Category Archives: Walking All Day On Stone

Roads in Earth and Air


As we rumbled down a dirt track south of Zuni, a young eagle burst from the roadside chamisa. Rising, it dropped the limp body of a rabbit, then circled through the hosting ravens and repossessed it.

We started a half dozen antelope, who paced the truck to 25 mph. When we slowed they burst ahead, clearly racing us.

Long wandering on foot brought us to a wide, quiet ravine whose walls were covered with petroglyphs: many macaws, prehistorically revered and carried on foot from Mexico. Only bushtits there now, whispering in flocks.  I started a big jackrabbit; as it zipped under the brush it folded back its ears, the way a cherrypicker folds to fit under a freeway bridge.

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The River


Even when I don’t want to write, if I begin, the flow begins: very steady, like blood, or a river.

Year after year I hiked down Frijoles Canyon to the Rio Grande. The river is always there. In different seasons it is different colors—tan in March, emerald in October—and has different water levels, and the sky above changes color and temperature.

But the river itself is always there.

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Old, New


Throughout the desert West, the backcountry hiker finds “sheepherders’ monuments”: cairns or slabs of stone raised by turn-of-the-century herdsmen while their sheep grazed, day after day, in the wide silence.

On a hillside of small-grain, gray, dissolving shale we came upon a slab of white sandstone, set on end like a tombstone and blocked up all around with dark rocks. Prickly pear had grown in among the stones.

We’d hiked there a dozen times and never seen it. The desert is like that: bare and open, yet turn your head and there’ll be something that’s been looking at the sun for a hundred, or a hundred million, years.

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Worldly Goods


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We all have too many books. But I have books and rocks.

I have best rocks; second best rocks; third best rocks; and driveway rocks, which I don’t care if somebody steals. When I move, the best, second best, and third best go with me.

Last time I moved, my brother tried to lift a box before he noticed it had been labeled (neatly) ROCKS AND LEG WEIGHTS.

So why, he asked, nursing his lower back, couldn’t you have packed ROCKS with PILLOWS? ROCKS with UNDERWEAR?

Hey. I could have packed them with The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.

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Tooth of Time


To the western breaks. Our aim was to look for green agatized wood, but we hiked all over the place.

There were fragments of bone scattered through the arroyos—even part of a jaw, you could see the tooth sockets. At the base of the cliffs I spotted broken antlers, picked them up…and they were stone. I examined them with a hand lens and found, on one, the tiny, parallel, transverse scars left by the incisors of a Pliocene mouse or vole.

Those delicate tooth marks are slightly over two million years old.

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Honey in the Rock


On archaeological field survey: way to hellandgone New Mexico, thirty miles of washboard dirt road on land so overgrazed it was “cow burnt.” A cold day.

A wide, empty valley fissured by new erosion, arroyos thirty feet deep. On a low volcanic promontory, the scattered stones of an Archaic site like tossed newspapers in a messy room. There was a “kitchen”—a cluster of sandstone slabs—and in the middle of them was a worn grinding stone, a metate.

It was hexagonal. None of us had seen that before. Archaic, therefore thousands of years old—but hexagonal?

In this desert land, wild honeycomb would have been almost the only sweetness.

Homestead Canyon

To Homestead Canyon in the Cebolla Wilderness. A glittery fall day.

At the wilderness boundary hunters had driven off-road, broken down the fence, and taken a truck in. We parked and sloped off on foot through prickly year-end weeds; my socks are full of stickers.

On the mesa top are the stone-heap remains of little pueblo. (The area was heavily settled in the 1300s.) On one sandy ridge the wind had exposed the four yellow-and-red sandstone slabs that made the half-moon edge of a storage cist. The whole ridge was sand-scoured, ventifacted, all wind-worn surface.

Nearby, also wind-scoured, were the sparkly bits of a metate (grinding basin), Archaic and thus hundreds of years older than the pueblos, that had been ground clear through with use. Human stories, one on top of another.

The piñon nuts were ripe and falling out of the cones. We kept stopping to eat.

Winterfat had the low winter light behind it, blazing silver. Spider guy wires were strung juniper to juniper; we broke those fine, elastic barriers as we walked.

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For more walks on stone and sand, click here.

Cañoncito

To Cañoncito. A fiercely windy day. My ears, teeth, hair are full of grit.

The harsh, huge wind. Immense peace.

The day was spent in classic hunter-gatherer country: piñon, sandy hills, sandy bowls and corries, the burned earth that marks Archaic sites. I came upon fragments of a smashed Puebloan bowl that had been painted with stripes and checks, still sitting right where it broke. Right next to the bits was a tidy burned spot, quite round, perhaps twelve inches in diameter: the fire at which the bowl had broken. Growing exactly out of the center of the burned spot, happy for the nitrogen, was an eight-inch cedar trunk.

Mountain bluebirds, light-bellied in the wind, reminded me of fish swimming in the sea.

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For more walks on stone and sand, click here.

Ojito in October

To the Ojito Wilderness with a motley crew of desert-rat friends.

Windy. Took shorts, but it was too cold to wear them. We drove way far out in the Ojito and hiked down to the place where there’s scattered white-yellow-green petrified wood, below hoodoos among the ponderosas.

Archaic firepits. The crew kept getting ahead of me; I was dogging back and forth, trying to keep them in sight, now and then frantic as the others got farther and farther away and I had to run after them.

Found a large dinosaur bone on the ridge by following its fragments up a wash. It was falling apart; we dug some of the sand away from it, then covered it back up without ever having located both ends. Jan taught us the lick-stick test: If it’s bone, rather than another type of rock like agate or petrified wood, it will stick to your tongue when you lick it. (The porous vesicles left by cells and capillaries wick up the moisture of your tongue.)

Windblown grass draws circles in sand, as in snow.

Oak bushes have brown leaves around their bases, bare grey twigs on top.

Back in Bernalillo we went to Silva’s Saloon, which was full of bikers in leathers, a billiards game in progress. We shared two pitchers, ate Kentucky Flocked chicken and came home happy.

I forgot to say that on an Archaic site on the ridgetop was a broken mano, a hand-grinding stone: pretty, crystalline, red and white and yellow, with a slanted natural edge of white quartzite along one side. The edge made a perfect place for the user of the stone, probably a teenager, to hook her fingers. So I hooked my own fingers there, thinking: After five thousand years–fifty centuries–this stone remembers the grip of a hand.

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For more walks on stone and sand, click here.