Exploring the Jicarilla Apache Reservation – New Mexico, USA
The starting point for most trips into Jicarilla Apache reservation land is Dulce, the small mountain
town which serves as the tribal capital. At the center of Dulce is the community supermarket, a
pleasant and lively place. My wife Jill and I sat at a table in the market eatery, planning our trip while munching on the pinyon nuts we bought from a man selling them out of the back of his pickup truck across the street. The most intriguing place on the map was the strangely-named Stinking Lake, but we were also curious about the roads and badlands that surrounded the lake, and the eerie beauty they were said to have.
From Dulce, we took Highway 64, which passes to the southeast through rough terrain, and through valleys that spread out between ridges of eroded hills. We looked north while driving along this route, seeing the snow-capped mountains of Colorado in the distance. The small, round Mundo Lake, a lovely oasis in an area of forbidding badlands, provided a preview of the larger lakes we would see later along the route. Once we reached Route 8, we turned right onto it and headed south. The road was paved, but frequent potholes and crumbled pavement meant that we had to watch carefully as we drove. On the other hand, traffic was not a problem; only one or two pickup trucks shared the road with us the whole time we drove on it.
The mountains of Colorado were to our backs now; up ahead were lower peaks and ridges, as well as a vast grazing pasture covered with gray gravel and green bushes. An early landmark was a sign stating that we had just crossed the Continental Divide, the dividing line for North American water flow, on the west of which water flows into the Pacific and to the east into the Atlantic.
We found another surprise a short distance further down the road. The hillsides on both sides of the road, for about a mile, were covered with small pavilions, each about ten or fifteen feet square, made of sticks, weathered gray wood and branches with leaves. The structures seemed to have been there for quite some time. Each had a certain individuality, so that no two were totally alike. We guessed that these pavilions were for use as exhibition spaces in some sort of annual tribal event or festival.
The road continued south beyond the pavilion area. We went on through more gorgeous green pastureland, with views of distant mountains and red rock cliffs far to the east and west. At last, we saw Stinking Lake stretching out before us, on the horizon, in front of a range of mountains. Even before we stopped to take a look, we realized how incongruous its strange name was – an unearthly, ethereal place, perched on the edge of the earth, kept there only with looming gray mountains holding it in place. The late sun, reflecting off the clouds, gave the distant lake water a yellowish-gray sheen. It made it difficult at first glance to distinguish the broad pasture around the lake from the lake itself.
A short drive through more pastureland brought us to a bluff that overlooks the lake, at a distance of less than a mile. By this time, the sun had sunk lower in the sky, and was blotted out by the passing gray and white clouds. Even with the clouds in its way, the sun still glared from behind them, casting a pale light on the highest stratus levels in the sky. In front of us stretched the lake, its calm surface a perfect mirror showing the sky its own image. The gray and blue hills just beyond the lake had become black ghosts as the sun retreated behind them, as had the flat acres of land between the bluff and the lake. The bowl-shaped depression in the brush-covered plain that held the lake, which had appeared to be a brown ring at our first stop, was now gray and black. The lake's reflection meant a strange splitting of our view into four horizontal bands – a vast black one at our feet, then a thinner silvery-white one, then a black one of the same width, and finally a vast silver-white one matching the thinner one of the same color below it almost exactly. Seen from the bluff, Stinking Lake was, and remains, one of the most eerily beautiful places we have ever seen.
On the other side of the bluff, the hillside descended gradually, covered with brown dirt, small arroyos and scrub brush. There were also scattered clumps of barbed, brown-colored cholla cactus, the kind that is so common in New Mexico. At the bottom of the hill, in a small valley, nestled Perkins Lake, a smaller companion to its larger aquatic neighbor. Perkins Lake did not dazzle, but was alluring in a more understated way, its elongated-oval face appearing moody with its grayish-brown surface.
Heading back north, we returned to a three-way intersection through which we had passed before arriving at the lake view; the other branch of the road was a dirt track that headed southwest. We took it, and soon found ourselves leaving the pastures, passing into more forested territory, with sporadic tree cover and a bridge over a small creek. Our favorite find on this leg of the trip was a group of gnarled rock formations, the highest about twenty feet high, made of a tan-colored sandstone-like mineral and resembling rough-surfaced, above-ground stalagmites. We pulled over to investigate these, and noticed some lines on the rocks that looked like they were carved by a human hand. Since we always enjoy finding petroglyphs on our explorations of the southwest, we had a look at these with our binoculars, and were disappointed to find that the carvings were just ordinary graffiti.
As we drove back through the darkening landscape toward Dulce, we reflected on what we had seen. We loved the Jicarilla lands because we found a timeless, dignified beauty there, one I can imagine reliving many times. The fact that we had the place almost all to ourselves made the experience even better.
Tony Porco lives in a Washington, D.C. suburb with his wife and son. His writings have appeared on the BootsnAll and Democratic Underground websites, along with the newsletter of the National Aquarium in Washington. His poetry can be read in several literary magazines.