[NM2] WE CAMPERS ARE HAPPY CAMPERS


(Emory Pass)

SILVER CITY

Thursday. February 6th. 2020


The American Southwest: Where bushy white mustaches and cowboy hats go together like the red and white stripes of an American flag.

Seconds into New Mexico's southwestern town of Silver City, I watched two cats having a stand-off on top of a tin roof. Paul Newman move over, these are cats on a cool tin roof! Silver City is really a unique and happening city. It’s got great restaurants, tons of coffee cafés and a lot of importance put onto small, local farming.


I decided after all the woodland and desert camping I’d done in the past five days, I would treat myself to a nice dinner at one of these unique eateries. I selected Revel for its local variety of food and drink items. The cold wind was being funneled down into the streets of this town and I had to bundle up just to walk the few steps out onto the main drag. I came in through the crooked and heavy door with a whoosh of cold air and sat down for the final moments of their happy hour. I tried out a local porter and a bowl of fresh, warm artichoke dip with a side of house-made sourdough bread.


I got to catch up on some of the writings from the past experiences and within the hour, a couple of female musicians by the name of Moonshine started setting up their sound stage. They harmonized together incredibly and would smile at one another while they played, indicating a soft and friendly connection between the two. They both drank water from enormous mason jars and wore their moccasins with pride. I couldn’t tell if they were sisters, twins or just tightly bonded friends, but regardless of their electric connection, their guitar playing and singing was acoustic.


(The natural formations Gila Cliff Dwellings)


GILA CLIFF DWELLINGS

Friday. February 7th. 2020


From Silver City, my next major site to visit would be the Gila Cliff Dwellings. There was only one way up to it, and that was from route 15. It didn’t continue on, so you either went back down towards Silver City or could cut over on route 35 and travel along the Black Ranges towards Hillsboro.


I only had to go ten miles up the fifty-mile route before finding the Cherry Creek Campgrounds. It was late, so they would do just fine for the night. It was equally as cold here as it was in town, except being within the shade of the mountain range. Snow and ice were abundant. The creek flowed heavily behind the spot I pulled into. With 0 camp work done, I hopped into the back of the shell and went right to sleep. At dawn, I had heard another car start up and leave and I wasn’t too far behind.


The GPS said it was a two-hour drive up to the Cliff Dwellings due to it being a lot of vertical, mountainous switchback travel. Seeing as I was at just about the closest point, I would be well ahead of any crowds on this start to a soon to be sunny and warm weekend. The park didn’t open until 9 AM, so my 7 AM departure would be perfect timing. Turns out, winter hours had the visitor center not opening until 9:30 and the Dwellings themselves not until 10. I was the first car at the visitor's center but could see a couple of guys inside. The door was unlocked so I went in, unaware of the posted winter hours. I asked if they were open and as they were still shaking the sleep from their heads said sure, it was fine. We got to talking about the dwellings and I started sharing my assessment of the Ancestral Puebloans. I was relieved to hear that my understanding of their history was corroborated by the two gents. I was at least on the right track towards unraveling the most ancient mystery I've ever encountered.


I had shared what I thought were some of the more radical theories on what would encourage a group of settlers, at the height of their cultural history, to abandon open and resourceful valleys fit for agriculture and transcend into primitive, arduous and perilous cliffside dwellings to live and operate from. I asked, "That’s not a normal progression for most ancient cultures, right?" And the ranger agreed it was not common in the timetables for most ancient groups. I went out on a limb and said that perhaps due to the abundance of resources, this also led to increases in greed, in-fighting and thusly the fracturing of larger tribes. Evidence of cannibalism emerged and well, I think that would be reason enough to land you and your family within a cliff fearing for your life. He said, “Oh yes, that's not an uncommon theory actually,” and pointed to a thick book sitting along the bottom corner of their bookshelf. It had skulls on the front and was called, Man Corn: Cannibalism and Violence in the Prehistoric American Southwest. "Not your best seller," I said with a smile and thumbed through the pages of bashed-in skulls and sawed apart limbs. He says, "I'll make you a deal on that book. $1." He said he's never sold a copy yet and since I was the first person to bring it up, he'd give me a deal. I did not pass on this amazing and shocking offer and purchased it along with a state park patch.


I walked through the museum and took notes on different things like the migrations of Apaches from the Alaskan tribes in the Northeast to the names of the different and overlapping Ancestral Puebloan tribes. There was also the mentioning of a man’s name I’d never heard before, and that was, Aldo Leopold. Most all of the work done towards protecting and preserving these lands and on into the Black Ranges was done by this person in particular. His words regarding these subjects really resonated with me, and I found it as shocking and similar to the readings of Benjamin Franklin and the forefathers predicting the shaping and future climate of the nation long before these things had ever occurred. In the early 1900s, Leopold was already witnessing the rapid destruction of a natural and pristine environment.


Leopold writes: Like wind and sunsets, wild things were taken for granted until progress began to do away with them. Now we face the question whether a still higher 'standard of living' is worth the cost in things natural, wild and free. For us, the minority, the opportunity to see geese is more important than television, and the chance to find a pasque flower is a right as inalienable as free speech.





(Sun shines brilliantly inside the cliff dwellings)


The day was heating up, and while I still had the empty park to my advantage, I said some goodbyes to the rangers and moved up the road towards the dwellings. Out there, I met another ranger who greeted me by complimenting and asking about my truck. He told me about the trail leading up to the dwellings and explained its natural formations. I went into what seemed like a very similar site to Bandelier, minus the extensive pit homes laid out in the valley below. This was purely a stopping point for nomadic tribes reaching as far back in history as we can imagine. Though, it was the Mogollon natives that decided it would be better than just a stop-off and set up life here in the cliffs. Once again, at the height of their cultural time period...


There were very good strategic points to these cliffs, as they faced into the southern sky at the most preferred angle during the winter to warm the caves during the day and during the summer months it offered shade from the sun as it moved northward. Lots of wildlife ran through this area and there was also access to running water.


Adding into my understanding of their history, was a 24-year drought that likely contributed to most of the strife these ancient groups faced and caused them to change their living habits so drastically. Migration was already written into their culture, so upon sensing a disruption in their newly settled agrarian lifestyle, packing up and moving on was probably still readily accessible in their anecdotal memories.


On the way back I talked with the ranger a bit more. With the frequency I saw people in my days spent at dispersed campsites, a friendly conversation went a long way for me. With the warm weekend fully engaged now, cars were starting to pull in by the twos and threes. We had enough time between visitors to resume our conversation, but I could tell he was starting to get busy. He had worked the oil fields on the North Slope of Alaska and even a solo-enterprise in North Dakota. He would be the first of two persons that described for me life within an Alaska oil field. I said my goodbyes and went on down the road, ready to catch that scenic road towards Hillsboro by recommendation of the lady from the VLA observatory.


(Clear skies open up the views on Emory Pass)


The road through the Black Ranges was as impressive as any switchback I’ve been on. And the glowing weekend sun had things teeming with activity. I got up to Emory Pass, which is one of the most amazing vistas I’ve ever been to. With the clear desert atmosphere, I could see endlessly across the varied and distant landscapes. Cars were pulling in with a good frequency here too, and a couple of folks and I got to chatting.


Two separate persons, both of which, life-long locals to the area, mentioned taking route 35 towards Hillsboro and the Lake Valley route. They had each stopped at a point there on the corner of the connecting highways called, Nutt Corner. Not a big stop off, but couldn't be missed. I figured two separate people mentioning this couldn't be by any dismissable coincidence, so I would continue to trust the local information. It would be the best decision of my trip yet.


(A sunny Saturday on Nutt Corner)


CHILLY WILLY & THE NUTT BAR


Exactly as everyone had described I followed the road out towards Hillsboro and when seeing the signs for Lake Valley, peeled off towards rolling cattle-filled countrysides. At the end of this road is the intersection with Highway 26, a cut-through between Deming and Hatch, and upon its corner was the Nutt Bar.


During this route, a check engine light had turned on while wheeling around in a gravel part of the road. I thought maybe a rock went up and perhaps struck a tire sensor. So, after pulling into the gravel lot, I got out and started crawling around beneath the truck inspecting things. I couldn’t find any signs of disrupted sensors, so I shrugged and walked up towards the front porch. Clustered together in a pile was a group of friends that turned out to be the only persons there, including the tenants to the bar. Though, I think they all take turns tending to that role. They were no doubt enjoying the warm sunshine like everyone else was in the state. One lady went inside to fetch for me a cold beer and a chair to sit on as well.


After we get finished introducing ourselves, the lady sitting next to me says with a beguiled look, “Sorry I sucked you up my tailpipe earlier." She was referring to speeding past me on Lake Valley road as I was underneath the vehicle investigating what could have caused the check engine light to turn on. “Yeah, lot of help you were,” I said with a laugh. We all got to instantly liking each other, and I continued to make them laugh with the answers I had to their questions like, “Where I’m going... Oh here and there. What do I do... You know, look for dolphins in the ocean.” They thought I was a hoot and I thought they were top-notch too. So, I stuck around for a few more beers and got to know them and find out about the area I was in. They too got to find out things about this peculiar stranger in their parts. In fact, I even got the nickname of, "stranger" written on my bar tab by one of the ladies as she couldn’t remember what I had said my name was.


They would tell funny stories of chasing people off their land when they’d think it was a parking lot or public hunting lands. I thought how could such a wide-open space have so many instances of people crossing into each other’s land. I’d come to find out, it wasn’t as big as I thought, and everyone certainly knew everyone. They’d often allow their lands to be hunted on for the deer that roamed around freely. Antelope too, for that matter. I think there’s a song about those two getting together to play.


And while we sat here swapping tales and information about ourselves, in pulls a sharp-looking SUV. From the vehicle out walks a kind-looking pair of characters who I'll never forget. Chilly Willy and his wife, Ester. Willy was instantly recognized and with his gloved hands starts making his way around to shake all of ours. I stand up to greet him and give his wife Ester a sideways kiss on the cheek.


Willy would look at me and nod his head a few times, pausing before he cracked a well-timed and on-the-spot joke that I was defenseless to not laugh and smile at. He was absolute humor and his wife Ester would laugh and look the other way, as I'm sure she's seen this sort of routine far too often.


Willy was known around these parts because a long while back he built a restaurant despite the better advice of everyone else. It was all done to fulfill a dream he had and to get the girl of his dreams that he was here and now seated next to.


He wanted to create a burrito shop and implant his mother's recipes into the stomachs and minds of Hatch's residents. He saw an opportunity where only one other person in town was doing it and despite the other burrito guy trying to sway him against the idea by telling him what a good farmer he was, Willy stuck to his plan and sought out the funds to make it happen. He was, in fact, a very accomplished farmer, but it was because of all this hard work he had done around town since he was a boy that one of those persons listened and respected his dream, providing the loan he needed to make the down payment. He purchased the vacant lot next to where the town's high school was and this would be the site for the, "B and E" restaurant still 41 years later.


Like most restaurant stories go, their secret to success was in the usage of old family recipes passed down by Willy’s mother. Their salsas are sold all over the state and even online, but he is truly known for his home-grown Hatch chilies. A puréed blend of the local pepper variety that gives this town, and by large this state, its reputation as the chile capital of the world.


Willy’s life story is one of the picturesque tales of the iconic trials and tribulations as well. His 50-year marriage to Ester is a love story that everyone in life wants to imagine as a real and attainable thing. I asked him what allows a marriage like that to go the distance and he said immediately with determination in his voice, “Hard work!” And it would be hard work that defined every moment in this man’s life.


Without any formal training, he built the restaurant from the ground up in just eight months. Within the second month of service, they were already in need of a remodel to accommodate the growing crowds. He would be up at dawn every day getting the place ready for its customers. The B and E’s reputation would start to sweep across the state, and tomorrow morning I was invited to go along with a few of the Nutt Bar friends to see for myself what it was all about.


Some of the group had already gone home, but Willy, Ester and the bar owner’s, Susan and Thomas and I hung out a while longer sharing in stories that brought many more laughs to the table we’d now moved inside to. Willy had a lot of great stories that all went towards the very likable community man that he was. A funny musing went like this: One time, early on in the time of the restaurant, the apartments behind the restaurant had caught fire and all but two were burnt to the ground. He obtained these apartments in the purchase he made for the land, and when he started to level the two, still standing units, there inside one of the walls was a first edition, like-new edition of a Roy Rogers comic book. It had somehow remained untouched by the smoke and fire of the other buildings and by today’s standard would be worth thousands of dollars. Well, they took it with them to their house and either can’t remember where they had put it or it disappeared as if it had never existed in the first place. Sort of like my found crystal, I reckon. They both reserved a bit of optimism for it simply being tucked away someplace in their house that they just don’t know about.


Thomas didn’t really sit with the group at all, but now and again would walk out from the back and go into the kitchen for something and then quietly slide off to be unnoticed in the back again. They kept saying he’s back there working on his sticks, which I could make no guesses at what that meant. Until finally he came out to show us what he had been working on. They were hand-carved walking sticks made from the very light, but extremely sturdy wood taken from inside a tall, dried out Saguaro cactus. These iconic cacti only grow in Arizona and can further only be collected by natives, as they are a part of their cultural traditions.


The sticks were totally cool and both Willy and I desired to have one. I think Willy wanted to have it for his truck so he could use it as a weapon against anyone that should get unruly and need a respectful, yet necessary whack. Thomas held it out in his hand and said you could whack someone pretty good with it and it not break. I really admired it for its lightness and wide grip at the top, which was actually down at the base of the cactus. Its shape and size resembled that of a rifle with the butt of it as the handle and the body being the barrel. The one he was showing us had a natural split at the bottom, which I thought gave it the exact appearance of an over-under double-barrel shotgun. We went through another series of one more's in both cervezas and tales before the night was finally ended.


Since I was going to breakfast with them over in Hatch, they said I could park my truck in the gravel lot there and stay overnight. They even suggested I come in for coffee in the morning, if that’s something I’d like. I slept like a baby in what normally would be uncomfortable, mid-thirty degree night, but from encountering blizzard-like snowfall and frosted-over 20º windows most nights, this was a balmy and sleep-replenishing night in comparison.



Saturday. February 8th. 2020


In the morning I’d gone into the bar where Susan had the TV on watching the Andy Griffith Show. They got me a cup of coffee and she started telling me all about her life and the history of how they came to be part owners of the bar. Almost every account of what brought people to the area of Hillsboro was that they had been passing through, liked it, and the rest was history. A lot of folks out here have houses in a few different places and Thomas and Susan were no different. But as the bar owners, they spent most of their time there on Nutt Corner in a motor home that Thomas had fashioned for them. Every so often they'll both make a run back to Tuscon, but Susan goes for two days out of the week, every week without exception. They also still enjoy taking the occasional road trip either on a motorbike or with the trailer attached.


Thomas said I should just ride with them and we were off to Hatch to see Willy’s establishment. The hit item there was the bean and onion enchiladas with a fried egg over top and covered in the hatch chili liquid. Upon first bite, both Susan and I got hit with an unexpected flash of heat from the chilis, but with the beans, brown rice and steamed flour tortilla, it settles down quite well as a complete melody. I got introduced to a few more locals and even Willy himself stopped by with Ester. It was only in passing, as they had baseball games to get to for their grandchildren.


Willy #4 was a top prospect for Arizona University’s baseball program and did quite well playing in the shortstop position. Willy 4 had a good background in baseball, as Chilly Willy considered himself a real home run hitter. We chatted there for a while and then drove back. All along the way, I was taught the various family history of each section of land. Ranching in this area went back at least five generations for most. The Hatch Valley hosted fertile dairy lands but was also a hub of agriculture, namely the Hatch Chili Pepper, that is sold worldwide.


When we got back to the Nutt Bar, Thomas asked what I was doing for the rest of the day. I had heard Susan was making her fry-bread the next day at the Nutt Bar and it sounded like something I shouldn’t miss. I said, “Nothing really.” And he said, “Well, come with me, we’ll go up to Hillsboro and see the pickers.” I had heard folks mentioning these pickers, but I didn’t know if they meant tomatoes, noses or what! Turns out, on Saturdays, a group of musicians get together on a particular corner and pick stringed instruments: Mandolins, stand-up bases and guitars.


Thomas and Susan also had a house in Hillsboro and they offered it to me as a place to take a shower and could also run a load of laundry. I was humbled by their generosity, but I think from being grandparents themselves, caring for youngsters just came naturally to them. But to overlook what was happening all around me would be a true disservice to the story. This was also the way of life here. People just looked after one another and I would start to collect my evidence through every single person that I came to be introduced to. That it was a town full of generous and kind individuals. Everyone was so warm to me and within those three days, I wrote down each of their names to remember for when I came back.