Bisti Badlands/De-Na-Zin Wilderness, New Mexico

The Bisti Badlands/De-Na-Zin Wilderness is the most incredible, surreal, extraterrestrial place I have ever been. I felt like I was on another planet. My opportunity to photograph this beautiful landscape came because of some terribly sad circumstances, but if the death of a loved one reminds one of anything, it is that we need to live our lives fully while we have the chance.

Halfway through the process of booking airline tickets to go home to New Mexico for Laura's funeral, I decided I was going to drive there and back and aborted the booking process very abruptly (I was already choosing my seats on AA.com when I quit). I thought that I would drive from Wisconsin to New Mexico quickly, attend Laura's services, and spend time with family. On the way back to Wisconsin, I would take my time and make it a photography...something. Trip?  Excursion? Whatever, I really didn't have a plan other than a resolve to photograph something.

As the day to drive back toward Wisconsin approached, I decided to visit a part of New Mexico I had never been to, despite having spent most of my childhood there: the Bisti Badlands/De-Na-Zin Wilderness, near the Four Corners region. I knew little about the area, other than it supposedly had some amazing natural formations, and is one of the most beautiful places the desert has to offer. And it is in the middle of nowhere. The.Middle.Of.Nowhere.

I was able to shoot one sunrise and one sunset in one of the most amazing places I have ever visited. It was a decent hike in an absolute wilderness. There are no trails. There are no signs.  The landscape is completely alien. If you are going to explore the canyons (which I did), it is imperative to have a GPS and/or some polished orienteering skills - you WILL get lost in them. It is a long hike at high elevation to even find these amazing formations. All told, I did twelve and a half miles of hiking in two trips, some of it very difficult, to find some absolutely gorgeous scenery, the likes of which are not available almost anywhere else on the planet.

The following photographs are my favorites from the trip. The first set - with the blue skies - are from my pre-dawn trip. I arrived at Bisti about an hour before sunrise and shot until about two hours afterward. The second set - with the cloudy skies - are from my attempt to shoot the Wilderness at sunset, though as you can see it was quite cloudy due to thunderstorms about ninety miles south. Though I didn't get a spectacular New Mexico sunset that day, I did get some awesome drama in the clouds!

 Pre-dawn light in the Rock Garden

Pre-dawn light in the Rock Garden

 Early dawn

Early dawn

 Some call it "The Egg Farm."  To others, it is "The Alien Hatchery."

Some call it "The Egg Farm."  To others, it is "The Alien Hatchery."

 One of my favorite shots of the day.

One of my favorite shots of the day.

 This scene reminded me of the famous  photograph  by Roger Fenton "Into the Valley of the Shadow of Death" from the Crimean War (1855).  

This scene reminded me of the famous photograph by Roger Fenton "Into the Valley of the Shadow of Death" from the Crimean War (1855).  

 The rocks took on amazing colors that depended on how the sunlight struck them.

The rocks took on amazing colors that depended on how the sunlight struck them.

 This formation was absolutely amazing.  It took quite a climb through some treacherous gullies to get to.  It was about twenty-five feet high and about forty feet in length.

This formation was absolutely amazing.  It took quite a climb through some treacherous gullies to get to.  It was about twenty-five feet high and about forty feet in length.

 The small red stones are pieces of "clinkers," which if I understand my geology correctly, are remnants of baked sandstone and clay, cooked by underground coal fires in the distant past.  Today, as the clinkers are exposed by erosion, they fracture and scatter these ceramic-like stones in various places throughout the Wilderness.

The small red stones are pieces of "clinkers," which if I understand my geology correctly, are remnants of baked sandstone and clay, cooked by underground coal fires in the distant past.  Today, as the clinkers are exposed by erosion, they fracture and scatter these ceramic-like stones in various places throughout the Wilderness.

 A classic "hoodoo," or chimney-shaped formation left by erosion.

A classic "hoodoo," or chimney-shaped formation left by erosion.

 I had a very difficult climb up to one of the higher hills to get this picture.  You can see the various layers of coal, lignite, sandstone, compressed volcanic ash, limestone, and many other types of rock that we didn't cover in my history major.

I had a very difficult climb up to one of the higher hills to get this picture.  You can see the various layers of coal, lignite, sandstone, compressed volcanic ash, limestone, and many other types of rock that we didn't cover in my history major.

 Hoodoos.  This part of the wilderness was by far my favorite, and reminded my inner geek of Tatooine.  Don't pretend you don't know where that is.

Hoodoos.  This part of the wilderness was by far my favorite, and reminded my inner geek of Tatooine.  Don't pretend you don't know where that is.

 The tops of these formations were about ten feet above the surrounding landscape.

The tops of these formations were about ten feet above the surrounding landscape.

 Sandstone hoodoos on top of a coal bed.

Sandstone hoodoos on top of a coal bed.

 All of the water that falls here runs off in the washes that have formed this place.  There is very little vegetation, and what there is is obviously very hardy.  The bases of all of the tiny bushes are very thick and woody - they have been growing for a very long time. This bush was about 18 inches tall, but by the thickness of the stem, you can see that it is also very old.

All of the water that falls here runs off in the washes that have formed this place.  There is very little vegetation, and what there is is obviously very hardy.  The bases of all of the tiny bushes are very thick and woody - they have been growing for a very long time. This bush was about 18 inches tall, but by the thickness of the stem, you can see that it is also very old.

 I could have spent an entire day shooting just this sandstone formation.  Every angle revealed something new, and I can only imagine how it must look under all of the different light conditions of the high desert.

I could have spent an entire day shooting just this sandstone formation.  Every angle revealed something new, and I can only imagine how it must look under all of the different light conditions of the high desert.

 The Bisti area was an ancient a swampy wetlands.  This piece of petrified wood was in an area of many fossils and trees-turned-to-stone.  I love the knot on the side of the tree!

The Bisti area was an ancient a swampy wetlands.  This piece of petrified wood was in an area of many fossils and trees-turned-to-stone.  I love the knot on the side of the tree!

 The land around this tree has eroded in a way that makes the tree look as though it is sitting on a sacrificial altar.  The pieces of the tree below, fallen to the ground after other pieces of the "altar" have eroded away seem to reinforce this notion.

The land around this tree has eroded in a way that makes the tree look as though it is sitting on a sacrificial altar.  The pieces of the tree below, fallen to the ground after other pieces of the "altar" have eroded away seem to reinforce this notion.

 I was told this is an ancient cypress tree.  It is amazingly well preserved, even down to the root ball, shown here.

I was told this is an ancient cypress tree.  It is amazingly well preserved, even down to the root ball, shown here.

 Water and wind are exposing this tree, buried for millennia.  As many beautiful things as there are to see at Bisti, this tree made me wonder what is still hidden in the bluffs.  Is there another  tyrannosaur like the one found in 1997  buried in there?

Water and wind are exposing this tree, buried for millennia.  As many beautiful things as there are to see at Bisti, this tree made me wonder what is still hidden in the bluffs.  Is there another tyrannosaur like the one found in 1997 buried in there?

 This hoodoo reminded me of a giant snowmobile or motorcycle.  It stands about 15 feet tall at its highest point

This hoodoo reminded me of a giant snowmobile or motorcycle.  It stands about 15 feet tall at its highest point

 Bisti hoodoos.

Bisti hoodoos.

 A piece of petrified wood lies in front of a really cool ashy clay/sandstone formation.

A piece of petrified wood lies in front of a really cool ashy clay/sandstone formation.

 A petrified tree lays in front of an ashy clay and sandstone formation about 20 feet tall.

A petrified tree lays in front of an ashy clay and sandstone formation about 20 feet tall.

 The layers of modern eroded sand, ashy clay, sandstone, coal, limestone, and other formations are clearly visible here.

The layers of modern eroded sand, ashy clay, sandstone, coal, limestone, and other formations are clearly visible here.

 New Mexico has the most beautiful skies in the world, if you ask me.  Bisti has the most amazing colors in the earth on the earth.

New Mexico has the most beautiful skies in the world, if you ask me.  Bisti has the most amazing colors in the earth on the earth.

 Some of the formations appear to be (and may actually be?) very fragile and tenuous.  But they are amazingly beautiful.  Is is incredible that the earth can create such delicate beauty out of stone.

Some of the formations appear to be (and may actually be?) very fragile and tenuous.  But they are amazingly beautiful.  Is is incredible that the earth can create such delicate beauty out of stone.

 I didn't get the Bisti Sunset I had planned, but the sun fought through the clouds for some beautiful sights I hadn't imagined.

I didn't get the Bisti Sunset I had planned, but the sun fought through the clouds for some beautiful sights I hadn't imagined.

 I had already packed up for the day - it was getting quite dark because of the clouds, and the sun seemed to be losing its battle to peek through, when this happened just as the sun's last sliver peeked out above the horizon.

I had already packed up for the day - it was getting quite dark because of the clouds, and the sun seemed to be losing its battle to peek through, when this happened just as the sun's last sliver peeked out above the horizon.

 It was so hard to get there that she more than earned the new tires, oil, and cabin filter (and a GOOD carwash) that awaited her when we got back to Cheeseland.

It was so hard to get there that she more than earned the new tires, oil, and cabin filter (and a GOOD carwash) that awaited her when we got back to Cheeseland.