I was stretched out on a large flat rock six feet from the back door of the camper and was, like a lizard, basking in the sun. The breeze slid across my face and the insects buzzed and the grasses whispered. As I lay there, on stone that’s been grounded in place for millennia and has surely felt the footfalls of people from ancient civilizations long gone, it felt as if the last piece of something still missing inside me quietly slid into place. Somewhere behind me, weaving his way through the narrow alleys between the giant monolithic stones that are the glory of the City of Rocks State Park in New Mexico, Roland was playing his accordion. The music bounced and echoed off the rock walls, closer and further away and closer again. This, I realized, is one of the moments we live for.
We came into New Mexico through Las Cruces and spent a night on the city’s outskirts, at an inexpensive (thanks to Passport America) but seedy RV park. Our laundry bag was full and we needed wifi for computer software updates but, beyond providing both the wifi and a laundry room, the place was one step up from a hole. The man who runs it is friendly and accommodating, but it’s too close to the highway and it didn’t seem like maintenance was a priority. Lots of dog poop everywhere, dirty showers. We left as early in the morning as we could and headed west. No more than a few hours later, happily settled in at Rockhound State Park, it felt as if we’d stepped right into a Gustave Baumann woodblock print. I had hints of this in parts of Texas already – in the Davis Mountains specifically – but here, in southern New Mexico, the feeling is much more powerful.
Gustave Baumann – Arroya Chamissa – 1927 (click here for info)
It makes sense. It is New Mexico G. Baumann fell in love with and New Mexico which, during the decades he spent here, inspired so much of his artwork. And I love his work. Being a printmaker myself, I understand how difficult it is to create the subtlety and emotion his woodblocks display. His prints speak straight to my heart, telling stories of open skies and warm-hued desert hills and sun. A few years ago, an art calendar of G. Baumann woodblocks hung on the wall of my cubicle at work, reminding me that there’s more to life than Excel spreadsheets and reports. I never imagined I’d ever have the chance to discover New Mexico like this, or to even come close to seeing what he saw in it.
Now that we’re here, we’ve slowed to a near halt and are taking time to explore the landscapes around two state parks within maybe an hour’s drive of each other. Both are inexpensive – ten dollars a night for non-hookup, fourteen for water/electric – and easily worth twice as much. The first, Rockhound State Park, is nestled on the western slope of the Little Florida Mountains. We spent three days there and will be going back again so I’ll talk about it more in my next post.
In this post, I want to tell you about the little piece of splendour that is the City of Rocks State Park. A couple we met back on the Gulf Shores of Alabama told us it was a “must-see” and we had originally, before changing course to take more of Texas in, planned to spend Christmas there. I’m glad we didn’t do that and glad we gave Texas more time. But it always stayed on the radar, waiting. Now the time had come. We said a temporary goodbye to Rockhound and headed north.
Halfway between Rockhound and City of Rocks is Deming and it seems to be a town with some issues. Dusty and sort of run down, with an air of restrained desperation. Once again, as I often do when we pass through such places, I wondered what people do there for a living. What sustains them. Could it be tourism? True, there were four or five characterless RV parks side by side on the main stretch into town and most were full. But it didn’t really seem like there was much there to draw visitors and it seemed that those at the RV parks were more permanent residents than tourists. There were also too many sad-looking people begging for money out on the streets and lots of police cruisers keeping an eye on it all. We topped up our propane tanks, drove to Walmart for some groceries, and left the town behind in a somber mood I didn’t manage to shake until we were actually set up among the rocks at City of Rocks with nothing but land and sky around us.
Driving to City of Rocks State Park, along an empty highway through mostly scrubland, it was hard to imagine the place is real. The land is mostly flat, except for a brief stretch of desert hills. A few miles short of the park, a decrepit Hot Springs Resort – a collection of ramshackle buildings and a cluster of faded banana-yellow tanks – sits forlorn and dejected. The roadway sign says “cabins, camping, hot springs” and maybe there really is a beautiful hot spring there, concealed from the road, but it doesn’t seem like it. It doesn’t seem like the right setting.
Even as you approach the park gate and the ring of rocks finally appears, down below on the left, it seems a bit unimpressive. Scattered in the distance, across the flat plate of the landscape, the rocks look small and underwhelming, the brown teeth lost by some mythical desert ogre. It isn’t until you get close and see them looming above you, that you realize how incredible they are.
According to the park literature the rock formations at City of Rocks are “so unique they are only known to exist in six other places in the world”. Formed from volcanic ash some thirty million years ago, they’ve been shaped into the monoliths they are today by water and wind. At the campground, all but ten water/electric sites (where the big rigs crowd side by side in a small loop near the visitor’s centre) are built among the rock formations. There are fifty-one spacious non-hookup sites, some more private than others, but most with clusters of the giant rocks around them to provide atmosphere and privacy.
Incredibly, although the electric sites were all taken, the rest of the campground was maybe half full when we got there and we got a prime spot. One of the best sites in the park, the woman at the visitor’s centre told Roland. There was no one near us, we were partially shielded from the road, and yet had a panoramic view of the desert and Table Top Mountain from our dinette window. From there, we spent six days watching the landscape change colour throughout the day and watched the moon trade places with the sun.
But there is a bit of a catch. Despite the clean modern showers and toilets at the attractive visitor’s centre, the park has no RV dumping station at all. Dry camping. It meant we had to watch how much waste water (and other, um, stuff) we filled up the tanks with. Then, halfway through our six day stay, we drove the twenty-four miles back to depressing Deming to dump those tanks and then drove back to the park again. And we had to do that drive twice because I forgot my windbreaker in Deming, at a so-so Mexican restaurant where we stopped for lunch. They had vegetarian options and the prices were good but, since I didn’t realize I left my jacket there it until we were almost at the gates of the park again, whatever little we saved on the meal we spent on gas. Even so, hassles or no, our stay at the City of Rocks was worth it.
I don’t have the language to properly describe the place or the way it felt to roam the trails and absorb the atmosphere. I connected with it and it impacted me on an emotional level far beyond the simplicity of words. We went out for hours each day and, most of the time seeing no one else, crawled between the monoliths hunting for petroglyphs hidden throughout the park (one of them right at our site), hiked to picnic at the top of Table Top Mountain, and strolled the trails to take countless pictures of the colours of the desert: the yellow shrubs at the feet of winter-bare mesquite trees, the green and red prickly pear cacti, the spiky and skinny arms of the ocotillos, the spent and dried blooms of the yuccas.
There were no ticks, no mosquitos, no chiggers or other bloodsucking insects to worry about. The rattlers and venomous spiders are dormant at this time of year. There are only hundreds of rabbits and birds and yes, coyotes too – Roland saw two on two separate days so vigilance was crucial – but otherwise there was unparalleled serenity. On our third night, the moon came up full and the sky was clear. There was no wind and all was silence. Following the call of some primal explorer urge, Roland left me alone with the dogs after dinner and went out into the moonlit night by himself. He is a moon child, after all. When he came back a couple of hours later, glowing as if he’d absorbed some of that light and was now reflecting it back, he convinced me to come out and walk through the rocks with him. I bundled up, expecting it to be cold, but it wasn’t. The air was balmy and soft and I found it hard to go back in.
We took the dogs and wove our way through the silent and watchful monoliths, the moon so bright we didn’t need flashlights, until we reached and followed a trail that winds through a section of the desert and back to a distant clump of sites at the far end of the campground. I thought I’d be freaked, wandering around at night in wilderness can be unsettling, but no, I was fine. Would I have been out there alone and by myself? Hell no. I was glad to have Roland’s arm to hold on to. Yet, despite the coyotes I knew were there and prowling, despite the unfamiliar landscape, the night felt strangely benevolent. Welcoming.
Maybe because the sky was so open and the land around us was too. Maybe because the moon was so bright. Or, maybe, a hundred separate elements wove together into something rare and magical. Standing there, under that jewelled sky and in that fragrant night, I was thinking that maybe the slogan on New Mexico license plates is dead bang on and this really might be the Land of Enchantment. After our days at the City of Rocks, I’m willing to entertain that notion.
To read all about Roland’s moonlight walk at the City of Rock check out his post: