you want to be alone, go to the Bisti Badlands. There the outside
world does not intrude. And barely exists. There you will be by
The Bisti Badlands
are in Navajo country, in northwestern New Mexico, south of Farmington
and north of Gallup, off a back-country state highway numbered
371. You don't get there by accident. Very few get there at all.
Almost nothing grows
in the Bisti, and nothing has been built there, except a rough
dirt road and a thin wire fence. The Badlands combine isolation
with desolation, in as pure a mixture of both as you will find.
If you find it.
The Badlands, which
officially were designated the Bisti Wilderness Area by Congress
in 1984, are a grimly beautiful region of interbedded shale, sandstone
and coal, fashioned by erosion into a landscape that might return
in your nightmares.
The dominant shape
is flat. The dominant color is gray. But strange red hills pop
up here and there, purple swirls decorate the earth, craggy black
formations are etched against the sky. Dark stripes of coal run
horizontal in the fine gray sand. Little piles of brown rocks
are scattered through the Badlands, broken down by the patient
hand of time. In just a few spots, gravel patches boldly display
most of the hues of the rainbow. The sky above is usually blue,
with clouds of white on many days. At night it all turns black.
And the dominant sound
is silence. The voices of people passing through get swallowed
by it, while the unaccompanied visitor hears nothing but the crunch
of his footsteps--and sometimes, especially in the spring, the
The Badlands get blistering
hot in summer, bone-numbing cold in winter. Except after an infrequent
storm, or when snow lies on the ground, you will search in vain
for water. Vegetation is limited to tough little weeds and a low,
crinkly ground cover, adding spots of green to nature's harsh
Life is scarce in the
Bisti. A pair of crows may fly overhead, a lizard may dart underfoot.
But there is nothing to graze on, nothing to drink, no shelter
from the sun. Not even a coyote can make a living there. It is
not called the Badlands for nothing.
The Bisti is not really
a spectacular place--just an exceptionally different place. And
But a few wanderers
do come, to know this barren outback for themselves. They are
a hardy bunch, and certainly curious, for getting there is tricky.
From the north, some 40 miles of scrub desert separate the Bisti
from modern civilization. From the south, it's more like 70.
A roadside marker indicates
where to leave Highway 371, but after that it's pretty much up
to you. The gray dirt road heading east pounds your car with washboard
ruts, and frequent unmarked intersections leave you unsure if
you're on the right track, or if you'll remember the way out.
A couple of windswept
ruins are the only man-built structures on the road to the Bisti
Badlands. And when you get there, seldom will you have felt so
Just 3,946 acres bear
the title Bisti Wilderness Area. Environmentalists wanted more,
but the coal in the region made mining companies oppose the designation,
and Congress, as usual, compromised. The flimsy wire fence marks
the official boundary, and "No Trespassing" signs warn
you off the property of the surrounding Idaho-based mining firm.
Inside the fence, however,
is a tiny world apart, where you are free to roam. Tramping through
the Bisti's hills and washes, flatlands and low mesas, coal seams
and bedrock, will not take long--just an hour or two, maybe a
little more if you get turned around. But unless your car breaks
down, in which case you'll be in trouble, you'll get out all right.
Then you will be one
of the few who know the Bisti Badlands. More than anything else,
you will know it is out there in the lonesome. All by itself.
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Articles by Richard McCord