The desert holds onto its past—relentlessly changing, but slowly, slowly, slowly.
Yes, it might suddenly transform beneath a flash flood or a hail storm, or disappear completely beneath lava or a strip-mall parking lot, but mostly, it deals in gradualness—in deep time—in the semi-eternal accumulation of sediment, the erosions of wind and water, the incremental adaptations of its many plants and animals. In the desert, Heat and Dryness form a holy trinity with Preservation. Drop a pickax beside a desert mine in 1856, and it might still be around to get picked up by your great-great-great-grandchild in 2016. Its handle might be splintery and its iron rusted—but it might be there. And that’s lucky.
My younger brother used to live in Michigan, and once while I was visiting him, he took me to see a town that had fallen into an enormous sinkhole, thanks to too many mine shafts tunneled beneath it. I was so excited—I imagined a concave jumble of a ghost town, but what we found instead was a grassy valley. Slopes hidden beneath tall grass. Grass bending and unbending in the wind. I would never have guessed there was a town beneath it.
I love seeing what people have left behind, because I love thinking of what people might have been like. Living in the desert, in a sense, is like housesitting for someone you don’t really know. We look around and wonder who these people were who were here before us. We look around—and their things are still all over.
Rain-crumbled walls. Shards and rust. Rock art, and other inscriptions.
On the Sandia Mountains alone, and on the sloping inclines between the mountains and the plains and valley, if you know where to look, you will find many such pictographs, petroglyphs, and other carvings. I will not be giving specific directions to them here, because that would take up too much space. If you really care about finding them, you will. Directions are available. Fortune favors the bold. Serendipity happens. Here, though, is a short survey of only some of the rock art and other inscriptions you might find in the Sandias.
At the southern end of the mountains, in a shallow cave near Travertine Falls, there are three large, compass-like crosses carved into the rough cave-wall, perhaps from a shepherd or goat-herder in the 1800s. These have been covered over quite a bit by more recent graffiti, but this sort of colonialist eradication of the past is sadly nothing new. When Oñate left his name at El Morro in 1605, as Tony Horowitz points out in A Voyage Long and Strange, he could have had it carved almost anywhere, but he put it right over a panel of Ancestral Puebloan artwork. And when the first Catholic church was built in San Antonio, in the Sandias, in 1833, it was built right on top of an ancient kiva. Still. There’s a precedent for everything. Leave historic ruins and inscriptions and rock art alone! Some of us love to visit the past, and such sites are our most reliable entryways.
Also near the southern end, there’s Zamora—once a sort-of village near Tijeras, now a sort-of neighborhood, a street name, and a wilder, mountainous, surrounding area with some wooded cliffs. I have found a number of old mines in that area, one overflowing with gypsum crystals, and have been told there are pictographs, painted on the rocks there, dating back perhaps to the 1300s. They’re hard to find, though. Also at the southern end, at the recently (partially) restored Carlito Springs Resort, overlooking the cement factory, there are at least two carved dates from the 1800s.
Dating to more recent times, but also in the southern foothills, is the Eye of the Sandias, a crying eye with a Zia symbol inside it, painted on a rock wall overlooking I-40. Since the 1970s it’s been touched-up and painted over and repainted, more than once. Oh, and someone has painted “JESUS” in crude capital letters on a rock in Carnuel. And near the Zuzax exit, you can half-make-out the word “ZUZAX” painted on a rocky slope in white paint from back when Zuzax (an unusual made-up name, chosen so it would be last in the phonebook) was a post-1956 tourist stop on Route 66, complete with brightly painted cars installed in the parking lot, so that it always looked busy, and an aerial tram making a small loop over an unspectacular hillside.
Moving farther north through the mountains, to La Centinela, the wooded ridge above North 14 and San Antonio, huge rock plates protrude from the ridge as if from a stegosaurus’s back, and bits of paint from various eras still cling to them. This ridge was once an Apache lookout, and on one of its more level slabs there are also metate impressions, oval depressions in which corn was once ground. From a later era, halfway down the hillside, a little religious grotto slumps back into the desert, its rounded rocks in mid-scatter.
And moving farther north still, to La Madera and then Placitas, the rock art and the inscriptions continue. Near La Madera, according to one rumor, an 1800s mining company once carved its logo—the Swastika—along the original sandstone arroyo route of La Madera Road, and if you know where to look, you can still see these pre-WWII symbols. There are actually many petroglyph sites around La Madera, some several-hundred years old. There’s also a site near Ojo del Oso, Bear Spring, in Placitas, that Lou Sage Batchen, in her 1930s WPA collection Las Placitas: Historical Facts and Legends, calls “the red mountain with the Indian writing on it.” That is one to find.
The modern world piles up atop the past, obscuring what came before beneath stucco and glass. But then we wander out into the desert, or the mountains. And then we see a petroglyph. Or a pictograph. Or a name scratched with a buck knife. And then the past comes clawing back.
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