I danced in the middle of the road at Valles Caldera National Preserve. And when I say, “I danced,” I mean I fucking danced.
I don’t even know why I did it, not really, just that I needed to do it.
Maybe I was overtaken by the beauty of the place, by the trees and the air and the grass and the streams and the brilliant blue birds that kept jetting in front of my bright red Ford Focus and especially by the perfect loneliness of that road. I’d passed one car by that point, about two hours prior, and had spent the morning bumping over and around potholes in complete solitude. Maybe I didn’t want to leave without expressing how happy I was to be there. Maybe I just needed a middle of the road dance-a-thon to express to nature, the world and myself the incredible joy those battered roads and that beautiful place gave me.
I’d gotten there right after they opened, just a little after 8 a.m. There’s a limit on backcountry passes for vehicles, and I wanted one. Elevation at Valles Caldera National Preserve is high, around 8,000 feet above sea level or higher in most places. As much as I wanted to explore on foot, I knew a hike would be tough for a low-lander like me. Elevation at home is around 250 feet above sea level and I didn’t want to risk altitude sickness. So I got my backcountry pass and set off, figuring I’d hike if I felt up to it, or just drive and scamper if I didn’t.
I basically crawled through the caldera, going well below the speed limit, stopping often to take pictures and ogle the scenery. I put my favorite playlist on, rolled the windows all the way down and turned the seat warmers all the way up. It was early and cold, but I wanted the air. I wanted to hear the wind move through the grass, to hear the birds and the sounds of the place. I wanted to feel it.
After a few hours, I hit the end of the road, maneuvered my very brave rental car around a handful of potholes and started to head back. But then I stopped. I wasn’t ready to go, wasn’t ready to leave just yet. I got out of the car and tried to take it all in. I watched a hawk play in the breeze, admired the trees some more and then just let it all go – all of it. I threw my head back, my arms out and I danced. Because I had to. Absolutely, positively fucking had to dance, right there in the middle of the road, without a single teeny, tiny inhibition or concern.
Freedom is the word I keep coming back to when I try to explain Valles Caldera. Being there felt like freedom. Uninhibited, insanely joyous freedom. And a free, solitary and magical sort of happiness. That’s what Valles Caldera was like for me.
Standing there, in the cradle of a fucking volcano, I felt so small and so alive and so good.
I stopped so many times along that road, to look at birds, to stare at a tree, to look at the grass, the rocks, the clouds. I stopped to dance, to take pictures, to just stand there and exist. I howled and yelled and yipped like a wild animal, going a little feral just because I could.
On the drive back to the ranger station, I tried to organize my thoughts. I wondered if I’d ever stood in a place so vast and massive and just let myself go like that, if I’d ever been so free. I mean really. When was the last time you just existed in a wild, open place all by yourself, without any constraint or inhibition? For me, it was maybe never.
Except for there, at Valles Caldera, where I howled at the trees and danced in the road.
ABOUT VALLES CALDERA NATIONAL PRESERVE
Valles Caldera is a 13.7 mile wide volcanic caldera, nestled in the Jemez Mountains, about an hour from Santa Fe. The volcanic eruption happened about 1.25 million years ago. It counts as one of the world’s smaller supervolcanos. While the road I traveled covers a good bit of the park, there’s a lot more to be seen from the park’s trails, including some absolutely stunning views. Today, the preserve covers more than 89,000 acres. There are grass valleys, streams, mountains and elk herds. Spear points dating back 11,000 years have been found within the Valles Caldera National Preserve and land adjacent to the park is owned by the Santa Clara Pueblo and considered sacred.
It is one of the newer additions to the National Park Service portfolio. President Clinton signed the Valles Caldera Preservation Act in 2000, which created the Valles Caldera National Preserve. For the next 15 years, the site was managed by a trust and then, in 2015, the National Park Service took over management of the site. It became the 19th National Preserve under NPS management.
TIPS FOR VISITING VALLES CALDERA NATIONAL PRESERVE
- Valles Caldera National Preserve only issues 35 backcountry vehicle passes a day. If you want to drive through the park, arrive early and pick up your pass at the ranger station.
- My rental car, a Ford Focus, made it over the roads at Valles Caldera, but it was slow-going. A four-wheel drive or high-clearance vehicle is recommended.
- Critters are allegedly all over the place. I saw some elk and a lot of birds, but nothing else. There might have been black bears snickering at my dance party, though. Which is fine. I’m not going to argue with a bear.
- I saw one car on the way out and passed five on the way back to the ranger station. The park opens at 8 a.m. and getting there around then almost guarantees an empty park.
- Binoculars will help you see far-away critters – especially elk grazing in the middle of the caldera.
- There’s a prairie dog colony that lives by the ranger station. They might have the plague, but they are ridiculously cute. They yell and chirp and talk to one another and it’s better than most live comedy I’ve seen.
Valles Caldera National Preserve is open daily. Summer hours are 8 a.m. – 6 p.m. Winter hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas. Usually entrance into the park is $20 per vehicle, or $10 per person for those on foot, bicycles, horses or a non-commercial bus. Currently the fee is waived, so park admission is free.