My curiosity was not limited to Albuquerque during that first week. I was eager to explore the undeveloped lands beyond the city’s limits. Of all American cities, including Southwestern cities, Albuquerque is surely unique in that it is surrounded by four distinctly different landscapes: forested mountains to the north, shortgrass prairie to the east, classic desert to the south, and arid plateau country to the west. Finally, of course, it is sliced by a fifth: the riparian area of the Rio Grande.
Of these, it was the plateau country that I initially explored. That grand, empty stage that loomed at the western edge of the city constitutes the extreme southeastern region of the Colorado Plateau, a 130,000-square-mile, amoeba-shaped upland whose geographic center lies just west of a place known as the Four Corners, where Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah, uniquely among the United States of America, meet. It is predominantly a land of mesas, canyons, badlands, buttes, and volcanic necks, of cracked, broken, and naked sedimentary rock; yet it also contains scattered mountain ranges, many of them forested. I wasn’t a complete stranger to it. In the year prior to my move to New Mexico, I twice visited southeast Utah, where the mesas and canyons of the Colorado Plateau, carved primarily by the Colorado and San Juan rivers, are given fullest expression.
To gain the plateau country as quickly as possible, I headed west in Little Red on I-40. After crossing the Rio Grande, I climbed steeply for some seven miles to the rim of my stage. Beyond the rim and its fretwork of several small businesses, there exploded a grassy and nearly treeless upland beneath a vast sky. A mountain range, barely forested and certainly diminutive by Colorado standards, loomed above the horizon to the southwest; visible, as well, from many parts of Albuquerque, I would later know it as the Sierra Ladrones. A gradual climb of several more miles led me to a crest and then a view that rivalled the one my father and I had witnessed on our trip to Taos: a massive basin, also predominantly treeless and uninhabited. The distant western horizon was a nearly a solid string of mesas, those queer flat-topped formations. To the northwest rose a forested mountain, a snow-covered flank of which shone in the morning sunlight; I would soon identify it as Mt. Taylor, one of the four “sacred mountains” of the Navajos and Pueblos. The basin contained a lone, barren hill; its prominence─that is, its height from base to peak─I later calculated, was roughly half that of the tallest mountain in my native New Jersey; yet it was merely one more marble in the huge satchel that was this basin.
While plummeting to the basin’s depths, I passed some acreage that was eroded, strewn with trash and old automobile tires, and almost completely stripped of vegetation. A half-dozen cattle wandered upon it, effortlessly raising puffs of dust. Yet, I was barely troubled by the obvious connection between this appalling devastation and the presence of the livestock, still of the opinion that a dusty, shit-smeared cow was as natural and welcome a presence on the Southwestern landscape as the coyote, black bear, mule deer, cougar, and nuthatch; this attitude would change. At the bottom of the basin, sunk in a shallow, dirt-walled, tree-and-brush-choked canyon, a mere scratch in the land, there ran a slender watercourse, although now one just occasionally puddled. Two concrete bridges delivered nearly all of the interstate traffic across this grim bottomland and silent riverbed. A third conveyance, a steel truss bridge obviously from a much earlier era, barely two lanes wide and rusting, was part of a frontage road that served a convenience store and gas station just east of the canyon. An exit sign identified this forlorn outpost, and, presumably, the watercourse accompanying it, as Rio Puerco. To me, the feebleness of this “river” didn’t at all the square with the hugeness of the basin that stretched to the northern and southern horizons, but then I was still unappreciative of that river known as time. From the basin the interstate climbed and dipped a couple more times before delivering me to yet another plateau. Upon it another queer landform appeared: a massive ramp of broken rock that seemed to have sprung violently from the land like a piece of warped linoleum.