Silver City, NM, being perched at the southern edge of the forest, was both the front and back door to our trip into the Gila Wilderness. It is a small town with a big heart, and it was on our way here that we had our first run-in with the law…
We hit Highway 25, running north from El Paso, and were stopped by the Border Patrol. This was a routine stop, similar to the many truck weigh stations along I-95, required and unavoidable. We waited in a long line of slowly moving cars and trucks, our faces being read by cameras hooked up to computers, our license plate being run for border crossings into Mexico, and the car being scanned by infrared sensors for warm bodies hidden in the trunk.
We spent the 15 minutes in line thinking up comedic scenarios we could play out for our audience of Border Patrol Agents and fellow drivers:
- One of us making a break for it, jumping out of the car and taking off running into the desert until we are apprehended, tazored, and taken into custody for questioning.
- Matt driving, and me putting on my sunglasses and tying a bandana around my face like an old timey bank robber, answering all questions in Spanish.
- While Matt continues to drive, I hop out of the car and hide in plain sight behind the nearest telephone pole. As Matt and the car creep towards the front of the line, I continue to run from one bad hiding spot to the next, until we are past the check point.
- We are actually transporting illegal immigrants hidden under, in, and on top of the many boxes of camping gear in the trunk. We have made little to no effort to hide them, and just ignore the fact that they are clearly visible from anywhere outside the car. The only attempts we have made to disguise them is to give them Mickey Mouse hats and glasses.
By the time we made it to the front of the line our sides hurt from laughing, and we are trying extra hard to be serious in the face of what we are expecting to be a grueling and terrifying interrogation. It goes something like this:
Patrolman: “You both US citizens?”
Matt and Katie (in unison): “Yep!”
Patrolman: “No one else in the car?”
Matt and Katie: “Nope!”
Patrolman: “Alright. You’re good to go.”
Matt and Katie (driving away): “You guys good back there?! Anyone want McDonalds!” (followed by much more laughing and a high five)
After our first brush with the lawmen, we figured a pit stop at the Buckhorn Saloon would be an appropriate beginning to one of our evenings in Silver City, it being an old stomping ground for bank robbers, gold miners, and gun fighters. We stopped here on the first night out of the woods, and the clearly haunted old timey opera house and saloon was the perfect conclusion to our excursion in the wild. We had the best beers of the trip thus far, made sweeter by the four days of hiking, ordered fresh salads and burgers, and talked with Ethan, the bar tender, about life in Silver City. We had AMAZINGLY stopped in on the night they were serving my favorite meal, and ordered a plate of spaghetti to go, which we ate in our tiny hotel room at the Palace Hotel after beers at the local dive bars, Buffalo Bar and Isaac’s.
The next morning, on our way out of town, we ducked into the bookstore next to the hotel and met Dennis O’Keefe, the owner of the shop and local advocate for the Gila, better policing for the delinquent youth of Silver City, and of living life… really living it. We stood there among the shelves of books and dried yucca stalks for an hour and a half, talking about the good, the bad, and the ugly, and Dennis sent us on our way with advice and one of his photographs of the Gila, in order that we may always remember its best face.
We took Dennis’s advice and stopped to explore the Catwalk, a historic, man made channel for directing water to the town of Graham to operate the electric generators. It came from a pipeline reaching up into the Canyon, and was held onto the rock walls of the Canyon with timbers and iron bars that were in constant need of maintenance. Workmen dubbed it the Catwalk, and today it is operated as part of the Glenwood Ranger District of the Gila National Forest. Today it is a series of suspended metal walkways, over engineered and tethered to the narrow canyon walls. It climbs over boulders wedged into narrow cracks in the canyon, water tumbling out from beneath, and the delicate cottonwood leaves flickering in the gentle breeze. We clammered down off the trail into the shade below the boulders, the stone under foot worn smooth and slick by years of water, of the river, tracing along its face. We sat hidden from the greedy eyes of less patient hikers, watching a small waterfall tumble into the emerald green pool. Leaving my shoes behind, I plunged my feet into the frigid water, soothing twisted ankles and trail weary feet. We sat in the simple silence of two best friends, appreciating the moment away from everything else. We were glad we had come.
From the Catwalk we veered west again, away from the Gila and the wildfires brewing within its dry depths. The smoke that gently wafted above the treeline that day has now grown into the Whitewater-Baldy Complex fire, caused by lightening, and now covering 122,000 acres of the forest. The Gila Wilderness and National Forest is a place where fire is an important part of life, and it is at the forefront of the Forest Service’s testing ground for controlled natural burns and prescribed fires. Every year, fires caused by a combination of summer storms and dry spring conditions are allowed to burn, eating up fuel that if left untouched could cause disastrous fires like those seen in Yellowstone in 1988. (For further reading on the Gila and its fires, highly recommended: Fire Season, Field Notes From a Wilderness Lookout)