WHERE LONESOME IS

By Richard McCord

If you want to be alone, go to the Bisti Badlands. There the outside world does not intrude. And barely exists. There you will be by yourself.

The Bisti Badlands are in Navajo country, in northwestern New Mexico, south of Farmington and north of Gallup, off a back-country state highway numbered 371. You don't get there by accident. Very few get there at all.

Almost nothing grows in the Bisti, and nothing has been built there, except a rough dirt road and a thin wire fence. The Badlands combine isolation with desolation, in as pure a mixture of both as you will find. If you find it.

The Badlands, which officially were designated the Bisti Wilderness Area by Congress in 1984, are a grimly beautiful region of interbedded shale, sandstone and coal, fashioned by erosion into a landscape that might return in your nightmares.

The dominant shape is flat. The dominant color is gray. But strange red hills pop up here and there, purple swirls decorate the earth, craggy black formations are etched against the sky. Dark stripes of coal run horizontal in the fine gray sand. Little piles of brown rocks are scattered through the Badlands, broken down by the patient hand of time. In just a few spots, gravel patches boldly display most of the hues of the rainbow. The sky above is usually blue, with clouds of white on many days. At night it all turns black.

And the dominant sound is silence. The voices of people passing through get swallowed by it, while the unaccompanied visitor hears nothing but the crunch of his footsteps--and sometimes, especially in the spring, the wind.

The Badlands get blistering hot in summer, bone-numbing cold in winter. Except after an infrequent storm, or when snow lies on the ground, you will search in vain for water. Vegetation is limited to tough little weeds and a low, crinkly ground cover, adding spots of green to nature's harsh palette.

Life is scarce in the Bisti. A pair of crows may fly overhead, a lizard may dart underfoot. But there is nothing to graze on, nothing to drink, no shelter from the sun. Not even a coyote can make a living there. It is not called the Badlands for nothing.

The Bisti is not really a spectacular place--just an exceptionally different place. And powerfully lonesome.

But a few wanderers do come, to know this barren outback for themselves. They are a hardy bunch, and certainly curious, for getting there is tricky. From the north, some 40 miles of scrub desert separate the Bisti from modern civilization. From the south, it's more like 70.

A roadside marker indicates where to leave Highway 371, but after that it's pretty much up to you. The gray dirt road heading east pounds your car with washboard ruts, and frequent unmarked intersections leave you unsure if you're on the right track, or if you'll remember the way out.

A couple of windswept ruins are the only man-built structures on the road to the Bisti Badlands. And when you get there, seldom will you have felt so alone.

Just 3,946 acres bear the title Bisti Wilderness Area. Environmentalists wanted more, but the coal in the region made mining companies oppose the designation, and Congress, as usual, compromised. The flimsy wire fence marks the official boundary, and "No Trespassing" signs warn you off the property of the surrounding Idaho-based mining firm.

Inside the fence, however, is a tiny world apart, where you are free to roam. Tramping through the Bisti's hills and washes, flatlands and low mesas, coal seams and bedrock, will not take long--just an hour or two, maybe a little more if you get turned around. But unless your car breaks down, in which case you'll be in trouble, you'll get out all right.

Then you will be one of the few who know the Bisti Badlands. More than anything else, you will know it is out there in the lonesome. All by itself.

To order Richard McCord's book "The Chain Gang," a real-life adventure about journalism in Santa Fe, visit Amazon.com.

Other Articles by Richard McCord


Copyright © 2000-2013 Santa Fe Always Online, Inc.
Email: sfaolweb@gmail.com