Desert Wanderings

Sunday, March 4, 2018,  Elephant Butte Lake State Park, New Mexico —

We lock the Airstream door before heading into the desert.

The park’s sandy landscape has a ring trail that takes you from our campsite at Desert Cove and circles around the edges of the park. When you are on higher ground facing west, you can see the roofs of cars passing on the main road. The large park entrance with its oh-so-modern digital signage is to the south and glimpses of the green-blue lake fed by the Rio Grande are to the east. To north, we can see a modern housing development atop the hills a few miles away. We are in a park, but civilization is right next door.

As we walk on the trail, our campground to the east is soon out of sight, nestled in a hollow between us and the lake, hidden from view by scrub bushes, cedars, junipers and assorted leafless shrubs and trees.

It’s 12:30, sunny and the winds are gusty, so we double tie the chin straps on our hats, just in case. We gulp some water, knowing that in the desert, it’s better to have the water in your stomach than in a bottle. The trail is a total of 3 miles, we estimate, but we don’t think we’ll travel that far.

Desert Spiral

The wide path is scattered with rocks. Water-smoothed pebbles, rough quartz pieces, and rocks in many different colors and textures marking the trial and its edges, some lying on top and others embedded in the sand. We come upon rock artwork to the right of the trail — fist-sized stones curl in a three-foot-side spiral inward and larger dark rocks echo their curve. Large rocks mark the back boundary. In the center, a large sandstone mass sits, looking like it has been carved and spiraled by wind and water and perhaps by human hands. The rocks, small and large, are unfazed by the strong winds that carry tiny bits of sand into the air and into our faces. We face away from the wind when we can.

The trail is flat and sturdy but John is lured by the washes to our left. We strike out, walking in the wide spaces between bushes with spiky branches and thorns. I’m not nervous, the way I am when blazing a new trail in a forested area. Here, I can see my feet and keep a watch out for scorpions and snakes. We see neither.

Maura stands near a group of yucca with Elephant Butte Lake over her shoulder in the distance.

This desert is full of plants. Mesquite bushes with dark bark. Spiky Mormon’s tea bushes whose green, oh-so-thin branch-like leaves that dance with the wind. Tufts of yucca with tall grey stalks adorned by dried flowers. Cholla trees with pale green tips just ready to flower and needle-thin thorns and disarmingly hairy thorns designed to protect. Dead cholla branches and trunks lie beside the living ones, looking like netted wooden tubes. Red-edged green cactus paddles studded by long thorns seem to struggle to keep a foothold in the sand.

As we wend our way through the desert, we meet up with the western path and then strike southeast again to shorten our way. It’s been about half an hour or 45 minutes, the sun is beating down, and the wind is threatening to tear our hats off. But, the desert is beautiful and alluring. The washes are flat paths that John says will lead, eventually, to the lake, so we are never in danger of getting lost. Walking too far away from the camp, however, is a distinct possibility and we don’t know what challenging landscape lies in between the trails. We use our eyes and guesses to make our way.

We come to an area that is different from the rest. The bushes and shrubs are larger and there are three or four large cedar trees among them, showing bright green foliage. It smells like an eastern forest. John says that if we were ever stuck out there, we could crawl under the low branches and escape the sun until the day cooled and we could find our way home. The washes seem to support lusher plant-life than the areas nearest our camp. Who knew?

The lake is visible as we walk the gentle downhill slope. We question how far to the left or the right we are from the campground. Who knows?

About an hour into our journey, as we walk around a stand of bushes and face east, we see a silver arc glinting in the sun yards, not miles, away. Above it, a tall pole holds a white cellular antenna. It’s our Airstream, closer than we expected from our wanderings through the desert.

We unlock the door, throw open the windows, and take off our hats. We are home.

— Maura C.

Desert Heart


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