When we pulled into our campsite at Gila Hot Springs RV park last night, the host cautioned us that if we heard horses running back and forth by our campers in the middle of the night to not be concerned. He did suggest we not step out of the campers in the event we might get trampled. Sounded like good advice to me. The Adventure continues. As far as we know, if the horses did stampede by us, they did so quietly.
We had a very simple and specific goal for the day, and that was to visit and explore the Cliff Dwellings on the headwaters of the Gila River. Our campsite was only 15 minutes from the Visitor center, and we were at their doors just as they opened for business. We were the only people in the parking lot, and we spent about half an hour in the center getting the history and background of this ancient and rare Indian village. From there, it was a short drive to the entry to the canyon where the cliff dwellings are located.
It was a one mile hike up to the caves, but the path was very well laid out and had many walking bridges built over the spring fed creek that came from the head of the canyon. (The same creek that had supplied the drinking water for the cliff dwellers when they lived there in the 1200’s.)
We tried to imagine the hundred or so inhabitants of these remarkable dwellings making this same walk many times a day to get water and bring food and firewood up to the caves. Knowing there had to be many kids and babies in the group and wondering how they would keep from falling down the nearly shear walls of the gorge.
There are a series of five separate caves, each of them with a different purpose. The caves are naturally occurring and were the result of water erosion over the eons that carved them out of the rock face of the cliff. The heavy, embedded smoke from their campfires still blackens the roofs of the caves, with the darkest being in the cave where much of the cooking and smoking of food stuffs for preservation was done.
Then the truly incredulous construction of the next four caves from stone quarried out of the same cliffs and cemented together with a yet-unknown mortar that is as hard and adhesive now as it was over seven hundred years ago. These were still stone age people (The Mogollon Group of Tribes) and yet they cut down good sized trees to use as support beams and roofing material. Because the dwellings are built within the caves and out of the elements of sun and rain, the timbers are still free of rot.
One of the caves is more than 100 feet deep from entrance to far wall, and this is where the group of families spent most of their time when they weren’t out hunting, gathering wild food, or tending their small corn and squash patches in the valley of the Gila river about a mile away.
Again adhering to the axiom “better lucky than smart”, we drew for our Forest Service Guide, TJ, from Indiana. TJ was on her last day of a five month hitch as guide and worker on the Monument. And What a delight she was for our nearly totally individual tour. (Only a very few other onlookers were there while we were and they had very few questions. We, on the other hand, had about a thousand. 🙂 She was not only very authoritative on her subject, she presented it with the zeal and gusto of a docent first day on the job. We totally monopolized her time, and she willingly put up with us.
Some of the construction, and MOST of the rationale for the structures still remains a mystery. From tree ring analysis, the Forest Service scientists are quite certain of when the building started and when it was finished. The total time span for the construction was about 8 or 9 years. And, to us, the most amazing thing of all is that after only 20 – 25 years of occupancy, all the people living there (estimates range from 100 – 150) permanently left the site and never returned. Again, using the tree ring analysis, this time period coincided with a severe 30 year drought in the the whole southwestern part of the country.
TJ’s shift as guide ended just as we were finishing up and she walked the path back with us to the visitor center. It was a sincere and fond thank you at our parting.
We had spent more time than we had intended and now had the 2.5 hour drive back down the mountain to rejoin the ST route at Silver City. It was even more exhilarating going down than it had been going up to the Gila Hot Springs yesterday. We stopped several times to take in the views, which, sadly, just can’t be given justice with the cameras we have. The canyons are take-your-breath-away deep and majestic.
We fervently hoped we wouldn’t meet any of the gargantuan RV’s that prowl the roads around here on some of the nearly inverse hairpin turns. Forward sight distance is LESS THAN one car length on these curves, and the road is essentially one lane wide. All’s well that ends well, and we ended well in the newly made over old mining town of Silver City.
A very nice RV park for the night, and another chance meeting with some great folks. Bill, an Okie born, Texas raised, New York matured, and Rhode Island resident now, became an NBF in less than the time it takes to wash and dry a batch of clothes in the RV park laundromat. One of the original “Bike Centennial” bike riders in 1976, at 77 he still pursues bike riding on multiple continents, down hill skiing and other endeavors that keep him looking and living 10 years younger than his age. He’s heading up to the Cliff Dwellers Monument tomorrow and back home to the east coast soon thereafter. Nice meeting you, Bill!
Back on the bike tomorrow, and westward, HO!
Thanks for coming along.