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The Old Look of “New” Mexico (Part One)


The important numbers about New Mexico don’t look good, so wherein does its unique value lie?


The numbers I refer to above are the ones convention associates with the quality of life in a state. On a scale of 1 to 50, New Mexico’s key rankings by McKinsey & Co. include the following: Education #48, Crime and Corrections #49, Economy #47, Government #43, Opportunity #46.

In addition, earlier this month, WalletHub, a personal finance website, named the “Land of Enchantment” the worst state in which to raise a family.  So why would I rather live here than any other place in the country? For one thing, I’m not trying to raise a family. For another, “here” is Santa Fe.

Ironically, Travel and Leisure  gave Santa Fe the second highest rating in the country as a vacation destination in 2017. With the beautiful Sangre de Cristo Mountains rising in the background, the Santa Fe River running through it, charming and historic pueblo-style architecture everywhere, wonderful hotels and restaurants to visit, and entertainment and intellectual stimulation flowing nonstop, the appeal is obvious.

As for the state itself, there are only about two million people living here. When one looks at the numbers above, the need for “development” immediately comes to mind. We need to bring in businesses, create jobs, generate a lot of tax revenue to mitigate poverty and invest in childhood education, etc. However, due to factors I won’t go into here, the usual way of creating prosperity through growth may not work in New Mexico.

At the same time, its primary value to the collective may be unique. I refer to its connection with deep time through extraordinary geology; historic ruins; and vast, beautiful, and underpopulated landscapes. All three provide an opportunity for all its residents and visitors to do some very serious thinking about what our place on this planet has been–and should be in the future. So let’s turn to the geology first.


On a drive through wide-open spaces, there are often startling encounters with the evidence of lava flow and land shifts that have created natural, architectural monuments. This is because New Mexico is also known as “The Land of Volcanoes.” According to the New Mexico Museum of Natural History, it has “one of the largest concentrations of young, well-exposed, and uneroded volcanoes on the continent.” They are uneroded due to low rainfall. The map below illustrates the numerous sites.

Volcanoes and Lava Flows


The youngest volcano, near Grants southwest of Santa Fe, is about 3,000 years old. Fifty miles northwest of Santa Fe in the Jemez Mountains is the Valles Caldera, which erupted about a million years ago. When it collapsed over time, it formed the 12-mile-wide caldera. It is one of the largest young calderas in the world. In the fall, visitors at dawn enjoy the sound of rutting elk bugling.

Valles Caldera

A very different site created by volcanic activity about seven million years ago is Tent Rocks, around 40 miles southwest of Santa Fe. The formations, often called “Oz-like,” have resulted from erosion by wind and rain.

Tent Rocks

A very different kind of site is the Black Place, named by Georgia O’Keeffe, who traveled there many times to do some of her greatest landscape paintings. Located north of Santa Fe in the badlands of the Navajo Reservation and about 100 miles west of O’Keeffe’s home in Ghost Ranch, it was formed about 66 million years ago.  This was after the Chicxulub asteroid crashed into the earth and caused the mass extinction of the dinosaurs. Tiny, rodent-like mammals survived there, and it is part of the Nacimiento Formation, which “comprises the richest fossil beds of early mammals ever found on Earth.” (The quote is by Douglas Preston writing in photographer Walter W. Nelson’s Book, The Black Place, Two Seasons.) 

The Black Place
Walter W. Nelson

Preston also calls it “one of the harshest, most unforgiving environments in the country, swept by ferocious winds year-round.” This made it very hard for O’Keeffe to paint. Temperatures rise over 100 degrees in the summer and drop below zero in winter, and they can swing 70 degrees in one day. Nearly devoid of life, the land devastated by the asteroid was also covered over time by the black ash of erupting volcanoes. About 50 million years ago, it began to rise from just above sea level to about 7,000 feet. Subsequent erosion created the fantastic landscape that inspired O’Keeffe.

Preston writes that she “sensed the infinitude and mystery in these dark badlands.” He considered evidence of her fascination the fact that she visited the site the last time when she was nearly 90 years old, half-blind, and enfeebled.

Black Place II
Georgia O’Keeffe

The majesty of these and other volcanic sites and their ancient history can have a rather humbling effect, which would be becoming to Americans at this time in our history. The dinosaur fossils plentiful in state geology remind us that they endured for approximately 170 million years before they were wiped out by an asteroid. The survival of humanity is at risk by our own hand after only about 200,000 years. New Mexico, with its beautiful sites of profound quiet and the intimation of infinity, is a very meaningful place to meditate on this matter.

The pueblo ruins all over the state are similarly thought-provoking. However, I will stop here for the moment and save that discussion  for my next post.

One Response to “The Old Look of “New” Mexico (Part One)”

  1. Les Fenter

    Oh YES!!! Ellen, you are describing what makes New Mexico one of my 4 favorite states to visit. AND, if it were not for family here, I’d live in New Mexico. Of course as you point out, Santa is the best metropolitan city. Love, love, love all the people, art, architecture, open-mindedness. Hmmm. Wonder if open-space is related to open-mindedness. Yes, that’s what it is! Well. . . . at least in part. Looking forward to your next observations. Oh, and lest you consider NM perfect, it has some of the dirtiest roadsides and roadside picnic tables I’ve ever seen. But hey, I am still in awe as I look past those.