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Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Timeless Moment

With a handheld, integrated-lens digital camera, renowned landscape photographer David Muench explores the proposed Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument

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Famed nature photographer David Muench had some time in March 2014 to tour the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument, an area of 500,000 acres set aside as a proposed preserve in southwestern New Mexico. From expansive deserts to towering peaks, the region is home to several climates and, hence, a versatile selection of desert and grassland fauna. The many highlights of the natural landscapes include portions of the Organ, Doña Ana, Potrillo, Robledo and Uvas Mountain chains, as well as the Chihuahuan Desert.

We were stopped at the pass on Highway 70 for a missile test. The missile, scheduled to come down over White Sands a few miles down the highway, was already 20 minutes late. Government vehicles and trailers lined the middle of the highway. Every vehicle coming from the west, as we had, waited in the parking area at the top of the pass. Below the pass, the highway was empty.

We didn't turn into the parking area. "We're just going to Aguirre Springs," David told the police officer stopping us. The road to our trailhead was visible a short way ahead, not far enough to interfere with any U.S. weapons systems. The officer directed us onward. Ours was the only vehicle allowed to pass.

The Pine Tree Trail from the Aguirre Springs Campground provides an extraordinary way into the east side of the Organ Mountains, core of the proposed new national monument David and I had driven south from Albuquerque to explore. The monument will protect 500,000 acres of ecologically and culturally rich land in southwestern New Mexico, including the spectacular jagged granite Organ Mountains, plus land stretching across the Doña Ana, Potrillo, Robledo and Uvas Mountains, a vast expanse of Chihuahuan Desert grasslands, historic ruins and countless archaeological sites.

Winding upward from 5,533 feet toward the north-south ridge of spires, cones, domes, horns and needles, the Pine Tree Trail traverses three climate zones, leveling out in the ponderosas at about 6,500 feet. It remains below the 8,000- to 9,000-foot rocky peaks, which entail technical climbing.

We were both eager for our hike, but traveling with David means you don't rush. All roads take time. It's the journey—the photographs along the way—that matters. Along the Aguirre Springs Road on this mid-March morning, with air still crisp from the end of winter, soft from the beginning of spring, slightly overcast so the lighting was even, David couldn't resist the country through which we drove. A landscape of grassland and yucca, of agaves, sotol, creosote, ocotillo, mesquite—the raw forms of plants not yet in bloom—provides a rich foreground to the rugged mountains in the distance.

Formed about 32 million years ago, the Organ Mountains display themselves as wild, sharp-peaked, formidable on both their east and west sides. Wherever you are, there's something magnificent in front of you.

David first came here in the 1960s, carrying his 4x5 Linhof. Now, using a Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ70 and a Canon PowerShot SX50 HS system, both handheld, everything is more spontaneous, although neither his seeing, nor his excitement about the area, has changed.

"I want to get involved in the mountains, not just look at them," David says. "I'm fascinated by the spires and pinnacles, by the wildness."


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