It’s good to be reminded that people have always inhabited places we now call “wilderness”. The Gila Wilderness, home to the Gila Cliff Dwellings, was the first wilderness area designated by Congress in 1924. I note that the Gila Wilderness claims to be the “first wilderness in the world”, ignoring the fact that New York State designated the Adirondack park as “forever wild” a good 40 years earlier, but who’s counting. The concept of “designating” a place as wilderness is, in any event, a creation of a modern industrialized society, an acknowledgement that the advances of modernity were destroying the natural world.
Before we had to protect magnificent places like the Gila, people made it their home. The Mogollon people, ancestors to the Hopi, Zuni and Acoma people, lived throughout what is now northern Mexico, Arizona, and New Mexico. The specific site known as the Gila Cliff Dwellings was probably only occupied for a generation in the late 1200’s. The dwelling complex consists of 40 rooms of various sizes set into the caves. The rooms were made from small flat stones set in adobe mud mortar, about a quarter mile up from the Gila River.
No one knows for sure why the community abandoned the site. Or perhaps I should say, modern science/archaeology does not know why the people who lived here moved on. There is evidence of much movement in the Southwest at that time due to a drought. There is an interesting overview of the site and of what might have happened here. But even the Wikipedia entry for the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument states that “Hopi oral tradition refers to migrations [which] occurred based on cycles calendars and in response to changing environmental conditions.” So I imagine that somewhere, somehow the ancestors have passed on this knowledge.
If you walk along the Gila River for a while, eventually you will get to the hot springs. Water bubbles out of the rock at 140 degrees, making a series of inviting warm pools–a great place to lounge for a while.
The Southwest is also full of reminders of other human occupation of the wilderness-ranchers and miners. Rusted and torn barbed wire marks the boundaries of former private cattle ranges.
The Gila Wilderness is a place of a quiet majestic beauty. Perhaps not dazzling like the Rockies with it’s snow-capped peaks. I first hiked here in 1984 and fell in love with the open, semi-arid terrain and how the Gila River meanders through the steep canyons. This was my first visit since then, and I fell in love all over again.
If you go to the Gila, stop off (or stay) in the town of Silver City, about 40 miles south of the Cliff Dwellings, down the dizzyingly winding Route 15. Take the detour through Pinos Altos, to catch a glimpse of the remains of a 19th century mining town. And don’t forget to grab a bowl of New Mexican green chile stew before you leave town!