New Mexico, Land of Enchantment, Land of Circles

New Mexico, Land of Enchantment, Land of Circles

After two and a half weeks in the high-altitude New Mexico desert sun, I confess my summer freckles have returned. I like to think of them as my skin’s seasonal blossoming. They’re little circular perennials, roots dug deep and hibernating all winter long, waiting for a warm week to reappear.

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Juniper in front of Abiquiú Lake

I stayed in Abiquiú, New Mexico, a rural town outside Santa Fe, in June to work as an instructional counselor for a creative writing class for gifted and talented high school students. Ghost Ranch is now a retreat center, made famous by the renowned artist Georgia O’Keeffe, who stayed there for many summers and eventually lived there full-time.

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Instructor and friend Natalie atop the overlook at Chimney Rock

This was my first time to New Mexico even though its entire northern border is most of Colorado’s southern border. The high desert there was overrun with crooked trees and low brush—juniper, sage, chamisa.

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Trail to Chimney Rock on Ghost Ranch, Cerro Pederal in the distance

At the welcome center for Bandelier National Monument I flipped through samples of dried and pressed plants, matching them to what I’d seen on our hike around the cave dwellings, their ruins. These amazing light brown sandstone cliffs full of holes and pockmarks, made hollow by centuries of erosion.

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Cliff dwellings at Bandelier National Monument

Circular structures ringed with stacked stones were built and called kivas by the Pueblo Native Americans who lived there. These buildings were used in rituals, especially coming-of-age ceremonies for young men wherein the structure functioned like a sweat lodge.

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More cliff dwellings at Bandelier National Monument

Bandelier National Monument is a dormant volcano featuring an enormous caldera, basically the collapsed crater-like center of a volcano since overgrown with grasses, shrubs, and thirsty western high-altitude trees like cottonwoods and aspen.

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Bandelier plant life

As our class stopped beneath some of the less accessible cliff dwellings (reached via a series of ladders) for lunch, we wrote in response to a prompt about rituals, and it occurred to me that the caldera could be seen as a sort of first kiva—the stone circle first laid by some ancient, powerful hand. This is what it looks like when the land forms circles—a collapse, an eruption, layers of volcanic ash pressed into earth, then sandstone.

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Blooming Cholla cactus at Bandelier National Monument

The town of Taos contains the Taos Pueblo, a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the longest continuously inhabited villages in North America. Here the Pueblo people built their multi-story homes out of adobe brick, which consists of clay, hay, and water.

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A typical adobe home at the Taos Pueblo site

Both the mortar and the plaster which covers the bricks are made of mud. Cedar logs were laid across each structure to help form and support their ceilings. These ceiling also functioned as the floor of the story atop it, accessed by wooden ladders.

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Red chiles as decoration at Taos Pueblo

Because of the materials of these structures, it is impossible to outfit them with modern plumbing and electricity. Our tour guide told me only five families remain as full-time residents here, though many more keep their ancestral homes while they live primarily in the town of Taos, or elsewhere on the reservation.

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A window at the Catholic church in Taos

While walking around Taos Pueblo, I saw a man setting up a table with a display of turquoise jewelry underneath a hay canopy in front of an adobe home. We chatted, and he invited me into the home he said had been the birthplace of his great-grandfather, and inhabited by his family many, many generations before that.

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The Rio Pueblo de Taos in the foreground, and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the background

It was a simple, surprisingly cool single room with a small fireplace in one corner. He explained to me the technique by which the Pueblo people made the chimney. They took a cedar trunk and covered it with adobe plaster. Once dried, they then set the wood on fire, which would leave them with a hollow, cylindrical adobe structure. A circle of sky, open to sky.

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One of many art galleries in Taos Pueblo

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A close-up of the bison leather dreamcatcher

One night on a silent walk to Matrimonial Mesa at Ghost Ranch, I pointed out to the students the hoofprints of a deer in the mud. In a place that receives fewer than eight inches of rain a year, it had rained that afternoon. One student had spotted a garden snake who’d been coaxed out of the shadows by the cool rain. And the small, halved circles of the imprints of hooves wandering from the dirt road to the arroyo’s cottonwoods, weaving between chamisa and juniper.

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Desert daisies and pink sunsets on Ghost Ranch

On the mesa that night we watched the scattered, sputtering circles of stars come into being. We lay there quietly, listening to the high-pitched echoes of chirping bats as they drew their own looped circles in the air above. Kivas, nightly natural rituals. Circles in space and time. Each time we return to repeat the ritual, each time we circle back, something is different. We hold constant what we can, but we treasure everything.

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Looking west from Chimney Rock at Ghost Ranch

I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one
but I give myself to it.

I circle around God, around the primordial tower.
I’ve been circling for thousands of years
and I still don’t know: am I a falcon,
a storm, or a great song?

[from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Book of Hours, translated by Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows]

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Sunset over Chimney Rock on Ghost Ranch

Georgia O’Keeffe painted Cerro Pedernal (Flint Mountain) over forty times. The story goes that she took any paintings with which she wasn’t satisfied, drove down the mesa, and burned their canvases right there in the desert. About Cerro Pedernal O’Keeffe said, “God told me if I painted it enough, I could have it.” She returned and returned. She ritualized the process.

Locals heard of her affinity for bones and brought them to her, bleached white by desert sun and preserved by desert air. She painted a series centered on a cow’s pelvis. There are circles here, too—the spaces for each leg, the ball of each femur joint, the socket space. She painted it so close up, sometimes, that you can’t tell what the curves are a part of at all, what the lighting reveals.

Circles form from gravity, from wear and falling and moving and the difficulty of moving. Everything softens over time, forgets its corners, collapses. The desert is a land of circles, the simplicity of curves, the complexity of a single eye.

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Rainy Weekend at Shelf Road, Colorado

For Memorial Day weekend, Matt and I drove down to Shelf Road, Colorado, which is an area of BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land outside of Cañon City. We met up with some friends we knew from UNC (that’s North Carolina, not Northern Colorado), John- who is doing a multi-week road trip out west from Asheville, NC with his friend Stephanie- and Kevin, an adventure videographer and photographer now living in Boulder, CO. We knew it would be a little crowded at the campgrounds since it was a long weekend, and we ended up sharing a campsite with a very kind and obliging group of parents and small children, which ended up being fine since we didn’t stay up very late anyway.

The drive to Shelf Road from Laramie takes us through Fort Collins, Denver, and Colorado Springs, so we hit a lot of traffic on the way, despite leaving Laramie before 5PM.

A view of Colorado Springs from the highway. Photo by yours truly

A view of Colorado Springs from the highway. Photo by yours truly

We didn’t get to Shelf Road until about 11, and it rained a little as we set up the tent and chatted. Poor Kevin tried to come in from Boulder down Shelf Road itself, which was closed because of flooding. Colorado normally gets a large amount of precipitation this time of year, and this spring has been no exception. Kevin drove his Subaru up to a bonafide stream running across Shelf Road, and decided to test the current. He picked up a rock which he described as weighing about 30 pounds, tossed it in, and watched with shock as it barely bounced off the road underwater before being swept downstream quickly enough to dissuade him from fording it Oregon Trail-style.

On Saturday, we woke up to sunshine, discovered Abe had made his way from the back of Matt’s car to the front passenger seat (fur everywhere!!), made breakfast, and decided to hit up the Sand Gulch area of Shelf Road since we could hike there directly from our campsite. Unfortunately, the recent rain thwarted us.

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John and I, with the “trail” between us. Photo by Kevin

The guide book describes the trail to the climbing area from our campsite as going down a hill, then following a dry creekbed for a while before a sign points you up a trail toward the near end of the cliff line, or you can keep going down the creedbed for the second trail, which takes you to the cliff’s far end. Unfortunately, as you can see above, the creekbed had turned into a stream. The picture makes it look worse than it really was; the water was actually quite shallow and manageable, but still deep enough to thoroughly soak your shoes and socks, and to scare Abe.

Abe hates water- he doesn’t seem to have inherited a love for water from any labrador ancestors he may have. Matt had to carry him across a couple times, and we were able to coax him across a few more narrow sections.

Stephanie crossing the treacherous trail. Photo by Kevin

Stephanie crossing the treacherous trail. Photo by Kevin

The worst part of this amended trail wasn’t actually crossing the stream, but then bushwhacking our way alongside it as we searched for the trail where it exited the water and took us to the climbing. Never a dull moment!

We did a couple of warm-up routes before rain and thunder loomed in the distance. Up on a cliff is not exactly the best place to be during a thunderstorm, so we cleaned our routes (climber-speak for “retrieved all of our gear”) and retreated back down toward camp. Abe hates thunder, so Matt and I vacated the climbing area before John, Stephanie, and Kevin. Because we couldn’t follow the trail due to the stream it had become, Matt and I (and Abe) got separated from the rest of the group. The storm passed fairly quickly (but lasted long enough to make the trail muddy and the rock damp) so, after it ended, Matt and I headed back up to the climbing area- crossing the creek again on the way- to catch up with everyone else. We hiked part of the length of the cliff and didn’t see them, so we sat down and had lunch. Finally, convinced they must have either gone back to camp or to a different climbing area (there isn’t reliable cell phone service near the actual climbing), we packed up and headed back down toward the menacing creek, crossed it several times to navigate the “trail,” and made it back to our tent. Everyone was down there waiting for us- oops.

The view from our campground. My photo

The view from our campground. My photo

When you’re in a canyon like you are in Shelf Road, the steep hills and cliffs block oncoming bad weather and make it almost impossible to anticipate storms. This is why hikers and climbers in the mountains get caught in surprise thunder- and snowstorms so often. By the time you see and hear the weather, it’s sometimes too late to act upon it.

In the meantime, after we reunited at camp, the weather had calmed down again and the sun was shining like nothing had ever happened. Since the rock was still too wet to climb, we took a break. Some opted for naps; John and I opted for a private yoga lesson! John took a great video from Saturday, including sped-up compilations of morning and afternoon climbing as well as our yoga session. Check it out!

While Matt was relaxing on the ground outside of the tent, and next to Abe, one of the little girls sharing the campsite wandered up and said to him, “Do you want to hear something embarrassing?”

Matt said, “Uh, okay.”

She responded, “I peed outside- over there,” and gestured to some bushes and cacti behind our tent.

Matt said, “Yeah, I think a lot of people do that.”

The little girl insisted, “No, I peed outside,” possibly referring to the pit toilet located inside a shelter about twenty yards away. After this heartfelt confession, she walked away and rejoined her family.

We decided it had been long enough for the rock to dry out, and got ready to do some more climbing. Literally as soon as we began buckling our packs, it started raining again. “I thought this was supposed to be a desert!” Someone said. The cacti everywhere had tricked us.

Cactus, the liar! My photo

Cactus, the liar! My photo

We went climbing anyway, this time hiking to a different area of Sand Gulch called the Freeform Wall, which involved precisely ZERO river crossings, to everyone’s relief.

Deciding what to climb. from left Stephanie, John, Matt, and me. Kevin is taking the picture

Deciding what to climb. from left Stephanie, John, Matt, and me. Kevin is taking the picture

We climbed another few routes and I got shut down by a height-dependent dynamic move to a small pocket on the start of a 5.11c. Afterwards, we hiked back to camp and cooked dinner under some intermittent rain showers.

The next morning, we drove up to a different campground to hike into a climbing area called, ironically, The Gym. We spent about 15 minutes in the car waiting for the rain to stop before beginning the approach, which involved a much smaller and more manageable stream crossing. Nonetheless, Abe didn’t appreciate it.

The rock at Shelf Road is limestone, which is essentially squished marine life from when this part of the country used to be underwater. Sometimes you can spot fossils in the limestone while climbing. Limestone is also heavily featured (meaning lots of great places to put your hands and feet), but has a tendency to be sharp, which is tough on one’s skin.

John on Head Cheese, a solid 5.12d, at The Gym. Photo by Kevin

John on Head Cheese, a solid 5.12d, at The Gym (also, helmets are cool!). Photo by Kevin

I top-roped (meaning we already put the rope up, so I didn’t have to) a pumpy 5.11+ with a roof called Pulley Mammoth (roofs are kind of my nemesis) and led a fun 5.10b called The Crack of Dawn which followed a very distinct flake up a sheer face. Matt got on a really challenging 5.12c called Gym Arete Direct, which joins up with Gym Arete, a 5.12a, but has a particularly tough start with very small holds.

Matt on the 5.12a part of Gym Arete. Photo by Kevin

Matt on the 5.12a part of Gym Arete. Photo by Kevin

Before the sun set, I wanted to get in a route we had passed on the hike up called The Raw and the Roasted. It was a beautiful 5.11c sheer face climb, and several people were climbing it as we’d hiked by. We climbed a fun 5.9 to the left of it called Ga-Stoned Again, so I’d heard a couple climbers fall at the top of the route.

We don't have any photos of this route, so here is a photo from MountainProject.com of The Raw and The Roasted 5.11c

We didn’t take any photos of this route, so here is a photo from MountainProject.com of The Raw and The Roasted 5.11c

The first three bolts of the climb are very easy, a 5.9 sort of warm-up, as you approach a ledge from which the clean limestone face emerges, and the real climbing begins.

Since we moved out to Wyoming, I’ve been working on my leading technique and all the little things leading a route entails, almost more than I’ve worked on my actual climbing technique. On a sport climb, every 5-15 feet or so, depending on the route, are bolts that have been drilled into the rock. The first climber to put up the route ties the rope to her harness and brings up as many quickdraws (essentially two carabiners connected by very strong fabric- see this post for what it looks like) as there are bolts. As she reaches a bolt, she clips one carabiner on her quickdraw to the bolt, and then clips her rope into the bottom carabiner of the quickdraw, which is now hanging from the bolt. This is purely a safety measure and essentially keeps sport climbers from hitting the ground or hitting any protruding rock feature (e.g. a ledge) below them should they fall. There are 13 bolts on The Raw and the Roasted, plus an anchor (made up of two bolts next to one another, marking the top of the climb), so it’s a pretty long route.

Face climbing, where the rock is almost exactly at a 90° angle, is probably my favorite type of climbing. It requires balance, body awareness, finger strength, and finesse. It’s beautiful to both do and see done.

In the picture above, you can see a small roof by the climber’s right knee. I kept climbing and clipping quickdraws methodically, pulling past a hard move around that little outcropping and continuing onto the face. I shut out any fear of but-what-if-I-fall-here-oh-wow-that-would-be-scary and kept going. The handholds were smaller and required more finger strength at the top, but I did it! I on-sighted (i.e. ascended a climbing route without falling, and with no prior practice or advice on how to successfully complete) a 5.11c on our first climbing trip of the summer season! I can’t wait to see what’s in store for the rest of the summer for us.

We plan on meeting up with John and Stephanie again as they continue their road trip, and we hope to climb with Kevin again soon, but he sure is a busy man. If you’ll be in the Colorado/Wyoming area this summer and want to spend some time outside, let me know!

To the summer! Love to all.

Why am I in Wyoming?

I was reading about how there are now anthologies of “How I Came to/Lived in/Left New York” essays (indicative of our generation?) when I thought about why I moved to Wyoming, and what writing about it would look like. One of my friends jokingly referred to Matt and me as “pioneers” before the big move. Another, as I skyped him from the new house, remarked on how much more interesting it was to hear about and, presumably, to actually be living in Wyoming compared to all the cities to which our other friends had sort of retreated – D.C., New York, Chicago, L.A. Obviously there are good reasons to pack up and head out to these cities, these beacons of the young adult pop zeitgeist – and also things like jobs, public transportation, awesome take-out, and other young adults.

Not so for Wyoming, though we are living in the most young-adult-ish part of Wyoming, I guess – a college town. I recently attended a poetry and short fiction reading in the second story of a little café/bookshop “downtown” (I use this term quite liberally, like an Applebee’s line cook with a salt shaker). Matt and I went to an Indian restaurant across from campus not too long ago, and it was pretty great, except for how this was the first time I’ve ever been able to specify that I wanted my food especially spicy.

Of course some of my being in Wyoming has to be because I fancy myself a certain type of person – the type of person who can just up and move somewhere where they have no family, the type of person who spends their weekends camping and skiing and rock climbing. The type of person who adopts a mutt from the shelter right after graduating from college. The type of person who has their hiking boots by the door and a daypack full of old, squashed Clif bars, a questionable water bottle, sunscreen, toilet paper, and extra layers ready to go.

Visiting the Plitvice Jezera (lakes) in inland Croatia in 2010 - with my trusty backpack!

Visiting the Plitvice Jezera (lakes) in inland Croatia in 2010 – with my trusty backpack!

But I’m also the type of person who can be made upset by something as simple as passing a really cute-looking coffee shop in a little town, and it’s morning in this hypothetical, and I haven’t had tea in a few days because we’ve been camping, and all I want is a damn good London fog and a flaky breakfast pastry, even if it tastes like it was injected with old lumpy jarred jam that’s still kind of cold.

I love climbing, and being outside in the sunshine and the quiet, and the long, long view, but I also love taking pictures of my dog’s adorable lopsided face as he sleeps on the ground at the base of a climb while I’m supposed to be getting ready to belay.

I love reeking of campfire and sitting in a big puffy jacket under the stars outside my tent cupping the last bit of cheap beer in between my cold hands, but I also loved sitting in the café of the art museum in Hamburg, drinking white wine and sipping curried soup at what must have been three in the afternoon while reading short stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald in these gorgeous tan leather oxford flats that were definitely too expensive but looked awesome with my dark indigo skinny jeans.

2010, with wine in Hamburg

2010, with wine in Hamburg

I think it’s fair to say that Wyoming is somewhat closer to the campfire and not as much to the wine/soup/art/oxfords, closer to the climbing (literally) and further away from flaky breakfast pastries, though I’ve found a good place to get a pain au chocolat in town when I need one, which is more often than I’d like to admit (Mondays are hard!).

I’m in Wyoming for the same reason I went to Bosnia, Slovenia, and Croatia. I’m in Wyoming for the same reason I started climbing. I’m in it for the adventure!

On the road in Wyoming, this December

On the road in Wyoming, this December