Early Fall — Rinconada Canyon

A desert canyon is a parched and dusty place. I had heard that this year’s frequent rains had transformed Rinconada Canyon into a flower garden.  Sadly, I couldn’t get my act together to see the flowery show but I managed to get there last week on one of the first days of autumn. Our nights are getting cooler but our days are still warm. The Quaking Aspens up on the mountain top have started turning gold. The canyon’s flowers are faded and dried into natural arrangements that you could pick up and take home for a seasonal display. I’m always fascinated by the way the plant communities come together as if there was some secretive landscape gardener in charge of everything.  I think you can see the botanical engineering better in a dried flower head or a clump of dried grasses. I’m not sure one of our skilled structural engineers could devise something as elegant and delicate as a stalk of dried grass waving its seeds in the wind.

Rinconada Canyon is a mile-long gash that cuts into the basaltic western mesa just beyond Albuquerque. Rinconada, the Spanish name, is descriptive of its serrated and wavering slopes endowed with numerous shallow alcoves strewn with car-sized blocks of basalt. The local Indians revered this place and inscribed hundreds of petroglyphs along the north side of the canyon. The canyon was probably much deeper at one time but has filled in with wind-blown sand. The place is now part of Petroglyph National Monument and maintained by the National Park Service. They are in the process of restoration and reclamation of the areas around the most visible petroglyphs  because they are being loved to death and vandalized in some cases. It is also a little dangerous to climb on the basalt blocks because some are unstable and will tumble over.

The rugged dryness of the place belies what actually exists out here. The flowers are faded but still there. The Asters are in full bloom but weren’t cooperating with my camera (human error, I discovered later). There were thousands of small sunflowers and a few blooming mallows still hanging on. There are a dozen or more varieties of grasses and they find a foot-hold all the way up the slope mixed in with yellow-blooming chamisa.

The place is alive with animals, too. A stroll down the trail will reveal dozens of collared lizards scrambling out of sight as you walk by. I was stalked by a Roadrunner as I hiked the trail. Roadrunners eat lizards so he was interested in what was running around under foot.

I never heard a Roadrunner call before but this guy was very vocal. The call is a series of three plaintive ‘mews’ sometimes followed by a delayed fourth one.  He followed me several hundred yards up the canyon.

You also glimpse other things moving through the rocks. I saw a flash of grayish-white up among the rocks a few times but couldn’t tell what it was. There was a desert cottontail that bolted and started running and then decided that being perfectly still was a better defense. Maybe I wouldn’t see him if he didn’t move. He stayed in one place and let me walk around him to get a picture.  He needs to be carful because there was a large hawk perched up on the top of the canyon wall that would go out cruising over the canyon.

The Indians visited this place from around 1000 to around 1700 and they were followed by Spanish shepherds. Both groups left their marks on the canyon’s huge blocks of basalt.  Later modern visitors failed to respect the images and some of them are marked with chips and pock-marks from rifle target shooting. There is some modern petroglyphs — people still come here to leave their mark. Not all of it is graffiti but it doesn’t have the magical or religious meaning that the ancient markings have. Shooting at an ancient Indian petroglyph is like shooting at the Pieta in the Vatican.

Most of the older markings are nearly undecipherable to a modern mind. What were they trying to tell us? Why was this spot chosen to be a cathedral of sorts. They apparently sat for hours or days pecking at the oxidized surface of the basalt blocks to leave their sacred markings. As the markings age they are re-oxidized so that archaeologists can tell the older ones from those that are more recent. Some are so old that they blend in to the background color of the stone and are easily missed.

There are several panels that seem to be part of a single display but what is the message? There is a large image of a deer on one surface and various large birds and some cat-like animals. The birds are macaws in some cases. The pueblo people revered macaws and traded jade from local jade mines to get birds from as far away as Yucatan. They also had domesticated turkeys.

Some common, everyday animals show up as well. There are several images of snakes and something that might be a ring-tailed cat, a type of raccoon.

Some of the religious markings are recognizable, like the Spanish shepherds’ Christian crosses. We have no real idea what the figure on the left is or what it is doing but archaeologists say that it is an ancient image and not added in recent years.

The canyon serves as a conduit for colder air and wind off the top of the mesa during winter. The animals that are evident on the canyon floor now will have to find cozy lodgings up in the rocks to be sheltered from the snow and freezing winds that will be here in about two months.  I’ve got a warm place to go but I’ll be back in the spring.