Thursday, December 11, 2014

Pasó por aqui …

Photo of El Morro National Monument courtesy of Pixabay
This week, I’d like to take a look at the El Morro National Monument here in New Mexico. Let me first introduce it in the form of a scene from The City of Rocks, my third BJ Vinson mystery novel. The following scene takes place in Chapter 23 of the book. BJ and his companion, Paul Barton, are headed from Albuquerque to the Lazy M Ranch in New Mexico’s boot heel country. They elect to charter a small plane and enroute fly over the monument:
     Paul and I departed Albuquerque from the Double Eagle Airport early Saturday morning. Jim Gray, a lanky fixed-wing jockey with a small potbelly, got us off the ground and into the air with his usual efficiency. Although the monsoon season was coming to an end, dark thunderheads to the west announced rain over the New Mexico-Arizona border. Exercising his customary caution, Jim was no sooner at altitude than he got on the radio for a final weather report. He knew I didn’t speak radio—all of that static and the special lingo pilots and controllers use rendered it incomprehensible to me—so he obliged us with an interpretation.
     “Gonna be okay. The front’s drifting off to the northeast. It won’t even come close enough to give us a bumpy ride. We’re gonna have a good flight.”
     We circled to the west and settled on a south-southwest bearing, passing over the old mining town of Grants and the El Morro National Monument, a huge, castle-like sandstone monolith rising from the scrubby desert plateau. A reliable water hole hidden at the foot of a bluff had made it a popular campground since pre-Columbian times. A succession of Indian, Spanish, and Anglo passers-by had left inscriptions: names, dates, messages, rock art, all carved into the stone to create a gigantic historical billboard. Somewhere nearby lay the desert Ice Cave. Farther to the west, the lava beds of the El Malpais Badlands cast an ebony shroud across the land.
Water is as precious as blood, itself, especially for travelers in the desert. There was one absolutely reliable source of this life-sustaining liquid in western New Mexico – long before it was New Mexico or New Spain or anything other than a vast unnamed land. Fortunately, this source was clearly marked by a huge sandstone monolith, which over time became known as El Morro, the Headland. 

As rain pelted its stark castle-like walls, water drained into a natural pool at the base of the rock, making the oasis an essential stopping point at the crossroads of primitive paths or highways running both north-south and east-west traveled by Indians, Spanish, and Anglos for something like a thousand years. Its importance in this sense remained constant until a railroad was built (passing 20 miles to the north), so that the site’s water was no longer as crucial.
Photo of Atsinna Pueblo Ruins courtesy of Pixabay

During this 1,000 years, the rock was home to Indians as evidenced by the pueblo ruins called Atsinna (Place of Writings on Rock) perched atop the monolith and roughly 2,000 signatures, dates, messages, and petroglyphs inscribed on its sandstone walls. Atsinna, the pueblo occupied by up to 1,500 people from circa 1275 to 1350 AD announces the Native American’s primacy. The coming of the Spanish was proclaimed by an inscription by the first Colonial Governor, Don Juan de Oñate. The English translation of his carved message is “Passed by Here (Pasó por aqui) the Governor Don Juan de Oñate, from the discovery of the Sea of the South on the 16th of April 1605.”

After the Pueblo Revolt, the Spanish re-conqueror of the area, Don Diego de Vargas left a prideful inscription at El Morro, reading: “Here was the General Don Diego de Vargas, who conquered for our Holy Faith and for the Royal Crown all of New Mexico at his own expense, year of 1692.”

The American’s arrival was noted by inscriptions left by Lt. Edward Beale on August 23, 1859 as he
Photo of Don Juan de Oñate's Inscription courtesy of Pixabay
and his train of 25 Egyptian camels established a new route from Texas to California.

The monument is administered by the National Park Service (US Department of the Interior), which in 1997 began an inscription preservation program. Despite the seeming immutability of solid stone, the Zuni Sandstone cliffs of this 200-foot monolith are subject to erosion by both mechanical (freeze/thaw, wet/dry, lichens, burrowing animals and insects, wind and water) and chemical (interaction of chemicals in the ground water) attack. 

Visit to see the steps they are taking to protect this vast historic “autograph album.”

El Moro can be reached from Grants, NM on I-40. Take NM-53 west past the El Malpais National Monument to El Moro. The Visitors’ Center is open daily except Christmas and New Year’s. For information call (505) 783-4226.

As always, thanks for reading.


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  1. Nice post, Don. I haven't been out there in years. Makes me want to go back. :)

  2. Thanks. We'll have to find a day we can take a trip out there.


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