Hunger at Home
Living on the Edge
Every Picture Tells a Story
The Scorpion King
Giving a Lift
Quest for Fire
Columns & Departments
Living on the Edge
By David A. Fryxell
"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.
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.
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."
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."
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."
David A. Fryxell is editor of Desert Exposure.