|The Bisti Badlands
The Bisti Badlands, a BLM-administered wilderness 36 miles south of Farmington, New Mexico, is one of those places. What I mean by ìone of those placesî is that it is an exciting place that my wife and I can visit when the cold and snow of the Durango area just wonít do. In the heat of the summer, itíll be the other way around.
The Bisti ñ pronounced ìbee-staiî ñ is 4,000 acres of high desert wilderness described mostly by clay hills and intermittent layers of sandstone. It reminds me of the badlands of my hometown of Glendive, Montana, where my backyard public lands had miles of these clay features. We called them gumbo hills. When they get wet they turn slick like ice. In fact, in my youth my friends and I would squeal in delight as we tried like Bambi on ice to climb the gumbo hills.
But itís dry today. Itís our first time to the Bisti so we donít really know where to go to get started. We know that we must travel 36 miles south of Farmington on Highway 371 to a turn-off across from a historic marker. There we head east for a short distance on a dirt road to a sign indicating that the Bisti is north. Another short distance to a pullout on the far side of a wide wash and weíre there. We find a register but no trailhead, which does not surprise us because our information tells us that there are no trails in the Bisti. Itís a place to explore via curiosity and not via a pathway. That suits us just fine.
The road runs the west edge of the wilderness boundary so getting going means that weíll walk east along the dry wash, which will be our main navigational point the entire time weíre in the wilderness. I brought a compass ñ just in case ñ but we wonít need it. Getting around this unforested wilderness is a piece of cake. Looking far ahead, we identify high black clay hills as destination points and begin walking. Weíre amazed at the number of hoodoos we see clustered in the culdesacs. Chris calls them ìhoodoo villages.î
Sandstone layers, broken and clumped in various stages and thicknesses throughout the wilderness, sit atop the hoodoos like hats, protecting them from the rain. Theyíre the reason most of the hoodoos form the way they do. As the clay erodes from rain and wind, the clay under the sandstone erodes more slowly in rain. In time, as the unprotected clay washes away, left standing are the hoodoos, many of them resembling people. The sandstone hats are amazing to themselves. Many have worn thin and delicate, creating bizarre shapes. There are so many of the wafer-thin sandstone hats that are precariously perched on the hoodoo heads that I wonder how long theyíll last. Humans, especially the selfish ones, cause me to wonder. Just one foolish person could have a huge impact on this wilderness by kicking and pushing the delicate formations, which are within easy reach.
The Bisti is also a great place to find petrified wood. It lies about in tiny and big pieces. If youíre lucky youíll find big sections of wood. We found nice pieces in which we could easily see the growth rings. If youíre even luckier youíll find entire logs. We did, one. The log was elevated about four feet on a skinny ridge of hard clay. Itís entire length, about 50 feet horizontally, was suspended above ground, getting there the same way the hoodoo hats get there: the exposed clay washed away but the clay under the log remained, holding it up.
Throughout the Bisti you never know what youíre going to find. Go this way and youíll find another hoodoo village; that way a raptureís nest high on a sandstone layer in an unclimbable clay tower. Over there, wow, look at that!
There, in the stumps of petrified trees! The stumps were amazing enough but a closer look showed a treasure. Tree sap had pooled and collected in mosaics in the stumps. Through the millennia it had turned to amber. The amber, crystallized and delicate, was arranged tightly in the petrified wood; too delicate to examine by any other means than sight. From then on our day was spent looking for these petrified stands so we could compare the remarkable amber. It varied in thickness and structure from area to area. Again, it wouldnít take much for an irresponsible person to destroy in short order the aesthetics of these priceless petrified gems.
Because of the precious and delicate nature of the hoodoos and amber, their fate is tenuous in this age of irresponsibility and greed. Should I even write about my discoveries for fear that somebody will seek out and damage or exploit them?
Walking among the delicate hoodoos I thought of the endangered rhinos in Africa and India and how their existance is so precarious that each animal receives protection. A ranger follows the animal day in and day out to protect it from poachers. Each animal!
The hoodoos in the Bisti can be demolished with a push of a hand or a kick of a foot. Zillions of years placed those sandstone hats on their heads. But a second of shameful exuberance by an unknowing or unthinking person can knock one off. A minute would destroy an entire "hoodoo village." Although the amber crystals are too small and fragmented to be of commerical value, they're pretty, and we all know the temptation to collect pretty things. In the wrong hands it wouldn't take long for the amber to disappear.
What do we do? What can we do? As it is with the rhinos, do we post rangers throughout the Bisti? Or do we continue to trust in the human spirit to do the right thing? I can't trust all humans, so I prefer education. Go to the Bisti, take your children, explore and discover together, and teach your kids the importance of the natural processes that place hats on clay and treasures in rocks. For the good of your kids and their kids, do that.
In the late nineties a thoughtless person(s) destroyed the Eye of the Needle that overlooks the Missouri River east of Great Falls, Montana. The culprit was never caught, although catching him or her or them would not have returned the Eye of the Needle. I'm not so sure that catching them would have made us feel better, either. The Needle is (was) a white sandstone natural arch that has been around long before Lewis and Clark explored the West. In fact, the arch was described in their journals. But it's gone, forever -- destroyed for a reason that may not go beyond the thrill of the moment.
That treasure is lost. It's a glowing example of how quickly we can lose our natural treasures in the blink of an eye.
The Bisti Badlands is a remote, rarely visited public wilderness. Itís full of wonder and rich with discovery. When my wife and I return it may not be until after the birth of our first child, who gets his or her first peek of sunshine next summer. I pray and hope that our child will have the opportunity to see what we saw today.
Wacky geology of the Bisti De Na Zin. Courtesy BLM New Mexico Farmington Office.
Petrified log in the Bisti. Courtesy BLM New Mexico Farmington Office.
Indian paintbrush blooms among the rocks. Courtesy BLM New Mexico Farmington Office.