D  e  s  e  r  t     E  x  p  o  s  u  r  e     July 2005



Hunger at Home
New Mexico is among the nation's worst in the percentage of people who
must worry about their next meal.

Living on the Edge
Events bring new excitement to the ancient Gila Cliff Dwellings.

Every Picture Tells a Story
Theatrical photographer Tom Price's goal is to be invisible.

The Scorpion King
Science educator Paul Hyder knows all about the desert's scary stuff.

Giving a Lift
Area pilots lend their wings to the Young Eagles program.

Quest for Fire
Theresa Strottman filmed more than
nterviews with participants in
the Manhattan Project.

Columns & Departments
Editor's Note
Desert Diary
Teaching Outside the Box

Top 10
Henry Lightcap's Journal
Kitchen Gardener
Ramblin' Outdoors
Celestial Cycles
The Starry Dome
The People's Law
40 Days & 40 Nights
Clubs Guide
Guides to Go
Continental Divide

Special Section

Arts Exposure
Art Shorts
Pictures of Devotion
Fiesta de la Olla
Gallery Guide

Body, Mind & Spirit
When Love is Sacred
Running from Bears

Red or Green?
Desert Exposure's quarterly
dining guide.

About this month's Cover

Desert Exposure's Advertisers

Living on the Edge

A calendar-full of events, lectures and workshops aims to bring new excitement to the ancient Gila Cliff Dwellings.

By David A. Fryxell
Photos by Lisa D. Fryxell

Regina Mueller is struggling to duct-tape a map of the Southwest onto an easel, while simultaneously lecturing about events that began some 10,000 years before the invention of duct tape. Mueller, an amateur archaeologist and interpretive tour guide at the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, is delivering a talk on "Pre-Historic Peoples of the Gila River." It's one of more than two-dozen special programs, collectively celebrating the "Spirit of the Gila," scheduled at the monument this year, on 19 weekend days from June to November.

The ancient Gila Cliff Dwellings, north of Silver City.

"The Gila River, which runs 640 miles from east to west, was the jumping-off point for all the prehistoric people of the Southwest," Mueller says, her battle with the poster-board map and easel temporarily won. The map shows the different peoples who lived in this corner of the continent thousands of years ago, with blobs of color marking their often-overlapping and shifting territories.

Paleo-Indians first appeared in the Southwest in the fertile period after the last ice age, nomadic hunters and gatherers who arrived about 8000-7000 BC. "They slowly became sedentary," Mueller explains, as they developed agriculture. Corn, brought north from Mexico, became an important crop, along with squash and beans. Pottery-making began in southeastern Arizona about 500 BC, then spread throughout the tribes that we would much later come to call "Mogollon," after a Spanish governor. The famous Mimbres pottery, though, was not made by the people who built these cliff dwellings, but by a neighboring branch living in the lush Mimbres Valley nearby.

The cliff-dwelling Mogollon came to this ruggedly beautiful canyon, 44 miles north of Silver City, about 1280 AD. As little as 20 years later, after creating what is today one of southern New Mexico's most popular tourist attractions, they vanished.

Last year, 47,000 people made the winding drive to the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. (It's a much longer and more harrowing trip than the highway mileage signs would suggest, up to two hours from Silver City, depending on your stops for scenic snapshots and tolerance for guardrail-free curves.) The numbers are down a bit this year, according to monument superintendent Steve Riley. But a summer Saturday can still draw 350 visitors—which is at least six times as many people as once lived in the cliff dwellings.

To attract even more visitors to the cliff dwellings, this summer the monument launched an ambitious series of free programs on topics ranging from hummingbirds to wolves, from "A Walk with the Llamas" to "Spooky Days and Spooky Nights" (with Silver City ghost-story author Antonio Garcez). Probably the biggest event on the schedule will be the July 9 Chiricauhuan Apache Culture Day, a daylong program the monument is planning with the help of Harlan Geronimo, great-grandson of the famous warrior who was born here at the headwaters of the Gila River, and Joe Saenz, who launched Silver City's annual Red Paint Powwow. Las Cruces recording artist Yolanda Martinez, 2005 Nammy winner (Native American Music Awards) for Best Female Artist, will perform, as will the Mountain Spirit Dancers. Apache arts and crafts will be available for sale.

The cliff dwellings perch high in a canyon cut by the Gila River.

The calendar-full of programming is in keeping with the monument's recent switch from the stewardship of the US Forest Service to the National Park Service. About two years ago, Riley says, the park service reassumed responsibility for the cliff dwellings, which are surrounded by forest service land. "Now we have people in gray and green," says Riley—referring to the park-service uniform worn by staff such as Anna Cherkos, who came up with the Programs in the Park series.

"I wanted something to bring people up here and sort of create a neural pathway for the idea of coming to the park," says Cherkos, who has been working at the cliff dwellings since 1999.

A decade ago, she adds, the monument sponsored a regular series of interpretive programs, but then that was dropped. "The history of the monument has been very choppy. This year's programming is a resurgence of that, which got started by me whining to Steve [Riley]."

Cherkos' initial inspiration was to develop a series of astronomy programs, given the monument's setting under some of the darkest skies in North America. The uncertain sky conditions in monsoon season made her rethink that, however, and so the actual calendar of events now has just one "It's All About Stars!" program, Oct. 29, in conjunction with the NMSU astronomy department. She hopes to add more next year.

"I realized the programming would really design itself, as things fell together," Cherkos says. "We came up with thematic days that run the gamut from Edward Abbey [the noted author of the Southwest, who will be the topic on Aug. 27 and 28) to 'How to Pack a Mule' [Sept. 10]. We tried to make something with broad appeal to everybody."

Besides simply attracting more visitors to the cliff dwellings, the programming series aims to more closely tie the monument with the community—both the immediate community in and around Gila Hot Springs and the larger region including Lake Roberts (where the Abbey events will be held) and Silver City. The programs draw heavily on area experts, ranging from living history interpreters from Fort Bayard to singer/songwriter/poet/artist George Page, who's recently opened Willow Gallery just down the highway from the cliff dwellings.

"If people are coming to the cliff dwellings, they pretty much have to come through Silver City," Cherkos adds. "Getting more people here helps them. And if we know something's happening in town, we'll send people that way."

Funding for the programs has come from the Western National Parks Association in Tucson, a nonprofit cooperative of the National Park Service that operates the bookstores and gift shops at 63 national parks throughout the west.

The walk from the area at the base of Cliff Dweller Canyon, where Regina Mueller is giving her talk, to the top of the trail where tours of the cliff dwellings begin takes 20 minutes to half an hour, depending on your fitness and stamina. Including the return journey, it's a one-mile loop. You can tour the cliff dwellings yourself, but if you want the full guided interpretive tour you'll need to be up there by 11 a.m. or 2 p.m. daily. The monument is open 365 days a year; last year was the first it stayed open on Christmas and Jan. 1, and superintendent Riley says New Year's Day they drew some 60 visitors. On the busiest holidays and weekends, sometimes it's too crowded for the official twice-daily tours, and so instead park service staff position themselves in the cliff dwellings to answer questions and make sure people stay hydrated.

For some visitors, the rugged uphill walk to the cliff dwellings—a total climb of 180 feet—is as important an experience as seeing the ancient dwellings high up in the canyon. "If we had a button that said 'I Survived the Gila Cliff Dwellings,' people would buy it," Cherkos says with a smile. "It's a challenge. For some people it's a spiritual challenge. It sets the tone for the cliff dwellings themselves."

Riley adds, "We've had people with double hip replacements make it up there. If you take the time, you can do it, and we don't push them."

Cherkos tells of visitors who've had quadruple-bypass heart surgery tackling the trail. One woman who'd lost a leg in an accident made it on crutches, then even managed the wooden ladder that leads out of the caves.

It's possible to just walk the lower creek trail, glimpse the cliff dwellings far above, and turn back. But very few give up, Riley says: "A few we talk into it—'just go give it a try.' It's amazing how many people end up going all the way up."

The Mogollon people who first clambered up to the caves eroded into these sandstone cliffs came to the Gila River headwaters from near present-day Tularosa, NM. "A drought on the Colorado Plateau pushed them out and to these caves, which they had probably used on hunting trips. They'd hunt within about a hundred-mile radius," Cherkos explains to a still-slightly-out-of-breath group of visitors at the start of an 11 a.m. tour.

Older tourists sit, puffing faintly, on benches hewn from logs. Children in the group squirm, seemingly magnetically drawn to the treacherous lip of the trail, from which the canyon falls swiftly away through clumps of prickly pear cactus. Parents try to listen to Cherkos' tour introduction while herding their offspring away from the edge.

Cherkos points out that the Mogollon arrived at Cliff Dweller Canyon and began creating these stone rooms about the time that, across the Atlantic, the French were erecting Chartres cathedral and the Cathedral of Notre Dame and the British were adding a wing to Westminster Abbey. "This was still a stone-age culture here. They were not as sedentary as they had been, and they had agriculture, but they had no domestic animals."

The caves and indentations that the Mogollon made their own had been worn by the elements over millennia out of what geologists call the Gila Conglomerate. Mostly sandstone, Cherkos likens it to "a big chocolate-chip cookie"—the "chips" being the dark chunks of manganese embedded in the pale sandstone. Below are layers of volcanic ash and lava laid down in New Mexico's fiery past. "Hawaii calls itself the volcano state, you know, but New Mexico is really the volcano state," Cherkos says.

River waters incised the weaker layers of the Gila Conglomerate some 250,000 years ago, she says—a process that hasn't stopped. "The caves are still being made. On rainy days there are waterfalls here. When it rained the weekend of the Blues Fest in Silver City, we had a tour group stuck in the caves for quite awhile by water and hail."

The modifications and additions the cliff dwellers made to the caves blend seamlessly with what nature had crafted. Manmade walls, interrupted only occasionally by small openings, face toward the canyon, typically two levels high. Here and there minor repairs have been made with concrete, and there are a few concrete recreations Cherkos cheerfully calls "fantasy," but most of what you see is the real thing, 700-plus years old. The position of the "rooms" within is such that the sun penetrates in winter with its warming rays, but in summer the sun's high angle leaves the interior in cool shade. Within, more walls—many of them eroded or destroyed—separated the five main caves into individual rooms.

Today, the blending of natural and manmade structures creates a ghostly effect. The arching ceiling of the largest interior area, what may have been a plaza, is black both from the outcrops of manganese and from the smoke of the long-ago inhabitants' fires. We can only guess at the functions of many of the rooms; the passage of time and the depredations of early Anglo visitors to these caves have made much of the cliff dwellers' world a mystery to modern archaeologists.

"Education is the best resource for preservation," says Riley. "When people realize how valuable the cliff dwellings are, they will take care of them for generations to come."

"Part of the design of our programming is to get that conservation and preservation message across," Cherkos says. "We try to give information on what it takes to manage these sites. Similarly, the Gila is one of the last remaining wild rivers; we talk about why the watershed is important, why we want to safeguard all this.

"The natives who lived here had this natural awareness, a wilderness ethics. It was part of their culture."

The first non-native to see the cliff dwellings, as far as history knows, was Silver City pioneer Henry B. Ailman, whose 1881 home is today the Silver City Museum. In 1878, as Cherkos tells her tour group, "he made his way here to get out of jury duty in Silver City" and stumbled upon the cliff dwellings.

Other Anglo settlers didn't have much opportunity to follow up on Ailman's find, however, since the Chiricauhuan Apache—who'd first arrived about 1500—occupied the area for much of the 1880s. Nonetheless, vandals, curiosity seekers and looters had gotten to many of the cave's treasures by the time Adolph Bandolier, the famed Southwest archaeologist, arrived in 1884. Bandolier would write that the site had been "rifled."

To protect the site, in 1907 President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed the Gila Cliff Dwellings a national monument. Not long after, in 1924, following a campaign by forester Aldo Leopold, the surrounding forests were declared the first national wilderness area.

The Mogollon people were long gone by this time, of course, taking many of their secrets with them—foremost among which is what became of them. Some experts think the Mogollon joined the Anasazi to become today's Pueblo people; on top of El Morro National Monument, says Cherkos, there are signs of Anasazi and Mogollon side by side, indicating cultures in transition. Several clans of Zuni and Hopi also trace their ancestry, in oral history, to the vanished Mogollon.

Cherkos pauses in her tour at a manmade wall where a keen eye can just barely discern the hand of the builder who patted it into place centuries ago. She recalls a Zuni woman on a previous tour who looked at that faint handprint and declared, "Oh, my grandmothers built this." Perhaps they did.

And why did the Mogollon leave their carefully constructed cliff dwellings after such a brief time? Again, no one knows for certain, but it's likely that they exhausted the limited resources of the canyon area and had no choice but to move on to greener pastures.

"They showed us how they could use this area," says Regina Mueller, "and then they showed us what happens when you overuse it."

The Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument is a 44-mile drive—about two hours—north from Silver City on Hwy. 15. Admission is $3 per person, $10 per family. The monument is open every day, with summer hours from 8 a.m.-6 p.m. Guided tours are offered daily at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. For more information on the monument and the 2005 "Spirit of the Gila" Programs in the Park, call 536-9461 or see www.nps.gov/gicl.

David A. Fryxell is editor of Desert Exposure.


Schedule of remaining
"Spirit of the Gila" Programs in the Park
at the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

(all programs are free):

July 9—Apache Culture Day. Performances, cultural talks, Apache artisans and more.

July 16—Gila Wildlife Rescue presentation with WNMU biologist Dennis Miller. "Our Wilderness, Ourselves, Our Stories," all-day writing workshop with essayist and independent journalist Renee Despres (call park to reserve space). Bird Walk with wildlife biologist Tricia Hurley.

Aug. 6—Native Seeds/SEARCH presentation with Kevin Dahl, NSS executive director, and a Native Plant Walk with Loretta McSween and Jim Ransom.

Aug. 20—Tracking Walk with Jeremiah Stephan.

Aug. 21—Butterfly/Plant Walk with Cynthia Hunter.

Aug. 27—Riparian/Watershed Walk with Donna Stevens and Van Clothier.

Aug. 28—Watershed Thinking: Defense of the Sacred presentation by Jack Loeffler.

Aug. 27 and 28—"Adventures with Ed (Abbey)." Writer, aural historian and radio producer Jack Loeffler gives a biographical memoir of his late best friend. A musical performance by singer/songwriter/poet George Page will begin both evenings. This event will be held at Spirit Canyon Lodge in Lake Roberts at 7 p.m. Call the park to reserve your seats.

Sept. 10—How to Pack a Mule demonstration with Mike Carr.

Sept. 24—Fort Bayard Days with the Fort Bayard Days living history interpreters and a presentation with historian Dale Giese.

Oct. 1—Fall Migration Bird Walk with David Beatty and Kids' Bird Walk with Tricia Hurley.

Oct. 15—Spooky Days (afternoon talk) & Spooky Nights (full moon campfire talk) with ghost story writer Antonio Garcez.

Oct. 16—Wolves! Wolf Awareness Week begins. Wolf presentation with Melissa Woolf, US Fish & Wildlife biologist, and a musical performance with George Page.

Oct. 29—It's All About Stars! Astronomy evening with NMSU astronomy department. Slide presentation in the museum. Telescope viewing starts at dusk. Dress warmly.

Nov. 6—Open House book signing (author TBA) and a musical performance with George Page.

For more information:


Call the monument at 536-9461 for start times.




Return to top of page

Desert Exposure