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El Morro, El Malpais and the VLA Radio Astronomy Observatory

Enchanting New Mexico

John Treadwell Dunbar image

By —— Bio and Archives November 14, 2010

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imageNormally it would have been out of character to drive this far for a glimpse of something as common as graffiti. I can find that scratched on the toilet seat at my local Walmart. But these etchings, hundreds of years old and scrawled into the base of a towering sandstone bluff in the high desert of western New Mexico at El Morro National Monument, are special.

Mostly a vast collection of names, some historical accounts and even a poem, the sandstone chalkboard at El Morro is a mesmerizing window of times past, a testament to thirsty Native American Puebloans, Spanish colonial governors, Anglo-American homesteaders, soldiers and surveyors, and 25 confused camels that traversed this well-trod corridor.

Like a Rottweiler marking his territory, two-thousand scribblers with time on their hands scratched, pecked and chiseled their fading John Hancocks for posterity, and gave us something intriguing to mull over.

It was this ancient history that beckoned us forward through the second worst sandstorm I’ve ever endured; a white-knuckle drive from Shiprock to Gallup that had me on the edge of my seat. I took a deep breath, puckered-up and squinted uneasily through the bug-splattered windshield at oncoming tractor-trailers while the deserts of the Navajo Nation sandblasted our vehicle for two long hours, west to east, grain-by-relentless-grain, and turned the dreary landscape downright apocalyptic. But unlike the worst sandstorm I’ve ever experienced just north of Flagstaff a couple of years ago, this one didn’t shut down the Interstate with its mile-high plume of brown grit and make me think of clogged carburetors and 50-car pileups - but it came close.


I felt sorry for the Indian ponies backed into the dirty wind, manes twisting and muzzles low to the ground, resigned to the inevitable like it was just another day out on the Rez. And I felt sorry for that beautiful diamond-backed rattlesnake escaping the brute winds that drove rippling waves of sand across the highway, that poor snake slithering like a slow-going speed bump for the other side (thump, thump), and I felt sorry for the groundhog (thump), and even the mice fleeing frantically across the road (thump, thump, thump, thump ... thump). It was not a day for veering. And I saw no chicken.


And just like that, we slipped out of the muck and into the clear blue sky, scrubbed clean and pure, but still blowing with a vengeance and bitter cold, the temperature dropping to 16 F as the cold front roared for Oklahoma. We traded all of that sand north of Gallup for a luscious, thick forest of pinion and juniper trees that flanked Highways 602 and 53 as they wind south and then east, generally following the old Beale’s Wagon Road past low, dark-green mountains and exposed outcroppings with few signs of habitation.

Thanks to the weather we had the tranquil 1,279-acre monument to ourselves, for the most part. The heart of the monument is a lofty 200-foot-tall sandstone headland that changes colors with the shifting light and turning clouds, shading the bluff in rich hues of yellow and red, with intermittent stripes of green and gray. The kaleidoscope of colors are subject to the vagaries of that clear, sharp amber glow of New Mexico’s light, a daytime magic-hour that’s drawn a steady stream of artists like Georgia O’Keeffe and Sheldon Parsons to the gentle tapestry of New Mexico’s landscape. It’s also a favorite of Hollywood and attracts large feature film productions.

Two-mile-long Headland Trail will take you to the top of the bluff where the brick remains of 700-year-old Atsinna pueblo are visible. It is estimated that at its height 1,500 Indians lived here from A.D. 1275 to 1350, and it is reasonable to assume they left the petroglyphs you see below on Inscription Rock, such as the bear paw and bighorn sheep, animals indigenous in large numbers to this region back in the days, before most were shot by the Europeans and their descendants.

imageGlancing out over the wide expanse of juniper and pinion pine, it should be noted that the encroaching forest you see is a recent phenomenon; back then it was mostly grassland and a few bushes, but I prefer the trees. As a note of caution, if you see lightning approaching, get off the bluff immediately.

Life at El Morro was only possible due to a perennial waterhole tucked at the base of a soaring cliff. It’s not spring-fed, but replenished by rains that course down from the top of the bluff, and melting snow. For an arid, hot place such as this, the waters at El Morro were God-sent, and the primary reason so many travelers came this way. The “hole” is 20-feet deep and holds 200,000 gallons of “fresh” water. Not sure I’d want to partake of the gray-green liquid today, nor would I care to share it with the livestock unless my life depended on it. But back then on a blistering afternoon at the end of a parched 30-mile slog with a band of angry Navajos hot on your trail, what’s a little donkey drool?

Inscription Trail takes you right up to the watering hole and along the base of the cliff, rather close to the long wall of inscriptions for that matter. However, in the event you’re tempted to add your moniker to the display, don’t, unless you want your legs broken by the park service. Vandals are not tolerated.

The earliest Spanish inscriptions go back a whopping 400 years, some written by the famous, some by the infamous, but most by the unheralded - regular folk consigned to the blank pages of history. For example, after allegedly discovering the Pacific Ocean, the first governor of New Mexico, Don Juan de Onate (or an underling), made note on the wall of his passage in 1605. Another inscription was left in 1636 by Captain Juan de Archuleta and Adjutant Diego Martin Barba, who were later implicated in an alleged assassination plot on the colonial governor and had their heads lopped off in the Santa Fe plaza seven years later.


New Mexico governor General Don Diego de Vargas restored his version of law and order when he subdued the Pueblo Indians who revolted in 1680 and sent the Spanish packing for 12 years. Vargas went about re-conquering the natives with great zeal which he wrote about in 1692. He explained, on the wall, that he was on a mission to conquer on behalf of the faith, and the royal crown; the same crown which later imprisoned him falsely for three years in the governor’s palace for alleged improprieties, then set him free and restored his governorship for a brief second term before he died in 1704.

Some messages were left by banished government council members or their entourage returning from exile in Mexico City (1726); by the Bishop of Durango, Mexico, on his visit to Zuni in 1737; and by Governor August don Feliz Martinez who tells of his conquest and conversion of the Moqui (Hopi) Indians around 1716.

Some of the scribes had big heads, and big names, like Governor Don Francisco Manuel de Silva Nieto who bragged around 1629 of his own “valor” in overcoming the “impossible” which he “alone accomplished” in furtherance of carrying the Holy Faith. Rumor has it he was a jerk and was murdered by his servant. Quite plausible.


Most scribblers were men, but a few women left their marks, and let me tell you, these ladies were no prima donnas. Miss A.F. Bailey and sister Amelia were headed down Beale’s Wagon Road on their way to California in a wagon train. Five-hundred miles west near the Colorado River, the group of 60 Anglos were brutally attacked by 800 Mojave Indians, known for their fierce and warlike dispositions. During the skirmish, 87 Indians died, while nine homesteaders fell before the survivors retreated all the way back to central New Mexico. Look carefully for Miss Bailey’s etchings and just imagine what that ordeal must have been like, including the long trek to safety. Twelve-year-old Sallie Fox, or “Sarah Fox” as she wrote, was also part of that group that was attacked in 1858 by the Mojave Indians. She walked back to New Mexico as well, after she was shot through with an arrow.

My favorite inscription is by P. (Peachy) Gilmer Breckenridge. Peachy worked with Lt. Edward F. Beale, who led a U.S. Army expedition west to survey a wagon route from Arkansas to the Colorado River around 1857-1859. That route passed by El Morro. As part of an experiment, they brought along 25 camels, thinking them useful in Arizona’s deserts. Peachy was in charge of these camels, and it can be safely assumed that somewhere in the dark green waters of El Morro’s watering hole one will find trace DNA evidence of some camel slobber, too.

Even though the Army opted for mules in the long run, Beale had good things to say about the camels. As for Peachy, he bought it in 1863 at the battle of Kennon’s Landing, Virginia, during the Civil War. Not sure what happened to the humpbacked ungulates.


But enough with the inscriptions. Our destination was the VLA Radio Astronomy Observatory (VLA) 50 miles west of Socorro, so we continued east to Grants through tall ponderosa pines and then south along Highway 117 circumnavigating the El Malpais National Monument (114,277 acres) and Conservation Area (263,000 acres). The monument is a massive, black, craggy, jagged, creepy and otherworldly volcanic lava flow, or series of flows, full of pressure ridges, cinder cones and lava-tube cave systems up to 17 miles long. There are privately-run ice caves as well.

Rock cairns – a pile of stacked rocks - mark hiking trails through the lava fields, some used for centuries by Native Americans who traveled back and forth between Acoma Pueblo and Zuni. But before you strap on your boots for a jaunt through the badlands, be prepared for some very rough and potentially lethal walking, with boiling hot summer temperatures and a snake or two to contend with. It’s eerie and beautiful in its own right, and sporadically rife with flora and fauna.

Lava tube caves are a major attraction at El Malpais for those inclined to go underground. Some are a mile long and others go on seemingly forever. Some are wet, some are cold, the trail might be smooth or jagged and uneven. I passed on the opportunity to submerse myself. I’ll never go any place where survival depends on carrying “three flashlights per person with extra batteries and bulbs” and a hardhat and gloves and other protective clothing. Besides, I’m not partial to bats. For me, a quick picture from atop the Sandstone Bluffs Overlook on the east side of the monument was more than enough lava – appearing from a distance as a flat, sprawling monotonous ocean of unappealing black.


As we continued south along the deserted highway, we couldn’t help but stop at enormous Ventana Natural Arch right off the road and a short hike from the parking lot. But like the sign on the outhouse door says, “Don’t leave your valuables unattended in your car.” Pity, out here in the middle of nowhere.

And enough with the molten magma as well. I had Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey’s characters on my mind, and the VLA where they filmed much of the 1997 blockbuster “Contact” out on the big, broad Plains of St. Augustine. It was on this drive that I came to appreciate New Mexico, its vastness and relative pristine features and all of that Wild West history; the cattle drives and outlaws and Indian wars, and the centuries-old Spanish colonial heritage that permeates the atmosphere and small towns. Rural New Mexico really is enchanting, just like the license plates say.

And there are some lonely, long stretches where pinion and juniper forests extend to all horizons and flow across rolling low mountains; where beige-colored swaths of grassland make up large ranches with very long driveways, and there’s basically nobody out here, and it was great, and just a little spooky after we drove for an hour and saw no other cars. It’s nice to know some corners of America haven’t been chopped up, subdivided and paved over; that there’s still room to stretch your mind on a sunny day, where the air is fresh and clean. But good luck finding a job.


Skip this paragraph if you haven’t seen “Contact,” but the storyline goes something like this: Dr. Jodie Foster’s life ambition is to make contact with intelligent beings in outer space, or “little green men,” as she puts it. While sitting on the hood of her car at the VLA astronomical observatory, she hears a pulsating message through her headphones, and that message turns out to be a series of instructions to mankind from something way out there, blueprints for making a very large machine according to their specifications which ostensibly will allow direct contact with the message senders. Understandably this revelation causes quite a world-wide stir; military helicopters descend on the VLA, and hundreds of screaming, frantic, wacko New Age nut-jobs, and others turned giddy at the prospect of reaching out to our cosmic brothers, mob the VLA in colorful pandemonium.

As we drove up the long and quiet road to the VLA, which stands for Very Large Array because the array of dish antennas is very large, it was hard to imagine the commotion brought on by the movie production and all of those extras. From a distance the gargantuan size of the radio antennas is difficult to fathom. Currently there are 27 of these monster antennas; each weighs 230 tons and has a dish-diameter of 82 feet. Collectively they form one single, large radio telescope, are positioned in the shape of a Y and are moved back and forth along railroad tracks. Major repositioning of the array can take as long as two weeks.

To obtain the sharpest resolution of radio wave images from celestial objects, like distant quasars and galaxies, the antennas are dispersed long distances along the branches of the Y, up to 13 miles on each arm. When we visited, the antennas were clustered together. Instead of taking optical photographs of outer space objects with an optical telescope, the VLA captures weak radio waves emitted from those objects and constructs an image from that combined information. They claim the images have as much detail as those obtained from one of those big optical telescopes.

To put these projects into proper perspective, radio waves from some quasars have taken billions of years to reach earth. Now just stop right here and think about that for one second, or longer. And the next time you’re driving past those big, white globes on the horizon, take a short detour and visit; it’s your tax dollars hard at work. You’ll be rewarded with a fine little visitors center, lots of information on related projects and accomplishments, and you can even take a self-guided tour out to one of the VAL antennas for a real close, first-hand look at man’s 78-million dollar effort to make contact - with who knows what.

John Treadwell Dunbar -- Bio and Archives | Comments

John Treadwell Dunbar is a freelance writer