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)