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September 10, 2013, United States

Home on a cliff

Pip Sloan ventures out of Silver City in the United States to explore ancient overhanging cave dwellings

Pip Sloan

RAIN turned into snow as we drove to Silver City in the late spring. Silver City is home to Billy the Kid, the notorious gunfighter of the American Old West, and now an artistic district of New Mexico.

We chose to stay in a historic lodge outside the city set against the Gila National Forest. It is only a 10-minute drive to the city centre but it feels like a hundred miles away. Bear Mountain Lodge was built in the 1920s as a school for pre-teen boys with psychopathic tendencies. Over the years, it has subsequently been a private home, country club, hotel and ranch before its present incarnation as a bed and breakfast and art gallery.

Giant copper dragonflies and hummingbirds escorted us to breakfast and bear shaped ornaments made out of scrapped cars adorned every dining table and were for sale too. The main building houses a large common area with wood beams, fireplaces and a staircase where many blushing brides made their first appearances before walking down to join their grooms.

Cave exploration

However, it was not art or weddings but the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument that brought us to Silver City. Although only 71km away, it is about a two-hour drive through mountainous terrain along a narrow winding road with tight turns and precipitous drops. The scenic Highway 15 led us up to Narnialike woods blanketed with snow, a drive which we savoured rather hurrying through.

The Gila Cliff Dwellings were inhabited by the Mogollon people from about 1275 to 1300. To see the dwellings requires a 1.6km hike along a loop trail. The first section of the trail is a gentle climb along a creek where the Mogollons would have farmed their crops and obtained water. We walked about half of it before stopping at the viewing points for our first glimpse of the caves.

The Gila Cliff Dwellings are homes built into the natural cavities of a cliff about 150ft high. The amazingly well-preserved dwell-ings are located within five caves subdivided into smaller rooms. Unlike other Indian ruin sites where access is limited, in Gila we could climb into the caves, wander around the rooms and search for faded petroglyphs that the Mogollons left behind.

The caves made perfect sense as a natural shelter against the elements and a refuge against wild animals or hostile tribes once the ladders were hauled up. It is remarkable how people of 700 years ago managed to build anything up in the steep mountain walls and live their lives in an overhanging cliff home accessible only by rope ladders.

Trail of the Mountain Spirits

We climbed down steep ladders from the caves and hiked back along the loop trail. For our return journey, we chose an alternative route — the romantically named “Trail of the Mountain Spirits”. This longer route has less spectacular views than Highway 15 but is an easy drive with relaxing, pastoral scenery.

We stopped en route by the Mimbres Valley Heritage where pit houses and burial mounds are preserved, together with a collection of the distinctive black-on-white pottery of the Mimbreno Indians. This fertile valley remains agricultural land and the Mimbres river runs alongside family orchards, small-scale organic farms and pleasant little vineyards.

But as we looped around and back towards Silver City, it became clear that it was not agriculture but mining, which has left, literally, the deepest mark.

As we drove along, a great brutal hole suddenly appeared at the side of the road — it was the Chino Mine, one of the largest copper mines in the world. The resulting settlement called Santa Rita grew into a substantial town, only to be swallowed up by the expansion of the same mine that it existed to serve. Today, Santa Rita no longer exists as its inhabitants have all been relocated.

Unique dining experience

When we finally got back to Silver City, the lodge recommended that we dine at 1 Zero 6, a unique restaurant bursting with colours and bold themes. With flying dragons on the ceiling, a massive Bollywood movie poster, Catholic and Buddhist images, and Taoist statutes, we felt like we’d stepped into a quirky private dining club.

And having seen far too many burger joints and cookie cutter diners in America, it was refreshing to find a creative chef bold enough to introduce galangal, candlenut, Chinese waxed sausage, Japanese pickled ginger and fiery chilli to Silver City.

When I peered into a small but perfectly organised kitchen, I saw solo chef Jake Politte working in an oasis of calm.

It certainly isn’t every day that you meet a tattooed Buddhist chef who has travelled all over the world and spent time with tribes in the Amazonian jungles of Ecuador.

We had the pleasure of chatting with him and learnt that the menu changes daily according to what ingredients are available. Jake only cooks enough for 25 covers each day so there is no mass production or mindless repetition — the cuisine is fusion, with diverse culinary influences from Italy, South-east Asia, the Pacific Rim and Mexico. He actually has Southeast Asian spices and ingredients flown from Singapore and carries Mexican chocolate back from his travels to make desserts.

After the delightful dinner, we retired early for a good rest to rise up to the new discoveries that the next day might bring, for though it is only a small town, Silver City and its environs are full of surprises.

GETTING THERE

Singapore Airlines flies direct to Los Angeles. Catch a 1.5-hour connecting flight to Tucson International Airport and Silver City is a threehour drive away.

TRAVELLER’S TIPS

■ Near the Gila Cliff Dwellings are several hot springs. You can stay at Gila Hot Springs Ranch or The Wilderness Lodge to soak in the hot springs after hiking to the caves.

■ A large collection of intricately decorated Mimbres pottery can be found in the Museum of Western New Mexico University in Silver City.

■ For nature lovers, anglers or birdwatchers, turn off Highway 35 to Lake Roberts for fishing and wildlife including deer, elk and migratory waterbirds.

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