Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Traces of other Americas

Alamo Mountain is 75 miles northeast of El Paso in New Mexico, part of a group of volcanic crags and buttes right north of the Texas line. Alamo is a Spanish word meaning cottonwood; there used to be a lone Rio Grande cottonwood growing gnarled by the small spring on the west side of the mountain, but a rancher dynamited the spring trying to make it flow more copiously. The blast killed the cottonwood and turned the spring into a seep in the rocks.

The mountain rises in solitude a thousand or so feet out of the antelope plain, and its lower slopes are surrounded by scree and rubble, as if the mountain had been hammered from below with great violence right out of the crust of the earth. In fact the mountain is the product of a burst of volcanic activity 30 or 35 million years ago. It is roughly a mile in diameter. There are several of these great islands of rock in the desert floor, 15-20 miles apart. This one is flat on top, a surprising lost world up there, a piƱon and juniper park with mule deer which would peer over the edge at us rummaging the rocks on the beach below.

The Indians wrote on the talus boulders, pecking such statements into the desert varnish as:
Apache horseman
an idea we had no trouble with.

Other narratives were more difficult:
Apache Twin Gods

Who were these guys? Were they Gods? Shamans? Spirits of the wind? Did they still hang around Alamo Mountain? I watched carefully, but I couldn't tell, as I picked my way among the rocks, expecting rattlesnakes, the wind tugging at my clothes.

The waterhole was a stop on the Butterfield Stage route to El Paso. The first time I was there there was still a grave below the spring marked with a traveler's name. The marker has since disappeared. The same traveler's name is written, probably by his own hand, as part of the kilroy-was-here grafitti on the rock at the previous stage stop, at Cornudas Mountain.

Once at Cornudas Mountain, which is near Alamo Mountain and product of the same episode of volcanism, I noticed a curious slickness high up on some of the giant boulders tumbled around the base; it looked like something had been rubbing against the rock. But these spots were ten feet off the ground and on vertical slabs.

I had seen this kind of slickness on the floors of Indian rock shelters, where the Indians had used the shelters for centuries, sometimes millennia, and thus the rock had been worn shiny, polished and oiled by human feet.

We mentioned this to an old rancher who lived near Cornudas all his life, a man named Bob Jones who was one of a type the west is still full of, men whose reading and thinking and isolation lead them to toss out startling but offhand conversational insights. He poured his coffee into his saucer to cool it, an old custom that is dying out; and he said "Oh, I figure it was mammoths that made those slick places high up on the rock."

"Of course" I thought, suddenly illuminated, "a mammoth rub." It was really pretty obvious. Neither trees rubbing against rock, nor glacial forces, could make such a polish. But even though it seemed intuitively right--certainly no other animal could have rubbed against these rocks--I considered it a matter of conjecture, a brilliant rancher insight into something science would not care enough about to investigate. Later, though, I found an old report in a 1947 issue of Science, where some geologist took a thin section from the surface of this same slickened rock and by heating it extracted oil, ten or fifteen thousand year old rancid body oils, apparently of animal origin.

I later found other mammoth rubs, and every time I could get up to reach one, I would rub my hand over it. Touching the smooth old rock was the next best thing to touching the mammoth itself, old cool smooth rock that soothed great itches thousands of years ago.

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