We walked inover multicolored gravels eroded from some long-lost range. Some were petrified wood, glossy and tumble-polished. Among them a second generation of trees had grown; these too had fossilized, then eroded, and now looked simply like wood chips inexplicably turned to stone. Among them the ponderosas of today stood, living wood.
Next to a dissolving petrified log, recent woodcutters had left their beer cans and pile of slash. Old woodpile, new woodpile: the two looked remarkably alike, though the ancient one was yellow and bright as new wood, and the new one was gray.
All day long we looked south to the main drainage. It shone silver.
We spent the day traipsing around and about in something like a square mile and a half, as much vertical as horizontal, on constantly rough terrain. We entered and left on ancient trails not used since the invention of the internal combustion engine.
I couldn’t see how even a wagon could have gone where we did. Perhaps it was just people on foot. Later, horses or mules.
The trails did feel like trails, in the sense of “the logically easiest way to get up this challenging slope.”
Heavy logging in these mountains in the Twenties. Many trees were felled and left to checker into soft, rotten punk.
One enormous, old-growth Ponderosa had been spared the clear-cut because its trunk had split and split and split again, so it wouldn’t make straight lumber—perhaps a genetic trait? A beautiful and noble tree. I laid my face against it. It felt a living being, as though I could sense the subtle movement of xylem and phloem.
East of the Malpaís: worn yellow sandstone patched with gray lichen, overlooking black lava with gray-green sage and lichen.
When I was small, I dreamed about owning a house carved into a rock. Here it was: a hollowed-out, round cave, just the right size for a child. It was cool inside. The oval doorway framed the extraordinary ordinary lava world outside.
Zuni Mountains, the historical logging railroad route.
Impossible to drive it without imagining the hills as they were: clearcut, scalped naked. The subsequently-eroded red Abó dirt has young trees on it now, but here and there you can spot a patriarch the loggers missed or spared. Human presence of that era is all over: rusty cans, purple glass, busted cheap commercial china. A rusted shovel. Disintegrating ponderosa trunks, felled and abandoned, scattered like pick-up-sticks.
We climbed a red hill of Abó sandstone. En route, found a pair of (modern) safety goggles, an unopened can of Mexican beer, and a mother nighthawk so intent on distracting us from her nest that she rolled around with her feet in the air.
A spring in a big rincón, westward-facing. Water, with help from prevailing winds, had carved out an arching cave in the sandstone perhaps 30 feet high. Its ceiling was dotted with grapefruit-size nests of cliff swallows. The birds flew over us, alarmed and crying.
On the arch is a Navajo “star ceiling,” probably Cassiopeia. Look for the stars, red ochre Xes. Then look more closely: there are faint, perhaps earlier black stars as well.
Scores of stone circles. I’ve written about them before. Too small to be hogan or tipi rings, wrong shape/size/place to be hunting blinds. (Though we did come upon a blind that overlooked a draw: U-shaped, right for one man to lie on his belly.)
The circles are very old. No idea what they can be if not for so-called “vision quests,” in the nature of “go out there and fast until you know your true name.” Who can tell? There was not one that didn’t have a view of Cabezón, the Ladrones, or the Sandias. All those peaks are sacred.
Shirtsleeve warm, and a restless, intermittent wind.
We walked across the scanty dump of a sheepherder’s camp: rusty tin cans, bits of glass, a watering trough tinkered out of something like an old water heater. The herder had brought his family, for in the scatter was a plastic Indian from a “cowboys and Indians” set. Quick research says the first plastic soldiers were made in 1938, but I could find no info on a Western set to which this guy might belong.
Here he lies in a handsome concretion to show him off. The sun has eaten him and given him a cracked patina, but you can still tell he is getting an arrow from his quiver.
Betsy James On Writing, World-making, and Walking on Stone