Bayo Canyon Trails: A Glimpse into our Past

by Dr. Denise R. Ames

I love to hike, not just for the exercise although that is important too, but it is a time that I feel a deep connection with nature. Hiking the Bayo Canyon Trails gave me a healthy dose of connecting with nature but it also provided a glimpse into the lives of people who were living in the area over 150 years ago. What could be better.

My partner, Jim, and I visited Los Alamos recently for a brief stint of relaxation and hiking. The city of over 12,000 people is located on four mesas of the Pajarito Plateau in north central New Mexico. Los Alamos is best known for the Manhattan Project, in which it was the primary location for building the atomic bomb during World War II. But the area is also home to some beautiful hiking trails that are fun and refreshing, Bayo Canyon Trail is one of our favorites.

The area surrounding Bayo Canyon is rugged and dry, and it is hard to imagine that people would live in such inhospitable conditions. But actually, the area has been inhabited during various times since around 1150.  The ruins of permanent Puebloan (ancestors of today’s Indians) settlements, such as those located in nearby Bandelier National Monument and numerous other sites, such as cliff dwellings, prove their livability.  

Sangre de Cristo Mountains in background

Bayo Canyon trails are a complex of different trails that traverse the canyon. Trails crisscross the rugged terrain and it can be confusing at times which way is which. The popular North Bayo Canyon Trail winds its way across porous volcanic rock for about two miles to a stunning overlook point. Along the way, statuesque ponderosa pine trees sway in the gentle breeze, looking weary of being constantly thirsty and thrashed by high winds. The panoramic scene at the overlook scans the entire canyon and the Barranca Mesa, the Sangre de Cristo Mountains loom in the shadows on the horizon. Nature as its most splendid.

But the trail has a truly unique feature. While plodding along the dirt trail, we were stunned to see a bizarre site. Etched into the soft volcanic rock were rutted groves made by what looked like iron wheels going back and forth hundreds of times to permanently scar the ancient soft stone. Indeed, after some research into the ruts we found out what caused them.

In the late 19th century, homesteaders settled on the mesas, eking out a living by farming, raising animals, and even some logging. The homesteaders drove their supply wagons with 3-inch iron-clad wheels over the same roadbed for decades, cutting deeply into the porous stone. The ruts are still visible today. In 1943, as the Manhattan Project was getting underway, the area was abruptly closed and Army security forces patrolled the area for potential spies eager to find out more about the secret project. Bayo Canyon was closed to public use into the 1960s because an explosives detonation area was located at the upper end.

Years of use by hikers and horses have worn deeper and wider ruts into the soft tuff. The road may have been used by vehicles with pneumatic tires during laboratory days. The road was later used in the 1950s to install a sewer line serving Barranca Mesa. Anecdotal accounts indicate that operators of local sawmills took their products, primarily railroad ties, off the plateau down this road.

What strikes me on this particular hike is the hardscrabble life that the homesteaders must have endured. The land is rocky and sandy, the winds can be relentless, and the rainfall is sporadic. Eking out a living would be backbreaking work. Add to all that, the difficulty of getting into town over the rutted roads would make getting away from isolation a difficult venture.

Juxtapose the minimalist living standards and primitive technology of the homesteaders with what took place about 50 years after their settlement in the area: the Manhattan Project. Perhaps some of these homesteaders were still alive when the top Allied scientists from around the world congregated in their tiny inaccessible town. Paradoxically, the most advance technology was being invented in the midst of the homesteaders’ rudimentary technology.

Along this very trail that I was hiking, the transition from a world of homespun clothes and log cabins to a modern world of atomic bombs that defied the imagination took place. As I ambled along the delightful trail, I wondered if we will come full circle and our modern technology will turn its destructive side on us leaving humans to pursue again a simple, rugged way of life that the homesteaders endured decades ago. The future holds that secret.   

About the Author: Dr. Denise R. Ames

Dr. Ames’ varied life experiences— teaching, scholarly research, personal reflections, and extensive travels—have contributed to her balanced and thoughtful perspectives. Earning a doctorate in world history education, she has taught secondary schools, universities, a community college, and lifelong learners. In 2003, Dr. Ames founded the educational non-profit, Center for Global Awareness that develops globally-focused books and educational resources for grade 9-university. She has written eight books, plus numerous blogs, lesson plans, articles, newsletters, teaching units, and conducted professional development workshops for the non-profit and its clients.

Dr. Ames is now developing her new program: Turn, Transformation, Understanding, and Reflection Nexus.  Turn encourages life-long learners to see things with new eyes, learn from the past, and understand the relationship of all things. She teaches workshops/classes and writes about Turn’s five topics: learning from the past, cross-cultural awareness, five colliding worldviews, elder wisdom, and transformative travel.

Divided: Five Colliding Worldviews and How to Navigate Them has just been released!

Divided, Dr. Ames’ latest book,addresses the question on the lips of every American: why can’t we get along? The cultural divide is threatening our democracy and destabilizing our country. Divided looks at the deep cultural divide through the lens of five colliding worldviews—indigenous, traditional, progressive, globalized, and transformative. This approach helps us make sense of our deep divisions and suggests ways of bridging them.

It is urgent that we understand and bridge the cultural divide. Bridging the divide is dependent upon first understanding it. Gaining an understanding of the five worldviews enhances our success of arriving at sensible solutions and increasing civil conversations. If not, rancor and intractability ensue.

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