Gila tour

Wut?

The roads north of Silver City, particularly Highway 15 to the Gila Cliff Dwellings, twist and roll through ponderosas and alligator junipers, with no lane markers and little traffic. They are justifiably popular among cyclists, and home to the Tour of the Gila bike race. The so-called “inner loop” heads east from Silver City to San Lorenzo, follows the Mimbres River northwest to Lake Roberts, then crosses the Continental Divide to meet Highway 15 about twenty miles north of town. The loop by itself can be done as a long road ride, but the detour to the Cliff Dwellings makes it a bit too much for a single day, even without stopping to explore the ruins and hot springs.

After returning from Mogollon, we packed up our gear and drove toward Silver City, camping at the last semi-legal spot west of town. We had contemplated riding this road, but were glad we had not, as it is flat, dusty, windy, busy, and passes through a mixture of bland scrubland and ranch towns deeply red of neck. I had a hankering for a breakfast burrito, and had opted for Don Juan’s as our source mostly because it was on the way. As soon as I saw the place, I knew I had chosen well. It is a small, slightly dilapidated stucco box in a parking lot, with a window on one side to place orders, and one on the other to receive paper bags of food. All of its meager resources are focused on producing quality burritos cheaply and quickly. In about five minutes, we had two burritos costing about five dollars apiece, which we consumed in the car. It felt slightly odd that an Asian girl took our order, and an African one handed us our food, but the burritos were authentic and filling; presumably the two working the windows were students at Western New Mexico University.

We once again left our car at the ranger station, then took off east along Highway 180. Though it is the main route between Silver City and the outside world, it was quiet on a Sunday morning, as many people were at their churches, leaving us to ours. This stretch east to the Mimbres is by far the least pleasant, a four-lane highway (albeit with good shoulders) to Santa Clara, then a winding two-lane road through lower scrubland. The main “scenery” is the Santa Rita Mine, a massive open pit carved a thousand feet into the ground through decades of steady labor. It was much as I remembered it from my first visit thirty years ago, with a slow stream of massive ore trucks carrying loads of mostly dirt to be sifted through for traces of profit. The “scenic” overlook tries to give visitors a sense of the place’s scale: a tire taller than a van demonstrates the trucks’ size, while the trucks’ insectile work below hints at the pit’s scale. The “pride of industry” narration that I remember was not playing, though, and the viewpoint was closed for COVID. Unlike before, we stopped at a sign about a strike that was the basis for the movie “Salt of the Earth”, in which women picketed the Empire Zinc Company for over a year when the male miners were forbidden to do so.

Since we were in no great hurry, we stopped at the store in San Lorenzo for some cheap calories and sunscreen, then again at the Mimbres Cultural Heritage site. The latter looked closed, but a chatty and knowledgeable volunteer showed us in and gave us a history lesson. The Mimbres were contemporaries of the Anasazi, known for the their pottery with intricate, stylized black-and-white designs. Their civilization in the area peaked in the 12th and 13th centuries, before drought and deforestation dispersed them. They buried a pot with a hole in the bottom with their dead, creating a rich lode for archaeologists and pot-hunters to mine in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Feeling slightly more educated, we posed for a photo (touring tandems are rarer than Mimbres pots), then continued upriver. We had budgeted three days for the loop to allow for side trips, and had intended to go hiking off Forest Road 150, but there was a prescribed burn scheduled there for the next day, forcing us to look for another spot to camp. We climbed over the divide, and soon found a network of roads in a pleasingly open ponderosa forest. There was no stream or other natural water source, but the Forest Service had thoughtfully provided a 3000-gallon orange bag of water. It was probably meant to be dumped on a fire by helicopter, but hopefully the gallon we took did not cause them to lose control of their prescribed burn. The tub was also useful for a brief, cold bath.

Volcanic terrain around Gila
The next morning we continued past Lake Roberts, a popular fishing marsh, then turned north on Highway 15 toward the Cliff Dwellings. The road climbs 2000 feet from the junction before dropping the same amount to the Gila River. Fortunately the south-facing climb is mostly moderate and shaded, much easier than I had dreaded. We took a break at an overlook, where Leonie did some yoga while I tagged nearby Copperas Peak. The “climb” was a slightly annoying hike through dry grass and loose basaltic rubble, but the summit had a 360-degree view of gentle mountains to the south and east, and more colorful volcanic terrain to the north.

Be safe, snakey!
From this divide, we flew down a steep and winding descent to the river. Near its base, the car in front of us abruptly pulled over, to help a snake in the middle of the road. I thought it might be a rattler, but soon realized it was just an angry bullsnake. A few others stopped as well, and eventually one man distracted the snake with a stick long enough to pick it up by the tail and move it off the road. I have always tried to grab bullsnakes just behind the head, and did not realize that this was an effective technique. I wanted to pick it up, handle it, and perhaps move it farther from harm, but it was still annoyed, and continued to hiss and shake its tail, so we watched it for a few minutes, then continued to the park.

The main visitor center was closed, but the bookstore and cliff dwelling path were open. We moseyed around the short loop, passing well-preserved buildings which tourists can no longer enter. The homeowners had chosen a perfect site, a south-facing canyon wall with a spring below and an overhang above to shade them from the high summer sun. If I were at all competent at hunting and farming, I could imagine myself settling down there.

Gila cliff dwellings
Cultural enrichment complete, we returned to a trailhead behind the visitor center from which we could reach some nearby hot springs. There were a half-dozen cars parked there, but we hoped the springs would not be too crowded, and even more foolishly hoped we could find a campsite along the trail. We rode and pushed the bike about a quarter-mile past the gate, then stashed it on a sandy flat behind some willows and burrs.

The hike to the springs requires two fords, calf-deep and 20-30 feet long. The water wasn’t cold enough to be truly miserable, but was cool enough that I attempted a high-difficulty log crossing — a large step to a moving log — earning my shoes a wash. The springs were neither crowded nor empty, with a couple and a not-couple in bathing suits sharing the warmest and least disappointing of several pools. I was hoping for something more like the Rico or Buckeye springs, but found a knee-deep, somewhat slimy pool separated from the shallow Gila by ten yards of alluvium. We both felt filthy, though, so… good enough!

Leonie opted for nudity, bravely soaping up and washing in the cold river, while I chose to simply rinse my bike shorts and my self soap-free. She chatted with the couple from Chicago, while I awkwardly talked to the non-couple from Sedona, a Frenchman who made custom wood flutes and a woman who was currently his landlord. They had both been in Sedona for a long time, witnessing its brief golden era between electrification and kitschification, and retained a fondness for the place. The Frenchman reminded me a bit of Fritz Damler, the 9.5-fingered man who made my guitar in a previous life, and who made his living by, among other things, sailing to Turkey to import kilims.

Once we had both pruned up enough, we dressed in hiking clothes and wrestled the bike through the sand and burrs and back to the trailhead. The non-couple were camping right at the closed visitor center (Gila is that kind of place), but we wanted a bit of solitude, which we easily found a short distance down-canyon on a National Forest road. As I prepared dinner, I thought forward to the next day with mixed apprehension and anticipation: we faced a hard climb out of the Gila followed by more climbing along Highway 15, but we would also be on the loop’s best roads.

In deference to the day’s heat, we started reasonably early despite the morning chill, and were soon steadily laboring out of the Gila valley. After an initial steep pitch, where I had expected to push, the climb was mostly moderate, and the north-facing aspect made the sun feel a bit less intense. We descended from the divide, then passed the Lake Roberts intersection and immediately began climbing again on what was signed as a “hazardous mountain road.” The lane markers disappeared, the traffic thinned, and we rode slowly but happily through alligator junipers transitioning to ponderosas.

I noticed a camper next to a break in the climb, which turned out to house the Chicago couple, who were spending another day in the Gila before continuing on their long road trip around the west. I am distressed by the recent wave of hashtag-vanlifers invading every quiet corner of the western wilderness, but still identify with its individual particles, so I wished them well and advised them not to visit Saguaro National Monument, as southern Arizona would already be oppressively hot.

After this flat break, the road climbs along some mostly-dry streams up to another high divide, through a shady forest of tall ponderosas, then rolls through the high country to the village of Pinos Altos. We took a side-trip through downtown, where I hoped to perhaps find some ice cream, but the tourist town was mostly silent. A sign outside the general store advised me to call a local number for service, but it hardly seemed worth the effort. I think we were both somewhat impatient at this point, so we did not linger to look at the old buildings or learn about the village’s history. Silver City beckoned a thousand feet below, so we put our heads down and cranked downhill into the headwind toward the car.

Having time to spare, we decided to resupply and patronize some local businesses while we were in civilization. We found a local bike store that had some overpriced gloves to replace Leonie’s absurdly worn-out ones, and a health food store to get a vegan ice cream sandwich (???) and some expensive veggies. On the way back to the car, we were diverted from Don Juan’s by the promise of $1 tacos at a shiny, California-looking Mexican place. The “carne asada” and “carne adovada” were dry ground beef with different spice packets, the “fish” was from a cat food can that had been open too long, and the “veggie” was bits of fried kale. As the saying goes, you can’t shine a turd. With bellies full of lukewarm disappointment, we restocked on road calories at Walmart, then drove back north and west on highway 180.

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