Red Mesa. Up the roughest canyon to the plunge-pool cave, the scoured sandstone channels. We put our backs against the stone and listened to the Ponderosa sigh. In the midst of this communion I found a thermos of hot chocolate had come open in my pack.
Along the arroyo I picked up a clump of breast feathers, each pointed with a tiny dark heart.
Standing in the middle of a dry field, the last blue-purple light in the sky, I thought: The world is round. The horizon is a circle, with the sky bowl over it like my grandmother’s domed paperweight of clear glass.
Wherever you stand is precisely the center of the world.
Hiking the Piedra Lumbre area of La Leña. A cold, dry day with a storm moving in.
Lots of petrified wood. Not the brilliant agates we see so often but a frail, glittering mudstone that preserves knotholes and wormholes, almost the worm itself.
Fossil tree trunks dissolve into perfect wood chips: the desert floor is littered as though a stone woodcutter had passed, chopping stone trees for a stone fire.
Hiking the red Triassic, we stopped to admire a wide, round, hissing spring that had been bubbling up CO2, methane, and hydrogen sulfide for a hundred thousand years.
In the Pleistocene this area must have boiled like Yellowstone, for all around were the empty vats of dry springs, thirty to sixty feet deep. If you fell in you could never get out—nor, so far off trail, would you be found. The living spring, presumably as deep, was capped with a peaty mat formed by the accumulated sedge roots of millenia, thick enough—we hoped—to support our weight.
We walked across. It trembled subtly under our feet, like an acqueous drum.
Hiking in the volcanic world of the Jémez Mountains, whose pavement of shattered obsidian has been mined by flint-knappers for twelve thousand years. Among the glittering prehistoric shards, a recently discarded cigar.
Cochití Golf Course nudges the Jémez wilderness. As we walked Jan told the story of finding, at the foot of a tall Ponderosa a mile from the course, about fifty white golf balls within a radius of thirty feet.
That’s one disillusioned raven.
A day both cool and warm. Hazy clouds, pumice sand underfoot, soft wind hushing in the ponderosa. The water of Peralta Creek was icy with runoff, milky with pumice dust.
We bushwhacked up a box canyon full of oak brush and wild roses; I bled furiously. Strong smell of skunk or weasel. A swallowtail butterfly in erratic flight, bright yellow among the worn boulders.
Caught the first horned toad of the year: a fat one, with salmon belly and yellow side-fringe. About the size and heft of an Oreo cookie.
As we rumbled down a dirt track south of Zuni, a young eagle burst from the roadside chamisa. Rising, it dropped the limp body of a rabbit, then circled through the hosting ravens and repossessed it.
We started a half dozen antelope, who paced the truck to 25 mph. When we slowed they burst ahead, clearly racing us.
Long wandering on foot brought us to a wide, quiet ravine whose walls were covered with petroglyphs: many macaws, prehistorically revered and carried on foot from Mexico. Only bushtits there now, whispering in flocks. I started a big jackrabbit; as it zipped under the brush it folded back its ears, the way a cherrypicker folds to fit under a freeway bridge.
Even when I don’t want to write, if I begin, the flow begins: very steady, like blood, or a river.
Year after year I hiked down Frijoles Canyon to the Rio Grande. The river is always there. In different seasons it is different colors—tan in March, emerald in October—and has different water levels, and the sky above changes color and temperature.
But the river itself is always there.
Throughout the desert West, the backcountry hiker finds “sheepherders’ monuments”: cairns or slabs of stone raised by turn-of-the-century herdsmen while their sheep grazed, day after day, in the wide silence.
On a hillside of small-grain, gray, dissolving shale we came upon a slab of white sandstone, set on end like a tombstone and blocked up all around with dark rocks. Prickly pear had grown in among the stones.
We’d hiked there a dozen times and never seen it. The desert is like that: bare and open, yet turn your head and there’ll be something that’s been looking at the sun for a hundred, or a hundred million, years.
We all have too many books. But I have books and rocks.
I have best rocks; second best rocks; third best rocks; and driveway rocks, which I don’t care if somebody steals. When I move, the best, second best, and third best go with me.
Last time I moved, my brother tried to lift a box before he noticed it had been labeled (neatly) ROCKS AND LEG WEIGHTS.
So why, he asked, nursing his lower back, couldn’t you have packed ROCKS with PILLOWS? ROCKS with UNDERWEAR?
Hey. I could have packed them with The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.