Before seeing Oklahoma with my own eyes I imagined featureless rangeland proceeding as far as sight allows. Certainly we found some of that, especially in the western half of the Panhandle, which left me wondering afresh what the original Great Plains must have looked like before they were fenced, ploughed and converted to cattle mills. But Oklahoma delivered surprises too. The Black Mesa area at the far west end of the panhandle is very dramatic and evokes the wild west as well as anything you see in New Mexico or Arizona. While there we chanced upon our first-ever tarantula and gawked at the fossilized footsteps of an ornithopod dinosaur.
We crossed the Oklahoma-New Mexico state line and – without really intending to – found ourselves on a beautiful quiet byway, NM 456, in the far northeast corner of the state. NM 456 is lined with multi-hued mesas, one of which gave a cattle operation an apt name, the Weddingcake Ranch. We had the road pretty much to ourselves; Jan even collected a ‘lifer’ bird here, pinyon jay.
No doubt some of my friends will frown at me giving Wal-Mart a plug but, what the heck, I’ll do it anyway. The Wal-Mart Rand-McNally map book is a terrific buy at six bucks. I am especially grateful for the small red print you can find on every sheet, if you look for it. I had never heard of Capulin National Monument until the map disclosed its existence. We went there. We were astounded. Capulin is an extinct cinder-cone volcano prized for its perfect symmetry. We walked down into the heart of the crater then around the entire rim, which sits at about 8,200 feet above sea level. We learned lots about cinder-cone volcanoes and marvelled at the big views we had in every direction.
Taos, New Mexico, has been in my sights for decades. Once upon a time, long ago, I read a lot of D H Lawrence. He lived at Taos in the 1920s and liked it a lot. We arrived in Taos around midday on Saturday and quickly concluded that a city ordinance must require that every building be constructed in neo-adobe mode. Most of the businesses in the downtown area seem to be galleries and artisan studio-shops. Everyone we saw looked trim and well-heeled. We enjoyed a very good lunch at a trendy-looking restaurant and eventually asked the couple sitting next to us for directions to Lawrence’s Taos abode. They could. We went. His old cabin is in the mountains about 17 miles north of Taos. It looks much as it did 80 years ago; it was easy to imagine him writing under the big pine in front of the cabin porch. I am glad we went. The birding was good too: we added several upper-elevation birds to our trip list: Steller’s jay, scrub jay, Clark’s nutcracker, pink-sided junco.
We camped high in the Carson National Forest, at Hopewell Lake. Mountain chickadees sang in the conifers beside the camper. Otherwise, apart from a few elk hunters, we had the place to ourselves. Snow dotted the ground here and there. The hand of man showed only a little. But there was this: a small sign adorned with two American flags that read: 9-11-01, Never Forgive, Never Forget. Our overnight stay at Hopewell was perfectly quiet. Not even an owl broke the stillness.
Another US national monument crossed our path: Aztec Ruins in northwestern New Mexico. Here long-ago ancestors of local native Americans built a complex city and went about their lives for two centuries, then about 1200 AD they disappeared. We walked among the ruins and contemplated the ephemeral nature of life.
A great American filmmaker, John Ford, made a classic ‘duster’, Stagecoach, in the early 1940s. It starred John Wayne. Even today the movie is beautiful to look at. Ford made it in Monument Valley, straddling the Utah-Arizona state line. We went there late in the afternoon. The light was fabulous. Jan called the place ‘stupendous’. She is not given to exaggeration.