House and sunset on the Colorado plateau. Photo courtesty of Barney Hillerman.More pictures
Text by Tony Hillerman
Photographs by Barney Hillerman
It seems strange but it's true, as Conrad Richter once told us, that
something as inanimate as a place can inspire love. Richter made that
statement in an essay written about thirty years ago, commenting on the
effect of the Plain of San Agustin in central New Mexico.
"The beauty, the mystery, the immensity of that grassland got into my
blood," Richter wrote. It inspired The Sea of Grass, which brought to
him the Pulitzer Prize and to us one of the greatest novels in which
landscape is as important as character.
Other writers have put it in other ways. D.H. Lawrence said the view
from his ranch in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains above Taos "changed me
forever," liberating him from modern civilization. "The moment I saw the
brilliant, proud morning shine high up over the deserts of Santa Fe,
something stood still in my soul, and I attended." Haniel Long described
this odd love affair more specifically remembering a tiny village in
the Santa Fe River canyon. "I see it all again; and yet, can these
houses be so red? And the dogs the children play with, can they be so
white? And the Cerrillos hills seen through an arroyo leading skyward,
can they be so blue? And when one goes to it between the walls of blue
rock, one may really not be going to it at all, but rather dreaming a
dream he has dreamt before. Surely no one can be sure he has visited
Cienega; people say to themselves, do they not: 'Was it a vision; or
have I, some time or other, seen dusk in a valley like this?'"
Blue grama blades trace the work of shifting winds. Photo courtesty of Barney Hillerman.More pictures
In his Man Made of Words, N. Scott Momaday, another Pulitzer-winning
novelist whose works are rich with love of landscape, tells us that
everyone should collect the treasures of such a place in memory. "He
ought to look at it from as many angles as he can, to wonder about it,
to dwell upon it. He ought to imagine that he touches it with his hands
at every season and listens to the sounds that are made upon it. He
ought to imagine the creatures that are there and all the faintest
motions of the wind. He ought to recollect the glare of noon and all the
colors of dawn and dusk."
Most of us, I think, follow Momaday's advice. I have my own storeroom of
such places places I can visit without leaving my chair. In my case,
they tend to be seasonal. White Sands National Monument, for example,
has a special appeal for me in the winter. I remember it as I first saw
it a February night in 1953. I had driven down the Tularosa Basin,
with the snowcapped Sacramentos looming to the east, and to the west
mile after mile of tumbled lava the outpouring of volcanic vents
north of the village of Carrizozo. The map shows three communities in
the fifty-five miles between Carrizozo and Alamogordo, the first being
Oscuro. I'd stop there and take a break. But Oscuro proved to be an
unoccupied house beside the railroad track. I would stop, instead, at
Three Rivers. But Three Rivers was also a single building, a service
station closed for the day. A sign there pointed up a dirt road toward a
recreational area. I followed it. It led eastward to what has now been
declared the Three Rivers Petroglyph National Recreational Site. Even
before official federal recognition it was an impressive place an
upthrust of magma-formed grassy ridges, topped with great black
boulders. The highest ridge provides a superb lookout spot for anyone
wanting a broad view of the basin. Stone Age hunters had used it as a
campsite for their hunts. While waiting for game they chipped into the
basalt hundreds of shapes representations of reptiles, animals,
spirits, and men in styles that suggest Klee and Picasso, geometric
forms, symbols, even what seem to be pure abstractions. As I remember,
it was on this ridge that I first noticed White Sands.
Far to the southeast between me and the Organ Mountains was a long,
white line shimmering in the late afternoon sun.
Highway 70 intersects this whiteness on its way to the mountain pass
between Alamogordo and Las Cruces. The National Park Service visitors'
center beside the highway was unmanned on this winter evening. Past it,
the access road leads through a graywhite saltbush flat. Then the dunes
rise around you. Plants endure at the edges, iodine bush, creosote,
saltbush, skunkbush sumac, soaptree yucca, rubber pennyroyal
perennials and grasses of heroic tolerance for drought and toxic
chemicals. But within a few hundred yards the plants are gone. You are
surrounded by a landscape of undulating white. All around you are great
dunes, some as high as three-story buildings, their southwest slopes
gradual and carved by the wind, their northwest faces smooth and soft.
There is nothing quite like it elsewhere on planet Earth.
White Sands is not sand at all, not that tawny mixture of pulverized
stone and silicate which forms the usual desert dune. It is gypsum,
almost pure, which has been leaching for the past million years out of
the Organ Mountains and draining into what geologists call Lake Lucero.
The "lake" proper is a ten-mile-long playa that collects runoff and
seepage from the mountains. The desert sun burns away the moisture,
leaving a layer of deposited gypsum crystals. The prevailing
southwesterly wind cuts into the back of these dunes, pushing dislodged
crvstals up to the crest, where they tumble down. Thus the dune moves
with inexorable slowness, burying all before it. For something like a
million years this combination of rain, sun, and wind has moved a sheet
of gypsum crystals toward the north and west, forming a white desert
that now covers more than 270 square miles.
The moon was about three-quarters full that night, rising early over the
Sacramentos, its light reflecting off the snow pack on distant Sierra
Blanca and from the glittering gypsum. Away from the access road, you
can climb the hard side of a dune to its crest and see no sign that the
planet is inhabited. Alamogordo and the headquarters buildings of the
missile research center that shoots its rockets down the desert range
are too far away to be visible. The silence is absolute, the world
around you as dead as the gypsum below your feet, the nearest human a
long day's walk away. You might be on another planet, the only survivor
of a crashed spacecraft. Stranded. Alone.
Another of my favorite winter places is as alive as White Sands is dead.
It's called Bosque del Apache and the time to be there is a January
dawn, after an arctic cold front has driven migratory waterfowl out of
their feeding places in the Dakotas, Wyoming, and Colorado.
When I first saw the place, U.S. Highway 85 ran right beside it,
following the Rio Grande southward en route to Mexico City. The "Woods
of the Apaches" had always been on the travel route of many besides the
birds who make it their way station. Before the Spanish came through it
in the sixteenth century, Indian trails had crossed here. The Mescalero
Apaches used it regularly as a camping place and gave it its name. It
was the route of the Camino Real, the link between Chihuahua and the
Spanish outpost at Santa Fe. But no one, Indian, Spanish, Mexican, or
American, ever managed to settle here permanently. The river is
hospitable upstream and down, flowing between miles of irrigated fields.
But here between the San Cristobal Range and the San Mateo Mountains, it
withdraws its invitation. The Piro Indians moved in and left a ruined
pueblo to mark their failure. The Spanish tried, but only dots on old
maps show where their communities died out. San Marcial, the little town
that gives the adjoining marshes their name, was built twice and twice
erased by devastating spring floods of the Rio Grande. Nothing of those
efforts remains except the name. The Mexican government gave all of it
the final land grant before the American occupation to Antonio
Sandoval in the hope he could establish a permanent settlement. He
couldn't. Anglo-American settlers established the town of Clyde beside
the marshes. A flood swept away all but the foundations. John Chisholm
seized it as part of his cattle empire. Finally, during the Great
Depression, it fell into the hands of the federal government and became
a game refuge. It is now, as it must have been when the Piros built
their ill-fated pueblo, the winter home of hundreds of thousands of
migratory birds and of most varieties of the mammals of the Rocky
The highway has moved away from the river now, the divided four lanes of
Interstate 25 cutting a broad swath through the creosote bush on the
slope of the Coyote Hills. But the narrow pavement that was U.S. 85 is
still there, used only by bird watchers and the few farmers who get free
use of the Bosque land in return for leaving half their crops to feed
the wildlife. Grass sprouts through the old road's cracks here and there
and nibbles at its margins, nature's reminder that the works of man are
In those black moments just before dawn the silence here is almost
total. Traffic on I-25 is light as well as distant, and long moments
pass with no sound at all. Then you begin hearing an odd murmur. The
river, you think, or perhaps the San Marcial Ditch, which parallels it
to carry water to irrigated fields far downstream. But they are a
half-mile away. And this isn't the sound of moving water. It is the
conversation of birds.
Thousands upon thousands of them awaken in the marshes and under the
winter-bare cottonwoods. You distinguish the odd fluting call of
sandhill cranes, the shrill note of red-winged blackbirds, the deeper
note of geese, and a mixture of sounds of scores of other species. It is
a small sound at first, scattered and episodic. But it grows. And about
when the sun creates a red glow behind the Oscura Mountains to the east,
you hear the sound of wings.
The snow geese are first, rising off the ponds to breakfast in the
sorghum fields up the river. Twenty thousand of them, perhaps more,
great white birds with black wing tips rising out of the darkness into
the rosy reflected light of dawn. They make a sweeping turn, a cloud of
wings rising above the cottonwoods. But cloud is the wrong word. They
don't form a disorderly blackbird rabble but a kaleidoscope of goose
formations, always shifting, but always orderly. The light catches them
white against the tan velvet of the hills. Then they are overhead,
line after line, layer above layer of formations, and the sky is filled
with the clamor of an infinity of geese.
The Canada geese are overhead now as well, and the great gray shapes of
the sandhill cranes in their long, even lines (eleven thousand was the
crane count that year) and finally the laggard ducks in a dozen
varieties, sometimes in twos, but usually hurrying somewhere in their
version of the V formation. I think this is how it must have been when
the Mescalero Apaches made their campfires here.
There are autumn places, too.
In the dry and windy spring of 1887, sheep herders let a campfire get
out of hand in Big Tesuque Canyon, in the mountains above Tesuque, New
Mexico. It burned the slopes of Santa Fe Baldy, Lake Peak, and Aspen
Peak. It became so spectacular that authorities in the territorial
capital at Santa Fe sent a telegram to the secretary of the interior
asking for funds to put the fire out. A wire came back asking for a cost
estimate. The estimate was $600. No funds came, and the fire burned
through May, June, and July, stopping at the timberline for lack of fuel
but crossing the high passes into Holy Ghost Canyon and then across
Pecos Baldy and into the Las Vegas Range. There, helped by the rains of
August, a timberman providing ties for the railroad took in a crew and
put out the fire.
You can still find fire-killed logs left by that blaze in the Pecos
Wilderness Area. When fir and spruce are burned away, meadows form in
the ashes first grasses, then perennial bushes, and finally aspen.
The aspen stand until they are crowded out by the conifers moving in
again to recapture the mountain. The healing of that great 1887 burn is
approaching that final stage now. The world's premier aspen forest still
stands on the slopes of Lake, Aspen, and Tesuque peaks. When autumn
arrives here, the gold of aspen dazzles the mind.
Starting in late September, the great splash of yellow is visible from
Interstate Highway 25 as far away as the top of La Bajada, more than
twenty miles south of Santa Fe and at least thirty miles from those
three mountains. The road leading to the Santa Fe ski basin cuts just
below the old burn. You can park where it crosses Tesuque Creek. Walk up
the slope two hundred yards and you can be, as D.H. Lawrence put it,
"liberated from modern civilization."
You are immersed in a world of white, black, and yellow, and the
dazzling yellow overpowers you. The ground beneath you is a mat of
fallen aspen leaves a uniform bright gold. Above you, the sunlit roof
of unfallen leaves is an even brighter yellow. Look right or left,
behind you or straight ahead, and you look into a maze of straight white
aspen trunks, their chalky bark punctuated with black scarring. On the
still day, the only motion is an occasional leaf fluttering downward.
But even on the stillest day, enough air moves to make its music in the
trees. If you take time to listen, you can always hear an aspen forest
There are other places (and times) engraved in the memory. One is a
windless twilight where the Rio Grande has sliced its spectacular gorge
through the sagebrush flats west of Taos. The river is invisible here,
the top of its narrow canyon hidden behind a fold of the prairie, but
you hear its voice. Seven hundred feet below you, where the spring
runoff is raging and booming over polished basalt boulders, the sound
would be deafening. Standing here in the sagebrush, your ears detect
only a murmur seeming to come from beneath your feet, as if the earth
were muttering in its sleep.
Then there is the volcanic ray that wanders like the Great Wall of China
southward from Ship Rock. Navajo Route 33 cuts through this thin stone
barrier en route to Red Rock, making access to it easy for those of us
who enjoy such geological oddities and lonely places. The molten magma
squeezed up through the cracked earth is thirty or forty feet high but
only about three feet thick. A million years of frost and heat have
cracked it, and chunks have fallen out. On the day I most like to
remember, the gusting wind was fluting through these little windows. The
wind was the advance guard of a thunderstorm sweeping eastward out of
Arizona. It bombarded Beautiful Mountain with lightning and sent dust
devils skittering across the prairie. Down the wall to the north, the
core of old Ship Rock volcano rose a thousand feet against the sky, like
a free-form version of a Gothic cathedral. Gothic, too, was the color
the stone almost as black as the ominous sky and, balanced on the wind
just over the wall, a red-tailed hawk hunting a rodent to kill.
I would want it to look exactly like this if I were illustrating the
deeds done by Monster Slayer here in the time of Navajo myth. Monster
Slayer, climbing the vertical stone of Ship Rock toward the nest of the
Winged Monsters to kill them and make this landscape safe for the
Navajos. Monster Slayer, at the nest, teaching the Monsters' chicks to
become the eagle and the owl. Monster Slayer rescued from his impossible
perch by the sacred Spider Woman.
The list of such places could go on and on: The red stone village of
Zuni on Shalako night reverently playing host to the towering
Messenger Birds and the Council of the Gods and feeding thousands of
curious visitors on mutton stew and canned peaches. The low sandstone
cliff along Dinebito Wash, decorated with a thousand yards of Anasazi
pictographs that tell me things I can't quite understand. The long pool
in the San Juan below Navajo Dam, at day's end when your legs are cold
in your waders. Just as you realize it is too dark to see your lure the
trout begin rising all around you, dorsal fins sliding across the
current, making sudden splashes as they feed on whatever insect is
Too dark, but there is always tomorrow. Fishing offers infinite
opportunities for hope. Just as our country Barney's and mine and
yours still offers silent, empty places that revive the spirit.
text and photographs (pp. 203-233) from
by Tony and Barney Hillerman.
Copyright © 1991 Tony Hillerman.
Used by permission of
HarperCollins Publishers Inc