The rocky, scrubby landscape of Southwest New Mexico is something I've grown to love after living a decade here. But at first almost all I could see was the unrelieved flatness stretching for miles. I had the urge to pick up the land like a rug and shake it, to rumple it up a little. The flat land is so featureless that once again, just a few nights ago, I drove for a mile past my street before I realized what I was doing.
Going up into the Florida Mountains was a refuge for me my first year, like going to another country. I fantasized I was in Chile, or what I imagined from pictures Chile to be like. After growing up in a mountainous place and living around tall buildings as an adult, the embrace of mountains was reassuring to me.
The Floridas are like a tough, durable, stony ship in the desert. The sun-burnished rock outcroppings tilting in different directions are masts that have sailed through centuries and millennia and geological eras with immoveable strength and a touch of bravado. The whole little range, several miles long, is an ocean liner bearing many beings within it. It's an Old Ironsides navigating its way through time.
I chose to live just a few miles away from the Floridas—so I'd have something to look at. I watch their changing colors from blue to gray and gold to rose, from morning to night in all seasons.
The more I read about the geology of the place, the more confused I get, but it sounds as if an awful lot more was going on back then than now. There were huge volcanic explosions and sea levels rose and fell drastically.
I was told by a geologist recently that there are old silver and lead and copper mines up in the Floridas, but in places very high up in the peaks and almost inaccessible. I've heard of a lot of things up there that I probably won't ever see, because the path doesn't go very far and I'm not that ambitious a hiker. There are hidden things and strange species almost never seen, like mysteries at the bottom of an ocean, in this case an upside-down one.
The Iranian ibex, a kind of goat, is stocked high in the mountains. I know a kid who about 10 years ago saw a mountain lion up there. I saw a fat badger there once, lumbering through the grass. One warm winter day I saw a tree alive with hundreds of bees. You can find cattle in surprising places, anomalous and dumb. I've spent time among the rocks watching lots of hummingbirds sipping from pink-and-white flowers I've never seen anywhere else, like large columbines.
A while ago I talked to a man who said he hikes way up at the top, and he says he hears a lot of hissing all around him, just implying the word "rattlesnakes." This may be why there are so few hikers up there. This gives the walker the privilege of privacy, but leaves the paths badly maintained. It would be good if more people would come for a stroll or a hike and give the place the attention it deserves. The rattlesnakes just come out when it's warm, usually over 80 degrees.
There are places where Indians left their imprint in the rocks grinding corn over a century ago. Buffalo Soldiers have a history of Indian-fighting there. An entire Spanish breastplate was found up there in the middle of the last century. I spoke to a border crosser down in Palomas who claimed he knew a way to walk through the Floridas with no problem from the Border Patrol.
The most common tree is the scrub oak, or turbinella oak, with pointed-edged leaves very similar to a holly. The graceful bend of its trunk makes it resemble olive trees in the sere places of Greece or southern Spain. The oaks' branch space is often shared with a parasitic, yellower-leaved mistletoe—appropriately enough for the holiday season. The Mexican sotol, very similar to yuccas, march up the hillsides, and on the highest slopes are lots of silver-leaved bushes called Mountain Mahogany. The Mexican Poppies last spring spilled all over the faldas (skirts) of the mountains, as Spanish-speakers so nicely put it. These flowers gave the range its name, still pronounced "flo-ree-das" to this day.
As you drive up close to Spring Canyon Park, the dramatic rock formations to your right are like enormous Gothic spires on a church or a series of waves plowing into a shore. To the left is a cluster of stone pilings that from a distance look like a small Parthenon, but up close are more mundane. Rock formations up in the mountains change shape as you walk along, taking your breath away at every turn. They hold the last warm light of sunset high above you, gloriously.
As you travel around the base of the mountains, they have an odd habit of changing size and shape. They look the largest and the grandest as you come driving down from Silver City late in the afternoon, like a dream out of the Golden West. But from the bottom of the west side, in the middle looking north and south, the mountains almost disappear, looking low and insignificant.
Living at the base of the Floridas, as some people do, is a lot like an act of worship. Close up, the mountains dominate. They're the mountains as you see them from a distance, but startlingly distinct and well-defined. They're a power, more than just a presence. They amaze. They overbear.
The mountains are the only place where snow lasts for more than an hour or so in Luna County, where snow is rare anyway. People go rushing up to the Floridas to throw a few snowballs and snap photos. A few years ago it snowed a couple of days before Christmas, giving the area all around the mountains the cheerful grace of the brilliant white band of snow along its top ridge, lasting for days
Throughout the year, even on warm days in winter, the Floridas are a place for solitude and for collecting that feeling of intactness and wholeness that happens up there. It's something automatic. You're up in a different stratum of existence, like an island in the air. You feel as if the rocks are feeding your thirst, and don't mind if you're hungry. It just happens. You leave filled.
It could be a good place to go during the Christmas season to find a little peace on earth.
Borderlines columnist Marjorie Lilly lives in Deming.