Took a little road trip this weekend. It’s been a rare summer in which I did not get out into the wilds much at all. A year or two ago, I’d have gone insane. But Grace had teachings for me in staying put. It was a cool spring, so summer started late; by then I was sleeping outside in my van as often as I could, but even that was curtailed by fear of teething rodents or torrential rains, which make for restless nights under a metal roof and steamy windows.
Eventually, though, the nervous system was clamoring in no uncertain terms; I was tolerating buildings, cell phones and computers, and even cars and some humans increasingly poorly. I knew it was time to reset.
I had little time and less gas money, so the soft, kind, inner voice nudged me up into the mountains between Los Alamos and Jemez. I surrendered. I knew what I needed—pine trees— and I gave over the details. No plan is a good plan.
I was going to leave Friday, but as my preceding blog implies, the smokey ethers had imported a strange brew of psychic and particulate pollutants. And I was lucky to get home from Albq to Santa Fe that day. I had a prayerful nap and staggered off on a dress rehearsal: a sunset hike up in the pines of Hyde Memorial State Park in the Santa Fe foothills. I throttled wearily up a steep trail until my crankies relented a smidge, and then I skipped more lightly and gratefully down to the bottom again, breathing more freely and ready for more.
I was in Los Alamos by 8am Saturday with no destination. I walked the Canyon Edge trail a couple of miles, until I tired on asphalt track. No matter, there is the Co-op; I’ve never been, and I know they have chocolate. Gently stoked, thus, I filled in some blanks at the Visitor Info office, and, map in hand, cruised on up the road, skirting Bandelier National Monument. (My 20 year old memories of it still serve me. )
I have a wonderful postcard illustration of a fellow walking off a roof on a tightrope that he is feeding his every next step with from his hand. This is the way of the heart, and perhaps of the future. The next step appears as the foot reaches for it. And this was the way of the weekend, sweetly rewarded.
I stopped where I pleased. First at the Grande Valle Caldera, a vast grassy valley generated by a super volcano blowing its top a million or so years back, and then building some dome hills around and within it with a bubbling tide of magma. The magma is still there, only five miles below or so, which is why Jemez has hot springs.
Here is a plain old picture of the valley, lush with grass; but you have to air brush in your own elk herd. They were in higher country entertaining the folks who entered the park and paid the fee. Even though the fee is about to jump to $20 when this park goes National this fall, I wasn’t bargain-hunting. I didn’t know what it was, but I had a different destination.
Made a few happily aimless stops, eventually pulling in for lunch at a ponderosa-scented picnic area. Rested a while, oriented with map and brochure, found what called to me, rolled on, and then found myself turning in where a sign said Valle Caldera gifts and visitor info. Didn’t need any, I thought—in fact there weren’t any gifts (confiscated for re-merchandizing); just some vestigial taxidermy and coloring books. But I had a little chat with the lady, learned about the impending National Park merger and a significant road detail I would need later.
On I meandered, turning onto the road to Fenton Lake, but headed to Tent Rocks. The article had mentioned another turn at road 376. And I cruised happily along it, seeing all sorts of free campsites that would do just fine for nap-time or night time when they came. I heard myself say out loud: “This is great!” Then I saw a small sign for road 604 and remembered the seed planted at the gift shop. I wouldn’t have otherwise known to turn there. As I rounded one turn, I glimpsed some rock formations through the pines and half-wondered if that was Tent Rocks. But she’d said in passing that you had to take 604 onto the mesa to look down on them. So I kept going, enjoying the immediate shift from aspen dominance to pines. Ahhhh. I climbed up around a hair pin turn and had a wee hit to stop for the overlook, but I kept going. … and going … and began to feel…wrong.
So I eventually turned around, was called to stop at a spacious flat camp area. Naptime. Then maybe I’d venture on, or ask one of the manly trucks or four-wheelers that periodically rumbled by…. a couple of times through camp.
After nap-time, I decided to check out what said the sign posted amid a path in the direction the ATVs had headed. Turned out it was a closed jet-ski/ATV trail. Didn’t stop anyone. They just drove around the obstruction and a few trees, brittle wood exploding underneath their tires, and were on their way. But all was quiet now, and this was my own personal path, and, as it turned out, my own private valley, blanketed with clover and host to happy stands of mullein and hennaed grasses whose highlights caught the sun and warmed my heart and memory. In my bliss-bunny days, I’d taken so many “you had to be there” photos of that grass. Didn’t bother this time. But here is the general scene. Notice the blue sky. We were above some of the smoke haze here. And notice the GREEN!
I walked my gently hilly and curvy valley until blood sugar was threatening a less pleasant roller-coaster ride. I made the same meal I would eat the whole trip—grated veggies with vinegar and olive oil and a can of sardines cut into it. Perfect.
Not far from camp on that trail was a pond of standing water…tiny bubbles. I noted that I might want to move camp to avoid mosquitos. For it might not have been an accident that I happened to hear a news bit within the past 24 hours about West Nile Virus: Tis the season, apparently.
Shortly after repast, the four-wheeler came back through, built like a Jeep but with an amusing front end—strange fender like pieces on the front that gave the impression of very bushy eyebrows or bow legs. I came up to the road and the fellow said in a typical friendly hispanic inflection of mock concern, “What are you doing? “
“Just hanging. Say is there an overlook for Tent Rocks near here?”
“For Tent Rocks,” replied his lady passenger, who I then noticed had a large, thick plastic cold-mug full of an iced drink I’ll guess was Bourbon and Cherry Coke, because I have nothing but the color to go on.
“Oh yeah. Right down there. Really close…. Probably 10 minutes, walking,” he said.
“There’s a guard-rail,” added the woman helpfully.
“At the hairpin turn?”
And when the conversation ended and they hummed off, I heard myself exclaim “Great. Awesome!” aloud again, even if I was a bit dubious about the distance.
Turned out it was 20 minutes, but well worth it. I strolled up to the edge of the cliff behind the rail and wham:
Quite satisfied, I noted a campsite right across the road and decided I’d move the car there at sundown. Because I knew that this east-facing rock formation would pick up the reds of the rising sunlight in the morning and make for even grander snaps.
I walked “home” in a mild-mannered thunder shower. And just sat and thunk and sat and mostly sat, while the sun descended. At one point the clouds seemed to call for their close up, and I obliged, waiting until they had posed in front of the sun for optimum molten-platinum splendor, singing sufi songs to all spirits listening as I waited.
I sat still at the end of my open van in the dusk and watched a Flicker gorging on a colony of termites nearer me than he seemed to be aware he was. He must have downed 50 of them! Urp. He’d disappeared around the front of my van just long enough to have slipped my mind, when I heard a clamor, across the path.
There on a pine bow appeared to be a showdown, a kickboxing match between two birds (matched for size)… until, wow, that’s quite a move, a drilling blow not to but INTO the jaws of the other. Oh, that’s my gluttonous flicker feeding his hungry teenager. It was quite something to witness. One bird leaping up and drilling into the other’s open beak, while the other couldn’t help but back up a few steps with each thrust, toward the end of the branch! …The benevolent violence of nature…. If there had been enough light, I still wouldn’t have taken a picture; it was just somehow too intimate. But I was glad to have witnessed it, and glad for the realization that once again I’d been fed information I didn’t know I’d need to make sense of something later. If I hadn’t watched Dude suckin’ up the bugs, I’d have assumed, and likely subtly judged, these two squawking, scrapping birds to be just disturbing the peace with their territorial squabbling.
By the time dim enveloped the camp, I’d become quite fond of it, and hadn’t been accosted by a single mosquito. So, I just bedded down for the night there in the van, bathed in a silence I’d not experienced for nearly a year.
Woke very early, and just lay in meditation, aware that there did not appear to be a lot of stars to gaze at. Eventually I got up, hydrated, and sat for more formal meditation. And, by and by, I drove down to other sight. There was a threesome (visiting from Artesia, NM, I learned) also waiting to catch the sunrise. Our greeting included acknowledgement that it would be a cloudy one.
The colors were subtle, unexceptional, so I busied myself walking to the other end of the crescent cliff rim above the main glorious cluster of jagged rocks. But the view was better from the original spot. Even with the cagey sunlight, the blush of morning beams did illuminate the contours differently. The view was explosive, still; like scores of sharks leaping up teeth exposed from sea of clay and trees below. It was so alluring, even as something so very obvious in the head just had to say you wouldn’t want to fall down on that.
I’d read that if one wanted to soak at Spence Hot Springs, one should get there early in the morning. So, I moseyed on from the rocks, and cruised contentedly back along yesterday’s roads, continuing on the main road toward Jemez. Again, not far along, I passed an unsigned parking lot and had a twinge, but kept going, assuming Spence would be identified. But I was almost to Jemez Springs when I knew I’d gone too far. Should I just keep going? No. I looked at the map, confirmed where Spence was, turned around and climbed the hill, happy to see the sights from their better sides: Soda Dam, Battleship Rock, etc.
Along the way I remembered that I might soak at Bodhi Mandala Zen Center, but something had said “turn around,” so I had. Spence was not marked—to keep the crowds down, perhaps— but among the various general info signs, I spotted a Caution about amoebae in natural hot water. So, I suited up in the cool morning air and hiked up the ruddy trail surrounded by lush jojoba and mullein and pines, turning on my inner furnace and cardiovascular machinery. I stopped and stood and watched the view throb in my eyes for a few moments, smiling a prayer of thanks for a vigorously working heart, and a sternum grateful for the massage. Turning back up the trail, I thought it odd there wasn’t steam coming from anywhere. I thought that though I didn’t remember it much, I must have visited this place, probably with Erika and Lara from massage school, nearly two decades ago. At last I arrived at the pools. What a gorgeous site and a gorgeous setting, what a view, muted by haze though it was. And I had it to myself. Although a fellow had pulled in shortly after me; he never arrived.
The water was not hot—slightly warmer than my external temperature—making me grateful I’d hiked up so quickly and heated up. My internal temperature was warmer than the water. So, I’m guessing it was 90-95 F. I found where it was warmest near the outlet of a cave. And I hung out there. When I registered no one arriving. I kept myself in the pool longer by assuming yoga poses and chanting hindu and sufi mantras. I sat half-propped in Navasana (upward boat) through three repetitions of the Lakshmi Stotram, holding my big toes, with my sit-bones dug into the silty gravel. How we amuse ourselves. But it wasn’t so warm I cared to linger much longer, and I stood up, pulled off my bathing suit top and wrapped my torso in a sarong and an over-shirt. It wasn’t until I turned around to take in the view one more time out over the Jemez Hills that I saw the other young woman getting out of the lower pool, which—poor thing— was cooler than mine. I guess she got a bit of a show. First extended chanting from the spirit of the upper pool, and then, well, my reckless nudity. (Sakes Alive!) We exchanged demure greetings, and I descended, but she took a short cut and we arrived at the parking lot at the same time.
I decided to continue on to Jemez, now, cruising amused down the hill, with my purple swimsuit top hung and flapping from one side mirror and the bottoms flapping from the other. They were half dry when I arrived in Jemez Springs to visit Bodhi Mandala, which was closed for retreat. Since the silent voice had steered me otherwhere, I could not be surprised. So I visited at the bath-house. I’d never been. A friendly exchange with the ladies told me I was ready to wind my way home, but not really ready for idle social chatter.
So, rather than continue on a loop that would take me through the “How much more red can they be? None. None more Red” rocks for which Jemez is famous, and home via the interstate, I beatifically sat back in the saddle and retraced my recent journey, stopping to smell and pick the wildflowers and take a snap here and there, noting as I did that I could scarcely see all the mountains I knew were there and was headed down into thick air, through which, as I passed the turnoff to Los Alamos and continued on Hwy 4 to White Rock, you could look right at the sun. The air was about as white as the rock..I’m guessing, though I never saw the eponymous rock.
And I am back now in Eldorado, and, even without the smoke, the world would look different for having been away from and above it for a bit. Give to your self, and you have so much more to give. And for that I give thanks.