Silence hovers like rainforest humidity over the lower Rio Chama in the sandstone desert of northwest New Mexico. The river slows, its barely-audible currents lapping at shoreline grasses; and thousand-foot maroon cliffs take form against an impossibly blue sky.

The quiet of the lower Chama is both distant and distinct, with a quality easy to notice and impossible to define. For the couple miles the river lazily works past the Monastery of Christ in the Desert there’s a presence to this place that seems more than the sum of its parts.

Perhaps it’s the power of suggestion because the monastery certainly begs some kind of reverence, but even pious scholars who have visited Christ in the Desert acknowledge it is in large part the wild that fills their spiritual wells.

“This is one of the places where I go to pray, rest, walk, swim in the Rio Chama, ride horses, and reclaim my inner peace,” writes John Dear SJ in the National Catholic Reporter. [1] “The landscape never fails to astonish me. The red and yellow cliffs, the cottonwoods, the sagebrush, the stern mountains, the wandering hawks, the bright sun, the pressing silence and expansive solitude.”

Christ in the Desert is more than any one of these things; it is all of them. It is an outpost on the edge of the wild where, in the words of monk and author Tomas Merton, it “bears witness to the most fundamental and most permanent truths of life.” [2]

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There’s a New Mexico state flag tattooed on Judd Mcroberts’ right shoulder. The red sun at the flag’s center, he explains, is from an ancient native people called the Zia. The rays emanating in four directions symbolize the seasons and the cycles of day and night, the four directions and, literally, the circular nature of life itself. [3]

We have only just met, but Mcroberts, an Albuquerque native, and I are bumping along a dirt road northwest of Española, New Mexico. We’re pulling away from a dirt parking lot called Big Eddy near the Rio Chama’s lower meanders and are returning the 60 or so highway miles to the ramparts of El Vado Dam, which manages the Rio Chama’s spring snowmelt throughout the northern New Mexico summer. For the next three days we will float this gentle desert river back to Big Eddy, where our group of mostly Durango, Colorado, boaters has left a few cars.

As our Chevy Blazer crawls out of Chavez Canyon, the second of two canyons we will float, the rust-colored cliff wall of Mesa de Los Viejos emerges, and the perfect blue of the New Mexico sky seems both liberating and suffocating — too perfect to be true but omnipresent and defiant at the same time. The day is still, the sagebrush green, wildflowers glowing from the predictable afternoon showers of the August monsoons.

“What do you think of New Mexico?” Mcroberts asks rhetorically while I nod my enthusiasm. “Just down the road, in Abiquiu, is where Georgia O’Keeffe did a lot of her painting. And past Abiquiu is Española, the Low Rider Capital of the World.” [4]

New Mexico is  rugged and beautiful, a state with cultural diversity to match its varying topography. The Sangre de Cristo Mountains give way to wind-swept deserts, and the state’s Native American cultures mingle with descendants from the area’s early Spanish occupation. New Mexico, Mcroberts proudly points out, is the United States’ oldest capital, and Santa Fe is its oldest capital city.

New Mexico is not renowned for its whitewater, but it boasts several diverse standouts. And with 1,500-foot canyon walls, dense stands of ponderosa pine and Douglas fir, and class II rapids, the Rio Chama provides one of the best combinations of scenery, wilderness and easy multiple-day boating anywhere in the United States.

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The Rio Chama is born high on the Continental Divide in the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado, but it matures as it slices into the colorful sedimentary layers of the Colorado Plateau in northwest New Mexico. It is the largest tributary of the Rio Grande in New Mexico and one of the only major rivers that’s both east of the Continental Divide and part of the Colorado Plateau, a huge geologic foundation that defines a region from Grand Junction, Colorado, to the Grand Canyon.

Below El Vado Dam, where the Rio Chama cuts through cliffs banded with yellow entrada sandstone and the orange-stains of the chinle formation, Congress has taken notice of the Chama’s outstanding beauty. The 50,300-acre Rio Chama Wilderness Area was designated in 1978, and in 1988 a 24.6-mile section upstream of Christ in the Desert monastery was protected as a Wild & Scenic river. [5]

Though much of the land bordering the Rio Chama is administered by the Santa Fe and Carson national forests, the Taos Field Office of the Bureau of Land Management regulates the 31-mile stretch of the Rio Chama from El Vado to the takeout at Big Eddy. The river’s 30 miles could probably be floated in a day, but that would miss the point. Floating the Rio Chama is about slowing down and tuning in to rhythmseasy to miss in a technologically-dependant age.

To protect the river and provide floaters more elbow room, the BLM began limiting the number of parties allowed to launch on the Rio Chama in 1990. Applications for the resulting lottery are due at the Taos Field Office of the BLM by January 31.

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Near the end of his life Thomas Merton visited Christ in the Desert on the banks of the Rio Chama two times. For Merton, “perhaps the greatest Christian mystic of the 20th century,” [6] the monastery and the Chama were one and the same, and it was one of the featured settings in his book, Woods, Shore Desert.

“While not blindly rejecting and negating the modern world, the monastery nevertheless retains a certain critical distance and perspective which are absolutely necessary as mass society becomes at once more totally organized and more mindlessly violent,” Merton wrote in May 1968 during his first visit to the Rio Chama.

According to Joel Weishaus, who edited Woods, Shore, Desert in Santa Fe, Merton’s two short stays at Christ in the Desert became part of the monastery’s (and canyon’s) legend and myth. Some monks apparently followed in Merton’s isolationist footsteps, and Weishaus wrote that his spirit came to infuse the landscape.

Weishaus, too, was smitten: “During my short stay there, I was bitten by a red ant. In retrospect at least, it was an exquisite pain, a love bite from indigenous inhabitants of that harsh, uncompromising, yet sacred, land.” [7]

  1. Dear, John. “Christ in the desert.” National Catholic Reporter. June 24, 2008.
  2. Weishaus, Joel. “Remembering Thomas Merton’s Woods, Shore, Desert.” Center for Digital Discourse and Culture. Virginia Tech. 2003.
  3. 50states.com
  4. Espanola Online
  5. Santa Fe National Forest
  6. Weishaus, Joel. “Remembering Thomas Merton’s Woods, Shore, Desert.” Center for Digital Discourse and Culture. Virginia Tech. 2003.
  7. Id.

For more reading on northern New Mexico, read this heartbreaking story, Land of Disenchantment, in High Country News. For more on the Monastery at Christ in the Desert, go to the monastery’s website at http://christdesert.org/.