Moonshadows in the City of Rocks, New Mexico

Moonshadows in the City of Rocks, New Mexico

I stood on an exposed piece of solid bedrock and tried to calm my frenetic heart. It was night and all around me the moonlit landscape looked like it was tinged with an ethereal frost. I was miles away from the nearest person. If I were to cry out, there would be no one to hear me. Kat, Melo and Pix were far away, snug and secure in our camper and I was out in the middle of a desert in New Mexico. Except for the long shadows of the monolithic rocks before me, I was all alone. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a movement and I held my breath. I knew it would be foolish to run and I was here to confront my fears. So I stood on my small piece of rock and surrendered to the night.

Our journey so far has been a journey of days. We rise in the mornings, make our breakfast, take our walk and, if it’s a travelling day, travel to the next campground where we take another walk, make dinner, and hang out in our truck camper until the next morning. When we arrived at City of Rocks State Park in New Mexico, something changed. Although the desert landscape and islands of stones that make up the City of Rocks were fascinating in the daytime, when the moon rose over the distant hills and transformed the pale reds, yellows and sages of the day into a realm of dark shadows and silvery light, I felt the pull of another world.

 

The ethereal City of Rocks

 

I first became aware of the moonlit landscape on our second evening when I took Melo and Pix out around eleven. The entire earth was lit up by the almost full moon. I looked at the towering rocks with their maze of passages and was tempted to go wandering between them, with nothing to illuminate my path but moonlight, the way the early people did hundreds of years ago before the invention of LED flashlights or kerosene lanterns. I went back into the camper and said to Kat, “We should take a walk in the moonlight.”

“Are you serious?” Kat asked.

We both thought back to a time, many years ago, when our daughter Nora was still not even a year old and I also saw a beautiful moon that called to me. We were living in Squamish and I saw the moonlight coming in through our living room window.

“Let’s take Nora for a midnight walk in the moonlight,” I said to Kat.

“Are you serious?”

“Sure. We could walk on the dike beside the river. It will be magical in the moonlight.”

Surprisingly, Kat agreed. We put on our warm coats, bundled up Nora and, cradling her in my arms, quietly made our way through the mobile home park where we lived down to the river. The moon was beautiful and the air sparkled with frosty enchantment.

When we got to the river, on impulse I decided I was going to baptize Nora in the clear mountain stream. Again, Kat didn’t protest and probably thought it quite normal, even if I wasn’t a priest and even if the baptism wouldn’t be recognized by any church other than the church of Nature.

When I bent to the stream, I took a handful of the cold water, dribbled it onto Nora’s forehead, and held her up into the moonlight.

“This is my child,” I said aloud. “Bless her, and forever bond her soul to the spirit of the water, the sun, the earth, the moon, the trees, the stars, the earth.”

I looked down at my daughter expecting to see wonder in her eyes, perhaps a smile on her small lips as her soul embraced the magic of the night. She looked up at me, her face glowing in the moonlight. And then she began to cry.

“I think we should go back now,” Kat suggested, with more than a hint of impatience and sternness in her voice.

We hurried back to the trailer home park where we lived. By the time we arrived at the perimeter of the park, Nora’s cry had become a horrible screech, surprising me at just how loud a baby’s cry can be, especially in the middle of the night while everyone else is asleep. I raced between the shadowy homes, Nora clutched tightly to my chest and Kat a few steps behind while we saw lights in windows snap on one by one. I didn’t want to be confronted by an angry neighbour wondering who was abducting babies in the middle of the night, so I ran even faster and, the faster I ran, the louder Nora wailed. After we got back home, Kat gave me a look I will never forget.

 

The moon rises behind Table Mountain. We watched this from our dinette window. A million dollar view for ten dollars a night.

 

She gave me that look again when I suggested a nighttime hike in the desert at City of Rocks State Park in New Mexico. “What about the coyotes?” We had seen them twice now during our stay at City of Rocks. At least I thought they were coyotes. Maybe they were jackrabbits. Regardless, we certainly wouldn’t be able to let Melo & Pix off their leashes while walking through the desert at night and the thought of dragging two terrified terriers in the dark would probably taint the ambience I was hoping to experience. So we gave up on the idea.

That night, as we fell asleep, I thought that maybe it was a squandered opportunity for some spiritual communion with the shyer spirits of the land. I awoke just after two in the morning, the stark white moonlight streaming through our skylight. I couldn’t sleep and lay in bed trying to meditate. But when I finally fell asleep an hour or so later, I had terrible dreams where the faint traces of peace I had felt were swiftly whisked away. The next morning I awoke knowing what I had to do.

 

I’m being followed by a moon shadow,
moon shadow,
moon shadow.

Cat Stevens

 

During the day, when the sun is burning brightly and the desert is the colour of copper, sage, and white gold, the City of Rocks is a stunning place. One of the park brochures told us the rocks are made up of volcanic ash that, over the years, has been eroded by the sun and wind. As we wound through the few acres of rocks, it seems more like the towering stones were erected by some giants from another world long ago. They loomed around us as tall as trees. Some of them have rocks on top that look like heads. As we walked, I saw one set of rocks that looks like an bent old Indian woman, perhaps pondering the loss of a way of life. Another looked a bit like George Washington. And another looked like an angry Bart Simpson and his gang of thugs. I saw gigantic thrones that may once have held pools of water. Some of the stones looked like animals: a lion, a dragon, a baboon, a bunny rabbit.

 

 

As we wound through the rocks, we quickly noticed there was no straight path. “This place is amazing,” I said to Kat. “A maze with a lot of zing,” I quickly added, perhaps sounding like the dad in Modern Family. Kat didn’t respond. Although at first it seemed easy to find a path between the stones, we soon realized it was also easy to become disoriented. We quickly noted a few landmarks near where we were camped including a dead tree and a towering rock with a round stone on top resembling the letter “i”.

One of the handouts at the park office shows a map of the various hieroglyphics scattered throughout the park. We hiked around and spotted them. Two of them were hidden in very remote locations. I had to climb a tree to take a picture of one of them.  These were depictions of someone who looked to be playing a flute. The brochure said they were of Kokopelli, “the God of harvest and fertility.”

Sadly, some fellow tourists wanted to leave their own marks in the City of Rocks as well and tagged a few of the stones. I recorded their locations on my GPS and reported them to the park office. I now understand why, in sacred places like Seminole Canyon or Heuco Tanks in Texas, visitors are restricted. We are a race of destroyers just as much as we are a race of creators.

 

 

On our third day at City of Stones, we hiked the three miles or so from our campsite, where we were nestled between the giant stones, to the top of the mesa known as Table Mountain, aptly named because of its flat top. The view of the surrounding valley was heart-stoppingly beautiful. Kat packed us a lunch and we found a spot between the rocks where it wasn’t windy to stop and eat. From the top of Table Mountain, City of Rocks looked like a cluster of Easter Island monoliths.

“Who needs Stonehenge,” I said to Kat.

“Don’t forget that Stonehenge was made by man, which is what makes it special.”

“True. But City of Rocks was made by a greater hand, which is even more special.”

 

 

That evening, just after dinner, and just after the full moon rose over Table Mountain, I took out my trusty Lee Valley rake handle walking stick, stuck my biggest, brightest LED flashlight into my coat pocket (along with a smaller “emergency” flashlight in my pants pocket because, well, we’ve all seen those movies where the flashlight gives out just as the monster is about to leap from the shadows), and stepped out into the silvery night. I said my goodbyes to Kat, Melo and Pix and made my way to the trail we had walked two days previously, the trail that wound deep into the desert and circled around the island of rocks that made up the City of Rocks about a mile or so out. I was determined not to turn on my flashlight. I did turn it on once when I stopped to use the outhouse to relieve myself of the Corona I drank with the delicious veggie taco bowl Kat made for dinner, but after that the flashlight (and emergency flashlight) would remain off.

It turns out the flashlight was unnecessary. There was a slight haze in the sky but otherwise, it was a bright clear night. The moon lit up the haze like angel hair on a Christmas tree and my world was illuminated.

 

Walk loudly and carry a big stick.

 

As I first strode out onto the two or three mile trail, I made sure my Solomon trail runners crunched heavily on the gravel to deter any coyotes, wolves, cougars, bears, and werewolves (recently transformed by the full moon, of course) lurking in the shadows. Well, maybe there were only coyotes, but don’t they hunt in packs? I thought as I gripped my walking stick tighter. The moon shone so brightly that my transition glasses darkened slightly. At first I dropped the brim of my hat lower to shield my eyes from the moon’s glare. But I quickly raised it again to give my full face to the white light. I didn’t want to shut out the moon, my birth sign, on this rare evening that felt like a gift from heaven. Eventually the trail curved until the moon was soon at my back and I walked with my own moon shadow leading the way. Ahead of me, Venus glowed almost as brightly as the moon and I thought of how we all share the same light.

Although I’m reluctant to admit it, I was afraid when I first set out. Kat said she wished I wouldn’t go and I almost didn’t. The night seemed a bit chilly at first — 10° C, whatever that works out to in ° F — and I was a stranger in a strange land with a very active imagination who would jump at every shadow — and there were a lot of shadows. I looked at my own shadow before me and it was gangly and elongated. It made me think of Ichabod Crane in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. With every second step, I thumped the rubber end of my walking stick hard into the ground and was rewarded with a loud thunk that I hoped would resound deep into the desert letting all the creatures of the night know that I was armed with a big stick.

For the first half hour or so I forced myself to generate feelings of love to try and dissipate my fears. It wasn’t very easy to do when every yucca plant looked like a crouched Apache or Comanche ready to jump out and shoot me full of arrows. As I passed one of the yucca plants as tall as me, I saw three or four tall stalks silhouetted against the sky. They looked like antenna and I wondered if maybe the yuccas were really aliens In disguise. While looking at a map of New Mexico a few days ago, I remembered that Roswell was also in southern New Mexico.

 

Aliens disguised as yuccas.

 

A jackrabbit leaped across the trail before me, its white tail glowing like a cheerleader’s pom pom in the moonlight. My heart jumped and I stopped in my tracks, thumping my walking stick briskly three times the way Gandalf did in the movie version of The Lord of the Rings. Well, maybe he only thumped his staff once, but then I’m not Gandalf and I needed much more thumping power.

“Thou shalt not pass,” I murmured as the startled bunny scurried away and hid beneath some creosote bushes.

Ashamed of my city-bred fears, I decided I finally had enough. When the trail crossed a dry stream bed, I came to an exposed piece of bedrock as wide as my arms could reach. I sensed that this was a spot a thousand animals and human travellers for millennia before me may have walked upon or even stopped. I stood in the centre of the rock bleached clean by a million years of sun, wind and rain, and turned to the moon.

“Okay,” I said aloud to the Moon, the Universe, God, Jesus, the Angels, the Great Spirit, Kokopelli, Obi Wan Kenobi, and whoever else was listening to me. “I give up. I surrender to my fate. Whatever will come, will come, and I will accept it as a gift.” I then closed my eyes and submitted to whatever was going to happen.

Of course, nothing happened. I stood there, with my eyes closed, barely breathing, and only heard the whisper of the wind sweeping across the dried grasses and the rocky ground. Occasionally I heard a rustle that may have been made by some animal. But no Indians tossed tomahawks at me. I was not assaulted by a pack of hungry coyotes. The yuccas didn’t abduct me (at least, not that I can remember). All the scary creatures of the night left me alone.

And so did my fears. Dissolved. Dissipated. Defused. I was now fully able to enjoy the enchantment the nighttime hike was offering me. I felt excited, filled with a sense of wonder, and grateful for being alive. I raised my arms in thanks to the Universe and continued on my journey through the astral landscape.

The night was so bright I didn’t take my flashlight out even once, not even when I stopped again to pee. I didn’t want to break the sacred mood that had blosomed within me. Whereas the land of the day is exposed and laid bare by the bright sun, at night, during the rule of the moon, the land is full of silvery enchantment. I was so inspired, I took a half mile spur trail that wound back to the far side of the City of Rocks and then I backtracked again just as I neared some other campers in their big RV travel-home. I didn’t want to frighten the poor inhabitants watching TV or playing cards or even sleeping (many campers are seniors who like to go to bed early — before nine o’clock early!). What would they have thought about the crunch, crunch, thud, crunch, crunch, thud rhythm coming from deep in the desert night?

I also thought about the animals of the night, the ones I initially feared. Maybe a few hundred years ago there were still packs of wolves and black panthers roaming around here, and there were reasons to be afraid. But since then we shot almost all of them into extinction. The few animals remaining are terrified of us and hide from us whenever they can.

Eventually, the main trail wound its way back to the City of Rocks. It ended at the opposite end of where we were camped. Kat had asked me not to enter the rocks during the night. I told her that I probably wouldn’t. As mentioned, it’s a bit of a maze even in the bright of day. But the magic of the night was burning in my soul and I entered the land of the giants without a second thought.

As I wound between the rocks, I noticed how different they looked in the shadowy light of the moon. They were softer, with more faces watching me than during the day. After one turn behind a shadowy rock, I smelled smoke and soon after saw the orange glow of a campfire, probably the only campfire in the entire park. I circled around the campers, again aware that I might frighten them. I waked as softly as I could, keeping to the curved lips of the rocks which were void of gravel. I thought again about the Indians and how softly they would have walked in their moccasins. In the distance, I heard a coyote yip and then howl.

 

Holes in Rocks were used by the ancient tribes to grind wheat.

 

I wound my way back to where we were camped, surprised at how easily I was able to find our camper. I’ve always had a good sense of direction (except when visiting a shopping mall…) and it didn’t let me down on this night. When I got back to Kat and the dogs, I was reluctant to leave this otherworldly domain. The magic was still coursing through me. I suggested to Kat again that we take the dogs — on leash, of course — and walk into the rocks. To my surprise, she agreed. Perhaps she felt the pull of the moon as well. And once we were standing between the moon-lit giants, it was she who suggested that we continue our night walk.

We walked arm in arm into the desert, the moon bathing us with her subtle light. Another rabbit crossed our path and I had to restrain Melo and Pix. I was glad for the leashes. The moon was directly above us when we finally returned to Snowflake, tired but fully charged. I sensed we did something special, something most people would never have the courage to do.

Before we came to the City of Rocks, I was afraid of the world of shadows. But now, my fears are gone. I’ve surrendered to the Universe and I now accept whatever will come my way. We have a long journey in front of us and, more than ever, I look forward to what the future will bring. And the next time the full moon beckons, I know I will heed her call and embrace the night.

 

 

Kat will tell you more of our experience in the City of Rocks here:

 

Enchantment Among the Ancient Stones of New Mexico

 

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