Ruth Rudner
Ruth Rudner

David Muench's National Parks


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The Organ Mountains rise as a serrated ridge thrusting against the desert sky east of Las Cruces, New Mexico. Their sheer drama draws my eyes every time we pass by on our way to or from Big Bend. Unaware they were named for their resemblance to church organ pipes, and finding their name embarrassing, I avoided discussing the Organs with anyone. So, until a couple of weeks ago, I had never been there.

But when New Mexico’s Senators Heinrich and Udall introduced a bill to designate an Organ Mountains/Desert Peaks National Monument last November, they took on a different aspect. In mid-March, with an article about them due at the end of the month, we went to explore.

David had photos from earlier trips, so this trip was for me. Arriving at the BLM’s A.B. Cox Visitor Center on the west side of the mountains in mid-afternoon, we were too late to do much of a hike. Both the visitor center and the road close at 5:00, a ridiculous time if one wants to photograph, or to hike in the cool of the late afternoon. As we exited the car, two hikers appeared in the parking lot, their hike finished. I asked where they’d gone.

“Up to Dripping Springs,” one of them answered, “then over to La Cueva. It was about six miles.”

We walked partway up the trail toward Dripping Springs as a high school group from Isleta Pueblo returned from a day’s outing. Most of the kids practically skipped along. But one boy, who didn’t look out of shape, was supported by two friends. Suddenly, he simply lay down on the path. “Just leave me here to die,” he said.

The path, really a gravel road that allows jeeps to travel to the trail’s end to pick up garbage, check on whatever requires checking on, is not a difficult one. A gradual climb, it would be a rather boring walk if the mountains to the east, the hills to the west, the grassland over which the road lies were not so beautiful. Every so often a large old tree with a few boulders in front of it forms a cleared, shady space to rest, making the trail appropriate for any walker. Because it takes off from the visitor center, all sorts of people use it. When we walked the entire route two days later, we encountered several people carrying babies in their arms, or pushing them in strollers.

I thought leaving the boy there to die might inspire him to actually stand up and follow his friends down, but they took him seriously, and did what they could to help. Years ago, hiking in Austria, I came upon an old couple out for a Sunday walk on a relatively steep trail. “My husband can go no further,” the woman said. I asked if there was something I could do, but they said they would simply rest. The man was old. The trail was steep. They would turn around and go back down. The man would not die.

I imagined the dripping spring issuing out of damp rock at the dark, shaded end of a canyon. I imagined an eternal dripping down rock to end in some perfect pool, a cool, refreshing oasis worth the walk up the path/road.

Indeed, the spring does issue out of the dark, chocolate colored tufa that forms this end of the range. Or, once did. Now it comes from an old faucet inserted into a wall erected to impound water for the use of the hotel built nearby in the 1870s. There were trees there, and shade, and a welcome cool after the hot openness of the path. But it was not a place to linger. I am not fascinated by faucets.

A trail slightly south of the dam leads a short distance farther to the site of the old hotel, Van Patten’s Mountain Camp. Rich Las Cruces residents traveled by stagecoach or private carriage or horseback to reach this idyllic hotel about 2000 feet above the desert hot town. Now, empty windows and doorways frame grass and shrubs in rooms once housing women in long dresses, men in proper evening clothes. A flowering fruit tree joins the ruins to the mountains, as if all beauty is connected. Two tables set up under oaks at the canyon’s edge, a short way from the ruins, offered us a cool place for lunch, and a way of getting over our annoyance at the springs.

It isn’t signs of civilization I find dismaying – because I am fascinated by ruins -- but the rearrangement of natural features. Once, in Oaxaca, a previous husband and I rented a defunct old mill for the summer. The bougainvillea draped stone building had been built over the stream, allowing the stream to continue its natural flow. Open windows brought inside a constant sound of running water.

Backtracking down the gravel path, past the livery buildings that served the hotel, we forked away from the return to the visitor center, walking, instead, up into a desert world of cat’s claw and sotol extending to the base of the mountains.

From here it is easy to see the split in the range into two distinct geology features – the dark brown tufa forming the mountains to the south – the canyon of the hotel and Dripping Spring – and the white granite of the spired mountains making so dramatic a skyline in the middle of the Chihuahuan Desert. Our trail narrowed, became rockier as it wound its way between the Organ Mts. and La Cueva Rocks, the 5000 ft. plus rhyolitic outcropping that seems a kind of echo of the mountains on this – west—side. A broad, grassy slope runs from the outcropping to the path, while the vegetation changes to desert trees and flowers not yet in bloom. Rounding La Cueva Rocks at its northern end, we walked back along it, arriving at a large cave used by people of the prehistoric Mogollon culture, and then, again, in the 1860s, by a hermit-healer. We continued down rocks, crossed a small stream, then paralleled the road back to the visitor center.

Once we were off the Dripping Springs route, there was no one else on the trail. I liked the day better then. But I already liked it better when I arrived at the ruins of the hotel. I liked the old west feel of the livery station. I liked the place, the rock, the grass. I liked the hermit , the clouds forming all day in the sky beyond the Rio Grande, the memory of the ruined hotel, the memory of what was, the emptiness of time, the sound that becomes silence.

I like the solitude of places people have left forever. I like the impermanence of what we build. I like the grass growing in abandoned spaces.

Copyright © 2014 Ruth Rudner