Sunday, June 19, 2011

Hoodoos and Goblins

or A Good Day for Geometry

We're not exactly overrun with science fiction and fantasy writers here in New Mexico—you can go for days, even years without meeting one—but we do seem to attract more of them per capita than the national average.*  A recent article in the Albuquerque Journal featured interviews with several of the most prominent.  The upshot seemed to be that our cultural diversity and desert landscape make contemplating possibilities easier here, especially if you're already inclined that way.**

This is the place that gave birth to the atom bomb and to Microsoft—paradigm-shifting world-changers, science fiction turned real.  Yet as the article points out, even while scientists here continue to do cutting edge research, Catholic Hermanos Penitentes perform ritual self-flagellation on Good Friday to atone for their sins.  At Acoma Pueblo the people choose to live traditionally, without electricity, running water, or sewers.  In the southeastern plains, enthusiasts mount UFO observation decks on their roofs.  If you want to open your mind to different modes of reality, plenty of options are at hand. 

I was thinking about the landscape though—the open, wild, sometimes all-out weird landscape—as a prompt to fantasy while taking an easy hike up Paliza Canyon in the Jemez Mountains to see the goblin colony there.  "Goblin colony" isn't my phrase.  The oddly sculpted rock formations found all across the southwest are known as hoodoos or goblins.  The stones in this particular colony are made of compressed ash.  As rocks go, they are soft, lightweight, and crumbly, like giant meringues that have been rolled in the dirt.  They don't feel quite...real.

Wind and water have carved faces into them, or perhaps eroded faces that were already there.  Many of them are more or less shapeless masses that somehow still manage to come across as humanoid.

Others are astonishingly geometrical, like pieces of a board game, or a child's match-the-shape set.  Somehow they also remind me of the simpler kinds of petroglyphs, as if a message had been left here and gotten jumbled over time.

When did geometry become the stuff of fantasy? I found myself wondering, remembering high school classes where logical proof loomed large, and fantasy was not encouraged.

But then, the less geometrical hoodoos are the stuff of fantasy, too.  I suppose that to people who do not get out enough (ahem), everything unfamiliar is alien and exciting.  Still, geometry suggests agency, someone out there somewhere making that nice, regular shape.  And the grotesque, misshapen rocks suggest that the someone is soooooo not like you.  Wandering around among the hoodoos and goblins for a while, you start contemplating possibilities.

The PBS man did it!
This is the way stories are born.

* A safe thing to say, since as far as I know no one has actually determined the average number of sci-fi/fantasy writers per capita.

**Matt Andazola, "Fantasy world," Albuquerque Journal, April 10, 2011, Lifestyles section.  Sorry to go all footnote-y.  Unfortunately, links get diverted to the subscription page, but if you're interested in reading the article a search for the author and title words should take you there.


  1. Ash, and the ash cloud from Chile, which has reached Cape Town, circled off, and come back a second time. How strange is THIS world we do live on!

  2. Interesting. I have never heard of these rocks before. Great images. I hope they are protected.

  3. Those are amazing. I'm usually a both-feet-planted-firmly-in-this-world sort of person, but just your photos of this rocks are enough to inspire flights of fancy. -Jean

  4. I have always found these formations so interesting. Some of them I could stare at for hours just pondering the form. Great post!

  5. Great photos. Sometimes, I feel like we live in two different New Mexicos instead of being separated by 60 miles. I lived in the Jemez Mountains for six months and nary a word on Paliza Canyon. Another day trip to add to my to-do list.

  6. Great post. I didn't know about the diversity of New Mexico or its history of inspiring writers and innovators. My imagination would run wild amongst those goblin rocks too.

  7. Diana, it's amazing what such a lightweight, "harmless" byproduct can do. The area right around the volcano must be almost unbearable. I hope your skies clear again soon!

    Holley, as far as I know they're not protected at all. This fall when it's a little cooler I'll try to make it to a national monument called Kasha-Katuwe where the "tent rocks" are truly amazing and post some photos. I have a book of hiking trails to some other hoodoos fairly close to ABQ, but it's going to be too hot for a few months to check them out.

    Jean, the formations really are weird and wonderful--great fodder for campfire storytelling. You find yourself wanting to come up with a good creation myth just looking at them.

  8. TSB, I'm glad you enjoyed it--thank you! This set of formations was extra fun because they were so varied. Some of the others I've seen have been more magnificent but not as quirky and one-of-a-kind.

    GirlSprout, that sense of separation is kind of disconcerting but fun, too. I always enjoy seeing NM through your eyes. I discovered Paliza Canyon through Stephen Ausherman's 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles/Albuquerque (but you don't know how tempting it is just to look wise and insider-ly and not give him credit!). It's up past Ponderosa a few miles. Living in the Jemez must have been amazing--a nasty drive in winter, but so beautiful!

    b-a-g, the extremes here were really striking to me when I first moved to NM. The poverty is intense, but there's also a lot of incredible art and science and just middling dull life going on. If you ever feel like reading any of Tony Hillerman's novels (not that you have any reason to be that interested!), they give a good picture of the diversity here.

  9. So fun! thank you for the photos- ive never seen those before. Didnt know about them either!

  10. Excellent post! The southeastern part of our state (Utah) has it's fair share of these formations. Have you heard of Goblin Valley?

  11. Excellent post Stacy, very informative, nudged us to fantasize more on the secrets of the past. I wonder which volcano produced those super-thick ashes in the past. Formations are just done by the elements thru time! Amazing!

  12. Oh my, that is incredible! You take such wonderful pix! And your writing is amazing.

    I look forward to your posts. You are gifted indeed.


  13. I am glad you took us here. I never heard of the rocks before and they do look humanoid. It is fun to see and 'visit' places like this.