Three years living in the land of enchantment and there has been one constant for me, an abiding fascination with the mountain wilderness that surrounds Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. The mountains in this part of the state were designated as the first national wilderness area and we have the Chiricahua Apache to thank for their existence. If Geronimo’s tribe hadn’t fought so hard for their homeland, white people would have destroyed this wilderness long before learning to appreciate it. On our first brief visit to New Mexico, my eastern sensibilities were so poorly attuned to western distances that I had to disappoint my family by canceling a visit to the monument. I just couldn’t fathom how long it takes to drive these mountains. How could it possibly take more than an hour to reach the dwellings once you’ve gotten to Silver City? Well, it does. Insane driving might shave ten minutes off the trip (and the driver of the 2006 Honda Accord in front of me this last trip tried it) but no more.
So, when my son and I concocted an adventure plan into the Gila Mountains, we set aside an entire day for the expedition. There is a small bookshop in Mesilla called Bowlin’s Mesilla Book Center. The owners are quirky, and frankly a bit off-putting, but the shop has a wonderfully curated collection that especially covers the local culture, wildlife, and history with intriguing titles that constantly whisper “buy me and get out there” in my ear. On a recent visit, I found a book called Hiking Ruins Seldom Seen and I was in love. The New Mexico listings are skimpy, but there was one hike that whetted my appetite. I bought the book with its friendly yellow Falcon Guide binding, thus keeping the lights on in my favorite local bookshop for fifteen more minutes. We’re limited to day hikes so far, and the short four-mile round trip was right in our wheelhouse. I have to emphasize that our limitation is entirely due to my son being only eight years old. It has nothing to do with the fact that I have no experience with overnight hiking and camping; none whatsoever.
The hike that appealed to me took us up the Middle Fork of the Gila River where the book claimed we would find a cliff dwelling much like the main site of the monument. The main site is spectacular and don’t get me wrong, I highly recommend it, but we’ve seen it ten times. I was intrigued by the Indiana Jones feel of finding something that not everyone gets to see.
Summer was coming to an end as we set off. Fall is my favorite season, and something we don’t see in Las Cruces. So, my Virginia soul was soothed by the sight of changing oak leaves and the breath of cool breeze working down from the higher elevations. I was somewhat less pleased with the fact that we had to ford the river six or seven times. Normally that would have been fun, but my son had new shoes, so we had to take them off and put them back on at each crossing. Waiting for him, I had time to take in my surroundings more than I would have if we’d just been pounding along to a destination. So, there was an upside.
The rocky ridges that surround the Gila River canyons in this area have a distinctive look, a sort of undulating pattern of rounded layers. I had always taken it for sandstone, mistaking the weathering pattern for sedimentary boundaries, but no, it’s a volcanic rock called tuff. One hundred million years ago, a strange chunk of crust called the Farallon Plate dove under North America pushing up mountains and generating volcanism all over North America. I always imagine it as a mysterious land of bizarre paleontological monsters whose fossils are lost to us, melting right now into the mantle somewhere below New York. I have no idea if this has any basis in reality, and I’m not going to ruin it by looking it up, but the important thing is that Western New Mexico basically exploded during the Tertiary. These tuff outcrops are the result.
For the Mogollon people, the tuff was important because it was relatively easy to chip into. Water does some work too, and there are caves all through the cliffs, both natural and manmade. It is the perfect setting for a fantasy roleplaying adventure. Who knows what kind of creatures might have found homes here? Well, my son and I found one. It turns out the instructions on how to find the dwellings were vague. Bushwhacking was required, and I complicated matters with the false economy of choosing not to bring the book with us on the hike. Why I did this was obscure to me as soon as we hit the trail, but I think the idea was that the extra six ounces would weigh us down.
So, we were blind as we headed into the undergrowth that covered the cliffs on the west side of the river. Thorns and a general armory of nasty, stabbing defenses slashed at us, and as I came to learn later, the protective chemicals of other plants splattered my skin. But we found a promising cave. The dimensions were just right, there was a protective overhang of tuff, and it struck the perfect balance between minimum accessibility without allowing easy approach by hostiles. The only problem was that there was no sign of any human habitation. It was the wrong cave that we had climbed into. What there was a sign of was a bear, and a good-sized one at that. There was enough scat dotting the cave to make it obvious that a bear was here, frequently, and worse the smaller scat dotting the floor gave evidence that there were cubs as well.
We never did find the cliff dwelling pictured in the book. Of course, the photo looked suspiciously like the main site for the park, with ancient masonry walls and a ladder leaning in a jaunty pose. What we found was two hollows carved into the tuff. One was certainly large enough to have been inhabited at some point. Was that what we were looking for? The mouth of the small cave was guarded by a dazzling orb weaver spider with bright yellow markings. If we had wanted to explore the hollow, we would have needed to destroy its handiwork, so we left it alone.
On the way back to the trailhead we stopped at the hot springs to confirm that indeed, it was still hot. Both of us couldn’t help sticking our hand in the not quite boiling water and yelping in mock surprise. Floating there in the little stream was a teacup. I was dumbfounded for a half second before we spotted a pair of trail horses and one rider relaxing in a warm pool nearby. We awkwardly said hello and I considered a warning about the brain-eating parasites that supposedly live in the water, but it seemed like strange small talk. Instead we waved goodbye.
On the way back, we had another thrill when a brightly colored, striped snake slithered across the trail and into the brush. I followed it with my camera, getting a short video. We chattered excitedly about our first coral snake viewing all the way back to the visitors’ center. That was how long our misapprehension lasted. The ranger set us straight immediately. There are no coral snakes in the mountains. It was a kingsnake. Still the most beautiful snake I’ve ever seen in the wild, but I was a bit disappointed to have lost the frisson of danger in facing down a neurotoxic critter.
I was shocked two days later when I looked at the normally fish-bellied skin of my forearm and saw a familiar, angry red rash glaring at me. Immediately I remembered innumerably outbreaks from my youth. One in Acadia National Park circa 1987; a small, but ferociously swollen and weeping mess that put me in a Down East pediatrician’s office. Another a terrible attack that covered my entire lower body after I brazenly ran into a patch of wild that bordered a baseball field. I was wearing shorts and I saw three shiny leaves, but was I going to let a double stretch into a triple? I hate to admit how old I was for that mistake, but I ended up in an emergency room, my legs swollen into red drumsticks. According to the doctors, only a course of prednisone saved me from kidney failure. I smartened up after that. The last little patch of poison ivy rash I had wasn’t technically my fault. I took my nephew hiking, saw him run into dense foliage, but then couldn’t resist his pleas to be carried on my shoulders. The week-long itching on my neck was a small price to pay. I learned to watch out in my native biome of Virginia, and it has been well over a decade since my last incident. My little baby nephew is graduating high school next year. I thought I was safe.
No such luck.
But be honest. Did you know there was poison ivy in New Mexico? Only I could have managed to find it.