Tag Archives: the west

El Morro National Monument

El Morro National Monument is a tiny park tucked in remote western New Mexico. For this reason, it is one of the least visited National Monuments in the west. Ironically, El Morro is a park because it was once a travel hub—a source of year-round drinkable water amongst miles of dry scrub. Over many centuries, visitors came to the oasis and left their mark. Ruins of a 700 year old pueblo sit on the mesa top. Around the base, there are petroglyphs, signatures of conquistadors, and marks of early Americans traveling west. El Morro was scouted for the railroad, but it went 25 miles north. Now El Morro is a quiet place, a sandstone guestbook with centuries of entries.

Don Juan de Oñate

Don Juan de Oñate was the first Spanish colonial governor of New Mexico from 1598 to 1610. He founded the city of Santa Fe in 1610, eleven years before the Pilgrims first Thanksgiving. This carving at El Morro took place on an expedition to the Gulf of California.

Oñate is sometimes called the last conquistador. After the Acoma indians refused to give the Spaniards more food in the winter of 1598, a scuffle erupted that killed 11 Spaniards. Oñate’s retaliation killed 800 Acoma. Oñate enslaved the remaining population; men over 25 had their right foot amputated. Oñate was recalled to Mexico City for cruelty. He resigned his post in 1610 after the founding of Santa Fe. He was banished from New Mexico, although cleared of charges. Acoma Pueblo was rebuilt, and is one of the longest continually occupied places in the country.

Amazingly, people still honor Oñate. El Paso erected a 34 foot statue of him in 2007. Española, New Mexico has an Oñate monument with a bronze statue. In 1998, the 400th anniversary of his arrival in New Mexico, someone removed the statue’s right foot and left the note “fair is fair.” The foot was replaced, but the seam is still visible. Oñate deserves his place in the history books, but multi-million dollar statues seem unnecessary.

Standing in the presence of his carving reminds one of the vast history of New Mexico. The Salinas Pueblo Missions were a generation old at this point, to say nothing of the indian cultures they encountered. We think of the west as new, but this was all before the Pilgrims dined.

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A bit hard to read, but at the end of the first line are the letters “don ju” and at the beginning of the second “de oñate”. This was carved in 1605.

The Camel Corps

In addition to tragedy, the west is full of quirky, charming history, and the US Camel Corps is one of those bits. Desert animals like camels must have seemed ideal for the deserts of New Mexico. 25 camels traveled through El Morro in 1857.

The US gained the territory of New Mexico after the Mexican American War in 1848. (If you ever want an eye-popping historical read, take a look at the list of Mexican heads of state from 1821 to 1848. I thought US history from Jackson to Lincoln was chaotic, but wow. It makes telenovelas look plausible. It’s amazing the US didn’t take more land from Mexico considering the utter disarray of their government.)  Several early expeditions took place, mostly with the goal of figuring out what to do with New Mexico.

The camels went to Camp Verde in Texas, which was taken by the Confederates at the beginning of the Civil War. Some of the animals were sold at auction, some went to zoos, some went to circuses, and some escaped. Camel sightings were reported in the west until the early 1900s. This charming postcard memorializes the Camel Corps’ visit to El Morro.

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The walls of El Morro are full of inscriptions, tiny slices in the lives of people who altered the west, for better and for worse. Though they are just gouges in sandstone, it is humbling to stand and look at the names and know what extraordinary efforts those people took to reach this oasis. And I consider it a bit inconvenient because it’s 2 hours from Albuquerque. We who pass through are still altering the west, though we are warned not to do it by carving El Morro. If you really must, they have a sacrificial chunk of sandstone by the visitor’s center.

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Science Fiction and the West: Part 2

The western landscape is absurd. There are massive towers of rock, ancient ruins, and strange colors. There are fields of lava and dunes of drywall. In a recent post, I talked about how the west evokes much of the science fiction I read. Well, I went driving again, and I found more science fiction in the west. Specifically…


Underground kingdoms

Carlsbad Caverns lie under southeast New Mexico. At any moment, I imagined that goblins would pour out of the ceiling and down columns around me. Carlsbad evokes visions of Journey to the Center of the Earth, Cthulhu, and Middle Earth. Right now, the elevators at Carlsbad are offline, so you must walk down into the gaping natural entrance. If you are a science fiction enthusiast, it’s hard to escape the feeling that you are on a journey to somewhere of lore.

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The Great Room in Carlsbad Caverns.


 

Strange pieces of history

There are some silos out west that look exactly like daleks. This one is by the city of Alamogordo. Nearby, I found a scrap yard full of derelict missiles and circuitry. Seriously, where does one find a silo shaped like a scifi creature next to cruise missiles other than science fiction and the west? (Okay, maybe the Ural Mountains.)

At first, it seemed rather extraordinary to find a missile sitting in a scrap yard a mile outside a mid-sized city, but this is the storage yard for the New Mexico Museum of Space History.

Still, I prefer to think that giant daleks roam New Mexico, and they have missiles!

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A real life Canticle for Leibowitz

East of Albuquerque is the Salinas Mission National Monument, a set of three missions from the 1600s. The sites were inhabited by pueblo indians going back centuries. After the Spaniards arrived, they built missions to convert the indians. They also functioned as part of the salt trade, which is where the name “Salinas” comes from. After the pueblo revolted in the late 1600s, the sites were forgotten, and only rediscovered in the mid 1800s.

I visited the Gran Quivira site this weekend. It contains a pueblo village that once held 2000 people, a completed church, and an extremely large incomplete church that was in construction at the time of the revolt. From the site, you can see for miles around. There are a few ranches, but few other signs of inhabitance.

As I mentioned in my last post, I just reread A Canticle for Leibowitz. And wow did Gran Quivira evoke the book. The ruins of a church next to a town, just like the abbey next to the town of Sanly Bowitz. From the site, one could see a pilgrim traveling the road. Overhead, the sun bakes all. Okay, so the book was set in Utah, but it felt real to me!

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Salinas Mission National Monument–the Gran Quivira Site.


White Sands

Have I written about this place enough? It’s a bunch of dunes literally made from powdered drywall. I think I’m in love. It’s Tatooine, Mars, Arrakis, and Vulcan.

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And that was all in just one long weekend. If my former state of Virginia was for lovers, then New Mexico is for romance.

 

Science Fiction and the West: Part 1

Three events inspired this post: 1) I reread A Canticle for Leibowitz, set in future Utah, for the first time since moving west, 2) a member of my scifi club out east joined wordpress (check out his blog here), and 3) I visited the fantastic Bisti Wilderness Area in northwest New Mexico. All at once, I was reminded of sharing the west with friends out east, and confronted with the west in future fiction and the west’s natural absurdity.

I pondered my bookshelf. The genre is not as teeming with western themes as one might think of a genre that grew up side-by-side with the cowboys and indians craze. There’s Joe Haldeman’s Worlds, which briefly depicts a future lawless Nevada. I thought of an Ursula Vernon short story and a series by R.S. Belcher that I have yet to read. But nothing else. It seemed odd. Then I saw all the books about Mars—in many ways, they are books about the west. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, Philip K. Dick’s hallucinogenic Martian books, Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land… whenever Mars is a character, it feels a lot like the west.

And it’s no surprise that the Mars of fiction feels like the west. John Carter was filmed in southern UtahTotal Recall filmed in Nevada. Robison Crusoe on Mars filmed in Arizona and Death Valley. It’s more than just superficial: NASA has tested rovers at White Sands National Monument, because the dunes are similar to those on Mars. NASA even brought a piece of rock to Mars from New Mexico on the rover for calibration purposes.

This post is just the first on this topic. I’ve lived in the west for six months now. I’ve traveled it only a little. I need to read the science fiction of the west, the science fiction of Mars, and to experience the natural surreality of this land. But for now, I leave you with the science fiction west.

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10 photos for 2015

How strange that this is the last Monday of 2015. I’ve done a lot in 2015. I moved 2000 miles and started a new life. There’s nothing like new digs to inspire photography and boy have I been inspired. Even after the standard culling, I have over 17,000 pictures from this year.

I’ve tried hard to improve my photography, revisiting basic lessons like composition and exposure and flash. I’ve taken photos that I wouldn’t have taken before–and I love them. I’ve committed to learning more about Photoshop, editing, and making the most of my images. I guess the best sign of all is that I’m eager for more in 2016 after all the hours I’ve spent behind the lens and in front of the computer this year.

So, without further ado, ten photos for 2015. They don’t cover everything from the year, but all ten represent different things. It’s great to look back over 17000 photos, you tend to forget some of them!

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The famous columns and herringbone brickwork of University of Virginia’s Academical Village. And for me, revisiting the basics of composition, contrast, and lines.

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A band of clouds (maybe some variant on Kelvin-Helmholtz clouds?) over a farm in rural Virginia. And a study in black and white.

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The Cherry Blossom festival in Washington, DC. Perfect blooms, perfect weather. And a composite of two focal depths so I would have my cake and eat it too, photographically.

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A pinhole of a pinhead. My lovely Chat Noir posing on National Pinhole Photography Day. Pinhole photography is more fun than ever with modern ISO capabilities.

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Iconic imagery in a new land. Pueblo deco architecture and classic cars on Route 66 in Albuquerque.

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Western landscapes. A slot canyon at Tent Rocks National Monument.

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Industrial decay at the Albuquerque Railyards, once the largest employer in the city, now a weekly farmer’s market. And a lot of neat, disused buildings.

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Classic car and red rocks on our October national parks trip. So many of my previous posts are stuffed with images from those journeys that I decided not to include more than just this one. Ten is quite the limit!

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The day before the Albuquerque International Balloon Festival, balloonists visit local elementary schools and teach kids about aviation.

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Bird love in Florida. Color, contrast, and life to end the year on a strong note.

Luminarias in New Mexico

It’s Christmastime, and in New Mexico that means the night is full of glowing paper bags. The streets of Old Town are lit with luminarias, candles in bags that are somehow transformative.

New Mexico is my fourth state in a decade. I’ve lived in Missouri, midwestern and self-conscious; northern New Jersey, its traffic snarled under the spires of the country’s greatest city; and central Virginia,pastoral and historic and preening. New Mexico stands apart. Maybe it feels different because it belonged to a different country until just before the Civil War. Maybe a place that actually gets mistaken for Mars (and is used to study Mars) inevitably feels different. But throughout my short six months in this state, I’ve enjoyed feeling like a stranger in a strange land that is still familiar enough to feel like home.

It’s luminaria season in New Mexico. When New Mexico was New Spain, Spanish merchants brought the tradition of paper lanterns from China . Something as simple as votive candles in brown sacks dates back centuries. And it’s as beautiful as ever to behold.

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Luminarias in an Old Town courtyard

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Old Town Holiday Stroll

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Christmas in New Mexico

 

A four day weekend goes a ways out west

You can do a lot in a four day weekend in the west. We visited White Sands National Monument, Chiricahua National Monument, the Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum, Saguaro National Park, and Petrified Forest National Park.

The pictures can say more than me. And I’m already a day late on this post! When I updated my operating system, my entire photo preview collection got eaten. Poor computer has been slaving around the clock since I discovered that yesterday. No data lost, but lots of work for compy and about 300 gigs of disc space that’s in limbo. Remember to back up your libraries!

National Monuments in New Mexico

Of the 117 designated national monuments in the United States, 14 of them are in New Mexico, second only to Arizona.  When I moved here in June, I dreamt of Arches National Park and the Grand Canyon and the mountains of Colorado. But I am learning what wonders my own state contains. All are 5 hours or less from Albuquerque, and 8 of them are among the 20 least visited national monuments in the country.

The national monuments here vary wildly. There’s anthropology at the Gila Cliff Dwellings in the mountainous southwest (discovered by a man shirking jury duty). There’s a 17th century Spanish Mission at Salinas Pueblo Missions in the eastern grasslands. There are miles of white gypsum dunes at White Sands, which also doubles as a bombing range.  There’s Petroglyph National Monument on the west of Albuquerque, with canyons full of ancient drawings.

The western landscape expands your vocabulary. You can see a slot canyon and hoodoos, or oddly-shaped rock columns 75 feet in height, at Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks. In addition to the lava fields and caves of El Malpais, you can check out the tinajas, dents that hold water after rain and bloom sporadically with life, in the sandstone bluffs. Anywhere you find sandstone you might find tafoni, or small and intricate erosion patterns.

So I’m slowing traveling to the national monuments of New Mexico, camera in hand. I’ve visited Petroglyphs, Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks, and El Malpais.

Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks

Tent Rocks is named for its rocks that resemble tents, which tower 75 feet. The excellent “slot canyon trail” takes you through a slot canyon, by the hoodoos, and to a viewpoint overlooking the hoodoos; the viewpoint also provides panoramas of New Mexico scrub and the Valles Caldera. The other trail, the Cave Loop Trail, is an easy enough walk but not very interesting. Tent Rocks is a fairly small and recently established national monument. It’s easy to reach from Albuquerque and Santa Fe, with good quality roads.

If you visit Tent Rocks in the summer, get there early. We went in July and arrived at 9 AM and it was hot at the end. Other than the summer heat and rain, Tent Rocks is a great year-round destination. It is fairly popular and gets bus tours on summer weekends.

Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument in New Mexico, near Albuquerque and Santa Fe.

Sandstone hoodoos in Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument.

Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument in New Mexico, near Albuquerque and Santa Fe.

Slot canyon.

Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument in New Mexico, near Albuquerque and Santa Fe.

Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument in New Mexico, near Albuquerque and Santa Fe.

El Malpais National Monument

El Malpais translates to “the bad country.” The park has two branches which follow lava fields, which you can see easily on the satellite image of the park. Highway 117 traces the eastern edge and features sandstone bluffs, the second-largest natural arch in New Mexico, and lava fields. Highway 53 traces the west and features volcanic caves and ice caves, although many of the best features are reached only by dirt road. This weekend, I visited the sights along highway 117.

The Sandstone Bluffs Overlook area is great. The light and bright sandstone really stands out against the black fields of lava below. To the north, you can see Mt. Taylor, an inactive volcano. Dents in the sandstone, tinajas, are common on the bluff tops. Though it hadn’t rained much before we went, some still contained water and one had ice at midday.

La Ventana arch, just off the road, is the next stop south. This time of year, the north-facing arch seemed to be in shadow all day. I plan to visit again in April or May, when the light might be better but before the crushing summer heat.

The last stop south is the Lava Falls Area, which features a 1 mile hike through Pahoehoe lava. This is smoother and easier underfoot than most of the lava in the park. The Lava Falls Area is only 3000 years old, extremely young in geological terms, and some of the youngest lava in the lower 48.

In mid November, crowds were no issue. We went on a nice November day and were quite comfortable, even with the altitude. In the Lava Falls Area, it was bordering on warm, with all that black stone everywhere. I suspect much of El Malpais would be unbearably hot in the summer. The dirt roads in the western part of the park are impassable with snow, so the best seasons for El Malpais are fall and late spring.

"A tinaja is a bedrock depression that fills with water during the summer monsoonal rains and when snowfall accumulates in the winter. These microhabitats spring to life when the baked-dry stone basins fill with seasonal water." -From the National Park Service El Malpais website. Sandstone Bluffs Overlook in El Malpais National Monument in western New Mexico.

A tinaja in the sandstone bluffs, looking north to Mount Taylor. Below to the left are the lava fields.

Sandstone formations at Sandstone Bluffs Overlook in El Malpais

Lava Falls Area at El Malpais National Monument in western New Mexico.

Lava Falls Area at El Malpais National Monument in western New Mexico. The lava here has several textures, but my favorite is this ropy, viscous one.

Petroglyph National Monument

Petroglyph National Monument is on the west side of Albuquerque. I realize only now that I didn’t bring my DSLR camera on this trip, but the picture below shows even a cell phone can capture the petroglyphs well. There are three sites in Petroglyph, all easy to reach. The most popular site, Boca Negra, requires some uphill hiking. The two canyons supposedly require less. Like El Malpais, the rock is black and volcanic (though older), and it gets hot in the summer.

In Petroglyphs, you can visit the Three Sisters volcanoes on the western mesa. These three cinder cones are remarkably small, but due to their position atop the mesa are visible from the whole city. Hiking the Three Sisters is still on my to-do list, but I suspect the views back toward the city and the Sandia Mountains are pretty great.

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Petroglyph at Boca Negra site