Standing amid a jumble of basalt boulders, I pause after pulling myself up a slick climb of coffee-colored rock. I’m hiking appropriately named Boca Negra Canyon of the Petroglyph National Monument in Albuquerque, and so far the rock art hasn’t exactly been jumping out at me like in a Santa Fe gallery. But as I stop and finally consider the beauty of the canyon, petroglyphs begin to emerge like stars at twilight. Round faces, turtles and birds, and lighting bolt-like patterns appear plain as day where I was looking on the fly just moments before. I realize the way to enjoy the monument is to be quiet, and that you often cover more ground by standing still.
Jointly managed by the National Park Service and the City of Albuquerque Open Space Division, Petroglyph National Monument comprises 7,236-acres along 17 miles of Albuquerque’s west escarpment. About 150,000 years ago lava seeped from an enormous fissure here, covering the landscape like a prehistoric parking lot. Over time, cooling and erosion cracked the hardened lava. In many areas the frozen ripples of once-hot lava can be seen in rock fragments, looking like poured cake batter. A National Park Service visitor center and bookstore is located off of Unser Boulevard, but otherwise the expanse of open space is undeveloped save for interpretive signs and facilities along the few developed trails at Boca Negra Canyon, Rinconada Canyon and the Volcanoes trails. Otherwise, silence and isolation are yours just minutes from New Mexico’s largest city.
Encouraged by the rock art that emerges from hiding like timid animals, I begin to rationalize where I would carve a petroglyph, based on accessibility and the size of the rock. I’m excited when a beautiful panel of lines and hands reveals itself to me using this method. But then puzzlement sets in; I feel like if someone spent so much time and effort creating these images, shouldn’t I try to at a least appreciate it and understand the message that has traveled centuries? No. These petroglyphs were never meant for me, and it’s enough to know that this area was obviously sacred to someone hundreds of years ago, and still is. For New Mexico’s 19 pueblo tribes, this area is as sacred as it was to their ancestors who created the petroglyphs 700 years ago when they left the drought-plague Four Corners region and began occupying the fertile Río Grande Valley in earnest. Perhaps because most rainstorms seem to approach from the west, the ancients wanted to greet them with sacred and protective signs? By pecking the flat basalt canvases, ancient artists found they could chisel away the dark desert varnish that had coated the rock and expose lighter rock beneath, creating a contrast that is still striking today. Basalt has a high iron content, and the rocks’ dark exterior is basically rust. Creating a petroglyph was no small undertaking, as it took considerable time to incise the rock. Modern graffiti in the monument is readily identified because of the weak scratches the vandal made compared to the deep, deliberate efforts of ancient artists who spent hours, if not days, creating work they considered sacred. (By the way, Albuquerque Open Space Rangers live to arrest vandals and others abusing the monument.)
Art inspires art, and not all of the petroglyphs were created by ancestral puebloans. The monument encompasses part of the Atrisco Land Grant, land that was awarded to Spanish colonists by the Crown in the 1600s. Spanish shepherds spent much time out here looking over their grazing flocks, and they surely marveled at the native petroglyphs as we do today. The shepherds meticulously pecked their own images of sheep, cattle, horses, their brands, crosses and other figures into the rock with the same care as the puebloans before them.
Standing in my spot, more and more petroglyphs allow me to see them. A deer or antelope comes out, and several spirals and other geometric patterns emerge. I realize I’ve been standing still for half and hour, and can still see my parked truck. I haven’t logged many miles today, but still feel like I’ve traveled some. Besides, as close as Petroglyph National Monument is to my home, I have a lifetime to explore it.