Away from the Grind

El Morro National Monument

by Roger Ludwig

First trivia question:  “What is the nation’s first national monument?”  You’ve got it.  Devils Tower.  A matter of Wyoming pride, it adorns our license plates.  President Teddy Roosevelt made that declaration on September 24, 1906.

So what is the nation’s second national monument?   Tough one, isn’t it?

Hint:  Also a big rock, but sandstone.  And in a Western state.  It is a 3-in-1 monument with three charms, all on the one great rock.

Answer?  El Morro.  In New Mexico, it’s not far off the beaten I-40 path west of Albuquerque on scenic State Highway 53, “The Ancient Way.”

Roosevelt declared this monument just 49 days after Devils Tower.  New Mexico nearly beat us.  I think you’ll find El Morro–“The Headland”– well worth a visit.  By the way, Roosevelt declared three national monuments that day, December 8, 1906, a record.   The others are Montezuma Castle and Petrified Forest (now a national park), both in Arizona.

The first of the three attractions is the rock itself.

Towering stone walls jut from the sage and pinyon prairie, glowing a pale gold, weathered and streaked.   It’s a proud promontory, the abrupt end of a mesa that rises gently and then comes to this dramatic statement.  A short walk along its base lifts our eyes up to the rim’s bright edge where golden rock meets New Mexico’s famed blue sky.  The awe that we seek in our national parks and monuments just begins.

This arid rock brings surprises.  A box canyon proudly sprouting tall pines hides within.  And most important for what is to come, a perennial pool.  Cool, clear water, rimmed with grasses and cattails, sheltered in the shade of the great walls.

The second attraction is the sign board.

The pool has long drawn travelers needing water and rest.  Finding the rock soft, travelers did what they do, inscribing their names and dates on the walls.  But these aren’t just any who’s who.  There are petroglyphs of ancient puebloans, carved animals and clan signs.

Next are the flowing cursive scripts of Spanish of conquistadors, governors and priests marking their passage over a span of 250 years.  The first dates from April 16, 1605.  The famous Don Juan de Oñate was here 15 years before the pilgrims made it to Plymouth Rock. 

The US army rode up in 1849.  An artist with the army engineers was so taken with what was inscribed already he spent two days copying onto paper the Spanish and Indian carvings.  And added his own engraving.  Over the next fifty years cavalry, California emigrants, Mormons, railroad surveyors and an experimental camel caravan added to the fascinating graffiti.

It was to preserve these old inscriptions that the monument was established, preventing any further scribbling long before Kilroy could come or gangs could add their tags.

The third draw is up on top.

For 125 years people lived on El Morro’s summit.  A lot of them.  The mesa top holds the ruins of Atsinna, an 875 room pueblo that dates from 1275 to 1400 AD.

Partially excavated and stabilized, walking paths takes you to dreams of a life here with the ancestors of today’s Zunis.  Beautiful and commanding views extend for miles.  Crops grow on the plains.  Hunters return with deer and antelope.  Turkeys, raised for food and feathers, run from chasing children.

In the neighborhood….

When you go you’ll find other areas of interest nearby.  There is El Malpais—“the badlands”–another national monument.  It is an ancient flow of black lava, difficult to walk on.  But if you are adventurous and well prepared with sturdy boots and ample lights there are lava tubes to enter and explore.

The Ice Cave and Bandera Volcano is a privately owned part of the lava field that offers a clean and safe entrance to a lava tube and the ice formations that glow with reflected light.

The Pueblo of Zuni is worth a visit, especially if you are interested in Native American art, pottery and jewelry.  The staff at the visitor center can direct you to the 1600’s mission, walking tours of the town and artisan workshops.

Our favorite stop though is for the food at The Ancient Way Café.  About a mile east of El Morro on Route 53, the café is a funky mix of hippie ambiance, biker diner and neighborhood gathering place.  The food and baked goods are to die for.   And if you’re lucky enough to come through on a Friday or Saturday evening there will only be one thing on the menu.   And it will be terrific.   Look them up at www.elmorro-nm.com.

New Mexico vs Wyoming National Monuments

While our great state beat New Mexico for the first monument, New Mexico now beats us by far in number.  They have 14.   We have 2, Devils Tower and Fossil Butte.  Do they really have more interesting geography and history?

I don’t think so.   New Mexican community groups organize and lobby for the declaration of monuments, including two of the most recent, Rio Grande Del Norte north of Taos and the Organ Mountains–Desert Peaks near Los Cruces.   Why?  They know that monuments increase tourism, diversifying the economy.

Contrariwise our dear state is the only state that has a federal law prohibiting the declaration of monuments by the president.  Unless he gets congressional consent.  That can be a tall order.  The law has been in effect since 1950 as a state stipulation to allow the expansion of Grand Teton National Park.

Perhaps some of our treasured places would benefit from national monument protections, such as Adobe Town, Honeycomb Buttes, the Boars Tusk and Killpecker Dunes, the Medicine Wheel and Bucking Mule Falls.  Nearby communities would certainly gain more tourist dollars.

Many new national monuments are administered by the BLM or Forest Service rather than the Park Service, with a more basic and lean infrastructure on the ground.   Yet the visiting experience is superb.

As a conservationist, I love the remote seclusion and even secrecy of our state’s treasures.  But without protection we may lose them and the revenue they could generate forever to temporary oil and gas developments and to the careless vandalism of reckless visitors.

If you go….

El Morro is 43 miles southwest of Grants, New Mexico.  Leave I-40 to journey west on Route 53 .   On the way you’ll pass El Malpais, the Ice Cave and Bandera Volcano and, just two miles before El Morro, The Ancient Way Café.   Continuing past El Morro is the town of Ramah with a few more shops and eateries and then on to Zuni Pueblo, 34 miles from the monument.   For more info on El Morro, http://www.nps.gov/elmo.  El Malpais, http://www.nps.gov/elma.  The Ice Cave, http://www.icecaves.com.  Zuni Pueblo, http://www.zunitourism.com.

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