Bisti Wilderness, NM

Bisti Wilderness 2015 #17
Bisti Wilderness 2015 #17
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Bisti Wilderness 2016 #455
Bisti Wilderness 2016 #455
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Bisti Wilderness 2015 #27
Bisti Wilderness 2015 #27
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Bisti Wilderness 2016 #357
Bisti Wilderness 2016 #357
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Bisti Wilderness 2016 #393
Bisti Wilderness 2016 #393
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Bisti Wilderness 2015 #124
Bisti Wilderness 2015 #124
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Bisti Wilderness 2016 #319
Bisti Wilderness 2016 #319
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Bisti Wilderness 2016 #342
Bisti Wilderness 2016 #342
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Bisti Wilderness 2015 #148
Bisti Wilderness 2015 #148
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The Bisti (rhymes with "twist-tie") in northwestern New Mexico is a Bureau of Land Management wilderness area of hoodoos; a hoodoo is basically a hard rock held up on a pedestal of soft rock that it has protected from erosion. The hoodoos emerge from inside haystack-shaped mounds of very soft mudstone, which is mostly volcanic ash; as the haystack dwindles away the hoodoos remain. The mudstone erodes so easily that I think if you dropped a nickel a tiny new hoodoo would start to form under it. The Bisti has thousands and thousands of hoodoos, large and small, at every stage from about to collapse to just now forming.

There are no marked trails, but you can go anywhere you want. You can even camp anywhere (right amid the hoodoos if you want), but you have to walk everything in. I have neither the energy nor the gear for serious backpack camping that I had as a teenager in the Himalayas, so I chose to camp inside the zone but conveniently close to my car, and to keep all my cooking and water and so forth at the car. I found a spot that looked (from the right angle) like deep wilderness but was actually only a hundred yards from the road where I parked—and my tent was nicely hidden behind my own personal incipient hoodoo.

On my first visit (I've been back repeatedly) I spent 24 hours at the Bisti, from noon to noon. I was in an almost trance-like state for most of that time. I took over 400 pictures there; the real effect doesn't come from highlights, this or that special hoodoo, it's in the overwhelming, exhausting accumulation of more and more and more. (You need to see more than one tree to say "forest," more than one pagoda to say "Angkor Wat.") The first afternoon I wandered for 4 hours, just following my eye to whatever I saw next. At sunset I walked back out through the stile in the barbed-wire fence to my car.

While I ate dinner (honestly, so aesthetically fatigued by what I'd seen—like walking through the entire Louvre in one afternoon—that I could barely imagine looking at another hoodoo ever again) the moon rose, one day short of full. So off I went again, to a nearby section I had not visited before. For an hour I wandered through a ghostly forest of hoodoos, knee-high to waist-high, illuminated entirely by moonlight. No pictures from that time—not enough light for my camera—but just look back at my daytime pictures of dense-set hoodoos near ground level and then imagine them by soft moonlight: it was magical, unforgettable. (A funny thing about winter camping: the sun sets so soon, and it's so cold, that the evening starts early and accelerates toward the goal of a warm sleeping bag; my spooky moonlit "middle of the night" walk among the hoodoos took place between 7 and 8 pm!)

I was up again at 5 am, and ate breakfast (like dinner) out of the tailgate of my car. It was about 30 degrees; no campfires allowed—let's just say I've had more congenial starts to my day. Then I walked back through the fence into the zone, by the tail end of moonlight and the first hint of dawn, and this time turned north instead of south. Talk about a trance: for the next 4 hours I was barely aware of self at all. I'm not sure how I remembered to breathe. As the sun rose very slowly I shot and shot and shot, again following wherever my camera viewfinder led me. In this area most of the hoodoos are high up on enormous mudstone mounds, not down around your feet like many of the formations I saw the day before. That means you see them from far away, over a mudstone mound or ridge, just catching the dawn light, and you have to maneuver to get nearer. I went up one wash or deep ravine after another, constantly exclaiming at the colors—olive, black, red. At 10 am I finally turned back—there was no end to the hoodoos, no end to the mudstone ravines, but the best light was over.

STUART GELZER photography