Now & Then

Garden of the Gods June 2011

This summer I am living in Cerrillos, New Mexico, caretaking a place called the Garden of the Gods. The name is not hyperbole; this place is a geologic wonder. Massive 40-foot high fins of Dakota Sandstone cut through the property, trending north-south. These thick slabs of white, yellow and pink sandstone were formed long before the dinosaurs roamed, when this region of the world was covered by an inland shallow sea. Around 27 million years ago, during the uplifting of the Sangre de Cristo Mountain range, these layers were broken apart into slabs and stood vertically.

The fins in my big backyard are exposed sections of what’s known as the Dakota Wall formation, which runs along the eastern roots of the Rockies and remerges at the spectacular Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs and again, further north, at the Flatirons near Boulder. As a former geology major and lifelong lover of rocks, I’m in heaven here, in spite of the heat, wildfires and rattlesnakes.

Recently, I found an old black and white photograph of this place, back when it was known as Broken Hill Ranch. The hand-written caption on the back says “Broken Hill Ranch: Somebodies’ Dream” [sic] and lists the date as May 1959.

Broken Hill Ranch May 1959

This photo is a treasure! I’ve been pouring over it, looking for the changes that have taken place over the past half century. The rock in the foreground has clearly weathered significantly. Not surprising: that particular fin is made up of very soft white sandstone that is easily crumbled with a bare hand. The red and pink fins rising behind the house don’t appear to have changed much. Those rocks are much more solid, fortified with iron; good for climbing.

Notice all the new trees, especially in the courtyard in front of the house. I’m amazed that the large elm that dominates the yard is less than 50 years old. In the desert, things usually grow slowly, but I’ve been told there’s a large water aquifer beneath the property that must be feeding that tree. It’s one of the only deciduous trees around and I’m thankful for its shade.

Half-century Elm

My favorite detail in the old photo is that my Airstream is already there! Here at the Garden of the Gods, I exchange landscaping and dog sitting for free use of the Airstream, which has been painted adobe and completely refurbished. I’m totally in love with my digs! Since everything I own fits in my car, the 100 square feet of living space is plenty and the dogs and I spend as much time as possible outside anyway.

Funny what changes and stays the same over 50 years. As they say, geologic time includes now.

Home Sweet Home

To read more about the geology and ecology of the Garden of the Gods, check out my guest post over on The Last Word On Nothing.

About theblondecoyote

Mary Caperton Morton is a freelance science and travel writer with degrees in biology and geology and a master’s in science writing. A regular contributor to EARTH magazine, where her favorite beat is the Travels in Geology column, she has also written for the anthologies Best Women's Travel Writing 2010 and Best Travel Writing 2011. Mary is currently based in western Colorado. When she’s not at the computer she can usually be found outside -- hiking, skiing, climbing mountains and taking photographs. Visit her website at
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