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.
East of the Malpaís: worn yellow sandstone patched with gray lichen, overlooking black lava with gray-green sage and lichen.
When I was small, I dreamed about owning a house carved into a rock. Here it was: a hollowed-out, round cave, just the right size for a child. It was cool inside. The oval doorway framed the extraordinary ordinary lava world outside.
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.
On the Malpais, the McCarty’s lava flow, only three thousand years old. The surface looks fresh as yesterday, like Kilauea’s: so crevassed and glassy that Jan said, “On the Malpais, you don’t bruise.” We kept a sharp lookout for rattlesnakes—there’s sure to be a black morph.
The perfect, trembling webs of orb spiders stretched across the black fissures as if to draw the shattered rock together.
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 and around the Malpais, the hunter-gatherer-farmer presence of ancestral Puebloans is everywhere underfoot.
In a sandy cul-de-sac among the crinkled lava, all by itself, was a carefully-squared sandstone block that was probably a deadfall for small game: packrats, squirrels, deer mice. Jan propped it on a twig and demonstrated, remarking, at the appropriate instant, “Squeak.”
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.