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In late 2005, an e-mail arrived from Sharon Snider, chair of the Los Alamos Historical Society Publications Committee. On its subject line was the message, “Make my day.” The third edition of my book, “A Guide to Bandelier National Monument,” was almost out of stock. Would I please supply the computer file so they could reprint it?
No computer file existed. I had pasted-up all three previous editions by hand, the old-fashioned way. More importantly, Bandelier had changed so much that the book was no longer relevant.
The park had suffered three major wildfires, severe flooding and the bark beetle infestation.
In addition, archaeologists had conducted extensive research and refined their theories of puebloan settlement. It would have to be an entirely new book.
I thought about the effort involved for a while. The book describes Bandelier’s wilderness; I would need to hike all the trails again — some multiple times — well over 100 miles in total.
At age 74, that would be something of a challenge.
In the end, I decided to try, mostly out of curiosity about the condition of the park. I answered Sharon’s e-mail with, “Day not made” and offered a completely revised fourth edition.
I don’t hike alone; I don’t want search-and-rescue mobilized if I suffer a mishap. My friend, Yvonne Delamater, offered to come along.
Yvonne is an excellent hiker — tall and lithe, with long legs. I could never keep up with her; she would have to keep down with me. Yvonne agreed to try. And so, after the snow melted off the walls of Frijoles Canyon in spring of 2006, we set forth weekly into the Bandelier Wilderness.
I recalled a talk that Bandelier ecologist Craig Allen presented at the start of the piñon die-off. Craig estimated that bark beetles would kill 80 percent of piñons in our area. As we hiked, we concluded that his estimate was wildly optimistic.
In parts of Bandelier, die-off was nearly total. In many places, we stared out over acres of gray piñon skeletons, and even dead ponderosa pines. One prefers that a hiker’s guide be a cheerful book, inviting people to come and see beautiful sights. I soon concluded that a new guide to Bandelier would have to invite them instead to come and see interesting sights.
The spring and early summer of 2006 were hot, and we had not had significant rainfall for over nine months. Our hikes across the desiccated mesas were brutal. My hiking speed fell below one mile per hour.
Then in July, the rains that finally came were so heavy that they raised local precipitation to near normal levels.
When we went to the southern part of the monument, grasses were so lush that they obscured the trails. We were often led astray. No one had hiked there recently enough to keep the trails open. We never saw another soul or even another human footprint.
This area had burned in the 1996 Dome Fire, causing the landscape to change since my previous visits. I’ve hiked cross-country without trails for more than 50 years, but grew to appreciate my little $100 Garmin GPS. It saved us hours of blundering around trying to relocate the true trail.
Through it all, Yvonne followed along with forbearance, patience and good humor. At the end of each hike, we agreed that it had been a good day and we had seen interesting sights.
It became obvious that I could not reconnoiter the center of the monument as a day hike as I had for three previous editions. During the last weekend in October, my son, Robin, came up from Phoenix to take me camping in Capulin Canyon. I had not seen Capulin since the Dome Fire and flood in 1996. Our camp upstream from the administrative cabin was not unpleasant.
The fire had thinned but not decimated the pine groves. There were now fine views of Capulin’s beautiful orange tuff cliffs. Alders growing beside the stream largely hid the piles of deadfall left behind by fire and flood.
The next day, we climbed out of Capulin Canyon to Yapashi Pueblo and hiked down the long mesa toward White Rock Canyon. Robin is 6 feet tall – and half of his height is long legs. He could not keep down with me, and soon was far ahead.
We had hiked this way since he was a teenager and we were both comfortable with it. I was, in essence, by myself on the mesa in the middle of the wilderness.
This is juniper-grassland with few piñons so we were spared miles of bleached piñon carcasses. Summer rains brought out grasses that often obscured the trail. No one had hiked here in a long time. On this wild, windswept mesa, it was almost like the Bandelier of old.
At the end of the mesa, we descended into lower Capulin Canyon and walked upstream to Painted Cave, with Robin once again far ahead.
The floods had deposited fields of rocks across the canyon floor where once had been a piñon-juniper forest. Now only a scraggly line of short cottonwoods grew beside the stream.
Grasses obscured the rocks; there was only the faintest trace of a trail and walking was difficult. Upstream from Painted Cave, there once had been lovely, lush ponderosa groves and a lively little stream too wide to hop across.
Now there were only a few spindly, stricken trees. Deadfall ponderosa trunks were strewn about like matchsticks. We could only hear the stream as it flowed under piles of deadfall. I am not usually sentimental about landscape changes that result from natural processes, but here I actually cried.
The hike is about 12 miles; as we hurried back to our camp, we were tired and daylight was fading fast. At the administrative cabin, we met a cheerful young man. He was a researcher studying streamside invertebrates and was quite satisfied with his findings of mayflies and caddis flies.
“Capulin Creek is healthy,” he said.
The lad’s comment reminded me of the profound changes Bandelier’s mesas have seen just in the 30 years since my first edition came out. Like a battered survivor, Bandelier’s wilderness will heal its wounds in its own good time.
I wrote my new manuscript as honestly as I could, trying not to minimize the effects of fire, flood and bark beetle infestation. I point out baby piñons sprouting under the skeletons of parent trees and note clematis vines growing profusely over fallen ponderosa trunks amid goldenrod and Indian paintbrush.
I describe plant successions following three catastrophic wildfires. I try to convey the life of pueblo people who called Bandelier their home between 1150 and 1550.
Archaeologist Rory Gauthier gave my interpretation of his research a pass. Yvonne and rangers at Bandelier gave helpful critiques of my draft, with Chris Judson a wonderfully formidable reviewer. Yvonne and rangers Sally King and Dale Coker are allowing the Historical Society use of their photos at no charge.
Publications Chair Sharon Snider found money for a full-color cover of Dale’s beautiful photo of a rainbow over Frijoles Canyon.
I hope people will find the new guide, due out later this year, a worthy book. Despite all its vicissitudes, Bandelier is still a magical place.