Reflections on a Weeklong Trip With Nature and Wildlife

What's the cost of venturing into vast expanses of land?

vista in Abiquiu

John Donovan

The sky looks a little smaller today and the wildlife a little tamer.

We just got back from a weeklong trip through New Mexico where we traveled through desert landscapes, hiked up mountains, and walked through dry creek beds. We experienced nature and wildlife that was vastly different from what I’ve seen before. 

We’ve lived in Atlanta for 25 years so it was quite a change from our “city in a forest,” where nearly 50% of the metro area is covered by trees. My husband and I were joined by our adult son who now lives in San Diego and is a little more familiar with the west. We like to take family vacations where we can visit national parks and explore interesting ecosystems.

In New Mexico, everything was so vast and striking. Starting in Albuquerque, we took a tram up the Sandia Peak in the Sandia Mountains, where we had spectacular views as we watched parasailers float off into the unending sky. We then drove to Abiquiu, the town where artist Georgia O’Keeffe was so inspired.

We stayed at a lovely home pretty much in the middle of nowhere. First, we noticed the gorgeous setting. Then we noticed the ants. Billions (I’m estimating) of tiny ants were marching all over the outside of the property. They were carrying off a few of the native bees that had fallen to the ground near the house.

Immediately outside the home, trails led to an arroyo, or dry creek bed. The owners warned us to avoid the area if storms were imminent due to the distinct possibility of flash flooding. On the first day, we saw a few rustles in the dried brush, soaring birds of every shape and size, and lots of tracks in the sandy soil.

We followed tracks, trying to decide who had the cloven prints and whether we were walking behind roadrunners and following the trail of jackrabbits. Occasionally tracks would meet and we assume a snatching or kerfuffle happened.

Once we were awakened in the middle of the night by howling that was both eerie and musical. We were told about the coyotes that share the area, so we weren’t surprised when we woke up the next morning to some pretty impressive pawprints right outside the back door.

My husband buried our compost as required and each morning found that some animal had destroyed his work and helped itself to breakfast.

On our final morning hike before heading south in the state, we spotted a large snake curled up on the path, enjoying the warm morning sun. We stayed far out of its way but certainly watched our steps a little more carefully. After sending a photo to a snake identification app, my son confirmed it was a prairie rattlesnake.

Of course, we have snakes and coyotes in metro Atlanta, but we haven’t had such up-close encounters. At our house in the wooded suburbs, we generally see squirrels and chipmunks and the occasional small snakes and deer. It was a big day when we spotted a tiny shrew in the backyard.

Beauty and Sustainability

White Sands National Park
White Sands National Park.

Mary Jo DiLonardo

We were overwhelmed by the beauty of Bandelier National Monument where we hiked to a mostly dry waterfall and admired petroglyphs and cliff dwellings high up in the rocks. On the 1.5-mile hike to the falls and back, elevation changed 400 feet with sheer drop-offs and narrow paths. We saw only four other hikers. It is so moving to be out in the middle of such a beautiful, amazing landscape and not be surrounded by people or cars or noise.

Back home, our regular walks take us past homes and businesses, and alongside busy roads and lots of construction. There are roaring leaf blowers, barking dogs, and blaring radios. 

But all was quiet on most of our adventure. We trudged through mounds of gypsum crystals at White Sands National Park. We baked as we went up and down the brilliant hills, spotting beetles scurrying in the dunes and dragonflies flitting amid the scrub.

In several places, people were sliding down the dunes on plastic coasters. My son pointed out what a wasteful use of plastic it was and hoped that post-visit, the sleds weren’t tossed in the trash.

We talked about sustainability throughout the trip. In the past several decades, there’s been so much noticeable change in our travel adventures. Every park had hydration stations and recycling bins, hotels encouraged guests to reuse towels, and tiny toiletry bottles are gone. We refilled, recycled, and composted as much as we could.

One big flaw of our great adventure, our son pointed out, was the thousand-plus miles we put on our rental car. And there were so many massive trucks on the roads and highways.

Such a waste, says the young man who rarely drives and hopes to return to city life where he can use his feet and mass transit to get nearly everywhere.

That will be great to keep the skies cleaner and save energy. And the coyotes and rattlesnakes can be left to dance and bask in peace.

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