MY COMPANIONS AND I LABORED THROUGH DEEP SNOW for 15 long minutes—and this after driving through two-foot-deep drifts on the way up to the caldera on a frigid February evening.
Now, as we trudged on our skis, wrapped in layers of high-tech clothing and still shivering, taking off gloves to blow warm air on frozen fingers, we wondered if we should turn back. We had come to see the full moon rise but could make out only occasional shreds of sky in the gathering dusk.
Then, in the distance, we noticed a lone figure coming toward us from down near the Jemez River. I had seen faint tracks, all but erased by rapidly accumulating snow, but assumed they were made by an errant elk, although I couldn’t imagine why one would be in the caldera during the wettest winter in years. Any forage that might have sustained it was deeply buried. But now, squinting through the blizzard, we saw a person plodding heavily through the snow. The distance between us closed, and we made out the figure more clearly: a woman, hatless, on foot, pushing her way step by step up the grade from the river. I saw that she not only lacked a covering on her head but also wore light running shoes, untied—and she had no gloves.
When we stopped to greet the young woman, I noticed that she held an eagle feather in her bare hand. We asked if she was okay, and she nodded that yes, she was fine—but then her eyes welled with tears. She said that she was having a hard time in her life and had come to the Valle Grande to pray at the river, as her grandfather had instructed her to do if she ever felt in need. He had been an eagle catcher for Jemez Pueblo who came up to the caldera to capture birds to take back to the pueblo for ceremonial use, as has been done for centuries.
Her hands and fingers were bright pink in the biting cold, and I asked if she wanted to borrow gloves or would like us to accompany her to her car, parked on the highway a half mile off. She again refused assistance and turned to continue on her way while we went ours. I looked back frequently to check on her progress, watching her bent figure fade into the blowing snow and falling light, relieved when I saw the headlights of her car and watched her drive away.
I carried the woman with me in my thoughts as we skied through the dusk and into darkness, feeling our way with only the faintest visual clues, gliding down unseen and unexpected inclines, plowing headlong into invisible drifts, and finally reaching the frozen river. Snow clouds yielded to the dark blue of the night sky and the last snowflakes drifted down, their crystal faces gleaming like diamonds in the sudden rays of light. Then the moon cleared the clouds and shone brilliant over the winter landscape.
As we reveled in the moonlight and I attempted to make photos that would convey something of the spectacle, I thought of the eagle-feather woman’s determined pilgrimage to this place and compared it to my own. I couldn’t claim the same pedigree in connection to the caldera that she could, but I also felt a deep history of attachment to the landscape pulling me. It began long ago with frequent visits in early childhood, when my father took great care to share with me his passion for this extraordinary place. It continued through a tumultuous youth, when the caldera was where I journeyed to when seeking refuge, much in the way the Jemez woman did.
For many years, the caldera was a private ranch and my access beyond the fence was severely restricted. When the federal government purchased the land in 2000 and began to open it to the public as the Valles Caldera National Preserve, I started to explore it extensively through photographs (an experience chronicled in the first edition of the book). The transfer of the land to the National Park Service 15 years later, and the decision to produce a new book to mark the transition, provided the impetus for me to build upon that early effort.
The awe I’ve felt through decades of journeying to the caldera has not diminished. I can still feel my heart quicken at the sight of the vast, quiet expanse of the Valle Grande and the caldera’s farther reaches—not only the six golden valles and their sparkling streams, but also the deep forests on the sides of the caldera and on its interior volcanic domes.
Read More: Geological forces conspired to craft every landscape in New Mexico, from alpine peaks to cavernous depths. Feel that rumble? They’re still at work.
My desire to convey through photography a sense of this marvelous place has brought me many remarkable experiences, only a few of which found expression in photographs. Most often, I am left only with powerful memories: a herd of several hundred elk flowing past me just a few hundred feet distant, bulls on the periphery bugling and pawing at the ground. A great blue heron winging its way in evening light. A large bull elk—one broken leg hanging—moving slowly through a burned aspen stand with power and grace. Coyotes yipping and great horned owls hooting in the twilight in a dark forest. Coming face-to-face with a female bear that huffed threateningly at me while her two cubs scurried up trees. These and many other experiences moved me deeply but usually evaded capture by my camera.
Fortunately, the caldera also offers ample rewards for making photographs. Resplendent light fills the high-elevation valles with golden light and the sky radiates deep blue. Summer thunderheads drift over the open spaces, sometimes trailing rainbows. Moisture frequently fills the valles and rises in the mornings as steaming mist. It’s a place that by its very nature invites engagement through photography.
The transcendent pull of the Valles Caldera is a thread that runs through generations, but people have long ventured here for more practical reasons, too—to gather obsidian to make tools and weapons, to hunt game and gather plants, to graze livestock on the summer grasses. In recent decades, the caldera has also drawn people looking in the caldera for opportunities to study processes of fundamental importance to understanding the caldera’s and the earth’s past—and possibilities for their future.
A FEW YEARS AGO, William deBuys and I, maps and notes of various researchers in hand, made our way to the Valle Toledo. We sought a certain place that has a special significance in scientific history: an outcrop of rhyolite rock standing by the whispering stream of San Antonio Creek. Geologists made a trip there in the 1960s to extract small, cylindrical cores of the rhyolite, which they took back to a laboratory in California to analyze with sophisticated equipment.
The rock samples, outwardly unremarkable, proved invaluable, because the alignment of geomagnetic crystals within them matched magnetic orientations in rocks of the same date from the Pacific seafloor. This bit of arcane information provided the crucial piece of evidence to confirm the theory of plate tectonics, which holds that the earth’s crust is composed of shifting crustal plates.
In one of the boreholes, Bill and I found a core left behind. As we held this small plug of stone, we marveled that this rock yielded the answer to one of the most consequential questions of modern earth science.
After the validation of plate tectonics, the pace of research in the caldera picked up greatly, especially once the land was opened to the public in 2000 and became subject to federal management. Researchers began to visit regularly to observe and gather data, not only on the geology but also on the rich flora and fauna in the preserve. They began to study the habits of coyotes, trace the movements of elk, analyze water quality and flow, and pose countless questions to glean insight into the valles’ ecosystems.
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Researchers bring with them not prayer feathers but an array of tools—everything from binoculars to elaborate electronic devices and computers for collecting and analyzing data. They lay out grids and transects for tallying plants, drop probes into groundwater, place radio collars on elk and other animals, and zap fish with electric currents to stun them. Theirs is a probing search that involves technology on the cutting edge.
The caldera has proven to be especially valuable to studying how the climate has varied over time. The data gathered there (and from many other sources) confirms that the caldera, like most of the Southwest, is headed for a sustained dry period over the coming decades. It is also clear that the chief cause of this shift, already well underway, is pollution that humans have dumped into the atmosphere.
The increased aridity, combined with a buildup of combustible material over a century of fire suppression, created ideal conditions for two large wildfires that together burned more than 60 percent of the Valles Caldera National Preserve in just the past decade. Some experts believe that the forests that burned with especially high severity, particularly in the Las Conchas Fire of 2011, may never grow back to what they were before. They may instead be replaced by arid-climate, shrubby plant cover. Worse still, all indications are that this kind of intense fire is likely to happen more often because of the warming climate.
CHANGE IS INEVITABLE. The elk herd of perhaps a dozen animals that my family and I came to see, reintroduced in the early 1960s, has grown to several thousand. Pine forests have slowly spread into the open grasslands and on the high mountain slopes. The summertime influx of thousands of cows has nearly ceased, leaving behind scarred and slowly healing grasslands.
Forests of big, old trees were cleared from the caldera’s mountainsides. When the logging stopped, it left behind stump fields and the scars of more than one thousand miles of roads. At the same time, uncut stands—lacking the frequent, low-severity natural fires that thinned them prior to 1900—became ever more choked with young trees and dead standing and fallen material.
All the while, for nearly 50 years, I’ve carried into the caldera a camera to record images that reveal something of the changes. Standing in a burned forest overlooking the caldera’s many-chambered heart, I can’t help but wonder what the next half century will bring. When future pilgrims come here to soothe sorrowful hearts, to find refuge and renewal in the wildness and beauty, or to look for answers to pressing questions in environmental and earth science, what will they find? Are the thousands of acres of scorched trunks a harbinger of things to come?
The history of the National Park Service as a good steward of wildlands somewhat eases worry about the future. As well as protecting the land, the NPS is working with the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies in coordinated activities such as thinning the overgrown forests, lighting prescribed fires, allowing healthy natural fires to burn, and restoring wetlands and grasslands damaged by past overgrazing.
The NPS is also striving to restore cultural connections to the Valles Caldera. A deep relationship with the landscape, expressed so powerfully by the eagle-feather woman, is shared by several Native American groups—not only neighboring communities like the pueblos of Jemez, Santa Clara, and Zia, but also people from Zuni Pueblo, in west-central New Mexico, and the Apache, Navajo, and Ute. Historically, their visits had a strong spiritual dimension as well as a material connection through gathering, hunting, and collecting. Hispanic groups from nearby also have a history of visiting the caldera for important social and economic activities. These ties may have frayed but were never severed during a century of severely restricted access. That access is now encouraged.
Read More: In the Jemez Mountains, fire reshaped the landscape and taught us lessons made visible each fall.
The future of the caldera landscape is charged with dark portents, but I find comfort in knowing that the eagle-feather woman can find her way there to seek in the landscape something essential to the human spirit, as her ancestor counseled her to do; that I can find similar reserves of renewal there and can share my inspiration through photographs; and that researchers can continue to query this singular place for answers to pressing questions about the natural world.
There’s opportunity in the caldera for all these ways of appreciating and learning from the land. This struck me especially powerfully when I returned home from skiing on that moonlit night and reviewed photos of the woman with the feather. Only then, as I looked at the images on my computer screen, did I notice that while she clutched the feather in one hand, in the other she held tight to a cellphone.
Maybe that juxtaposition can serve as a metaphor to guide us: the feather signifying the quest for meaning through the deep well of the spirit, and the cellphone representing the insights gained through science and technology. Engaging both of these essential elements of human awareness may lead to a greater understanding of our world and how to live in it sustainably.
For the moment, we must learn to live with uncertainty about the future. But of this I am sure: There is an essence deep and strong in the Valles Caldera that has touched and inspired people for millennia. This place remains a stronghold of hope in precarious times.
A 2015 change in how the Valles Caldera would be managed—placing it under the National Park Service and expanding recreational access to it—inspired William deBuys and Don J. Usner to update their 2006 book analyzing the region’s volcanic past and the deep cultural connections to it. Valles Caldera: A New Vision for New Mexico’s National Preserve (Museum of New Mexico Press) is available at bookstores and online.
The Valles Caldera National Preserve has trails for hikers, bikers, cross-country skiers, and horseback riders, plus opportunities to fish, hunt, bird-watch, and stargaze. Camping is not permitted.