In Praise of Place: Lybrook Badlands, Part 1
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.