9780826353641“A Walk Around the Horizon, Discovering New Mexico’s Mountains of the Four Directions” by Tom Harmer

University of New Mexico Press, $24.95, 208 pp.

Review by David Steinberg

In the pages of this book, you can join hiker-naturalist Tom Harmer on a high-altitude adventure. You may end up short of breath and stiff of calf, in a virtual sense, but more than 200 pages later you’ll be happily worn out.

What’s more, you will have learned an awful lot about New Mexico. That’s because Harmer packs so much information in his narrative. He meshes history, archaeology, geology, meteorology, nature and the animal kingdom.

The mountains of the four compass directions that Harmer climbed are sacred to the Tewa Pueblo people.

Two of the mountains are familiar to many New Mexicans – Sandia Crest east of Albuquerque and Truchas Peak in the Sangre de Cristos. Less familiar are Chicoma Mountain in the Jemez and Canjilon Mountain between the Chama River Valley and “mid-level mesas south of Canjilon Mesa.”

Harmer climbed them over part of one summer and fall. He divides the book in sections using their translated English names – “watermelon” for Sandia; “trout” for Truchas, “flint” for Chicoma and “antler” for Canjilon.

Most of the time Harmer was a solitary hiker. The outdoorsman, a resident of northern New Mexico, explained the reasons why he hiked them.

“… I would be in it for the journey, the escape into the outdoors, the immersion into the natural world, rather than the  cranking out of trail miles or the bagging of peaks,” he writes.

“However, as a lifelong student of natural history, outdoor survival and Native practices in the wild, what most appealed to me was simply the process of discovery – those moments of surprise, understanding, and awe that come while finding one’s way over the landscape.”

One can easily see that Harmer’s writing is literary but within his writing style he allows the reader to be captivated by his descriptions of his encounters.

These descriptions in the present tense come at you in sentence after sentence after sentence.

Here he is writing about hiking in one section of the Sandias. He and his companions of the moment cross “deep ravines of oak brush, mountain mahogany,  and cliff fendlerbush.”

At that point he writes, they drop in a hot high-desert zone; a recent rain has given the brush the fragrance of wet chaparral. Here most trees are ponderosa and white fir. Harmer adds, “Fresh mint-green wormwood, or estafiate (ital), grows in carpets beneath thickets of white-blossoming mock orange.”

Sometimes the reader will want to go at a slow pace to capture all that  the writer gives … the smells of nature, the fear of falling, the alertness to bears and mountain lions, the visits of birds, the encounters with deer, elk, bighorn sheep and gnats, the sound of gunshots, the recollection of dreams, the identification of medicinal herbs, the tasting of berries and, too, the meetings with fellow hikers.

As I read, I dog-eared some of the pages that Harmer attentively noted of something that was present but invisible – the wind.

Here are some of those references:

-“Then I find myself in a forest silence so immense it swallows even the sound of wind tossing the tree tops.”

-“There is a vast world of wind outside the flimsy wall of the tiny tent.”

-“The foliage of the aspens responds to the slightest breath of wind…”

-“The wind grows stronger, whipping the tufts of grass into motion.”

Harmer wrote a journal, but still I find it remarkable that he was able to expressively detail so much of what he experienced, what he discovered. The reader can thank him for sharing the thrill of his discoveries.

This review also appears on David Steinberg’s blog nmreviewofbooks.wordpress.com