June is my birthday month, and my birthday gift this year was a little solo adventure to northwestern New Mexico. I had read about the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness a few years ago, and had been longing to visit ever since, so I planned a trip to the various sites sprinkled around the region of this destination.
I stayed in Gallup, New Mexico, during my trip. I read a lot of negative things about Gallup before my departure, so I was prepared for whatever might greet me. Personally, while I didn’t spend a lot of time in the town of Gallup itself, I found the time I did spend there to be enjoyable and uneventful. Everyone was friendly and the town was sprinkled with Route 66 charm. It’s interesting how divergent and judgmental people’s perspectives can be.
The route to New Mexico took me through Payson, Arizona. I had never been to this town before. Payson is located on the Mogollon Rim, a geological feature that defines the southwestern edge of the Colorado Plateau. At about 7,500 feet above sea level, the edge of the rim is a beautiful ponderosa pine forest with sweeping views of the mountain ranges below. I arrived there in about an hour and a half from my home in Tempe, and, as always, it was amazing to watch the saguaro-laden desert morph into junipers and then ponderosa pines, and the temperature to drop accordingly. I spent a little time on a trail near the Mogollon Rim Visitors Center, and then continued on my way.
As I’ve mentioned before, I am a big fan of Petrified Forest National Park, and am especially fond of the Painted Desert section of the park. Shortly after passing Holbrook, Arizona, I found myself at the exit for the park, and it was too much to resist. I spent some time hiking down into the basin of the Painted Desert, where the hills are sprinkled with petrified wood and huge chunks of mica. During this trip, there were also abundant wildflowers, with bits of yellow and purple dotting the landscape.
Back on I-40, the landscape changed to sandstone mesas as I crossed the New Mexico state line, and soon thereafter, I arrived in Gallup. It was late afternoon and I called it an early night.
I started the next day at El Morro National Monument, a place with inscriptions in the sandstone bluffs dating back hundreds of years, including Europeans beginning in the 1600s and much older Native American petroglyphs. It was a stopping point due to the fact that it had the only source of water for many, many miles. At the top of the bluffs, there was a Native American civilization around 900 years ago, part of which has been excavated. I can see why they set up shop there - the views were so beautiful!
Around mid-day, I made my way to El Malpais National Monument. This park is also home to beautiful sandstone bluffs, but its most remarkable features are volcanic in origin - I saw lava tube caves, a caldera, and hiked around a volcano’s cinder cone. Later, I got a great view of the extensive lava flows from atop the sandstone bluffs. I encountered a very nice family at the monument, and especially enjoyed talking to the mom, who was the same age as me. In fact, it turned out that she had grown up in Harrison, Arkansas, a town that my family briefly inhabited when I was a child. It was crazy to think that she would probably have been a schoolmate of mine if we had stayed there.
The following day, I headed out to the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness, the place that had been on my "to explore" list for nearly 3 years. I trekked 8 miles through this weird and wonderful desert world of hoodoos, badlands, and petrified wood, and there was still so much more I missed. I didn’t find any dinosaur bones, but this is one of the famous aspects of this place – it is where the Bistahieversor or "Bisti Beast", is a genus of tyrannosaurid dinosaur, was discovered. Surrounded by legions of strange formations, many of which are humanoid in shape, the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness is the type of place that definitely makes you question your sanity after a while. I’m not sure that any photos can truly convey what it looks or feels like there.
After a good night’s sleep, I drove around two hours to Chaco Canyon National Historical Park. The park is very remote, and the last 20 miles to reach it are via dirt road. However, it was well worth the effort. The Chacoan civilization that existed in the canyon (and beyond!) 1,200-800 years ago far exceeds anything you would have ever pictured... multi-story buildings – including one would have had around 650 rooms, commerce centers, roads, trade with civilizations hundreds if not thousands of miles away. These people traded to get chocolate and macaws from Mexico and seashells from the Pacific and Gulf of California. I drove away wondering what was under the earth all around me, even after I left the park. There is so much we don't know.
On my last day before driving home, I visited the Pueblo of Acoma (a.k.a. “Sky City”), where the native people built their homes on top of a mesa around 1,000 years ago. I had actually encountered some people from Acoma at the San Xavier del Bac mission in Tucson last year and never forgot their beautiful pottery or their genuine friendliness, so it was a special treat to see where they lived. Some of the tribe members still live up on the mesa, and they do so without running water or electricity. Their people are believed to have descended from those who inhabited Chaco Canyon. I so enjoyed meeting all of the wonderful people on the mesa, and I think Acoma was probably the highlight of my whole trip!
I ended the day with a hike to the top of Pyramid Rock at Gallup's Red Rock Park. It was a gorgeous red sandstone wonderland, and I was so glad that I found time to experience it. Lots of people were out for a Tuesday afternoon hike, and the views from the top of the rock were pretty spectacular.
Back home in Arizona, Aaron and I celebrated the day of my 43rd birthday with a trip to Slide Rock State Park in Sedona. The water was VERY, VERY (did I say VERY?) cold, and part of the day’s fun was watching people’s reactions to it. We laughed and laughed, froze a bit ourselves, and grabbed some food at a little Mexican diner on the way home.
The rest of June was spent painting, working, and thanking my lucky stars for the invention of air conditioning, as temperatures climbed into the mid-100’s and then beyond that to 112 degrees. I just tell myself that summer here equates to winter most places, when I wouldn’t be enjoying much of the outdoors, either. Most days, it is still pleasant if you get out before 9 a.m., too. I created a total of nine paintings, all of which are featured below, and many of which feature scenes from my birthday excursion.