I spend a lot of time in the desert, more specifically, in the badlands of the San Juan Basin. And, of the nine recognized badlands located there, I usually find myself wandering in either the Bisti Wilderness, or Ah Shi Sle Pah Wash. But, I want to step out of the box here and give a nod to the rest: the Ojito Wilderness, Mesa de Cuba, San Jose, Lybrook, Mesa Penistaja, Ceja Pelon, and De Na Zin.
What exactly is a badland? Merriam-Webster defines it as: a region marked by intricate erosional sculpturing, scanty vegetation, and fantastically formed hills–usually used in plural. The pre-requisites for a badlands to form are a grouping of harder sedimentary deposits: sandstone, siltstone etc. suspended in a softer matrix. As the softer material is eroded away, the harder, more dense material is left exposed, often perched on pedestals of the soft matrix.
But, at times the harder deposits may just be scattered haphazardly across a playa or alluvial plain or they may be isolated and in unexpected angles of repose. The seemingly inexplicable arrangement of the features is part of the mystique of the badlands. How did they get here and why? The answer to that question could fill a Geology text, and I am not even remotely qualified to go there. I can say, with some authority however, that the photographic possibilities are as close to infinite that you can get.
As you can imagine, the creation of such an environment takes time…a lot of time. Mesa de Cuba, the youngest is 38-54 million years old. San Jose is 48-64 million years old, Lybrook, Ceja Pelon, and Penistaja are all 60-64 million years old, De Na Zin, along with Bisti and Ah Shi Sle Pah, is 70-75 million years old, and Ojito is the oldest at 144-150 million years old. Each of the aforementioned locations have their own personality, and each of them offer there own version of timeless beauty.
Color is an element that often takes center stage in the badlands. Depending on the mineral content of the soil, there may be layers of red, yellow, blue, or even green. Combine this palette with the other strange and, often, unexpected elements of the landscape and the other-worldly, remote locations become even more surreal.
Possibly the most noticeable feature of such environments are the many erosion channels and drying cracks that cut into the soft bentonite, and mudstone that form the matrices that support the entire system. When the light is right, they stand out in stark relief revealing an almost unimaginable complexity.
As I already pointed out, most of these locations are much smaller than their more famous big brothers: Bisti, and Ah Shi Sle Pah. But, what they lack in size, they make up for in their diversity and surreal beauty. When you add to that the knowledge that these environments have been so many eons in the making (that petrified log emerging from the side of that bentonite mound was a cypress tree in a Mesozoic swamp), and are ever evolving (those sandstone slabs you just walked over will be the caprocks of hoodoos in some distant, future landscape), exploring and photographing them becomes even more significant and mysterious.
Just as you can never step into the same river twice; because of their fragile, and ever-changing nature, you can never visit the same badlands twice.
If you’ve never been to the desert southwest, you may not be aware of the importance of water to the landscape. Not only is it the source of life for the many hardy species that call this arid environment home, but is also one of the main forces by which the landscape came to be what it is.
These first three images were made in Blue Canyon on the Hopi reservation in northeastern Arizona. Over eons, a small stream and countless windstorms have sculpted the soft sandstone leaving a wonderland of deep chasms and etching the stone with amazing textures.
Just in case you have the idea that this small stream doesn’t have its moments of glory, here is an image of a car that was carried away while the rivulet was in flood. It is now wedged firmly between the walls of the water cave.
This is the place where the stream plunges into the chasm it has carved out over the course over millions of years. I had posted this image in a previous blog about my trip to Blue Canyon, but that was a color image. I made this black and white conversion using Silver Efex Pro and put some emphasis on the structure and texture to show the wrinkles time has etched into the face of this desert landscape
And just so you know that we have our fair share of “Erosion Art” in New Mexico, here is an image I made recently in the Mesa de Cuba badlands in the northwest corner of the “Land of Enchantment”.
These places can mean different things to different people: Some may look at such a place with a mix of wonder (wonder that anyone could find beauty there) and fear-fear of the unknown, fear of what may be lurking around that next bend, and fear that somehow they may, as I did, develop a deep sense of love and respect for such a harsh, unforgiving environment. One thing is certain if you take the time to look around you and think about how things work in a desert ecosystem, you will come away looking at life a little differently from the way you did before your visit.
Happy wandering! Oh, bring a GPS and plenty of H2O.