Sunday, January 9, 2011
Alas, our time in the Land of Enchantment amounted to little more than an extended vacation; a month in Corrales and two more in Santa Fe before the lure of better work prospects drew us further west to Oakland, California. There is so much to see and do in New Mexico; we managed to get in several little adventures during our stay, but the possibilities for further exploration seem truly limitless there, if one's time allows. One brisk morning we headed north out of Santa Fe, Taos bound, to see what the day might bring.
We passed under a few highway overpasses embellished with images that reflect aspects of the local Pueblo culture:
and spied a monumental lithic dromedary (Camel rock!) gazing out over the expansive landscape:
We spent a few hours poking around Taos before heading north on U.S. 64 out of town towards the Rio Grande Gorge. Now that was a sight for which I had been totally unprepared. Having never visited the Grand Canyon, I can't compare the two, but as we approached the bridge that spans that gorge I could hardly believe my eyes. We parked and walked halfway across the bridge, where the view over that vast gorge was positively breathtaking! I had never heard anything about this place before, but I felt certain that what I was seeing must surely have been every bit as awe-inspiring as the Grand Canyon!
Eventually we made our way back to the car and, consulting our guide book, found that we were a reasonable distance from the town of Ojo Caliente, home of the famous hot mineral springs! Reckoning that a goodly hot soaking might be a fine way to conclude the day, we adjusted our course towards Ojo, and were there well before sundown.
The hot springs themselves were not quite the rustic, backcountry pools I had envisioned; a rather posh resort-like environment now envelopes the 4 original mineral pools, and an admission fee must be surrendered to gain access. As it turns out, admission is slightly discounted after 6 pm, so we decided to explore the area a bit until that time. A map available in the lobby indicates that hiking trails extend for several miles out behind the resort, leading to the ruins of a Tewa Indian pueblo on the mesa above the resort, and also to a few abandoned mica mines further out. The main path leading up to the lobby entrance continues out towards the trails:
The ruins above Ojo Caliente, called Posi Ouinge, are the remains of a thriving community inhabited by the Tewa people between around 1300 to early 1500 a.d.
People have been attracted to the healing waters of the hot springs for thousands of years; while the Tewa are believed to have relocated to other areas after a period of illness reduced their population, the Spanish took up residence in the area shortly thereafter.
To the untrained eye, there is little left to indicate that a city once stood here; time and erosion have erased most traces of walls and plazas. Look down, however, and the signs of human habitation are scattered everywhere in the form of broken bits of pottery.
Some pieces are colored, some bear remnants of vivid geometric designs, some are inscribed with neat rows of lines, and others are dull black, but glisten curiously in the sunlight. One of these latter pieces glistened so brightly I thought surely I had spotted a nugget of gold! Closer inspection revealed that tiny flecks of what appeared to be mica embedded in the fire-blackened clay of a pottery sherd were responsible for that golden flash.
Knowing that some old mica mines lay further out, I wondered if mica from the area had been worked into the clay for either decorative or utilitarian purposes. I took a few photos of the potsherds and then we hiked our way out towards the mica mines.
The mines weren't difficult to spot. We knew well in advance that we were on the right track, as the ground became increasingly sparkly with flakes of mica as we approached the shallow caves.
As we were walking towards the caves, eyes trained on the ground, my heart would skip a beat every time I spotted a chunk of mica larger than a quarter. Little did I know that the mines would yield massive sheets of mica the size of which I had never before seen.
Yes, I am putting those in my backpack; while collecting pottery sherds is strictly forbidden, I believe it is ok to collect some samples of the mica.
Thin, transparent sheets can be peeled off of the "books" of mica. Once, on a tour of Acoma Pueblo, I recall learning that the adobe-walled pueblos were fitted with windows created using sheets of mica; I had a hard time picturing it, since I had only ever seen little flakes of mica. The sheets we found could easily be trimmed into neat squares and secured in wooded frames, making perfectly serviceable windows!
Perhaps the pueblo people used sticky Piñon resin to seal up their mica windows? I couldn't help but stop to scoop up the fragrant resin that oozed from the many dead Piñon pine trees in the area, victims of the 2002- 2003 drought and heat wave that took quite a toll on New Mexico's Piñon population.
As the sun sank below the horizon, we realized that 6pm was nearly upon us; we hastily loaded up my mica and Piñon resin and made our way back down the trail towards the hot springs. The evening was cold and clear by the time we arrived; steam rolled off of the surface of the various mineral-rich springs as burning Piñon fires perfumed the air. My muscles ached from carrying back the heavy burden of mica samples I had collected, and it felt just grand to lay back in the hot water and look up at the steep wall of the mesa upon which the old Tewa village once stood; stars twinkling above. I felt privileged to have the opportunity to soak away my aches and pains as countless generations before me had done; I hope you have the opportunity to explore Ojo Caliente someday too!
A few days after visiting Ojo Caliente, a curious coincidence revealed all sorts exciting information about the glittery, mica-enriched pottery pieces I had noticed at the Posi Ouinge ruins. It turns out that "micaceous pottery" is well-known to archaeologists and aficionados of indigenous pottery, and soon I would find myself back on the road towards Ojo to meet up with a fellow who is well-known for transforming the local mica-rich clay into beautiful (and useable!) pieces of pottery! I hope you will check back soon for part two of the "Mica Mines and the Pottery that Glitters Like Gold" story!!!