Not far from my place is a tract of land owned by the Bureau of Land Management. BLM land is public land; it belongs to you and me. One eighth of the landmass of the United States is held by the BLM, more than 250 million acres where you’re free to hike, camp, shoot guns and run cattle. On BLM land, this is still a free country (unless you’re a mustang).
Yesterday, my Valentine was in California, so I set off for a solo hike across the BLM with my two good dogs. Solitude and open spaces are the great loves of my life and there’s no other way I’d rather spend the day than hiking in a place like this:
This tract of land surrounds the Galisteo Dam, a flood control dam built in 1965 to hold back 100 year floods. As far as I know, they’ve never come, but there’s still plenty of time. A round trip hike to the dam is about 12-miles, a nice conditioning hike a week before my birthday Grand Canyon trip.
This is public land, but only once have I ever crossed paths with another person out here: a goat herder. I had seen the herd of goats with a mounted rider off in the distance and when I approached, was surprised to find the rider was a woman, not much older than I. We spoke at length, our conversation awkward from lack of practice, while her goats, her four horses and her seven dogs – four Aussie herders and three Maremma watchdogs – milled good-natured circles around us. She told me a couple of times a month her father, who owned the goats, would drive out in his big truck and trade places with her for a few days, so she could go into town for a shower and supplies. I told her where I lived, pointing south, towards the orange cliffs, told her to drop by anytime. She said she would, but never did. For the best maybe, I would have hated to see such a creature indoors.
On all my walks in this desert, the goat herder is the only other person I have ever seen. Out here, I am the only person on Earth. I spend whole days wandering around, leaving home at dawn and returning after dark. Even if I’m just planning to walk to the end of the driveway, I always carry a backpack with water, snacks, a headlamp, a first aid kit and a fully charged phone. For my mother’s sake I carry sunscreen and mace. I have been warned neither ambulances nor cops will come out here, though there have been a handful of helicopter rescues and raids.
I have tried and failed to get lost out here. Distance is impossible to judge in the desert, the land of dry air illusions. Eyeballing miles across vast open space is a skill known best by explorers and pioneers. My eyes are learning; my legs and lungs strengthened by my nearsighted mistakes. But I am always surprised by my ability to navigate in open country; my sense of direction seems to have reverted back to the long eras of human history before signs and superhighways. I’ve gotten sidetracked or thought I was much closer to home, but with distinctive mountains on three sides and flaming orange cliffs on the fourth, I can always divine the way back.
The most common encounters in this Wild West are with animals: rangeland cattle, feral horses, wiley coyotes, rattlesnakes. On one of the very first hikes I took out here, I came around a juniper and found myself much too close to one of the rangeland steers. Before I could retreat he ran straight at me, horns low. I had nowhere to go, nothing to do. And then he blew right past me, a reeking red and white freight train of death. I whirled with him and then saw the rest of the herd scattered behind me. I had come between the bull and his buddies and he had panicked to rejoin them.
As it turns out, rangeland cattle are skittish to the point of absurdity. From that day on they have always run from me, heads low in fright. Only with a long lens can I get decent pictures. It’s almost as if the delicious beasts know they’re destined to be food.
After crossing the Big Arroyo that cuts through the middle of the flood plain, I stopped for a rest before beginning the climb up to the dam. My young dog Dio was scenting intently to the south and a moment later, a coyote chorus exploded from a nearby bluff. Impossible to tell how many, but more than one or two. Then Dio’s head whipped to the north, towards the river, and I heard very faintly, a return chorus. We were in the middle of a pack.
No worries. They were just letting us know we’re on their turf. My dogs will stay with me, if I tell them to, and no number of coyotes would ever attack a person and two big dogs. We stay in the open, where we can see and be seen. I never catch a glimpse, but I feel coyote eyes on me the rest of the day.
The final climb to the top of the dam is exhausting. At the top, 7,000 feet above sea level, 500-feet above the flood plain, is a defunct picnic area. I’m not sure if it’s ever open; all the times I’ve been here in the winter the heavy metal gate across the road in from I-25 has been padlocked. There’s a fair amount of broken glass around, but the graffiti on the overlook has been painted over with a fresh coat of paint, much to my disappointment. I love graffiti.
Standing at the top, on the edge of the dam, among bright red and pure white sandstone slabs – the red dotted with chartreuse lichen, the white decorated with delicate fossils of frozen grass – I finally see the need for the dam. The land below is rippled by giant flood waves.
Only from this vantage, high above the desert, can I begin to grasp the vast expanse of time preserved in this desert. Hundreds of millions of years ago, this landscape was underwater, beneath an inland shallow sea. The seams of coal, few lucky shells and strands of grasses preserved in layers of white sandstone testify to this time of once abundant sea life. Long after the waters receded, leaving behind thick layers of sandstone capped with limestone, the Cerrillos Hills erupted, littering the ground with shards of glittering volcanic rock. This desert is made up of millions of years of these layers, layers of Earth, layers of life. Studying these layers from the top of the dam, our own layer of Earth, the uppermost crust we live upon, love upon, ransack and pollute upon, becomes ever so humbly thin.
** A shorter version of this post was published last year on Valentine’s Day. This year, I’m planning a long hike on the AT. Stay tuned for an “Appalachian Love Letter”!