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.
Warm sun, nippy wind. Socks full of stickers, had to stop every quarter mile to pick them out.
North of Stud Stallion Wash we crossed the pitted sandstone to the ridge. Tucked in a cliff face below a little ponderosa and above a cluster of dry tinajas—natural rain catchment tanks—we came upon what was probably a nineteenth-century sheepherder’s hole-up.
It was a smoke-blackened rock shelter partly enclosed by a stone windbreak. Cozy place. You could spread your skimpy bedroll behind the stone wall and look out over the wide saddle of the syncline with its mysterious stone circles and prehistoric deer-hunter meadows and, at night, a field of stars.
Season of dry grasses.
The road turned to dirt, then to a two-track that petered out and became a trail. Two young buck deer moved away from us quietly, up the far side of the draw. Two-year-old males: Jan calls them “forkéd horns.”
On a pumice outcropping lay, face down, a Surfer Ken doll in board shorts that had once been blue and yellow. I turned him face up, to catch some rays and even out his tan.
As we scrambled the scree slope to the mesa top, a lovely thing. The limb of an ancient juniper, vibrating in the cliff-edge wind, had worn a deep groove in the sandstone it leaned on, and had rubbed itself down to bare wood.
The fit was perfect even to the wood grain. A protruding knot on the limb had made a perfectly matching, knot-shaped hollow in the stone.
I was reminded of a word from…is it San Felipe Pueblo? Suyu: the sound of the wind as it hits the edge of the mesa.
On an impossibly narrow peninsula of stone was a hunter’s paradise: it overlooked a game trail that crossed from one watershed to another. A hunter had only to wait.
And hunters had waited. On the peninsula was a thousand-year-old Archaic camp, its earth black with twelve to eighteen inches of ashy midden. Eighty feet above the valley floor, craning our necks, we could see that its crumbling north edge was formed of friable Tertiary sediments. The site itself looked “broken in half” like Dun Aengus, the cliff’s-edge fort from the Irish Iron Age, which the Atlantic has half devoured.
Following the game trail, we circled down to the bottom of the cliff. At its base stood an intact chunk of the site. It had slid from the edge where we had leaned and still stood upright, complete with ashes and flakes. On the cliff face rivulets of ashy mud trailed from the broken edge .
Ignorant, we had stood on that undercut, sleazy, brittle cliff’s edge, eighty feet above the valley floor.
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.
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.
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.