The more a place is worth writing about the more it is worth not writing about. That is the paradox that hides behind all travel writing. The most recent example is close to home, the book “Hiking to History: A Guide to Off-Road New Mexico Historic Sites” by Richard Julyan, published in May by UNM Press (224 pages, $24.95 in paperback).
The places that are most worthy of description and narration are those that are mostly unknown but especially rewarding to see. To discover the unknown, to learn from it and to enjoy its beauty and mystery—these are the reasons travelers buy a book or a magazine or join a web site. But places are interesting and beautiful and mysterious precisely because few people visit them. Writing about them promotes more visits, and every additional visitor makes them less remarkable. It is such spectacular and undiscovered places that writers who are ethical or merely selfish prefer to keep to themselves; but it is the same places that they are paid to publicize.
In both the introduction and the afterword to his latest in an excellent series of New Mexico travel books (including the recent “Mountains of New Mexico” and a revised edition of the old classic, “Place Names of New Mexico”) Julyan refers to this travel paradox. He resolved the paradox by excluding all archeological sites—not only ancient ruins of Clovis Americans, Anasazi Indians and Native American Pueblos, but Spanish and Mexican settlements, and even U.S. military and other sites whose history is numbered in decades rather than centuries or millennia.
He adopts the federal definition of a protected archeological site: any place that is more than 50 years old. That eliminates an awful lot of places.
You might think it would be every travel writer’s dream to describe a place that is pristine, untouched by cars, reachable only on foot, unknown to tourists, exciting, beautiful and historically important. But such places pose the most difficult choices for a writer. Your job, your life, your mind is focused on finding these places and telling the world about them. But as soon as you have disclosed them to your eagerly awaiting audience, you have taken a giant stride toward destroying them. Who do you betray? Your audience or yourself?
Julyan writes: “When I moved to New Mexico more than 30 years ago, I was elated by what I found here: a wealth of historic sites from more than 13 thousand years of human habitation located on vast tracts of wild land with limited or no road access. I came across sites on remote mesas where Paleo-Indians once hunted mammoth, and I visited deep canyons where battles had been fought. It was the stuff of high drama and romance, with colorful characters from enormous dinosaurs to Apache warriors to Billy the Kid to World War II bomber pilots.”
Alas, little of this “high drama and romance” finds itself into his new book. However, the author has the best of reasons for the omissions, one that as a travel writer and backcountry enthusiast myself I can sympathize with and totally understand. In his place I would hope to make the same choices, the same omissions. Call it self-censorship; that is the accurate word for it, but it is in a good cause.
The most important reason for not publicizing great archeological sites in remote areas is that it is almost impossible to protect them. The foes of preservation are not simply overeager tourists. Many casual visitors do disturb ancient ruins and remove what seem to them to be harmless tokens of their visit. More devastatingly, however, professional thieves steal priceless, irreplaceable relics of the past.
Secrecy is the only defense such sites have against vandals and tourists alike. And Julyan chose to go with secrecy.
What’s left for his anthology of hiking treasures are sites that have been so picked over or are so minor or are so indestructible that they are safe to write about. Nevertheless, Julyan has found more than a score of sites worth seeing where secrecy is unnecessary. Some are protected by the state of New Mexico or the federal government. In a number of cases access is restricted and it’s difficult, but not impossible, for the public to go there. Others retain only scraps of metal and scattered stones and shards. But even these scraps of history may be so imbued with the romance of the past that Julyan has been able to unearth interesting tales about them.
Several of these sites are in the Tricounty area and are especially convenient for readers of The Independent. One is the Kiwanis cabin, a stone structure on Sandia Crest that was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1936. “Hiking” may be a bit hyperbolic to describe getting to the cabin as it is less than half a mile form the parking lot.
Another site, on the west side of the Sandias, is where TWA Flight 260 crashed Feb. 19, 1955. Although the site has been massively picked over for decades, scraps of metal are still embedded in the rocks and soil.
A third site on Julyan’s list is the turquoise mines safeguarded in Cerrillos Hills Sate Park. The access is a few hundred yards of driving from the park’s new and attractive visitor center in the middle of the village. Trails lead to Native American, Spanish and 19th-century American turquoise mines that have been capped and fenced for safety. “The land here has been used—hard,” Julyan concludes bleakly.
Julyan also describes old bomb sites in the Ojito Mesa Wilderness. This area northwest of Albuquerque is one of the newest, smallest and lest known wilderness areas in the southwest. Its 11,183 acres were protected by Congress in 2005.
Another bomb site Julyan mentions is quite a bit more accessible. It is in the Petroglyph National Monument just west of Albuquerque.
However, Julyan does not mention the bomb sites closest to us in the East Mountains. The Manzanitas are dotted with hundreds of bomb sites, a number of which supposedly contain potentially dangerous unexploded ordinance. Perhaps the omission is one ingredient of the self-censorship to which he admits.
While this self-censorship seriously mitigates the value of the book, it also mitigates the damage it could do to our archeological treasures. Each reader will have to decide for himself whether Julyan has found the right balance. All things considered, I side with him.