This week’s Lens-Artists Photo Challenge invites us to capture history…
Think about the person in your life you would call your rock. And now, think about what you mean when you say that. That person is solid, constant, and an unending source of strength, right? My husband is my rock. Loyal, unconditional confidante, encouraging when I feel uncertain, and my constant companion in both travels and life. And as I saw him, standing among the hoodoos of Tent Rocks National Monument, I thought he looked every bit as monumental and amazing as the columns of stone we were there to see. Because we have a history. And when I look at him, just like when I look at the formations at Tent Rocks, it’s the years that went into making that rock and the processes that have formed character that fill me with awe.
Have you ever considered our fascination with rock formations? Michael Glass at Backpacker Travel has complied a list of 101 Incredible Rock Formations Around the World. 101 amazing, inconceivable spectacles of stone from about as many countries. And it doesn’t come close to an exhaustive list. Tent Rocks isn’t on it, for one. I once bicycled across an entire island (uphill both ways) to see a rock arch. And it’s not on the list. And when you scroll down to the comments of Michael’s post, people point out local omissions or favorite sites like parents whose kids weren’t picked for the all-star team.
What I’m saying is that we have a passion for rocks. The weirder and bigger and ganglier and more seemingly impossible the better. These formations amaze us with gargantuan size, or gravity-defying stunts, or by simply taking on shapes normally reserved for man-made designs, like arches or bridges, or in the case of Tent Rocks, perfectly sculpted cones. And this is the main appeal of rock formations, wouldn’t you say? Wondering how in the heck Nature managed to accomplish the sort-of eye-popping feats of architecture and art that we sometimes think only a thinking creature like a human could achieve. And at the same time marveling at the sheer amount of time these things take to create and shaking our heads at the fortuitous confluence of space and movement and weather and erosion necessary to make that exact shape happen.
Plus they inspire quirky conversations:
Me: They look like a box of crayons. Those jumbo ones you use in kindergarten.
Dennis: They look like a classroom of dunces.
Dennis: Can you believe they actually made kids sit in the corner with dunce caps on? That was probably pretty great for the ol’ self-esteem.
The formation of Tent Rocks, also known as Hoodoos, was (and still is) an amazing process. The basic make-up of the monument exploded onto the scene around 7 million years ago, when the eruptions of volcanos within the Jemez Mountains left layers of volcanic rock in the wake of lava flows. These softer layers of stone were then thinly covered with a harder stone shell. Two simultaneous forces of weathering take advantage of this soft/hard combination. Cycles of freezing and thawing crack and debride the harder outer shell, leaving the softer stone underneath exposed to the erosive forces of acidic rain, which then slowly dissolves the stone and washes away the debris. These two forces sculpt away for years on end, like Michelangelo chipping and dusting at a block of marble. Eventually, tent rocks form a cap where the harder stone remains that protects the softer stone underneath.
Tent Rocks is less than an hour’s drive southwest of Santa Fe, New Mexico. But like with most big towns here, there seems to be a magic portal you enter, when you cross the city limits line, that transports you to the vast, open roads that characterize this state and that lead you through miles of pastureland dotted with shrubs and sage and perpetually surrounded by mesas and mountains of exposed, crumbling rock. In this area of the country, it’s not uncommon to see magnificent rock formations every few miles. Giant boulders balanced precariously one atop the other, old stones weathered to look like the Great Sphinx, arches that offer framed views of distant white-capped mountains. But Tent Rocks is a whole different world. How I imagine Mars might seem. If it were white instead of red. The name for Tent Rocks in the Karesan language of the people native to the area is Kasha-Katuwe, meaning “white cliffs”.
The rows of Port-O-Lets at the trailhead told me two things: (1) I was going to spend some time here. (2) This place is deemed too special to mar with human conveniences. And as I hit the head before taking to the trail, it did feel oddly similar to washing your hands or removing your shoes to prepare yourself to enter a sacred space. Along the trail, I stood toe-to-toe with hoodoos and felt perspective flood me as I was being dwarfed. I squeezed through the narrow passages, pressed my hands against the cold, ribboned walls, and tried to gain the wisdom of history through osmosis. I took shelter in the shade of a hollowed cave and heard the echoes of the past swirl around me and dance with my own. And I climbed to the top of the mesa, with ever-changing views of scale, and looked out over the surrounding mountains to see what the life of a tent rock looked like before it was truly conceived. And I realized this place is a shrine. A place devoted to the history of change.
And then I thought about the strange juxtaposition of these two thoughts – feeling in awe of the constancy of rock while admiring the potency of change. These two thoughts washed over me like the simultaneous forces of erosion that made Tent Rocks in the first place. And I saw our lives reflected quite brilliantly again in the metaphors of Nature.
Because we are hoodoos. We stand as monuments to the erosive forces we have weathered. And these weathering events shape us and give us character. We rely on stronger stone – our rocks – to help us weather storms and help us stay constant during change. Our histories show in our most vulnerable layers. Our new stories chip away at our surfaces and leave their mark.
As I write this, the Bureau of Land Management site for Tent Rocks has posted a notice declaring the Canyon Trail temporarily impassible due to heavy snowfall and “unsafe hiking conditions”. “Freeze and thaw in this area can lead to falling rocks and unstable hiking tread.” the site reads. As you read this, Tent Rocks is changing. And over time, their hard stone caps will become cracked and compromised and will fall away. The more vulnerable cone columns underneath will then succumb quickly to the elements and soon disappear.
Tent Rocks won’t last forever. Neither will we.
How would you capture history? For information on how to participate, go here.
Thank you for reading! I appreciate your time.