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Tuesday, December 26, 2006
(12:53 PM) | Stephen:
La Tierra del Encanto

I'm sitting in Plateau Espresso, a coffeeshop in Alamogordo, NM. I've run a couple of Starbucks locations before, and make a habit of trying out as many coffeeshops as I can wherever I may go. This one is a Top Three Shop, maybe even tied for First Place with Cafe Trieste (the original location) in North Beach San Francisco. Which is saying a lot, because Cafe Trieste was the first coffeeshop on the West Coast - yes, before Seattle.

Anyway, Plateau Espresso is perched on the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, overlooking the whole Tularosa Basin. As I said, the Rockies are directly to the east, locally called the Sandias. They average about 10,000-13,000 feet. The Organ mountains, so named because of the plethora of sharp, narrow peaks that make the range resemble a pipe organ, are about 40 miles to the west. From here you can make out individual canyons and ravines. To the south are the Jefferson Mountains that bisect El Paso, TX, and further you can see mountains that are in Mexico, 100 miles or more away. The sky is one that shows the true source of the word cerulean, with wispy white clouds scattered about for texture.

Millions of years ago, the Tularosa Basin was in fact a plateau that stretched between what are now its bounding mountain ranges. Rather than the mountains rising up, the plateau sank - uniformly. There is no altitude change from the west edge to the east until the mountains begin. There are two upthrusts in the basin, one of which retains its volcanic cone, though it has been dormant for thousands of millenia.

Five minutes into a walk in the desert, any location or direction, and one can find fossilized shells and trilobite-ish creatures, showing how this area was once a sea. More recently, until the first couple of decades of the 20th century, it was a rich grassland, arid, but not a desert. The introduction of cattle and overgrazing changed this into a desert, with mesquite, yucca and prickly pear taking the place of the grass.

Dog Canyon lies about 15 miles to the south, reaching into the Sandias. It has a year-round stream that runs down it, disappearing into the earth at the canyon's mouth. Aside from a few, very limited, visitor areas, it is closed to the public. This was not always the case, however, and I spent many a day hiking this canyon, splashing in the stream, drinking the water that is still untouched by human pollution, seeing the waterfalls through the ferns and all the other elements of a riparian environment that is still so foreign and wonderful to me.

Dog Canyon was used by the Apaches to stage their raids upon the encroaching Europeans, first the Spanish, then the Americans. So long as they were able to make it to the canyon, the Apaches were never caught or beaten. Unfortunately, the American Cavalry in this area finally got a commander who understood that and was able to finally subdue the great Apaches.

There is a wideness, a grandeur to New Mexico that is pretty much lost anywhere else. The great landscapes of Montana and California have been tamed, even Arizona's Sonoran landscape has been bent to the will of humanity. But in New Mexico, roads are still scarce. Cities 60 miles away are considered close. It is possible to hear no human sound other than your own. The sky stretches forever, and the land still bears the scars of its violent geological development - the slopes of the Sandias and Organs look freshly scraped by the collapse of the Tularosa Basin, the land to the north is still covered by black, nearly-plantless lava, twisting and turning, forever locked into the grotesque convulsions it was performing when it suddenly cooled so long ago.

This is where I was born, where I spent 19 years, and where I have only returned to visit since. I have lived in Coastal California, the Midwest and South Korea since then. But I'm still a desert rat, still amazed at the sight of a lake or river. I like to think that growing up here helped me to appreciate beauty wherever and in whatever form it can be found.

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