Eleven men and women of a certain age, who were adventuring many miles from their usual Cedar Crest-Tijeras historical haunts, surmounted a small hill and topped a rise to stare at a sunlit view of wild mesas and canyons. The hikers were a diverse lot—a writer, an editor, a Sandia National Laboratories executive. Most were reasonably fit, taking the 7 miles of walking on dusty trails that day in stride.
This is the Ojito National Wilderness, and these members of the East Mountain Historical Society have come here to view a site unique in the annals of paleontology—and at least 60 million years older than the sites they have been accustomed to documenting in the East Mountains.
It was on this small knoll in 1979 that Arthur Loy, a wandering artist, and his friend, Jan Cummings, accidentally unearthed the only known member of a new dinosaur species. “It was like a huge chicken neck lying half in and half out of the sands here,” Cummings recalled.
Ojito is now a dry and weathered wonderland of sand and brush, buttes and boulders, but 80 million years ago it was a moist and swampy paradise for giant reptiles.
For six years, the pair kept their discovery secret, but increasing use of the area by hikers and bikers alarmed them. “This area used to be deserted, but now there are a lot of mountain bikers on weekends,” said Roland Curtis, who led the historical society group.
In 1985 Loy and Cummings told officials of the newly created New Mexico Natural History Museum about the discovery. The bones of Seismosaurus were moved to the museum, where they were reconstructed to create the museum’s largest and most dramatic display. The display, which fills a cavernous room on the second floor, shows a smaller but more aggressive Saurophagamax attacking the Seismosaurus. Weighing 30 tons and 110 feet long, with 104 vertebrae, Seismosaurus used its narrow, seemingly endless tail like a whip to defend itself.
In 2002 the Seismosaurus went on the international stage, starring in The Greatest Dinosaur Expo in Tokyo.
The East Mountain group searched for a rumored plaque memorializing the site of the discovery, but without success. They did have more luck, however, in finding dozens of ancient pictographs. On the knoll, along the edge of a cliff, red horizontal rocks became the canvases on which ancient Native Americans inscribed scores of white images.
How old are the images? Who were the artists? What do the pictures mean? No one knows.
Ojito is one of the newest of New Mexico’s 23 National Wilderness Areas. Unlike national monuments (two of which in New Mexico may face cutbacks), the wilderness areas were created by acts of Congress and thus are safe from threats of the Trump administration.
The 11,000-acre preserve was set aside by Congress in 2005. It is about 40 miles northwest of Albuquerque and just south and west of San Ysidro. Ojito is actually the core of a much larger area for exploring New Mexico’s natural wonders. The area includes the adjacent Zuni Pueblo and a vast parcel of BLM land. Some 15 miles of trails, the White Ridge Mountain Bike Area, on BLM land next to Ojito are now heavily used by Albuquerque residents on weekends.
Target shooters regularly inhabit the area, leaving behind bullet casings, perforated signs and and a destroyed television set.
But during the historical society jaunt, the entire region seemed deserted. Two target shooters and a road repair crew were sighted. A handful of cows found something to graze on near two ponds. Otherwise, silence and the largeness of land and sky were awesome.
Tour leader Curtis, who retired after a quarter century as an Albuquerque Public Schools special education teacher, said he has visited Ojito ”thousands of times” over the years wandering its unmarked canyons and mesas. His love of the area comes out of every pore.
“Have you ever gotten lost?”
“Oh yeah, all the time.” He pauses. “People get lost out here a lot. It’s a fabulous area. Somebody said it’s like Mars.”
The spine of Ojito is Cabezon Road, which connects N.M. 550 to the area’s most interesting walks, including Seismosaurus Trail, leading to the dinosaur site, and longer Querencia Arroyo Trail, which is described in detail in the second edition of the book, “60 Hikes Within 60 Miles of Albuquerque” by Stephen Ausherman. Another fascinating but easy trail called the Hoodoo Pines Trail leads through magical white and yellow striated rocks to where, remarkably, ponderosa pines grow in sand dunes.
The excursion, like most of the historical society’s activities, was organized by Denise Tessier, who said she is looking forward to surrendering the president’s gavel after seven years. “Without an office or staff and only a small budget we manage to do as much as a lot bigger historical societies around the state,” the usually low-key Tessier says with a note of pride. Future plans include:
• Nov. 12 election of new officers at a 1:30 p.m. meeting at the historic church in Tijeras. Afterward Jack Loeffler will discuss his friend, author and environmental activist Edward Abbey.
• Dec. 2 explanation by Moises Gonzales of the origins of the Comanchitos Dance at the Grant Brewing Co. at the Carnuel Land Grant Hall on Route 66, 1:30 p.m., with food truck and brew.
• Dec. 16, 10 a.m., Comanchitos Dance at the La Madera original townsite. This historic tradition of singing and dancing will be arranged by Moises Gonzales.
With the aid of a $1,000 grant from the Historical Society of New Mexico, the East Mountain group has created a 36-square-foot map of a 400-square-mile area of the East Mountains, stretching from Golden to Chilili and from Carnuel to Moriarty. Smaller versions of the map are available for purchase.
Meanwhile, the society has embarked on an ambitious project to create a book describing the nearly 250 sites on the map, from Golden to Chilili and from Carrnuel to Moriarty.
“We have 80 finished timelines and our eight map book volunteers have signed up to work on 50 more,” according to Kris Thacher, who is seeking more volunteers to finish the project, called “Mapping Our Vanishing Past.”
For those like the members of the East Mountain Historical Society who are enraptured of the past, any history, whether calculated in centuries as in the East Mountains or in millions of years, as in Ojito, is worth the effort to explore and understand it. It’s all just a continuum.
For more information go to eastmountainhistory.org.