Friday, March 22, 2013

The Traveler at Home: Los Alamos, NM

Strange formations
New Mexico, where I was born and now live is a major tourist destination. Nearby Santa Fe is home to the oldest house and church in the United States, full of Southwestern charm, beautiful scenery, and a vital mix of Anglo, Hispanic and Native American culture.

I live in Los Alamos, the place where, during WWII, the US Government created a secret base to develop the atomic bomb. Way south of here, near Alamogordo, they blew up the first atomic weapon. The Trinity site is open for visitors twice a year. Just don't pocket any of the radioactive glass (called Trinitite) if you ever want to have normal children.

During the war and the following Cold War, the scientists at Los Alamos tested a lot of other things; rockets, explosives, bombs (non-nuclear) and other ordinances. The canyons are filled with blast holes and hiking trails with big signs at the road warning you not to pick up any ordinances and to report any finds to the labs. In all the years I've hiked around the area, I've never seen anything out of the ordinary. But I've sure heard stories of locals who found unexploded mines or grenades and kept them as souvenirs or used them for door stops.

Twice lately, I've hiked Lower Water Canyon, a watershed that is dry most of the year, but during the heavy summer rains can fill up and flood the whole canyon several feet deep. The trail starts at a turn off on State Road 4, where three tall poles hold up a heavy power line, with the ubiquitous signs saying the area belongs to the government with warnings about explosives.

Ancient Puebloans lived in this canyon, in cavates
like the triangular one in this photo. Look to the right
to see the curved walls that were once inside homes.

The trail has many hikers, dogs, and horses on the weekends, but weekdays, there are rarely any people in the canyon. Last Friday, I went with a group from the White Rock Senior Center. At 59, I was the youngest person to go the full four and a half miles to the saddle overlooking the Rio Grande River.

The entire canyon is bordered on both sides by welded tuff cliffs in various shades of pink over a layer of hard black basalt. A stream bed runs down the center and the trail crosses over it several times before finally heading uphill. The stream itself eventually reaches a hundred foot cliff dropping down to the river, a cliff that must sport an amazing waterfall during the rainy season.

Grooved trail in the welded tuff
The trail circles back towards the road in a big loop. Part of it climbs up the tuff cliff as a groove in the rock, worn down over many centuries of native American moccasins and in later centuries horse hooves, shoes and hiking boots. In places the groove is half a meter deep and no wider than the spacing of a horse's legs. Along the way, the trees change from piñon/juniper forest to tall ponderosas in the bottom of the canyon where it's cooler and wetter, then back to piñon/juniper as it climbs up the cliff. Evidence of flooding in the canyon bottom is everywhere: large clumps of debris piled up against trees, boulders left all alone on the flat meadows, and trees still alive, pushed over into other trees by the force of the water.

Several books by local naturalist and environmental activists Dorothy Hoard and Craig Martin document all the trails in and around Los Alamos with maps and directions to trail heads. The group I hiked with was full of retired scientists who have been exploring the area for decades. The senior center in Los Alamos also has a hiking group, and one of my octogenarian friends belongs to yet another outdoors group called the Wednesday Irregulars. In this town, getting old is an option.
An eagle's nest is seen by evidence of white droppings
 and sticks on the shelf in this cliff. 

Dead trees make a striking contrast
against the beautiful NM sky.

At the top of the trail looking
down into the Rio Grande Canyon.