We parked not far from an old rancho, and spent the day trudging up and down gravel hills. The bigger chert cobbles had been “mined” for the knapping of projectile points: busted cores, anvils, and hammer stones.
And rum bottles. Some cowboy was a rum drinker. We found bottles of every brand, broadcast as if by a man on horseback. And one lonely shot glass.
I discovered my poncho wasn’t waterproof any more.
It shed most of the water mechanically, so I wore it tied at my neck like a Superman cape. The rain pissed down. We were soaked to the thighs, but the wind was at our backs. When we’d slogged back to the truck—it took a couple of hours—we were so wet that when I lifted my feet to the pedals, water rushed to the backs of my boots.
Under the overhang of a rock shelter was a pictograph that reminded me of a marrano, the pudgy gingerbread pig you can buy in every good Mexican bakery. For the (pigless and gingerless) pre-Columbian artist this may have represented a mountain sheep. It had been drawn in white, presumably gypsum, and outlined in red ochre. Each “slash” at the head was framed with yellow ochre.
I roamed off to snoop around a promontory over the creek, a flat expanse of red sandstone. Though there was a fallen, turn-of-the-century Hispanic ruin just west of it, the place felt untouched since earth’s morning. So quiet, so scoured by water and time—only flowers and the bending grass.
In the sandpits of a big Archaic site we came upon a golden bull snake, thick-bodied, almost six feet long. We approached it cautiously. It did not move except to flick its black tongue, smelling us.
When we had looked at it long enough, we spoke and moved more normally. It wove toward us, aggressing; then gracefully, unhurriedly, it turned along its body and slipped back into the brush. For all its length and girth it left scarcely any mark in the sand.
I get cranky about trash in the wilderness. At the foot of the low mesa I picked up what I thought was a fragment of gray plastic hose.
It was the broken mouthpiece of a Puebloan tobacco pipe, conically drilled from either end and polished quite round. (That’s a field drawing, with my not-very-big forefinger for scale. Say an inch and some.) Probably argillite, which is “indurated claystone”: claystone that was heated and hardened underground by, for example, a volcanic dike.
I thought of 14th Century men huddled in the lee of the mesa, having a—probably ceremonial—smoke.
We followed the water-scoured sandstone channels until they petered out, then crossed to the next gully west. This ended in a series of tinajas and a plunge pool. We crawled up to a rock shelter above—charcoal and sherds and rat poop—and clambered down to a second, even lovelier set of pools. There we put our backs against the stone and listened to the ponderosa sigh. Most beautiful tree, the ponderosa. Most beautiful voice, the peaceful tree.
In the midst of this communion with nature G. discovered that a thermos of coffee—cream and sugar—had come open in his pack.
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.
We followed the ridge for a while, then dropped into the dry gorge. Seasonal flash floods had carved an amphitheater, huge, cool, and dim. The east rim, where the low sun struck, was brilliant yellow against the cobalt sky.
The floods had rolled big stones around and around until they drilled deep holes into the bedrock. One shaft was nine feet deep. How many millennia of intermittent rains does it take to scour a pit like that?
On a low ridge there had been a cluster of Puebloan fieldhouses, their adobe melted now, nothing left but a pile of stones, potshards, broken metates. Higher on the slope was an Archaic site: no pottery, the black sand of firepits, many chert flakes.
Clearly, the house-builder Puebloans liked a nice flat bench, while the Archaic preferred the sloping, sandy corries that face the sun. A few thousand years later, both sites still feel homey, scattered with trash like a friendly living room.
In their time those sites must have looked even homier: busted baskets, gnawed bones, brush shelters left to the wind, husks and cobs and turds.
We see what lasts.
Into a stiff wind and spits of rain we climbed high on a Triassic ridge. Among the gray mudstone was a spill of red ochre. One chunk was handy as a pencil: I tried it on a rock, thinking about how our Paleolithic ancestors used ochre to paint bodies for dance, delight and death.
Afterward I turned the rock over to hide that a human had left a mark in that remote place. The next good rain will wash it away.