“Hey, how are you today?” asked a tall, bald on top, long and curly on the sides guy perched outside one of the seven coffee houses in town as I approached. Looking for a place to relax after touring around the town, I was looking for a coffee house and write. Dale Ruchlos and Teresa were on duty at Yankie Creek Cafe and happy to talk about Silver City, how they got there, and their winding road, inner and outer. Like I’d stepped into their living room, we talked for hours about the artistic and musical character of the town, the mix of transplants and college kids, and the mysterious road of life that led them there. Very homey vibe in the place enticed me with announcements of upcoming concerts, a weekly pinochle game, and original art on the walls.
When I drove into the historic center of Silver City, I first noticed the Army Surplus store followed by a thrift shop and next to that a food co-op and then a micro-brewery and an art gallery. A real hodgepodge of authentic, early 21sth Century Americana hip mixed with an old mining town whose original main street had turned into a ditch.
I rolled down the current main street, Bullard, and surveyed the scene. Putting slowly like a typical tourist, I gazed all around for parking signs like back in Santa Monica. You know the kind; street cleaning day, preferred parking permits, no high and long vehicles, and so on. Seeing nothing of the kind, I slipped into a free spot next to a yoga studio. Then a yahoo in a jumbo pick-up raced by and greeted me with a ‘Fuck you, asshole.’ Wow, not auspicious welcome, but it didn’t dampen my anticipation of discovering such a real place. Turned out, that the rest of the afternoon proceeded with friendliness and warmth. What else? It was pushing 100 degrees that day.
Trusting the word I’d gotten several years before, with no research, I left I-10 at Deming, NM crossed the freeway and faced the long, straight line of NM Hwy 180 to Silver City, NM. Planning to get to Tucson and its cheap motels and uber-hip 4th ave, I had a lot of ground to cover. Arrow straight mile after mile passed by the high desert scrub brush and saw only an occasional semi-truck and no other passenger vehicles. I wondered, “What could be out here? Hours from any real city?” Turned out a lot. After an hour on the road, shopping malls with the corporate chain stores interspersed with chain motels appeared on both sides of the four-lane highway, and I worried that I may find another Prescott, AZ. Then the tell-tale brown and beige historic markers began to appear. They pointed to the nineteenth century Palace Hotel which is located in the historic center across the street from a yoga studio.
Taking a self-guided walking tour, I stumbled upon the Ditch. It looked like an old creek cutting through a forest of overgrown trees. Something like an unholy union of the San Luis Creek in San Luis Obispo, CA and Temescal Canyon in Pacific Palisades. Along the sides about 12′ above the creek, a neglected concrete walk-way offered benches and access into the ditch. I put aside my desire for a steaming espresso and crossed the creek on the old steel suspension bridge, the kind you can look through to the water and rocks below. On the other side, next to the replica house of Billy the Kid was the museum and tourist office.
They call it the Ditch, because back in the early twentieth century regular floods (due to overgrazing the hills around the town) made a canyon of Main St eventually requiring bridges to get to the shops on the other side of the street. Giving up on that futile effort, the commercial street was relocated to Bullard and Main Street was given over to the ditch. But Bullard still maintains the old-time three foot high sidewalks from the old days before sewers.
Being the curious type, I investigated the ersatz log cabin poised next to the car bridge. Like many historic structures in the old West, it is a replica of what once was there. I’m glad to say, the rest of the town isn’t a replica. As I later discovered in my wanderings. But back to the historic park, in a fervor of civic pride or tourist aspiration, the cabin was built in the 1980s on the original spot of the home of Billy the Kid before he went on the rampage for a couple years in southern New Mexico. Funny, how a good story and PR man can turn an outlaw and criminal into a cash cow tourist attraction. I saw several monuments in the area dedicated to the weird, short career of William Bonney and wondered, “Is that the best you can do for heroes?”
Silver city exudes an eclectic mix of Western New Mexico University students, bohemian city refugees, and old time ranchers. Every street in the historic core offered surprises in architecture with totally restored art deco for the daily newspaper, an art museum gallery in the old armory, an eighty year old frame house turned into a cafe, all mixed in with hold-overs from over a hundred years. You can find a boarded up old movie theatre, a thrift store, and an in process soda fountain conversion to micro-brewery all on the same block.
I had a funny encounter in the Army Surplus store: A lot of original old army stuff filled the walls and I wanted to rummage around. The proprietor asked me what I wanted and I responded, “I don’t know. I’m looking for it.” Then I attempted to go in the stacks and he barked, “That’s not allowed.” Well, I walked out to find more friendly attractions.
Back at Yankie Creek Cafe, Dale, the proprietor broke it down about the six other coffee houses each of which has its own loyal clientele and specialty. He suggested I check out a place called the Lazy Cactus for its real espresso. We parted company with an exchange suitable for old hippies of a creative bent, I gave him a copy of my book, Living the Dream Deferred and he gave me his new cd The Journey. The cover art has a photo of him as a young man looking at mirror of him now. I continued my perambulations and went to the real espresso coffee house and enjoyed the groove with a patio facing the street, Tibetan tapestries on the walls, and Bob Marley on the sound system.
As groovy as it was, it was time to leave but not before one other anomaly. Outside of the historic area, turning left to head out of town, with only infrequent traffic, I waited almost ten minutes for it to turn green. Silver City proved to be quirkier than I imagined. Again, proving my rules of travel adventures; plan lightly, don’t research too much, and walk around and be surprised.