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New Mexico's Mysterious Stone Towers,
Part III, continued
(Travel/Explore#4: June 27, 1999)
The little town of Perdiz wasn't on a major road, but La Reina
was. I'd stay, at least tonight, in La Reina and decide tomorrow
whether or not to move to Perdiz. I chose the "La Reina Motel," at
the south end of town near the ranger station. Directly across the
street was the "La Reina Café," a good place for supper, I hoped.
The shower head and valves in my bathroom were encrusted with
lime; not too surprising. I'd seen that at home. But when I opened
the little complimentary soap it crumbled into dust. I'd need plenty
of water tomorrow. I used a bar of soap I'd brought in my shaving
At breakfast, over eggs, sausage, and hash browns, and under
velvet paintings of The Duke and yearning Indian princesses in white
buckskins, I scanned the map for today's first hike. Breakfast was
pricey; they hadn't heard of breakfast specials in any of the three
restaurants in La Reina. And the motels were almost full. Odd, I
thought, for such a small town in such a dry little place. But La
Reina, near the Santa Fe forest and the El Vado Reservoir, is one of
only a few places on this highway for hunters to stay. In all the
visits I would eventually make to this little town, I would be
constantly in the company of state road crews, truckers, big game
hunters (elk and deer, mainly) and boaters. Reservations would
henceforth be a must for my visits.
|New Mexican high desert|
At the margins of these flat desert valleys the mountains jut toward the sky. They're steep, covered with very deep piney woods. The roads up are red clay and rocks. The mountainsides and small plateaus and meadows are green and shady. I'd never have called it desert, but it was.
There were elk and deer everywhere. Supposedly puma, black bear, and peccary were here, too; but I honestly never saw even a sign of them. And I never heard a coyote or saw a rattlesnake.
Occasionally in the flat valleys long ridges had pushed up forming what the locals called "hogbacks," large plates of stone and earth like tilted tables. One side had very steep cliffs, the other an even slope. They were overgrown with thin, wiry grass and patches of gray-green sagebrush. The air smelled cool and spicy; sweet; one of the freshest aromas I've ever smelled. It was delightful.
Above all this was a sapphire sky with cottonball clouds. The sun was a hot, white one that heated hair and neck and shoulders, but left the mountain air cool.
The road from La Reina was hilly, cut through small, steep rocky rises and then angled down into wide flat grassy valleys. Cattle move relatively freely through the valleys; it's been kept largely open range, at least in the poorer sections. The better grasslands are fenced to limit herds to those of the landowners.
|A high desert valley near La Reina|
Perdiz was at the foot of the mountains at the edge of such a grassy valley. It had a main street, a couple of churches and schools, and a post office. Most of the homes I saw were on roads just off the highway. As I crossed a deep creek bed I noticed something I'd never seen. Someone had overturned a VW beetle and placed it across the ditch so that the creek flowed through its windows. They had finished this ingenious foot bridge by packing earth into the upturned wheel wells and body floor pan. This beetle bridge led from a group of roadside homes to the school bus stop.
I turned on a side road and immediately began to climb the mountain. Pines and hardwoods grew very densely on either side of the road. It would be almost impossible to reconnoiter much of this very steep very deep forest for towers. Anyway, I was going away from the Perdiz River. This was not the link to the Perdiz River that I'd hoped, so I returned, west and then north to Yabis.
The road to Yabis was rutted gravel. The terrain changed from green valley grassland to high desert scrub. Homes here were single- or double-wide trailers with houselike facades, directly alongside the roadway. Yards were full of junk: old cars on blocks, bedsprings, stacks of firewood, etc., pushed into huge piles almost like displays. Junk and garbage pickup out here wasn't supplied by a town, and the locals of this part were obviously not living upscale enough to afford regular pickup.
Far to the west a wall of sheer cliffs rose from the desert floor and angled toward me. Each time I looked I was sure I saw towers and low ruins; but when I stopped and looked through binoculars, they resolved into massive rock walls cracked and split into long, regular, straight seams that looked like courses of brick. Hey Clyde! What was that about no straight lines in nature?
Yabis, marked so prominently on the map, turned out to be two small hunting cabins on a poor dirt trail that meandered eastward from the main road through a valley and into the forest.
On the west side of the main road a gravel forest road took off westward, past a group of mechanical shops alongside a dirt airstrip. It curved through very rocky canyons in that wall I'd seen. It was open to traffic; but it seemed to exist mainly to connect several natural gas well heads and a few remote ranches.
Coil Canyon was the center of three long wooded canyons isolated by ridges of steep cliffs. I was on the south end. It was well off my 1/24,000 maps but still on the 1/100,000 one. An unnamed creek bed from Coil Canyon joined the wide wash of the Perdiz River. Could this be the canyon of Hibben's towers?
I pulled the car into a clearing in the brush overlooking the wash. It was time for a first hike. I took a deep drink of water and slipped into my little knapsack, which I'd packed with juice and crackers. I shouldered a full canteen and my .22 rifle—and my binoculars, and compass—and—.
Walking into coil canyon was no more difficult than stepping over a low barbed-wire strand.
I was entering the canyon at its south end through a large rolling field which narrowed and funneled me into the creek bed, which was damp, but not flowing. As I entered the canyon I passed into deep shady woods as if through a door.
The creek had cut a deep channel into the canyon floor, which was fairly wide at the south end and littered with leaves and pine needles. A few feet above the creek bed a wide grassy shoulder paralleled the creek into deeper woods. At the edges of this shoulder tall rock walls, stacks of boulders, rose about twenty meters. Small trees and bushes grew out of the cracks between the rocks and up the wall over the top. It would not have been impossible to climb to the top of the wall here, but I didn't see a reason to do it.
Remembering Hibben's story, I stuck to the shoulder along the creek bed. The farther in I walked, the more the creek bed narrowed and the canyon walls closed in. The change was gradual, but continuous. I found an old campfire ring in the last grassy glen before the shoulder became a narrow path, but no ledges topped with towers. Now forest grew to the edges of the creek, and I couldn't see more than a few meters into the trees.
Finally I approached a dead end. A pair of huge boulders had fallen into the stream. Together they looked like a wall, but there was room to squeeze between and around them. This could be the narrow point Hibben had spoken about, but I began to doubt it. I slipped between the rocks and was immediately sucked down to my calves into the creek bed. Quicksand? No, just deep mud, but I had to work my way out carefully.
On the other side of the boulders I looked for ledges. Nothing. In fact, these wooded canyon walls didn't really look like they even had any jutting ledges. I couldn't see to the top of either wall here. The trees were too thick. Time for rethinking.
But could there be ruins of towers or dwellings nearby? I wasn't sure, but if Hibben's ruins were so extensive, I had to guess "yes!" I couldn't see what was atop the canyon ridges on either side, and my small-scale map didn't show enough contour detail to be sure, but I had the impression they were flat-topped, and conditions for dwelling were good. There was water here and the advantage of the height of the cliffs for protection. To climb to the top would be very difficult. I'd do it another time, if clues led me back here. For now, I'd have lunch.
As I walked through the canyon my back had become damp beneath the pack. When I stripped it off to eat, I wasn't ready for the shock of ice-cold air along my spine. In this dry air, at this altitude, moisture evaporates quickly. I'd got a sudden chill from flash evaporation. Tuck that away for future reference.
Throughout the morning I'd been snacking. First on beef jerky I'd made back home; good, but salty. Then I'd had a small box of raisins, some V-8 juice, some apple juice, finally some crackers. I decided not to eat anything, but I was getting very thirsty. Even the chalky La Reina water tasted good. It was still early in the day; only a little past one o'clock. This plainly wasn't the right canyon. I'd walk a hundred, maybe two hundred meters more, then head back.
I'd stayed on the banks of the creek; getting back would be no problem. I took some more water and shrugged on the knapsack. One hundred meters became two, then three. What finally made me turn back was the sudden realization that I was drinking more frequently, and I was running low on water. "At least two gallons per person per day," I remembered. I had to go back now. My throat was getting dryer by the minute.
Going back seemed to take forever. At each change in the creek bed I was sure I was almost there, but my watch said "not yet!" I took my last slug of water with, I estimated, a mile to go. I tried all my tricks: breathe through my nose, keep a regular pace, breathe a rhythm. My throat became dryer.
I knew I'd make it back—there wasn't really any doubt of that. But this extreme thirst was new and a little scary. The salty snacks had retained a little moisture on the way into the canyon; but on the way out I was losing it fast.
Seeing the old campfire site cheered me a little. Only about a kilometer to go. In another hundred meters I left the shade of the trees and was back in the open field where I'd started. I couldn't see the road, but I angled a little west toward the place I'd left the car. This took me up a steep slope and through some rocks which I didn't remember. I was close, but I began to imagine that I had become lost. I even doubted my own footprints when I crossed them. And then there was the fence and the road. I'd come out a good quarter mile east of the car. How'd I got so far off? No matter, I was almost there.
I cleared the top of the icebox and dragged out two canned cokes. Knapsack and rifle could stay with me for the moment. And now some sanity returned. I could wait long enough to find a place to rest. I chose a big fallen cottonwood at the edge of the Perdiz River wash.
I took a long, satisfying pull from the coke. It was bitter cold and hurt my palate; it was cloyingly sweet in that tooth-gritty way coke has. But it was great! I had made it.
Sitting against that tree, having shucked the knapsack, I took a breath and looked around. Beside my boot was a dead chipmunk, the only animal I'd seen all day. In front of me, north, across the road, was the sharp bluff end of Coil Canyon's west ridge, rising out of the road margin, up past my line of sight; rough, brown sandstone blocks, jagged all the way to the top.
Behind me, down a short sandy bank, wound the dry Perdiz River wash, an expanse of reddish sand about thirty meters wide. I'd take a look at it before I left.
It had all been pretty tame, probably; but for me it was a day of adventure like Big Bend. I felt a little noddiness sneaking up on me. I opened a can of vienna sausage and poured the salty broth on the ground. I popped the last coke and drank deeply. I leaned back against the cottonwood. Ants were probing the little broth stain as I drifted off.
LessonsWhat had I learned on my first high desert hike?
Next timeLocal friends show me a few things about finding artifacts and ruins, and I move my search to a new area.
...to be continued...
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