Canyons, Ranches, and Junipers.

Well, it’s been a busy week and a half. True to form, spring in New Mexico is wild, unpredictable, and miserable (if you’re allergic to juniper). The temperature swings are especially obnoxious, as we’ve gone from highs in the sixties last week to projected highs in the 40’s with snow once again forecast for next week. Not that I mind the snow and rain, it knocks all the pollen and dust out of the air, at least for a little while. And we could definitely use the snow pack, which is normal in the mountains for the first time in several years. It does make coordinating fieldwork a bit tricky though. We were supposed to go do a survey next week in the Abiquiú (pronounced ah-beh-cue) area, but if it does snow, well we can’t survey if we can’t see the ground. So, it looks to be another week of office work for us. The good news is that we saw the grullas (cranes) flying north last week, so hopefully that means that were not likely to have many more snow storms this spring. If I’m going to take my seasonal weather cues from animals, I do tend to put more stock in the migrations of the cranes and geese rather than in that huckster groundhog back east, but that’s just me.

This last week we had a couple of work projects. The first pertained to a lot of land that was being subdivided. The gentleman who owned the land had some livestock and a small farm plot on the land, and the land was pretty heavily disturbed as a result of domestic activities. He did have a couple of acequias (irrigation ditches) that crossed his land. These ditches are part of a network of acequias that date back at least a couple of centuries, and so therefore the lengths of the acequias where they crossed his land were recorded as historic sites. Other than that, the most interesting part of that project was encountering a skittish colt and a feisty pig.

The second field project we had involved yet another pipeline survey on a ranch in eastern New Mexico. This project was delayed somewhat due to the weather, as we caught the western edge of the last polar dip that encompassed most of the country last week. The high temperature the day before we arrived was only about 8°F (-13°C). Just to give you an indication of the temperature swings were dealing with, two days later the high temp was about 60°F (15°C). This project involved surveying a 100-foot wide corridor about 9 miles long so the ranch owners could install new waterpipe lines and about 6 or 7 new drinkers for the cattle on their property. I’m not sure why, but our work since last summer has nearly exclusively involved corridor surveys for water pipelines, we haven’t gotten a good block survey in a long while. Maybe the drought last summer has scared the ranchers into thinking they need to install more drinkers, but who knows. This project would have been just like any other pipeline survey on a ranch, but for a couple of unusual circumstances. First, the family owns the tens of thousands of acres that encompasses their ranch, rather than leasing portions of state or federal land. Second, this ranch is located on a massive land grant that was established during the Mexican period (A.D.1821-1848) as part of an effort by the Mexican government to encourage the settlement of the land east of the core Hispanic settlements in the Rio Grande Valley. Therefore, unlike most other ranch projects we work on, there were no US Territorial era (A.D. 1848-1912) homesteads located within the immediate area. Finally, the ranch owners offered us the use of bunk houses that they maintain for various members of the extended family who come to help with ranching activities over the course of the year.

A nice little hide scraper.

Usually when we work in the field, we stay in a hotel in the closest town to the project area. As sparsely populated as eastern New Mexico is, its not uncommon for us to drive more than an hour from the hotel out to the project area. This particular commute would have been at least an hour and half, one way. In the time that I’ve worked for the company that I work for, we’ve never stayed on the ranch itself. After my boss floated the possibility of either staying on the ranch or commuting, I think we were all in favor of not commuting for a change. The buildings made available to us by the ranchers were very old, but very well maintained. The main house dated to the 1920’s, and the side house was a line camp bunkhouse built in the late 19th century. The common room included floor to ceiling bookcases that contained a variety of literature, with topics ranging from approaches to cattle ranching, the wildlife, geological, and cultural background of the area, family histories, and a few books from the non-fiction section (including a copy of the 7th Harry Potter book). This trip felt more like a field school than a work project, as we’d all hang out in the living room of the main house and spend most of the evening talking. It’s actually kind of amazing how much there is to talk about where there is no tv or internet to distract you.

Little side notch point.

The survey was pretty standard for a pipeline. There are six of us in two trucks, so when it comes to tacking linear survey, we split into groups of two. In this case the pipeline corresponded to an existing road, which hardly ever happens and makes it way easier for us. In this case it allows us to start a team of two at one end, drive ahead a mile or so, leave one truck and start the second team, then drive ahead another mile or so, and leave the second truck where the third team starts. The idea is that the teams will leap frog each other down the line, leaving a truck for the team behind them to get to and move ahead to the next segment of line. There usually isn’t a road along the survey corridor, and in those cases we have to leave the trucks along the closes point the road gets to the survey area. This isn’t ideal, as it requires a substantial amount of unproductive “dead walking” across ground that isn’t a part of our survey area, which ends up taking up more time to complete the project. I like to think that if there’s any group of people that are experts at solving the “traveling salesman” problem, it would be survey archaeologists. We did find some sites along the project corridor, which we were able to survey and map bypass corridors around the sites, but most corridor survey projects don’t turn up a whole lot. It usually seems that the corridors are through areas that are unlikely to have sites, or may thread the spaces between sites. Block surveys tend to turn up a lot more sites, which is great for generating enough office work to keep us occupied for more than a day or two. Unfortunately, since most of our projects have been linear rather than block surveys, we really haven’t been able to generate much work for us to complete back at the office. Thankfully, we have plenty of surveys that need to be done. Unfortunately, the weather has been about uncooperative as a cat on a leash. Unfortunately, March and April weather is pretty so we’ll just have to wait and see. �

Roasting pit with a cholla cactus.
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