|Story and photos by Ron Kilber
If Billy the Kid were alive today, he would see that the land and mountains haven't changed much since the late 1800s around his childhood boomtown home of Silver City. Even many of the brick buildings of his time still stand in town today. But gone are the silver miners who gave birth to Silver City, back when it was still an Apache Indian camp in 1870, 42 years before New Mexico received statehood.
While Civil War hero Ulysses S. Grant was president of the United States, hopefuls arrived in Silver City by the thousands for a chance to win the silver-ore lottery. As the town boomed, General George Armstrong Custer was making his last stand on the Little Big Horn River, U.S. Marshal Wyatt Earp was keeping the peace in nearby Tombstone, Jesse James was wreaking havoc on trains carrying gold, and Mark Twain was writing Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.
Tucked away in the southwest corner of New Mexico, Silver City is now a college town thriving with students, artists, museum curators, shop owners, restaurateurs, and purveyors to the hospitality and travel industry. Ranching in the area remains a primary industry, as it has since the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act in 1893, which ruined the silver market more than 100 years ago.
For aviators, Silver City is an undiscovered, civilized hideaway situated on the outskirts of the vast Gila Wilderness Area, home of the archeologically significant Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. Silver City is also gateway to one of the most visually stimulating and geologically fascinating areas of the Southwest, with spectacularly wooded mountains, rustic western towns, and unique adventures.
Flying to Silver City
On a trip to Silver City in September, 2004, I landed at Whiskey Creek Airport after flying my Cessna 150 -- non-stop -- from my home field (2AZ1) in far western Arizona (270 nm).
Bob Alexander is the manager, who once owned the airport while he provided air transport services to the local copper mining industry. Alexander has so many hours in the cockpit that his time aloft totals five years or so. This means he had been upstairs for more than an hour every day since he was born.
Whiskey Creek Airport is well managed, well manicured and secure in its unique hillside location with limited ingress and egress. Both the runway and ramp areas are in excellent condition. Flying "A" Flight Service provides both 100LL and Jet A fuels.
Actually, Silver City has two airports within close proximity. Whiskey Creek Airport (94E) is four miles east of the town center and Grant County Airport (KSVC) is ten miles southeast. Both fields are open to the public, within easy reach from Phoenix (195 nm), Albuquerque (160 nm), Tucson (150 nm) and El Paso (110 nm). Rental cars are available with prior arrangements at both airports through Enterprise (505-534-0000) or Taylor Car Rental (505-388-4848).
Be sure to top your tanks when you land at Whiskey Creek. I was distracted after landing when the rental car arrived, completely forgetting to refuel my airplane. When I returned to the field on a Saturday for departure, the FBO was closed; no one answered the after-hours fuel line. But all was not lost. I just flew the five-minute flight to the Grant County Airport a few miles south and east. After dipping my tanks I confirmed that I had plenty of fuel for the short hop, even after flying all the way from western Arizona.
For a place to stay while exploring the community, I checked into the Comfort Inn, which is conveniently located on the main road into Silver City. It’s also a well managed establishment with complimentary, serve-yourself breakfast, including many extras not usually found. The rooms are cheerful and large, each with a window to enjoy the breezy mountain air (505-534-1883 or 800-228-5150).
Silver City and the area have a great hospitality industry. Guest ranches, bed and breakfasts, cottages, cabins, RV parks and, of course, plenty of hotels and motels are available to fit every preference. There is even a full-service spa and salon. The Nature Conservancy’s Bear Mountain Lodge, a 1920s renovated hacienda, is popular with birders and hikers who like the convenient access to the Gila National Forest (bearmountainlodge.com). Outfitters exist to serve birders, cyclist, hikers, and trail rides into the wilderness. For more information call the Silver City Chamber of Commerce at 800-548-9378 or visit silvercity.org.
Restaurants range from fast food to elegant dining, bakeries, juice bars, and theme atmospheres.
I especially enjoyed lunch at Shevek & Mi, an upscale establishment at 6th and Bullard in the historic district of town. They serve up real tasty creations, including organic espresso and coffee. Chef Shevek personally described the luncheon specials, indicating to me that he not only pays close attention to quality but patrons, too. The assortment of wine and specialty beer is definitely a plus for a town as small as Silver City. You might have to travel all the way to L.A. to find another place as unique as Shevek & Mi.
It would take months to see everything in the vicinity of Silver City. There is so much opportunity, visitors can return time and again to enjoy something new with each trip.
Things to do
Silver City and the area have a rich history. A visit would not be complete without dropping into at least one of the many local museums.
The Western New Mexico University Museum houses a fine collection of Mimbres pottery, basketry, and ancient housing exhibits. The Mimbres Indians lived in the area nearly a thousand years ago. Scholars can only speculate about these Native Americans because not enough is known about their origin and disappearance. The Mimbres people are well known for their beautiful pottery, especially the black-and-white designs depicting geometric symbols, animals, birds, insects, and the most famous in all of Native American mysticism -- the Kokopelli.
The mysterious Kokopelli character is usually depicted hunched over while dancing and playing a flute. He is the symbol of fertility, music, dance, and mischief. It seems that Kokopelli was prominent among Native American cultures. The figure has not only been found on pottery and in other forms of artistic expression, but also painted and carved on rock walls and boulders throughout many areas of the Southwest.
The museum is located on the campus of Western New Mexico University. It’s open seven days a week, with the exception of some holidays. Admission is free (505-538-6386).
Silver City has galleries everywhere offering fine and contemporary Southwestern art, pottery, ceramics, prints, glass, original oil paintings, and handcrafted turquoise and other jewelry. Oriental and Southwestern rugs, leather, furniture, lamps, cliff-dwelling carvings, icons, and antiques can also be found in and around the area.
I especially enjoyed visiting Art & Conversation (614 N. Bullard St), where I saw clay figures presenting Gena Fowler’s unique and thought-provoking creation of characters through her imaginative eyes inspired by people she knows. If you remember Fat Bastard from the movie, “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me”, then you already have a good idea of the twisted, distorted figures in her collection. I found myself unable to take my eyes off her sculptures. Fowler’s “Lisa” might be Mrs. Fat Bastard. Fowler’s work can also be found at her studio/gallery in Santa Fe, NM, Santa Fe Clay (505-984-1122, santafeclay.com).
During summer months, the Silver City Farmer’s Market at 6th and Bullard Street is popular with residents every Saturday morning from 8:30 to noon. It was worth stopping by the area to meet so many of the area farmers offering fresh produce.
Close by is an 1870’s era log cabin situated next to Billy the Kid’s home site. Producer/director, Ron Howard, donated the cabin after fabricating it for his 2003 movie, “The Missing,” situated in 1885 New Mexico Territory, starring Tommy Lee Jones, Cate Blanchett, and Val Kilmer.
3.3 million acres of forest
In 1924 Congress set aside the Gila Wilderness, making it the first public land in the country restricting access to foot or horseback only, so as to preserve the natural environment. The wilderness is located within the 3.3 million acres of the Gila National Forest, where elevations rise to 11,000 feet. The forest -- with its juniper, pine, spruce, and aspen trees -- has tremendous reach to deserts, mountains, plains, and basins.
The Continental Divide Trail, covering more than 3000 miles from the Canadian border in Montana to the border with Mexico, traverses the Gila National Forest. The trail provides recreational opportunity for more than 350 miles in the state along the divide to the border with Mexico near Antelope Wells. Silver City straddles the continental divide at an elevation around 6000 feet.
The high altitudes of the Gila National Forest, with its cooler temperatures and tranquil atmosphere, attract outdoor enthusiasts in the summer who like camping, hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking, four-wheeling, birding, boating, river rafting, hunting, fishing, and picture taking. Wildlife in the Gila National Forest include mule deer, elk, antelope, black bear, mountain lion, bighorn sheep, javelina, and turkey, all supported by miles of streams, rivers, and lakes.
The Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument is located within the Gila National Forest on the edge of the Gila Wilderness, an easy drive from Silver City. Around 1280 A.D., Native Americans built the cliff dwellings, which contain more than forty rooms in five caves. The inhabitants were artistic potters, famous for the beautiful artifacts that can be found on display in the Western New Mexico Museum. The monument has its own museum and visitor center, which are open throughout the year (505-536-9461/9344).
Northwest of Silver City, on the way to the town of Reserve, is Whitewater Creek. Geronimo and Butch Cassidy used to hide out in the steep canyons along its banks. Today, this is where you can find a national treasure, the Catwalk. The Catwalk National Scenic Trail is a steel elevated walkway suspended over Whitewater Creek as it winds through a narrow mile-long slot canyon. The Catwalk was originally built in the 1890s to service a pipeline route delivering water to the mining town of Graham, and has recently undergone extensive reconstruction and improvement to make the trail accessible. When you reach the suspension bridge, there’s a great view overlooking a stunning waterfall.
Less than two hours drive north of Silver City lays Reserve, a sleepy little town of about 400 residents at more than 6,000 feet elevation in the Gila National Forest. Reserve gained national attention in 1994 when it passed a resolution requiring every household to own a gun.
Along the way to Reserve, I saw wildflowers in every direction as far as the eye could see. It was worth a drive to the peaceful, friendly little town, complete with a quaint bed and breakfast (The Rivers Inn) hosted by Reserve’s own Max Lee Kiehne, probably the only Harvard graduate in the area. Not only did he provide a killer breakfast, but also some great conversation about the rich history of Reserve.
In October 1884, Elfego Baca, a 20-year-old Hispanic store clerk, single-handedly survived a gun battle against scores of angry Texan cowboys who’d been terrorizing the Mexican population in Reserve -- just to entertain themselves. Had the newspaper reporter who wrote about the Gunfight at the OK Corral captured this drama instead, Elfego Baca -- not Wyatt Earp -- would’ve made it into the pages of popular history and onto the big screen. And Reserve -- not Tombstone -- would be the huge tourist attraction today.
Reserve gas station owner and distance runner, Henry Martinez, is part of a group that formed the Elfego Baca Project Inc. (505-533-6488) to raise funds for a statue and a museum to honor Baca’s memory and bold stand. “I want to bring some credit that is long overdue for Baca,” said Martinez. A billboard is erected on the future site of the Elfego Baca museum and statue. The painting is by the Westerns Channel’s own Bob Boze Bell. Brenda McCarty’s mural on a wall nearby depicts angry Texans trying to kill Baca who is holed-up in a shack.
While in Reserve, I bumped into Ollie Reed Jr. from the Albuquerque Journal, who had come to town to write a story about Baca and the project. Read the story at his newspaper’s web site: abqtrib.com/archives/diversions04/092404_diversions_tales.shtml.
Reserve has its own airport about five miles west of town (T16). I wanted to fly from Silver City, but the weather didn’t cooperate. When I asked Kiehne about ground transportation for any pilot wanting to fly in for a stay at The Rivers Inn Bed and Breakfast, he cheerfully offered to provide a ride. “Just call ahead,” he said (505-533-6496, email: max@CenterFireProperty.com ).
While in Reserve, I met Leah Jones, an interesting gal from Glenwood (midway between Silver City and Reserve, near the Catwalk) who owns Gila Wilderness Ventures (505-539-2800). She outfits pack trips by horseback into the Gila Wilderness, something I definitely want to do on my return trip to the area. Not only is she an expert horsewoman, but a skilled campfire cook, too.
You wouldn’t expect to find an art gallery in sleepy, little Reserve. However, José Andrés Girón has a must-see gallery, expressing his own beautiful, cheerful work depicting Hispanic/Latino culture. I especially enjoyed the self-portrait of his company while he was a soldier in Viet Nam. While pointing to the painting, Andrés said, “That’s a letter from my mother in 1966.” He continues, “You can actually read what is says: ‘Dear son, we all miss you so much….please don’t mind if I write to you in Spanish.’” Besides the letter from his mother, the painting also includes his actual buddies, pinned up pictures of their girlfriends, and even patches on both arms, indicating they were a combat unit. When Andrés is not in his gallery, he paints at his studio, a recent addition to his home, which was built by his grandfather in the late 1800s.
Reserve even has its own 10K race in June. The route winds through the nearby forest and the streets of town. According to Kiehne, he and Martinez won the race last year because they knew a shortcut along the route. He laughed, confirming it was all a joke.
Something you do expect in any little town is a good bakery, and Reserve is certainly up to standards. I’ve never tasted better scones in my life than those made by Elizabeth and Paula at the Sunrise Bakery. I nearly missed this treat when I dropped by for an afternoon snack, since the gals were just buttering the morsels before popping them in the oven. But was I ever surprised a short while later when the girls brought the piping-hot scones to the gallery next door where I was visiting with Andrés. I was sure glad I waited for those scones, rather than eat cookies.
For more information on Reserve, the Catwalk, and the Gila Wilderness contact the Reserve/Catron County Chamber of Commerce at 505-533-6116 or visit catroncounty.org.
Plan an extended stay
Plan a lot of time for your visit to the Silver City area, especially if you travel a long distance. Otherwise, like me, you will regret that you didn’t stay longer. But for those of us only a leg’s flight away, a return visit is as convenient as any weekend breakfast or lunch flight.
Indeed, the Silver City landscape hasn’t changed much since the days of Billy the Kid. But certainly, there is a lot more opportunity to see and do today. There’s always something new with each trip to this little mountain hideaway in New Mexico’s land of enchantment, with many friendly, cheerful, and interesting inhabitants.
Ron Kilber began flying airplanes in Las Cruces, NM. He now resides on an airpark in Arizona where he enjoys flying and writing. (Email: firstname.lastname@example.org )