It’s the middle of January, the very depths of winter, yet while most of the country is recovering from blizzards and the now infamous “Polar Vortex”, New Mexico remains mired in serious drought. Cold, but sunny and dry, good for nothing beyond an absurdly extended hiking season. Thankfully, there’s still plenty of time left for snow, and the desert southwest will eventually get some much needed moisture. The creeks will tumble over boulders. The acequias will water the crops. The forests won’t burn to a crisp. That’s what everyone keeps telling themselves. A mantra to bring bad weather, heard at coffee shops, hardware stores, and just about everywhere…”we really need the moisture.”
13,000 feet there….6,00o feet underfoot
One of the great things about our New Mexico homeland is the fact that a short drive can take you into entirely different climates and landscapes. We pass our days at 7,000 feet above sea level, right where the Rocky Mountains rise from a sea of sagebrush. A 45 minute drive in one direction climbs to snowshoe adventures and timberline views. 45 minutes the other way and you’ve descended into apple orchards and rattlesnakes. Okay, maybe no apples or snakes in January, but 10 degrees warmer than our hometown for sure, which means basking in 50+ degree warmth in the dead of winter.
50 degrees sounded good to us, so we loaded a backpack with water and snacks, put the kid and the hound in the car, then followed the usual routine: breakfast burritos and caffeine, then over the river and through the piñon pines towards a day of family fun. Highway to byway to county road to rutted back road to trail.
Colorado cradles the bulk of the Southern Rocky Mountains, including the Elk, San Juan, Park, Sawatch and Front Ranges among many others, but a few spur ranges spill into Wyoming and New Mexico. Our exploration unfolded at the end of one of those spurs, where the shoulder of the Rockies tumbles down into the long rift valley that defines New Mexico. When altitude drops, water follows, and if water moves quickly from high places to low it carves canyons into whatever rock happens to be there. The Rio Grande exits the Taos Plateau through the black basalt walls of the Rio Grande Gorge. The Gunnison River drops out of the Rockies and rips a gash in ancient gneiss spectacular enough to warrant protection as Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. The once (and future) mighty Colorado pours off of the Martian landscape of the Colorado Plateau via the rainbow layer cake of the Grand Canyon. Variations on a geologic/gravitational theme.
This corner of New Mexico is no Grand Canyon, but it sure is pretty, for as the sporadic waters of this arid land flowed towards the Rio Zama they’ve sliced into soft volcanic debris, sculpting some swell formations in the process. The debris arrived about 25 million years ago from big volcanoes —not in the form of a cloud of ash raining down from the sky, but as a pyroclastic flow. If that means nothing to you then picture this: a flash flood of monumental proportions consisting not of water but of gas, ash and rock heated to a thousand degrees and rumbling down the side of a volcano at hundreds of miles per hour. This particular flow came from long gone volcanoes 40 or so miles to the northwest, probably near the village of Questa, and when it settled it lithified—hardened—into a fine grained, sandstone-like layer of rock geologists call “tuff.”
Much of that tuff was subsequently eroded away by moving water, but thick flows of lava from nearby volcanoes buried huge swaths of it, thereby protecting the relatively weak stone from the elements. Time passed. New Mexico began to split in half. Mountains rose, exposing quartz and other minerals forged miles beneath the surface, some of which were pummeled by wind and water and carried into nearby basins. Cobbles and gravels covered the black basalt that was covering the white tuff that was covering still older gravels and cobbles…a layer cake recording the cycles of equilibrium and upheaval. Rivers incised the earth, exposing the tuff and sculpting it into bizarre formations easily visible via a stroll along the floor of a short canyon.
The hike starts in a sandy wash lined by tortured hoodoos that reach for the blue sky, their eroded forms shimmering white in the winter sun. Bright white stone. Blazing blue sky. With the exception of my daughter’s pink fleece pants, everything else is muted. Pastel even. Ashen cottonwoods cast splintered shade across vaguely red sand. Dark green junipers and gray chamisa grow along the banks of the wash. Damp sand appears, and the trace of water brings out its true colors—the faded crimson of sandstone, the luminous silver of quartz, the matte black of basalt, each grain set off beautifully by patches of geometric yet fractal-like ice crystals. A glance upward and beyond the hoodoos reveals the source of those hues: black lava flows draped across the white ash flow, backed by distant red hills and quartzite mountains. Bits of geologic history washed down from yonder highlands, crunching beneath our boots.
The sun is warm. Warm enough for my daughter to complain about the heat. After reminding her how darned lucky we are to be so toasty in January, we take a break and remove layers of fleece and wool. We sip water, share a fancy energy bar, and take in the silence while the hound sniffs around for something exciting and our daughter begins picking shiny stones from the wash, oohhhing and ahhing as if they were jewels. She fills her pockets with quartz eggs for her burgeoning rock collection, and stacks others carefully atop a flat boulder. Cairns. Not to find our way along the path, but to mark this single moment of our shared life. Pretty stones, stacked by the hands of our perpetually awestruck little girl…a tiny tower built to remind us to slow down and smell the rose quartz.
Continuing on, the wash makes a few bends then narrows, and narrows again. The sun disappears and we are in deep shadow. The walls close in, and the sandy path becomes a sheet of solid ice. We tread carefully, and follow the twisty pathway to the box end of the canyon. A trickle of water flows down a polished chute and disappears beneath the ice. We pause and listen. Liquid. Life. Flowing freely. My daughter pulls three stones from her pockets and quietly stacks them next to the moving waters.
This drought will pass.