Alien Territory

A paranormal road trip through New Mexico's forgotten Gila National Forest.

May 2, 2011
Outside Magazine
Pie Town & Mogollon, New Mexico

Clockwise from top left, The Very Large Array; A Pie Town, New Mexico local; Mogollon; Pie Town dinner.    Photo: Photos by Noah Webb/Gallery Stock; Timothy Martin; Tom Till; Sloan Schang

WHEN MY GIRLFRIEND, Marin, and I drove into the ghost town of Mogollon (unofficial pop. 15) last July, we thought we'd be treated to the same tourist show we'd seen all over the West. We also thought we'd be checking into just another B&B in southwestern New Mexico, but the 126-year-old Silver Creek Inn is not so much a hotel as a labor of love. The inn's lanky owner, Stan King, 65, who prefers Vibram FiveFingers to shoes, has been renovating the place with his bare hands for 31 years. Every summer, he opens up the inn and, if you're lucky, calls in his friends to whip up a feast (salmon and home-baked bread) in the common room.

At dinner, Stan's buddy John told stories about phone phreaks, proto-hackers who manipulated dial-tone frequencies in the 1970s to get free long distance. Also joining us was Stan's old flame Susi, who designs "quantum geometries" from her solar-powered schoolbus, living on $400 a year. "People say that folks like us dropped out," she said. "We like to say that we dropped in."

The Gila is a forgotten place, sandwiched between the civilized parts of Arizona and New Mexico. It's the region where Geronimo eluded American troops for years. It's home to the world's first designated wilderness area (1924), now a refuge for the endangered Mexican gray wolf. There are also cheesy getaways like Sundial Springs, with three natural hot springs that have crystals arrayed around their rims and the occasional bighorn sheep walking by on the far ridge.

While most people look for New Mexico's legendary sci-fi weirdness east of here (Roswell, Trinity Site, Richard Branson's Spaceport), the Gila feels like a grainy B movie come to life. Up north in the Plains of San Agustin, you'll find the Very Large Array, where 27 huge parabolic dishes measure the deepest reaches of the universe. Standing before one of these while it skews its angle is like witnessing the prelude to a Rebel Alliance attack on the Death Star. In Quemado, a thrift store with the sign ALTERNATIVE HEALING MAGIC CARD READINGS will lure you. The owner, Elaine, will tell you about the ghost haunting the bathroom. Spend a night at The Lightning Field, Walter De Maria's 1977 installation—a sprawling grid of 400 lightning rods outside Quemado—and you'll expect sparks to fly. When lightning doesn't come you'll walk the field, and even hallucinogen-free, you'll find yourself writing a screenplay about armies of zombie horned toads.

In the Gila, you'll remember that the real roadside attractions are the little things you find in the middle of nowhere. (In New Mexico, nowhere has many middles.) And then you might wonder if this is where the ETs actually landed.

EXPENSE REPORT: One night at the Silver Creek Inn ( $150, breakfast included. Mogollon Museum ( $5 donation. Three old guys playing bluegrass in Mogollon: $3 tip. Soak at Sundial Springs ( $20. Very Large Array: free. Pie at Pie-O-Neer in Pie Town ( $12. The Lightning Field ( $300, dinner and breakfast included. Total: $490

Filed To: Road Trips, New Mexico