Hope Springs Eternal
It was one of those culture-shock moments where urban East meets rugged West. Several of my friends and my sister, all who had come from Brooklyn to Taos to attend my wedding, found themselves hiking a rocky trail down into the night-darkened depths of the gorge. My friend, Paul, a “regular” at the gorge, led the way, his headlamp cutting a lighted path through the blackness.
Our destination was the Stagecoach Hot Springs, a.k.a. Manby Hot Springs. (Wild West side-note: Arthur Manby, a wealthy and eccentric Englishman, moved to Taos in the late nineteenth century and became a notorious figure known for his dubious land acquisitions. On June 30, 1929, Mr. Manby secured his place, albeit several inches shorter, in colorful local lore when he was allegedly found beheaded in his mansion. And that, folks, is how you get hot springs named after you in the Wild West.)
When we finally arrive at the springs, the smaller of the two rock pools is occupied by a group of women, drinking champagne and signing each other. It doesn’t take long for us to realize that the women are deaf. As we ease into the warm still water of the larger pool, I feel like we are the beginning of a crude joke that will forever remain untold, echoing in the silence of the gorge. Four Italians, two Puerto Ricans, a black man and a group of deaf women were soaking one night in the Manby Hot Springs….
Jokes aside, what I vividly remember is the sense of awe and wonder, not to mention minor ripples of night terror that permeated our group, and what my friend Anthony had said: This is so surreal. I feel like I’m on another planet. Or that we’ve gone to the center of the earth. The Rio Grande river to our immediate right, sounding off white noise and hurricane whispers; a glaring white disc of a moon hanging above the peaks of the canyon walls; a star-freckled dome of a night sky—these are the things that I reflect upon, eight years later, when I find out that the Rio Grande del Norte has been designated a national monument.
Birth of an Icon
It all began about 30 million years ago, with what you might call a geological mash-up. Or to give it a mythical spin: The Clash of the Titans. That was when the ever-shifting North American and Pacific plates met, head-on, and out of the crash and friction was born a massive rift. Tensions resulted in the rise of mountains, volcanic eruptions and lava flows, and what had started as a trickle of a stream became what is now the fifth largest river in North America (nearly 2,000 miles in length). From a bird’s-eye perspective, the Rio Grande River is a vital liquid artery, beginning at the Colorado divide in the San Juan Mountains, snaking through New Mexico to the border of Texas and Chihuahua, Mexico, before flushing itself into the Gulf of Mexico. The area known as the Rio Grande Del Norte, roughly covering 242,000 acres in Taos and Rio Arriba counties, paradoxically blends timelessness with change, which fits in perfectly with the latest chapter in its living history.
On March 25, President Obama, using the Antiquities Act for the fifth time during his presidency, officially sanctioned the Rio Grande del Norte as a national monument. This designation means that the area will become part of America’s National Conservation Lands, presently comprised of 27 million acres of culturally, ecologically and scientifically important landscape, regarded as the crown jewels of the American west. The mission to preserve and safeguard the Rio Grande del Norte began as a grass roots campaign, with a diverse mix of people rallying for a singular cause. Government officials, Taos Pueblo tribal leaders, environmental groups, ranchers, veterans, sportsmen, grazing committees, and local businesses made their voices heard in helping to turn a Southwestern wonder into a national treasure. Stuart Wilde, who runs Wild Llama Adventures which leads hiking trips with low-impact llamas in the Rio Grande, said, “The real story is how a diverse rural community came together, across the cultural and political spectrum to protect a New Mexico icon, and in the process redefined conservation in the west.”
To encounter the sacred is to be alive at the deepest center of human existence. Sacred places are the truest definitions of the earth; they stand for the earth immediately and forever; they are its flags and shields. If you would know the earth for what it really is, learn it through its sacred places.
– N. Scott Momaday
The graceful circling of a bald eagle above a craggy canyon wall. The contemplation of an ancient geological formation. An adrenaline-pumping kayak run along a frothy river. Solitude and a steady hand, as you anticipate reeling in a rainbow or cutthroat trout. The Rio Grande del Norte provides both a window into the sacred and access to a world of recreational possibilities. Sixty-six miles of trout fishing heaven; the Taos Box, an eighteen-mile stretch of 900 cliffs; the Razorback, one of the most challenging kayak runs in New Mexico; Ute Mountain, a 10,093-foot dormant volcano located about ten miles west of Costilla.
Taos Pueblo War Chief Benito Sandoval said, “I applaud President Obama for protecting the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument because many of the wildlife species that live in that corridor come in and out of this area. Left unprotected, there may be very few animals available that the Native American people of Taos Pueblo depend on for food, clothing and shelter.”
Wildlife in the area includes pronghorn antelope, elk, deer, cougars, bighorn sheep and bobcats. Eagles, hawks and falcons make their nesting homes in the basalt walls of the gorge, and the Rio Grande Migratory Route, one of the great migratory routes in the world, is essential for different species of birds. Also, many local Hispanic families use the land to graze their cattle, as they have done for generations. Questa Mayor Esther Garcia said, “We are land grant heirs in New Mex-ico. Grazing is important. The fishing, the hunting, the herb gathering. Everything that has been traditional for my culture is very important to me.”
From the dollars and sense perspective, national monuments mean economic growth for the area in which they are set and the surrounding communities. Stuart Wilde said, “This designation will attract new visitors and increase tourism, which not only benefits local outfitters and guides, but also our lodging establishments, restaurants and local merchants, as tourism dollars are spent throughout the region.” It is estimated that the designation will increase the outdoor economy by 15 million dollars annually, and create close to 300 new jobs.
Opened last year, the Taos Mesa Brewery, located two miles east of the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, quickly became a high desert hot spot known for its craft beers, laid-back atmosphere and eclectic variety of concerts and performances. Their building, what could be dubbed Mad Max desert chic, is ready to embrace a new wave of visitors. Gary Feuerman, one of T.M.B.’s owners said, “The Rio Grande Gorge is our backyard, the power and majesty of which is one of the reasons we live here (T.M.B’s founders), and why we put our flag out here on the mesa. We’ve built our brewery and laid out our grounds to reflect and utilize the materials and contours of this land and area. Sexy Industrial Magic is what we call it, and we’ve used many reclaimed materials and set up systems to convert sun energy and harvest rainwater. We plan to be carbon neutral within three years.” As for the brew-celebratory side of things, Feuerman said, “We sent a couple of six-packs of T.M.B’s Rio Grande del Norte Pale Ale to President Obama. Here’s a toast to the President …hope he enjoyed our beer!”
At Day’s End
It is a golden-light, high- wind spring day. Down at the Manby Hot Springs, Paul and I recline against the moss-spongy interior of the rock pool. Two gentlemen soak opposite us, engaged in a conversation about their respective jobs. In the space between the two pools, a family is enjoying an early evening picnic. After awhile I climb out of the pool, scrabble along the rocky embankment, and turn on my digital recorder. A riot of gurgling, glupping and hissing, I want to capture the sounds of the river—just because.
An hour later, the family and the gentlemen having gone, Paul and I watch a blonde knockout of a sun disappear behind the western canyon walls, speckling its peaks rose and pink.
“This never gets old,” Paul says, smiling big.
The very definition of timeless, I think but don’t say, happy to let the river do all the talking.
John Biscello lives and writes in Taos. His books, Freeze Tag and Broken Land: A Brooklyn Tale, are available through Amazon.
This article appeared in High Country 2013.