Thursday, October 10, 2013

Valles Grande, Redux

On the last Saturday of September, my friend J and I took another trip up to Valles Caldera. I did a three-part blog description of our prior trip, the last of which posted on November 29, 2012. Last year, fall was in full swing, and nature was decked out in her vivid autumn finery. We wanted this trip to be a “green” one. We had scheduled the trek two weeks earlier but prudently delayed our adventure because of the most unusual rain we’ve had since I’ve been in New Mexico (early ‘60s). I’ve been rained on in Oklahoma and Texas and New York and Washington DC and Oregon and California and a whole bunch of other locations within the continental boundaries of these United States. I’ve endured downpours in Germany and France and Italy and Holland. My late wife and I experienced the rain in Spain. I’ve been drenched in Hong Kong and Manila. But this one was different.

We have a monsoon system here (and I think I blogged about that once, too), so we do get rain in this arid country. But it’s normally rain of a certain type. It tends to drop straight down on you in hard pellets for a few minutes and then goes away. Oh, a little brother or sister shower might follow along and threaten you with a few more drops later, but essentially, our rain dumps buckets of water and is gone. It might soak me and not even dampen the fellow walking across the street.

That week back in mid-September was different. It reminded me of rain in the American Northwest. It came and stayed and stayed and stayed. Gentle rain for the most part, the kind that gives the soil a good soaking. A beautiful rain…day after day. And this followed an August already awash with our usual monsoon pattern. Heaps of water in a minimum of time. Result…flooding, roads washed out, yards uprooted, careless people getting swept away.

New Mexico’s been in a drought for the last three or four years, and it was getting serious. Wells running dry. Water use restrictions coming into play. Well, after August and September, the news reports say the drought on the Pecos River side of the state is over for the rest of the year. The Rio Grande side didn’t fare as well, possibly because some of the diversion channels broke and lost the water destined to reach the river. Even so, the water level at Elephant Butte Lake, the state’s biggest mud hole, rose a few inches. And up where our trip would take us, there had been extensive forest fires which made the area susceptible to flash flooding and mudslides.

That’s about the windiest explanation of why we delayed our trip for two weeks you’ll ever read. So now, back to the real subject of the post.

The trip through the beautiful mountain forests was as magnificent as ever. Even the mountain tops bearing the stark, blackened reminders of those recent fires inspired awe. And then we rounded the curve that revealed more and more of the vast, rolling meadowlands of Valle Grande, the section of the preserve the traveler glimpses first. Contrary to what we encountered last time, this Saturday, the parking area was cluttered with cars and pickups and horse trailers. We went inside the reception cabin and quickly found all of the day's activities were booked solid. No vacancies. No, we couldn’t drive my car around the place. Not permitted. We could hike, and while J's a dedicated hiker, I’m not, thanks to my back operation last year. So that confined us to this one small area.

No big deal. The magnificent vistas can claim you for hours. The vast grasslands alone hold your attention as more and more details reveal themselves. Little La Jara, the nearby magma dome forested with evergreens and a few aspen simply grabs your attention. Redondo, the mountain sacred to the local Indians, looms off to the west looking mysterious and foreboding.

And then we spotted something that changed our day. About a mile off to the north, was a dark, milling mass. Cattle. Twenty-three cowboys herded them straight to the cattle corrals where we stood. The horsemen—seemingly effortlessly—drove the animals straight at us.

As they grew near, we saw the drovers were mostly Native American. Several of them, women. The youngest was a boy of about fourteen or so. We watched (and J snapped pictures) as they herded 270 cattle into the main corral (a permanent structure made of pipes). Then they began the process of separating them into smaller, adjoining pens according to owners, guided by ear tags on the animals. One of the drovers told us it had taken two days to round them up.

As J says in her post at, we ate in the car with a herd of lowing, bawling cattle at our backs. Watching the gathering was worth the entire trip. The magnificence of the environment was merely a gigantic plus.

Check out J’s daisy blog post. She’s included some of the photographs she snapped of horses, drovers, and cattle. In the background, devotees of the TV show Longmire will recognize some of the country highlighted in the series.

Well worth the trip.

Next week: As usual, I haven’t a clue.

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

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