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.

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