“El Malpais”: The Bad Lands

El Malpais National Park and Monument (image from their site)

Once again, the drive off the highway was a long, winding, slowly climbing experience. Along with the magnificent Sandstone formations, there were fields that appeared to be covered with black rock. Philip at the Las Vegas National Wildlife Refuge (read about it here) had spoken of volcanic activity at this place, which he had recommended. A strange site it was to see… the results of the volcano which had taken place long before the white man came to the Southwest.

The curving road and rolling hills landscape, filled with unique geological formations, was never boring. In fact, it was tantalizing. The more I was learning about the geological history and humanity’s presence, beginning thousands of years ago with the Native Americans, a sense of awe filled my spirit.

After driving for more than 10 miles, I began to wonder about life in this majestic setting. A feeling gripped me of why some people would live nowhere else. Up ahead, on a slope, I saw a small building, almost insignificant amidst the vastness of space, the broad horizon and the sky above with changing cloud formations, which was a show in itself. Making a turn, the drive entered a space with more trees, primarily Ponderosa Pine. No cars were in the parking lot. Perhaps it was closed.

However the door was open, and walking in, all was quiet. Calling out, ‘Good morning,’ a young adult, looking like some of my friends in the 60s, came out, and we introduced ourselves. For the following hour, we had an exceptionally interesting conversation, although almost every conversation on “Passages to Yosemite” was providing insights and motivation to keep persevering, both in understanding and taking actions.

After this visit at El Malpais National Monument, I reflected on discussions 53 years ago, when I traveled across America (read about that some here), when my decision was made to work in the inner city of Boston. Perhaps the appearance of Ken Jones, the supervising ranger here at this place, which was both a National Monument and a National Conservation Area, reminded me of that previous trip. Shortly after I arrived, the phone rang, and this gave me a chance to examine the exhibits. They were excellent. I told Ken that if I did not need to keep moving West, I would spend the day.

Ken described the history of the area, including the geological formations and the various people who populated the lands through the years, the conflicts and the present situation. One of the grasping situations is the ever-evolving changes that have taken place since the ‘White Man’ arrived. First inhabitants were those Native Americans who were related to those who came from the North. For thousands of years, they moved along trails to connect with each other. The Pueblo people were first established for centuries, creating settlements on the along the perimeter of the “El Malpais.” The name is Spanish, meaning ‘The Bad Lands,’ so named because both horses and men had difficulty walking upon the black lava rocks. Only at the time of the depression, in the 1930s, did people escape poverty situations in an attempt to find a new start.

Ken Jones was a highly committed and compassionate person who supervised a staff of two at three locations. He explained that for three years, he was attempting to get the third park ranger staff position filled. Frustrated, but accepting of the situation, he was deeply committed to providing educational programs for school children and youth, along with explaining the human history and geological history to many people who camped out in this isolated but richly spiritual place. In the midst of a discussion on the lack of financial resources for staff and maintenance, the phone rang again. Again, I studied the displays.

Ken came back smiling, “Just heard from my boss that we got the new position approved!”

My response was, “Great going, Ken! Perseverance pays off!”

Soon, it was time for me to leave. And, as I was leaving, two cars drove up with people who had been camping. Their expressions of joy for this place showed its meaning at the core of one of Olmsted’s statements about grand places of Nature which should be preserved for all people because this environment provides an enrichment for health and well-being, along with a sense of “enhanced freedom.”

Along with this thought, I will always remember one definition of how people are utilizing natural resources for personal wealth without a concern for preservation and sustainability. Ken defined people as having an “extraction mindset.” The people who camped out did not extract anything from the environment. Nature gave them a gift.

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