I'd gladly share the monkey on my back, but out among the hoodoos, everyone else has one of their own. Our common addiction is rarely talked about: we just look over each other's shoulders for the next bunch of strange rocks, and then spotting some, lurch away mumbling.
I'd like to tell you a few things about the Bisti...........
It was May, 2005 when I first steered my twenty year old VW Jetta from Santa Fe to The Bisti Badlands, approaching as most people do: southward from Farmington NM on highway 371. Two hundred and fifty miles from Santa Fe, by that route, a distance I have since whittled down to about one hundred and ninety miles. It was mid afternoon, and I stood perplexed in that ugly parking area I would eventually know all too well. What to do? No hoodoos in sight.
As I considered my course of action, standing there in the scorching sun, I noticed a small human figure making its way toward me from the east. This was the occupant, I presumed, of the only other vehicle parked there, an SUV with out of state plates. As the man approached, I said hello, and asked him what he had seen in there. He responded in a thick German accent with that question I would often ask to others in this spot over the next years: "Have you been here before?" "No," I said, and then asked him what direction I should take: what I should see first. "Mushroom City," he replied, and gave me vague directions to head east. Less than a mile, he thought. As he left, he repeated "Mushroom City."
I headed off toward two red hills, the landmark everyone heads toward. I steered to the right of them, missing the main wash, and the main way into the heart of the badlands. No matter: I spent an hour among my first Bisti hoodoos, and made my way back to the car to set up my "camp" in the parking lot. The wind whistled through the buzzing telephone line overhead. I was alone all night.
The next morning I hiked in again. I randomly wandered around for four or five miles. The hook was set that morning. Did I find "Mushroom City"? If that is the area which others have called the "low hoodoos," then I did find it. No matter. I drove home knowing that I had found something to return to that summer.
Two weeks later I returned, a Bisti Veteran, armed with a camping plan. Somewhere I had read of a camping area south or east of the main parking area, and my topo map showed some thin red lines leaving the main access road and running along and parallel to the south boundary of the wilderness. My plan was to camp along the rim of the badlands, away from the telephone line and any other visitors.
Volkswagen Muffler meets Navajo Driveway
Well, the first "road" didn't exist, but the second one did. I figured that I only had to go a half mile or so along it, then turn left toward the badlands rim, intersecting it at the place that the first road should have taken me anyway, had it existed. All went well for that half mile. The road was just a path, but it was flat and even, without a high center. I passed a Navajo dwelling to my right which looked lived in, and must have had its own driveway. Then I found the cross road toward the rim: a sandy jeep track through the sagebrush.
Now here is where a sensible person would have turned around, low slung two wheel drive vehicle and all. But I had visions of my perfect campground, only a few hundred yards away, complete with a gorgeous sunset and a spectacular sunrise the next morning. Sagebrush scraped my car's underside as I carefully pushed on, and by some miracle, I made it! However there was no actual "rim," and the track ended at a junk pile, and at the remains of what might have once been a house. I knew I wouldn't be able to relax there, knowing the awful path I had to take to get out. Also, the place seemed kind of creepy to me, and the parking area at the Bisti gate suddenly looked to be a fine campsite again.
So I turned around, and headed back, but unfortunately not as carefully as on the way in. About halfway to the first path I heard that thump, followed by the loud roar of a four cylinder engine with no exhaust pipe attached to it. The entire exhaust system had come off in one piece, and was bayonetted forward into the high center of the path. I backed the car a bit to the left, and crawled under the side. The converter, tailpipe and muffler were looped over the axle, and could not be removed in one piece. They were hot as hell, too!
After a half hour of cooling off, I managed to tie the loose front end of the pipe up under the body, right next to the place it had broken off from. I then managed to make my way out of there, back to the first road, then the gravel road, and finally to the wilderness parking lot. My nerves were rattled from the engine roar, a couple of my fingers were burned a bit, and later I found that my back had been bitten up by sand fleas. What to do? Go hiking in the Bisti, that's what! Then I camped under the buzzing telephone wires, and went hiking again in the morning.
I made it to Farmington around noon, and found a muffler shop just before it closed. It turned out that my repair bill was only twenty-seven dollars for a quick welding job. Good thing, too, because I'm not sure I could have stood that noise for two hundred more miles, all the way to Santa Fe.
It also turned out that the other camping area I had read about was only five hundred feet from the Bisti parking lot, and in full view of it. It's just a little farther away from that buzzing telephone wire. Here's another camping place I found on a later trip: across the road from the gate, and maybe one hundred yards north. I can tell you one place definitely not to camp, though!
I sat in the car while bolts of lightning struck around me, some close enough to make me roll the windows up. It was very hot in there. I had come to photograph an odd hoodoo I had found the week before, and after the storm moved off to the northeast I headed in. The rain had saturated the badlands in spots, but had missed them for the most part. I hiked in and out without incident.
Back at the car another thunderstorm moved through. Yet another was on the way. There were eleven miles of unpaved road between me and Huerfano Mountain, where US 550 would take me home. I watched a pickup truck drive by. If he could do it, I could do it. With 4WD I would be unstoppable. I decided to make a run for it.
A mile down the road I realized that the pickup truck I had seen had left ruts three to five inches deep, and I was having trouble staying in them, the ruty being wider than those of my own car by a bit. My car careened along the crown of the road, my rear end fishtailing. To veer far from the center of the road would have led to the ditch, where I would probably be stranded for hours and hours.
When I got nearer to the main highway, another obstacle struck fear in me: just ahead was a low spot marked with caution signs. The first was "Watch for water on road". There was indeed water on the road. It was the second sign that was the problem: "Do not cross when ANY water is present". Now there are some silly signs out there in the desert, like "Narrow cattle guard." I've never seen any of those narrow cattle anywhere near one. Then there's "Gusty winds may exist," as if someone had given them permission to do so. "Do not cross when ANY water is present" is not one of those silly signs.
Across that forty feet of slowly flowing water was my exit. I stopped on the near side and decided that it was no more than four or five inches deep, judging by the clumps of mud pushed aside by the pickup truck ahead of me. I rammed the car through with my teeth clenched, and if that water had been ten feet wider I might not have made it. The mud flew, and by the other side I couldn't see through the windshield at all. Thinking back, I really should have backed up a bit to get more momentum.
Thinking back, I really should have not been there in the first place!
Those Damned Eggs.....
If you think by this point that I'll do nearly any crazy thing out there to get a photo, you are probably right, but here's a story about a guy who made me look like an amateur.
It was June of 2007, and I had at least half a dozen Bisti Badlands trips under my belt. I was hiding in my car from the afternoon sun, and from some nasty winds coming straight out of the badlands. I was thinking about the punishment which driving sand inflicted on camera equipment. I was thinking about the storm clouds moving across the area. I was also eyeing the two other cars in the parking lot. One vehicle had a tripod outside of it. I had put my tripod next to my car in response. Finally, during a lull in the sandstorm we were both outside of the cars at the same time, and I met Keith.
Keith was from Dallas, and was on a mission to shoot the Eggs. I should explain to the Bisti Badlands neophytes out there: The Bisti Eggs are the most photographed rocks in the whole badlands. Besides Shiprock, the Bisti Eggs might be the most photographed rocks in the whole damned northwest of New Mexico. The area they live in is most often referred to as the "Egg Factory". Others call it the "Alien Hatchery". Whatever you call it, the second question you will be asked in the parking area after "Have you been here before?" is usually "Have you found the Eggs?"
I should explain something else at this point: I found those Eggs by accident, and it was never a priority to me to find them at all! Those Huevos have been photographed so many times, I'm surprised that they aren't cracked apart from all the flashes. Actually, they are cracked apart, and are often called the "Cracked Eggs", but you get my drift. I suppose that I have little interest in capturing a view photographed by so many people before me that I just don't stand a chance at anything unique. Don't get me wrong: there are some amazing photos of those Eggs out there. Just none by me!
Now Keith had been to the Bisti the week before. He had gone here and there, seen this and that, but he did not find the Eggs. This had apparently gnawed badly at Keith, who brooded upon it back in Dallas. Then he did what only a photographer might do: he drove back to the Bisti Badlands the very next weekend, 850 miles, just to shoot those damned Eggs!
So he shouldered a large pack, tent and all, and trudged off into that windstorm. He was going to camp right next to the Eggs. Two other hikers from the third car went along with him. I waited the better part of an hour to trudge in myself. The best light was still a few hours off, anyway.
Well, I hiked here and there, saw this and that, and eventually curiosity got the best of me. I found Keith having a hell of a time trying to set up the tent in those gusty winds, and after helping out, I led the other two hikers to see the best petrified logs, which were a quarter mile away. The blasting sand eventually got the best of them, so I pointed the way out, and went off to scout out a photo location for the next morning.
All night long the wind howled around my little tent in the parking lot. At least I had cold beer and a radio. I kept expecting to see Keith's stuff come flying out on that wind, to hang on the barbed wire fence next to my car. You know, he was only a forty-five minute hike from me the whole time, but I wasn't about to pester him the next morning. I got my pre-sunrise and sunrise shots in a different part of the badlands, hiking in at about four in the morning. From what I saw on his website, Keith got his shots too, some excellent photos, and that weather could have made the whole thing a disaster.
Then he drove 850 miles back to Dallas!
Now if you are looking for the exact locations for some specific rocks, then that data is out there on other sites. To me, that takes most of the fun out of exploring!
If you think that you need a map to keep from getting lost (and a lot of informational sites tell you to bring one, right along with sunscreen and water), then I want to set you straight right now: there isn't a topo map out there with enough detail to really show you much of anything. The highest and lowest elevations in the Bisti differ by less than a hundred feet, and those maps usually have contour intervals of twenty feet, or ten meters or worse.
But look at those maps if you have to, and note one interesting thing: All the drainages in the badlands empty to the west, and no matter where you go in the Bisti, if you follow the washes and arroyos downhill, you will eventually reach the main washes, and then the access road itself. The larger portion of the badlands drains into the Gateway Wash, which crosses the road only a few hundred feet south of the parking area. If you've wandered northward a bit in your exploring, you may have crossed into the portion of the badlands that drains into Hunter Wash, which crosses the road about 2/3 mile north of the parking lot, near the old trading post.
Follow the washes upstream, mostly eastward, to go into the Bisti. Follow the washes downstream, mostly westward, to exit. Use your brain; it's more useful than any map!
While I really believe that you should discover things yourself, here are some beginner's basics, with a few hints thrown in.
Okay, Okay...Some Basic Bisti Navigation Tips...
From the parking area, make for those two red hills to the east. On the way, note the fence along your right: behind it is an area of the Bisti which was strip-mined! There is an area of hoodoos to the right of the red hills, and if you only have limited time, check them out. Most of the cool stuff is to the left of the red hills and beyond, though. Note that the main wash goes that way. You are at most 1/2 mile from the gate at this point.
The fence makes a right turn here, and the badlands get a lot wider. Just keep going in the same direction. Look ahead (east) for two black topped hills, the next major landmark. On the way to those black tops are large fields of low hoodoos on your right, a favorite area of mine for photography.
Go past the black tops, and near to the main wash you will find that often photographed little arch. I consider this to be the center of the Bisti Badlands. Here is where I leave you on your own, with wonders in every direction! (hint: just south of that arch you might find some "Eggs", and just east of those are some amazing areas of petrified wood.)
It's easy to find new areas to explore every time you're at the Bisti; the little pockets and passages seem endless. Go for it! Just exploring to the right and left of those first red hills could keep you busy on your first visit. One last bit of advice to you: you are cheating yourself if you don't experience a Bisti sunrise or sunset. Plan your hike around it, and you will not be sorry!