arrangement of dorm-style rooms downstairs and five private rooms, each with its own bath, upstairs; nightly rates are $60 to $71 for a room, $12 to $15 for a hostel bed. The Palace Hotel (505-388-1811) has 13 rooms and seven suites, all a little different, right in Silver City's down-home Victorian downtown; rates start at about $40 per night, including continental breakfast. About three miles northwest of town is Bear Mountain Guest Ranch (1-800-880-2538 or 505-538-2538), with 15 rooms and two cottages (ask for one of the upstairs front rooms in the main house, which offer small sitting rooms with big views of the ranch's forested 160-acre property); rates start at $70, not including meals.

INFORMATION: Silver City-Grant County Chamber of Commerce, 1103 N. Hudson St., Silver City, N.M. 88061, 1-800-548-9378.

-- Roger Piantadosi

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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