Where the Aspen Vista trail bends east and the view opens up of a hillside covered in aspens, a now well-worn path heads west. Walk it, and you'll find seven stick structures scattered down the hill. Some are 20 to 25 feet tall, with walls more than a foot thick and a footprint roughly 20 feet in diameter.
The path also passes trees carved with initials and names, dates years or decades past, to a more foreboding set: "If you come here you will die" and "last chance" and "death is upon you."
"When I saw this graffiti, that's when I was like, 'This is not acceptable,'" says an anonymous tipster. "It's just disturbing to me."
The graffiti and an increasing amount of garbage he saw around these structures prompted him to call the US Forest Service, whose staff joined him on a tour through the area a couple weeks ago.
Miles Standish, recreation technician with the Santa Fe National Forest, took a chainsaw to some of the structures to try to take them down that way, but the limbs are so entangled they remain standing.
"We dismantled a couple smaller ones, but realized just the scope of the job to try to take them apart and scatter them is equal to the enormous amount of work building them in the first place, and we don't really have the personnel to do that," he says. "We're kind of left with no good solution other than just to try to get the word out and discourage whoever is doing this to please cease and desist."
So, the Forest Service issued a press release describing the structures as a fire and safety hazard and asking their unknown builders to stop. The dry, wood teepee or wickiup-like structures sometimes frame a fire ring and bear a remarkable resemblance to the approach used to stack kindling to build a campfire. One spark and they might really go up in flames, and their poles could function as ladder fuels for a crown fire. A fire in that area could threaten the ski area, campgrounds, Tesuque Pueblo and the city's watershed.
The federal agency declared that who is building them and why remains a mystery, but the infinite wisdom of social media reached a consensus on their creator: Bigfoot. Or perhaps Indians, aliens, the Truchas witch or La Llorona. The press release also cited the code of federal regulations' ban on building structures in national forests, in case Bigfoot cares about breaking the law.
In an email sent to the agency, one writer (whose typos we have preserved) declared, "I know for a fact you will think I'm a wack job for telling you Bigfoot/Forrest people are building these things. … Alot of times with trees 40 foot tall and upside down. Humans are not physically able to pick up some of these trees and lean them like that they weigh 400-500 lbs each sometimes. … PEOPLE CANT BUILD THIS STUFF WITH OUR BARE HANDS."
This reporter didn't witness any inverted trees on a hike of the area with the same tipster who reached out to the Forest Service, and based on his demonstrations, moving those logs is easily done with bare human hands.
Photographer and lifetime Santa Fean Anne Staveley has hiked, mountain biked, and backcountry skied in those woods for decades and says she's spotted similar structures coming and going for at least the last 10 years. Sometimes, she discovers them far from trails. She took her own kids, now 18 and 23, up to play in some of these structures when they were younger. To her, their origins are no secret.
"I know a bunch of people who take their kids up there to be in the woods and to make them," she says. Yes, she's seen that work underway.
A mural-sized photograph by Staveley that lines a hallway in Meow Wolf depicts the structures behind people who are wearing animal masks. "It just kind of makes it more mystical and interesting," she says.
The image started a photo series on people in the forest, and the structures, she says, are part of what gives the photographs a curious, earthy feel. She's also hiked into the woods to capture them as backdrops for portrait shoots.
Of both the structures and the graffiti, she says, "It's just the mark of the human. … I'm more concerned about my drinking water being clean than carving in the trees." (Although Miles says too much tree graffiti can kill them.)
Maybe, she suggests, the structures could be viewed as contemplative gathering spaces or creative works. Maybe they should be looked at not as structures, but as sculptures or land art.
Built by Bigfoot? we asked.
"Oh, perfect," she says.
The Enthusiast is a twice-monthly column dedicated to the people in and stories from our outdoor sports community.