Come early spring, one of my favorite places to go is the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness area, in northwestern New Mexico. I leave the cold white mountains of southern Colorado behind, pass through luscious green valleys, and then within two hours arrive at a stark brown landscape like something you’d expect to see on the surface of another planet. The badlands.
For after enduring so much snow and ice and freezing rain all winter, there’s nothing quite like suddenly escaping to the desert— the drier the better.
When I first visited this isolated refuge 35 miles from the nearest stop sign—a friend from Durango had told me about an unusual place “out in the middle of nowhere”—and parked at the deserted trailhead, the sun was still low on the eastern horizon and the colors of the land were not yet visible. As I readied my daypack for the hike, I began to question whether the 100-mile drive on early-morning roads had been worth it.
Averaging only a few inches of annual rain—and some years there is none—the Bisti is one of the driest spots in all of America. And yet, 70 million years ago, this was a tropical marshland bordering an inland ocean teeming with exotic plants and animals and sea creatures. A prehistoric paradise.
Then things happened. Apparently pretty quickly. Comets hit the planet, volcanoes erupted, the sky went dark, the climate changed, the dinosaurs disappeared. Mountains became valleys. Valleys became mountains. Lakes metamorphosed into deserts. All in the blink of eternity’s eye.
As I walked east into the silent, birdless, treeless, breathless landscape, the first thing that caught my attention was the profusion of beautiful stones on the ground, indeed a veritable multicolored, many-faceted carpet of untouched jewels just lying in the sand. There were rocks of every describable shade and shape and geological composition, and before I made it even one mile, my pants pockets were bulging with treasures for the front porch.
Then, as the sun rose higher into the heavens, I began looking back behind me and noticing how brilliantly the entire area was now glowing in the stillness and purity of the desert morning light. I started seeing all sorts of bizarre rock formations. There were towers and castles, moats and bridges, walls and windows, minarets and Minotaurs, mushrooms and marching soldiers. There was a vast spectrum of colors in the various layers of soil and sand and rock that had been deposited here over the ages in swirling, twirling stratifications of endless variety that now lay exposed by wind and water and weather and the flawless brushstrokes of the original Artist.
I had stumbled into a genuine hoodoo land of earthly delights. It was all like something from a long-ago fantasy that had just come true today. I felt as if I were walking around on Mars or Mercury instead of northern New Mexico. I found sandstone arches, and caves chiseled out of solid rock, and alcoves at the ends of shadowy box canyons that reminded me of religious shrines.
In the middle of the desert.
What an odd, peaceful, eerie, comforting, foreboding, and inspiring land of desolation this was! For there is an unmistakable wondrous luster somehow infused into the starkness and sterility and finger-to-lips-hushing quietude of the badlands that you will not find in any mountain range or forest or on any seashore. The dry warmth and sparkling air and pastel colors of the desert canvas are unique to the barren places of this planet and cannot be replicated elsewhere.
Actually, it must be noted that the Bisti is not completely devoid of life. One spring day after a recent rain, I discovered hundreds of gorgeous wildflowers in full outrageous bloom at the bottom of a once again dry wash, including a tall, showy yellow species you would never think such an arid land could produce (and which has yet to be identified in any flower book). Another time I came upon a petrified tree trunk completely covered with four types of lichen (orange, red, yellow, and lime green).
Although I have never witnessed any animals here—ever—that surely does not mean that they do not exist. Their tracks are visible in the flour-like sand, mostly small ones such as mice and lizards. As for birds, I have seen only a few swallows and ravens, and occasionally hear their lonesome songs from several canyons away.
And so, if you are looking for abundant wildlife or good fishing or lush scenery, this is definitely not the place to come. That is, unless you enjoy viewing these things many, many eons after they actually abided here ...
There is an ancient Chinese proverb that states, “Everything eventually becomes its opposite.” And thus, although the Bisti is currently a land of rare precipitation, precious little vegetation, and almost nonexistent fauna, it was not always this way. For here, there, and practically everywhere is evidence of a once-upon-a-time rainforest that supported trees so large there are still mounds of petrified wood like haystacks of broken stone. In the softer layers of sediment can be found the engraved images of ferns, fish, seashells, and other fossils from a long-gone era. One day I even discovered a complete petrified oyster shell lying at the bottom of a dry arroyo the consistency of concrete.
My, how things change.
Over the years I have noticed that what some people call “badlands” are not really bad places after all, but rather very good ones. There is a powerful and undeniable magnetism inherent in the forlorn, forbidding, unpopular, unpopulated areas of this planet where the main reason for visiting is the fact that they are so exactly opposite of what we are used to.
We need the peace and quiet of the empty spaces. Because beyond the towns and cities and highways is a land unaltered by human plans. Our current fascination with electronic gadgets and unlimited information can be trumped by this sacred, timeless, flawless place where that stuff doesn’t matter.
My last visit to the Bisti Wilderness was on a perfect golden spring morning with a sky of blazing turquoise and not a cloud anywhere in sight. I was hiking up a dry, sandy draw in a speechless trance as R. Carlos Nakai’s haunting flute melody “Remember When There Was Water” played on the stereo in my mind.
I came upon a side gully that seemed to whisper my name.
Upon further investigation I discovered a gravel bed full of brightly colored pebbles, a patch of prickly pear cactus, and a sun-drenched ledge that was still streaked by a long-extinct stream. It was a pleasant, even enchanted spot, so I decided to stop for a short while and take a break in the shade.
Suddenly I found myself imagining a spring-fed creek right here, complete with a gushing, foaming waterfall, cool pools of liquid ecstasy, and bubbling, burbling, joyful noises reverberating off the canyon walls. Indeed, I became so immersed in my delightful daydream, I could almost smell the water.
Just then it started to rain.
Curt Melliger grew up in the very middle of America, working a variety of interesting jobs before discovering his true calling as an author in 2004. He has published over 70 articles in various journals.
Related reading: “Badlands Walkabout,” by Michael Richie, November 2013; mynm.us/badlandswalkabout