Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Backtracking to El Morro

After the brief detour to the top of Blue Mesa, let's get back on track to El Morro National Monument in New Mexico.

The first short portion of the trail, about one-half mile, is devoted to Inscription Rock. The path stays level for a while, then begins a series of switchbacks that has an elevation gain of 200 feet, just like the Blue Mesa trail.

This is the most remarkable view. How does that split-off rock not crash to the ground? It looks heavy at the top and tapered at the base to the point of sure imbalance, but there it stays. I'd love to be in the neighborhood when this thing crashes. Wouldn't that be something to see and hear?

When I started to learn about photography I took classes via photo safaris in Washington, DC. The man leading the safaris offered specialized classes: night photography, taking photos in museums, in churches, and so on. One of the most valuable lessons I learned from him was to look behind me so now I frequently look over my shoulder or even walk backward, and the perspective can be radically different. The next photo is the same pinnacle as above but from an entirely different perspective. You'd never know it was the same formation. 

I stopped to talk for a few minutes to the man sitting on the trail below. The trail generally runs counter-clockwise but he was finishing it from the other direction and promised magnificent views on top of the mesa. 

One more look to the rear and the view changes again.

Magenta prickly pear cacti were thick on the ground in this section of the trail that's still ascending.

A few more steps (see the cacti in the lower left?) and the view opened to reveal a distant horizon and a box canyon in the middle of the mesa. Although some rainwater drains to the pool that attracted travelers for hundreds of years, most drainage is down the gentle, three degree slope on the backside of the cliff, eroding the box canyon. According to the geology brochure the Monument distributes, a weak area into which the water drained eroded into an indentation. More water means more erosion and the canyon grew - in fact, it continues to erode and is enlarging toward the cliff edge. At some point it will break and leave two standing fins of rock.

Here I am atop the mesa. I wondered at my bad physical shape when I had to stop, albeit briefly!!, to catch my breath on the way up, and later read that this place has an elevation of just over 7200 feet. OK! That made me feel less decrepit.

Do you recognize the back of the pinnacle rock on the left of the formation below? That's how much the trail rises.

Many trails are marked with cairns, rock piles, when the surface is bare rock and how else would you know which way to go? I followed a few trails marked that way in Utah on my way south last spring, and it is disconcerting, if not minor-panic-inducing, to wander off without checking the location of the next cairn before leaving the current one. El Morro uses cairns but in other spots also has literal marked trails. The Civilian Conservation Corps was here in the 1930s and chipped, gouged, or chiseled these parallel lines into the rock surface.

I wondered at these markings, first thinking it might be a fossil trace of burrowing insects or something. Now I wonder if it was one or a few guys sitting around after lunch with some time left before going back to work, idly chipping at the rock, or maybe it was a new guy practicing. Ancient hieroglyphics, fossil traces, passing the time; something that makes me stop for a longer look and a little speculation - to me, that's interesting.

Another view of the box canyon, showing the depth a little more.

 This is the opposite direction of the canyon, looking outward from the mesa.

 More CCC work that made navigation easier and safer.

Something about these solid waves of rock slowly descending the side of the mesa, with brave little trees seeking a foothold in any possible spot, appealed to me. It's a real-life example of "bloom where you are planted."

If you look straight up from the spire rising from the canyon floor you can see a railing. That's the trail I just came up, then swung to the right, around the end of the canyon.

 In the lower right are more parallel lines marking the trail.

This is fascinating to me. On the more or less smooth stone is all kinds of visual texture, the wearing away of layers, leaving patterns to engage your imagination.

How many footfalls has it taken to wear these dips in the stairs? Why is the top one the deepest?

One last look across the top. The wind was gusting to about 10-20 miles an hour up there and in several places I stopped moving until it died down again. It would have been easy to be blown the wrong way while taking a step.

At the very top is a pueblo ruin, occupied by the people formerly known as Anasazi; that is, until it was somehow determined that the term means enemy ancestors. Now the people are known as Ancestral Puebloan. The people lived here during the 12th and 13th centuries.

This site is known as the Atsinna Ruin Site. The name was given by the Zuni Indians working on the first excavation in 1954-1955, and it means "writing on the rocks." Which writing? Which rocks? I don't know.

This was quite a large settlement. The outside walls were about 200 by 300 feet and were three stories high on one side, tapering to one story on the other. The terraced side led to a central plaza, faced by about 500 rooms on the first level, 250 on the second, and 125 on the third, although some archeologists think there may have been as many as 1000 rooms. About 65 percent may have been occupied at any one time, with the remainder being used for storage (see, people are the same everywhere!) for a population of between 1000 and 1500.

 Right at the end of the trail was this conifer making a stand and winning.

It was a beautiful place and a great hike, another entry on the plus side for what's easily becoming my favorite part of the country.


Thought of the day:

May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. 

(Edward Abbey; preface for 1988 reprint of Desert Solitaire)

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Not El Morro, part 2

Next up was supposed to be the second part of my trip to El Morro, the 1.5 mile hike over the top of the mesa and down the other side. It's glorious. I don't know how else to describe it. When I finished it I told the rangers at the visitor center it was the most beautiful hike I'd ever been on, but that observation may have been a function of my short memory. Today I have to say El Morro is as beautiful as any hike I've ever been on, because yesterday I hiked the Tepees to Blue Mesa trail at Petrified Forest again, my third time, and I don't think it was ever more breathtaking.

On Thursday afternoon a couple of friends came to visit from New York. One had been to the park far back in geologic time, and the other had never been here, so I gave them the nickel tour, all 27 miles from north to south. We stopped at the pullout at Tepees (Yes, that's how it's spelled. I keep wanting to correct it.) and headed down about a half-mile former road leading back to a parking area. It's long been closed but the old road is still visible and leads right back to the trail head.

If you follow the link above you'll see that it's recommended for experienced hikers only, so woo hoo!! I guess that makes me experienced. The first two times I took the hike was right after a group of teenagers had regraded, chopped steps, shored up crumbling areas, and generally made it a little easier to navigate. The weather has undone some of their work, though, and the trail was dicey in spots. I wished I had my hiking poles more than once.

The trail is a little longer than a mile with a 200-foot elevation gain and loss. There are a couple of sections that are knife-edged tracks no more than a foot wide, several areas covered in gravel as slippery as ice, and one or two where the edge of the trail has eroded down a steep ravine, leaving only inches to creep across. It was great!

The Civilian Conservation Corps had a significant presence here in the 1930s. They constructed buildings, bridges, roads, and a waterline about 13 miles long. I've seen a photo of one man after another, standing in a ditch, each with a shovel in hand. They were digging a trench for water to be pumped from the Puerco River to the Rainbow Forest at the south end of the park. The CCC also built the Tepees-Blue Mesa trail from 1933-1937 as a general-population trail but it was closed in 1955. Just last year it was reopened for adventurous hikers and it's so worth the effort.

Within the park, the layers of the Chinle Formation, from fluvial (river-related) deposits, include the Blue Mesa Member, the Sonsela Member, the Petrified Forest Member, and the Owl Rock Member.

The Blue Mesa Member consists of thick deposits of grey, blue, purple, and green mudstones and minor sandstone beds. This unit is best exposed in the Tepees area of the park. The Blue Mesa Member is approximately 220-225 million years old, making it the oldest exposed area here.

Think of it. The terrain I was crossing was once inhabited by pre-dinosaur amphibians, both herbivores and carnivores.

Probably the park's most famous fossil is Chindesaurus, coming from the Navajo word chindi, meaning ghost or evil spirit, and the Greek word sauros, meaning lizard. It was discovered in 1985, and just the other day I found a couple of photographs showing it being lifted out of the desert, jacketed in plaster and slung under a helicopter.

If you have a hard time remembering Chindesaurus, just call it Gertie. Everyone here will know what you mean. She dates back about 216 million years.

You get to the top of the mesa and think, it's all downhill from here! I have it made! Let me say, HA! The slipperier, steeper, and narrower part was yet to come. Let them smile; it will go away soon enough.

Baby hoodoos.

 Preadolescent  hoodoos.
It's hard to wrap my brain around geologic time: each of these layers could represent tens of millions of years.

Nearly the end of the trail. No compound fractures, no air evacuation needed.

Just under half a mile to go, a few steps away from the paved Blue Mesa loop trail, to get to our patiently waiting driver. Without him we'd have had to turn around and hike the trail back to our starting point. It's a good thing he always travels with his iPad and is a rare person in that he's never bored. 

Smiling once again. We all earned it.

One or two of my four readers have said they wish they could see the photos I post here in a larger format. I'm going to start tossing many of them up on Flickr as well, where you can magnify to your heart's content, and see all the flaws that you can't see here. It might take a day or so, but they'll show up there.

Quote of the day:

You're off to great places.
Today is your day.
Your mountain is waiting,
So get on your way.
                                   (Dr. Seuss)

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

El Morro, part 1

As promised (threatened?), the photos from El Morro National Monument:

El Morro is a cuesta, a long formation gently sloping upward and dropping off abruptly at one end.

It lies on an ancient trade route between Albuquerque and Zuni, a journey of 150 miles that could take nine or ten days. It had one big attraction for travelers: a sizable pool of fresh water filled by rain runoff and snowmelt.

Sandwiched between the upward pressure from underground forces and the weight of newer rock above, since eroded, the sandstone has developed cracks that gradually weathered into long vertical joints like these. The rock is called Zuni Sandstone, about 170 million years old, and held together by clay between the sand grains  It was never buried so deeply that the sand grains were squeezed tightly, fusing them.

This magnificent Ponderosa Pine was a sentinel at the beginning of the trail to Inscription Rock.

The soft Zuni Sandstone proved to be the perfect medium for carving names and messages. Because the clay is the only thing holding the stone together, scratching easily dislodges the grains from the rock.

 There are more than 2000 inscriptions and petroglyphs here.

This elegant inscription was carved by E. Penn. Long of Baltimore,  Maryland, a member of a US Army expedition led by Lt. Edward F. Beale to find a wagon route from Fort Smith, Arkansas to the Colorado River. The group first passed this way in 1857 but they made their inscriptions in 1859.

Engle, below, was Beale's second-in-command. While the mission was exploring a new route, they were also testing the usefulness of camels, of all things, in crossing the deserts of the Southwest. I learned about the Camel Corps when I was in the area last year. The camels proved to be extremely well suited. They could carry 700-1000 pounds, go days without water, were even-tempered, and would eat anything, even cacti. They were much preferred over the mules that also made the trip, and Beale wrote highly of them. They may have been used instead of mules in further explorations, but the Civil War intruded into Western exploration and the project was abandoned. It's an interesting story.

P. (Peachy) Breckenridge was in charge of the 25 camels in Beale's 1857 expedition. He returned home to Virginia to fight in the Civil War and was killed in a skirmish in 1863.

Many Spaniards wrote pasó por aquí or passed through here. The inscription is translated as On the 25th of the month of June, of this year of 1709, Ramón García Jurado passed through here on the way to Zuni. From the time he moved to New Mexico as a colonist in 1693 until his death at the age of 80 in 1760, he was witness and participant in the Spanish settlement of New Mexico.

This one reads Pedro Romero passed though here on the 2nd of August, year of 1751. The darkening you see here is a misguided attempt at preservation work by early park managers. They darkened the inscriptions with graphite (#2 pencils) so they would be more legible and last longer. The practice continued into the 1930s.

Here are petroglyphs of bighorn sheep. The jagged line to the left makes me think of a river.

Not many women left their mark but here is one exception. Miss America Frances Baley and her sister Amelia were part of a wagon party headed from Missouri to California in 1858. The group followed the route newly surveyed by the US Army, at the time known as Beale's Wagon Road. Just east of the Colorado River, 800 Mojave Indians attacked the 60 Anglo travelers. The Mojave killed nine and injured 17 while suffering 87 casualties themselves. The caravan retreated to New Mexico to wait out the winter in Albuquerque or Santa Fe. The Baley sisters eventually made it to Fresno County, California.

R.H. Horton became adjutant-general of California after the Civil War. In the early years of the war, the California Column, as it was known, was sent to New Mexico to reinforce Federal troops expecting Confederate hostilities. He may have made his inscription as he returned to California.

These inscriptions were made by a crew sent to work on the Santa Fe rail line. Looks like a bunch of engineers, doesn't it?

There was no descriptive label for this carving and I can't make out what's carved inside what looks like a basket handle. Someone went to a lot of work. Were they interrupted, or did they just run out of steam partway through?

Lt. J.H. Simpson, an engineer for the army, and R.H. Kern, a Philadelphia artist employed by the Army as a topographer, were the first English-speaking people to make a record of Inscription Rock. They spent two days copying the inscriptions and petroglyphs and their report shows that not a single English inscription could be found on the rock. Despite their careful duplications of others' inscriptions, note they misspelled their own carving with the word "insciption."

After El Morro was designated a National Monument in 1906, early managers tried to preserve and protect the records in a variety of ways. One planted yuccas that still grow along the trail to keep visitors at a distance. In the 1920s the first Superintendent decided to erease any carvings that were added after 1906 because they were graffiti and illegal. Large smooth areas are visible where they were erased. This is one, close-up example.

I was nearing the end of the inscriptions as I approached this cliff. The photo looks like a painting to me, but that's really how it looked.

A short way on was this view of one of the vertical splits in the rock common at El Morro, and where I stop for today. Next time, a hike over the mesa.

Thought of the day:

Carve your name on hearts, not tombstones. A legacy is etched into the minds of others and the stories they share about you. (Shannon L. Adler)