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Bisti Wilderness, New Mexico

Watch for ghosts among the mushroom-shaped rocks in this weird, lovely landscape.

Little-Known Fact: During the Upper Cretaceous period (approximately 70 million years ago) the area that is now Bisti Wilderness was home to many large reptiles — including the duck-billed dinosaur.

In the middle of the night I awoke to the unsettling sound of nothing — a powerful, mysterious silence unlike anything I’d ever experienced. Sure, I’d heard stories about the New Mexican desert, where supernatural somethings lurk behind every rock. But lying there in the void, I felt I might have become possessed. The absence of sound created a kind of internal thunder — probably nothing more than my own heartbeat.

We’d arrived at the Bisti Wilderness just before sundown, so we set up camp in the lingering shadows of one of the larger sandstone formations, about 50 feet high. The waning sunlight gave a reddish glow to the landscape, which melted into shades of orange and pink. Overhead the hawks that had been circling began to settle down for the evening in this weird and lovely land.

The next morning the stillness remained as we hiked through tortured topography. Like Alice in Wonderland, we hopped around on the mushroom-shaped weathered rocks, shales, and sandstones with layers of coal. The formations stood clustered together in all sizes, ranging from several feet to several stories high.

Elegantly weathered pillars — “hoodoos” left over from the complete erosion of everything around them — dotted the landscape. These are usually found in areas of sporadic but heavy rainfall. A geologist first coined the term hoodoo, an African word for spirit. The reasons are fairly obvious.

For most people hoodoos are too treacherous to climb and too beautiful to mar with Vibram soles. The shorter toadstools are much sturdier and more inviting, summoning the child in every hiker.

There is little vegetation in the Bisti, mostly scrubby patches of rice grass and snakeweed. But at some point in history, animals must have found the place attractive because there were hundreds of fossil sites to explore. Past paleontological studies have uncovered fossilized remains of dinosaurs, turtles, crocodiles, and other reptiles. Today this is a land of wildlife loners, scuttling among the remnant petrified wood.

The Bisti is situated in what remains of the ancient Anasazi culture, and evidence of prehistoric activities from 6,000 B.C. has been found nearby. There are Navajo burial grounds and religious sites throughout adjacent lands. When you consider the Bisti’s magical silence, with its long-standing spiritual history, it’s easy to feel cosmically insignificant when hiking beneath the spires. I took special care to watch where and how I walked, though I’m at a loss to explain the reason now.

With no man-made distractions, you can explore the endless web of toadstools and spires, look for fossils, watch distant storms move across the sizzling New Mexican desert, or listen for eagles. Evenings are often mysterious and chilly.

Camping in the silence that night, we returned to the question of the day: What’s the real attraction of hiking in badlands? After all, how many sandstone toadstools can you climb in one day? The answer, I found, lies partly in the area’s topographical strangeness, but mostly in the silent isolation. Powerful stuff.

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