August March told me that Mount Taylor was a holy place. “Yeah, I know,” I said.
“But it feels holy,” he said back.
I was feeling that holiness somewhere around the lava flows of El Malpais. According to some of the Diné—the Navajo—Yé'iitsoh (Big God, the chief of the Enemy Gods) was killed by the twin war gods Born-for-Water and Monster-Slayer on top of Mount Taylor, where he lived. The lava flow, which has been here for thousands of years, is the hardened remains of his blood.
It looks like spilled cake batter, frozen in mid-flow. Brushy plants grew out of the surface, bobbing in the wind in contrast to its stillness. Apparently there's a whole national monument south of Grants for me to explore. I considered changing plans and shooting off to look at more lava flows, but I've been wanting to visit Mount Taylor ever since I'd read about it last year.
It really is a holy place, according to the Diné—one of four sacred mountains that were created by the First People at the dawn of our world (what some refer to as the Fourth World). It loomed, inevitable, over the lava fields, capped with snow.
This is one version of how Mount Taylor came to be:
The Diné spent four days searching in vain when Talking God and Water Sprinkler appeared with two bowls—one made of white shell and one of blue—which they began to spin. The spinning bowls opened the river and Áłtsé hastiin, First Man and Áłtsé asdzą́ą́, First Woman went down into it. There they found Big Water Creature's house. Behind them, slinking in the shadows, Áłtsé Hashké, the Coyote called First Angry followed.
First Man and First Woman found Big Water Creature sleeping. Nearby were the two missing children, as well as Big Water Monster's two children. As they took the two human children back to the surface to be reunited with the people, First Angry stuffed the creature's children into his skin coat and absconded with them.
When Tééhoołtsódii awoke to find her children gone, she became so angry that she made it rain until Third World was completely flooded.
First Man, realizing that their beautiful home was no more, collected dirt from each of the sacred mountains in Third World and planted a reed at the top of the mountain Sisnaajiní, the only dry place left. The reed grew, and the people climbed it all the way into the Fourth World. But the water had reached the bottom of Fourth World, and it wasn’t stopping. No one could figure out why Big Water Creature was so mad. First Angry then pulled the two kids out from under his skins and said, “Maybe it was this.” They put Big Water Creature’s children in a basket and placed it on her head. Only then did she retreat.
First Man, First Woman, Great-
First Man, First Woman, Black Ye'i and Water Sprinkler built the sacred mountains, , using the dirt that First Man had collected in the Third World.
In the East they made White Shell Mountain (Sisnaajiní/Mount Blanca in Colorado). In the South the made Turquoise Mountain (Tsoodził/Mount Taylor). In the West they made Abalone Shell Mountain (Dook'o'oosłííd/The San Francisco Peaks in Arizona). And in the North they made Big Sheep Mountain(Dibé Nitsaa/Mount Hesperus in Colorado).
The mountains represent the four cardinal directions (and, by extension, the binding of the physical world). Each one is given decorations and a pair of guardians. Tsoodził—Mount Taylor—was decorated with turquoise, bluebirds, animals, dark mist and light clouds that bring light rain. They made Boy-
It takes all of two hours to get there from Albuquerque. The drive west on I-40 has plenty of beautiful deserts and lava to admire, and the trip on NM-547 to Gooseberry Springs Trail (the most commonly used route to the top of the mountain) runs through rich forests of pine and aspen. The road turns into dirt during the last leg, but even my little car made it without any problems.
So I was surprised to find it so quiet and seemingly remote. I hadn't seen another car for miles when I parked on the side of the road near the trailhead. The sound of my car door shutting echoed conspicuously and was followed by a roaring sound that I finally realized was the buzzing of bees combined with the wind in the trees. Every cracking twig and rustling branch was deafening. I knew it was just my imagination, but it was like someone had turned off a background noise that I wasn't even aware of—the almost distinct whine of cell phone and wifi signals, of grinding gears and coughing machines. The whine of civilization.
My wife, my dog and I hiked toward the peak for about three hours in all. The full trail goes for a little over three miles from Horace Mesa to the peak (and three back). The first leg works through a dense forest before coming out into open, eye-pleasing meadows. Large patches of powdery snow glowed eerily in the warm sun along the way. We came across some turkey tracks, perfectly molded in some mud, and actually saw three of them as we rounded a corner. They took off like marathon runners.
It's a moderately steep hike that feels even steeper at an elevation of 9,300-11,300 feet, but I'm sure I would've made it. See, my dog is really old and out of shape, and she gets irritable. She also hates it when I use her as a scapegoat to keep me from having to put forth any extra effort, but that's what dogs are for.
As the car came into view on our way back down, a bird flew across my eye line. It flashed bright blue in the sun and landed on a branch off of the trail. I stopped and opened my mouth. “Wow,” I drawled.
“Poo-too-weet?” it asked.