Desert Home Companion
One Dark and Stormy Night
Sometimes blazing a trail requires getting your feet — and more — wet.
by Bella Bjornstad
There is a large population of hippies in New Mexico. They are alternative, creative and idealistic, ranging in age from 20 to 80, and all with a similar scent, philosophy and life experience. There is one area in particular which may contain the highest concentration of hippies in all of New Mexico: Grant County.
Silver City, the largest town in the county, is full of urban hippies, building a local food movement, supported by the country hippies in Gila, who carve a living out of rich soil, irrigated by the little Gila River. And then there are the industrious, somewhat unproductive members of Gila Hot Springs. Composed of ultra-conservative ranchers, new age healers, seasoned river guides, hippy-dippy parents and green thumbs, this wide spot in the road is far from ordinary. While we don't really have a defining product, characteristic or even notable presence in the greater Grant County community, we are the dreamers, hikers and philosophers of our little southwestern New Mexico nook. We thrive on our gritty, dirt-under-the-fingernails lifestyle, the sort of lifestyle that requires flexibility, durability and a knack for troubleshooting.
With 40 slow, nauseatingly windy miles between us and the greater world, being low on flour is more of an issue, unless of course your neighbor happens to have a few cups extra. And a trip to the hardware store if your toilet is acting up or the car won't start is less of an inconvenience and more of a complete dead end.
But if you happen to be out of mocha-flavored ice cream or rock-shaped soap, you're in luck! Doc Campbell's, complete with an ice chest and cash register, can supply you with a great number of odd items you may need. However, even this relatively easy commute, Doc's being located in a fairly central part of Gila Hot Springs, has varying degrees of difficulty. There is Airstrip Road, which has the easiest access, then Jackass Lane, named after its inhabitants, which is a small uphill trip. And then there is the Mesa.
A trip to Doc Campbell's from the Mesa is really more of an excursion, and a truly trying enterprise in the dead of winter. Anybody who happens to live on the Mesa endures a heightened exposure to the Gila River, this due to the location of the Mesa. You see, the Mesa overlooks the entire Gila Hot Springs Valley, and it's a beautiful view — with a price, as it is on the other side of the river from the rest of Gila Hot Springs. If you wish to visit the Mesa, or vice versa, you must either drive your car through the Gila River, or you yourself must endure the challenging experience of stripping down to your bare feet and wading the icy water.
In the summer, this task is pretty simple but as the leaves change and colder weather sets in, it becomes mind- — and feet- — numbingly frigid. One year in particular, that will always be with me, is the year of the Big Flood.
After an especially wet winter, we had a late January rain, the sort of rain that soothes the senses and washes off the dust of winter. Only this rain lasted for three days. On the third night, the sky opened and dumped on us. More important, however, it dumped in the backcountry, where, we were told, there was about eight feet of snow. Rain melts snow, and all eight feet of it, covering several mountains, parks and valleys, came rushing down the river. It was a torrent. I was awakened by the thunderous roar the next morning.
Little did I know I would be wading through it for the next several months as the government figured out how to deal with us. Because I lived on the "wrong side" of the river, meaning access to the rest of Gila Hot Springs was dictated by the ability to cross the river on foot or in a car; the flood was vastly more inconvenient to us than to the inhabitants of the "right side" of the river.
Initially it was fun. We had an emergency route out, but having no need at the time, we just hunkered down and enjoyed the cozy solitude. But after a few days the river went down enough to begin thinking about rebuilding our driving crossing, and upon contacting the Forest Service, the provider of this privilege, we were informed that between March 31 and June 1, we were not permitted to drive, let alone bulldoze the crossing. This was due to the endangered Loach minnow, which was spawning during these months, in the exact spot we wanted to drive.
The following months are forever freeze-dried into my memory. Any time that I, or anyone else on that side of the river, wished to go anywhere, we were required to walk through the river. During the day, in February, March, April and May, this is a chilly experience; just imagine at 7 a.m. or 11 o'clock at night. Not only that, but the water was still fluctuating, as regular spring flooding was still in progress, and at 10 years old, I was too short to simply roll up my pants and wade it. No, this ordeal required being naked, as the water was often up to my thighs. And there were several occasions when the water was waist deep. Waist-deep water in February, mind you, is not balmy; this was snow melt, tinged green from the glacial runoff.
It just so happened that our luxuriously warm and accommodating Jeep Grand Cherokee had been totaled just before Christmas. Dad had our pathetic stand-in, a small, tin can of a car, in Tucson or Silver, making money to buy parts for our truck, which had been submerged in the flood. So my mom, sister and I would wake at 6 on Monday morning, carry our necessities for a three-day town trip down to the river, take off our pants, and, in several trips back and forth through the river, carry our belongings to a heat-challenged truck. After dressing in a kind neighbor's driveway, my sister and I would wrap in blankets and huddle next to the weak heating vents, while my mother, wearing a down jacket and gloves, would drive the two-and-a-half-ton truck to Silver City.
Being a New Mexico hippie has many advantages; there are many others who have similar values and ideals, for instance. And as I recall the sparklingly frigid mornings, wading the river, I am reminded of the durability of our kind. We are creators, builders of new ways, always forging a path ahead, in a different direction from everyone else, despite the often challenging results. And where would the world be without trailblazers?
Bella Bjornstad is junior at Aldo Leopold High School in Silver City.