Highway Of Miracles

It doesn’t take much for my equanimity to be disturbed, sad to say. During my return from a birding trip to New Mexico in late April, where I had been caught unawares when the thermometer climbed above 85 degrees Fahrenheit (30 Celsius), I was taken equally by surprise by a gathering bank of clouds that eventually spanned the entire firmament from Albuquerque to the state line, before it released squalls of rain and billowing clouds of fog. Associated gusts of wind and an unpropitious weather forecast for the coming night made me choose a motel in southern Colorado over a cold, wet night in the tent. Big mistake!

After a week of camping, I underestimated the horror of replacing a billowy tent with an enclosed room, a constant flow of fresh air with sealed windows, the nocturnal hooting of owls with the constant drone of trucks on the nearby interstate, my firm sleeping pad with an overly soft mattress. I tossed and turned during each expensive hour and could not wait to hit the road again by 6 AM.

I was still squabbling with myself for having overpaid for my uninviting accommodations, and berating myself for being a fair-weather camper, not quite sure how to get over myself. Leave it to southern Colorado’s Highway Of Legends to put me to shame, and pull me out of my foul, sleep-deprived mood by gently but insistently reminding me of nature’s beauty and grace, in a way that even my curmudgeonly self could not ignore.

Early into the 82 mile (132 kilometer) route between the towns of Trinidad and Walsenburg, one of the West’s most striking woodpeckers, a Lewis’s, which I had not seen in ages, clang to a utility pole right next to the road, but my brain registered its presence only after I had already passed it. A quick glance in the rearview mirror revealed no cars. I engaged the brakes, shifted into reverse, then pulled over to take a few photos, unable to prevent a smile.

Not long after my woodpecker surprise, complemented by additional animal appearances, I happened upon a herd of at least 100 elk crossing the highway. Seemingly without effort, they leapt across the fences that lined both sides of the road. Most of them threw me wary glances while they kept trotting, but one bull stopped to show himself in his regal stance. I alone witnessed their move from a wintry meadow to one clad in vernal apparel.

My rainy day in New Mexico had translated into a brief burst of winter in this part of Colorado, as I experienced mile after scenic mile on my way to Cuchara Pass at nearly 10,000 feet (3000 meters). By then, my real or imagined grievances were forgotten and I realized that the timing of the day’s encounters only worked out because of where and when I had started out that morning. I was entirely enchanted and utterly happy to be present right there and then, on my Highway of Miracles.

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I will take a break from blogging for at least three weeks as I will be traveling abroad. My apologies if I won’t get around to reading and liking your posts. Thank you for your understanding and Happy May to all of us!

Earth Still Spins

Some destinations exert a magnetic force, compelling us to return time and again. New Mexico’s Villanueva State Park is one such destination for me. Reachable only by a little-traveled county road, it is situated at the end of a fertile valley first frequented by Paleo-Indians and farmed in more recent centuries by Hispanic settlers, with water provided gratis by an early stretch of Pecos River, between its origin in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and its eventual destiny in Texas—the mighty Rio Grande.

During my most recent visit in late April, not only do I travel a distance of nearly 300 miles (480 kilometers) south, I also journey into a more advanced stage of spring, with budding or blossoming trees and shrubs, a few blooming wildflowers, and pleasing temperatures, conducive to sleeping in a tent. The park’s campground is hemmed in by towering walls of sandstone carved by the stream and clad with the juniper-pinyon community typical of vast expanses of the arid Southwest. Rocky trails lead to various overlooks with views that touch infinity. The rushing river, swelled by snowmelt in the highlands, provides constant background music, to which resident and early migratory birds add their joyful voices.

It is a place permeated by a sense of timelessness, even though I am swept up in its daily arc far more than at home: Up and down with the sun, active early in the morning and late in the afternoon, with decreased activity during the heat of the day, like many fellow critters. The more egregious and topsy-turvy the man-made world, the more I long to be reassured that the earth is still spinning around its axis, that flora and fauna still follow their age-old rhythms. We would do well to heed Mother Nature’s mostly patient and persistent, but recently more urgent, pointers that to ignore those rhythms is to do so at our peril and to our detriment.

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Traces of New Spain

     It is a truth universally acknowledged that to the victor go the spoils. In the wake of Christopher Columbus’s “discovery” of America in 1492 for the King and Queen of Spain, the colonial realm “New Spain” supplanted the Aztec Empire. It comprised much of the land mass north of the Isthmus of Panama and included vast stretches of the future United States. After Mexico’s independence from Spain in 1821 those became Mexican, but only two and a half decades later were ceded to the U.S. following the Mexican American War (1846-48). Portions of the yet-to-be-founded states of Colorado and New Mexico lay in this ceded territory.

     Spain lost no time in sending expeditions north to search for gold. In 1540, Coronado traveled as far as modern-day Kansas. In the early 1600s, the invaders commenced the Christianization of the native North American tribes with the help of Franciscan missionaries and Catholic colonists. In the process, Christian churches were erected, usually with the sweat of the local “infidels”, or of recent converts. These edifices were built from local materials and plastered with the traditional adobe also used in the construction of indigenous pueblos. Catholicism became the sole “tolerated” religion. Once America lay claim to those formerly Mexican regions, it continued to be practiced by those believers who were suddenly US citizens.

     This history comes alive in October, when my husband and I journey from Colorado Springs southward. South of the Arkansas River, the former dividing line between Mexico and the United States, multiple towns in Colorado’s San Luis Valley and in New Mexico abound with names that harken back to this Hispanic heritage. Catholic churches and symbols dominate the scenery, such as the crucifix in the featured photo above, in Colorado’s oldest town, San Luis, founded in 1851 by settlers moving north from New Mexico.

     My photos represent a small selection of these peaceful places of worship where the Virgin Mary reigns supreme, and is often bedecked with flowers and additional tokens of adoration. As alienating as this adulation appears to this skeptic, I can’t help but respect the sincere faith in and hope for a better world – even though I desire it for the present, and not just for a future life.

San Miguel Church, Santa Fe, New Mexico, circa 1610, considered the oldest church structure in the United States

Interior of San Miguel with altar and wooden ceiling, typical of many churches

Ruins of the former church and “convento” at Pecos National Historic Park, New Mexico, circa 1717, replaced an older structure destroyed in the Pueblo Revolt of 1680

San Jose de Gracia, Las Trampas, New Mexico, circa 1760

San Miguel del Vado, near Villanueva, New Mexico, circa 1806

Mosaic on the wall surrounding San Miguel del Vado

Santuario de Chimayó, near Taos, New Mexico, circa 1816

Mary statues at Chimayó

Santo Tomas El Apostol, Abiquiú, New Mexico, circa 1935

La Capilla de Todos los Santos, San Luis, Colorado, circa 1997, the culmination of a trail lined with bronze statues depicting the Stations of the Cross

A small shrine inside this chapel

Stained-glass window inside this chapel

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Painter of the Desert

     Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) first lay eyes on the “Land of Enchantment” in 1929 at the age of 41. It cast a spell on her that nothing but death could break – if that: “When I think of death, I only regret that I will not be able to see this beautiful country anymore, unless the Indians are right and my spirit will walk here after I’m gone.”

One of the colorful rock formations near her adoptive home

     Whenever her tumultuous marriage to noted photographer and art dealer, Alfred Stieglitz, and her blossoming career in New York City as America’s foremost abstract painter allowed, she escaped to the remote reaches of New Mexico’s little known and less developed desertscapes. Like many artists, she came at the behest of Mabel Dodge Luhan, legendary Taos patroness of the arts. Unlike many, she kept returning, and after her husband’s death in 1946, relocated there permanently. She possessed a house-cum-studio in the town of Abiquiú as well as a small parcel of land and cabin on the Ghost Ranch, located 14 miles farther west. Privately owned until 1955, the ranch has since been administered by the Presbyterian Church as a spiritual retreat center, and continues to profit from its lengthy association with the painter who kept returning as long as her health permitted.

Her house and studio in Abiquiú, built in the widespread adobe style

Entrance to the Ghost Ranch off US Highway 84

     Away from throngs and distractions, Georgia O’Keeffe, often portrayed as a recluse, was able to forget the noise of the East Coast, drink deeply of the silence, partake of the colors, shapes and silhouettes of a sere, stark land, and capture its soul on canvas like few artists before or since. When exploring this region and sensing its heartbeat today, it is easy to relate to the urge to evoke its essence through brush – or pen. We saw O’Keeffe’s house in Abiquiú only from the outside (tours are offered, but must be prescheduled), and tread only on portions of the Ghost Ranch property open to the public which did not include her refuge, but everywhere we encountered motifs she immortalized.

The mountain Cerro Pedernal, one of her favorite motifs, seen from the Ghost Ranch

     Our visit coincided with a string of astonishingly auspicious autumn days during which we eagerly absorbed the sun’s warming rays like the local lizards. The color of cottonwood trees lining the rare but vital waterways set the desert ablaze, while competing with a riot of multi-hued rocks.

Rio Chama near Abiquiú

For eight nights in a row, we slept in our tent without a rainfly, gazing at the same star-studded firmament and milky ribbon that Georgia would have peered at. Coyote songs serenaded our slumber, the no less moving melodies of birds our waking hours.

Sunrise near one of our campsites along the Rio Chama

     Like Georgia O’Keeffe we were fortunate to set foot on this sunbaked and sandy earth, and like her, we fell under its spell.

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Ancestral Puebloans-Part 2: Chaco Canyon

This is part 2 of a an evolving series.

Click here for part 1, here for part 3,  here for part 4.

      Among the best-known architecture of the Ancestral Puebloans is Colorado’s Mesa Verde National Park. It was, however, preceded and superseded in significance by New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon. In its heyday, between the 8th and 11th centuries, this was already composed of complex buildings three and four stories high. Hundreds of miles of Chacoan Roads connected this hub to distant dwellings, and with trading networks as far away as the Pacific Coast and Mexico, as the presence of marine shells and tropical feathers found during early excavations attests.

     From the new discoverers in the late 1800s, to present-day visitors, the park with its fabulous finds of adobe abodes, pottery, basketry, and jewelry has stimulated the imagination and, in consideration of its pivotal role it was designated a National Historical Park in 1907, and a World Heritage Site in 1987.

Fajada Butte, elevation 6623 feet, an important landmark near Chaco Canyon, seen from one of the ruins

Chacoan Road leading into the distance

     My husband and I journeyed to Chaco Canyon in 2009 and again in 2015. We reached its location in the northwest corner of New Mexico near Farmington from the north, on a 21 mile county road, the last 13 unpaved and partly of washboard consistency. The approach from the south reportedly is no better. A campground provides the only overnight accommodation. The place sizzles in summer and freezes in winter, and during our last trip we awoke to snow one May morning.

May morning

     A seven mile paved road leads from the newly remodeled Visitor Center around the core of the park and allows admittance to pueblos with names like Chetro Ketl and Hungo Pavi. They represent the initial surveyors’ fascination with what they uncovered, rather than ethnically sensitive or meaningful appellations. Pueblo Bonito, the largest among them, once had over 600 rooms and 40 kivas, ceremonial chambers thought to signify points of emergence of the people.

Multiple pueblos line Chaco Canyon

Pueblo Bonito

Interior of a pueblo showing the use of wood to create floors and ceilings. The beams supported smaller branches spread at a right angle on top of them.

T-shaped doors were a hallmark of Chaco Canyon

Why so many rooms, the majority without direct light and ventilation? According to scholarly thought, many of the so-called Great Houses might not have been intended for human habitation, but predominantly for food storage, distribution, and trade, or for ceremonial and religious purposes. If vast portions of these structures were not in regular use, as some evidence suggests, what accounts for their painstaking assembly, especially since each piece of stone had to be hewn by hand, and each log of wood dragged from forests at least 50 miles distant?

Ruins the color of the surrounding rocks

The largest of several Great Kivas at Chaco Canyon

     When one wishes to escape the constant current of cars and crowds that congregate near the chief attractions, and ponder some of these perplexing questions, a variety of hiking trails afford access to more remote settlements where one finds solitude among the ruined remains. They whisper of a time when insightful people superbly employed their resources and developed an expansive and elaborate culture which still stretches the mind today.

     Who were these Ancestral Puebloans?

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A Bird Lover’s Dream

Out of a ten day camping trip to New Mexico this spring, my husband and I spent two days at the National Wildlife Refuge of Bosque del Apache. Its environment is intricately linked with the nearby Rio Grande, a major migratory route, and is best known for the overwintering of myriad Sandhill Cranes, Snow Geese, plus a vast proportion of western North American waterfowl, but represents an avian haven year-round. The combination of a 12 mile car loop, hiking trails, and overlooks provides access to significant portions of the refuge with its various habitats, which center around wetlands, but include prairie and woodlands as well.

We came for the birds, but all manner of creatures made their presence known. Bullfrogs, unfortunately an invasive species, were audible from afar. The sinuous copulation dance of two snakes on the edge of the road in plain sight caught us by surprise and made us feel slightly voyeuristic. IMG_1752Desert cottontails and black-tailed jackrabbits abounded, and mule deer browsed on screwbean mesquite, leaving a clear line of demarcation, with copious fruit above a line they could reach while standing on their hind legs, but none below. We had our first sighting of a family of collared peccary, or javelina, foraging for food during the early morning hours. A striped skunk flashed us a warning, tail raised, but thankfully scuttled into the brush, without emitting a fragrant cloud. At dusk, bats began to hunt insects, which was also the signal for Common and Lesser Nighthawk to commence their feeding.

Depending on the source, the impressive bird checklist for the refuge hovers around 393 species. Still somewhat a novice to birding, my discoveries might not rouse expert birders to flights of exultation, but they were uplifting to me. Bosque’s graceful, adobe-style visitor center, is a good place to start looking for feathered beings. Directly over the entrance, tiny, but noisy Say’s Phoebe babies greeted us from their nest. A large window overlooks feeders which often yield unusual encounters. Only a few days earlier, fellow birders glimpsed a Northern Parula, but this rarity did not repeat his curtain call for us. A second feeding station in the artfully designed adjacent desert arboretum afforded sightings of the speedy Greater Roadrunner, New Mexico’s state bird, and of Gambel’s Quail, known to loaf there all day.


Gambel’s Quail

In this setting, I also lay eyes on my first fanciful Pyrrhuloxia, fittingly described as desert cardinal.

On the refuge proper, a central pond with dead trees offered roosting sites for Great, Snowy, and Cattle Egrets, as well as for Double-Crested and Neotropic Cormorants, which facilitated the comparison of their prevalent features. This crowd was joined, on occasion, by a gorgeous Green Heron. Vermilion Flycatchers, brilliantly attired, flew onto my life list, followed by an equally dazzling Summer Tanager, and by elegantly dressed Black Phoebes.


Vermilion Flycatcher

Yellow and Yellow-rumped Warblers, as well as Common Yellowthroat were conspicuous, but I am sure I missed many other warblers. They still present a challenge, along with flycatchers, gulls, and several other families. American Avocet, Black-necked Stilts, Spotted Sandpipers, Willets, Long-billed Dowitchers, and Wilson’s Phalarope helped lessen my intimidation with shorebirds, though they are outnumbered by the many I have yet to recognize. The prize for cuteness went to a Pied-billed Grebe and her five young. All jostled for a free ride on her back, succeeded for an instant, but one or the other slid off, paddled hard to catch up and hop on again, until, finally, everybody was safely stowed.


Needless to say, two days were not enough to explore this sanctuary. My resolution: Return there. Often. Hop on Interstate 25, take Exit 139 in New Mexico. The distance between Colorado Springs and Bosque del Avian is a mere 300 miles.

A Hidden World

Cave swallows chirp in high-pitched voices while circling the gaping hole that constitutes the Natural Entrance to Carlsbad Caverns. Approaching it on the foot path from the visitor center, my husband and I gaze into darkness from a bright day, and once we are swallowed up by the gullet, we leave blue sky and sunshine behind. Our eyes need a few minutes to adjust to the surrounding dimness. Strategically located artificial lights illuminate the subterranean space and without them, we wouldn’t be able to see our hands in front of our eyes. The drop in temperature parallels the trail’s decrease in elevation. From the high 80s, it plummets 30 degrees, to the average year-round temperature in the mid 50s. The humidity, on the other hand, climbs from 10 to nearly 90 percent, and our skin feels cool and clammy for the first time since we entered New Mexico’s Chihuahuan Desert one week prior.

We pass a sign pointing to a side tunnel whence tens, if not hundreds of thousands, of Brazilian free-tailed bats appear every evening between March and October, having migrated from Mexico, Central, or South America. 400,000 was the highest, mind-boggling count ever recorded. This species of bat is one of 16 in the park, but constitutes the most celebrated and numerous of the flying mammals whose presence likely alerted humans to the caves throughout the ages. The bat residence is off limits for human visitors, but we were fortunate to witness their emergence on the previous evening and now envision them suspended upside-down from the roof of their bedroom, snoozing and digesting, following a night of hunting.

Switchbacks take us steadily down, and we catch a glimpse of the imposing height of a first wide cavern, our conduit to even deeper spaces. After a one-mile descent, we reach the rest area, 755 feet below the surface. Restrooms, picnic tables, vending machines and kiosks filled with curios, and elevators that typically transport the wanderers back to daylight, appear out of place, reminders of this other world we left behind. Here, also, lies the beginning of two more tours, one ranger-guided, requiring a reservation, the other a self-guided trek around the famous “Big Room”, named aptly, if a bit unimaginatively. The trail that circles and traverses this chamber also measures one mile and is relatively even, with only a few mild rises and dips. It affords close-up views of the artful designs that adorn the caves. Not being spelunkers, we learn an exotic, delicious new word and let it melt on our tongues: speleothem. This comprises the stalagmites, stalactites, columns and various other shapes fashioned by the action of mineral-rich droplets of water, resulting in a wonderland of figures which engender flights of fancy. IMG_2178They range from marble-, to colossal-sized, from lacy lightness to ponderous heft. In our mind’s eye we discern icebergs, snow cones, bones, whales’ baleen, Portuguese Men of War, dwarves, sentries, and moss growing off the ceiling. Draperies resemble delicate fabrics hung from the ceiling, and it is easy to envision them fluttering in an imaginary breeze. IMG_2169Where I see cauliflower and small icicles, earlier observers were reminded of popcorn and soda straws, a distinctly American touch. A less savory example among the creative appellations is “snottite”, or “snoticle”—no further description necessary.

It comes as a surprise to us that 95% of all formations are considered dry, and, therefore, completed. We hear and feel heavy drops of water plummeting out of the dark and visualize the creation of yet another whimsical silhouette, reserved for future visitors to behold, 500 or 1000 years hence. Some of this water has accumulated in underground lakes which generate mirror images that exist only as reflections.

We can only speculate (or should I say speluncate?) what went through the minds of the first humans to enter these cavities, but it’s easy to relate to the sense of awe overcoming each new explorer. When step after dim step on terra firma, or on ladders made from tree branches and metal wire that hung into gaping gorges of unknown depth, revealed new passages and peculiar mineral deposits by the light of a candle, or oil lamp, fear of heights and darkness was untenable. IMG_2144Those who publicized their experience, did not lack in superlatives, and ever since word of this hidden realm reached the public, it has been the focus of unwavering interest.

Because the elevators that usually return guests to above ground have been out of service for over six months when we visit in May 2016, we are not tempted to ride, rather than walk, the serpentine route back to the entrance. This allows us to take our leave gradually, and to relive and relish once again the immense and wondrous sphere encircling us. Our enchantment from our all-too-brief glimpse through the window into the earth notwithstanding, we can’t help but wonder about hidden treasures in the one hundred-odd identified hollows scattered throughout this region, much less in those yet unknown.

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