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Friday, January 6, 2012

Wash Out

 “The trail is washed out.”  Those were the last words I heard out of Elliot’s mouth before closing the visitor center door.  I zip my jacket, nod to the folks getting out of the RV with Maine plates and walk across footbridge to the Falls trailhead, whispering under my breath, "It's ok, this is no big deal.” A mantra, my pep talk recited daily before heading onto the path. Elliot’s words echo through my head, “The trail is washed out, the trail is washed out…. fire, flood”. It is difficult to escape the changes to the Bandelier landscape post Las Conchas Fire.

It is late November just after Thanksgiving, the weather is mild and dry. A tardy flock of Sandhill cranes flies overhead on their route south to wintering grounds. It is late for crane migration. Nothing seems normal, not the birds, not the land.

the fallen
A winter flock surrounds me. Titmice flit and dart from under the cover of orange leaves clinging to the branches of gambel oak. The flock grows larger with the addition of juncos diligently seeking food in the vegetation along the creek. I stop and watch. My view is unobstructed. I am standing along the first hundred yards of the Falls Trail. The birds, unconcerned by my presence continue their frenetic business of finding seeds to keep them fat in winter.  What I see is odd, birds standing on prostrate trunks of alder, river birch and boxelder. Life along the creek has become horizontal.

I respond, daily, to the inquiries of puzzled visitors asking, what happened here?” “It looks like a flood came through here” When did you have a flood? How high did the water rise? Can we get to the river?
washed out trail
I reply with unpleasant truth, “No you can’t get to the river. The trail is undercut below the second falls. It is about to cleave away. No, it won’t be rebuilt, there is nowhere to construct a new route”. The same questions and the same answers spill from my from my mouth again and again in response to the curious that come to visit Frijoles Canyon since reopening in the first days of October.

sandbags and barriers
Yes, it was a flood. The water came roaring down the canyon on August 21, the day the monsoons dropped three inches of rain in twenty-five minutes. A noticeable water line on tree trunks is visible amid a tangle of broken branches, cracked limbs and leaves littered along the creek, like confetti from a ticker tape parade.

The signs of the flood are everywhere.  There is nothing to hold back the water. Most all of Frijoles Canyon, with exception of the last three miles, is severely burned. Jersey barriers and twenty thousand sand bags are strategically placed to protect the recently renovated visitor center. The back breaking attempt at flood mitigation succeeded with the exception of a few snapped steel cables linking barriers, knocked wildly to their sides, in the fury of a frothy mixture of ash and water carrying sandbags on a high tide to the banks of the Rio Grande two and a half miles downstream.
sticks and stone, mud and ash
What will happen next summer when the monsoon rains return? The thought is dizzying. I leave the juncos.  A curve in the trail reveals gray naked mounds; boulders scoured clean of lichen, once discretely hidden amid thickets of New Mexico olive and chokecherry, shimmer in the New Mexico sun. Behind me canyon walls are cloaked in mud stretching upward 15 feet.
debris littering the trail
 I place one foot in front of the other and continue my disoriented walk in a once familiar landscape.


  1. I was distraught hearing about of the fires that roared through there just a mere two weeks after I’d visited Bandelier with my 10-year-old son and husband. Prior to that, I’ve visited Bandelier several times in my life but had only done the Fall Trail once before, 15 years ago. I took my first trip down the Falls Trail solo at the age of twenty-four. It was late in the day and not many people were there. By the time I got to the bottom, the sun was starting to get low in the sky; it was shady and very quiet with only the sound of the Rio Grande. I had, what I’ve described since, as a spiritual experience down there, looking back up at the massive rocks/cliffs...the feeling that even though no one was around, that I still was not alone. Until I read your post today, I wasn’t sure the state of that particular trail after the fires and floods, so today it’s with a sad heart that I write this comment. But I am very thankful that I did get to show my son that spot just in the nick of time…and now I know that I was truly not alone that first time because it is that same “presence” that told me this year to get my family to Bandelier and to experience Falls Trail when we did.

  2. What have they done to these trees? We need them for certain reasons, this is the main problem of people. They are not contented of things that they have, this is not a good sign. My ignition interlock device doesn't like these pictures though.