Thursday, July 13, 2006

Santa Fe NM - May 2006 part 4

Compared to Tent Rocks and the Tsankawi Cave Dwellings the Valles Caldera National Preserve is nothing.

Not just less. It's nothing. Nada. Nil.

About one million years ago it was really something - a massive volcano that
spewed its inner self over much of the southwest and forming, among other things, the aforementioned preternaturally ominous Tent Rocks' hoodoos and the soft tuff on which the Tsankawi Anasazi permanently blazed the trails to their carved out cave homes. Then, after it had given all of itself, the vented mountain collapsed inwards like a black hole into the prehistory of the Jemez Mountains.

It looked like nothing - or at least nothing that we could see -when Mars, Sandy and I drove up to the Caldera Preserve with Monica and Bram after having rendezvoused with them at the new White Rock Visitor Center.

The trip there took us through the residue of the Cerro Grande Fire of 2000, a horrific natural disaster described in neutered bureaucratese by the National Park Service web site (emphasis added): "The Cerro Grande Fire began as a prescribed fire in the Upper Frijoles Units 1 & 5 of Bandelier National Monument. It escaped prescription on May 5, 2000 and became known as the Cerro Grande Fire due to the fire being on Cerro Grande mountain, a prominent geographic feature of the area."

Mars and I drove through parts of this area in May of 2000 and saw the omnipresent water-dumping aircraft. But the thing that I most remember is a fragile appearing pile of cinders in the shape of a denuded pine tree looking as if it would crumble into a pile of unrecognizable ashes, were it touched even ever so lightly. Although some growth has taken place in the area, most of the fire damage remains and will for a long, long time - as such things go in nature.

We parked in a roadside area with, as far as I could see, no indication of its relationship to the caldera. Then we crossed the road and began walking onto a well-marked dirt trail surrounded by what could be easily taken to be a basic New England forest, except for the genus of pine trees. There even were pockets of irises and (of all things) dandelions blossoming along the side of the path.

The trail was about one mile long and ninety percent downhill with ten or so switch backs. And pretty much all there was to see was the surprisingly varied ground fauna, the thick towering pines, and the sky visible between the arching tops of the trees. A pleasant enough walk on a nice day but, at that point, nothing more. Then I accidentally looked to my right through a slight clearing in the forest and caught a glimpse of vastness. I quickly turned away realizing that I had already unwittingly taken some of the edge off my upcoming introduction to the caldera.

About five minutes later we walked out of the woods. In geographic terms what we saw was an area of dark grass dotted with some large rocks and a few coniferous trees that flowed into an apparently empty field of pale brown grass with mountains in the distance. Psychologically it felt like I was looking at nothing - or more accurately looking INTO nothing, as if the largely barren area into which I was now staring (actually probably more like gawking) was the physical embodiment of the absence of everything.

We Easterners are used to boundaries. We feel comfortable within them and probably actually like them. Suburbanites proudly mark our property limits with privet hedges and stockade fences, and skillfully maneuver lawn mowers along the edge of the invisible portions of these dividing lines so as to not impinge on our neighbor's turf. Trees and housetops delimit the picture frame within which the sky presents itself each evening. And distances around here are very, very finite.

We placed the food that we had brought in with us among the rocks and wandered out into the caldera proper - down to the barbed wire fence that, in its role as a barrier to further entry into the grass covered crater, momentarily restored my East Coast-centric view of the world. Until I looked to the left and to the right and saw, equally in both directions, not the slightest hint of the end of the fence, nor where presumably it turned to form a right angle with its lengthwise sections.

Literally "Far out!"

Over years of visits to New Mexico and West Texas Mars and I have been exposed to various examples of the vastness of the Southwest: the thunder storm "off in the distance" that you can never ever get to, the stereotypical highway centerline that disappears from the top of the photo, and the miles of barren high desert encircled by layer upon layer of frail, shadow-thin mountains.

But like the altitude, every time you think that you've adjusted to it and try something new you find yourself gasping in awe at the overwhelming effect such basics as a shortage of oxygen or a lack of manmade boundaries can have.

Which of course is one reason that we keep coming back - to escape prescription.

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