Signs of Spring 10: New Mexico Part 2 (Volcanoes)

volcano5.JPGVolcanoes are not a part of our Western Pennsylvania landscape, so the opportunity to go and hike around three of them was not something we could pass up. It was a beautiful afternoon with high, blue skies and lots of sunshine. I brought along a light jacket in case the wind picked up but ended up just carrying it under my arm. There was enough sun to give us each the start of a sunburn after a couple of hours of walking, and I am still amazed at how dry the air is here. Two bottles of water were barely enough for the three mile hike. (photo by D. Sillman)

We drove about a half an hour west of the city to a slightly more distant section of the same Petroglyph National Monument that we hiked around on the day before. There are several new, four and six lane divided highways radiating out into the open desert along the cardinal points of the Albuquerque compass, and a spread of houses and strip malls follows each one. We crossed a bridge over the narrow trickle of the Rio Grande and after several more minutes abruptly passed the edge of the city. The highway with all of its active widening and new off ramp construction was now surrounded by empty (at least for now), brown sagebrush expanses domed over by the seemingly infinite, deep blue sky.

Albuquerque sits in a broad valley that runs from Colorado all the way down to El Paso, Texas. The valley has been spreading out both to the east and to the west over geological time, and the Rio Grande runs down the middle of it. This Rio Grande Rift Valley like the Great Rift Valley in East Africa may have been a major highway for human migrations. It is also the reason we have volcanoes so close by!    The three volcanoes we are driving to were active 140,000 to 170,000 years ago. They formed simultaneously on top of a vertical fissure that was opened up by the Rio Grande Rift. The black rocks around the canyon rim that we saw yesterday that were decorated with the visual cacophony of the petroglyphs are remnants of these same eruptions. Those rocks, though, have been tumbled about over recent geological time by the flexing and surging of the Rio Grande.    
These volcanoes stand out in the flat expanses of sagebrush. It is impossible not to recognize that they are unique landforms. I am sure that they drew the indigenous people to them in all sorts of wonderful ways. The petroglyphs must be a record of some of these gatherings.

The trail from the parking area to the first volcano is straight and worn into loose, sandy soil. The breakdown of the firm soil pack by hikers reflects how fragile this ecosystem is. The plants are dominated by sagebrush and clumps of coarse grasses. There is a repeating geometry to the plants and an obvious accumulation of sand around each of them. There are a few, deep green juniper bushes and pinyon pines scattered about, too. We see even more pinyon pines out to the east when we get to the top of the first volcano. We also see patches of low growing cactuses in varying shades of green and brown. I feel compelled to touch the needles of one of the cactuses (yes, they hurt!).

There are grey and red rocks in between the plants. Some of the rocks look like dried cow patties. They must have formed from splattered lava that was hurled out of the erupting volcanoes. The rocks get more and more abundant and larger and more highly piled as we approach the volcano. We scramble up a loose, gravelly slope to the irregular top. Lichens grow on the flat surfaces of large, dark boulders. We look to the north an see that the three volcanic mounds make a straight, north/south line.

There are a few green plants (soil-hugging, roseate monocots that look a bit like dock) growing in the low spots across the top of the mound. Tiny topographic or shading features that might assist water accumulation are rewarded with denser growths or greener colors. 

A grey birds flits in and out of the rocks and junipers. It’s a Townsend’s solitaire in its winter range. The bird guide says that it spends the winter in the lower desert canyons feeding primarily on juniper berries. In the summer it returns to the high mountains. Several ravens loop around overhead on the rising thermals. We can hear their croaking calls faintly in the distance. We don’t see or hear any other animals on our walk (except for some very friendly dogs who out exercising their people). 
We climb down a second gravel trail and hike over to the second volcano. We climb up through its taller labyrinth of rocks and see the same lichens and the same few plants. We look out from its summit and see the same slightly rolling, brown, mile-after-mile of sagebrush from a slightly higher perspective.

These volcanoes remind me of the Galapagos Islands. The lava rocks, the grays and reds, the dry crumbling crust underfoot, and the hard expanses of ashes and cinders. The profiles of these volcanoes also resemble in miniature the silhouettes of the islands. Here they sit surrounded by brown sand, though, while there they are surrounded by the life-giving ocean.

Deborah, Marian, and Joe decide to hike up to the third volcano. I walk back toward the parking area via a winding path that loops back around the first two mounds. I am trying to line up my notes about the place and make as many mental “pictures” of the trail as possible. This causes me to loose the actual trail a few times (all of a sudden I wasn’t walking in loose sand!) but have no trouble navigating back out in these open spaces. (photo by D. Sillman)

Finally, I find a small patch of shade and a bench to sit on. I sit there for several minutes drinking water, staring at the volcanoes, feeling acutely the absence of the color green.

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