Juniper spice and pinyon. A tree whose bark smells like vanilla and sugar warming in the sun. Scents mixed on a dry desert breeze suddenly bring a world I’d read about to life. My brothers and I made camp at Joe Skeen campground on the outskirts of El Malpais National Monument, a protected portion of a chain of both ancient and rather recently erupted New Mexico volcanoes that so littered the surrounding plains with jagged volcanic rock, cinders and hardened black lava flows that the Spaniards named it “the bad land”.
That morning we’d driven west from Albuquerque to visit Junction Cave at El Malpais. A number of lava tubes remain underground in the area, formed when the outside of lava flows hardened and insulated the lava within, allowing it to remain molten long enough to flow out of the larger mass and leave a cavity behind. Some of these have collapsed in a couple spots, revealing the tunnel to aboveground explorers. Junction Cave is the NPS’s advertised easiest cave, requiring no special equipment besides headlights. After slipping through the bars of a narrow iron fence at the entrance (probably made so narrow as a warning: if you have trouble fitting through this opening, you don’t belong here) and after a pair of bobbing lights materialized into an older couple coming the other way near the mouth of the cave, we had the place all to ourselves. Inside we couldn’t see our hands in front of our faces. It got so narrow and low before the end that we were only able to slide on our stomachs, using our toes to push ourselves forward through the silent dark. It was pretty cool.
That evening our campground was at the base of a small mesa that wrapped around the area to the north and east, providing some shelter from the wind that passes through the flat, open plains elsewhere in New Mexico. We had nothing but time, so I went exploring.
I scrambled over sandy slopes and boulders to reach the top of the mesa overlooking our campground, taking care to search the rock ledges for rattlesnakes before trusting them with any appendages. There are ants anywhere one cares to look out here, including to my dismay patrolling the sticky vertical highways of my treasured vanilla tree, which I later learned is the famous Ponderosa Pine. Having mostly escaped the gnats swarming the campground below where Johnny was coking rice and beans, I took a moment to soak in the sun washing over me.
Then, jumping from rock to rock where I could, stepping gingerly around rabbit warrens, snake holes and ant hills when the sand overcame the natural pavement, I wandered alone over the sandy plateau. I passed and wondered at red cactus flowers, rock mortars and shallow dry pools in the sandstone boulders. Piles of desiccated scat from an animal much larger than me lay scattered under scrubby twisting bushes and tufts of coarse grass. I lost a staring contest with a tiny desert rabbit and as a consolation prize took the time to memorize the shape of its tracks in the sand. There were bigger paw prints too. This was cougar country, and I didn’t know how long it takes for wind and rain to obliterate tracks up here. I was a little more alert after that.
I’ve never seen anything like the high desert. It stretches for hundreds of miles around the Sandia mountains and Albuquerque, the largest of the few urban oases out here. The tan and brown and ocre-stuccoed architecture of the region blends into the environment, and the few scattered homesteads we pass on the interstate sprawl haphazardly across the plain – 1 story ranch houses, old SUVs and ramshackle sheds arranged like man-made compliments to the natural décor. Every now and then a massive string of railroad cars breaks the emptiness. I tried to count one and gave up after the 105th car. Property values within an hour of Albuquerque drop to as low as $300.00 an acre for small parcels. Anyone with a little bit of know-how and an adventurous spirit could build a homestead out here for almost nothing. Maybe someday…