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.
Just walking, walking, picking up rocks and talking about everything. So peaceful and happy that I began to sing under my breath. Jan said, “You sound happy as a rock.” As a leaf floating on water, a relaxed hand laid on the table, palm up.
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.
Late summer, hiking on the syncline: dozens of millipedes, the color of polished violins, in frantic, foot-waving travel. Next spring we’ll find their husks, curled in tight spirals and weathered white as chalk.
On the road out we were passed by an enormous RV. From a distance its size-to-speed ratio was exactly that of a millipede.
The rains have come, and with them the toads. The pools of the Syncline were full of bright red mud-water, tadpoles and predators. A slim—but no doubt well fed—garter snake with a black head took to the opaque slurry, then poked its head out like a sea serpent.
In a drying pothole were many toadlets so small they looked like insects, not a quarter inch long. They had finished their lightning metamorphosis, but at the bottom of the hole was a gelatinous pudding of polliwogs that hadn’t grown up fast enough. Now and then there was a tiny squirm or shudder from someone in the black mass, a last effort at life.
Along a dusty red two-track we came upon a ring of burned stones, a campsite that probably dated to the Thirties. In the rusty upturned bowl of a Model T headlamp, tidily deposited, was a pile of coyote poop.
Perfect aim. No seat to leave up.
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.
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.
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.