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Treasure Hunting

©Janet and Stuart Wilson


      A chorus of “boos” and hisses, and a shower of popcorn greeted the villain, as the honky-tonk piano struck an appropriately dramatic tune.  Gunshots cracked, filling the stage with smoke while the “hero” made his getaway.  We were witnessing a re-telling of the tale of  “Billy the Kid,” a local boy portrayed somewhat more kindly than his popular image as a cold-blooded killer.  Billy is the hero of a melodrama in the Opera House in Pinos Altos, New Mexico.  In this version, he is wronged and misunderstood, but prevails over the miscreants out to get him and avoids the early grave, heading off into the sunset with his sweetheart.
               Melodrama at the Opera House in Pinos Altos, New Mexico
     We preceded our evening’s entertainment with a prime rib dinner in the adjacent Buckhorn saloon in this historic village straddling the continental divide.  It’s just seven miles north of Silver City, a larger but equally historic town in southwestern New Mexico, where Billy outlaw career may, or may not have begun.
    About an hour off the Interstate 10, Silver City is not really on the way anywhere, but it’s definitely worth a detour.  On our recent visit to the area we strolled through old mining towns cum artist colonies, explored ancient, mysterious Indian dwellings, and discovered surprisingly lush mountain scenery.  The region offers an abundance of outdoor recreation– hiking, fishing, cycling and–at 6,000 feet elevation–a benign, four-season climate in which to enjoy it.
    An 1870 silver strike spawned the town and coined its name, though gold was mined in nearby Pinos Altos beginning in the 1850's.  Copper mining commenced in the area even earlier, beginning around 1800 when New Mexico was part of New Spain and has continued to the present day.  So, Silver City doesn’t just have roots as a mining town, but its trunk and some branches too.
    In search of earlier inhabitants we steered our tow vehicle 45 miles north, up and down steep grades and around hairpin turns on scenic New Mexico Highway 15, to spend the day at Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument.  Part of the Mountain Spirits Scenic Byway, this route is not recommended for trailers or large motorhomes, however a less challenging portion of the Byway, New Mexico 35, also leads to the Monument.  The Monument’s most dramatic and photogenic feature, the namesake cliff dwellings, are dated with remarkable precision using tree rings, to 1274–1287. 
    Like other Puebloan villages of the Southwest, the Gila site was suddenly abandoned, in this case right around 1300.  We hiked the one-mile loop trail up a canyon to a breathtaking view of  beautifully constructed stone structures, erected in five adjacent caves eroded in a southeast facing cliff above.  We joined a ranger who explained that these homes were occupied for perhaps 25 years–a single generation.  An estimated 10 to 15 families resided here, farming river valley and mesa top, making baskets and pottery, and seemingly meeting all of their needs.  Why they left no one knows.
                               Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument
      On our return to Silver City we passed the Chino open pit copper mine, east of Silver City on New Mexico 152,  said to be the oldest operating mine in the United States.  An overlook along the highway affords a view of an impressively large hole in the ground.
    With a population of about 11,000, Silver City hasn’t outgrown its historic character.  Bullard Street gives a good stand-in performance for the missing Main Street, obliterated in a series of destructive floods around the turn of the 20th century.  That former center of commerce is now a 55-foot deep ravine cutting through the center of town called Big Ditch Park.  It’s one of the more unusual city parks we’ve seen, landscaped, lined with walkways, picnic tables, and spanned by pedestrian bridges.
    At the Silver City Museum in the historic Ailmar House, we viewed photographs depicting scenes of pre-flood Main Street and of the series of deluges that threatened to obliterate the town.  A capsule history of the town and typical pioneer artifacts are on display.  During our visit we were fascinated by a photo exhibit called “Double Vision” where 1904 photographic images images were displayed side-by-side with photographs taken of the same scenes in 2004.
    A biography recounts the brief life of “Billy the Kid,” born in 1860 as William Henry McCarty.  He moved to Silver City in 1873 with his mother, younger brother, and stepfather.  Eight notorious years later Billy was killed by Pat Garrett in Fort Sumner, New Mexico, before his 21st birthday.
    The Western New Mexico University Museum in historic Fleming Hall tells a rather less bloody story.  It houses the Eisele Collection of Mimbres pottery, decorated in geometric, anthropomorphic and natural images.  We were especially enthralled by black and white and polychrome pieces from the Classic period, considered some of the most beautiful pottery of the ancient world.  And we wondered about the many pieces with small holes.  Archeologists think that the holes, called kill holes, were made during a burial ritual to release the spirit of the bowl to join that of the deceased.
    One afternoon, we followed some of the little “matchbook” guides, available at the Silver City Museum, for self-guided walking tours of several neighborhoods.  We explored La Capilla to the south with its traditional adobe homes and capped by steep Chihuahuan Hill that afforded a nice view of town.  In the Gospel Hill neighborhood, between the business district and the university campus, Silver City’s elite built homes and churches reflecting their prosperity in the early1880's.
                                         Pinos Altos and Silver City

    We strolled the Historic Business District along Broadway, Yankee and Bullard, streets with over a dozen art galleries and nearly as many eateries in buildings dating from the last two decades of the 19th and the first decade of the 20th century.  Collectively their restored facades recreate the ambience of a century ago. We stopped for espresso at A.I.R. Coffee Company and shopped for gifts along Bullard. 
    Silver City’s art scene extends beyond the many galleries to several art shows and festivals and to concerts and performing arts events such as the annual Blues Festival each Memorial Day weekend, or melodrama at the Pinos Altos Opera House. 
    We found the Silver City-Grant County Chamber of Commerce & Visitor Center helpful.  Information was cheerfully dispensed along with knowledgeable answers to our questions.  The town makes it easy for RVers to linger with four nice RV Parks, including the cozy Silver City RV Park closest to downtown, where we stayed.  Immediately adjacent to the Visitor Center stands a one-room log cabin, similar to, and near the site of, one William McCarty once shared with his family.
    Peering in the window of the tiny house, we wondered what was the real story of Billy the Kid?  After Billy’s mother died in 1874 his stepfather abandoned him and his younger brother.  In 1877 Billy was arrested and jailed for a theft of laundry he may not have committed.  Escaping by shinnying up a chimney, he became a fugitive.  So much myth and legend surround the rest of his short life, it’s difficult to discern the facts, but we decided it didn’t really matter.  Silver City’s colorful history is an inseparable and intriguing mixture of legend and fact, just like Billy’s.
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For More Information:
Silver City Grant County Chamber of Commerce,  201 North Hudson Street, Silver City, NM 88061;           800-548-9378;

Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, HC 68, Box 100, Silver City, NM 88061; 505-536-9461;

For campground information, check the Trailer Life Campgrounds, RV Parks, & Services Directory.
This story was originally published in Trailer Life magazine.