Bisti Badlands Bewilderness

I’ve never been one to ask the question, “What can possibly go wrong next??” as I often find that as soon as I ask the question, I am shown the answer. The year 2020 has turned out to be one of the worst of my lifetime, second only to 2015 when I lost both my youngest brother and my Dad within 3 months of each other. Still overall, I am reminded its been a good life.

But when thinking about bad news, which comes first, the chicken or the egg? Does bad stuff keep happening because I have written off this entire year to suck? Or is it a bad year because bad stuff keeps happening? In other words, can a “year” have a self-fulfilling prophecy?

I have enjoyed an unbelievable eight years of solid, trouble-free ownership of my Winnebago View. The old girl is pushing 100K miles, and I have had a disproportionately small number of issues. Until 2020, that is…

It started with turning on the rooftop air conditioner during the first summer heat wave, only to hear the hum of the compressor come to life, yet its companion, the fan just wouldn’t engage. Thankfully after being told a full replacement at $1,200 was the only solution, a $25 capacitor replacement ended up doing the trick (though it took three attempts to fix it!)

Then I had to deal with two error codes prompting the Check Engine Light in Santa Fe. Phase one of that warning indicator was the EGR (exhaust gas re-circulation,) which could either be a 30 minute cleaning or an entire replacement. I dodged the bullet once again, and the cleaning did the trick. I got out of Santa Fe to the tune of $330. Though I still have the pesky Check Engine Light due to a necessary glow plug replacement, a “can” which I have kicked further down the road since it’s only one out of six plugs gone bad.

Arriving at the Bisti Badlands parking area can be quite disappointing for non-hikers as one quickly realizes they must hike for at least a mile before the scenery gets interesting. Take heed! There is nothing here! Bring water. Bring snacks. And most importantly, bring a map/app!

Once one is into the wilderness for a mile, however, things get interesting quickly.

So many shapes, colors, and oddities begin to appear.

Some of them seem to defy logic.

While others appear downright kooky!

And erosion has sculpted some beautiful works of art.

This makes me think “Octopod Rocks”

This one reminds me of a castle.

And this one makes me think of temples I saw in Bagan, Myanmar.

There is a lot of this red brick-like covering that looks like pottery sherds. This type rock is due to burned coal in an ancient fire. The brick-colored clay that was baked over the burning coal layer is called “clinker.”

So I arrive into Abiquiu on a brutally windy day with gusts up to 30 mph. I pull over in Riana Campground and cut the engine off to unhook, when I hear a loud pop, followed by wind howling overhead. Having stopped With the wild wind now at my back, a gust rips the skylight cover open and breaks one of the retaining levers. Not sure if the wind was that strong, or if I failed to latch it properly, regardless, I would need to climb up there and wire it shut until I could get a replacement part.

So then I move on to my reserved parking spot, turn on the slide motor key to extend the slide-out, only to have the slide stop half way in and half way out. Though motor still runs, the slide room won’t move. Likely the shear pin, I think. Good thing I have a spare. Bad thing is, that is the extent of my knowledge. I have to beg the Army COE maintenance man to come help me manually crank the slide back in, as I don’t have the strength.

Oh, and did I mention the temperature is dropping, and I have yet to get the gas furnace to ignite this season?

I spend the next morning calling around to RV Repair shops. I have the option to wait five days for an unknown repair shop in Farmington, or 10 days for a highly recommended shop in Albuquerque. Seems RV Repair is the business to be in these days! Since I have three pressing issues, I opt to wait for the “known” shop that comes with the glowing recommendation.

But where to wait for 10 days?

While Ghost Ranch did have wifi that occasionally wafts through the campground, I had zero AT&T signal there. So hanging out there for 10 more days is out of the question, especially at $35 a night. My next planned stop is little more than a gravel parking lot in the middle of nowhere, 30 miles from even the nearest Coke machine. Could I find enough to do there to keep me occupied for 10 days?

Ten and then some…

This is the area known as the “eggs.” Some refer to it as “Alien Eggs” while the official wilderness map refers to the are as the “Egg Hatchery.” It is by far the most popular feature in the Bisti Wilderness.

I prefer the “alien” reference, as they remind me of the pods in the 1985 movie “Cocoon,” where aliens were left behind in pods that looked a whole lot like these eggs!  The pods were moved to a pool in a retirement community, where their presence in the water emitted some vibe that made the geezers young again.  I loved that film, which is maybe why I loved this section of the wilderness!

Thinking about this movie as I wandered through this field of eggs made me feel a sense of intimacy, as if the eggs were occupied by some alien lifeforms.

Some of the “shells” lying about made the egg theme very believable.

This one looks like it’s got a small heart inside the egg.

I was drawn to this section of the wilderness over and over. I went several times at sunrise until I was sure I knew the route and timing required to make it back by dark. Then, I returned at sunset.

In the early mornings, I had the eggs all to myself. The only time I ran into anyone here was on my “sunset shoot.”

This one looks like it has a backbone beneath the surface.

By far my favorite spot. I even took a thermos of coffee with me one morning and sat on a nearby mound of dirt to contemplate the unusual colors and shapes.

Back in November of 2018, I got an email from friend and fellow blogger Judie, asking if I had ever been to the Bisti Badlands, saying “it looks like your kind of place.” Not only had I never been there, I had never even heard of it. But as is often the case, I was racing across New Mexico from Utah at the time, heading back to Texas for the holidays with no time to stop. Meanwhile I added these badlands to the list should I ever find myself with time to spare in New Mexico.

The Bisti Badlands (pronounced “Bis-tie,” named for the Navajo word “Bistahí” meaning “large area of shale hills”) is actually two sections that make up a 45,000 acre wilderness. The BLM managed area, the Bisti Wilderness Area on the west side (Hwy 371 access.) is adjacent to the larger De-Na-Zin wilderness located on the east side (Hwy 550 access.) The De-Na-Zin section is named for the Navajo word for “standing crane,” a bird found on petroglyphs in the area. Since many of the Native American sites are closed due to COVID, I opted to visit the Bisti, or the western side. While the De-Na-Zin is larger, it’s more sand hills with fewer formations. The Bisti side is reported to be more scenic. But even more importantly, being BLM land, I could camp there for up to 14 days.

Upon arrival into the parking lot, the area looks pretty bleak. A picnic table, two pit toilets, and a kiosk. That’s it. And it’s a mile hike out into the wilderness until there is any sight of the formations. It’s so bad, it doesn’t even look like badlands! But once you put the mile behind you, it opens up into a phantasmagorical playground, a labyrinth of stone shapes, canyons, hills, and hoodoos. No established trails or directional signs anywhere, just whatever guidance you can find on your app. Wander to your heart’s content, just try not to damage anything.

Another popular feature in the wilderness is petrified wood. I saw more petrified wood here than any place I have been outside of the Petrified Forest NP. It was everywhere, from piles of shards and splinters, to entire logs.

Many of the logs were perched atop hoodoos, supported beneath by formations that withstood erosion, as the weight of the log mechanically slows erosion beneath the log due pressure exerted on the clay.

This was the tallest of the petrified wood hoodoos. It was about shoulder height when standing at the same level.

Colorful petrified logs were often found jutting out of the base of hoodoos.

This one’s got a little wood pile stacked next to it.

This log was at least 20 ft, most of it intact.

In the lower right third of the photo is a root ball of what i believe to be a petrified cypress tree.

Note petrified logs dead center of the photo.

Wandering in the wilderness is ideal for letting ones imagination run wild, as the mind’s eye tries to focus these formations into familiar shapes. For me, that familiarity came as a return to my adolescence. As I wandered through towering hoodoos that seemed to take on individual personalities, I reminisced back to those afternoons coming home on the school bus, changing out of my dress and pantyhose (we weren’t even allowed to wear pants back then.) I would grab a snack, and settle in front of the TV with my older brother Don, who loved scifi. We would watch our favorite after school line-up, beginning with one of our mutual favorites, Lost in Space. As I stared out across the monochrome clay landscape with the bizarre rock hoodoos and mushrooms, I could imagine the evil Dr. Zachary Smith hiding behind some hoodoo plotting his dastardly deeds, while the Robot’s arms wave wildly, his control panel and glass bubble head flashing as he warns, “Danger, Will Robinson!” Not only is it easy to get lost in the wilderness physically, but mentally as well.

I took over 700 photos while wandering through the wilderness. I think that may be a personal record for any one stop. Paring them down for this blog post proved to be an impossible task to stick to my usual limit of 30-35 photos. I doubled that, and still left half my favorites on the “cutting room floor.”

For seven straight days, if I wasn’t “afield” by sunrise, it was only because I was resting my sore feet for sunset. I walked more miles in the Bisti Wilderness over one week than any place since I left the forest near Cloudcroft.

And of course, as one would expect for a “badlands” area, there are an abundance of hoodoos of all shapes, sizes, and colors.

Some of the more prominent or unique hoodoos are named. For example, this one is labeled on the map as “Elegant Hoodoo.”

These are indicated on the map as “Brown Hoodoos.” There are also “White Hoodoos” and “Vanilla Hoodoos,” though the brown ones are much easier to distinguish.

These formations are named the “Stone Wings,” and are one of the more sought out features in the area. I think they look like a squadron of soaring stingrays.

It’s difficult to realize these were not sculpted and mounted atop the cliffs edge, but rather have always been here while the cliffs around them eroded.

Another sought out feature is the pair of “Conversing Hoodoos.”

I should have taken a full length selfie here for scale, as these two hoodoos soar to almost 15 ft.

Of all the features I searched for like an old fashioned treasure hunt, these to Conversing Hoodoos were hardest to find, as they were behind another wall of hoodoos. I finally sat down in the dirt, plugged in the coordinates into the Gaia app, and used the “Guide Me” feature to find them.

Here is a hint to finding the Conversing Hoodoos:

That lime green squiggle circles are my attempt at finding the Conversing Hoodoos…until I marked the coordinates and figured out the “Guide Me” feature, and then I went right to them.

Then some formations are more like “reverse hoodoos” for lack of a better term. Instead of towering up high, they are carved beneath the surface in a canyon.

Can’t you just see Lost in Space’s Robot come rolling out from behind one of these hoodoos?

Wonder how erosion resulted to two layers atop these hoodoos?

Wouldn’t you love to see this place in a rainstorm? Imagine the pouroff from some of these stones. Don’t do it though, as the sticky, silty mud would be horrific. I saw several footprints that looked like shoe prints at the bottom of a pothole.

I have, however, set my intentions to return here one day during a full moon. (armed with GPS tracking, of course!)

In exploring such a vast wilderness with no designated trails and not a single directional marker to be found, I became a big fan of my now favorite hiking app, Gaia GPS. Not only were maps of the area available, but the map also contained suggested dotted-line trails with locations of the most popular features. Sitting in the parking lot in between hikes, I overheard so many people say “We looked everywhere but never found the ‘eggs.” Had they downloaded the Gaia GPS map, it would have taken them straight to them and more.

I also became familiar with all the features of the app, not only recording all my tracks to avoid getting lost as I wandered through the unmarked badlands, but also learned to use the “Guide Me” feature, whereby I could input coordinates, and the app would act as a magnet, guiding me there. I came to depend on the app so much that I loaded it onto a second android phone so as to have redundancy (though for some odd reason, the android version had the map, but not the landmarks found on the iphone version.)

Should anyone end up in the Bisti wilderness and need help finding any of the “features” pictured here, I am happy to share landmarks via private message, as I came to know the area pretty well over my extended stay. But I came upon a couple of Instagramers, one posing prone across the stone top of a hoodoo and another straddled atop one of the eggs, so I am reluctant to post too much. After all, the Bisti Wilderness offers everyone the opportunity to tap into their own “inner child,” so finding the features is half the fun. And the harder the Easter egg hunt, the greater the adventure, I say. 😉

You may see reference to the “Bisti Arch.” It was only about two feet high, and collapsed in March of this year (Thanks, 2020!) There are, however, quite a few beautiful “windows” made by this harder rusty brown siltstone layer over the softer ashy gray sandstone layer.

Most of the formations capped by this rust brown layer are found in the north/northwest sections of the wilderness.

This towering hoodoo has a Ferruginous Hawk’s nest built on its shoulder. It was reported to have been abandoned in 2007. I can’t imagine what they found to eat out here!

This makes me think of a seashell.

“Hoodoo City, NM.”

Many fossils have been found in this area, including those of a dinosaur, the “Bisti Beast,” now in the New Mexico Natural History Museum.

This delicate little hoodoo poking its head up in back makes me think of “E.T.”

Lighting is everything in this wilderness. Try to stay overnight here if you can, as it is at its best at sundown and sunrise. But bring everything you need, as there is nothing here but your imagination!

And another bonus of staying overnight….some pretty spectacular wide-open sky sunsets!

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