In this past week, one of my life-long dreams came true when we visited the world’s most comprehensive permanent collection of Mimbres pottery. You will immediately recognize it for its delicate and graphic nature-referenced painting on pottery. I fell in love with this pottery on our earliest trip to New Mexico in 1989 when I first saw it in collections in museums in Albuquerque and Santa Fe.
Ever since then, I have longed to visit the place where these people lived, to walk the land, to see the Mimbres River, the Gila Mountains that framed their place, and experience what I could about their time on the earth.
The Mimbres were a sub-group of what archeologists call the Mogollon people who lived in the area of what is now the southern half of New Mexico and the southeastern quarter of Arizona from about 200 CE (common era) until the arrival of the Spanish in the mid-1500s. The Mimbres sub-group lived along the Mimbres River in the wildly rugged Gila Mountains of western New Mexico. These people seemed to have come first as hunter and gatherers and then gradually developed agriculture and a more settled (a relative term) lifestyle. We visited an active archeological site called the Mattocks Site which sits along the Mimbres River. Here, there is a record of constant habitation from about 500 to 1140, with housing layered upon layer over the centuries.
This site has presented some of the finest examples of Mimbres pottery. A group of avid volunteers man the humble Mimbres Museum on the site which is easily accessible off NM Route 35, part of the spectacular Trail of the Mountain Spirits National Scenic Byway. We spend an hour visiting and touring around the grounds and their self-guided tour and found it deeply moving.
The unassuming Fleming Hall on the campus of Western New Mexico University in Silver City is the repository of a collection of Mimbres pottery that is unsurpassed in the world. The 2011 donation from the NAN Ranch established the University as the go-to place for researchers and scholars. We drove by the NAN Ranch on our way out of the valley this morning. It sits along the Mimbres River and this time of year, it wears miles of glorious bright green garlands of newly leaving cottonwoods and willows. My hunch is the Mimbres most likely witnessed the same riot of color each spring during their hundreds of years here. One of the rangers said that as you drive the Mimbres Valley if you spot a hill with a view, there most likely was a Mimbres settlement there.
From the Mattocks Site, we continued on to the National Monument along the scenic byway spending an afternoon at the amazing Gila Cliff Dwellings. The dwellings sit high above the valley where the Gila River begins, and were built somewhere around 1275 by the inhabitants who left about 25 years later. There seem to be more questions than answers about the people who built these structures inside these natural caves. My questioning and rational mind needs to be reminded to just sit with the mystery and be present to the powerful beauty of the place. They built forty rooms in five natural caves, rooms built with supports from trees felled below in the valley and lifted up the face of the cliffs. They built a place of stone structures (rooms for living? for storage? for ceremony?) laid stone on stone and mortared in place. A mysterious small interior room has been found to have been completely plastered, even the floor, and the remnants of a mural have been found along one wall.
There were about forty to sixty people, most likely families, who lived here and worked here, and died here. There was only one skeleton found here, that of a child, and so the conclusion is there was no conflict in this place. Based on the pottery found here, the experts think that these people might have come from the northern Tularosa River and were just part of the series of inhabitants who occupied these caves for nearly 2,000 years. After they left, the guess is that more people moved in, most likely including some bands of Chiricahua Apaches, whose most famous leader, Geronimo, was born near here.
On the way out of the Dwellings, we stopped at a memorial called Apache Wall which gives a brief history of these people who came into the Gila River area from the north around 1500. The wall includes photographs of the most well-known leaders, including two women, known as medicine women and healers. There were actually four bands that made up the Chiricahua Apache territory in western New Mexico, northern Mexico and eastern Arizona. Each band had a territory which was basically a quadrant of the entire area and each had its own leaders. The Gila Wilderness and the headwaters of the Gila River were considered common use area. The arrival of the miners, settlers, and homesteaders created unimaginable conflict and led to the dissolution of the ancestral use of the lands though the Apaches continue to express their deeply held sense of connection to this place. After spending even this short amount of time in this unbelievably rugged, beautiful and untamed part of New Mexico, I can say that it has a powerful pull on my soul as well.
While here in the area, we camped at City of Rocks State Park in Faywood, about 35 miles from Silver City. A few of our camping friends have raved about this place and we were not disappointed by it. The place is a collection of volcanic tuff, the magna from a volcano from 28 million years ago, which cooled and cracked and with the effects of water and wind, the rocks eroded creating remarkable shapes. There are dry campsites tucked right up in clusters of huge boulders. We selected one of the electric and water sites, anticipating the effects of the windchill caused by some vigorous New Mexico winds, and had spectacular views to the east of the sunrise, one of which is captured above in our banner.
City of Rocks also has the coolest scale model of the solar system we’ve ever seen. It’s done outdoors where every two feet represented six million miles from the sun. So, you basically walk a LOOONG way from the “sun” (the windmill outside the visitor’s center) to the outer reaches of Pluto. It’s a really wonderful place.
We will be leaving New Mexico this weekend and I already feel the tug of separation in my heart. This is a very special place to us and we are comforted to know that our dreams include a return trip on our next westward crossing. We are honored to have you with us.
Peter and Liz continue their pilgrimage to here, re-routing their eastbound trip to avoid the snows in Colorado, as they head into Kansas and Missouri in their Airstream.