Orange glow of early dawn: Mind-altering and a photographer's delight

City of Rocks New Mexico

By —— Bio and Archives--October 14, 2011

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City of Rocks, New MexicoIt’s easy to write this place off as just another jumbled pile of boulders in the middle of nowhere until you appreciate the uniqueness of southwestern New Mexico’s City of Rocks. Mind-altering and a photographer’s delight, especially during the orange glow of early dawn, there are only 6 other places like this in the world.

Located halfway between Deming and Silver City, out on the grassy plains of the Mimbres Valley along the northern edge of the Chihuahuan desert, this sprawling fantasy land of towering monoliths, sculpted spires, twisting alleys and side streets and hidden coves have sheltered prehistoric Indians, provided sanctuary for roaming Apaches on the warpath, and enticed Spanish conquistadors and explorers for centuries. More recently 50,000 visitors, allegedly, scramble through this playful maze each year that is guaranteed to make you feel young at heart no matter how old you really are.

The first time I visited this 1,200-acre state park, oh so many years ago, I brought no camera but remembered it fondly as time passed. So close to Mexico, I expected sunny hot weather even in January, but was content with balmy gray skies, a pleasant change from record-setting snows that were burying the San Juan Mountains of the Colorado Rockies that year. That was long before they charged entrance or camping fees, before developed campsites became tucked tastefully among the towering weird rocks. Back then we had the place to ourselves and in our self-induced stupor scrambled over boulders and up cliffs and through tight alleys that twist through this maze of hardened volcanic ash that was laid down 30 million years ago in a massive eruption.

During this most recent visit I shuffled carefully through the twisting contours, treaded gently over coarse stone and grunted more than usual as I clambered about, missing the old legs and the good knees and my beautiful white dog, but making up for my slower gate with a flurry of digital snapshots that preoccupied me for hours on end. Whatever you do, bring extra batteries and plenty of storage capacity because the photo opportunities are infinite. It goes without saying, the best shots are in the morning and evenings, though you might have to wait until the sun rises higher in the sky to take advantage of light in the confined spaces and narrow shafts within the city itself.

City of Rocks, New Mexico

Had I known about that which can harm you out there I would have bothered with a flashlight and made more noise. I was oblivious to the prevalence of western diamondback and prairie rattlers and the Mohave greens (the deadly two-step; once bitten, take two steps and you drop dead), and the occasional mountain lion. Unfazed by my ignorance, I stumbled around in the dark of predawn, yawing and armed with the wide lens, determined to catch that liquid golden New Mexico sunshine that is turning the state into a filmmaker’s mecca.

City of Rocks, New Mexico

Pottery shards can still be found, left by the Mimbres, or Mimbreno, Indians who lived here between 750 and 1,250 A.D. In addition to arrowheads and shards, evidence of their presence can be seen in “mortars,” little holes dispersed along foot trails in the park’s northern section. These cylinder-shaped smooth cones collect water and are also referred to as “Indian Wells,” formed over centuries by prehistoric Indians who ground seeds and such with stone “manos.” If you find a grinding stone, or any artifact, best to fight the temptation to slip it in your pack. Take a picture instead and savor the good feeling of knowing you’re not one of “those” people who pilfer and plunder our American heritage.

City of Rocks, New Mexico

Renowned Apache warriors Cochise and Victorio roamed the region, pillaging and warring their way into the history books, fighting for their lives and ways of life you could say. No doubt they traipsed through here, hiding perhaps from the cavalry, or just getting out of those brutal New Mexico winds that roar through now and then with vengeance.

City of Rocks, New MexicoLegendary Geronimo was born not too far from here, north of Silver City near the headwaters of the Gila River. He’s rumored to have spent time hiding out in the rocks with his band of fellow Apaches when he wasn’t slaughtering white folk.

He certainly wandered the same alleys in his deep anger and squatted atop the same towering boulders squinting out across the wide expanse of tan grass at the distant mountains low on the horizon, and north and beyond toward 3.3-million-acre Gila National Forest and Aldo Leopold’s magnificent wilderness, the first designated wilderness area in the United States that makes this part of the West clean and wild and attractive to Silver City retirees flocking here.

City of Rocks, New Mexico

And if you look closely and ask the park ranger for specific directions, you might find small crosses etched in stone by 17th-century Spanish conquistadors who clanked around in their unwieldy metal armor in futile attempts to find the other fleeting fountain of youth—- copious quantities of gold.

City of Rocks, New Mexico

If you’ve never seen a crystal-clear, star-studded New Mexico night you haven’t lived to your fullest. The canopy overhead is clustered with so many brilliant white specks that the City of Rocks became the first state park in New Mexico to receive its own solar-powered observatory consisting of a 16’ x 12’ building with a roof that rolls back and a 14” Meade LX-200 telescope. Images of constellations, stars and planets are easily viewed on a 20-inch monitor, the centerpiece of “star parties” for star-gazers and anyone else mesmerized by the heavenly spheres whose height, depth and width and sheer number are sometimes too vast to contemplate.

City of Rocks, New Mexico

Tired of looking up? Then look down during the day at the park’s botanical desert garden that’s rife with towering century plants, yucca, cow’s tongues and bunny-ear cactus, to name a few. Watch where you step and don’t crush our beloved desert tortoise that scrapes along the sandy troughs in slow motion, or the little brown scorpions that will put you in the hospital or deep underground, or the hairy tarantula whose bark is far worse than its bite, and is one of my personal favorites.

City of Rocks, New Mexico

Now look up again and keep your eyes peeled for birds of a feather that call this metropolis of monoliths home, 35 species to be precise, including such raptors as hawks and golden eagles. And they have big-eyed owls, too, perched on tall chimneys spinning their heads like the possessed, studying the courtyard below for pack rats and kangaroo mice who live to be devoured alive.

City of Rocks, New MexicoOkay, now, before you get car-sick and twist a crik in your neck from all the up and down, stare out across the wide, flat expanse of tan and golden prairie grama grasses of the Mimbres basin that become awash in colorful wildflowers during wet periods. Binoculars will help. If you’re fortunate you just might spot pronghorn antelope loping, or javelina pigs rooting or big-eared jackrabbits bounding, or mule deer muling or coyotes slinking, and maybe, just maybe, you might even spot a 200-pound black bear shuffling along, obviously lost, but according to what I’ve read, still around here someplace. Just be thankful that the dust on the horizon is being kicked up by a Ford F-150 pickup truck and not that feisty little Geronimo and his merry band of pranksters on stolen ponies dangling bloody blond scalps from the ends of their pointy spears and balancing chips on their shoulders, headed your way.

City of Rocks, New Mexico

John Treadwell Dunbar -- Bio and Archives | Comments

John Treadwell Dunbar is a freelance writer

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