Friday, May 15, 2015

New Mexico :: A Land Before Time

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” ~Mark Twain


If you follow me on Instagram or Facebook, then you've probably seen me posting recently with the hashtag #stagecoachNOLA.  Simply put, it was a 10 day road trip/camping expedition through the heart of New Mexico.  Forty five hours driving time and 3,000 miles later, this is the result. 

I planned the trip with my good friend and avid outdoorsman, Mountain Mike Guastella.  He is a total gear junkie and almost dies at least twice a year in the middle of some godforsaken place, so I knew I was is good hands.  While his motto is "my vacation is your nightmare", he promised to take it easy on me.  This was to be a fun photographic journey, not a test of our survival skills.  We had a loose itinerary but nothing was set in stone. 

New Mexico was stunning.  April was the perfect time to visit the desert- everything was relatively lush and green.  That quickly changes once summer moves in.  I was quite shocked at how cold it was, even during the day.  Once the sun went down it was down right freezing.  It even snowed on us the second night in the mountains.  But trust me, camping cold is so much better than camping hot.  

New Mexico still feels very much like the wild west- you could get away with anything out there.  It's just miles and miles of wide open sky and the most beautiful colors you've ever seen.  I was taken aback.  It was straight out of a Georgia O'Keeffe painting.  No wonder she chose to die here.  From an artist's standpoint, I can't think of a much more inspirational place.  You could photograph/paint/draw the same scene an infinite amount of times without it getting old.  Mike was very patient with me.    

I've said this before and I'll say it again.  Along with freedom, the National Park system is the best idea America has ever had.  Everywhere we went, with the exception of Bisti and White Sands, is accessible by wheelchair.  That is the beauty of America.  Drive up, pitch a tent, and experience the glory of God's country.  And you should, because you're paying for it. 

We live in wonderful times.  The travel is easy and gas is cheap.  Even getting away for just a few days will have a permanent change on your outlook, I guarantee you.  So get out there!

[Side note: If you're reading this and are affiliated with the State of New Mexico, Jeep, Patagonia, The North Face, and/or Big Agnes and want to throw me a couple of bucks or some free stuff, that'd be great.  Just message me.]

We drove 16 hours the first day.  With another injection of red bull we could have pushed onward toward Santa Fe, but we would have missed one of the highlights of the trip- the Caprock Canyons in Texas.  We didn't plan on visiting, and we certainly weren't expecting anything this beautiful.  Pulling up at midnight we couldn't see any of the landscape that surrounded us, but it was a perfect starry night, so we decided to forgo the tent.  

I will say this about camping in the wilderness- you are very aware of what is happening all around you.  The howls and chirps of Coyotes completely surrounded us, bouncing of the canyon walls and echoing for miles.  They were loud, and at times sounded like they were in a frenzy.  But as loud and as close as they were you quickly realize they're of no danger.  In fact, they sounded downright playful.  It was nature's sound machine- the perfect way to fall asleep.  

Waking up in a canyon of this magnitude on the first day was a real treat, and totally unexpected. 

Santa Fe is an art lover's paradise.  We arrived in the early evening and had a bit of a time finding a place to eat.  Turns out that Santa Fe, while absolutely gorgeous, is full of nothing but old people and art galleries.  It's a picture perfect town, and maybe even a bit too perfect.  Stuff is so clean it looks fake.  I will say, however, that the people of Santa Fe were some of the nicest I've met anywhere.  If I've learned one thing about traveling, it's that people will always surprise you with their kindness.  Traveling can, and will, restore your faith in humanity.  

Fun fact: founded in 1610, Santa Fe is the oldest state capital in America.  Now you know!

If you're visiting Santa Fe in the near future, you'll probably find Doc sitting on a park bench in the main square, perfectly willing to indulge a stranger but also perfectly willing to just sit there at peace with the world.  He's is/was a tour guide, but due to a stroke two weeks back, is on a bit of an hiatus pending a further medical exam.  He had $6 to his name, but he wasn't asking for money.  Truly a nice guy, despite the mug shot above.

In short, the Valles Grande is a giant collapsed volcano.  These pictures (as with the rest of these sights) just don't do it justice.  Coming out of the piney mountain woods to see an entire valley floor covered in nothing but grass is quite an impressive sight.  It's as if there's an invisible line where trees aren't allowed to cross.  Watching the shadows of the clouds swoop across the valley floor was mesmerizing.  Highly recommended, even if you're just passing through.

The ruins of this Spanish church date back to 1621, when the Spanish came in and aggressively tried to convert the Jemez people to Catholicism, which eventually led to a great (and successful) revolt by the Jemez people.  But those pesky Catholics weren't done yet.  They came back 12 years later with a vengeance, hell bent on converting every single last one of them.  It was called the "Bloodless Reconquest" and only 86 people were killed, a few of which were burned alive and thrown off cliffs.  So yeah, bloodless.  You know what they say- if you can't save 'em, kill 'em!

Fast forward 400 years and it worked!  This modern Catholic church is directly across the street.

“For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.” ~Robert Louis Stevenson

“Adventure is a path. Real adventure – self-determined, self-motivated, often risky – forces you to have firsthand encounters with the world. The world the way it is, not the way you imagine it. Your body will collide with the earth and you will bear witness. In this way you will be compelled to grapple with the limitless kindness and bottomless cruelty of humankind – and perhaps realize that you yourself are capable of both. This will change you. Nothing will ever again be black-and-white.” ~Mark Jenkins

A New Mexican roadblock.

For me, Bisti was the absolute highlight of the trip.  It's the closest to exploring a foreign planet that I'll ever experience, and the feeling was not lost on me.  Bisti awoke my imagination like few other places ever have.  If I could only recommend one place on this trip to visit, this would be the one.  Simply put, I felt like a kid again.  

Never before had I ever seen such landscapes.  It didn't look like we were on planet Earth.  Few people have ever even heard of the place and it's surprisingly hard to get to, which means you pretty much have free reign over the place.  There are no trails and nothing is off limits.  You are entirely on your own.  This only added to the awesomeness of it all.

In prehistoric times, all of this was a great swampland on the edge of an ancient sea, which covered most of New Mexico.  So basically in another 70 million years or so this is what southern Louisiana might look like!  Fascinating!  

From a geological standpoint, this place just baffled me.  I'm no expert, but I do know that 70 million plus years of wind and water erosion can wreak havoc on even the hardest of rock.  Perhaps the strangest thing about this place was how soft and fragile everything was.  I mean, you could just touch a hoodoo or "rock" and it would crumble in your hand.  I'm not sure how these structures are still standing.  Any geologists out there want to shed some light? 

Under the light of a quarter moon, the place transformed itself once again.  Flashlights were not needed.  If these pictures don't peak your imagination, then you need not read further. 

Between 900 and 1200 AD the Chaco Canyon was home to one of the most impressive civilizations of the Indian world- the Chacoans.  They didn't just build houses, they built great cities which remained the largest buildings in North America until the 19th century.  Pretty impressive stuff.  These cities were completely abandoned by 1200, most likely due to a 50 year drought in the area.  Like the crumbling cliffs all around us, it's just more proof that nothing last forever.  

It was by far the most crowded and "campiest" of all our locations, but that did not hamper at all the beauty and majesty of the place.  

We took a much needed hotel/shower break in Albuquerque, and I must say, the place looked a lot cooler than I thought it would.  

Another cool aspect of the trip, at least from a photographer's point of view, was the sheer amount of ghost towns and abandoned settlements along the way.  I lost track of them all.

The Valley of Fire was not on our agenda, but when our previous camp site didn't work out, we decided it to give it a go.  The campsite is adjacent to the Malpais Lava flow, which covers 125 square miles of desert floor.  At only 5,000 years old it is the youngest lava flow in the continental U.S.  

It was insanely windy upon our arrival- to a worrying degree- but we were lucky enough to find a perfect little cove surrounded by high lava walls and trees, giving us a much needed break from the wind.  It didn't make it any easier to leave the warmth of my sleeping bag at 4:00 AM for some star shots, but it was worth it.

Our protected little cove.

The constantly changing shapes of the pure white sands in the heart of New Mexico is truly a great natural wonder.  The sands are as pure and as white as anything I've ever seen.  The white dunes take up about 275 square miles of land, but only about 125 of those are protected by the U.S. Park Service.  The other bit is home to a top secret military base which routinely tests new missiles and other top secret "stuff".  Apparently it's not too uncommon for people to find un-blown up missiles and fragments of bombs on the dunes.  We weren't so lucky.  This spot was also about 20 miles away from where the first atomic bomb in the world was detonated.  Unfortunately I left my geiger counter at home, but I'm pretty sure the radiation has calmed down a bit.  

It was freezing cold once the sun went far the coldest night of the trip.  We forwent the tent once again on account of the wide open skies and bright stars, and it didn't disappoint.  Sleeping under the Milky Way really makes you realize how small we are, and how infinitely vast the universe is.  It's a healthy reminder. 

Unfortunately I forgot my trumpet.

You could read a book by moonlight. 

Carlsbad Caverns was the absolute perfect end to the trip.  Being borderline claustrophobic and not a huge fan of tight spaces, caves have never really been high on my list, but the sheer size and magnitude of this place was mind blowing.  Once again, it is impossible to scale just how big this place is from the pictures, so plan a trip yourself.  And once again, the U.S. National Park service has outdone itself.  You could tour the whole thing in a wheelchair, and the lighting throughout it gorgeous.  After walking more than a mile into the belly of the earth, you simply take an elevator back up to the top.  It's almost like Disney World.  Almost.  

I'd be lying if I said the earthquake in Nepal, which had happened the day before our visit, wasn't fresh on my mind as we crawled further and further into the cave.  Even the thought of the electricity going out was enough to make you panic.  But you try and keep your thoughts on the beauty of the cave, and not being trapped 1,000 feet below the surface of the earth with no way out.    

Yep- a restaurant and gift shop- 1,000 feet under ground.  America!

Our last stop on the trip was in Wimberley, TX for a hot shower, clean sheets, and family.  A big thanks to my cousin Lynn and Aunt Nancy for providing great company...and breakfast burritos! 

In conclusion, New Mexico has got to be one of the most diverse regions in the entire world.  The entire American West is a national treasure and should be treated as such.  America does a great job of preserving its nature and making it accessible to everyone, and we should all take advantage of that.      

But perhaps the one lasting impression I took from this trip is that nothing lasts forever.  The greatest civilizations and the greatest mountains and the greatest continents are forever changing, crumbling and fading.  What is swamp today is desert tomorrow.  The Universe plays by a set a rules that cannot be broken, and we are powerless to stop it.  For there to be life, there needs to be decay.   

One thing is for sure- the earth will be here long after we humans are gone.  We may eventually destroy ourselves and everything in sight, but give Mother Earth another 70 million years and she'll be right back at it, harboring life and green and beating right along.

But even her time is limited.  One day our sun will burn out and it will be the end of everything in our little bitty solar system, but rest assured, someone or something will be looking out from another planet far far away, staring at the stars and wondering if there's someone like them out there, somewhere.  


“Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.” ~Miriam Beard


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  2. Thank you for taking such beautiful photos of my beloved state.