Moments of Reverie and Wonder
Hide in the Shadow of a Cloud,
and Glimpses of Wild Sunflowers,
Mule Deer and Juniper Appear
beside the Disappearing River.
Truly a road less travelled, the Dry Cimarron Scenic Byway is actually an informal network of several three-digit state highways that connects a physical place of remote natural beauty and uniqueness to a set of ideas founded in history, geology, biology, and philosophy — that is, if you happen to be a traveller with an agenda. If you're one of the dwindling few who live and work on the ranches in the valley, the roads of the byway provide a way home, or a way out.
My agenda was focused on gathering the raw material of creation and moving on down the very private road of transformation and destiny. If that reads too strongly of melodrama, so be it. I'm engaged in a quiet one-act narrative at the moment and refuse to apologise. It means something.
456 ~ 551 ~ 370 ~ 406 ~ 325
The central artery of the byway, NM 456, stretches due west from Oklahoma for about 45 miles along the banks of the river until it turns sharply south at Toll-Gate Canyon, five miles from Folsom. NM 551 intersects 456 at the mouth of the canyon and dashes six miles due north to the Colorado border. Three other New Mexico backroads, 370 from Clayton through the Kiowa National Grasslands, 406 from Seneca past McNees Crossing on the Sante Fe Trail, and 325 from U.S. 64 past Capulin Volcano to Folsom, provide connections to 456.
The Cimarron is called Dry in New Mexico because the water simply disappears beneath the surface of sand and rock along many sections of the riverbed. The river continues to flow down an invisible subterranean channel, and then resurfaces as a rippling pool or wet streaming strand of water. Geology has a name for this kind of stream. Once I knew it, wrote it down in a file, but lost it in the clutter and dust of mortality.
As Oklahoma receded, and the river twisted, and the valley became hemmed-in by mesas rising higher and higher on both sides of the river, I eased into a state of reverie and wonder. The sky above NM 456 was as high as heaven, silver and blue, beclouded with slowly moving towers of fluffy cumulus, enfolding and radiant. At a spot just east of the highway's first crossing of the Dry Cimarron, I steered old El Camino onto the north shoulder and stopped to admire.
Secret Shadow of a Cloud.
I watched the soft, rounded silhouette of a cloud float as a shadow along the south face of the indigo, lime, auburn, and golden surfaces of Black Mesa, a thousand meters to the north.
Shadow of a cloud....
Nature's diaphanous motion picture, showing one time only....
Spontaneous parade of form and nuance, of secrets and prophecies embedded in the thin atomic borderline between heaven and earth, hidden in the trace region where a shadow cast from on high merges with the land....
I wanted to become the phantom place where the shadow of a cloud touches the globe. I wished that my words could become your eyes.
Between the mesa and the river is a natural structure so exquisite and singular it sings of the hands of God. From the pale green valley floor the structure rises as a circle of sheered-off rock, its roundness a striking counterpoint to the neighboring peaks, the massive rectangles of mesa stretching along every horizon. Sienna and dark crimson stone broken by fissures of the darkest grey jut vertically from the base of the structure to form a ridgeline several hundred feet above the valley floor. The ridge defines the top edge of a massive circular platform for the crowning touch, which is an incredible cone cap. The symmetrical form of the cone collapses inward from the ridgeline to fashion a gentle slope of browns and paler browns that merge a hundred feet higher into a narrow vertex of whitish stone.
This wondrous structure may be the byway's signature peak, the one tour guides call "Wedding Cake." I cannot be certain because I didn't see an interpretive sign, and one man's anthropomorphism does not always coincide with another's. Regardless of the name, I realized I had paused at a time and place of profound aesthetic beauty, and that the artistic challenge of describing it was better matched to the skills of the painter.
Land of the Cattle Ranch.
At Mile 37, the asphalt ends and New Mexico 456 becomes a rocky dirt road in primitive harmony with the river. Wild yellow sunflowers as tall as a stallion grow in hot profusion above clumps of cholla cactus and the occasional prickly pear. Gnarled and knotty fence posts hewn from branches of juniper twist and bend on both sides of the road, forming snaky rows of stringers for the long runs of barbed wire fencing erected by the ranchers of the valley. Black Mesa Ranch, Cotton Mesa Ranch, Spool Ranch, Y Bar Ranch, and Cross L Ranch display their brands on signs erected over side roads leading to the ranch houses and cattle pens.
Cattle were grazing everywhere — on the rolling meadows, along the riverbanks, on mesa tops, at the edge of the highway. Once I stopped with measured prudence to allow a dozen or so heifers and steers to cross the road. Most of the ones I spied were fat black beasts with markings of white. A few tans were scattered among the herds. One rancher keeps a herd of bison on his ranch; I was told by a man in Folsom that it is not unusual to encounter the buffalo on the road.
The highway crosses the Dry Cimarron three times between the Oklahoma line and Folsom; seldom does it stray too far from the channel. It snuggles the base of a mesa on the north for a stretch, then crosses over to creep along the south-descending bank. To creep is not to exaggerate, either: On rougher sections of the road, washboard ripples caused such a rattling of old El's tires that I slowed to a pace not much faster than that of a mule-drawn covered wagon.
Signs of High-Water Erosion.
A few pools and thin strands of water were visible in the riverbed, which is lined with trees: cottonwoods, willows, junipers, pinõn pines, and scrub oaks. Signs of high-water erosion were frequent and occasionally dramatic: cutbanks of rippled red earth stood high and dry in places where the channel turned; oddly shaped sandy islands arose in the middle of the streambed; and piles of driftwood lay twisted and grey in pockets where eddies had receded.
Stopping on the highway to watch a young mule deer doe and a tiny, tiny fawn grazing at the river's edge.... No danger of blocking traffic because there was none. Two vehicles, a low-riding Honda Accord driven by an old woman and a Ford Bronco piloted by a policeman, passed my way on the 58-mile journey. Now and then tumbleweed rolled across the path ahead. Little whirling plumes of dust, swift and short lived, rode on gusts of wind across the roadbed. A red-tailed hawk swooped down and snatched a field mouse from the buffalo grass.
Then pavement! Just beyond the Mile 21 marker: smooth, quiet asphalt. Full speed ahead. At half past five the day was waning. I needed to find a place to rest my head.
Mrs. Brown Opens the Museum.
Vinita Brown, lifelong resident of Folsom ("About 64 people live here," she said) wore a green shirt with the logo of the Western National Parks Association. Her day job as bookkeeper at the volcano was some time done, but she had interrupted her evening at home to open the quaint, eclectic Folsom Museum for a tall, bearded tourist from Madison, Wisconsin, who wanted to peruse some of the archaeological artifacts related to Folsom Man. I joined them.
"Now it's cattle," Mrs. Brown said when asked about the local economy. "It used to be Mexican sheepherders coming in from Taos. Then after the Civil War, the ranchers started coming in. Sheep were still on the land in the Nineteen Forties. My granddad had some, but you won't see any now. Most of the original ranches are still in the hands of descendants, but there aren't so many ranches anymore. Lately the bigger ranchers have started taking over property and buying out the little ones. And there's fewer and fewer people living along the river. Nowadays the ranchers don't have to have cowboys the way they used to. They use four-wheelers and trucks in place of horses."
The land at the upper reaches of the river was settled before the Civil War. Folsom itself was incorporated in the late 1880s, and by the turn of the century it had grown into a thriving cattle town of almost one thousand souls. Its demise was sudden and cruel. On the night of August 27, 1908, Folsom was destroyed by the Dry Cimarron.
High above the town on Johnson Mesa, a cloudburst gathered just after sunset and poured epic torrents of rain upon the lava field. Trees, brush, and boulders carried by the surge slammed against the railroad bridge just west of town to form a momentary dam, which burst at midnight. A great wall of water rushed into the floodwaters already pouring through Folsom and swept away shops, houses, and stables. Seventeen townsfolk died in the deluge. Folsom's economic vitality died, too — never to recover.
"I've seen the river reach the bottom of the bridge here," Mrs. Brown said. "It can rise fast after a hard rain. But never like it did in 1908."
Could I Beat Dark to Raton?
Ahead stretched 8,000 square miles of volcanoes and lava fields. I glanced at my watch. An hour, maybe less, remained 'till sunset: too late to climb the Capulin, only a few miles away on high ground to the south; too late to reach the nearest campsite and pitch a tent. I bid farewell to Mrs. Brown and the man from Madison, who was purchasing postcards and an arrow head, and drove away from old Folsom into the sunset.
Old El dutifully motored up the plateau to the western edge of Capulin on New Mexico 325. What a grand young cinder cone! I slowed near the entrance to the National Monument park and noted the opening hour: 8 a.m. The earth wasn't quaking and I couldn't see any belching plumes of gas and cinders on the horizon; the extinct volcano would be there, I supposed, on the morrow. I sped down the lava field to U.S. Highway 64 and turned right. The city of Raton and a motel bed lay 16 miles ahead. With luck I could beat dark to the lobby.