Here, have a Johnson Mesa view from my trip to northeast New Mexico almost two weeks ago. The mesa is one of the strangest places I’ve ever been and well worth your time. I probably won’t be back there anytime soon, however, unless I can figure out a way to visit Capulin Volcano without staying or eating in Raton. For the record, the abandoned barn above is emblematic and more favorably situated. I tried to swap our lodgings with the cows, but they refused!
See if you can pick out the males. They weigh twice as much (2,000 pounds!) and have bigger humps. Keep in mind these animals can run at forty miles per hour, too, then imagine Native warriors chasing them down on horseback with lances or bows and arrows—and on foot for centuries before Spanish horses ran wild… This is our country. This is America.
We came across these beasts about five miles east of Cimarron on the return leg of my birthday trip to Capulin volcano. There were almost three dozen in all. Obviously a rancher’s private herd (most had ear tags), since they don’t roam free these days—more’s the pity—but that made no difference. I hit the brakes at sixty miles per hour and pulled to a stop. The presence of the animals was staggering for what they meant to me. The Utes, Comanches, and other tribes considered them sacred signs of the Creator’s plan. They represent prayer and abundance. Last Wednesday morning, it all washed over me. After very carefully approaching the fence some distance from the herd, I took a great many photos before returning to the car, where I sat in the driver’s seat and started to cry. This was about more than buffalo, but very much related. I don’t know if I can ever get that across or whether I should even try.
It has to to with finding the way back. Not historically, but spiritually. (The landscape of New Mexico has much the same effect.) For me, it’s as if my life has come full circle and I’m free again. Don’t let anybody tell you that can’t happen, and leave some markers on the way.
We came upon them suddenly at the top of a hill, clustered at a waterhole just twenty feet from the road. I immediately stopped. They immediately started walking away. The buck stood guard between us and them, forcing me to choose which ones to photograph. By the time I’d gotten out and aimed my camera (Pentax K-x with 55-300 lens), he was gone, and the females trotted on.
I love encounters with these animals. They’re truly wild, unlike the deer that come out of the woods to graze in your backyard, something the North American “antelope” [coll.] would never do. Every sighting boosts my mood. These were just off Rt. 72, about twenty-five miles east of Raton on Johnson Mesa. I drove back from Capulin on the same road in hopes of seeing them again, but there was no sign that they had ever been there.
Would you believe we visited a volcano on my birthday on the exact day that the volcano was having a birthday? Not the mysterious one in the photo, which I haven’t looked up yet—New Mexico is full of them—but I took the shot from the summit of Capulin Volcano, which I do know and where I was before a long, long time ago. The northeastern part of the state being what it is, I was looking forward to the solitude. When we drove into the visitors’ center at Capulin Volcano National Monument, however, the place was full of people having a party. There must have been a dozen rangers and thirty or forty people. The parking lot was almost full.
Unbeknownst to me and entirely by accident, we’d arrived not only on the same day but also the exact hour of the monument’s Centennial celebration! On August 9, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson established Capulin as a national monument, and the National Park Service was doing the anniversary up right.There were tents set up outside and chairs arranged in front of a podium. People were walking out of the visitors’ center carrying plates of goodies and drinks. There’s nothing I like better than free food, so I hurried inside, where a nice lady park ranger who looked my age offered me a slice of “volcano birthday cake.” (A variety of red velvet cake, we think.)
“Wow, it’s my birthday, too!” I told her.
“Yes, but we’re older,” she said, meaning the national monument.
“I don’t know, I’m pretty ancient…”
“Sorry the top is gone,” she said. “A little while ago, it looked more like a volcano.”
The cake was magnificent, though. The icing must have been half an inch thick. As I headed out to where my wife was waiting, the lady ranger tried to get me to go sit under the tent instead:
“Woodrow Wilson is about to speak!” she said, and it was true.
A gentleman in appropriate costume wearing a period straw hat was about to read the original proclamation establishing the national monument. Who knew there were Woodrow Wilson impersonators? At any rate, I declined and went to have lunch with my wife at a nice long picnic table in the shade. One cool irony is that because we knew we’d be traveling on my birthday, I’d tried to pack a couple of slices of store-bought carrot cake to celebrate. As it turned out, we lacked a decent way to carry them without rubbing the icing off and left them home, but the universe provided birthday cake regardless. Just the sort of thing that Leos relish on their birthdays, being treated like a king by God. The whole trip was remarkable.
It was a very moving birthday trip for me, as good and as hard as it gets. Not only for the things we saw and where we went, but for the things that broke inside—I mean that in a good way, now, so don’t get crazy on me! Just tremendous, all in all. My body feels lighter and stronger, too. The boy’s a piece o’ work but has some awesome allies. Here’s one of them I met this morning. The other I just kissed goodnight.