Calling the Bluff of El Morro
By Joy Moses-Hall
Sunday, May 20, 2018
Do you remember the hiss of sunlight all but crackling across your skin? Do you miss the the steamy impact of air molecules careening into your body? Can you hearken to July, to when the air melts over the landscape, when a human radiates ripples of infrared as if a companion binary to the sun?
The sandstone of El Morro National Monument in New Mexico sends out such ripples, so intense they are almost audible. The soundtrack might include the chirp of cicadas, a coyote howl, the pulse of grit on wind. Crescendo follows decrescendo; the air sucks up waves of hot silence from the blank gray and tan rocks.
Sandstone is, of course, stone that used to be sand. One hundred and sixty million years ago, not long before the stegosaurus roamed the west, this particular sand was a vast desert, an undulating eternity of rolling granules and blowing grit, much more barren than the dry but grassy plateau of today. For millions of years, the landscape was knee deep in fine scree. The rain of grains stayed, plainly, in the terrain. As it piled thicker, bed over blown bed, the bottom grit, fine in texture from a winnowing of the bigger bits by the breezes, eventually bound together as clay to build stone from sand.
The major feature of El Morro is a 200-foot-high headland. Visible for miles, the bluff is capped by another sandstone remnant, of Tyrannosaurus rex-era beach atop the thick stegosaurus desert.
On a hot summer day, waves of warmth palpitate up your face and down your back and out onto the modern path, up the backslope of the cliff. The pale blue sky, the long and fruitless plain, the yellow dust blotting out any sense of vibrancy: the entire blistering panorama pulses above the rock, as if the sand in the stone is coming unglued.
The soft glue of the clay is responsible for two of El Morro’s other notable features. An oasis formed when some of those clays washed off the cliff, sealing runoff in a pond at the bottom. It drew wild animals to its edge, and native peoples built pueblos nearby. Spanish explorers flocked to the cliff to drink, carving messages in the clay. Following them were wagons of pioneers, then road crews for Highway 53. Despite its brown and tepid appearance, it was the best water for 30 miles. For centuries, explorers have converged at the base of the bluff to drink its runoff, and deface its cliff.
When you are eleven, you don’t much care for bluffs. Dad and I were hiking the loop trail at El Morro, climbing single file over the horseshoe promontory that reigns over the arid lowlands, uplifted from the parchment, in torrid July heat. Mother and brother were left behind in the visitor’s center.
Trails were tough for Mom, who walked with a leg brace and crutches from polio. The only way she could walk, in the best of circumstances, was to swing her braced right leg up and over until her right foot haphazardly poled her onto a substrate; then flex her left, barely clearing the ground for the foot plant. At home, it didn’t slow her down much, but out in national park wilderness lay the exceptions of slick, shifting, or uneven terrain. Caves? Too slippery. Mountains? Too steep. Horse trails? Too long. She developed a rapport with forest rangers while she waited for us to do the hiking and climbing and sightseeing. But she had to have wished she could be out there. How much fun is Carlsbad Caverns when all you see are pictures of bats, and instead of fragrant calcite dew all you smell is orange juice from the concession stand? How rewarding is watching the back of a march to Yosemite Falls? How many historical footsteps did she miss at El Morro when she could only stay inside in the air conditioning instead of sweating over perpetually uphill rocks so bare and hot that yellow paint steam rose off the guideline footprints that marked the trail, and even wizened Joshua trees dared not tread… Hmmm.
We followed the yellow footprints over the sandstone. It would be hard to get lost with such vivid markers.
Several steps later, the yellow-foot trail ran dry. We were lost in plain view of the Great Plain. Dad had me wait in the shade.
There was no shade. There was a spindly ponderosa pinelet, old before its time, bent over and baked by the sun. A lizard had already claimed that shade. I wandered off. Water bottles had not yet made the transition from animal hide to polyethylene, and we were without. We might have to stagger over the edge to the oasis.
Fortunately, naked promontories of rock have a clear view of the universe, and Dad saw immediately that I had sat down, in the brief shade of a passing vulture.
He found some stairs carved into a curve that looked suspiciously human. We would not have to bluff our way to the oasis.
That orange juice at a concession stand might smell pretty good come summer.
Follow @jmoseshall on Facebook. Joy Moses-Hall teaches physics and astronomy at Pitt Community College. She has a PhD in oceanography and is the author of the novel Wretched Refuge.