Thursday, June 14, 2007

Exploring the Gila

With over 5 million acres, the Gila National Forest and Aldo Leopold Wilderness are larger than many northeast states. This huge area of forests, mountains, and year-around rivers and streams is one of the most beautiful and interesting places we've visited. The drive from Silver City into the forest to the north begins with the old mining town of Pinos Altos, where we stopped for lunch at the Pinos Altos Ice Cream Parlor, a must for Brenda once she found out that they served black walnut ice cream. Homemade soups (the green chile and beef barley was tasty) and hot dogs are the lunch of choice, followed of course, by ice cream. The building is an eclectic blend of cafe, gift shop, information center, and also serves as the town post office. We chatted with the owners who told us that the building, built in the 1860s, has been a store, saloon, and bordello. You've got to love a place that has such a great history and decor! The owners are nice folks & we'll be back for more ice cream before we leave the area. Continuing up NM 15, we entered the forest and began exploring the campgrounds and took a dirt road that headed...up. After seven miles, the road ended at the Sentinal Peak lookout tower, where we met John, who staffs the tower five days a week. John's been working at the tower for nine years, starting in late May each year until the fire season is declared over by the Forest Service, usually in October. He's supplied with a vintage "Fireball" travel trailer, propane, and an outhouse equipped with framed picture and wooden seat. He mentioned in a story published in the local paper, you can read it here. He took the time to show us around and as we were getting ready to leave, presented Brenda with a Smokey the Bear scarf which we now use as a cover on our steering-wheel table. This of course triggered a response from the Cheesecake Goddess, and soon we were on our way back to the tower with a "lemony cream" cheesecake, much to John's appreciation. Since Brenda was reluctant to climb up the rickety, windy and creaky 1940s tower, John took the time to show her the view using panoramic photos. The area around the base of the tower is decorated with the only pink flamingos I've seen in New Mexico. John denies every having anything to do with them (or the framed picture in the outhouse) and sticks to his story that a female-type fire tower person is responsible.
On another day, we explored the west side of the Gila, and the towns of Gila, Cliff, and Glenwood, small towns that provide access to the forest and mountains. We headed west along the Gila River, which flows year around from the heart of the wilderness. The river creates a beautiful valley, with large cottonwoods and sycamore trees along the banks. These areas are bird watcher havens, and we've seen some beautiful birds, like the Scarlet Tanager, Golden Eagle, and rare Black Hawk for the first time. We can't begin to describe the beauty of this region and how much we've enjoyed it - stay with us for part 2!

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