or Fourth of July Canyon
A day of contrasts. The color wheel spun between fiery orange and cool blue, pine green and luminous gold. In a shining cloud of dust on Forest Road 55, the skeletons of old trees, burned by a previous summer's fire, stood guard; at their feet, young growth played with flames of sunshine. In the open the sun was warm by mid-morning, but in the dappled shade on the trail, seasons came and went from one step to the next.
I generally think of blue and gold as the west's autumn colors—the deep, unclouded blue of mountain skies, the gold of a sun like hot honey, and the joyful, answering glow of aspen and cottonwoods, Maximillian sunflowers and rabbitbrush. But tucked away in the Cibola National Forest, in the Manzano Mountains about 55 miles southeast of Albuquerque, is a canyon alive with bigtooth maples (Acer grandidentatum) that turn into embers and sparks, reds and oranges that smolder against the ponderosa pines.
For a while over the summer, all of Cibola Forest's 1.6 million acres were closed to recreational use, because the fire danger was so extreme. Just idling a car for a bare instant too long over fallen pine needles in a road, or letting live cigarette ashes drift on the wind, could start a fire that would send whole mountainsides up in flames. How lovely, then, to see the wilderness harmlessly catching its own seasonal fire, in a canyon named for a day of fireworks, of sparking, thundering, crackling celebration.
The Fourth of July trail climbs to a spring and continues on to the mountain crest. I only walked a short spur of it called the Crimson Maple Trail, and even so spent much of the time sitting on the occasional bench. (One especially lovely clearing had so many benches I wondered if they'd pupped.) These photos, then, are only of the tiniest part of the canyon, and we may never know what hidden wonders we missed.
Even that fraction of a trail did not run short of wonders, though. On one stretch of the path you'd walk amid the clean, resiny scent of junipers, or catch the faintest trace of vanilla from a stand of ponderosas. Around the next curve you'd encounter the sweetness of deciduous forest; each step would release the must of fallen leaves from beneath your feet. The wind sent white noise rushing through the pine trees' crowns. It pattered among the maples' dying leaves; branches rubbed together high overhead, creaking. A gust might fling a host of leaves into flight all at once and then let them settle in a whirl of color and light. The forest floor, sheltered from the currents in the treetops, let only a light breeze pass, just enough to have hands seeking the warmth of pockets, and to prove the jacket to have been a wise choice after all. In some places the season was just taking hold, in others the flames already dying out.
And everywhere the light was diffused, deflected, magnified by storms of translucent leaves, by the almost-invisible haze of dust shimmering in the air.
Amid the kaleidoscope of light and shadow, a bench offered a moment of quiet among the trees, a time to listen to the silence behind the wind, behind the hiss of leaves touching down, or the call of a mountain chickadee, the hoarse bark of an Abert's squirrel in the distance.
A day of contrasts, when cool and quiet could make your heart catch fire.