Once in his life, a man ought to concentrate his mind upon the remembered earth, I believe. He ought to give himself up to a particular landscape in his experience, to look at it from as many angles as he can, to wonder about it, to dwell upon it.
— N. Scott Momaday
There is a great good in returning to a landscape that has had extraordinary meaning in one’s life. It happens that we return to such places in our minds irresistibly. There are certain villages and towns, mountains and plains that, having seen them walked in them lived in them even for a day, we keep forever in the mind’s eye. They become indispensable to our well-being; they define us, and we say, I am who I am because I have been there, or there.
One of my goals on my most recent trip to New Mexico to visit my parents had been to revisit White Rock Canyon, a landscape I bonded with in my youth. It was not even a half-mile from the house I lived in during my teens. Initially, like most, I concentrated my visits in the colder months, because the canyon becomes an inferno in the summer; its black basalt walls collect and concentrate the heat of the already intense Southwestern sun.
Then one June curiosity got the best of me: what would the canyon be like now? What would the hottest and driest spot in the county be like during the hottest and driest part of the year (as June is, in New Mexico)? There was only one way to find out, so one fine scorching afternoon I loaded a day pack with several canteens and descended into nature’s oven.
The cacti were in their typical June defiance. As the most drought-tolerant of plants, they could afford to bloom despite the conditions, and they did. As such, they were richly reaping the rewards of their monopoly on the supply of pollen and nectar; each cactus blossom was teeming with pollinators.
As expected, it was hot. Clouds of powdery, dessicated dust rose with every footfall. It was a challenge to exercise discipline and ration my water so I would still have some on the trip up. The further I descended, the hotter it got. The grasses and forbs were withered and brittle brown amongst the angular black boulders and parched soil. The branchlets of the junipers and even the blooming cacti looked wizened and water-deprived.
Then I turn a corner of the trail and see a view of vibrant, lush, defiant green appear. It seems like a hallucination, so out of place in this dry land in its driest season. It’s the sort of green one might see in Ohio or Louisiana or the Pacific Northwest, a green born of plant life exuberating in a water surplus.
I’ve been here before, so know it is no hallucination. The same descent that brought me into ever hotter conditions brought me ever closer to the water table. At the rim, it was nearly 1,000 feet below the surface. Here, near the bottom, the surface meets it. Multiple springs burst forth and merge into a clear stream.
I enter into the deep shade and rest by the first spring. It is mercifully cooler here among the verdure and abundant water. After a few minutes I glance upstream. Orchids!
Hundreds of orchids, in fact. In full bloom. More wild orchids than I have ever seen in one place. It turns out that these springs are one of the few places in New Mexico where the stream orchid grows, and they bloom in June. Because nobody I know enters the canyon in June, nobody I know knows about them.
That decided it; from then on I regularly visited the canyon, year-round, even though people thought I was nuts for going there in the summer when it was so hot. In August, the area around the springs was more magical yet. Cardinal flowers bloomed in a profusion as great as the orchids did earlier.
I had been wanting to see these rare flowers ever since hearing about them as a younger child in Illinois. I had given up hope of seeing them when we moved west, thinking they were a strictly Eastern/Midwestern plant. The tall spikes of scarlet humming with hummingbirds looked like a scene that belonged more in the jungles of Central America than the high deserts of New Mexico. Yet I could lift my eyes and see that beyond the narrow strip watered by the stream and springs, the austere landscape remained.
Some days I paused on the rim before I enter the canyon, surveying the landscape and choosing an off-trail destination that looks interesting from above. Other discoveries followed: a rock wall covered in dozens of petroglyphs, benches untouched by sheep and cattle where the grasses grew as tall and thick as they did everywhere centuries ago, ancient irrigation works, piles of giant boulders that left one feeling as if an ant amongst grains of coarse sand, unusual ferns (yes, desert ferns), and others I can’t recall at the moment.
Naturally, I had to go back someday, but my parents moved, first to Texas, then back to New Mexico but 100 miles from the canyon. It’s never been convenient to work in a side trip, but I kept saying to myself that someday I’d rent a car and make a day trip there.
Someday was Monday. It being in a town I had lived in for eight years, I drove directly to the trailhead with no missteps. There is now a fancy sign with an elevation profile and rules. I did not read the rules. Other than that, there were not any big changes. No new enlarged parking lot, no big crowds at the trailhead; it was basically the same as I had remembered. From the rim, the familiar landscape of river, semi-desert vegetation and Toreva blocks came into view.
It was winter, so no sightings of wildflowers this time (though the ferns are evergreen and were still there). There was still the unique fragrance of the canyon, a mix of sagebrush, basalt, and dust. It was still surprisingly free from human sights and sounds for a place right on the edge of a town: canyons lie below the surrounding land, frustrating the ability for sounds to enter them. It’s the converse of how you can see and hear signs of distant civilization from a otherwise remote mountaintop.
I found and climbed the boulder pile (easy to find, it’s close to the trail) and visited the petroglyph wall (less easy, it’s a detour off-trail of at least a half mile through terrain that is in places quite rugged). The latter spot was no longer completely my own, as others were obviously visiting and admiring the ancient artwork, as evidenced by the faint trail, marked by cairns, and trampled vegetation at the site itself.
Overall, however, the canyon has changed far less in the intervening 35-odd years since I last saw it than many attractions in that state have. Part of it is it’s not really a tourist attraction: it’s a county park, not a state or national one, and the county really doesn’t publicize it much (there’s no signs directing one to the canyon from the nearest major highway). Mostly, it’s a spot for the locals.
Halfway through my visit I realize how much that place is still part of me today, how its lessons in harsh beauty have influenced my own outlooks. I just can’t get on board with so much New Age stuff because it strikes me as all soft and mushy and friendly and cute; the world isn’t all soft and mushy and friendly and cute, sorry. Ditto for a good chunk of politically liberal beliefs that think all problems can simply be loved away; sometimes things must be fought for. I care even less for right-wingers and their cheering on of capitalism and its subjugation and domestication of the wild.
The natural world exists on its own terms, and it’s not simply good and bad according to our own metrics (nor should it be). The canyon can outright kill (and has killed) the unprepared, the foolish, and sometimes the simply unlucky. Hazards abound: extremes of temperature, a disorienting terrain, rattlesnakes, and sheer cliffs among them.
Would those orchids have been the experience they were if it was easy and pleasant to get to them, if I had expected them because I had heard of them from somebody else first and gone to see them, if there had been crowds and paved trails and a gift shop there? If there had been signs and rules and regulations and profit-making capitalists charging money everywhere, instead of the freedom to explore and wander that I had then? If the weather had been comfortable and temperate?
No, I don’t want a world engineered to be nice and safe, or a world engineered to be efficient and profitable. I want a wild world, a free world.
More photos here.