In true form to most of our escapdes, Sunday's started with a 2 hour road trip further north into New Mexico to El Morro (meaning "the headland" in Spanish), also known as Inscription Rock. El Morro National Park is a true testament to the cultural melting pot that is the Southwest. Chronologically, El Morro was first made a landmark by the ancient Pueblo community that settled on top of its sandstone bluffs. El Morro is home to a freshwater spring which, when combined with its easily defendable cliffs and ideal grazing areas, made it a prime location for the ancient Puebloans. The sandstone bluffs also provided an excellent canvas for the petroglyphs, rock carvings, of the Puebloans which are still scattered across the base of El Morro.
Next to leave their mark on El Morro, literally, were the Spainards. In the late 1500's Spanish colonization had well and truly begun in New Mexico thanks to Don Juan de Onate. In 1605, returning from a failed expedition, Onate was the first Eurpoean to carve his name into the sandstone. This led to many more Spanish colonists and explorers to carve their names into the rock. The phrase, "Paso por aquí" practically litters the base of the bluffs, with dozens of Spainards telling the world that "I passed through here." This especially struck a chord with me. It's inherently human to want to leave your mark and we too on this J-Term passed through here. While our names will never grace El Morro, we are also just passing travellers, stopping for a brief while before being on our way.
Spainards weren't the only settlers to scratch their names into Inscription Rock. American settlers, driven west by Manifest Destiny, also carved their names into the sandstone. We had fun pointing out the one settler who shared a last name with Nate, the woman who took the time to carve Iowa into the rock along with her name and reading the story of the teenaged Sally Fox who was later shot with an arrow during a raid of her party and lived to tell the tale.
After exploring the inscriptions at the foot of the bluffs we began hiking to the top of the bluffs, where things got even cooler. The Atsinna Ruins situated at the edge of the sandstone cliffs, while only inhabited for 75 years in the 1200's, were extremelly expansive. Archaeologists have only uncovered a fraction of the rooms, but the hiking trail fortuitously runs right past them. It almost felt unreal, being able to look into the houses in which so many people once lived, worked, maintained such a rich culture, and eventually mysteriously disappeared.
However this was not the singular attraction at the top of El Morro. We had an amazing time hiking around the seemingly never-ending rocky, sandstone bluffs. El Morro is one of the highest points for miles and almost every direction you looked offered a new and gorgeous view. Even on top of the bluff we made newfound discoveries, from the beautiful patterns in the sandstone, to the unbelievable multitudes of purple cacti blanketing the ground. We almost unamimously agreed that El Morro was the best field trip of the J-Term, and something I know I'll certainly treasure.
But our adventures for the day weren't quite over yet. From El Morro we drove a little ways to El Malpais National Park. El Malpais means, "the badlands" in Spanish but we found it to be anything but bad. El Malpais is situated on a dormant volcano which has led to a number of craters and caves throughout the park and we obviously couldn't leave without exploring one! We were a little limited in our options due to the presence of hibernating bats in many of the caves but we luckily had the chance to go caving in Xenolith Cave.
Deborah came prepared, with not one, but two flashlights and helmets for everyone. And so armed with our helmets, flashlights and waterbottles we made the 2-mile hike out to Xenolith Cave. The walk was especially muddy, which was certainly an added difficulty that was worth it in the end. Xenolith Cave was not particularly large. It wasn't a small cave either by any means, but we were only able to go in 100 feet or so before both the narrowing of the cave and a steep drop kept us from continuing. But, it was incredible being able to work our way across the boulder-covered cave floor and provided an exercise in teamwork to get everyone to the end of the cave. Being able to sit in the cave, all of our lights turned off, was surreal. While it was an overall pretty tame caving outing, it's safe to say we all had a blast and welcomed the challenge.
It's experiences like this that I've so enjoyed about New Mexico- doing and seeing things we never could in the Midwest all while being exposed to the intricate culture contained both in Gallup and the Southwest. It's hard to believe next weekend I won't be out climbing some sandstone rock formation, but maybe for now I'll just pretend and relive the memories.