Above: Craig Martin, at home in the Jémez Mountains.
ON MAY 10, 2000, high winds exploded through a prescribed burn in the Jémez Mountains. For weeks, flames thrashed across Bandelier National Monument, Santa Clara and San Ildefonso pueblos, Los Alamos National Laboratory, and the lab’s tidy neighborhoods. It leapt from the crowns of old-growth ponderosa pines and wolfed the choked undergrowth of grasses and shrubs. Hundreds of Los Alamos families lost everything. Even those who still had four walls and a green lawn could only stare dumbly, helplessly, at the charred remains of 47,000 acres, once the bucolic backdrop to their lives.
As embers from the Cerro Grande Fire cooled, Craig Martin, a resident renowned for his trail know-how, headed out with a National Forest Service team to assess the damage. “You’d take a step and there’d be a big puff of ash,” he says. “I thought, It’s all gone. My life is gone. Why I live here is gone.”
Then he spied a baby aspen tree, just two feet tall. “Wait a minute,” he remembers thinking. “There is a mechanism to recovering this. That changed everything. That gave me hope.”
Martin drew a line in the debris. He would stay in Los Alamos if he could figure out how to heal the landscape and ease the fire-induced trauma of his friends and neighbors. And maybe, he thought, that effort would kindle a bond between those of us who sometimes venture into nature and all the flowers, grasses, trees, birds, butterflies, reptiles, and animals that cannot live without it.
IN 1987, the only line Martin drew was this: He would happily serve as stay-at-home dad for their daughter if his wife, June, pursued a hydrology career in a place near decent trout streams. She picked Los Alamos National Laboratory, and he got his mountain waters. Somewhere among the 30 days a summer he spent casting a line, he and June had a second child. Dad and the kids fell in with a group of moms, and he organized parent-child hikes for all of them. It’s easy to do in Los Alamos, the onetime secret city north of Santa Fe. Some trails ramble right through the center of town. Others start where the houses end. Schooled in plant ecology, Martin learned about local wildflowers and shared his knowledge with young and old. Like happy ducklings, they toddled behind his elfin energy and wiry frame, keeping an eye out for their guide’s short, unruly ponytail and ever-present ball cap.
Now 64 (“though feeling fortyish, except in the morning, when I creak out of bed”), he set a standard for his life in Los Alamos that persists today. “Getting kids on a trail is a priority for me,” he says. “My son had his first hike when he was two weeks old—the Tsankawi Trail, with him on my back. But it’s not just being outside; it’s building a connection to the outdoors. And putting names with plants helps.”
Wander a trail with him and you’ll soon hear him call roll. Field chrysanthemum. Scarlet gilia. Fetid goosefoot. On a recent hike, he pulled two spent blossoms, turned them over, and used the undersides as a teaching tool for discerning an aster from the nearly identical fleabane.
Over the years, Martin has put his own name on a series of books about the outdoors—trout fishing, mountain biking, hiking, hot springs, and wild plants—plus one about the history and lingo of neighborhoods built by the U.S. government for scientists building a bomb. (A “Group 18 Two-Bedroom” may not mean much to you, but if you’re what locals call a “labbie,” you get it.)
When Cerro Grande came, most of the town evacuated, children’s bikes hastily abandoned out front, all but the most precious possessions locked inside. “I remember seeing a friend’s house burn on TV, and then having to watch the station play it over and over,” Martin says. “First you’re concerned about those people, but we’re also talking about an entire community that values its outdoors. It’s an important part of a lot of lives in Los Alamos to walk out the door and be on a trail. As the recovery starts, I realize I can’t help people who lost their homes. So what’s next? Let’s help everyone by recovering the landscape.”
Agencies overseeing the aftermath asked Martin to help. “I had the reputation of being the trail guy in town,” he says. The Forest Service ponied up funding for tools and ponderosa pine seedlings. Martin rounded up helpmates and, together, they put out the call. John Hogan, a self-described “pathological volunteer,” was one of them, and the community response floored him. “We had up to 500 people a day coming out to help,” he says. “The first year, we planted 10,000 trees. All we had to do was direct traffic.”
Early on, Martin reached out to an elderly resident who had lost her home, but not her love for the trees she once saw from it. “Granny was 75 then, and we had a special planting where she put the tree in the ground,” he says. “Her family came back and watered it every day.” Today, that pine, near the Mitchell Trailhead on the northwest edge of town, is commonly known as “Granny’s Tree.” Still young, it stands taller and wider than Martin. Sweeping up the foothill beyond it, more trees thrive, along with scrub oaks and wildflowers, nestled amid fallen trunks and skeletal snags—important reminders of all that cannot be recovered.
To teach the town about fire ecology, Martin strove to include educational activities into the work and to involve all ages. The youngest and oldest couldn’t swing Pulaskis to loosen fire-hardened soil, but every school and senior center taught them to make seed balls that others scattered in the burn areas. “We thought it was watershed restoration,” Martin says, “but really it was helping people feel a part of the restoration and heal from the loss.”
He hooked up with the Youth Conservation Corps and trained teens from Los Alamos, Española, and nearby pueblos to rebuild trails. He tapped a then-teenage Sylvan Argo as a crew leader, indirectly setting her on a career course. In college, she saw Los Alamos cited as a national model for its community response to tragedy. Later, she worked in places like a homeless shelter in Philadelphia, tugging always on her mentor for long-distance advice. “At one point, I wrote Craig and said that I miss working with kids,” she says. By then he had a job as the county’s open-space specialist. He wrote to Argo, “I have funding. Come back.”
She did. Now director of the Los Alamos Teen Center, she oversees that same YCC program, which still builds and maintains trails.
Even after what Martin calls “the Herculean time,” those first years of whisking himself and others all over the afterburn with their seedlings and seed balls, favorite trails remained off-limits. He figured their rescue was too difficult and bound to fail. “They’re gone,” he said at the time. But in 2004, he asked June what she wanted for her birthday. “I want to hike the Water Canyon Trail,” she said. He pulled together a crew. It took a year, but June got her favorite trail back.
Six years later, another fire, Las Conchas, ripped through three times the acreage of Cerro Grande, coming dangerously close to the major tree-restoration area, and destroying the Water Canyon Trail. Once again, Martin rallied his trusty trail rats. “I think I’ve tackled every mile between here and the rim of the Valles Caldera, some of them twice,” he says.
In his lifetime, he knows, the forest will never look as tall, green, and “dog-hair thick” as before. But joy on the trails has returned. Ask him for a favorite and he’ll take you to Acid Canyon, an easy stroll behind the award-winning Pajarito Environmental Education Center (which, naturally, Martin helped found). But for a longer hike with views of both old-growth and recovering forest, plus “amazingly high” wildflower counts, he takes people to Water Canyon. “It’s the best-designed trail anywhere—I learned from the first time. There’s a meander in the middle, an old reservoir, cattails. And I always get to tell the story of June’s birthday.”
CHECK THE PACKED SCHEDULE of events, lectures, and yoga classes at what labbies call “the PEEC,” and you’ll likely find a monthly hike guided by Craig Martin, usually designed with kids in mind. Or you could join him on a service outing at the Valles Caldera National Preserve, where he helps eradicate noxious weeds and documents trees that bear old shepherds’ marks. You might also run into him at a Los Alamos joint with the Craig Martin Experience—“a bunch of very talented musicians who let me play with them.” He’s the guy on tenor sax as they backbeat their way through Ellington swing, bebop, and “the soul-gospel-funk-jazz that makes it impossible to keep your feet still.”
In 2001, the Points of Light Foundation named Martin its national volunteer of the year. In 2012, Los Alamos County declared him a Living Treasure. Earlier this year, the Santa Fe National Forest awarded him the agency’s Golden Pulaski Award for decades of service, and Los Alamos County councilors declared January 11 Craig Martin Day. Mention his name to pretty much anyone in town and you’ll hear even more praise.
“You can’t possibly say enough good things about Craig,” Hogan says.
June fills a scrapbook with his accolades, but Martin is almost too busy to notice. Officially, he’s retired, but he admits, “I’m not very good at that.” He’s midway through co-authoring a three-volume set of books about plants in the Jémez Mountains. His combo has logged time in a sound studio for a potential CD. He dreams of building a trail that loops hikers from the highest outpost to the nearest brewpub. His fishing gear has gone too long unused, and, frankly, he’d rather go hiking than accept another award. That’s where his heart beats best: out on the trail, in a pair of boots so well worn that the tread is gone.
“Taking advantage of the inspiration you get from the landscape and putting it to use in your community—that’s what matters,” he says. “I told my kids, ‘I want you to be cheerful, caring, and curious—and it’s all got to be related back to community.’ Learning as much as you can—that’s curiosity. Appreciating the history and the landscape—that’s the caring.”
As for the cheerful part, he shrugs. “I only do things I really like to do,” he says, then laughs. “I’m a little late on my taxes.”
DOWN TO A SCIENCE
Robert Oppenheimer picked Los Alamos for the nation’s super-secret atomic bomb project in part because he held happy boyhood memories of rambling in its forested hills. The opportunity to combine science careers with a love for the outdoors still draws residents, who started dreaming up a nature center 17 years ago. After piecemeal attempts at programs in local schools, the Pajarito Environmental Education Center officially opened its doors in 2015.
Inside, the PEEC boasts a planetar-um, hands-on learning stations with snakes, tarantulas, and lizards, an exhibit area, a wildlife-watching room overlooking Acid Canyon, and a shop with every guidebook you’d ever need around here, plus works by local artists. Outside, nature trails explore both native and xeric landscapes, logs and sticks invite kids to build towering forts, and a retired labbie’s success at collecting and hybridizing penstemons will soon erupt. “We’ll have 65 to 70 varieties, with more than 1,000 plants—reds, blues, purples, white, bicolors, a few yellows,” says Larry Deaven, who once worked on the Human Genome Project.
PEEC’s ambitious programming schedule, which won a 2016 Governor’s Award for Environmental Excellence, includes star parties, wildlife lectures, guided hikes, yoga classes, and what director Katherine Watson likes to call “Craig Martin in a box.” The local trails hero helped develop the Los Alamos Trails app (nmmag.us/LATrails), a free download that details some 50 miles of adventures with caves, petroglyphs, wildflowers, and wild animals.
The staff encourages drop-ins before visitors begin explorations of Bandelier National Monument and the Valles Caldera National Preserve to learn more about what they’ll see. But beware, Watson says. “On TripAdvisor, you see posts like ‘I thought I would have a short visit, but my kids played for three hours.’”
The Valles Caldera National Preserve can set you up with a regular volunteer gig or match you with drop-in opportunities that include working in the field with local scientists. (575) 829-4100; nps.gov/vall