Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Rio Grande bosque in Albuquerque, NM

A river runs through it! The first thing I normally do when I plan a trip is to look at a map of the place I’m going, to find the green spots. Nowadays, I also look them up on Google Earth to see how green they really are. (Green spots on regular maps have a way of turning out to be athletic fields or mown grass.) When I looked at the map of Albuquerque, I knew immediately where I wanted to go to scratch my itch of exploring an urban wilderness. All along the Rio Grande, which bisects the city, runs a continuous band of parkland. (So many places would be poorer without undevelopable flood plains!)

By some fortuitous coincidence – call it fate, or just incredibly good luck – our bed & breakfast was just a couple hundred yards from the ribbon of green I’d seen on the map. I got up before dawn. The morning air was suffused with an odd and exhilarating mixture of frost and sage. Not in Wisconsin anymore! I walked to the end of the rutted dirt road, breaking ice in the deep puddles. There my way forward to the bosque – the riparian woodland along the Rio Grande – was frustrated. Instead of a wooded river I faced a steeply banked, denuded irrigation ditch. The tops of cottonwoods beyond the tall berm across the ditch beckoned to me, tantalizing.

I walked north until, relieved, I reached a footbridge. When I got across I discovered yet another, much wider irrigation canal between me and the bosque. I could now make out a paved path atop the berm. A jogger went by. I needed another bridge. So far, the riverside was far too urban, far from wilderness.

I did make it across, farther north, and I wasn’t disappointed. I discovered the source of that delightful scent, for the bosque floor was covered with sage and other brushy plants. All were rimed with predawn frost, which lent the scene an unearthly whitish blue-green cast. But it was the cottonwoods that I found truly captivating. Huge, widely spread, and delightfully twisted, they seemed to be caught, freeze-frame, in a kind of suspended animation. I never saw them move (the air was quite calm), but I swear, out of the corner of my eye it seemed as though they were dancing.

I walked for miles, reveling in the dance of the cottonwoods. The sun rose over the Sandia Mountains to the east and streamed through the bosque, backlighting my private discothèque of nature. I made my way to the river and managed to catch a glimpse of a large flock of sandhill cranes loitering on a sandbar. They took flight and disappeared too quickly to grab a shot. At the riverside the rising sun also shone brightly on the bluffs across the water, revealing houses positioned to enjoy the view. Earth colored adobe walls do not provide sufficient camouflage to maintain the illusion of wilderness. I head back into the cottonwoods.

When I reached the Rio Grande Nature Center State Park I discovered a much more curious disturbance of the natural scenery. Rows of what appeared like WWII vintage tank traps on Normandy beaches suddenly erupted from the sagebrush and ran through the cottonwoods. I learned later that they are called “jetty jacks” and were installed decades ago as a (failed) erosion control experiment. They make for an ironic symbol of the contradictions I so often find in the urban wilderness. I’m happy to report that, as funding permits, they are being dismantled. Our B&B hosts are hoping that a section can be preserved as an art object, somewhere away from the bosque. Sounds like a good plan to me!

To see additional photos of New Mexico, go to my flickr page.

This is the first in a series of posts from New Mexico, click here to see the second, from Santa Fe.

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