While we were staying
in New Mexico one of the names that came up constantly was a
little place called Silver City. Many people we met said that we
"just couldn't miss" Silver City. Silver City turned
out to be a wealth of history as well as many things to do in
nature. We even missed one on the way up called "the city of
rocks". In the nearby Gila (Hila) National Forest there were
a number of things to see and do. One of the things we chose was
the trail of the mountain spirits. This scenic byway follows the
footsteps of those who preceded: Mimbreno, Apache, Spaniard,
Mexican, miner, rancher, and many outdoorsman. As we approached
the Gila Cliff Dwelling National Monument I wondered to myself
how close we could get and if we could get some good pictures.
Imagine my surprise when I found out that you were allowed to
actually climb up into the Cliff Dwellings and walk around in
them. We first went to the Visitors Center and found out that the
Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument lies at the edge of the
Gila Wilderness, the nation's first designated wilderness area.
Wilderness means that the character of the area will not be
altered by the intrusion of roads or other evidence of human presence. We would be able to glimpse
homes of prehistoric Indians which offer a glimpse of the lives
of Indians here from the 100's to 1300 A.D.
Settlers in the early 1870's penetrated the mountain wilderness, to the headwaters of the three forks of the Gila River. They were surprised to find traces of an earlier race of men. Fallen walls of stone, strewn with pottery fragments, clearly indicated a people of high culture who made their homes there. It was determined that the cliff dwellings were built in the 1280's. These Pueblo people inhabited their homes in caves and in the open., and examples of both are here. Probably not more than 8-10 families lived in the caves at any one time. The estimation is that the rooms were only used for a generation.
These small, diligent, artistic people lived in cliff houses and riverside village, tilling mesa in top and riverside fields with digging sticks, grinding cornmeal with metate and mano, fashioning pottery and cloth, carrying on trade with Indians of other communities, hunting, and gathering wild plants and fruits to supplement their squash, corn, and beans. They were skilled potters, producing handsome brown bowls with black interiors and black-on-white vessels. The women averaged 5'1" and the men about 5'5". They were slight of build, yet muscular. Seven natural caves occur high in the southeast-facing cliff, and five of the caves contain the ruins of cliff dwellings, about 42 rooms. All the timbers seen in the dwellings are the originals; their tree-ring dates range through the 1280's. The cliff dwellers had abandoned their homes and fields by 1300. Some speculate that they may have joined other Pueblo Indians to the north or south.
Being a dreamer and curious by nature, I couldn't help but wonder what caused the Indians to chose this particular area and why these cliffs? Certainly the valley with its water running through it had to be an enticement. However, to get the water up into the cliff dwellings had to be a hardship. If you've ever lifted a bucket you know how heavy water is and how difficult it is to carry with its constantly shifting weight. To carry the water and climb up a ladder or even to pull it up from above with a rope would be no easy task. So why did they choose them? One can only guess that possibly they chose them for safety from marauding animals or human predators. Certainly if you went into the cliffs and pulled the ladders up at night, attack would be difficult if not impossible. I just felt really privileged to be allowed to walk inside the cliff dwellings and see what their lives must have been like. In one room, which they speculate might have been a gathering room where women did work during the day while watching the very young children, there was a stone wall which was built across the front opening of the cave. Obviously the Indian women of that day had the same problems corralling their children as did the mothers of today. Due to the size of the openings in the front the caves were fairly well lighted. Judging from the smoke on the ceilings I am sure that they had any number of lighting devices, whether they were lamps of a sort, or torches, or campfires they really don't know. Since these Indians had no written language there is nothing left behind to indicate why they chose the area or why at last they decided to move on. One can only speculate that possibly the area had been depleted of wildlife and they were forced to move on. The walk into the caves was a lot easier than the way out. The walk in was precipitated by the ledge going up to the top of the first cave. However, in order to get down you had to climb down a ladder, much as the Indians might have in their day. (Note: for anyone considering this trip you can go back out the way you came without going down the ladder.) Although I knew I could go back to the entrance, I always feel like I have to get the whole experience, so there I went backing down this rickety ladder. The thoughts utmost in my mind was; I sure hope this wasn't an "original" ladder. Whew! back on terra firma. I always like to do the adventures but it's nice to arrive on the ground unscathed. This really was a great experience and one that I wouldn't have missed. The walk into and out of the caves I believe they said was around a mile. Most of the walking was very easy and the scenery was beautiful.