Two of us and a dog were scrounging along the talus slope, looking for petroglyphs, when my companion said urgently, “Come quick!”
Peering out of a vertical crack in the cliff about ten feet up was a fox-faced ringtail cat. Huge, lemur-like sad eyes, big bat ears, a bushed-out tail that seemed to float behind it. Bold, totally silent. It crept out of the crack and down toward us, examined us thoroughly, then slipped away into the rocks and brush.
It was like an apparition but domestic, like a fox spirit. Quite unafraid of us. The dog, transfixed, did not bark.
We walked inover multicolored gravels eroded from some long-lost range. Some were petrified wood, glossy and tumble-polished. Among them a second generation of trees had grown; these too had fossilized, then eroded, and now looked simply like wood chips inexplicably turned to stone. Among them the ponderosas of today stood, living wood.
Next to a dissolving petrified log, recent woodcutters had left their beer cans and pile of slash. Old woodpile, new woodpile: the two looked remarkably alike, though the ancient one was yellow and bright as new wood, and the new one was gray.
Scores of stone circles. I’ve written about them before. Too small to be hogan or tipi rings, wrong shape/size/place to be hunting blinds. (Though we did come upon a blind that overlooked a draw: U-shaped, right for one man to lie on his belly.)
The circles are very old. No idea what they can be if not for so-called “vision quests,” in the nature of “go out there and fast until you know your true name.” Who can tell? There was not one that didn’t have a view of Cabezón, the Ladrones, or the Sandias. All those peaks are sacred.
Shirtsleeve warm, and a restless, intermittent wind.
We walked across the scanty dump of a sheepherder’s camp: rusty tin cans, bits of glass, a watering trough tinkered out of something like an old water heater. The herder had brought his family, for in the scatter was a plastic Indian from a “cowboys and Indians” set. Quick research says the first plastic soldiers were made in 1938, but I could find no info on a Western set to which this guy might belong.
Here he lies in a handsome concretion to show him off. The sun has eaten him and given him a cracked patina, but you can still tell he is getting an arrow from his quiver.
Malpaís. The McCartys flow rivals anything in Hawaii. Underfoot the clink and chink, the almost metallic scraping ring of scoria where flat sheets of it have popped off the still-hot surface.
Black, black. Splits and fissures with grasses, mountain mahogany, and a few cacti clinging to their walls. As we scrambled west—wearing leather-palmed gloves, too aware of our bare legs—we climbed a pressure ridge in the lava, a standing black crest so steep we clambered up it on all fours . In its glassy crevices claret cup cacti were just beginning to bloom, the most beautiful red I’ve ever seen.
May is mockingbird month, when they return from their winter grounds. We listened to their changing carols all day.
As we hiked out of the red-rock canyon on a well-worn trail, we came upon mountain lion scat. A lion will make regular rounds through its established territory; evidently this path belonged to a particular cat. There were three enormous dumps. Lots of elk fur.
I’m careful around snakes, but mountain lions are the only animal I actively fear. The size of this scat made me feel too edible.
In the sandpits of a big Archaic site we came upon a golden bull snake, thick-bodied, almost six feet long. We approached it cautiously. It did not move except to flick its black tongue, smelling us.
When we had looked at it long enough, we spoke and moved more normally. It wove toward us, aggressing; then gracefully, unhurriedly, it turned along its body and slipped back into the brush. For all its length and girth it left scarcely any mark in the sand.
I get cranky about trash in the wilderness. At the foot of the low mesa I picked up what I thought was a fragment of gray plastic hose.
It was the broken mouthpiece of a Puebloan tobacco pipe, conically drilled from either end and polished quite round. (That’s a field drawing, with my not-very-big forefinger for scale. Say an inch and some.) Probably argillite, which is “indurated claystone”: claystone that was heated and hardened underground by, for example, a volcanic dike.
I thought of 14th Century men huddled in the lee of the mesa, having a—probably ceremonial—smoke.
As we walked a low ridge we came upon a mystery: a dozen square feet of desert pavement formed by gray Archaic potshards and eleven fragments of chert knives, none from the same knife.
Patricia said: Nah, no mystery. Some Archaic woman, PMS-ing, had busted her eight pots and eleven knives, hollering, “I’ve had it! Mend your own damn loincloth!”
No trace of habitation. Had we stumbled on a sacrificial place, where pots and knives were broken to send their spirits onward with the dead? Was it the site of a solstice ritual like Zuni’s, when pots were smashed? As a theory I like Paleo PMS.
Desert pavement on Penistaja Mesa. Pebbles eroded 65 million years ago from long-lost ranges, tumbled in quick creeks and dropped at the feet of trees in green estuaries. Time and the rains wash away the clays from the polished stone. Here’s where we walk, marveling.
Betsy James on Writing, Art, and Walking in the Desert