Dispatch from Southern New Mexico
Looking Back in Time in Southern New Mexico
By Matt Skroch
As we step from the truck, our boots land with a soft puff, as if in moon dust. The oaks hugging the canyon dropped their leaves long ago, leaving the hardy mesquites as the only green in this otherwise brown and tan landscape. It is May, and southern New Mexico is already anxious for the monsoon rains now incubating far south in old Mexico; it will be two months before their drops patter the earth here.
Angel Peña, a native of El Paso, TX, with an easy laugh and an eye for detail, points me in the direction that our hike will take; the rocks, sand, and few shrubs eking out a living among the hills don't make a dramatic impression. This will change, quickly. We are at the head of Valles Canyon in the Sierra de las Uvas northwest of Las Cruces, NM, a town older than dirt where your choice between green or red chile on, well, everything defines your relationship with food and those you eat with. It's a New Mexico thing.
Angel is conducting an inventory of wilderness characteristics in the public lands of the Sierra de las Uvas on behalf of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, a partner organization of The Pew Charitable Trusts. The organizations are working to ensure that places such as this stay the way they are—devoid of roads, full of desert wildlife, and available for anyone with a pair of boots wanting to enjoy a wilderness experience. It's sunny and quiet as we set off down the trail-less canyon. A perennial question enters my mind during hikes like this: What are we going to find?
We get only a couple of hundred yards before my question is answered. Angel points to a few rocks piled next to the wash. “Yeah, so?” I ask. Turns out the rocks were placed there before the legendary Seven Cities of Cibola—the search for which propelled early explorers across the Southwest—were a twinkling in Spain's eye at least 500 years ago. It is a fire circle, with the remains of charcoal still visible under the layer of dirt blown in over the rocks. Now that my eye is trained, I come to realize that the ancient fire circles litter this canyon from top to bottom. Must have been more water then, I think. Lots more.
We descend the canyon, with rock walls replacing sandy banks and hemming us in from the dry table lands above. Around a bend, Angel's face lights up. I follow his gaze to the canyon wall in front of us, and there, splayed before us, are dozens of perfectly preserved ancient rock carvings, or petroglyphs. I walk slowly toward the shapes, imagining the original artist standing in this very spot 1,000 years ago, maybe longer. Depictions of people, fish, lizards, pronghorn, and bighorn sheep along with myriad geometric shapes present themselves. Were there fish near this canyon a thousand years ago? What is the significance of the triangular garments that people are wearing? Angel and I stare in amazement, pondering these early forms of human art in North America.
As we begin walking down into the canyon again, we spot another petroglyph on a high wall, then another. Faces stare back at us from the rock. I'm overwhelmed by the density and diversity of the rock art, which is seemingly endless throughout the canyon. After two or three miles, we turn back, still wondering what new shape might have been around the next corner. The quietness of the day and the remoteness of where we are hiking add a dimension to this experience, allowing us to fully absorb the magic and the mystery behind the carvings.
Angel, who is an archaeology graduate student at New Mexico State University, says the rock carvings are from many different ages, some dating to perhaps the year 0, maybe longer, while others may be as recent as 1500, just before Spain began exploring New Mexico in search of gold.
What a spectacular place, I think. That one little canyon—with no trail, no signs, or anything else to denote its specialness—can harbor such an amazing collection of history and art from so long ago is testament to the grandeur of our public lands heritage. Fortunately, this place has not gone unnoticed. The City of Las Cruces and a stakeholder group of businesses, conservationists, and landowners are teaming up to protect the Sierra de las Uvas and surrounding ranges as a national monument. The designation would provide a conservation mandate for places such as Valles Canyon, along with more resources to manage the unique archaeological and ecological wonders of the area.
As the monument proposal gains steam, the Department of Interior's Bureau of Land Management, which is responsible for managing more than 2 million acres of public lands in southern New Mexico, is revising a 20-year management plan for the region. Decisions it will make over the next year, with public input, include what areas will be open for development, such as mining, and what areas will be managed to protect natural and cultural values, such as the Valles Canyon petroglyphs.
That's where Angel comes in. He and the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance have initiated a field inventory of lands with wilderness characteristics, and they are submitting the information to the Bureau of Land Management for consideration. Public involvement in development of these management plans is one of the great things about our public lands—we all have a say in how our common lands will be taken care of, if we choose to participate.
Angel and I return to the truck in the late afternoon, tired and dirty but with smiles and laughter as we reflect on the day's discoveries. Peering back a millennium or more at human history and even further back in geological time is just one of the joys of exploring public lands. In the Sierra de las Uvas, it's an experience worth protecting for the next generation to enjoy as they consider where we came from, and where we're headed.