If I could love a mountain range …

Organ Mountain SunsetThe Organ Mountains would be my bride.

Did you look at the Organ Mountains today? I know we see them every day, but have you ever really looked at them?

The Organs are Las Cruces’ signature landmark, serving as the backdrop to all that is important to those of us living here.

I first encountered the Organ Mountains in August 1961, when I arrived from Maryland for college. That was far too many years ago to recall first impressions, but what I do remember, I do so fondly. What remains clear in my mind are the colors and how the moon loomed larger than life over the summit. I’m not sure how one can be emotionally attached to a mountain range but, when I next saw the Organs in 1986, I realized these mountains had become part of my psyche, an element in defining who I had become. Their enchantment gave meaning to our state slogan.

After a 40-year absence, I returned to Las Cruces and look upon the Organ Mountains every day, and every day they’re different, as if the Muses were playing with my eyes and my mind. I had to ground myself and so I looked into the geology of these mountains.

The Organ Mountains rise from about 3,900 feet above sea level at the Rio Grandé to just slightly higher than 9,000 feet. The land from the river to the mountains is not flat, like the western mesa, but sloped. The Spanish call it a bajada, or skirt. Instead of a mesa, the land is an alluvial plain. And while the pinnacles are sheer, the mountains themselves are deceptive. Though they seem taller and more imposing from the river, they are more like the grinding molars of an elephant than the incisors of an orca.

Before the Organs formed, about 32 million years ago, magma began to intrude from great depths. Some of the magma was forced to the surface, ejecting vast quantities of ash, rock, and lava over an area hundred of square miles. The resulting volcanic activity can be seen in the dark, red rhyolite forming the southern portion of the range. The magma that did not reach the surface cooled to form a light gray granite. This craggy rock formed the pinnacles of the northern section of the range. There are also thick layers of sandstone, dolomite, shale, and limestone of oceanic origin when a shallow sea was here. These Paleozoic (570 million to 240 million years ago) rocks are overlain by Tertiary (65 million to 2 million years ago) tuff composed of ash, rock and lava and speak to a continuing history of volcanic activity.

Between 15 and 8 million years ago, exotic terranes slammed into the west coast of North American. Moving counterclockwise, they began to stretch the hem of the continent, which unraveled and began to spread westward, like the opening of a Chinese fan. The basin and range mountains of the Mojave Desert and northern Nevada are the result. The stress on the continent also created a fault that runs from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains – southern terminus of the Rocky Mountains – well into central Mexico. North of the border, the fault is called the Rio Grandé Rift and was the cause of the basin and range action.

The San Andres Mountains formed to the east as the broken continental shard dropped into the depths in the west. The east side of the mountains form a sharp steep angle with the plains below. The west side is a gentler, wider, longer slope. This is classic basin and range structure and is more evident in the San Andres than the Organs, which apparently were subjected to additional volcanic activity after the faulting began.

While the roots of the Organ Mountains are four to five miles thick, there is an area just east of the pinnacles that is much narrower. BLM rangers at Aguirre Spring explain the area from San Augustin pass to the Sugar Loaf pinnacle – a Hershey-Kiss-like dollop of granite – forms an arc, once part of a caldera that extended past the White Sands Missile Range headquarters, perhaps twenty miles in diameter.

Wind, rain, and temperature differentials have eroded the range, filling the basin with rock, sand, and gravel to an estimated depth of 30,000 feet, and forming the sloping bajada from the face of the mountains to the Rio Grandé, which has carried the alluvium to the Gulf of Mexico.

Now, knowing this does nothing to sill my emotions. If I could love a mountain range, the Organ Mountains would be my bride. If you’ve been married any length of time, you know the feeling you get watching your lover perform some act, like when she brushes her hair or he bobbles the baby on his hobby-horse knee. That’s how I respond to the mountains.

I marvel at the light playing over the slopes, ever changing from first glimmer until dusk dampens their shifting, smoldering reds and purples. At any minute of any day, I have trouble defining the color of the mountains, which fluctuates like a kaleidoscopic pallet of tans, browns, and greens with touches of blue-gray shadows. It’s as if a plein air artist or an Impressionist continually examines and explores their color and texture, looking for the perfect image in an imperfect world.

Some days, they are hazy and feminine soft, other times they’re hard and conspicuously masculine. I’ve observed, when an indistinct white cloud bank hangs over Tularosa Basin, the edge of the ridge line is so sharp I think the mountains may slice the sky in two. Then there are times when they seem surreal, like a matte painting or cardboard cutouts pasted against some unseen frame. Shifting light and shadow sometimes makes them look substantial, as mountains are supposed to be. Then the light moves, and I perceive layers of rock like stacked dominos precariously climbing an unseen staircase.

I’ve watched eastward drifting clouds ragged into wispy tentacles by grasping pinnacles, and westward marching storms trip over the summit and plummet irresistibly toward the ground. I’ve seen the mountains wearing a low-lying cloud tutu as if they would momentarily shift into the petit changement de pieds of a classical ballerina. Sometimes passing thunderstorms, dropping their rain along the bajada, display a rainbow – which more often than not crests above the mountains creating scenes no artist could capture. And when it rains, the face of the mountains play hide and seek with the rain curtain, which moves like a long-bristle whisk, sweeping the land clean and leaving its distinctive, moist flint fragrance lingering in the air.

The Organs sing to me like the Sirens bewitched Odysseus with their enchanting, clear song. Only there is no “heap of bones of men, corrupt in death,” and no need to plug my ears with beeswax nor “bind thee in the swift ship hand and foot, upright in the mast-stead … that with delight thou mayest hear the voice of the Sirens.” I look for every opportunity to venture into the mountains, to commune with tree and flower and creature, to listen to the siren-song of nature, whose sweet, tranquil voice delights without the threat of destruction. If Odysseus had ventured here instead of some Greek isle, he would have beached his boat and never left.

I’ve often thought the Organs comprised a living, breathing organism — and if the scientists are right and every atom of the universe is connected to every other atom by some at yet unseen energy field — then I too am part of the organism, and the Organs could very well be my bride. Only I’d never propose. I wouldn’t want to vanquish the wild spirit with whom I commune daily.