What makes so many people move to Silver City from the far north? I dunno, Alaska.
By John Catsis
The invasion of Silver City began silently and without notice in 1998. First, just a few. Then more. During the past decade and a half these peaceful invaders have grown significantly in number. They originally migrated from such places as Texas, Illinois and Pennsylvania. Later, the winds of change carried them to a single locale before moving south to Silver City. That place? Alaska. The invaders? People. Just like you and me.
Joe Runyan, who now lives in Gila, with his winning Yukon Quest team in 1985. The sled-dog race spanned 1,000 miles from Fairbanks, Alaska, to Whitehorse, Yukon. Runyan also won the Iditarod sled-dog race, from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska.
(Photo courtesy Joe Runyan)
The invasion of Silver City is not unlike the Persian invasion of the Turkish city of Antioch in 540 AD. Antioch was a major city along the famous Silk Road and was called the "cradle of Christianity." Silver City is sometimes referred to as the "cradle of retirement." OK, that may be a stretch, but you get the idea.
Antioch fell into decline during the Middle Ages following Mongol conquests and a change in trade routes. Raids in and around Silver City ended when Geronimo surrendered in 1886. Later, our town experienced only a hiccup or two when Interstate 10 bypassed us in favor of Lordsburg in the late 1950s and the railroad left town in 1971.
Silver City now has seen settlers from Alaska in numbers exceeding logical explanation. As of this writing, about 50 call the Silver City-Grant County area home. Why? What's so special about us? Why do they compare certain aspects of life here as similar to America's 49th state?
While the answers vary in many respects, there is one basic answer. It reminds them of "home" — of Alaska. As 1989 Iditarod winner and now-Gila resident Joe Runyan puts it: "It has the feel of Alaska, only warmer."
A dozen former Alaskans were interviewed for this article, and most agree with Runyan. They all loved their previous home. Runyan spent 12 years in Nenana, a village in the central part of Alaska, breeding and raising up to 300 sled dogs. Nenana is known for its annual Ice Classic, a fundraising contest in which individuals guess the time when the Tanana River ice will break up. It's a big deal. You might still have time to buy a ticket.
Later, Runyan spent 15 years in nearby Tanana, where he engaged in trapping and commercial fishing. During his 27 years in Alaska, Runyan entered the Iditarod 11 times, winning once. The Iditarod is called "The Last Great Race on Earth,"™ not to be confused with "The Great Race," (no trademark) held at WNMU. The Iditarod sled dog race extends 1,000 miles from Anchorage to Nome. "The Great Race" goes around the block.
Andy Payne, another Alaska migrant to Silver City, had dreams of entering the Iditarod. He even ran sled dogs. "The people there were fantastic," he says. "When they loan you an item, they only loan the best, and that included sled dogs." Even so, Payne realized he "wasn't tough enough" for the Iditarod.
He and wife Gwen lived in small villages in what he calls "bush Alaska" — small communities usually reached only by air, where Andy Payne taught grade school. He and Gwen had met in a wilderness skills class while attending the University of Alaska. Later, they moved to more civilized Delta Junction, at the terminus of the Alaska Highway. For the next 30 years he continued to teach, while farming 80 acres of a 120-acre homestead and raising timothy hay for horses. He loved the freedom, and the lack of sales taxes. His wife loved the beauty of the land and its wildlife.
Bill Bailey and Terri Hruska sitting in seats
from Silver City’s Silco Theatre.
Bill Bailey worked as a locomotive engineer on the Alaska Railroad. In fact, he still does, returning to Fairbanks each summer to drive a train along its 600-mile route southward to Seward on the Gulf of Alaska. He knows most of the railroad workers featured in the TV show "Railroad Alaska," shown weekly on the Animal Planet cable channel. Bailey enjoyed Alaska's freedom from "rules," while his wife, Terri Hruska, a former Alaska Airlines ticket agent, says she liked the sense of self-responsibility while also living in a survivalist mode. Now, they own 15 acres in White/Signal and a home just a few blocks from downtown Silver City.
Jim Cammon was a hotshot, jumping out of planes to fight forest fires. He also taught school in remote Alaska villages for 10 years. Perhaps you have heard of them — places like Brevig Mission, Kipnuk and Scammon Bay. There also was Homer, a resort community south of Anchorage, but he found the civilization there "boring and too easy." Cammon preferred challenges. Overall, he lived in Alaska for 12 years, where he loved the diversity of the land and the challenges of work, both firefighting and teaching. Just ask any teacher in any state and they'll tell you teaching is a challenge.
Jim Cammon and his vehicle collection.
Born in Illinois, Cammon spent most of his childhood in Carlsbad (yes, our New Mexico Carlsbad) and later received a teaching certificate from Eastern New Mexico University. He's the only person interviewed who had prior residency or knowledge of New Mexico. He learned about Silver City while backpacking in the Gila Wilderness. It also was here he began his first career as a smoke jumper, helping to put out forest fires in the Gila.
Nancy Cliff echoes Cammon's comments about the land. "I liked the country," she says. "You'll never see Alaska in a lifetime." She tried during her 30 years there, and saw a lot while enjoying her pastime of fishing. She also saw Alaska as a place to make money. "It rewards skills," she adds. But her husband, Craig Freas, a structural engineer, warns: "It'll eat you up" if you don't work hard.
Nancy Cliff, who started the Alaskan migration to Silver City in 1998, with husband Craig Freas, who still commutes from Juneau.
It's believed that Cliff was the first recent Alaskan to have settled in Silver City, moving here in 1998. She had visited the area at least three times during the previous five years.
Pamela Page loved to hike and bike in Alaska. She spent 34 years there, longer than any other of the dozen interviewed for this article. Working as a real estate appraiser for most of those years, she thought she would live in Alaska forever. But now she hikes and bikes here, accompanied by her yellow lab, Wrangell, named for the mountains in southeast Alaska. Convenient access to her favorite outdoor activities is one of the attractions that brought her to Silver City.
Page and Nancy Cliff both left the men in their lives to settle here. Don't misunderstand: Cliff's husband flies down frequently from Juneau, and Page's long-time hiking partner and friend does the same from Seattle. Commuting apparently is not that much of a challenge, now that Silver City has direct air service to Phoenix, from where many flights to Seattle and Anchorage depart daily.
Kathy Anderson lived in Alaska 27 years and enjoyed what she called the "frontier mentality" of Alaska. She considers that statement a compliment. "Folks will talk to complete strangers, and nearly everyone will help motorists in trouble." Anderson, a native of Cincinnati, "always wanted to live in Alaska." She did, first in Palmer in 1981, then Anchorage, where she worked as a paralegal and mediator. She met Randy Carr, the state director of labor relations, at a mediation conference in 1985. They were soon married. Both now live in Silver City, where she's organized a neighborhood association and he's regaled audiences in a one-man show as Old West lawman "Dangerous" Dan Tucker.
Barbara Gramling, part owner of the Yankie Creek Coffee House since May 2013, was born in Tucson, but moved to Anchorage to join her sister there. "Winter was wonderful," she says, reminding us that she was referring only to the first winter there. Even so, she liked it so much she moved farther north, to Fairbanks. "Alaska is a gorgeous place," she recalls, "with good people." One of them was Terry Sheffield, a friend, who found Yankie Creek for sale on the Internet. Gramling was interested, because she had gone horseback riding in the Gila in 2006 and had fallen in love with the area. Now she and Sheffield are partners in the coffee house.
But as the years go by, the human body seeks more warmth and light. While abundant in Alaska during the sunny summers, there apparently was not enough for many of those interviewed. Nancy Cliff was prompted to move when the state offered her early retirement. For Pamela Page it wasn't the weather; in fact, she considered winters in the Anchorage area as mild. (She lived in nearby Eagle River.) Instead, she decided she wanted to see more of the rest of the United States. Kathy Anderson decided to move when she realized it was time "to make my bones move." Jim Cammon knew it "was time" in the fall of 2009, while working in the village of Kipnuk, when he experienced "snow blowing at 40 knots." He also missed the sights and smells of New Mexico — sage and sunsets particularly. "I'm a high desert guy," Cammon says, smiling. Bill Bailey cites an entirely different reason: "New people coming in are not the pioneer type. They want more rules and services."
Ex-Alaskans Andy and Gwen Payne, with dogs Magnum (left) and Trinka. (Photos by John Catsis except as noted)
While the cold of winter is a significant factor in the decision to head south, the prevailing reason is the season's darkness. Andy and Gwen Payne, who moved to Silver City just this past January, cite the rarity of sunlight in Alaska from mid-November to mid-March as the major reason for their decision to leave farming and dog sledding in Delta Junction.
The absence of sunlight is sometimes referred to as "seasonal affective disorder," or SAD. Studies have shown this affects 1.4% of the population in Florida and 8.4% in Alaska. The figure is much higher when considering that many people have SAD, but don't know it. Research indicates 24.9% of Alaskans experience this "subsyndromal" effect. There are no statistics revealing what New Mexico's SAD numbers are, but with our prevalent sunshine, especially in winter, it must be quite low. For example, Silver City has 307 days of clear or partly cloudy skies each year, while Anchorage has only 61.
Once motivated to move, how did these Alaskans learn about Silver City? Did they know each other? Not a one. Did they talk to folks who told them about our community? Only a few. Two visited friends in Las Cruces who told them to check out Silver City. Imagine that! Nancy Cliff visited Bisbee, Ariz., and even made an offer on a home there at about the same time someone told her about Silver City. That was Bisbee's loss. Once here, Cliff found the historic home of her dreams, which she says sold her as much as anything. It's now got a plaque by the front door. Pamela Page says tour books she consulted had little to say about Silver City, which she considered a "very good sign." She also spent a month bicycling around the state, exploring likely retirement locations.
In short, each of those interviewed for this story chose our area independently.
So what is it about Silver City that endears it to our new residents or reminds them of Alaska? Pamela Page says there's "a lot," mainly because "the land is accessible." Remember, she and Wrangell love to hike. She says it rejuvenates her.
Andy Payne loves the open country we have here, along with the hiking and wildlife. Instead of sleds, Payne now uses a bicycle, towed by his two Alaska rescue dogs — Magnum, a greyhound, and Trinka, a mixed breed. "They pull me," he says. "I call it bike-joring, from the Scandinavian ski-joring." Meanwhile, wife Gwen Payne enjoys WILL classes at WNMU and volunteering at a horse rescue facility.
Nancy Cliff had four reasons: 1. "We want to do our own thing." She calls it Libertarian influences. 2. Hiking opportunities. "Here, the forest floor is clear. I don't need a machete." 3. "You can drive to a trail head. In Alaska, you need a machine." 4. "I can grow peaches here."
Barbara Gramling at work in Yankie Creek Coffee House, which she and a partner bought in 2013.
Barbara Gramling likes what she calls our "eclectic people," just like where she came from. And unlike Alaska, "the sun comes out and it's another sunny day, instead of dealing with darkness." The Chamber of Commerce refers to Silver City's weather as "four gentle seasons."
Iditarod winner Joe Runyan no longer raises sled dogs. Instead, he breeds English Pointers on his 150-acre farm along the Gila River. Here he has found good friends and a lot of public land. "It has a feel like Alaska," he says, "only warmer."
Teri Hruska likes the quirky personalities of our communities. "The arts crowd," she adds. "I don't have any regrets about moving here."
Pamela Page says she absolutely made the right decision to move here. "Every day I am grateful and thankful to be here."
Randy Carr talks about personal freedom when he talks about both Alaska and Silver City. "It's because those who live in Alaska have an independent spirit and do not like the government or people meddling in their lives, but they will offer to help if a neighbor needs it. We found the same kind of attitude and spirit in Silver City and New Mexico, and the same lack of government interference in our lives. And we also like the elbow room."
Wife Kathy Anderson says the folks here are almost as friendly as those in Alaska. She and Carr hold Alaska expat barbecue parties every other year or so. It's an important part of their connection to the land up north. "We always think fondly of Alaska," she says, "and will return for visits."
For the others, Alaska remains a meaningful part of their lives, even though none of those interviewed was born there. For a few, it still beckons them. Bill Bailey continues to work as a train engineer during the summer months. But he looks forward to settling down permanently and "getting a high-paying, low-stress job in Silver City," he jokes. Gwen and Andy Payne still own their home in Delta Junction and a cabin north of Mount McKinley. Joe Runyan returns yearly to handle TV commentary of the Iditarod. It's in his blood. He's written three books on sled-dog racing.
It seems you can get the person out of Alaska, but you can't get the Alaska out of the person.
And to also paraphrase and take liberty with Sonnet 43, written many years ago by the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning: "How do I love thee, Alaska? Let me count the ways." Perhaps several of those ways are like Silver City.
Silver City writer John Catsis spent a cold November night on a Mulchatna River sandbar in wilderness Alaska after the Piper Super Cub in which he was riding clipped the top of a tree during a fog-shrouded flight near the Lake Clark village of Nondalton. Like many of those he interviewed for this article, Catsis would be happy to return — but not to repeat the sandbar adventure.