THE BISTI WILDERNESS
BY MICHAEL RICHIE
FROM: "Coal and Culture Clash in the Bisti Badlands," Sierra, (Published by Sierra Club), Sept./ Oct. 1982, with 1 B&W photo.
AND: "Hoo Doo Heaven, New Mexico's Bisti Badlands," Phoenix, April 1990, with 8 color photos.
AND: "The Bisti Badlands," Travelin', Sept./Oct. 1990, with 3 B&W photos.
AND: "Rock of Ages - NewMexico's Bisti Badlands," Walking, Oct. 1991, with 5 color photos.
AND: "The Bisti badlands," Silver Kris - Singapore International Airlines Inflight Magazine, Feb. 1992, COVER PHOTO and 7 color photos with story.
AND: "Footlose in the Bisti," Pasa Outdoors - Santa Fe New Mexican, Apr. 28, 1993, COVER PHOTO and 3 color photos with story
AND: "The Bisti Adventure - Hiking the Bisti Badlands," Explore, Canada's Outdoor Adventure Magazine, Feb./March 1995, with 4 color photos.
AND: "The Bisti Badlands," Route 66 Magazine, Spring 1995, with 4 color photos.
AND: "The Bisti Badlands," Earth, The Science of Our Planet, Aug., 1995, with 4 color photos.
AND: "Discoveries - The Bisti Badlands," Adventure West, Sept./Oct. 1995, with 2 color photos.
AND: "The Bisti Badlands Wilderness," Western Style Travelogue, Spring 2001, with 1 color photo.
AND: "7 San Juan Basin Badlands," InsideOutside Magazine, Durango Herald, June/July 2005, with 7 color photos.
AND: "The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful - New Mexico's 9 Best Badlands," New Mexico Magazine, Jan. 2007, cover story with 6 color photos.
Keeping one eye on the soaring cloudscapes, hoping I haven’t misjudged the weather, I lead a group of friends deep into the Bisti’s lavish, hoo doo filled heart. Heavy rain could present some real problems. Our crunching boots provide the perfect staccato rhythm for the spooky montage as we thread our way through a stone labyrinth of Dr. Sues characters. First hand knowledge - or blind luck- is needed to navigate the confusing, sinuous maze of branching channels and hidden chambers all jammed full with every weird hoo doo shape imaginable and presided over by strange buttes and spires right out of a roadrunner cartoon.
We’re heading for a large chamber filled with impressive petrified logs. The gathering thunderclouds could turn these surreal badlands into a nightmarish quagmire; or worse, a death trap of flash floods, cave ins, and mudslides. Significant May rain in New Mexico would be unusual, but I warn the group to stay close together and keep high ground in sight.
In their organic variety, the slender eroded hoo doo columns and intricate cap rocks somehow balance the complete lack of plant life in the badlands. Rendered in a whole spectrum of subtle earth tones and rich textures, this is archetypical Georgia O’Keefe country where the bare bones land itself has a strangely sensuous quality. The incredulous, sometimes bewildered looks on my friends faces gives me extra satisfaction because I played a role in saving these one-of-a-kind sculpture gardens from the devastation of the strip miners jaws.
The same rich geologic history that created such unusual scenery left another more tangible legacy called coal. During the early 80’s the Sierra Club and PNM (Public Service Company of New Mexico) engaged in bitter conflict over the future of these stark landscapes. I published the first article on the fight for a national audience in the Oct. 1982 Sierra Magazine. Despite those days of the great BLM coal lease giveaways, we won. By 1985, the Bisti, neighboring De Na Zin and Fossil Forest areas were designated by congress as official wilderness totaling 30,000 acres.
An abrupt right turn through a barely noticeable opening in the rock channel leads into a huge circular gallery. Hoo doos of every size and shape lean and leer and seem to wander off randomly like inebriated partiers. On center stage a perfectly preserved, 50 feet long petrified log. The bark texture complete with knotholes and branch stubs, the detailed grain patterns and tree rings seem so real that they create an eerie feeling of time travel. The 70 million year old monarch’s fluted base marks it a cypress-like conifer. Numerous other logs protrude from the ground in various stages of exposure. Bulbous palm root clumps support upright stumps. This crystalline forest offers the first real hints of the incredibly lush ecosystems that once prevailed here.
At the end of the Dinosaur Age we would be standing on a river delta surrounded by monsoonal rainforests, swamps and bayous on the banks of a slowly retreating, inland seaway. The juxtaposition of so many habitats produced exceptionally rich, diverse fossil beds. Over 200 fossil plant and animal species have been identified, some like the 5-horned Pentaceratops, found nowhere else.
The gathering storm breaks into brilliant white, harmless, photogenic cumulous puffs, so we head even deeper into the Bisti’s network of deeply carved branching dry washes. Every hundred yards another tributary wash forks off into more hoo doo galleries and petrified wood treasure troves. We follow a gracefully curving meander to a tall pointed butte topped with a large Golden Eagle’s nest made from sticks and grass. A narrow passage to the left beckons. We wander into a larger corridor where the color schemes suddenly change from grays, olives and charcoals to include calamine lotion pink, pastel greens and tiger striped tangerines, yellows, and plums. We’ve broken out of our original dry wash system into a neighboring one carved through slightly different geologic layers.
A gigantic room opens before us, at its entrance a huge, precariously balanced, intricately fashioned cap rock sits atop a thick pedestal like some “arts-in-the-parks” public works sculpture. Clustered hoo doo exhibits resemble a series of ancient temples. Larger than life colonnades, cornices, pyramids, turrets and frescoed facades are all embellished by a brilliant carmine colored layer formed where underground coal fires, like a huge pottery kiln, turned the rock into a brittle ceramics material. The interleaved layers of dark black coal represent millions of years of accumulated forest remains. Even the sky gets into the act with weirdly climbing cirrus tentacles growing from the hoo doo tops.
After a day filled with non-stop discoveries, we huff and puff back to camp through lengthening shadows. The formations take on a macabre character. With a little imagination they morph into dinosaur ghosts as the whistling wind sings a song of countless millenniums gone by. One of many ironic threads of meaning permeating the Bisti is that the richest of terrestrial environments possible created these most desolate scenes. Every time I return to try to fathom this 3-dimensional, walk through jig saw puzzle, I’m more convinced that nature has a very off beat sense of humor.