The Badlands of New Mexico

Hiking in the new year…

It’s been a cold and dry winter thus far, just like the Farmer’s Almanac predicted, so rather than dust the black widow webs off the skis and drag out all the Gore-Tex and mittens and fleece, I took a hike in the badlands. Or, as Marty Robbins once sang, the Badlands of New Mexico…southbound, down a canyon and out into the wide open Espanola Valley.

Nervously, I parked the car on a Bureau of Land Management road just off the highway. Nervously, because this area is a true rural ghetto with gangs and a flourishing drug trade, and near the highway so folks could see the car and anyone who might be breaking into it. If this sounds paranoid then think of this: Breaking Bad may have put New Mexico on the map as a place of meth, but in this part of the state heroin rules. Meth may be horrible, but heroin addiction is the worst of all, and folks will do anything to get the daily fix that keeps away the agony of withdrawal, including smash a car window to see if there might be something worth pawning inside.

Backpack loaded. Boots tied. Car locked. The hound dog cavorting and sniffing around. We head east towards some peach colored badlands backed by snow covered mountains, the whole shebang basking in the noontime sunshine. It’s winter, but in New Mexico that means sunshine, just as every other season in this enchanted land means sunshine. Dried grasses wave in a nippy breeze. The blue sky arches overhead. The flatness ends abruptly at the foot of the badlands, and we begin our gradual climb into them.

When mountains rise, they usually end up lifting the land adjacent to them as well, creating a ramp of Earth sloping up to the foot of the peaks proper. Moving water begins immediately hacking away at this ramp, cutting down into it and hauling bits of rock and soil down to the nearest river, and eventually the sea. If the slope consists of solid rock—granite for example—then you’ll end up with classic foothills most of us picture when you say the word “foothills”:rounded, bouldery knobs at the foot of the jagged mountains. If the earth is capped with something hard like a lava flow or sandstone, then you’ll end up with a shelf of sorts resembling a mesa jutting out from the side of the mountain, perhaps with epic canyons flowing down from the yonder mountains.

But if the land sloping up to the mountains consists of soft rock like clay, mudstone or loose gravel, then rivulets will will carve the matrix into tens of thousands of miniature canyons—“arroyos” in the local parlance—that turns the foothills into tortured corduroy blobs, often with little vegetation growing upon them. Those are badlands, and New Mexico has lots of them.

The hound and I find our way up to a mellow ridge and follow it. It’s not hard. Despite bullet riddled signs reminding motorized users to stay on marked roads, decades worth of motorcycles and “Texas Wheelchairs” (4-wheeled OHV’s) have had their way with this place, and the hound and I follow a rutted trail along the ridge towards higher ground. I breathe deep and try to ignore the discarded refrigerators and mattresses strewn willy nilly along the path while simultaneously shutting down the medley of Christmas carols running through my mind, and am somewhat successful at both. Arroyos appear on both sides of us, their bone dry, sandy bottoms shimmering brightly in the sun. Scattered junipers appear, and become more common as we climb.

And we are climbing, albeit very gradually. Shiny cobbles, gravel and the occasional chunk of weak sandstone make up the high parts of the badlands—indeed, these relatively harder rocks protect the softer, underlying layers of clay and mudstone by serving as a “cap” that keeps erosion at bay. Hard rocks stay high, weak rocks get swept away by water. A solitary pickup truck roars up the dirt road into the badlands, but for the most part things are quiet. A few gunshots here, the distant roar of a motorcycle there, and the jingle of the dog’s faux-bejeweled name tag clinking against her collar serves as background to the crunching of gravel beneath my boots. Other than that, it is completely quiet.

The views open up. West: a black wall of mesa rising up from the Big River, and the silent hulk of one of the largest volcanoes on Earth. North: glimpses of snow capped peaks 50, 60, 70 miles away. East: juniper studded badlands rolling on up to the white sentinels of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. South: badlands giving way to the old villages of the valley, with hazy mesas and mountains stretching down to Albuquerque. Every bit of it drenched in sunshine and blue sky.

A couple hours and a few miles in…we reach an apex and have a picnic. Apples, nuts and raisins for me, and fancy dog treats for the hound. She’s a good dog. She’ll heel when asked, come running when I whistle, and doesn’t roll in the cow shit, of which there is aplenty. But if she sees people or dogs then she loses it…runs full speed towards them, ears flopping, drool flying, stubby legs moving like the wind, ready to play. Fortunately, there’s nobody else out here, so she can relax and maintain her good dog status.

We pack up and switch gears. One last big view, a few more photographs, and then down into the arroyo. Thinking like a raindrop, like a summer flash flood. Down. A gently, grassy slope soon narrows into a steep sided ravine—the head of the arroyo proper, where water has sliced through the thin topsoil and begun quarrying away at the badlands. The dog and I follow, and claw our way through thick brush and fallen tree trunks, but before long the ravine widens into a three or four foot wide bed of sand perfect for strolling.

If the ridgeline hike had been sunny, and even warmish, then the arroyo is shady and a bit chilly. There are remnant patches of snow, and at times the sand underfoot has frozen solid, especially where it lay in the northern shade of a cut bank or big juniper. The trees down here are large. Closer to water, sheltered from the blast of summer sun and moisture-wicking spring winds, the junipers are downright stately, and the pinon pines tall and pointed rather than shrublike.

The arroyo is bone dry, but it twists back and forth and oxbows like a lazy river as it cuts deeply into the earth. I keep my eyes peeled for arrowheads. In all my years of hiking, I have yet to find one, and today is not the day. Tracks appear in the sand. Coyote. Fox. Rabbit. Squirrel. A jack rabbit and I startle one another. Other than a few flitting birds, it’s the only wildlife I’ll see today. Somehow, the dog misses the hare. She’s following her nose and taking the same shortcuts as the wildlife, avoiding the big bends by hopping up the bank and jumping back into the arroyo on the far side. I stick with the sand and follow the path of the phantom water as it digs into the earth and exposes the varying layers of clay, mudstone, pebbles, cobbles and gravels.

20 million years ago, give or take, this part of North America began to unzip, creating along rift valley that ran from Mexico to Wyoming, right through the heart of New Mexico. The Rio Grande flows down that valley now, but back then the Rio Grande was a series of landlocked rivers draining into a chain of lakes. One of those lakes was right here in the Espanola Valley. Creeks and rivers poured into the lake from the surrounding highlands, depositing sediments. Over time, these layers grew deep. Hundreds of feet deep. Volcanoes erupted. Creatures lived and died. Climates changed. Mountains rose, paused, and rose some more. Eventually, the Rio Grandefound its way to the sea. The lakes drained, and moving waters began tearing away at the ancient muds that once lay at the bottom of the lake, forming badlands and arroyos that a man and his hound might one day explore.

The arroyo widens. 10, 15, 40 feet wide. The detritus of summer’s monsoon-fueled flash floods line the banks—tree trunks, a tire, a fencepost stranded on high ground. Cow hoof prints appear—salad plate sized indentations punctuated by dinner plate sized cow patties—followed soon after by criss-crossing motorcycle tracks. The silence is suddenly interrupted by the buzz of motorcycles on the ridge. The hound and I sit next to a tree and watch as they drop into the arroyo and rooster tail their way across the sand and up the other side. Just a stone’s throw away from me, but in another world entirely. No sound but the two-stroke motor. No sight but the tunnel vision through the helmet. No smell but adrenaline and exhaust. I’m sure they’re having fun, but I prefer the slow walk.

Quite suddenly, the sandy path of the arroyo pours forth into a dry plain of tumbleweed and cacti. I’m out of the badlands and a mile south of where I thought I’d be, so I cut towards where I think the car is as afternoon shadows lengthen. Cleansed, or at least bathed, of some of the mind chatter I brought with me, I revel in the last moments of the hike. This is a special place, and my inner Colorado environmentalist craves protection for this chunk of land—tens of thousands of acres of emptiness—but the burgeoning New Mexican within knows better. Yes, cows sometimes tromp the native vegetation. Yes, there are ATV tracks where their shouldn’t be. Yes, people sometimes dump old appliances and riddle them with bullets. The place has been knocked around, but it needs no protection. Protection brings official trailheads, spandex, guidebooks. Protection brings people, and for now nobody comes here except to sight a rifle, tend the cattle, or blow off some steam on the motorcycle. It’s fine just the way it is: big, empty, and off the map.

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