Out and About
A Good Walk Unspoiled
Walking — and painting — Silver City's Boston Hill.
by Hiram Lewis
Boston Hill is a complex of hills that covers about nine square miles east of my house on Bremen Street in Silver City. The town of Silver City is nestled 6,000 feet up between the Burros to the south and the Gila Wilderness to the north. Boston Hill was a mining site where the earth was ripped open and despoiled, then ignored and left unclean.
Watercolors by Hiram Lewis.
There is not much man can do with such a place. But nature reclaimed it by decorating its wounds with new vegetation and softening the scars. She gave the area back to the animals and to the folks who hold their worship there.
Occasionally, the city becomes liability-conscious and drives a bulldozer up the hill to fill a mine shaft or two. Mostly officials are content to leave the shafts and surround them with chain-link fences, all of which have been broached. The place is a haven and a hope for would-be suicides and close-to-home nature walkers alike.
I have walked Boston Hill for almost 10 years. I have seen heavy rains, graffiti, poachers and trail fixers. There is a labyrinth on the hill now made from carefully placed rocks. This clever construction lies in a spot that is a pond when the big rains come, when only the stone tops of the maze peep out.
I have painted four oils and hundreds of quick loose watercolor sketches on Boston Hill. I have painted the Hurley stacks both up and gone. The stacks, left over from the Kennecott smelter, dominated the town of Hurley and provided a welcoming landmark to people driving from Deming. Now, when I look east toward Hurley, I feel a wrongness as though something has been forgotten or overlooked.
Many residents of this area believe that Boston Hill was known for silver mining. This is not true. There was scant silver on Boston Hill. The big silver was at Chloride Flats and Fleming Camp. According to Joseph Gendron in his "Boston Hill Mining History," the mines on the hill provided the flux for the furnaces in the form of manganiferous iron ore, which is used in the reduction of more precious metals. The ore turned out to be very important to the steel industry and Boston Hill was raped repeatedly during World War I and II. From 1916 until 1970 the ores were ripped from the hill to fuel US steel production by the Legal Tender Mine, the Silver Spot Mine and many surface pits. After 1937 the ores were shipped to Pueblo, Colo., to the smelter of the Colorado Fuel and Iron Co.
Gendron says, "A narrow-gauge (24") railroad was built around the south and west side of Boston Hill in 1906.... The railroad ceased operations in 1908. The track was removed in 1913." Evidently, the major uploading point was near the cemeteries on the east side of Boston Hill from 1930 to 1970. This is the site of a mess of nasty black dust. I dislike walking my dogs Zelda and Conan from the cemetery trailhead, because the damned black dirt gets everywhere.
Beyond the dust are gravel paths and a complex of mazes gouged from the earth, and these are very interesting indeed. Near the center of the Boston Hill area is a vast cut right through a hill with a trail at the bottom, a short cut from the south side to the north. This is the last refuge of snow on the rare days that it snows.
From Boston Hill I can hear the occasional truck pass on Highway 90 to Lordsburg or on Highway 180 to Cliff and Glenwood. In certain areas the percussion section of the WNMU marching band bounces off cliff faces and rocks. Golden eagles, turkey buzzards and other large raptors sail silently above. Ravens make "tok tok" noises and strange gurgles as they fly by. The coyote pups yip wildly in the spring, snug in their lairs, and once a mother coyote came out and warned my dogs away with frantic ugly staccato barks.
I have often seen veils of rain that evaporate before hitting the ground. They are called virga, and they are especially beautiful when colored by the sunrise. Once while doing a plein-air painting a year or so ago, I saw virga while looking north across Chloride Flats from Boston Hill. A large ugly storm was toying with the hills behind the Flats, and odd colors played in the clouds. I felt a rain drop and looked behind me to see that storm's mother bearing down on me. My paint box was overflowing with three inches of water before I could fold up my easel and be on my way.
This year I saw my first tarantulas on Boston Hill. I had seen their little round holes but did not know what lived there. The people I asked were unsure. This year two male tarantulas were standing on the edge of the trail, just hanging out. Males are easy to spot because the females are shy and seldom seen. So you're safe pointing at a tarantula and saying "he." I thought they should move, but they didn't think so. Every time I moved one, he stomped back to his original position.
A couple of days later I came across a male eying one of those round holes. He approached and, raising his two front legs, brought them down to tap near the edge of the hole. He did this a number of times and I caught a glimpse of dainty tarantula feet near the mouth of the hole. The male knocked more impatiently but the lady retreated and would not be wooed.
Tarantulas worry me. A few years ago my wife and I were returning from Tucson. We had turned north at Lordsburg onto Highway 90. The road appeared covered with leaves that flew up into the air with each passing car. To my horror, I realized each leaf was a male tarantula moving east to west across the road. I stopped and tried to throw the suicidal spiders west but they would turn and start back, evidently confused by the flight through the air. I got back into the car and tried to dodge them over the next 5 to 10 miles. This did not help at all. If I missed one, I hit another.
The Boston Hill area changes daily. It often becomes very cold and the moisture in the hill's paths expands and is squeezed out, forming small white curlicues. Snows grace the hills a few times a year and the dogs tear through it, scooping snow into their mouths. Their eyes are bright and festive. The yuccas wear white caps like Cossacks and the trees glisten in the sun. Sometimes, in the spring and summer, the grasses appear lavender, grayish green, bluish all in layers like an expensive cocktail.
The junipers change in the spring; the males blush a rusty red and send pollen out to their surrounding harems. Each reddish tree is circled by a number of green females. When it rains the hill is awash with the smell of juniper, piñon pine, grasses and aged dog waste, which smells subtly organic. If the monsoons come steadily, the grasses grow tall and green.
Everything changes in the fall. Plants that had looked just like other small shrubs and weeds become unique in their seediness. They change colors, odors and entire appearances. The tall grasses sport silvery seed-filled tufts, so that the slopes appear to be on fire.
One area of the hill, up from Cheyenne Street, actually caught fire last year. Yuccas could be seen bursting into flame and the area smelled like a huge campfire when it was out.
I wandered the clear areas looking for rocks that might be different from the usual rocks I find, but they were pretty much the same. Everything was in shades of black with nubbins of green scattered throughout. Now, a year later, the browns and greens predominate and the smells are again clean and sharp.
The hill seems infinite to me. I love the hill.
Hiram Lewis lives in Silver City at the base of Chihuahua Hill.
He paints and writes.