Sunday, November 6, 2011


or Making an Impression

The rock crumbled beneath my hand.  I had leaned on it for balance to take an odd-angled photo, expecting it without thinking to be solid.  Instead it was ash, pumice, tuff—I'm not sure which, but one of the softer volcanic layers comprising the white cliffs of Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument.  The cliffs and hoodoos there look strong and imposing, but at a touch the edges wear away, filling your regretful hand with dust, the six million year old relic of a cataclysm.  You let it fall, and it leaves delicate, white traces on your palm, as if you've just set free a moth.

On the last of my vacation outings a couple of weeks ago, I spent the afternoon wandering the short trails at the monument.  I think of Kasha-Katuwe (White Cliffs, in the Keresan language of neighboring Cochiti Pueblo) as a "heart of New Mexico" place—it embodies many of the most distinctive features of the region, all in one exciting area.  The rock formations, where wind and water have worn away the softer layers beneath hard capstones, are certainly fascinating.

I apologize for my bad habit of photographing light-colored rocks in the desert at noon on sunny days.  In the center left, though, you can see more of the hoodoos with capstones; another clearish one is at the lower right.
When the hoodoos lose their capstones, erosion takes place more quickly (and maybe even more dramatically).

The contrast between extremes is strong:   one minute you're driving through sleepy settlements in hardscrabble land, aware of boarded-up windows and dust in the little village of Peña Blanca, and the next you're walking through wonders in Kasha-Katuwe's Peralta Canyon while crows hint of darker mysteries in the sky just out of view.

You are conscious of the elements not in the gentle, domesticated way we play with them in gardens—a pool of water, a set of wind chimes—but as untamable dynamos with weight and strength and power and relentlessness behind them, as mindless forces before which you are soft and small.  You see how the wind chisels away layer upon layer of crumbling stone.

You walk through a slot canyon formed by flash floods and (always) more wind.

I'm 5 foot 7 and don't recall bending under that huge stone in the left-hand picture to go into the slot canyon.

Even in the mild days of autumn, you're aware of the fiery strength of the sun and grateful to the trees and hills that shade you from it.

You see life—stubborn, insistent, resilient life—in all its creativity and passion for continuity:

The people in the first two photos give a sense of scale to the roots on the ponderosas.

and you are aware of it hanging in the balance, walking the razor edge with oblivion:

In many of the earth's other extreme places you can be aware of existence both reduced and exalted to its bare bones.  This is the corner I'm walking in now.

Sometimes all you can do is wander in awe.


  1. What an incredible place! Thank you so much for sharing this! I love the outdoors and am unable to see much of it on foot these days.

    I so appreciate your blog!


  2. What an amazing place. It all looks so imposing, and permanent. It was a bit shocking to read in your description how soft and fine the rock is that makes up this wonder. Like compressed talcum powder. All the more impressive.

  3. What an interesting landscape. The sort of place that you just wouldn't tire of looking at or photographing. The rock must be very soft to get worn away into such wonderful shapes by the elements.Do the cap stones eventually fall off when the soft rock underneath them gets worn away enough?

  4. People for scale, make even the TREES terrifying! Pictures of awesome wonder.

    (all credit to auto settings on my camera. On the other hand, all my wide views are washed out. I always seem to be out there in midday sun like you) But your pictures give full value to the natural scenery!

  5. Elaine, I'm so glad you enjoyed it! This is one of the most jaw-dropping places I've been here. Getting acquainted with you and some others has made me value getting outside even more than I did before. I'm incredibly grateful that I still can.

    Holley, compressed talcum powder is a great description. Some of the other layers may have been harder, but I was feeling too guiltily destructive to find out. By the end of the walk the trees actually struck me as more durable than the rocks.

    Janet, the capstones do fall off, and then the softer stone erodes more quickly. Some of the hoodoos turn into almost perfectly geometrical cones then. I'd love to get my act together enough to make it there early some morning or just before sunset--it must have a different character in every kind of lighting.

    Diana, walking around on the path, in context, the scale doesn't seem so huge, but then you find yourself standing next to tree roots taller than you are before they even get underground, and the massiveness kind of hits home. No wonder those trees can survive out here, with deep roots like that.

    That's funny--the auto settings usually more or less work for me in wide views, if I set them by the brightest part of the scene, but never for flowers.

  6. Stacy this is why I love NM. I will have to add this to places to visit when I return. Bandelier was amazing and so is this wonderful place. I love your pics of the white stone against the deep blue skies in the mid-day sun...and those trees....oh my!!

  7. Another place to add to my 'must see' list.
    There are many beautiful photo-focused blogs. What I enjoy most about yours is the thought provoking, descriptive narrative - thank you.

  8. Fabulous! I always perk up when I see that you have anew blog entry.

  9. Brilliant photos and post - as always Stacy.
    Got me thinking how far I could go on a day-trip ...

  10. Amazing! My, what stories these rocks must be able to tell. There is not one bad photo among them all...stunning!

  11. I am in awe, indeed! What wondrous rock formations. Your photos are breathtaking. Being there in person had to be a spiritual experience!

  12. Donna, this is fairly close to Bandelier, at least as the crow flies. It's in the same quadrant of the state, at any rate, an easy drive from Santa Fe. Next time you're out here, do go, though maybe not in the heat of high summer... (And do stop in, as well!)

    Karen, those “must see” lists do have a way of getting longer and longer! Ah, thank you so much for your kind words—it's funny how the blog has evolved toward more photographs. I used to just add them if I thought about it and had a convenient one handy, and now they're the starting point.

    Mike, this isn't quite as off the beaten track as the places you and Debbie enjoy, but what an amazing place nonetheless. I'm so tickled that you enjoy the blog. At some point hearing yet another story about my sand cherry bushes will make you roll your eyes, I can almost guarantee it. Hope you're doing well.

    Daniela, welcome. This is such a different landscape from yours—both beautiful in their own ways.

    b-a-g, thank you—I swear by day trips, with a general ban on jet lag.

    Michelle, you really do wish you could hear those rocks tell you about the amazing flash flood of 2,397 B.C., or the time when the Big Rock lost its capstone. Then again, it might be hard to sleep soundly for weeks again afterward...

    Deb, it's such a marvelous place, in the fullest sense of the word. For me it's a little too well-traveled a trail for a fully-fledged spiritual experience, even though the landscape is just ripe for it—you're always politely dodging others on a narrow path. On the other hand, it's great to see families taking their preschool-aged children out hiking and teaching them to look around and enjoy.

  13. OMG, this is one of the last places I went before getting sick. Hubby and I hiked the canyon and summited. I was so proud of myself for climbing so high. I took a lot of the same photos and was in awe of the trees growing in almost no soil. Tenacious buggers. Your photos came out much better than mine ;-)

  14. NM is my favorite state. I always wanted to move there, I guess it is the artist in me drawing me to this place. Similar feeling I get at the Niagara Gorge, the history and magnificence of the place enamors me. The landscape is nature's art at its finest and NM has been given her ample share. Beautiful images Stacy.

  15. Yes, it's so :-) Thank you for the welcome.
    I want you also to inform, that I understand English only very little. I write with the help of Google Translator.

  16. An idea I've found powerful fro a few years is that fractals define nature, that a mathematical equation is the same principal behind vein structure, snowflakes, coastlines, leaves, mountains.... I see this here in your photos, how everything is the same just on a different scale or magnification level. If I can prod you to me blog and my photos of leaves, you'll see what I mean through the lens. Love your photos, and words.

  17. Stacy, Tent Rocks is such a magical place. Your photos are much more picturesque than mine. Very stunning!

  18. Remarkable place, Stacy. I will film my next Sci-Fi summer blockbuster there. You'd think one rain storm would just wash away all that soft rock, wouldn't you? (Puts me in mind of 127 Hours - which I watched the other day. Shudder). The look of those trees are what bonsai masters strive for.

  19. Baffled, that's so cool that you were there. The climb up to the top is fun, isn't it? I couldn't manage it this time but loved it a couple of years ago. The huge ponderosa with all the soil washed out from between its roots had a line of people waiting to take photos—like the Mona Lisa or something. Trust me, you'll never see all the photos that didn't turn out...

    Donna, I know what you mean about the Niagara Gorge and NM. Even though the climates and landscape are so different, there's a similar scale and effect. There's definitely plenty of material for artists!

    Daniela, thank you for letting me know. Please feel free to write in Slovakian if it's more comfortable (or in Zimbabwean if you like), and I will be glad to translate, too. How did we ever manage before Google Translator?

    Benjamin, I haven't really delved into fractals yet, except for a basic, superficial, “Wow, isn't that amazing” kind of reaction. I'm looking forward to seeing what you have to say—I used to hook into your blog from FB but haven't been spending time there lately, and I've lost track!

    GirlSprout, thank you. Tent Rocks is one of my favorites, even though I normally am selfish enough to want the outdoors all to myself. There's something about walking through that canyon that's just thrilling.

    Dave, it's amazing in a way that those rocks are still standing after 6 million years—although maybe it would be less so if we knew how big they'd been to start with. I'd been thinking about bonsai with the trees, too—the one on the right of the triple collage is my favorite.

    You are a braver person than I am to watch 127 Hours.

  20. Wow! What a great post. Your photos and words so eloquently capture the majesty and power of natural forces. I've never seen anything like those rocks or hoodoos. The slot canyon and the giant ponderosas are so ... beyond words. Thanks for sharing! ... I'm so glad to be done with my deadline and back reading garden blogs!

  21. Awesome (in the original meaning of the word). -Jean