A frosty desert morning on the gravels of the ancient Rio Puerco. All around us, distantly, the pop and crack of target shooting. We parked in a trashed pullout and hiked away from the road.
Wandering, sometimes talking, sometimes silent, we picked up rocks and dropped them. Showed each other the best ones: quartz and quartzites, petrified wood, metamorphics full of crinoid stems—all tumble-polished millions of years before humans were human. The sun rose, then sank. The wide bare plains; the weather-bitten volcanic Ladrones palely looming, almost floating. Except for wind and the marksmen, silence.
At dusk, our pockets full of pretty rocks, we trailed back to the pickup and sat on the tailgate as the target shooters drove homeward past us in their four-by-fours.
From the western ridge of the syncline a pass looks out over Cabezón, shadowy and shadow-washed. Many ancient, rudimentary stone circles scatter their boulders on high points. Each may be the site of a vision quest; we can think of no other explanation. Below lie mineral springs. One is raised on its deposits, a breast whose nipple is a pool, perfectly round, green as an old penny.
As we walked back along the ridge, some small creature far down among the split rocks screamed at us: Squee! Squee! Squee! An ear-splitting insult that never stopped until we went away.
The spareness of the desert: a small hill was home to seven clumps of terra cotta-pink grass. Beyond it, dark piñones echoed their humped shape. All carefully spaced; plants form a community, yet they’re individuals who live with each other at a social distance.
I drew the fossil of a spiral snail shell embedded in a gray limestone boulder.
The day began with mottled clouds that later burned off. No friendly sand to walk in, just acrid mud dust, with now and then a stiff, dried place where a cow had pissed. We hiked down terrifying deep arroyos whose walls, scored by mud-laden runnels, were poised to collapse.
Mudstone concretions: eyeballs and entrails lay in drifts on the yellow-red dirt. We came across two half-buried spheres, both about twelve feet in diameter, like the backs of two huge skulls: Baba Yaga and her daughter.
On and around the Malpais, the hunter-gatherer-farmer presence of ancestral Puebloans is everywhere underfoot.
In a sandy cul-de-sac among the crinkled lava, all by itself, was a carefully-squared sandstone block that was probably a deadfall for small game: packrats, squirrels, deer mice. Jan propped it on a twig and demonstrated, remarking, at the appropriate instant, “Squeak.”
Bushwhacking in the dense piñon-juniper and oak brush that covered the mesa, on a windy day that obscured all sound. I was newly aware of how one tracks companions by constant, quick glances through the twiggage, near-subliminal glimpses every four to eight seconds: a scrap of color, a blink of movement out of place against the moving background. It’s an almost-unconscious art, and takes practice. First we lost Rob, then Gary, then John.
They all straggled in later at the car, remarking on how, in countryside like this, a group can get separated in less than a minute. Their shouts had been inaudible in the wind.
Hiking the canyon of the Rio Santa Fe, over our heads the stone-cribbed hairpin turns that carried Spanish wagons, Civil War soldiers and Model Ts up this section of the Camino Real. The eroding pale strata of the canyon walls were capped by tumbled, slightly columnar basalt.
At the cliffs’ feet the rio’s busy water looped and twinkled. It smelled chemical; it was runoff from Santa Fe’s sewage treatment plant, equal parts groundwater from Buckman Wells and bottled water from Fiji that had been filtered through wealthy Santa Feans. Winding down that river was, no doubt, a lot of cocaine.
In the sedge at the brink I nearly stepped on a bull snake. We left, abruptly, in opposite directions.
Betsy James On Writing, World-making, and Walking on Stone