A step back in time in the wilderness of New Mexico

A reader recently asked me if I ever wrote about Native American inspired foods. My first thought was, “Of course! Especially after we went to Gila that summer…” and then I remembered that time was flying and I wrote that column during my time in the pages of The Boerne Star. Oddly enough, I looked back in my files and found that experience was chronicled 10 years ago last week.

I can still close my eyes and hear the sounds of the water rushing in little rapids over the river rock in the shallow area I liked to sit in there in the Gila River. One of the most unique in-body experiences of my life to date was soaking in the hot springs, then soaking in the cold river. Little did I know that was a thing called “contrast bath therapy” and was actually quite beneficial for circulation and other health issues… I just thought it was wonderful and it’s stuck in my memory, vivid as the days it happened, ever since.

We’ve since been back, but in the winter and there was no way I was getting in the river when the air temperature was 20 degrees.

Just the other day, my husband and I were talking about places that were a quick getaway but a world of difference from the heat wave that’s keeping us indoors this week. I’m feeling the urge to camp and sit in a cold river.

We like to camp at the Gila Hot Springs, in the shadow of beautiful column rock that is eerily similar to our view of Sleeping Lion Mountain here in Fort Davis. Camp was about 38 miles into the Gila National Forest, with the Gila Cave Dwellings National Park roughly four miles further in. One way in and one way out. The Cave Dwellings aren’t something you just stumble across while out on a Sunday drive in New Mexico.

The Cliff Dwellings were discovered by a group that was trying to avoid going to jury duty in 1878. They decided to go prospecting near the Gila River instead, and came across the Cave Dwellings. They have been a national monument and state park since about 1933.

The cliff, formed by volcanic activity, contains the ruins of interlinked cave dwellings where Mogollon Indians lived between 1275 and 1300 AD. Archeologists found 46 rooms in the five caves, and think 10 to 15 families lived there. No one knows why the dwellings were abandoned.

The Cave Dwellings were filled with prehistoric artifacts from even long before the Mogollons who lived there for about 25 years. People removed the artifacts before the caves were protected by the state. There was even a mummified body that someone took to place in a private collection somewhere. Not exactly the souvenir I would want.

Even though people took artifacts from the caves before it was protected as a monument, they didn’t take old corn cobs that are on display in one of the homes (also called “kivas”). The corn was small, about 5 inches long, and the cobs were about 735 years old.

In the Native American culture in that area, the main staples of diet were corn, beans and squash – things that would grow in the area. These items were called the Three Sisters.

The Three Sisters actually were planted to work together. The corn was a structure for the beans to climb. The beans provide nitrogen to the soil and the squash spreads along the ground, blocking the sunlight, which helps prevent weeds. The squash leaves act as a “living mulch,” the soil moist, and the prickly hairs of the vine keeps pests out. Corn lacks amino acids lysine and tryptophan, which the body needs to make proteins and niacin, but beans have both and so when eaten together, they provide a balanced diet.

So many things struck me during our visit to the cliff dwellings that I still think about today. The natural wisdom and ingenuity of the Native Americans, the respect for all the earth, the spirituality that they lived by, and the craftsmanship of a cave turned into a community with different houses built within. But how about the inaccessibility of the cave homes?

For us tourists, we followed a relatively easy although long trail up to the dwellings. I tried to imagine what it would be like to live there and have to climb up and down the mountain for water and to check on the Three Sisters growing down by the river.

Strength, agility and perseverance key for survival then, as it is now. As of writing this, both the hot springs and the cliff dwellings are open, but with limited capacity. I’d love to go back as soon as possible.

Next week, we’ll talk about pemmican, as requested by the reader who inspired a stroll down memory lane in the Gila Wilderness.


1 pound frozen whole kernel corn, but fresh is even better
1 pound cooked pinto beans
4 cups summer squash, diced (about 1 pound)
1 pint sour cream
2 eggs, beaten
4 tablespoons butter, melted
1 cup yellow cornmeal
1/2 cup jalapeno peppers, diced
1/2 cup Monterey Jack cheese, diced
Oil for coating baking dish

In a large mixing bowl, mix sour cream and egg together. Add remaining ingredients and mix well. Coat a baking pan or casserole dish with vegetable oil spray and fill with mixture. Bake at 350 degrees F for 45 minutes until golden brown.


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