September 2, 2014

Valle de Oro to Rio Grande Headwaters: Chasing the Watershed/Making Fire

Amanda Stuart

After spending a cracking first seminar week at the UNM with the amazing staff and students of Land Arts, I felt like I was beginning to find my mojo in a strangely familiar land - even despite a soul stripping surreal encounter with ‘Walmart’. For those readers uninitiated, this is a chain of retail stores across America where anything can be obtained at any hour for the rabid, insomniac consumer – from perishables, clothing, hardware and sporting goods to an ominously accessible range of semi-automatics, rifles and ammunition.


First thing Monday morning our 2 buses were packed with militant but joyful efficiency under the guidance of Jen, Ryan and Bill, with all students rolling up their sleeves and eager to learn the ancient art of mobile Zen storage. Necessary items carried for our intrepid team of 11 included, food, water, tents, a highly functional camp kitchen, solar panels, a tech station, cameras, recording equipment, a library, tools and of course, the crucial camp guitars.

(photo courtesy of Jeanette Hart-Mann (JHM))

Our first destination, Valle de Oro is a reclaimed dairy farm on the lower Rio Grande, a mere 25 mins from the UNM. It will be revisited during trip two, to give artistic input towards the visioning of the nature reserve it will one day become. Here the camp is set up with a stunning view to the north of San Dias mountain, which cradles the city of Albuquerque. We are given an introduction to thinking systematically by permaculture aficionado Joel Glanzberg. Despite a strongly contested landscape, these few days lay the interior foundation for our field trip psyche and include such diverse elements as morning tai chi sessions, dream circles, ecological ponderings, animal tracking exercises and learning to make fire – from scratch.
And yes, this little black mamba has been initiated into the realm of ‘twisted fire starters’.

(photos courtesy of JHM)

After breaking camp we head through the ‘badlands’ (reminiscent of settings seen in Breaking Bad) and begin to trace the Rio Grande, chasing its mighty wild headwaters towards Creede, Colorado – a 9-hour drive north. This is a breathtaking trajectory through the southern end of the Rockies, the great divide that runs north to Canada. Verdant marshlands and grasslands weave through this massive mountain range, and our spirits soar as we enter our remote new home for 5 days.


With a spectacular campsite bagged, we explore, document, traverse and imbibe the wilds of this gorgeous, remote site…soaking in its magic to the marrow. A cook team roster provides daily sustenance, and the standard is consistently gastronomically outstanding. As the designated ‘floater’ between teams, I provide the gourmet salad (including the popular HQ coconut /lime dressing) and buffoonery input. This gives me ample opportunity to get insider knowledge on recipes and more importantly get to know the crew from its most sacred digestive sources, and I am well blessed in this knowing. This crew are diverse, vibrant, enthusiastic, talented and generous of heart.


The meals are prepared lovingly and the sharing of them is rapidly becoming a cherished ritual, and one where highly entertaining discussions are enjoyed. The addition of a sparkling river, fire, incomprehensibly radiant stars and live music (including an impromptu injection of AC/DC c/- moi) at the headwaters has been embraced by all, and I personally foresee a Land Arts Band brewing on the near horizon.

The crew works both individually and collaboratively in a variety of mediums and approaches. A memorable lunch was shared at 11,050 feet during a spectacular days hike at Pole Creek. This mountain catchment supports a diverse range of deciduous trees including the aspen and sweet scented ponderosa pine – the latter of which is in serious decline due to an invasive beetle.


Other highlights include trying to find navigate northern hemisphere stars (with a late night faction reporting an asteroid shower), early morning cowboy coffee (a time-honoured tradition that requires a spittoon); a daily soak in a spectacular icy plunge-pool and a group hike to a sparkling waterfall (after which Jen found an impressive pair of moose antlers minus the moose).


I have personally reveled at the opportunity to finally land in the southwest, and explore this strangely familiar but foreign country, first hand.

Aspen stand.

Green powder from the aspen trunk.

Scarification from itchy elk and moose antlers.

View from my tent.

Beaver dam near campsite.


Since landing in the southwest my animal inventory has expanded from chipmunks, squirrels, mule deer, harriers, prairie dogs and vultures to include pikers, white tailed deer, and garter snakes as well as a myriad of unidentified birds and insects. But the crowning glory so far was a solo predawn encounter with 2 beavers at work on their formidable dam (reminiscent of massive platypus in their aquatic movements) and an elusive, but monumental moose, sans antlers.

Driftwood antlers for the moose with none.



I marvel at the scale and magnitude of this high country, can’t help but to reflect upon its geological sharp and youthful topography, in the light of the ancient eroded forms of my homeland.

Next stop chasing the Rio Grande, the ancient Pueblo ruin of Chaco Canyon…via a pit stop at the contemporary temple of Walmart.

Much love to my family and friends, who slumber as I write. ‘Til soon XXX

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