Twin hoodoos deep in the Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah Wilderness appear like earthly guardians of the Milky Way.
A TARP PROVIDES A BIT of shade for my lounge chair as I attempt a nap. An uncomfortably hot June afternoon at my camp in northwest New Mexico has me wondering why I do this. I spent last night taking photographs in the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness Area and had very little sleep. Tonight will be the same. If only there was a breeze—any air movement at all, actually.
I’m here in the June heat for good reason. Monsoon season won’t arrive for a few more weeks, and New Mexico’s early-summer night skies supply an open window to the stars. When I finally give up on the shut-eye, I stuff bean burritos and several bottles of water into the top of my camera bag and throw it into my truck.
I head southeast on a two-track road from camp to park at the boundary of the Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah Wilderness, just west of Nageezi. With my gear on my back, I pull my hat down low and head toward the sun in search of a photograph. I feel surprisingly good. The sleepless night has yet to catch up with me.
Hiking through this sunbaked, cracked landscape reminds me of that song from the band America. I even see a horse with no name: a lone sorrel mare, head down, back to the sun. Wild horses are a part of this landscape, but I can’t help feeling sorry for these beautiful creatures. There isn’t a tree to rest under within sight.
After a few miles, the rock formations begin to appear. With each step, the earth seems transformed into some alien planet. My pace slows as the shapes of clay and stone beings rise above me, so magnificent that I completely forget the heat.
Cypress trees, petrified among the otherworldly formations, lie scattered throughout this former inland sea. Water has carved the clay below the sandstone-capped forms. Some appear alien-like, frozen in time. The deeper I explore, the better compositions I discover. Finally I find one that I simply cannot leave. Two majestic hoodoos angle toward the heavens as if they’ve been tasked to serve as eternal sentries.
The sun won’t set for another 45 minutes, so I sit in their shade, eat dinner, drink one of my water bottles dry, and watch the shadows grow long as the day ends. Before I know it, I’m asleep.
I wake to stars and darkness. Heat still radiates from the rocks. There is no rush. It will still be a few hours before the galactic center of the Milky Way aligns with the twin hoodoos. It is in this time that I wait—when I can connect with the landscape. As the night cools, the small amount of moisture rising from the dry soil emits a uniquely New Mexico fragrance. The scents of sage and clay hang in the air.
The dark sky, unblemished by any city lights, reveals every minute detail. The stars seem so close here. I am not reaching or longing; I am a part of the heavens.
In darkness, I can hear animals, both large and small, moving through the undulating landscape. During the day, it’s easy to think this place welcomes no wildlife. As I sit, I hear a sound at my feet and turn on my headlamp to see a small field mouse nibbling dried seeds from a solitary bush. I turn off my light to let him eat undisturbed and continue my stargazing. Even when coyotes begin yipping nearby, the mouse is okay, as long as he hangs out with me.
After a lifetime of studying the Southwest landscape, the desert, and its intricate rhythms, I know there is no need to be afraid, even at night. If all these eerie formations are perhaps spirits, as the Ancient Ones proclaim, I know I am safe. They know I come in kindness, here only to respect their realm and to photograph their domain.
A little after 11 p.m., the Milky Way rises right between the two hoodoos—just as I envisioned. Despite the small lights I’ve used to illuminate my scene, I can barely see it in the darkness. The camera sensor will detect the difference, though. Subtlety is key.
I take my image and I am pleased. Pressing the shutter has become innate. It’s why I am here … or is it? I’m hoping the final photograph will reflect the experience of being with the hoodoos, the stars, the cooling air, and the desert creatures.
I thank the mouse for keeping me company and the rocks for their presence. My headlamp lights the way as I hike back through the desert night. The air is crisp on my departure, a happy contrast to the heat soon to come in the day ahead.
As I drop into the arroyo bottoms and shallow canyons, I can feel the temperature dip. Arrayed like veins, these ravines are the lifeblood of the desert, heating and cooling in a slow and steady pulse.
I check my GPS to make sure I am heading in the right direction, but eventually turn it off. Jupiter is right in line with my truck. The bright glow from the largest planet in our solar system guides me like a beacon.
I haven’t had much sleep in the past two days, but I am so awake, so alive. With the windows rolled down, I drive back to camp. The coolness of New Mexico blows through my hair and takes me back to my childhood. I am riding in the back seat with the windows down. My hand becomes an airplane gliding on the breeze as my family’s ’63 Chevy Bel Air heads down a lonely New Mexico highway.
After a good 20-minute drive, I arrive back at camp—a little earlier than the night before. The lounge chair looks so inviting. I grab a blanket, lie down, and hope the morning sun will be accompanied by a cool breeze. Sleep comes easily. I dream of star-filled skies, a new moon, and hoodoos.
EXPERT TIP: LET THE SUNSHINE IN
Many air-bound adventures offer golden-hour tours, so seize the opportunity. “Sunset is one of the most magical times of day to visit,” says Jessica Fox, of the Sandia Peak Tramway. “It is really special to watch the sun set over the horizon and see the city lights start to glow.”