Zuni Mountains, the historical logging railroad route.
Impossible to drive it without imagining the hills as they were: clearcut, scalped naked. The subsequently-eroded red Abó dirt has young trees on it now, but here and there you can spot a patriarch the loggers missed or spared. Human presence of that era is all over: rusty cans, purple glass, busted cheap commercial china. A rusted shovel. Disintegrating ponderosa trunks, felled and abandoned, scattered like pick-up-sticks.
We climbed a red hill of Abó sandstone. En route, found a pair of (modern) safety goggles, an unopened can of Mexican beer, and a mother nighthawk so intent on distracting us from her nest that she rolled around with her feet in the air.
A spring in a big rincón, westward-facing. Water, with help from prevailing winds, had carved out an arching cave in the sandstone perhaps 30 feet high. Its ceiling was dotted with grapefruit-size nests of cliff swallows. The birds flew over us, alarmed and crying.
On the arch is a Navajo “star ceiling,” probably Cassiopeia. Look for the stars, red ochre Xes. Then look more closely: there are faint, perhaps earlier black stars as well.
The Syncline was wet, sanded smooth with surface wash, all the rocks bright.
Everywhere there were little tinajas, rain pools, like eyes looking upward. A plunge pool guarded by a Cooper’s hawk and a tiny, lively frog. The sunny vanilla scent of many ponderosas.
There’s a Zuni word, ołdi, for the smell of the desert right after rain.
Concretions form in a slurry of mud or sand, when a bit of organic material starts a chemical reaction that alters the minerals in the surrounding slush. Most often it forms a sphere, but sometimes all kinds of weird shapes.
Eventually the reaction stops and the slurry hardens into stone. Aeons later, when the stone is exposed, the concretions—usually harder than the surrounding rock—weather out.
As in the top photo, if you break the concretion open you may see traces of the original reaction. Pretty!
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.
The dry stream bed we followed left the sandstone and entered a twisted granite canyon, narrow and deep-shaded. A barn owl startled and flew, soft clop of wings. High on the canyonside was its nest hole, the entryway streaked with mutes. Striations on the roof of it were the weathered wattles of a wild beehive, the remaining honey cells like waxy lace.
That hive was abandoned. But when we dug at a damp place in the sand, water welled up and thirsty bees came clustering. Somewhere in that canyon there is a hidden hive.
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.
Rambling in a rubbly, lunar, black-and-tan landscape where nothing grows but saltbush. Water-scoured sediments, here and there a hunk of dinosaur bone, and hundreds of stones so polished they might have been tipped from a rock tumbler. John, the geologist, says they’re gastroliths: dinosaur gizzard stones.
“Swallowed by dinosaurs as they traveled their migration routes,” he said. “Maybe hundreds of miles long. None is bigger than a grapefruit; if they were the result of normal deposition they’d be more varied in size, with no upper limit. And they’re all exotics, not from any source near here.”
“Then where are they from?”
He said, “The mountain range they came from has long since worn away.”
The first cactus: I hopped the fence onto the Malpais, and with my first step ran into a cholla. Guess I haven’t been hiking for a while.
The second cactus: side-hilling down from the sandstone ledges, I slipped on the scree and my right hand, which I put out instinctively to catch myself, landed smack in a prickly pear. Stabbed full of big spines, furred with gloccids. I had to stand where I was and pull the spines out; got most of them, but a few I’ll bear to my grave like shrapnel.