Although we were sad to leave Silver City, which one guidebook very accurately described as “the poor man’s Santa Fe,” we were excited to venture north into the Gila (HEE-la) Wilderness to see the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. The Monument preserves stone dwellings that the Apache carved out of caves in the cliff face in the 1200’s. As you can see from the pictures below, they are truly stunning in terms of how well the structures have been preserved (although many of the artifacts were looted over the years), and by how they cling to the side of the cliff with views of the valley below.
However, as amazing as the cliff dwellings were, the real story for us was the drive into Gila on Rt-15 from Silver City. The road is only 45 miles long, but it took us nearly two hours to complete. Switchback after switchback, steep grades down and up, and sharp drop-offs on either side made for one of the most demanding driving experiences I have ever had. Add the fact that we were completing this road in poor Ranger fully loaded with water, food, a full tank of gas, etc. (to prepare for several nights of camping in the Gila Wilderness), and the fact that there was no cell service whatsoever after the first 15 minutes on the road, and you might begin to sense the vague existential dread that accompanied our little adventure. When we finally arrived at the Visitors’ Center, the park ranger – who was delightfully amused by our whole enterprise and by my various exclamations about “that road” – informed us that there is one emergency phone that is available from 8:30-4:30 each day, but otherwise, the closest (very) basic services would be about 10 miles down the road at Doc Campbell’s Country Store. I tried not to reflect too deeply upon this reality as we hiked and enjoyed the cliff dwellings.
When we returned to camp after the cliff dwellings, Ali and I began to re-think our plan for 3 nights in the Gila Wilderness. It started with a reduction to 2 nights, then it was 1 night, and then the introduction of some questionable fellow campers, turned the tables to an immediate departure back up my road. To his credit, Ranger was a champ. Slicing those switchbacks, and grinding his gears over the Continental Divide, he groaned his way out of the Gila Wilderness and back into civilization. After about 75 minutes, cell service gloriously was restored. (The video below does not do the drive justice.)
For some reason, I had in mind that upon leaving the Gila we could camp near the summit of Emory Pass (8,228 feet) for the night before heading north the next day. On a typical day this would have been fine, but it quickly became apparent that this too was not the best idea. Our frayed nerves and the hard truth of another bevy of switchbacks protested any further unnecessary mountain grades. So, after starting the long march up Emory Pass, we turned around to head south to track toward the interstate. A 30-mile haul across isolated, but beautiful RT-61, brought us into Deming, where we re-discovered the simple joys of a $2 happy-hour Coors Light, a pizza, and a Walmart parking lot with a friendly and welcoming security guard.
So, the lessons we learned are as follows:
- Respect the Gila (It is one of the most remote areas remaining in the lower-48. It is truly beautiful and inspiring, but demanding.)
- We need to develop more skills before we are ready for true wilderness.
- Sometimes, caution is the better part of valor.
- Ranger is a faithful friend and a van of integrity.