Now what? Do I turn right or left? It’s dark and I’m not sure where the heck I’m driving. It’s kind of scary being out in the middle of the desert on a dirt road not knowing where you are. Better turn on the GPS. Hmmm…, if I can just get to those railroad tracks, I can follow them to the unmarked road where I’m supposed to turn to get to the volcano.
I’m trying to find Aden Crater in New Mexico where a remarkable Shasta ground sloth (Nothrotheriops shastense) was found around 1928. The specimen (one of the most famous) was quite rare in that it was partially mummified and contained some hair and tendons intact. What’s also remarkable is that my wife’s (Cara’s) great grandfather, C. Ewing Waterhouse, was one of the discoverers and sent a letter to Yale (Peabody museum) in 1929 with photos and drawings. The fossil is now displayed in the museum.
The problem this morning is that I can’t seem to find my way to the site. I continue driving down a dirt road and then arrive at the railroad tracks only to discover that I’m on the wrong side. I turn right and hope that I’m able to find a road that will allow me to cross over. I look at my gas gauge and see that I’m half empty (or is it half full?) Running out of gas out here is not an option. (Think hungry vultures circling overhead while I lay next to a sun-bleached cow scull.)
Now this sloth was found in a fumarole or lava tube and scientists believe bat guano helped preserve the specimen. They also think the creature was being pursued by wolves or other predators when it fell into the cavern. A petrified dung ball was also found in the pit. This species has been extinct for about 11,000 years, around the time of Clovis game hunters; this one was carbon dated at 11,080 +/- 200 years. Could this have been one of the last remaining sloths that suffered a most unfortunate accident?
After driving for another five miles I finally come to a crossroads where I turn left and cross the tracks. I wonder if the unmarked dirt road is in front of me. I can see Mt Riley directly ahead which reminds me of a run I did out here last year. I’ve arrived at the Potrillo volcano field which includes the Kilbourne Maar (See my post: Kilbourne Hole). I have no idea where this Aden crater is though.
I decide to drive straight and after a short while realize that this is not the way. The road is very rutted and I’m afraid of getting stuck. I backtrack and follow the road along the tracks. I think I can see the crater to, my left, but can’t figure out which unmarked road to turn on to get there. After much trial and error, I finally find the right road. The crater is getting closer and then I see the sign for “BLM Wilderness Study Area”. Whew, what a ride.
After several hours of driving (should have been one), I’m ready for the short hike to the crater. Lucy, Sierra, and Taz are accompanying me today, and are also ready for a jaunt in the desert. There isn’t much of a trail, but the route is obvious, so we head towards the rim. Lava has been deposited all around and we have to navigate around some interesting formations.
Soon we encroach upon a prairie dog town. We are at the southern end of the black-tailed prairie dog range and these ground squirrels have dwindled in numbers over the years. They are important to other animals like the burrowing owl and black footed ferret who use their shelters. Some land owners and ranchers try to eradicate the critters while certain state agencies have programs to reintroduce the species. Taz enjoys poking his nose into a few of the holes for a quick sniff before we continue on our way.
Within minutes we see another critter hole that is skillfully decked out with grass around the opening. Maybe a spider or beetle was at work crafting this cozy little abode. We come to an ocotillo “forest” and then to some cholla cactus. I get a nice view of the knobs and domes in the distance and then we ascend the crater lip. The rim is lined with broken lava of every shape. We explore the area and then find our way to the steep slopes which lead down to the sloth chamber.
Ropes and caving gear are needed to descend into the abyss, so we just enjoy the sight from a distance. I ponder the amount of work that went into extricating the sloth from where it rested for thousands of years. I will continue to research the details of how the animal was discovered. Some photos, papers and articles have been archived at the University of Texas at El Paso as well as at Yale. Although I have not yet been able to locate it, we believe one of Grandad Waterhouse's photos of the sloth has been published in National Geographic Magazine.
I sit at the edge of the pit and enjoy the call of a Canyon Wren, an intermittent high to low song. After a short rest, the dogs and I head back to the truck. Although today’s hike was quite short, I hope to run this area in the future. I have directions to Mt Riley and the neighboring Cox peak that are just waiting for me. I’m sure to be back soon provided I don’t get lost on my way out of here. See you on the trail.