Thursday, November 29, 2012

A Magical Trip Through an Enchanted Land (Finale)

J and I headed north up the mountain from Battleship Rock on NM Road 4 full of anticipation. Our goals of enjoying New Mexico’s fall mountain foliage and finding J’s favorite picnic and hiking area had been so fulfilling I wondered if our expectations of Valles Caldera would live up to my memories. J had never seen the place, and I hoped I hadn’t over-billed it.

Again, we traveled through familiar territory, one that held so many family memories. Betty still rode with us. We entered Dark Canyon, a place where the ground on the right side of the road fell away sharply, giving only glimpses of the Jemez River rushing below. We passed an area where what we called “hippies” at the time bathed nude in the cold waters and then climbed the hill on the other side to find exposed spots to sunbathe. My sons always made sure the binoculars were at hand as we approached the place, but we never stopped, despite their protests. 

This was the road where one August day we came barreling down the mountainside to find the left side completely washed out, eaten away by the monsoon rains. August was when we got most of the annual rainfall at the cabin. During that month, I often had to find a place to park my car in the lowlands. Betty and the boys would drive down to meet me in the Blazer. We had a winch on the front bumper and figured we could go anywhere in that plucky vehicle. 

As J and I emerged from the canyon, we encountered larger numbers of aspens shimmering among the dark evergreens in the light breeze. They are always a delight, whether they quake with the gold of autumn or the two-toned green of spring and summer. I say two-toned because their leaves are dark on top and pale on the bottom. 

Then we had our first glimpse of the massive grassland of the caldera. As we rounded the curve, the depth and breadth of the place was revealed, and I knew I hadn’t made a mistake. There was no way to oversell this place. As I’ve said, it is the most beautiful spot in the world…at least to me. The Grand Canyon and a hundred other places might be more dramatic, but for pastoral peace and serenity, the Valle Grande (the front portion of the caldera) cannot be surpassed. 

When my family and I had passed by the place on the way to and from the cabin, Valle Grande (as it was known then) had been a privately owned ranch, so we were unable to visit the place. Now it is a National Preserve open to the public. Finally, after all these years, I was able to nose my automobile down the long, winding (and somewhat rough) road onto the property to a modest visitor’s center in the middle of Valle Grande. And “modest” is an appropriate description since it leaves little imprint on the place.  


The Valle Grande Portion of the Valles Caldera National Preserve
Source: Wickipedia
The Valles Caldera (or Kettle) is a volcano fourteen miles in diameter (175 square miles) that exploded some 1.2 to 1.4 million years ago and then collapsed in upon itself. The eruption spewed up 150 cubic miles of rock and blasted lava and ash as far away as Iowa. It was estimated to be 2,000 times as powerful as the Mt. St. Helens explosion. The cabin my family and I owned was on the back side of the caldera, meaning over a mountain range or two. Often, as we walked the forest, we’d come upon huge boulders that had no way of reaching there…unless they had come from the sky. 

The Bear Paw as seen from above
Source: Wickipedia
The caldera is made up of a vast expanse of grasslands free of any trees and mountain country covered by Ponderosa pine and Douglas fir. The grasslands had been badly overgrazed in the past, but seem to be recovering well. The timber had been heavily harvested for some time, but many of the old growth trees still remain. As you approach the visitor’s center, an odd knoll appears in front of you...a 250-foot, pine covered bump sitting in the middle of this vast meadow of yellow autumn grass. This is Cerro La Jara, a Rhyolite dome created by the pressure of magma underneath area. It is one of several such domes that, when viewed from the air, create a pattern resembling a bear’s paw. The area remains geologically active, as demonstrated by these building domes and numerous hot springs in the vicinity.

Archaeologists tell us the Jemez Valley has been occupied for 4,500 years. Camps have been found where natives of the area came to work the obsidian stones thrown up by the volcano. The local Santa Clara Pueblo Indians still come to collect these stones and consider the area…particularly nearby Redondo Peak and the adjoining Redondito…to be sacred. 

Recorded history begins when a sheepherder named Baca in the vicinity of present day Las Vegas, NM complained to authorities that his large Royal Land Grant was being encroached on by others. The dispute dragged on until after the old man’s death. In 1876 his five sons were given 500,000 acres in five different, non-contiguous tracts in exchange for permitting others to graze their original land grant. Each son took one tract. The 100,000 acres encompassing the Caldera was designated as Baca 1. The son who took this tract grazed sheep here until he traded the property to another sheepherder named Otero. In the 1930s, Otero traded the tract to Frank Bond, an Espanola sheepherder, who grazed as many as 30,000 sheep on the place. 

In 1963, the Bonds sold the property to Pat Dunigan, a rancher from Abilene, Texas. While Dunigan ran cattle on the caldera, his primary interest was in developing an electrical power plant using the geothermal activity beneath the surface. Several wells were sunk, but he could never develop sufficient power to support such a plant. He began to look for a buyer for the property, and considered the federal government as the most likely purchaser. The feds finally bought 95,000 acres (5,000 acres were deeded over to the Santa Clara Pueblo), paying over $100,000,000. In July of 2000, the Valles Caldera Preservation Act created the Valles Caldera National Preserve and opened it to the public on a limited basis. 

Cerro la Jara, a Rhyolite Lava Dome
Source: Wickipedia
For the princely sum of $5.00 each, J and I boarded a van with nine other sightseers and enjoyed a forty-five minute tour of a small portion of the property. (These guided tours are conduced only on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday). The ride-along was worth every minute and every penny. We saw the homes of all four of the owners, one of which was being used as headquarters for elk hunts going on at the time. Permits are extremely limited and by lottery only. That particular house is currently being used as the home of the sheriff on the TV series Longmire. Scenes from the program regularly feature vistas from the caldera. Several movies and TV programs have been made in part or in whole in the caldera. 

In July of 2011, the Las Conchas Fire, which ultimately consumed 158,000 acres, burned 30,000 acres of the Valles Caldera. Rows and rows of trees to the west of the Valle Grande stand black and naked as a result of the wild fire. Some of the grasslands were burned, as well, but recovered quickly. That same fire consumed about 60% of the Bandelier National Monument in nearby Frijoles Canyon. 

I do not have the words to adequately describe the beauty and serenity of this magical place, so I encourage readers who live or travel in this part of the country to experience the place for themselves. On the way to the caldera, J and I talked more or less incessantly. On the return to Albuquerque, the cabin of the car was silent more often than not. I attribute that to our awe of the Valles Caldera. 

Next week: Nostalgia


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