An introduction to the Jemez

I spent the first week of July getting acquainted with the Jemez Mountains of northern New Mexico. The purpose of the trip was to visit my brother’s new home outside of Santa Fe and spend my days in airconditioned art museums. But the best kind of love catches us by surprise, and I spent my days in the Jemez instead. I admired the high-walled canyons, waterfalls, and hot springs, but the crown jewel was surely Valles Caldera.

A relatively new addition to the National Park Service, Valles Caldera National Preserve is the site of a collapsed volcano, now a huge crater, which has filled in with montane meadows and ponderosa forests over the last million or so years. This time of year, the meadows are lush with snowmelt. A herd of cow elk and their new—and still white speckled—calves splash in the East Fork of the Jemez River. Rocky mountain iris blooms with abandon. Monsoon storms almost never miss their three o’clock cue.

Fires in 2011 and 2013 burned two-thirds of the Preserve. Now all that blazes is the sun, which is relentless at 9,000 ft. The landscape of charred trunks offers no respite. Flickers trill, cicadas scream, pleasant blue fungus beetles buzz and thump as they collide with a human body. Not to mention the mews of cow elk, the croaks of ravens overhead. The loudness of the recovering forest is dramatic and gorgeous as a Stravinsky ballet.

Looking for rattlesnakes and finding none

No switchbacks—the trail is relentless, angled straight for the sky. I can’t breathe and I can’t stop either.

Even my mind is cloudless today. No present, no past.

When I reach the saddle, my body and the tall grass are washed in a strong and steady wind. Lupine and paintbrush too. Grasshoppers and fence lizards too. Litter and dog shit too. Unconditional as the attention of God.

A kestrel climbs and dives, climbs and dives.

I’ve said it before. I can’t separate the two—the wind as God or God as the wind.

The water birch

It’s the shortest day of the year and I want to spend every second of daylight under an open sky.  The morning is not so much grey as silver. Sunless, but bright. Mountain chickadees flit from tree to tree. The Clark’s nutcracker stays uncharacteristically quiet. I only hear her wings thumping the air.

It takes four miles for my mind to clear. Eight before my hip begins to ache. I’m just outside the wilderness boundary, lurching and sliding. Graceless on the icy slope. In the shade of titanic Jeffrey Pines, I wonder if I’ll make it back before dark.  

At the place where the trail crosses Whites Creek, there is a rough bridge—just a pair of logs thrown across the gully—which is winter-slick and bows considerably under each hesitant footstep. The water is fast and loud coming down out of the Sierra. It feeds my uneasiness.

A water birch juts from the opposite bank, young and at an angle that approaches forty-five degrees. From the near side of the bridge, I lean out far as I can. My wingspan comes short and there’s nothing to do but jump. A moment of moving through the air too fast for fear, then I grasp the water birch, glean its balance and composure. As I step to the other side, I notice the spot where my hand touched the bark was stained oily and dark. Any notion that I was somehow special in my little adventure is erased. The tree has been marked by hands of many hikers who have held on in just the same place. Folks who abandoned the city for the forest and found they still can’t get by without something to lean on.