The recent National Wilderness Conference in Albuquerque marked an important milestone for the Wilderness Act: it’s been fifty years since this radical idea placed certain areas of the U.S. into a novel management category. To celebrate, Orion helped sponsor the conference, and I made the trip west to be there alongside magazine contributors and friends Terry Tempest Williams and Basia Irland.
But after days of coffee-fueled discussion about the national wildernesses’ status, health, and future, I needed to actually see something wild—and so I drove Highway 25 out of town and charted a course to the Valles Caldera.
To get a sense of the size and significance of the Valles Caldera, a massive geological feature about seventy-five miles north of Albuquerque, imagine a volcanic eruption a million years ago in what is now northern New Mexico. Now picture that that eruption ejected five hundred times the material that Mt. St. Helens did in 1980, leaving a crater visible from space in the heart of the Jemez Mountains.
From a perch of 10,000-plus feet at the crater’s southern rim, I tried to imagine a power that could create a caldera thirteen miles in diameter. I could not. Instead, I munched an apple as a huge flock of bluebirds chatted in the fire-killed trees around me. I fell deep into thought, abetted by a great silence unlike I’d experienced in days, weeks—the occasional hiss of wind through branches and the conversational chirps of the tiny blue dinosaurs were the only sounds. It was perfect.
Following a fantastic planetary bloodletting, the super volcano collapsed and Valles Caldera began, eventually, to sprout new life. Now its smooth bottom is home to tens of thousands of acres of forage favored by cows and their keepers and, on this day, at least two large herds of elk, the latter so distant out in the golden grass that it took me long minutes with my 10x binoculars to verify their identity. Also out there (and behind and below me, no doubt) were cougar and black bear skulking and scheming toward their next meal.
The cougar and black bear are recent and welcome residents of the Valles after one-hundred-plus years of exclusion by ranchers who ran livestock in the verdant bowl. Today, the Valles Caldera National Preserve welcomes human visitors, too, who until this year could only gaze upon its vastness from behind many miles of fence. A visitor center and trail network have been established alongside the ranching operations, creating a kind of mixed-use landscape.
With a thunderhead bearing down on my position from its birthplace over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains (they tower over Santa Fe to the south and east), I reluctantly began the climb down to the rapidly senescing aspen groves below. Most of the trunks were tattooed by generations of elk biting off chunks of bark in order to gain its analgesic qualities—an effort to ease the pain of rapidly growing antlers. No fresh chomps were obvious when I looked, but then an enormous pellet-pile of elk scat appeared around a bend in the trail, easily as large as the combined production of five white-tailed deer back home in Massachusetts, and nearly as tall as my hiking shoes.
Erik Hoffner is Orion’s outreach coordinator.