Thursday, September 19, 2013

Finally, to Bisti We Go!

I have been promising for weeks to get to the post on Bisti. Actually, I was stalling until I could get in contact with a man who has some fantastic images of the wilderness area. Photo credit for all of the incredible Bisti images in this post goes to my friend and neighbor, Joe Bridwell, Award-Winning Fine Art Photography. He has something like 10,000 amazing photographs of the southwest and can be contacted at You should also check out his blog at

The Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness area south of Farmington is central to the second book in my BJ Vinson mystery series, which features New Mexico as one of the major players. The opening scene of The Bisti Business (Martin Brown Publishers) take place there.


Anasazi Moon
A lopsided moon daubed wispy tendrils of scattered clouds with pewter. Glittering pinpricks of muted light smeared the Milky Way while moonshine bleached the barren landscape silver. Sharp-edged shadows shrouded the feet of mute, grotesque gargoyles of clay and sandstone: hoodoos masquerading as monumental toadstools, spheroid stones aping gigantic dinosaur eggs, and eroded clay hills with folds like delicate lace drapery.

A great horned owl soared above the high desert floor, its keen eyes scouring the panorama below. The plumed predator dipped a wing and veered eastward, attracted by the dull metallic shine of a large foreign object. Quickly discerning it represented no culinary opportunity, the raptor flew in slow, ever-widening circles in search of something more promising.

The huge bird’s flitting shadow startled two figures, interrupting their heated argument. Both glanced up quickly. Taking advantage of the moment, the larger man snaked a belt from his waist and slipped behind the other. He whipped the leather strap over his victim’s head, driving him to the ground with a knee to the back. After a short, desperate struggle, the man sprawled in the cooling sand ceased to resist. The violent tremors in his extremities passed, and he lay still.


And that is the reader’s introduction to this fantastic area. Let’s learn a little about this “other-world”
wilderness from government brochures and a few other sources.

Seventy million years ago, the Western Interior Seaway covered much of New Mexico. The area that includes the Bisti/D-Na-Zin Wilderness was once a riverine delta that lay just west of that ancient sea. Water built up layers of sediment. Swamps and ponds bordering the stream left organic material. Volcanic activity deposited ash, which was washed away by the river. As the water receded, the area became the home of prehistoric reptiles, large dinosaurs, and small primitive mammals that fed on one another and on the lush foliage along the riverbanks. Fish and turtles lived in the water. There is ample proof of this from fossils in the lignite sediment. Ancient mangrove forests rose and fell and left behind petrified remains.

The two major geological formations in the wilderness are the Fruitland Formation and the Kirtland Shale. The strange rock formations and fossils are found in the Fruitland, and this is what most of the visitors of the area see on the western side of the badlands, the former Bisti Wilderness. Hoodoos and spires and sandstone formations dominate the area. It is mostly a world of gray ash black and red cinders from coal burned in an ancient fire that lasted centuries. Clay laid over the burning coal layer formed “clinkers” that look like small pottery shards.

Kirtland Shale dominates the eastern side of the wilderness area (formerly known as the De-Na-Zin Wilderness). This formation contains rocks of many various colors, and is less traveled than the western area.

God's Hand
In 1966, the United States Congress merged the two separate wilderness areas into a single unit in San Juan County, New Mexico. The merging of the Bisti Wilderness and De-Na-Zin Wilderness placed all 45,000 acres all under the management of the Bureau of Land Management, except for three parcels of private Navajo land contained within its boundaries.

As the novel indicates, access (south from Farmington and north of Crownpoint) is rather limited, requiring some travel over unpaved roads. The area is not staffed by Bureau personnel, and there are no amenities. Water and food must be hauled in and rubbish carried out. The removal of fossils, including petrified wood pieces, is against the law. There are no established trails, so the tourist is pretty much left on his or her own.

The following scene in Chapter 12 (beginning on Page 99) is BJ’s first exposure to the badlands. The Aggie with him is the older brother of one of the men the private investigator is searching for, Lando Alfano. Let’s watch and listen.


Primordial Bisti
About forty miles south of Farmington, Aggie and I turned off of Highway 371 onto a gravel road, which looped back north. Six miles later, we parked on a stretch of ground that faintly resembled a parking lot near a bunch of tumbledown, rotting buildings. There were no other vehicles in sight. In fact, we appeared to be the only two people on the planet.

“You sure this is the right place?” Aggie climbed out of the car and looked around.

I nodded to a modest sign and what looked to be a register for tourists. “According to that, it is.”

“Man, this place is deserted.”

“Yeah, they don’t get much traffic out here.”

“Hope we can find our way to the right place.”

Forewarned by Dix Lee and Lonzo Joe, we hoisted packs stuffed with water bottles, energy bars and a compass. Feeling like I was provisioned for a week in the wilds, I clapped a broad-brimmed floppy hat on my head as protection against the sun and glanced at Aggie. He looked a good deal more comfortable with the situation than I was, but then he would be. He hiked and climbed mountains and conquered deserts more or less as a matter of course. We set off across the rocky ground, following the map Dix had sketched for us. She was supposed to be trailing along behind with someone from the Farmington BLM office. Almost immediately we were swallowed up in a fantastic landscape—not magnificent like the Grand Canyon, but spooky. Weird. Like a moonscape. Mysterious, as if some omnipotent sculptor had capriciously balanced massive, flat sandstone rocks atop slender necks of eroding clay in order to see how long they would stand.

“Damn,” Aggie said in a near whisper. “I’ve never seen any place like this. What the hell’s keeping those damned rocks from toppling over?” He indicated one of the distant capped pink and gray striated clay towers wearing what looked to be an outlandish stone beret at a rakish angle. “I wonder what the Good Lord was thinking when he did all of this?”

“Probably did it to watch all of us stand around with our mouths open.”

We were almost diverted from the gravity of our task by the multi-colored stones, petrified
Thor's Hammer
stumps, washes filled with wacky shapes, and the silent menacing hoodoos towering uncertainly over us. In one moment, our surroundings were whimsical; in another, ominous. The Navajo considered this sacred ground, and I could understand why. We trod forbidden territory, or at least that’s the way it felt. There were no footprints in the dry washes or anywhere on the stony ground we traveled, and I felt ours would disappear with our passing, as if we walked an alien planet subject to different natural laws., I glanced behind me to check and took false comfort when I saw my shoe prints still existed.

We had barely started our trek, and already sweat was staining my shirt. Following Dix’s hand-sketched map, we plodded on, taking frequent gulps of rapidly warming water, barely able to resist rushing off to explore some fascinating structural gem: thin spires of sandstone rising toward the sky like frozen tongues of flame, piles of mudstone carved by wind and water into ugly, fascinating gargoyles, specks of amber crystal winking in the hot sun, and those endless columns of sculpted, gravity defying capped rock.

        Eventually we reached our target, a broad wash holding clusters of flattened, broken round rocks streaked with wind- and water-carved wrinkles. I’d seen color prints of the Cracked Eggs, but the startling reality was greater than the image. The stones did appear to be gigantic dinosaur eggs broken open and abandoned to the elements—dozens and dozens of them. They weren’t, of course, they were merely clay and stone fashioned by that same capricious Hand. In the photos they’d appeared in a dazzling array of color, influenced by the time of day, the intensity of the light, the influence of the clouds. Now, as the sun beat straight down upon us, they were a flat gray with rosy highlights.


Eerie. Other-worldly, right? Felt that way to me. Further, it was a great setting for this mystery novel. A book featuring the Great State of New Mexico.

Winged Marvel

Next week: Well, we finally got to Bisti. Next week? I have no idea.


New posts are published at 6:00 a.m. each Thursday.


  1. Wow! Those photographs are truly spectacular. Can't believe I still haven't made it up there to see the place for myself.

  2. Joe's photos are great. I can't get over how appropriate the first one is to the opening lines of the book.


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