Exploring Granite Gap the reverie
Last updated on Thursday, January 09, 2003
Uncle Wayne was arguing with Mike near a newly acquired stack of old lumber, the soon to be rock shop, and trading post. Uncle Wayne said, "We don't need no fancy dry goods, just maybe tobacco, flour, axle grease, salt, and beans. A respectable line of frontier groceries."
Mining artifacts found at Granite Gap Photo by Laura Levesque.
Mike said rather loudly, "That's ridiculous! We don't even have enough wood to build a floor, and there is no glass for the windows. The flour and the beans will just get bug infested! Besides that, nobody buys that kind of stuff anymore."
Uncle Wayne said. "But we do!"
Mike replied, "But we ain't exactly normal."
Uncle Wayne pondered this for awhile and said, "Why don't we fill empty flour sacks with lime or something and bean sacks with rocks? That will give the store an authentic Old West look."
While they argued I put the McClellan cavalry saddle on Willy and the sawbuck packsaddle and wood panniers on Shag. I planned to rummage around the ghost mining camp and a couple of mine dumps for saleable items.
From the surrounding flat country where the Chihuahuan Desert overlaps the Sonoran Desert, spectacular granite and limestone ridges and rock formations rise up all around us. The burros' radar ears pointed to a place in the columns of rocks above us. The desert bighorn sheep moved down the mountain. Their hooves clicked softly on the granite boulders that looked like weathered and eroded giants turned to stone. (The burros often watched distant moving specks, even with binoculars, I couldn't always see what they heard.) We all stood and watched the wild sheep for awhile.
I tied Shag to Willy's saddle and put my foot in the stirrup and began to swing my leg over, but the saddle slipped sideways and I flopped, grunting, under Willy. Shag sniffed me and Willy turned his head and stared at me and I noted a gleam in his eye. I forgot to retighten the saddle after he puffed himself up like a blow fish when I first cinched him up. Good thing Uncle Wayne and Mike were now debating where to build the store, so they didn't see me sprawled, backside, hat, and hair covered with sand. Their preoccupation with the pile of old wood saved me endless guffaws.
The townsite was less than a half-mile away, but hauling back stove parts, beer buckets, glass bottles, horse and donkey shoes, lead and silver ore, and beautiful blue copper ore was (sometimes) easier with the burros.
Granite Gap, NM., is dry, dusty, prickly, nostalgic. Scattered tin, broken bottles, rust, crumbled wood, junk heaps . . . Over a century ago the tent and poorly built adobe and rock town had saloons, sporting houses, trading posts, a livery stable, church, school, jail, and assay office.
Mens' hammers on drill steel, the rumble of blasting deep in the mountain, the clank of shod horses on stone, and sometimes at night the sound of a harmonica. Water $1 a barrel. Baths 25 cents. The lukewarm bathwater always gray and greasy. You had to scoop off the drowned centipedes, wasps, moths, tarantulas, and occasional dead mouse before stepping in. A quiet town, no shoot-outs, only men too tired to fight.
Local history claims 2,000 people lived here at the height of the silver boom in the late 1800's. The population at its peak, which lasted only a year or two, was most likely closer to 800.
Every former mining town boasts their town was the wildest, meanest, biggest, and toughest of all. This is truth-stretching [as Huck Finn called it] typical of ghost town histories. We brag about the lawless behavior of our ancestors. This is known as color. Fighting, robbery, murder, and lynchings are what is called the colorful past. Although I doubt this bragged-about colorfulness was enjoyable at the time.
A Colorado historian said, "Only Engineer City, atop Engineer Pass (13,000 feet elevation) claimed to be the only town in the West with not one saloon or sporting establishment!"
I replied, "After my experience working up there I suspect most miners and engineers were too altitude-sick to hang out at a saloon or sporting house. They just wanted to 'Get the hell down off this mountain.'"
These miners sought entertainment elsewhere.
The town of Granite Gap fell into oblivion, no boothill, just scattered grave sites located near loose moveable rocks. The land here is solid bedrock, and rather than waste man power and powder to blast holes, rocks were piled hastily over the canvas wrapped body (as buzzards circled above and the heat made the carcass stink). Wood much too scarce to build coffins.
The livery stable was a ramada made of yucca stalks and mesquite. The big horses that could reach, ate the yucca roof. Spiny ocotillo called coachwhip was planted and woven between scraps of wood for a corral. Rocks were piled around fence posts to hold them somewhat upright. The burros ate most of the ocotillo leaves that dared grow into the corral. The gate was two broken wagon wheels wired and propped up; sometimes they fell over. The toothless livery man dribbling tobacco juice would cuss a blue streak when all the stock wandered off. Jezebel, the town's pet donkey, was usually the culprit. She could untie knots and open latches, and often wandered town entering tents and adobe houses begging for bread and a bucket of beer.
The old saddle creaked under me, the burros clip-clopped through town. I imagined it was 1882 and I brought in silver and turquoise for supplies. The scale sat on the rough wood counter. A dusty, crowded, dimly-lit store . . .
Suddenly I was snapped out of my reverie. Nine bighorn sheep stampeded off the granite boulders into the ravine behind us. Willy bolted and snapped Shag's lead and began to buck. I was thrown hard on a pile of rocks. I gasped for breath.
Willy and Shag stopped about thirty feet from where I lay groaning. Willy stomped and snorted. Both sets of burro ears pointed to a ridge above us. There strolling casually were two mountain lions. Possibly a female with a yearling cub.
The two big cats glanced at us with glinting yellow eyes, indifferent. They turned and moved silently, deep into the voodoo rock formations.
I couldn't get up. It felt like my bones fused into the rock. "Willy, Shaggy, get over here. Help me." But they were too busy staring after the lions. I fumbled through my pockets and found a well worn pack of Levi Garrett chewing tobacco.
The burros heard the familiar crinkle of foil paper and their huge ears turned my way. Chewing tobacco is burro candy. They daintily stepped toward me over the rocks. Soon I had eager donkey heads hanging over me. I fed them the rest of the tobacco and pulled myself up, weak and shaky, using a stirrup on Willy's saddle. Mounting was impossible, so I found a stick to use like a cane and hobbled back to camp. I removed Willy's bridle, draped it over his saddle and I told the boys to go on home, but instead they escorted me while they browsed on bunch grass and brush, in no hurry.
I was not anxious to get back to camp. I knew exactly what Uncle Wayne would say: "Should've paid attention, been alert. No adult should ever get bucked off a donkey . . . "
I limped into camp. Mike asked, "What happened to you?"
I said, "Willy bucked me off, mountain lions scared him."
Uncle Wayne commented, "Never should have got bucked off a donkey, you weren't paying attention, you should have . . . "
I looked at Uncle Wayne and crossed my eyes, turned and walked toward the tent where my cot and soft foam pad waited. Mike unsaddled, brushed, fed, and petted the burros. Uncle Wayne was still talking about the proper way to stay mounted on a bucking bronco as he waved a half-finished tuna sandwich in the air. The only one interested in Uncle Wayne's lecture and gestures was Tilly the Hun, our cat.