Embudito Canyon: Getting Stoned
Living in the shadow of the Sandia Mountains is a tremendous gift. There are thousands upon thousands of stories from those who have dwelled in the presence of the backdrop that looms on the eastern edge of Albuquerque. Each of the canyons, cliffs and trails can send you into a world of beauty, excitement, danger, and discovery.
The mountain is an anchor, visually and emotionally. It grounds me. Perhaps everyone has a mountain or a meadow, or a city block or a corner somewhere that calls to them. I hope so. We all need a refuge of our own.
Once upon a time, we were a band of brothers and others discovering ourselves and our place in the world.
We were budding artists, musicians, naturalists, filmmakers and photographers. We loved the great outdoors and the freedom it represented. The vigorous exercise required to hike up the canyons was complimented by the comradery and philosophical discussions we shared while immersing ourselves in nature.
On one of our hikes up Embudito Canyon, we were caught off guard by the difference in the approach to the mouth of the canyon. Countless times we had taken the same trail past the water tower, over a couple of low juniper and prickly pear studded foothills to the bottom of the arroyo that was the trailhead. This time the wash of decomposed granite was wider than we had ever seen it, a sprawling fan underneath the Chamisa and Apache Plume. As we marched southeast into the cleft between the foothills that are the entrance to Embudito, the reason for the broad gravel fan was revealed.
A heavy snowpack that winter, and subsequent spring rains had resulted in massive runoff, and the familiar canyon bottom had been drastically altered. Huge granite boulders that were mostly buried formed the roots of the canyon, where centuries of water flow had eroded the stone into smooth channels and pools that we had come to know. But now, a new edge had been revealed at the boulders lower side, as though a new canyon had been gouged into the earth.
There, the canyon bottom had dropped at least ten feet, exposing a long concrete trough we had never seen before, and the rusty carcass of an old automobile, perhaps from the 1940’s. We were amazed at the demonstration of the power of water, and the changes that exposed a history buried long ago and once again revealed. After exploring the changed geography, we continued up the bottom of the canyon, climbing over boulders and scrambling through Canyon Grape, Coyote Willow and Box Elder.
At one of the first elbows of the canyon, we decided to hike uphill to the right. The massive granite bones of the earth pushed up like the polished crown of a giant cranium exposed through the scrabbly, brittle scalp of soil. Horizontal and vertical cracks held both ferns and cacti, and we used these clefts as a ladder in our upward climb. We wanted to get higher. Groups of boulders stood here and there on the mountainside, and we began to scan the slopes for a good place to ascend to for a rest break. We had separated into two groups, and now there was some distance between us, punctuated by Beargrass, Single Seed Juniper and Mountain Mahogany.
With me were my friends Rick and Randy. Up the hill were Rick’s older brother Bob, my brother Steve, and Randy’s older brother Johnny. We climbed up to a promising cluster of boulders, one that had a large flat surface big enough for us all to have a comfortable seat to take in the view. The other group was scrambling to a vantage point of their own. “Come down here!” we called out, “this spot is perfect.” “No!” was the response from above, “you guys come up here!” We were directly downhill from the group above, separated by perhaps a hundred feet or so on a forty five degree incline.
We continued yell to each other, “Come down here, it’s really cool and the view kicks ass! There is a flat spot with room for all of us.” Our plea was met with shouts of “No! You guys come up here. It is higher and the view is way better!” Back and forth we called to each other, adamant that each had chosen the best spot, or more likely just not wanting to give in to the demands of the other group.
As we challenged each other, I looked up the hill to see Johnny in what I thought was a pantomime of throwing something. His arm swung out and downward, and his hand had already returned to his side as I turned away. Then SMASH! The stone that he had actually thrown crashed into my skull with astonishing force. It hit just forward and left of center and BAM! I dropped as though lifeless to the ground, collapsing into brief unconsciousness.
I don’t know if I was out for a second or a minute or longer. As I slowly became aware, I saw my friend’s shocked expressions floating in a blur in front of me. Johnny taunted me from above, “Quit faking it!” he yelled. I touched my fingertips to the top of my head and felt the blood flowing. Like a flash flood, it came cascading down my forehead and over my face like a crimson waterfall, and dripped in thick rivulets from my chin. I was stunned.
The look on the faces of my friends scared me more than the pain I was feeling. Now, those above realized that I had actually been hit by the rock that Johnny had thrown. They came scrambling down the slope as fast as they could. Bandanas were pulled from pockets and soaked with water from canteens. As I half sat up, the blood was mopped from my face as someone’s hand applied pressure with a dampened bandana to the wound which was still flowing freely.
Fearful jokes of encouragement and concern were tossed out as each of us took in the shock in our own way. We joked about our Boy Scout first aid skills and training. My head throbbed with each pulse, and I tried to remain stoic and calm. This was not my first dance with blood. Eventually the flow slowed and then was staunched.
Everyone was very gentle with me, and I felt grateful for their concern. I must admit I was a little pissed at Johnny. I had to rest awhile and prepare myself for the hike out.
As one of the younger brothers in this group, I felt a responsibility to shrug it off as no big deal. Were we not men? Slowly we made our way down the canyon and back to civilization. The crusty scab persisted for several weeks. But we could never stay out of those canyons for long, and Steve and Bob had a plan. On a square piece of plywood they had composed a memorial plaque.
They informed us that we must return to the site of my stoning. Carrying the plywood sign, we made our way back to the top of the boulders. With gallows humor and practiced seriousness the memorial was put in place. It read “Here, in this place, on the twenty fifth day of April, in the year 1974, was Wes Brittenham smote down by a stone, hurled from the heights above.” It was our version of Tolkein-esque drama.
I think we went back once or twice to see if the sign was still there, but eventually it passed into memory as our interests and lives took other twists and turns. But like an urban legend, we who were there occasionally dredge up the memory of this story among others. Indeed, when I wrote about Plastics for an earlier blog, it was Rick who messaged me. “Are you going to write about the time you got hit in the head with a rock?” Thank you Rick. Here you are. We must treasure our stories, but please, don’t throw stones.