…and so is the vast, clean desert.
The desert has been at it much longer than I have.
On a ridge in the low hills near the highway, a micaceous mano rested like an Easter egg in a nest of cobbles nearly the same size and shape. It was Archaic, a rounded lozenge with one smooth and one pecked side. There in its stone nest it will stay, with the hill slowly eroding out from under it.
A good dozen bushtits fussed and tsp-ed and fidgeted in the juniper. I sat very still. They seemed not to notice me, coming and going in a cloud like midges.
One red pebble.
I forgot my camera. I was indignant until I remembered I’d never owned a camera until a few years ago. All hike records were scratched with a stubby pencil on a 3×5 card.
We went off-trail in the Malpaís. Snow and wind and frost-heaving had smoothed sand over the face of the weathered stone, healing the skin of the desert until we were the first ever to walk there.
Camera or not, it was a good day, though I wish I could have gotten an image of an old friend. Fortunately I already had one; it was taken in a different season, but you get the idea.
In an area we’ve hiked scores of times, looking for a place for lunch, we climbed a little mesa that promised a good view. On a smooth sandstone ledge, unexpected, was a bedrock metate: the roughly-pecked surface where a woman had ground corn or wild-gathered seeds.
Around it were rough petroglyphs of a lizard and snakes: probably Puebloan, but so heavily coated with desert varnish that they looked Archaic. It was fine to sit where she had sat, looking out over the late winter piñon and sand, munching corn chips we had not had to grind ourselves.
We walked in over 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.
All day long we looked south to the main drainage. It shone silver.
We spent the day traipsing around and about in something like a square mile and a half, as much vertical as horizontal, on constantly rough terrain. We entered and left on ancient trails not used since the invention of the internal combustion engine.
I couldn’t see how even a wagon could have gone where we did. Perhaps it was just people on foot. Later, horses or mules.
The trails did feel like trails, in the sense of “the logically easiest way to get up this challenging slope.”
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.