Last Saturday, Jim and I took a break from watching
the wind beat up our garden and went hiking with our friend, Michael Wester.
Michael’s family owns an in-holding in the Cibola National Forest, east of the Manzano Mountains, which are south and east of Albuquerque. The drive is fairly long but, once you leave Albuquerque, it’s through pretty countryside.
Well, “pretty” if your idea of pretty includes pastures dotted with scrub juniper, occupied by the occasional cow or horse, with lots of empty spaces in between. Fortunately, mine does. In addition to cows and horses, we also saw a fair number of ravens, but the hawks seemed to be on holiday. So were most of the smaller birds.
We passed through a few small towns with interesting sounding names: Tijeras, Escobosa, Torreon, and Manzano. My favorites were Chilili and Tajique, both of which have their roots in Pueblo Indian languages.
Many of these “towns” didn’t consist of much more than an old, Spanish-style church (usually without a resident priest, but with a well-tended cemetery), a general store (sometimes with a gas pump), and a cluster of old houses and battered trailers.
And dogs. We passed through several towns without seeing a single person, but I always saw at least one dog, usually middle-sized and brown. After a while, I began to entertain the fantasy that there were no people in these towns, just the dogs.
Eventually, we turned off the paved road onto a well-maintained dirt road. At this slower pace, we could better appreciate the wild flowers on the roadside, splashes of pink and white with a little yellow thrown in. Recent rains meant the area was fairly green – that is, “green” by New Mexico standards. Most folks would still find it rather brown.
(Reminds me of one September when David and Sharon Weber were visiting. We were heading out somewhere and I noticed that the recent autumn monsoon rains had really greened up the canyon across from our house. I said, “It’s nice and green this autumn.” To which Sharon, a South Carolina native, responded dryly, “Jane, you’ve lived out here too long. That’s not green.”)
Anyhow, progressing down roads of gradually diminishing width, we ended up on Michael’s family land. This is at a higher elevation than Albuquerque, so the dominant trees were Ponderosa pines and some of the taller varieties of junipers, including the alligator juniper pictured on this page. I particularly liked the alligator junipers, not only for their unusual bark, but also for how the trunks often seemed to be braided, rather than just growing straight.
There were other trees as well, clusters of scrub oak (you never seem to get just one), some impressive pion, and sundry varieties of pine and juniper. Unlike the forests I grew up with in southern Maryland, these forests have very little undergrowth. Even in uncleared areas, you could walk pretty freely, without threading along on paths.
Despite being further south than Albuquerque, the higher elevation meant spring wasn’t as advanced. Other than some Indian paintbrush, mountain mahogany, and some daisy-like flowers, we didn’t see a lot blooming, but I could see where not too much later the area would be glorious with penstemon.
Michael’s cousins, Wayne and Lorane, were wonderful hosts. We visited in a log cabin that Michael’s father (now nearly ninety) had helped build. Wayne is a carpenter and cabinet builder. He has done a wonderful job of maintaining the old cabin without robbing it of its character. (We also got to tour the work-in-progress house Wayne is building – from scratch, including cutting all the boards himself).
Wayne and Michael guided us on several hikes. We saw a small herd of mule deer, squirrels, and lots of birds. One thing I found very exciting was all the bear sign, including a fresh print down at the edge of one of the small ponds on the property and a place where a bear had clawed a gate post. We also saw elk tracks.
Much of the animal activity was near the water features on the property, including the large stock tank that held overflow for the cabin’s water. The stock tank’s metal surface was over-printed with muddy bear paw prints. In arid New Mexico, I guess one could say “Build a water source and they will come.”
Despite an excellent lunch and lots of chocolate chip peanut butter cookies, eventually we ran out of steam and figured we’d better head back to Albuquerque. We did so, changing altitude and with it the sense of the season, moving from spring in the mountains to hot, windy summer in town.