A half hour later we were on the sandstone, where winter snow collects in pools that soon evaporate in the dry New Mexico air. This pool still has a thin coating of ice that will quickly melt with the advance of the sun.
Junipers thrive here, sinking their tough roots into the sparse soil that gathers in fissures in the stone. The trunk of this one has snaked for several feet along the rock and around a boulder before rising vertically. Was it bent and broken earlier in it's life, or is it's shape simply the result of a search for the best growing conditions? These trees are incredibly tough and resilient, growing slowly in conditions where no other species of tree can survive.
The canyons vary greatly in depth, color of the rock, and ease of navigation. Here we could move without difficulty over the flat, barren sandstone floor.
Farther on the route was choked with juniper, piñon and live oak, and with boulders fallen from the cliffs above. The canyon forked here, and we took the left fork, hoping it would lead us up to the top of Red Mesa, a thousand plus feet above. Without any trails it is difficult to know just where one is down in a canyon. There are many of these small canyons, some running generally north, up the syncline, and others bending to the west, up to Red Mesa. Since we planned to look for a way down the escarpment of Red Mesa, we hoped to travel up one of the west-tending canyons.
We clambered over obstacles like these until we came to a sandstone shelf that was high enough to block our path. We made our way up out of the canyon onto the long slope that leads to the top of the mesa.
Once out of the canyon the stiff breeze was chilling and brought with it that edgy sense of foreboding that wind always seems to carry out here. Hungry and tired, we took shelter behind this spine of rock and enjoyed our lunch basking in the winter sun.
Our route as we climbed was mostly unencumbered and we could walk easily over the naked sandstone. We discovered that we had taken a north-running canyon, rather than one running west, and were still a long way from the top of Red Mesa.
We finally reached the edge, to gaze out over the plains to the west toward Cabezon Peak, one of the volcanic plugs that rise up from the sandstone floor. This determined juniper clings to the very edge of the escarpment. Twisted and broken by the strong winds that sweep across the mesa, it maintains a vigorous life. I think of junipers as the adventurers of the tree world, choosing locations shunned by all other species.
There is a surprising abundance of vegetation up here on top, perhaps because the prevailing westerly winds sweeping across the plains drop moisture when they encounter Red Mesa, fifteen hundred feet above the dry land below. There are quite a few ponderosa pines, growing very differently from their stately counterparts in the montane forests. There they grow to a great height, with straight trunks and a crown of branches. Here, stunted and twisted, they assume a variety of shapes.
This one, having taken root in a fissure in the rock, has been twisted by the wind into spiral, with a narrow band of living tissue snaking around its core to feed the delicate needles of its crown.
We decided that we had taken too long to reach the edge of the mesa to consider finding a way down the escarpment, so we opted for the most direct route back to our second vehicle, south, down along the edge of the cliff. The wind had dropped and it was an easy descent in the late afternoon light, mostly over bare sandstone, with few obstacles to obstruct the last leg of our journey.
Surprisingly, not only junipers, but a few stunted piñon pines grow at the edge of the mesa.
Weary and happy, we approached our vehicle just as the setting sun graced White Mesa with this soft light.
More often than not, in my daily life, I engage with my world with the intention to change, improve, or guide. Walking in wild places I can let go of all that, just enter the place and let the place enter me. My intention is simply to be here, to respond to what I encounter, and to appreciate all that my senses are able receive. I am relieved of the imperative that the self seems to feel to have some impact, to make a difference. These walks are often arduous, challenging, and exhausting, yet my spirit soars as my mind empties and I feel as though I have come home.
The other situation where I can give up doing and rest in being is sesshin
, our Zen practice of intensive meditation. We will hold a three-day sesshin
at Prajna Zendo this weekend, from Thursday evening, February 21 through Sunday morning, February 24. If you would like to join us, for all or part of this retreat, call Daishin Sensei at 660-3045, or e-mail him <
I am planning another hike for Saturday, March 16, let me know if you would like to join. I'll decide on location closer to hike time.