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.
On the red dirt was what looked like a tatón, the fluffy white seed-puff of the river cottonwood…but it was strolling. I had to lie on my belly to see it was a spider. A spider! I have no clue.
A mud-dauber’s nest with holes in a row, like a harmonica.
Where we hiked Jan had found many mountain lion tracks. I learned that lions focus on small animals: I’m 4’11”. Small animals with high voices, actually. I dropped my usual backcountry shout by a good octave.
In Zuni the lion’s name is hokdidasha. Hokdidasha is—I think, but what do I know?—the beast priest of the north. The fetish shown is unsigned.
A snake dashed across the sandy road. A coachwhip, maybe? About three feet long and slender, a gorgeous dark coral. It left a trail of parentheses.
We found a two-inch Jerusalem cricket—also called “child of the earth” or “earth baby”—trudging stolidly at the arroyo-side.
Friend: Oh god, I think it looks like a little alien. Like an extraterrestrial fetus.
Me: I think it looks like a kid in a stripy T-shirt.
Friend: How benign. You’re perverse, but benign.
Best discovery: the source of that organic-metallic, pungent odor we call “snake smell.”
It has an oiliness, and always seems to occur near strata of barely-altered Cretaceous swamp not compressed enough to be coal. Yet I’ve heard many a desert rat say, “That’s rattler smell.” It has always made me aware of my ankles.
But it’s a plant. Thick, small, dark green leaves in pairs on a red stem. I couldn’t find it in Weeds of the West, but it looks like a vetch.
I have been looking at cliff swallows’ nests.
And at how the desert pavement is renewed by wind and rain and winter snow, the pebbles and flakes and sherds inlaid in the sand as if brand new, as if no human had ever stepped there.
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.
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.