The terrain to the south, as I discover during my afternoon hike, is equally weird and wonderful. After traversing a cracked dirt mound that takes me beyond the bowl-like confines of camp and into the neighboring dry wash, I enjoy the open view to the east where a series of step-like benches culminate eventually at the overlook I visited a couple of years ago – and from which, frustratingly, I could find no feasible means of descent into this fairyland of erosional features.
South and east stretches a rim of peaks characterized by their corrugated flanks, varied coloration and low-level hoodoo battlements. Towering above a cadre of molar-like hoodoos is a most improbable cone of banded clay that rises precipitously to a point, as if recently attended by that great pencil sharpener in the sky. I’m struck by a visceral, lizard-brained urge to climb it, or at least climb up to the base of it to better grasp its significance and somehow absorb its radiating other-worldliness. But I resist.
I return to camp in time to relax with a beer and a good cigar before preparing for my evening walk up into the same terrain I visited this morning. I pack along a longer focal length zoom lens (though the trusty 16-35 never leaves the camera body, as it turns out), plus gorp for emergency energy and water – because, duh, water! I also don an LED headlamp in case I tarry too long up above and need help finding my way back down to camp.
(In fact, the route back down is problematic, even in daylight. Being a natural-born worrier, I struggle with the idea of working my way back up into the broken country this close to sundown, with the specter of a cold overnight bivouac—or, worse, a head-first tumble down a precipitous clay slope—front of mind.) As I’ve done on prior such solo expeditions, I overestimate the rapidity with which darkness can fall and spend a couple of hours waiting for it once I’ve returned safely to camp.
The air mattress I inflated earlier provides adequate cushion against the dusty ground for most of the night, and although I have my usual difficulty sleeping soundly (we’ll not go into the tribulations of advancing age and its attendant complaints) I don’t seem to mind it much. The privilege of simply being here makes up for any short-term lack of creature comforts.
During my 24 hours on site, the number of other visitors I encounter in the Lybrook badlands remains at a smirk-inducing zero. In fact, the last person I saw before turning off on this final spur road, and the first person I see again upon leaving it, is the driver of an oil tanker truck, who waves at me appreciatively as I pull to the side of the narrow track and allow him to pass.
No other visitors? That’s just the way I like it. As for you, I suggest you check out the far more well-known and routinely-visited BIsti/De Na Zin wilderness not far to the northwest. You’ll much prefer it. Trust me.
Tucked away in an obscure corner of northwestern New Mexico lies a land of eroded stone-and-clay structures that seem inspired by the visions of Giger and sculpted by the unsteady hand of a gibbering lunatic. (God? Mother Nature? Choose your favorite causal metaphor and/or deity.) I’ve packed along the proper supplies and gear for spending a night out here in the vasty wastes, because—as all photographers know—the best light occurs in close proximity to sunup and sundown.
(It’s a testament to my enthusiasm for image-gathering that I take this camping-oriented approach, having reached an age and a level of self-realization that makes me aware of a distinct preference for comfy bedding and interior climate controls. But the truth of the matter is that the badlands region in question is remote enough from any such accommodations that the feasibility of being there for golden light dictates sleeping on the hard ground, in the questionable security of a tent.)
I’ve spent several years (and three previous trips to NW NM) planning and researching for this. Lybrook, I’ve concluded, is the least-visited of the region’s badland precincts for a number of regions: as mentioned, it’s remote from tourist accommodations; it’s probably the last of the major badlands areas to be documented in terms of access; and the dirt road approach requires something more robust and lofty than the family sedan, primarily due to a couple of dished-out low water crossings with treacherous sandy footing. Your Honda Accord won’t be making the trip, at least not all the way – though your (or my) Nissan Rogue should encounter no difficulties, if driven with care.
(Wait – I’ve almost forgotten to mention that all bets are off if you happen to be driving on this stretch of road in the rain. Prepare to be stuck. Hope you brought along plenty of drinking water and a deck of cards for some real-life desert solitaire.)
Which reminds me – I won’t be sharing any details of the route with you here. I did my homework and studied up on the several available descriptions of road junctions, turnoffs and mileages—some of which will take you to the heartland of hoodoos and some of which won’t—so why shouldn’t you do the same? I think you’ll benefit from the Googling exercise, and it will make your successful excursion into the Lybrook all the more satisfying.
(Plus, I’d prefer you simply stay away. Nothing spoils a special place like the tromping of too many boots.)
Suffice it to say that we owe our drive-up access to the road-building engineers of the oil and gas industry, who have so kindly provided us with an easy way into the nexus of the backcountry. Salute or Bronx cheer, as you see fit.
Due to a brain abnormality that stems from the fact that I grew up Texan in the era of Gunsmoke, Rawhide and Have Gun – Will Travel, I pack along a pistol – though not of the six-shooter variety. It’s a sub-compact 9mm, more or less the equivalent of a snub-nose .38 revolver. The utility of such an arm on a camping excursion is questionable at best. There are no wild animals out here that pose any sort of a threat that could be alleviated with such a handgun. Reflecting on the matter, I suppose it could be used to dispatch a coyote – but why would I want to shoot a coyote? I like coyotes. Their strident yipping on a lonely night spent on the fringes of civilization is music to my ears.
The thought of blasting the head off a vicious rattlesnake occurs as a possible justification for firearms carry, but my marksmanship with the diminutive automatic is such that I would need to expend a good deal of ammunition to have a chance at coming near such a target. Truth be told, I’d be far better off hurling a fist-sized stone, of which there are plenty on-site. (Besides, rattlesnakes are not vicious and are better off simply avoided.)
But enough about my mental aberrations. The fact remains that I feel better about arming myself when I venture off alone into the sticks. I comfort myself in the fact that the pistol can be used as a handy noisemaker in the event I become trapped without means of escape, 127 Hours-fashion. Strings of three shots are known to be taken as a sign of distress. (At least, they were in the era of Gunsmoke, Rawhide and Have Gun – Will Travel.)
Arriving at my destination and parking at a reasonable distance from the oil pumper and attendant storage tanks, I bask in the glow of satisfaction at having reached this place. It’s midday, more or less, and cloudless—in other words, the worst possible conditions for photography—but that doesn’t stop me from tally-ho-ing my way onto the cracked dirt slopes, camera in hand (or on strap) and backpack packed with high-energy food items and water. My plan is to see as much of the surrounding territory as I can with the goal of scoping out a likely photographic perch to return to come sundown.
Before too long I’m reminded of how treacherous the footing is on these deceptively gentle slopes. Due to their varied clay/dirt/crushed stone composition, one quickly develops a sense of the risk factor involved with each kind of surface:
• Gray w/mud cracks – take care! Although your foot plant feels solid, shifting your weight may bring on a palsy-inducing shamble as you attempt to reach firmer ground.
• Reddish w/embedded irregular pebbles – warning: though the surface seems semi-firm, its underpinnings don’t know the meaning of stability. Make your way quickly and carefully to an area of gray w/mud cracks.
• Grayish-white w/embedded round pebbles – you idiot! How did you end up standing (if you are still standing) on this stuff? Immediately proceed (on your butt) to the nearest non-grayish-white w/embedded round pebbles surface and thank your lucky stars that you haven’t slid all the way back down to your starting point. Unless you have.
In the Lybrook there is one saving grace: a stratum of rock-solid calcite that forms a band just above the lowest erosional level and at the base of the mid-level hoodoo gardens. By floundering one’s way up to this ledge-like structure, a canny hiker can quickly traverse long stretches of terrain with only the occasional need for detouring onto less-substantial footing. It’s the only way to fly!
Even though it’s late May, midday and cloudless, a wind out of the north is keeping things cool enough that my jacket feels pretty good. I’m discovering a wonderland of rock formations with something curious, charming or spectacular around every bend. My camera’s shutter is getting a workout. It’s a good day to be alive and ambulatory.
Having worn myself out sufficiently and gotten a good idea of the lay of the land to the north of camp, I retire for a bit and break out a book while enjoying a lunch of gorp, pemmican bar and apple. I position my lawn chair on the north side of the Rogue to eke out as much shade as I can. My trusty floppy hat certainly helps.
Comb Ridge is bordered on the east by the long north-south trending drainage called Butler Wash. The east-facing rocky cliffs and dished-out overhangs along this mostly dry creekbed preserve a number of ancestral puebloan ruins and petroglyphs. A great deal of visitor attention is paid to the section of the wash between 163 (W of Bluff) and 95 (W of Blanding), probably because this part of the wash is paralleled by a rough dirt road.
North of 95, access to the section known as Upper Butler Wash (or West Upper Butler Wash, to differentiate it from the part that branches off to the right just north of the highway) is by trail. The path follows the alternately sandy and rocky creekbed, which is graced with shade along much of its length courtesy of the abundant cottonwoods and associated riparian flora – quite a boon during hot cloudless days.
A walk up the wash is like living an adventure story right out of the movies – around each bend awaits … who knows what, really? All one knows for sure is that several prominent Anasazi ruins await the hiker who knows where to veer off the trail and scramble up the water-worn rock slopes to the cliff faces above. It’s enough to make a person want to explore every side-canyon, regardless of his or her carefully planned itinerary.
Specifics to be found on the internet vary, but approximately 1.7 miles up the wash from 95 is a clearly-marked (thanks, BLM!) divergence off to the left that climbs the rocky slope to Ballroom Cave. If you haven’t already spotted the ruins from the wash below, you’ll soon make them out as you approach up the steep path. This ruin is a classic example of something that looks modest from below turning into something downright spectacular upon arrival.
If there’s any question about the identity of the ruin in which you now stand, the government agency in charge has removed all doubt by providing the visitor with documentation stored in a handy waterproof ammo can stashed next to one of the two crumbling kivas to be found here. Within the printed pages are details of the timeframe during which the ruins were inhabited (1200 A.D., more or less) and reasoned speculations about the lifestyle and social organization of the builders and residents.
Evidence as to lifestyle includes numerous potsherds and a surprising abundance of ancient corncobs. There are also a large number of metates/grinding grooves in the boulders littering the overhang.
While the term “cave” is bandied about incautiously as applied to many southwestern ruin sites, here it is actually appropriate, as a vast cavern opens up downslope behind the observational and/or battlement masonry structure that today glares mutely out over the canyon below. There are said to be bats residing on the ceiling of the place, though a desultory appraisal did not reveal such to this explorer’s gaze.
It should go without saying at this point that removal of relics from a site such as this is llegal, immoral and a sure sign of downright assholery on the part of those doing the thievery. Aside from the federal offense aspect, disturbance of cultural artifacts ruins the ruin, if you’ll excuse the expression, for purposes of archaeological study. More importantly from a casual visitor’s standpoint, the actual presence here of such physical reminders of the past makes the journey a true adventure – a veritable walk back in time.
Frankly, it’s somewhat astonishing that sites such as this that are entirely unsupervised still contain pocketable antiquities of any variety. It gives me some hope for man’s better nature, and makes me think that the educational process must be having some positive effect in terms of instilling a respect for the past and fostering a mindfulness to support sharing it with others.
(NAH. It’s probably just that not many people have found the place – and those few who make the effort have a certain amount of respect for the idea of historical preservation.)
On our return trip down the wash back toward the highway we paused to clamber up a steep drainage to take in the view of Target Ruin (aka Bullseye Ruin). This improbably-sited masonry and jacal “mixed-use” structure shows remarkable preservation – undoubtedly due to the fact that it is inaccessible. It perches a dozen feet or more above us on a ledge that appears unreachable with anything short of a fireman’s ladder. Even a rappel from above looks like a sketchy proposition, given the broad brow of the overhang. So in the case of Target Ruin, one must be content to marvel from below at the resourcefulness of the builders and inhabitants.
(Are those Moki steps I see on the sandstone below the ruin? Or perhaps posthole anchors? Maybe just natural rock cavities that I’m “anthropomorphing” into something they’re not.)
For five years now, Anne and I have traveled to the Southwestern US to spend our annual week’s vacation. These trips have centered on the canyonlands country around Moab, Utah – but for the past several years I’ve made a point of choosing a different starting point, where we’ll have a day or two to see something we’ve never seen before and (potentially) find new places to love before driving on to our favorite hangouts in and around Moab.
This year, as usual, we started by flying into Grand Junction and renting a car. Then, instead of heading straight west into Utah, we took backroads (141 and 491) leading south toward Cortez, CO – HQ for Mesa Verde and, more recently, gateway to the recently established Canyons of the Ancients National Monument.
Our chosen resting place for the first two nights of our trip was Kelly Place, a B&B several miles out along a secondary county road from town. The owners of Kelly Place have built upon the area’s renown for archaeological wonders by gearing their establishment toward those with an interest in such things. The property backs up to the national monument, allowing hiking access into the park right from one’s front door, as it were.
Even without leaving the grounds, however, you can tour several ancient ruins (restored and not) at your leisure. There’s actually a prominent “cliff dwelling” (or perhaps a granary) within view of the lodge’s front porch. Pretty cool!
We spent a morning taking the walking tour of the grounds (featuring a pair of kivas, a ruined pueblo and historic pioneer buildings), then decamped to Mesa Verde National Park for the afternoon.
At Mesa Verde we enjoyed the long, incredibly scenic drive up onto the mesa and capped off the day with a walk to Spruce Tree House. The museum nearby has one of the best interpretive displays I’ve seen on Anasazi / ancestral puebloan culture, and includes an astonishing array of found pottery and other artifacts.
Front-of-mind during a visit to Mesa Verde is the sad history of recent forest fires that have periodically devastated the mesa top and surrounding canyons. Blackened sticks of trees are all that remain in several sections, though the forest shows signs of reestablishing itself. Nature carries on, at least in this part of the world.
Old Fort Union is one of those travel destinations you don’t just wander into by accident. It’s eight miles out a dead-end road off of I-25, NE of the town of Las Vegas, NM. Those who plan a visit will be rewarded with an opportunity to amble through an extensive series of windblown ruins of barracks, quartermasters storehouses and officers’ quarters dating from the mid- to late-1800s.
The military outpost actually had three distinct incarnations – the first a group of crude log structures erected against wooded bluffs to the west of Wolf Creek in 1851; the second a series of star-shaped earthworks thrown up hastily in the early years of the Civil War (in part to protect against invading Confederates from Texas); and the third a more elaborately-planned and laid out complex of army post and quartermaster depot buildings that served as a major supply hub for westward travel in the era of pioneering expansion.
The post actually sits astride the Santa Fe Trail, the rutted remains of which can still be viewed on the drive out 161 to the monument itself. (In some places the “ruts” appear more like a dry watercourse, so deep were they worn over the course of years of frontier travel.) Distant peaks of the Sangre de Cristo mountains can be seen to the west and northwest, while the site itself resides in a sea of prairie grass.
On a blustery spring day when the weather had decided to revert back to more wintery temps, Fort Union took on an air of lonely isolation that seemed appropriate, given its ruined condition. The crumbling adobe walls and slowly disintegrating wagons hinted at a time in the not-too-distant future when the prairie would overcome this abandoned outpost once and for all, leaving nothing behind but—perhaps—the whispers of spirit bugles calling the post to assembly.
I had actually scouted the secondary road leading to the Mesa de Cuba badlands late in the afternoon on Sunday, upon returning to Cuba, NM, after my visit to Jemez State Monument. The twin ruts of the dirt track were inches deep in water. Definitely a no-go unless I was willing to risk getting mired in the mud. (I wasn’t.)
So I almost didn’t even bother to make the return trip to the road where it intersected with Hwy 197 about 5 1/2 miles SW of town on Monday afternoon. But, having just completed an enjoyable short hike up the eastern side of the mesa, and still with plenty of water and supplies on hand to pack a trail lunch, I decided to have another look. It had rained again overnight, but we’d had an entire morning without precip since then. Maybe conditions had improved.
Indeed, when I arrived at the sideroad around noontime it showed only minor puddling. I took the precaution of walking out onto its surface before proceeding to drive on it. With all-wheel-drive engaged, my small high-clearance crossover got me about a mile and a half up the muddy track where I found a spot to pull off the throughway on solid ground. Then it was boots on – bipedal drive engaged.
I hiked eastward into the colorfully-banded mounds of clay, capped by red sandstone boulders and the occasional flat carapace of impermeable ironstone, father to hoodoo development beneath.
I quickly discovered that the apparently dry terrain was far from it; the normally dry mud-cracked features were now slick, wet mud-cracked features, limiting my travel options to the very bottom levels of the drainage. (An early attempt to work my way just a few steps up the side of one mound quickly met with a slip-and-fall worthy of a feeble octogenarian.)
Under these conditions, even the slightest tilt to the surface led to sliding backward progress. I soon learned which colorations of strata made for the most serious slipping concerns (the darker ones, in general), and took care to plant feet firmly when crossing those areas.
Conversely and counterintuitively, the very waterlogged-appearing beds of the drainage channels ended up being some of the easiest and least-muddy areas to navigate. It never fails to amaze me how little we can understand about a terrain without actually getting out into it.
I was pleased to have had the chance to get out and walk among the badlands, which after all had been the object of my trip from the planning stages. I made a wide loop around the basin following the edge of the erosion features before circling back to the road and my waiting vehicle. I glimpsed enough of the higher elevations of the interior to convince me that a return trip under more favorable (dry) conditions would be worthwhile.
Next time, for sure.