Ive driven and hitchhiked thru the Plains of San Agustin, New Mexico many times over the years, been dropped off in the middle of nowhere, checked out horizons, gazed upwards more than once at clouds hovering slowly against the deep blue sky, frozen my ass off, checked and double-checked my gas gauge, squinted my eyes and held onto a road sign as a dust storm nearly knocked me over, but its only recently dawned on me (I’m slow) that something about these remote, windswept plains and surrounding mountain forests must be drawing me back, its hard to describe. All I know for certain is that whenever Im there, no matter the weather, I feel at peace, enjoying a temporary truce with day to day obligations that always compel me to leave too soon. For most people the main attraction to this area is the VLA, the Very Large Array, and thats OK with me, by drawing off most of the visitors it seems to leave the rest of this spectacular region in relative isolation. Far from the maddening, mostly Albuquerque crowd indeed. Besides, the VLA is located in only one small pocket of this area, sometimes there’s more to observe on the ground than in distant swirling nebulae.
Fringes of the Takla Makan in western China? No, just another nice spot to car camp, this time off FR 505, Cibola National Forest, near the former boom town of Magdalena. View is looking NW towards the Gallinas Mountains.
Spanish settlement and exploration of New Mexico dates to the 1540’s, and permanent towns and haciendas were firmly established by the early 1700’s less than a hundred miles away, to the east, along the Rio Grande Valley at places like Socorro, San Acacia and San Antonio. And yet very few people ventured onto these plains until much later, the first haciendas weren’t founded until the 1840’s. Mirroring the typical out west scenario, it was all about mineral deposits, free range cattle and sheep, and forcible removal of the native inhabitants. The closest thing to permanent native inhabitants, at least in the past few centuries, were the Warm Springs Apache band whose ancestral summer gathering place was at Ojo Caliente (literally Hot Spring) at the western entrance of what is now known as Monticello Box Canyon, roughly 50 miles southeast of the plains. On the northern reaches of the plains the Ramah and Alamo Bands of Navajo reside, but they, like the Apache, also arrived relatively late, just a century or two before Coronado and his contingent of thug soldiers and Meso-American Indian allies trekked across the mesas and high deserts some 100 miles north of the plains en route from Zuni Pueblo to Acoma Pueblo and points further east. It would appear that these wide open plains served as a sort of buffer zone between the Apache and Navajo. Within the plains are several small communities like Pie Town, Quemado, and Datil, all stretched out along Highway 60, all have a strong tradition of making their livelihoods mainly from ranching and some timbering and mining. Theres a few guest ranches now, a few gas stations and family-run places to eat or pick up basic grocery items for passersby like myself and locals not wanting to make the long drive to Socorro. Like most rural areas I can only assume that many teenagers leave first chance, it’s not exactly a place with many employment opportunities. Quietude always comes with a price.
Here’s a panorama of the plains looking southwest from FR 476 near its junction with Rt 52, few miles SE of the VLA. Small stubs of grass as far as the eye can see, I wondered if the sparse vegetation was due to the perennial drought, or maybe over-grazed, or both?
Not putting down cattle ranching, can’t (and won’t!), I eat too much beef on a regular basis and I appreciate the fact that they feed us, but I wonder how these plains looked historically before cowboys and sheepherders arrived? Early accounts by Spanish troops venturing onto the High Plains reported being practically swallowed up within a “sea of grass”, it’d be interesting to know if the earliest Spanish and Anglo settlers found this region to be similarly lush. Maybe there’s an Apache or Navajo oral tradition that mentions these plains and can thus offer a clue as to the original untouched ecology?
Recreational map of New Mexico, 1941, by the brilliant architect and artist Wilfred Stedman (1892-1950), a British chap born and raised in Liverpool who later emigrated to the Land of Enchantment, specifically to the village of Tesuque near Santa Fe. Forgive my trespasses but I added the circle and text to mark the location of the Plains of San Agustin. What a beautiful illustrated map, more of a time-capsule than road guide, makes me want to shitcan my gps! Notice across the bottom third of the map is the purported route of Cabeza De Vaca (1536), running east-west across White Sands, the Organ Mountains, and into the bootheel in the far SW corner of the state. Modern research has pretty convincingly debunked the New Mexico scenario and now places the route of this expedition well inside Mexico.
Entering the plains on FR 476, leaving Cibola National Forest, view looking north
The Plains of San Agustin are actually the dried-up basins of several interconnected lakes that archaeologists refer to as the Pleistocene Lake San Agustin. They reached their maximum size and depth, in some places up to 250 feet deep, during the Last Glacial Maximum about 13,000 B.C. Over the next several millennia the lakes slowly but inexorably evaporated. They were still partially extant when Paleo-Indians showed up sometime around 10,000 B.C. as evidenced by prehistoric campsites that have been documented throughout the plains, mainly along former ancient shorelines.
The Ake site is the most significant found so far, but there are others that have yet to be fully surveyed. Just as modern man is known to “follow the money”, so it is that paleo man “followed the water”, and thus, “followed the game”. Mega fauna such as mastodon, camels, giant sloths,, and ancient bison (they were about 10-20% larger than modern day bison and had longer coats) once roamed these plains and water filled basins but were in decline before paleo man showed up. Its not hard to look out on these plains and imagine seeing them in wetter conditions when it must’ve resembled the Kalahari or Serengeti, with elephants and wildebeests replaced by millions of these herds, stalked by the American Cheetah, Smilodons or packs of Dire Wolves.
The Ake Folsom site in 2004. The truck is on the flank of the 2105m shoreline. The southwest track of the VLA is visible in the middle distance. The 1978 excavations were in and along the margins of the flatter, eroded area. (V.T. Holliday). -School of Anthropology, University of Arizona
Were the mega fauna extinct by the time archaic hunters walked across these plains for the first time? Or will archaeologists dig up a campsite someday revealing the charred skull of a 2,000 pound short-faced bear, or a whittled bone from a Giant Beaver?
“There are still people who are putting all the blame on humans, and some blame climate, but a growing number see it as it a synergistic effect, a powerful combination of those two factors happening at once.” -Adrian Lister, an evolutionary paleontologist at the Natural History Museum in London.
Arctodus simus compared to an average size dude like me
Map with outline of the San Agustin Pleistocene Lakes- School of Anthropology, University of Arizona
The mega fauna died out, but Bison herds proliferated and once roamed these grasslands. For thousands of years they were an important source of sustenance for the early hunter gatherer groups that lived here. We associate the bison mainly with the Great Plains but their historical range actually spanned all of New Mexico and most of Arizona, as evidenced by many Anasazi (The Ancient Ones) pictographs in cave shelters and on cliffs all over the Desert Southwest.
Intrepid settlers and prospectors arrived in the 1800’s and found hundreds of square miles of flat to gently rolling grasslands, but no surface water anywhere and only a few reliable year-round springs. It’d be interesting to know whether any of the earliest settlers or surveyor reports mentioned seeing bison still here, but I kind of doubt it.
View looking SW towards the Luera Mountains from FR 476, I saw very few cattle, and no sheep at all. Smilodon would starve to death under current conditions.
The first time I entered this region was from the north, in the dead of winter via NM-36 as it comes out of the forests near Zuni Pueblo and makes a long,straightaway descent into open plains and saline playas near a place called Fence Lake. A more accurate name would be Fence Salt-Filled Brine Lake lest anyone confuse it with our stereotypical image of a shimmering lake amidst scenic pine-forests. I was listening to the London Symphony version of the rock opera Tommy, by The Who. As I crested a rise and for the first time saw the immensity ahead of me, a favorite instrumental piece called “Underture” was playing and, as if on cue, it reached a nice, melodic break that perfectly complimented the surroundings. Probably just all in my head but it was like a scene from a movie and whenever I hear that piece or that album it always draws me back to that long drive that day, to the vastness, the cold overcast loneliness of the Plains of San Agustin. Over the years Ive returned a bunch of times, and strangely, despite rockin it on the first visit, Ive done it mostly in quiet fashion. I say quiet because as much as I crave, “dig” I should say, many different music forms from all around the world and across different eras, whenever Im in these parts the volume gets turned down, if not off altogether.
Are we in Zacatecas? FR 214 approaching the non-existent village of Mangas, its listed as a place in the DeLorme New Mexico Gazetteer. In the middle distance is what looks like an old schoolhouse. View is looking SE, in the background are the Mangas Mountains, most of which lie within the Apache National Forest. The high peak directly beyond the schoolhouse is Allegros Mountain, elevation 10,244′, privately owned.
Heads up Hollywood! No need to go abroad, here’s a list of far-flung places that can be filmed (ie cheated) right here on the Plains of San Agustin. Keep those dollars here in the US of A! By the way, I dont personally know any of the places below but I watch a lot of documentary and travel television, and read National Geographic……
- Extensive high elevation grasslands like the Takla Makan, western China, surrounded by rugged mountains. Just need to bring in yurts, yaks, small horses, and Mongol extras.
- Southern Russia, where the Steppes meet the Caucus Mountains. Already have the right size horses, just need Cossacks and maybe a few Tartars.
- Argentina, western edge of the Pampas, already got plenty of local latinos willing to play guachos, and can ride just as good (well, I hope).
- No surprise here since its the same eco-region; the Chihuahuan Desert of north-central Mexico: can certainly pass for Zacatecas, Coahuilla, Chihuahua, etc. A much safer place to film than down in Mexico!
Mangas school house (for lack of a better title, I cant find any info on it), alas, a crumbling adobe and stone building for whom the bell no longer tolls. The only thing missing from the above image is the sound of Ennio Morricone’s orchestra.
No mention of the Mangas Mountains can be complete without a warm salute to the great wilderness and conservation advocate, Aldo Leopold. His first field assignment was as an “Assistant Forester” in the Apache National Forest from 1909-1911. The following quote is in reference to nearby Escudilla Mountain, third highest peak in Arizona and just 50 miles west of Mangas, where one of the last grizzly bears in Arizona was reportedly killed in the 1930’s
Gallo Mountains, looking south from FR-93 near the Continental Divide. The low valley in the distant background is in the far southwest corner of the Plains of San Agustin, near the village of Aragon and site of Fort Tularosa.
In May of 1880, Fort Tularosa (not a stockade type, it was merely a group of log huts and ramshackle wooden frame buildings, none of which remains) came under attack by a band of Warm Springs Apaches led by Chief Victorio. Just a month earlier about 100 miles south near the headwaters of the San Francisco River and the village of Alma this same band had killed around 35 settlers, they generally didn’t take prisoners (which makes the few captive stories all the more unique). A detachment of Buffalo Soldiers, 26 men of the 9th Cavalry commanded by Sgt. George Jordan (also black), were alerted by a messenger that Victorio and about 100 warriors were in the vicinity and were urged “to save the women and children from a horrible fate.” A small community of mostly white settlers , and probably a few Hispanics, were spared almost certain death by the swift night-march of these dedicated black troopers and their courageous fight on the following day. Not to detract from their heroism but it was hardly a fair fight. Although outnumbered 4-1, the black troopers were probably armed with repeating rifles, fought from behind barns and fences, secure in the knowledge that their grandparents, babies and other loved ones were far, far away from the meadows and forests of the Tularosa Valley. The Apache on the other hand fought mainly with bow and arrow, had lost the element of surprise, were certain in the knowledge that no other Apache were on the way to help out, were attacking in the open on foot, while also having to travel, feed, and protect their families. In typical USA vs. Apacheria fashion, well-armed, mounted blue-clad reinforcements arrived the following day while Victorio and his band had little choice but to disappear into the surrounding mountains. The cat and mouse game would continue for several more years across the southwest and northern Mexico, but never again would any combat action take place on the Plains of San Agustin.
10,000 years ago, at this same of day, this vista from a slight rise would’ve looked out upon a huge expanse of water. Try finding a drop now. Perhaps better than catching sunsets, I always look forward to being able to stop someplace like this midday and watch slow-moving shadows move across such vastness, no question one feels closer to the sky out here. View looking NE, from FR 214 a few miles south of the Mangas school house.
I walk through the days, the trampled moments, I walk through all the thoughts of my shadow, I walk through my shadow in search of a moment, I search for an instant alive as a bird, for the sun of five in the afternoon
– excerpt; Piedra De Sol (“Sunstone”), Mexican poet laureate, Octavio Paz
Pinon/juniper covered hillside, FR 549, above Big Pigeon Canyon, looking SE towards the southern end of the San Mateo Mountains.
Hoss Cartwright would’ve been right at home around here. NM-159, beautiful open country on the southern edge of the Plains of San Agustin near the Continental Divide. This stretch runs east-west,within the Gila National Forest. View is looking west, in the middle background is Elk Mountain. Nearby is Bat Cave…
Bat Cave is among the earliest agricultural sites in the American Southwest containing rare, well-preserved stratigraphic deposits with evidence for nearly continuous human use and occupation from the Middle Archaic through the Formative periods (ca 4000 B.C.-A.D. 1200) with evidence of early cultigens. Overlooking the Plains of San Augustin in west-central New Mexico, Bat Cave was among the first sites to be radiocarbon dated, a technique discovered in the late 1940s by Dr. Willard Libby, who analyzed the radiocarbon samples from Bat Cave in 1950. Initial late-1940s radiocarbon dates for maize samples from Bat Cave indicated cultigens as early as 5,600 to 6,000 years ago Returning to the site in the early 1980s, armed with new technologies, researchers determined that the earlier dates were faulty due to stratigraphic displacement, and the oldest maize from Bat Cave is actually around 3,100 years old, bringing it in line with other known early agricultural sites of the American Southwest. Well-preserved textile fragments, faunal and macrobotanical remains, as well as material suitable for radiocarbon dating and other analyses, have been recovered from the site and are available for research, providing important information regarding Archaic through Formative period subsistence strategies and technologies, and insight into the timing and nature of the critical transition to agriculture in the American Southwest. -National Register of Historic Places
A thin scattering of ponderosa pines amidst rolling prairies, north of NM-159, near the Continental Divide. View is looking north, beyond the ridge in the background the land flattens out as one enters the Plains of San Agustin from the south.
Summertime in the meadows near Elk Mountain
Interested in moving here? Treat yourself to a true escapist fantasy as I did and scroll thru a few multi-multi million dollar “Bonanza” ranch properties for sale. There’s some pretty nice listings in the $5m-$12m range. Several had beautiful landscapes…and absolutely hideous main ranch houses, if one can even call them that. Big city suburbia transplanted to the Great Outdoors, its a typical architectural pattern Ive seen before but thats the stuff of another story. All that money, and then to live in a hideous gilded cage is incomprehensible to me.
Abstract: Interview with Dr. Quinten Ford (1923-2010) who grew up on the Plains Of San Agustin;
” Almost all trade was either barter or on credit, and you paid once or twice a year when you sold cattle or sheep. His grandfather spoke fluent Spanish; “he was more comfortable in Spanish than he was in English.” Ford recalls that that was not unusual in that area and says that he thought you had to be Irish to speak Spanish. “Almost everybody spoke Spanish, but not everybody spoke English.”
In the Gila Mountains atop a fire lookout tower on Bearwallow Peak, view looking southwest towards Arizona
When asked if he had ever heard of R. C. Patterson that lived at Horse Springs, Ford says that although he did not know the man he had been to his place. His grandfather knew him. He states that R. C. Patterson was one of the early non-Hispanic settlers in that area and had come from Maine. The interviewer, [Laumbach] states that he has read some newspaper articles written about Patterson and that he was one of the original settlers of Cañada Alamosa. Ford believes that he was the only Anglo there in Monticello and that he was a translator or guide. Laumbach states that Patterson’s wife was Hispanic and says that there is a story about how he gained the respect of the Apache.
Close-up of historical marker on NM-52 describing the Warm Springs Apache, complete with bullet holes. How disrespectful and chickenshit can you get.
FR 140 approaching a locked gate, view looking east towards Ojo Caliente and west entrance to Monticello Box Canyon, a view that Geronimo, Victorio, Nana and other Apache would’ve instantly recognized. Im told that private landowners have locked it off to all vehicular travel due to heavy visitation (ie lots of partying and trash they say) by 4wd and motorcycle enthusiasts. A local rancher told me it was regrettable, but he didnt see any other way, it was “just getting out of hand”, he said. Some local citizens and hikers vehemently disagree and are waging a grass roots effort to open it back up – including a petition to the Governor – especially for the sake of Apaches who wish to come back once in awhile to pay their respects.
From Friends of the Box web site;
Jeffrey Campbell· 3 years ago
I am signing this petition because this was Apache Land and will always be Apache Land to the Warm Spring Apache. They consider this area Sacred and I believe they should have free access to it.
Remains of Ojo Indian Agency, 1880’s, whatda ya know, taken from same angle as previous photo above. Notice the same serrated ridge in the background.
Only known photograph of Chief Victorio, taken against his will. His headband came off as he struggled with soldiers making him sit for this portrait. While much is known of his courageous defiance and battles against the Anglos, Buffalo Soldiers and Mexican Army, his early life is pretty obscure other than bits of Apache lore and accounts that trace his birth to the nearby Black Range. It has been posited that he was part Navajo and part Mexican, hardly unusual considering the mixing of races ever since the first conquistadors entered their homelands centuries earlier, and given the proximity of several Navajo bands. Apache oral histories claim he never surrendered but rather committed suicide when “los mejicanos” surrounded and slaughtered his small band of warriors -with families – at an encampment in the Tres Castillos Mountains in northern Chihuahua in 1880. Mexicans say a Tarahumara sharpshooter got him. Either way, he went down fighting for his people.
Never known to be drunk, he warned his warriors; “Drunkards are the white man’s scourge”
Turn-off to old cemetery atop a ridge bordering Canada Alamosa (Alamosa Creek), once part of the Warm Springs Apache Reservation, a few miles west of Ojo Caliente.
Indian Agent John Clum’s description of Victorio at Ojo Caliente in the spring of 1877;
“His long black hair, tinged with gray, glistened in the morning sun. He carried his rifle resting easily in the crook of his left arm, its muzzle protruding from under the light blanket thrown carelessly over his shoulder. His serious, intelligent face was unmarred by war paint, and as he walked, his head turned slowly while he surveyed the unusual picture in front of him.”
Adios Chihenne (Red Painted People)Apache homeland, FR 549, view looking south with the Black Range in the distance.
There’s serious trouble in this grasslands paradise; The Battle over (or under I should say) The Plains of San Agustin aguifer has been going back and forth for about ten years now. Water, water everywhere, and nary a drop to pump, unless an Italian billionaire has his way. I’m slightly torn on this one. For mostly selfish reasons, and for the sake of all the good families that call the Plains of San Agustin home, I hope it never happens. I also don’t trust the assurances of this project being eco-friendly and sustainable. I can close my eyes and instantly see this place looking like Midland or Lubbock, Texas with pipes and pumping stations and chain-link, barbed-wire topped fences stretching for miles. But the realist inside of me can’t deny that Albuquerque and nearby Rio Grande Valley communities are going to need a lot more water in the decades to come. Perhaps thats in addition to best-case water conservation scenarios. What river, reservoir or aquifer will the unborn drink from fifty years hence?
Excerpt from Agustin Plains Ranch website (http://www.sanaugustinwater.com/index.html) :
To help accommodate New Mexico’s growing need for water, the Agustin Plains Ranch proposes to develop an eco-friendly water reclamation and transport project that will pump 54,000 acre-feet of water out of the aquifer every year and pipe it to New Mexico communities. The design is exciting as it takes advantage of the ranch’s unique location to enhanced recharge and replace all of the pumped water with rain water and snowmelt currently being lost to evaporation. No water mining would occur.
Anti-water pumping sign along NM-60 near Magdalena, photo by San Agustin Basin Coalition
Sen. Martin Heinrich strongly opposes the project and spells out why…
Catron County Commissioner Anita Hand;
“For rural New Mexico, this is one of our biggest concerns, that something like this comes in and destroys our livelihood, our way of life, and any type of future where we can pass on our ranch to our heirs. If they can do it here, if they can find another way to justify taking water or natural resources from one area to benefit another area, it sets a precedent.”
When worlds collide (pardon the pun), one of the 27 satellited dishes of the VLA as seen from a corral with a very old, weathered, windmill water pump.
East leg of the VLA, in the background is the northern end of the San Mateo Mts.
Jim Condon of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Charlottesville, Virginia; “Advancing technology has revealed more and more of the universe to us over the past few decades, and our study shows individual objects that account for about 96 percent of the background radio emission coming from the distant universe,” Condon said. “The VLA now is a million times more sensitive than the radio telescopes that made landmark surveys of the sky in the 1960s.”
“Vast as is the universe, its phenomena are regular. Countless though its contents, the laws which govern these are uniform. Many though its inhabitants, that which dominates them is sovereignty. Sovereignty begins in virtue and ends in God. Therefore it is called divine.” –Chuang-Tzu, Chapter 12, The Universe, 4th century B.C.
Low range of hills along NM-52 between Ojo Caliente and the VLA (sorry, thats a long stretch, hard to pinpoint exact spot, not that it matters!)
Nice “park” area in the San Mateo Mountains, FR 476 between NM-52 and FR 549 (Sargent Canyon), Cibola National Forest.
One of the great things about camping in the mountains of New Mexico, especially the southern half of the state, are random places like this spot where you can get a good ways off the road and have it all to yourself, in fact I usually avoid designated campgrounds if I can help it. To clarify, I dont encourage creating tire tracks where they don’t belong. This spot has had visitors before, the ground was dry(as always) and hard, and far from being overused! I removed some trash in a fire pit nearby, as I always try to do, and left a small pile of branches for the next camper to use, just returning the favor. I spent the morning here drinking Guatemalan Highland coffee, “reading” an atlas of historical New Mexico maps, and did absolutely no physical exercise whatsoever (I was too comfortable). More than once I put the atlas down and considered going for a short hike but the place was too beautiful to leave. More than once I paused to reflect on how lucky I was to even be here in the first place, both in terms of finances- Im not rich and spending money on a trip like this certainly isn’t practical but I’m not going to stop living- and most importantly, my health.
Just moments after leaving, as I was slowly driving down the forest service road enjoying the sunny winter morning and the quietude, I approached a curve and saw a mean-looking, muscular pit bull sauntering down the middle of the road. As I rounded the curve the owner appeared and secured the dog as I drove past. He had the audacity to smile and wave, as if everything was cool. Right. I dont trust pit bulls and rotweillers, simple as that. Labs and beagles? Absolutely. My family once had a yellow lab named Jody and he was the friendliest dog on Earth. Nothing happened on this quiet morning but it was a nice reminder not to let your guard down. A few what-if scenarios quickly went thru my mind. Imagine if a family with little children had been camping in that lovely pine grove instead of me and had that dog suddenly come up on them? Or I’d been out of my car, as was the case for several hours prior to this encounter. I wondered too just where this guy had come from, there were no other trucks or cars anywhere that I saw. So I checked out a topo map later and saw there was a guest ranch a couple miles away, maybe he was staying there, who knows. I should’ve gone back and had a word with him, to remind that dumbass to keep his pit bull on a leash, even in the great outdoors.
Looking north at Vics Peak from Garcia Falls Canyon
Good news from the USGS, unlike the industrialization of the Permian Basin of West Texas and eastern New Mexico, it looks like the Plains of San Agustin will probably be left alone for awhile, maybe forever…
The Horse Mountain (NM-020-043) and the Continental Divide (NM-020-044) Wilderness Study Areas include mountainous terrains that border the Plains of San Agustin in Catron County about 90 miles west of Socorro, N. Mex. The areas studied consist of 4,432 acres on Horse Mountain in the Horse Mountain study area, north of the plains and 37,599 acres around Pelona Mountain in the Continental Divide study area, south of the plains. There are no identified mineral resources in either wilderness study area.
However, a moderate oil and gas potential applies to the entire Plains of San Agustin region, including both study areas. The mineral resource potential for metals (iron, manganese, zinc, lead, copper, molybdenum, gold, and silver) related to hydrothermal igneous systems is considered to be low in the study areas. The mineral resource potential for tin and uranium, geothermal energy, and sand and gravel is considered to be low.
NM-52 beneath a circling sky a few miles north of Dusty
“THE sky turns round ; the earth stands still ; sun and moon pursue one another. Who causes this ? Who directs this ? Who has leisure enough to see that such movements continue?” -Chuang-Tzu, Chapter 14, The Circling Sky, 4th century B.C.
Parked on the rim of Garcia Canyon overlooking Canada Alamosa, southern end of the San Mateo Mountains, view looking SW towards the Gila Mountains.
Rt 117, vew looking north from Narrows Rim Trail, El Malpais National Monument
I only include this shot to give readers an idea some of the marvelous landscapes you pass when approaching the Plains of San Agustin. This area is about 50 miles north, closer to the Pueblo world, Acoma Pueblo to be exact, than the Apache domain.
Summer monsoon clouds clearing out in the early evening, San Mateo Mountains from Rt 52 few miles east of the old mining town(village) of Winston.