Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Syncline

The drive home was done blind, the windshield never fully defogged, the snow falling against it lightly but steadily. The following day's hike to the remote Ortiz range didn't look promising. In the morning, I awoke before dawn, the only light being the blinking of my cell phone. As expected, the conservancy had canceled. One of my hiking companions then came up with a wonderful alternative.

I'd hiked with Musai before, having met him at REI. He drove us south past the Ortiz, whose crowns were capped with the unseasonal snow. The Sandias further south were likewise draped, their dark mass sloping gradually from the desert floor like a cresting wave, the top breaking into dense cloud that threatened to spill over into Albuquerque. Just shy of the city we turned west, leaving behind the silhouettes of balloon that dotted the sky. Not far now to White Mesa. Between it and its neighboring Red Mesa was the syncline.

We left the truck beside the highway and once through the fence were on our way. The was land was BLM managed, now cut with a new course for bicycles and motorbikes. We moved on a diagonal away from them, making a heading toward a pair of canyons that cut the earth much further up. After cresting a small hill we came across a small fenced area, that served no conceivable purpose but to protect a pile of burned oil cans and tires strewn about. Beyond this, the desert floor began to harden and crack. Inexplicatedly, we crossed a small grassy marsh, here amidst the dryness of stone. I quipped that I'd love to bring a New Yorker here and tell them that this too is desert. Then we reached the first of the small washes. Usually they're dry but today they flowed brown after a few days of heavy rain. At the bottom of a wider wash stood a lone cottonwood, tall and proud and just beginning to go into color. Apparently the washes flow more often than first thought.

We followed this low canyon awhile, gazing down occasionally at small falls sliding across rock and welling into shallow pools. In a day or so all this water will be gone, seeping into the ground now cut into low knobs of stone. It was tough going, attempting to find the lines with least obstacles. Ponderosa pines began to appear a few at a time, the lack of water keeping their heads low, groomed like natural bonsai. Their numbers began to increase, until forming an organized line that ran uphill in a straight line toward the mesa above. This paralleled another fence, man-made this time, which had been placed across the line of our ever deepening canyon. We found a way through, then scrambled up to higher ground.

Soon, we were standing above the large canyon. Dropping down into a smaller side canyon, we took lunch in a sunny spot with a nice view. Before moving on again, I peed a short distance away, a riddle for the animals who no doubt have little exposure to man. Musai suggested we finished the walk to the mesa top in silence. As I walked, I eyed the sandy ground, brushed my hands against juniper and pinon. This was the landscape of home, now approaching 7000 feet. Musai began signalling wildly at one point, but it was only later with words that I got that he'd seen a large and lean coyote wander past with purpose.

Meanwhile, I was keeping myself occupied with the not infrequent sight of heaps of small twigs piled up atop stones or sometimes amidst prickly pears. While logic dictates that this is the random work of pack rats, the romantic in me saw them as places where Natives had fallen in war. Over the centuries, others had come by and placed a twig there in order to appease the spirits. It all reminded me of the stone cairns piled high in Buddhist lands across the sea. This line of thinking carried on further with the discovery of small holes bored out into the large boulders in the canyons. Now, I'm nearly certain these were the work of water that had found its way through small cracks and channels in the rock. Yet the way that most of these holes were along straight lines helped me envision small shelters built from the juniper that covered the terrain. A resting spot for sheepherders perhaps? Overall, I thought how hard it is to read culture in landscape, when one is outside that cultural matrix. A Jemez man strolling this land could no doubt recognize innumerable things, where I merely saw plant and stone. The desert landscape itself is hard enough. In Japan, I'm pretty adept at reading the landscape, of recognizing the elements that had shaped my previous journeys across its face. But looking back now, I could recognize little, completely unsure along which way we'd come. No wonder it is so easy to die in the desert.

We reached finally the top of Cuchilla Mesa. Its name is in the knife-edge that run 1000 foot above the desert floor. To the East were the familiar ridge lines of the Jemez, the Sandia, the Sangre de Cristo. Beneath them, the Pueblos of Jemez and San Ysidro were dwarfed beneath all this scenery. To the West, a canyon ran parallel to the one we'd followed, cutting deep and dramatically into the valley floor.

We began to make our way down, following a side canyon that ran steep and deep. This was true canyoning now, over and around huge stones, ducking through scrub. The day was hotter now. All morning, clouds and wind had kept us bundled up, but the work of descending the canyon had us shedding layers quickly. It is hard to dress for hiking in New Mexico, especially in the desert. By late afternoon, we were back on the desert floor now, having once again passed down through four distinct environments, each unique in vegetation and topography. Despite what I've written above about easy disorientation in the desert, during the final hour we somehow followed the same route we'd used in ascending. We obviously had chosen our path well.

Near the truck, we stopped and had a last snack break in a boulder field littered with enormous rocks that had calved from the cliff above. The next candidate stretched itself like a diving board into the space above us. As we sat, I revisited the feeling I'd had throughout the day of being an extra in some cowboy film, induced of course by the number of classic Westerns I've watched since moving back to NM. Another common denominator was the theme of generations in our talk, particularly the topic of fathers and sons. These talks seemed rich and cathartic for both Musai and I, and I'll reflect often on them as I chart new territory in building a relationship with my newborn daughter. 'Generations' seems fitting, as we walked through day that was at once three seasons, an autumn day flavored with the heat of a summer passing and the snows foreshadowing what's to come.

(Musai's own take on the day can be found here.)

On the turntable: Charlie Rich, "Behind Closed Doors"
On the nighttable: Peggy Pond Church, "Bones Incandescent"


  1. Is Syncline its real name? Wicked name. I explore landscapes much in the way it sounds like you do. I like to do it alone, or maybe with one quiet friend so that you're free to let your mind explore the landscape through its animals, vegetation, or cultural somethings. It's interesting I'm in the land you used to be and exploring now. Living in a city now, it takes me a lot longer to get to where there are no people in the woods and mountains, but once you're there, you're there right? Great poetry in the post.

  2. Hey Zack,

    No syncline is a real trem, one I admittedly learned on the morning I did this hike.

    You'll find trails no doubt. Every prefecture has a guidebook to its top 50 mountains. Should be easy to pick one up.

    And city hiking has its own joys...

  3. Hi Ted..... nice country....
    Im thinking of spending a day or two up around Yonago..... anything you think I would be interested in?


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