Gila River Country

July 8-10, 2011

Two years ago, we made a stopover in Silver City on our way to a weekend with friends in the Gila Wilderness. Who would have thought that in a few short months, Silver would become an important part of our lives? So enthralled were Kit and Ann that they bought a house in Silver City, and we are among their frequent and fortunate visitors.

Of course July is the best possible time for a visit, with the monsoon just settling in and the combined blessings of both heat AND humidity. Under a sky full of Georgia O'Keeffe clouds, we took the road very much less traveled by so that we could explore the mid-section of the Gila River.

In theory, the Gila River runs 650 miles from the upper reaches of the Black Range to the Colorado River. Like the mighty Salt and the Verde, every drop of the Gila is slurped up by the golf courses and cotton fields of Phoenix. But in its upper reaches, it connects some of the wildest areas in the deserts of New Mexico and Arizona.

You can't drive from Tucson to Silver City too many times before you begin wondering where the Gila goes after it tumbles out of the Gila Wilderness and curves south around the Blue Range. The Big Burro Mountains have few roads and no towns to speak of. But on a map we spotted an interesting area known as "Middle Box", so we headed straight north out of Lordsburg on State Route 464.

As we approached the "town" of Redrock, we were greeted by a "welcome" sign advising visitors that "hunting, fishing, hiking, camping, swimming or trespassing of any kind" is strictly prohibited. We only saw two other people in Redrock, but we saw thousands of "no trespassing" signs posted on county-maintained roads.

Undeterred, we headed east on Forest Road 851 from Redrock to Tyrone. It was a beautiful drive through empty, rolling hill country where cows clearly have the right-of-way.

On Saturday morning, the entire population of Silver City turns out for the farmer's market, including Ken Keppeler and Jeanie McLerie of Bayou Seco. Ken and Jeanie are Silver City residents who have been making music together since 1978, and their repertoire runs the gamut from Cajun music, New Mexican dance tunes and songs and cowboy songs to Tohono O’Odham fiddle tunes. After dazzling us with a spirited Czardas, Ken whipped out a banjo made from an old grain scoop and a table leg and delivered up a spine-tingling rendition of, "Don't Go Riding Down That Old Texas Trail".

Sunday was Kit's birthday, and we all celebrated by continuing our quest for the elusive Middle Box. Approaching from the east side, we stopped to stroll along the shores of the almost beautiful Bill Evans Lake. The Prius managed to scamper up the ridge at the end of the road and dump us out in a valley shaded by iridescent green cottonwoods. A short scramble took us to the banks of the Gila, where we enjoyed not only a fine picnic lunch but even a short swim. If it weren't for all the people living in cars, this would be a fine place to camp, and I will certainly return to investigate the hiking possibilities.

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