Season of dry grasses.
The road turned to dirt, then to a two-track that petered out and became a trail. Two young buck deer moved away from us quietly, up the far side of the draw. Two-year-old males: Jan calls them “forkéd horns.”
On a pumice outcropping lay, face down, a Surfer Ken doll in board shorts that had once been blue and yellow. I turned him face up, to catch some rays and even out his tan.
As we scrambled the scree slope to the mesa top, a lovely thing. The limb of an ancient juniper, vibrating in the cliff-edge wind, had worn a deep groove in the sandstone it leaned on, and had rubbed itself down to bare wood.
The fit was perfect even to the wood grain. A protruding knot on the limb had made a perfectly matching, knot-shaped hollow in the stone.
I was reminded of a word from…is it San Felipe Pueblo? Suyu: the sound of the wind as it hits the edge of the mesa.
On an impossibly narrow peninsula of stone was a hunter’s paradise: it overlooked a game trail that crossed from one watershed to another. A hunter had only to wait.
And hunters had waited. On the peninsula was a thousand-year-old Archaic camp, its earth black with twelve to eighteen inches of ashy midden. Eighty feet above the valley floor, craning our necks, we could see that its crumbling north edge was formed of friable Tertiary sediments. The site itself looked “broken in half” like Dun Aengus, the cliff’s-edge fort from the Irish Iron Age, which the Atlantic has half devoured.
Following the game trail, we circled down to the bottom of the cliff. At its base stood an intact chunk of the site. It had slid from the edge where we had leaned and still stood upright, complete with ashes and flakes. On the cliff face rivulets of ashy mud trailed from the broken edge .
Ignorant, we had stood on that undercut, sleazy, brittle cliff’s edge, eighty feet above the valley floor.
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.
From the mesa edge we saw, on a south-facing bench, two Navajo hogan rings and a stone corral, and climbed down to them.
They were old. No historical pottery scatter at all. One of the rings still carried the juniper cribbing of the roof, though it had fallen. In the desert juniper can endure for hundreds of years.
The hogan’s door did not face east as is traditional, because the ring had been built against a sandstone slab; however, the north wall did appear to have been knocked out, customary ritual to release the spirit of a dead person.
The corral had been formed ingeniously by piling cedar to wall up the ends of a cleft formed when a fallen slab split in two.
On the McCartys flow, the most recent in the Malpais. Easy walking, the lava ropy and wrinkled as a rucked-up rug, chink, chink of volcanic glass underfoot. I should have worn leather-palmed gloves; I was aware of my bare hands.
Navajo folklore has a story about the flow: the gods threw fire. Because the Navajo are recent arrivals from British Columbia—Athabascan hunter-gatherers who migrated down the east face of the Rockies and got to New Mexico around 1300—it had been suggested that the flow dated to the 1400s. But recent research says it is three thousand years old, so the Navajo myth must have risen from the lava’s burned, cindery look. Three thousand years ago it was the ancestors of the Puebloans who were living here. Surely there were frightened onlookers staring from the sandstone cliffs, watching the quick-running red river torch the junipers to flame.
This wide, dry land, faintly green with spring, and nobody as far as the eye can see. Wind roaring up from Ladrón Peak on the south horizon.
A mourning dove burst whistling from a clump of snakeweed. I thought, Hmm! Sure enough, there was her nest on the stony earth: round, shaped from dry grasses. Two exquisite white eggs in it, the newest things I’ve ever seen.
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.
The big stock pond where we parked at the edge of the wilderness was desert-dry. Jan recalled hiking there after the monsoon, when there were so many frogs you could hear them two miles away. He said, “Dug in under that dirt are a hundred thousand frogs, waiting for rain.”
On our way back we crossed the pond’s dry bed, walking on thousands of frogs.
The most wonderful thing to happen in the hike happened right at the beginning of it.
There’d been rain the night before, and the clouds had half withdrawn over the mesas. Arroyos were dry. But as we crossed the first, and just as we crossed, a slow, creamy tongue of water came snaking down it.
It arrived from some far-distant cloudburst, miles away and maybe hours ago. Traveling, say, five inches per second. It was cream-colored and laden with lumps of tan foam, remnants of some fury upstream, now abated.
Best was its sound. As it moved over the dry sand it made a purr, a hiss, filling tiny underground gaps—perhaps animal or insect burrows—from which the air escaped in tiny gurgling fountains. The flow came slowly, slowly over the rippled sand.
When, five or six hours later, we hiked back, it was still running slightly, but the sand was saturated and completely silent.