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Burned Ambition

Valles Caldera seemed poised to become a national park. Then it caught fire

August 10, 2011, 12:00 am

Even though the Valles Caldera, a former volcano that features heavily in the creation myths of Jemez Pueblo, abuts Jonathan Neal’s land, he is prohibited from entering it through his backyard.
Credits: Joey Peters

Standing on his porch, Jonathan Neal looks out at Redondo Peak, one of the caldera’s mountainous domes towering above the land’s valleys. Wrinkles cross Neal’s forehead, but he still looks young enough to resemble a gleeful adolescent on his first backpacking trip. Neal’s home is about a mile away from the preserve, but he’s barred from entering it through his backyard. Trees fill the hilly landscape, except for a valley at the stem of Redondo shaped like an outstretched eagle. 

In the Jemez Pueblo creation legend, that eagle-shaped valley is sacred. It represents a divine signal to the Pueblo people who were forced to relocate from their original homeland, the present-day Four Corners area. After running out of food and water, their gods told them an eagle would guide them to their new home.

“So they came to the Jemez and saw this very same view,” Neal says. “They saw an eagle stretched across the mountain and realized this was their homeland where they were supposed to settle.”

The fertile grasslands gave the Natives a place to hunt. Its rivers gave them a water supply. Years later, when Europeans introduced horses, the Natives used the land to graze cattle. To this day, cattle from both the Santa Clara Pueblo in the north and the Jemez Pueblo in the south still graze on the preserve. Its significance runs deep; this is the land that sustained them. 

Like Yellowstone National Park, Valles Caldera was once a volcano. Two massive eruptions occurred 1.6 million and 1.2 million years ago, collapsing the land into a bowl-like shape. Scientists predict it will erupt again. After the eruptions, hills and valleys formed. A lake once filled the Valle Grande, which is now grassland. Magma rests just below its surface and heats the many hot springs scattered across the land. 

People have populated the area for millennia. Spear points made from volcanic obsidian date from 11,000 years ago. Native elk lived on the land before hunters killed them off in the early 20th century. In the 1960s, scientists transplanted elk native to Yellowstone to the caldera; today, between 4,000 and 6,000 of them freely roam the area. 

Recounting the history of the caldera is enough to make Neal yearn for something he’s never been legally allowed to do. An avid camper, he craves the day when he can pitch a tent on caldera property. 

“I stand here and look at Redondo—a sacred, mystical mountain—and wonder, why am I completely shut out from going on that peak?” Neal says.

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