A Southwestern oak expedition

For several years I have been a member of the International Oak Society, an organization which informs and brings together people with a passion for oaks. Every three years there is a conference; last year this took place in Asheville, North Carolina in the U.S. Some 120 people from every corner of the world attended and during the three day meeting there were presentations on many different topics concerning the genus Quercus. During the pre- and post-conference tours a smaller group of about 40 enthusiastic oak lovers visited different places in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia to get acquainted with southeastern American oaks. During the post-conference tour the idea of exploring the oaks of the U.S. Southwest was suggested by Michael Melendrez, a nurseryman and inveterate New Mexican.
Michael proudly showed us pictures of the region and of the many oaks that grow there, and his pleading made us both curious and enthusiastic.

In the months that followed the congress Michael took every opportunity to send us pictures of the
“Land of Enchantment”: sometimes a sunset, sometimes one or another New Mexican oak, sometimes a breathtaking view. As the months went by, his plans became more and more clear: this was going to be a real expedition with
4-wheel-drive-trucks and camping out in the open...and so it came about.

On August 25th and 26th, 2001, eighteen people, including two women, met in Los Lunas, Michael’s home town, located some 20 kilometers south of Albuquerque, New Mexico. In Michael’s yard the last preparations were made.
It was an international group: 8 Americans, 4 Belgians, 2 Englishmen, a French couple, and 3 people from Luxembourg, plus two young Americans who would help with transport and food preparation. It was a jolly group between the ages of 25 and 70, all with a common passion: the Oak. For this reason we rightly called ourselves “Oak Nuts.”

After a short visit to Michael’s nursery, aptly named “Trees that Please,” our Ford Expeditions set off for our first destination, the Manzano Mountains. Here we would encounter our first native New Mexican trees and shrubs, among others Quercus x undulata, Rhus trilobata, and Acer grandidentatum, one of the showiest of American trees in the fall. Here we also got our first glimpse of Quercus gambellii, one of the most common of the oaks of New Mexico. This oak grows mostly in clumps called “motts,” formed by shoots from a single tree. Many individuals from this species have stunning fall color, a dark vermilion. A mountainside covered with this oak and Acer grandidentatum, as here in the Manzanos, is a fall sight never to be forgotten. The first night we camped (I wouldn’t say slept) not far away in the Capitan Mountains Wilderness. Under an amazing star-filled sky and warmed by a cheerful fire we began to get acquainted. After wild stories of rattle snakes, bears, and mountain lions we crawled into our sleeping bags around
10 p.m., but not without double checking our tent zippers....

Vast areas of New Mexico are desert, but the mountains, which get more moisture, are never far away; they can reach 4000 meters in altitude. In these mountains the flora is therefore much richer than lower down, and vegetation can be luxuriant. The lowest part of the state is in the south east, but it is nevertheless still 1000 meters above sea level. Because of its general high elevation, New Mexico has rather cold winters.

The morning of the second day we set off for the White Mountains, where we hiked at a comfortable 15 degrees C. to almost 4000 meters above sea level. You could easily imagine yourself in the Alps here, with coniferous forest and flowering meadows. During the winter, temperatures easily drop to –25 C in these mountains and skiing is practiced every winter.
In Boy Scout Canyon we were surprised by the variation in Q. muhlenbergii, which is well represented there.
This Chinkapin oak does especially well on high PH soils. Other high PH-tolerant oaks are Q. macrocarpa and Q. shumardii. With Q. palustris you often have problems with chlorosis, because this species requires an acid soil.
This and many other things I learned from Tim, who is the city forester of Fort Collins, Colorado.

On the road to Roswell, New Mexico, with a temperature as high as 37 degrees C and 0 humidity, we stopped to view
a creeping, dwarf oak, Q. havardii. This oak covers thousands of hectares in New Mexico and Texas; the diminutive forests are called “chinneries.” We also saw several examples of Juglans microcarpa, a dwarf black walnut with tiny nuts still enclosed in their protective hull. After reaching Roswell, we went to a military academy where the grounds are planted with a charming, multistemmed oak from the Texas hill country, Quercus buckleyi. The trees were loaded with acorns, which we eagerly gathered.

That night we expected to camp at Pine Springs, at the foot of the Guadalupe Mountains in West Texas. But luck was not with us. Just as we were putting up our tents, an incredible thunder storm began, and we were forced to flee to our vehicles and then to return to a motel in Whites City, New Mexico, next to Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Never in my life have I experienced such a storm, with continuous thunder and lightning and torrential rain. It was unforgettable.
One of the highlights of our expedition was McKitterick Canyon in the Guadalupe Mountains, to which we returned the next day. In the fall, many people come here to admire the autumn colour of Acer grandidentatum, which grows along the cliffs of this amazing canyon. Here too we saw Q. muehlenbergii and Q.grisea, but also Q. pungens, Q. mohreana, and the ever-present Juniperus deppeana, with bark like the hide of an alligator. Here we also saw a Central American native tree at its northern limit: Arbutus xalapensis, with evergreen leaves and shining, smooth red trunks revealed by their exfoliating bark. The trees were covered with bunches of as yet unripe berries. Too bad!

This was really the Indian country which we know from old western movies, and a Manitou couldn’t be far away! Everything was there to make the picture look real: the heat, the babbling brook where our tired mount could drink,
the cliffs, a hawk hovering above us in a warm updraft, and the winding path threading its way around huge rocks and trees, and where you have to look out carefully for snakes and scorpions.

From here we drove along almost endless straight roads all the way down to El Paso, Texas and then back to New Mexico. Some of the rock formations in the Organ Mountains, near Las Cruces, really looked like organ pipes.
This was the unique setting for the ruins of a vacation resort of the late 19th century called “Dripping Springs.
A five meter high Chilopsis linearis and a Q. grisea bent over by the prevailing western winds kindly offered us cooling shade from the burning heat. But the real reason why we came to this beautiful place was to take a closer look at
Q. organensis which is found only on the western slopes of these mountains. This interesting evergreen oak has been suggested as a hybrid between Q. arizonica and Q. grisea; however, Michael thinks it is a true species, for its progeny holds perfectly true from seed.

The next day a wonderful surprise awaited us. On the desolate road from Las Cruces to Silver City, New Mexico, near the small hamlet of Caballo, we suddenly turned into a steep gravel road which led down into a true paradise.
We found ourselves in this peaceful oasis among huge Arizona sycamores (Platanus wrightii) up to 40 meters tall
along the winding Animas river. Every one of us was deeply impressed as we beheld the national champion of this beautiful plane tree with its deeply cut green leaves. We took many pictures of each other in front of and along side
its huge trunk.
That evening we set up our tents at Iron Creek Campground at 2700 meters altitude. By a blazing campfire we ate delicious “burritos” which we had all prepared together, one cutting up onions, another chopping tomatoes or grating cheese. Washed down by cold beer, it was a true feast. During the night we were again awakened by thunder and heavy rain on our tents. The next morning the light peeped through fog hanging on the surrounding Alnus oblongifolia, Populus angustifolia, and clumps of Quercus gambellii. After a quick cat bath in the ice cold mountain stream and a cup of strong hot coffee, however, we quickly forgot our restless night.

As we resumed our march toward Silver City we saw our first individuals of Q. rugosa, with a few Q. emoryi loaded with edible acorns. We ate one or two of the acorns but put the rest in our bags because the acorns of this promising evergreen oak seemed too valuable to waste. Continuing our journey, we drove all the way down to the “Boot Heel,” which is the extreme south western corner of the state of New Mexico. Only a stone’s throw from Arizona and
Old Mexico we admired pronghorn antelope peacefully grazing among Q. emoryi, Q. grisea and Q. arizonica, the latter a new species for us with evergreen leaves dark green on top and velvety underneath. Guy Sternberg, Antoine
Le Hardy, and Michel Timatchef, who are each working on books on the genus Quercus, were kept really busy,
as always, taking pictures and making notes.

As we drove back north we noticed that bad weather was again developing over the Animas mountains and it didn’t take long before the first drops of rain began to wash the dust off our cars. The initial plan had been to camp near the Gila river that night, but this was wisely postponed and we took shelter in a motel in Silver City, where we “camped” with five people to two-bed rooms. After an invigorating shower we installed ourselves for what would probably be the best night of the trip. Some people slept on the floor, others in the beds; but many times during that night we must have exchanged ideas in the universal language of snoring!

The next morning at 6 a.m. everyone was rested and ready for a new adventure, but no one had an inkling of what was in store. The road to Turkey Creek clearly had suffered some damage during the previous night’s storm. Not without difficulty, our four-wheel-drive trucks eventually brought us to the Gila River. We stopped a few times to admire the wonderful Q. hypoleucoides, with its lanceolate evergreen leaves, but no acorns were to be found. A shrub oak called
Q. toumeyi, however, was loaded with acorns, so we set to work. What a sight to see groups of ten people eagerly picking acorns from a shrub only one meter tall!

By noon, everyone had put up his tent and we were ready for an eight-kilometer-hike into the Gila Wilderness.
Several times we had to take off our shoes to cross the Gila River, but all of this was more than worth the trouble because we found ourselves surrounded by a rich variety of plants and trees. The path became narrower and narrower and Michael called our attention to the fact that this was “snake country;” sure enough, it wasn’t long until someone saw one gliding away between the rocks. This made us keep our eyes on the ground even more. I was staring so intently at the ground that I didn’t see a poison ivy vine growing there along the cliff right in front of my face. Needless to say, I walked straight into it, pushing my face squarely against it. I had heard many stories about this horrid trifoliate climber, and I knew that tomorrow my cheek would look like a raw steak, itching and burning like Hell.
I immediately rushed to the river and washed my face with soap and water, and to my surprise I didn’t feel anything the next day.

On the other side of a tributary of the Gila we noticed a Q. rugosa with acorns; we carefully searched the whole tree because this is a really a lovely oak, with red-coloured young leaves. Our enthusiasm and curiosity drove us deeper and deeper into this breathtaking canyon, and so we did not take much notice of the storm that was brewing overhead and which would hit us again today. It all began quietly with some drops of rain and some thunder in the distance but gradually the thunder came nearer and the rain changed into heavy hail. We found ourselves in a huge canyon,
four kilometers from our camp and with no place where we could take shelter from the storm. Now the storm was right above us and the frightening roar of the thunder echoed continuously in the canyon. What had been a path an hour ago was now an ice cold torrent full of mud and melting hail. We were soaked to the bone and we no longer bothered to take off our shoes to cross the Gila, which had suddenly risen a foot. Allan and James, who were the oldest members of the group, paid no attention to the storm but bravely marched along.

When we arrived at the campsite, the storm was over, but most of the tents had been flooded and it was clear that it would be risky to stay here for the night. It was only two hours until dark, so we quickly packed up and set off for
a drier and safer place. The incredible downpour had washed away parts of the rocky road and on several occasions we had to fill potholes up to 40 centimeters deep so that our vehicles could pass, even then with great difficulty. And still our bad luck was not over, for one of the trucks hit a sharp stone and blew out a tire. It took all of us more than half an hour to put on the spare. Just as it became really dark we reached a paved road and everybody heaved a deep sigh of relief, for we had only just made it. And yet this was the best day of the whole trip: exhausting, wild, but full of bonding with one another and with fickle nature. Very late that evening in a cowboy saloon in Glenwood, New Mexico, we relived our adventure over a hot meal washed down with cold beer. But we all soon turned in, for everyone was worn out!

The next morning our first stop was an impressive three story tree house in a large Quercus emoryi, part of a wealthy estate. After that we set off for Whitewater Canyon. All along the canyon the trail is partly on iron grill work and hanging bridges above the wild river. This is the famous Whitewater Canyon catwalk. Here again we saw Arizona sycamores, Alnus oblongifolia, Quercus grisea and Quercus rugosa, the latter laden with acorns.
After this exhilarating hike we decided to take a shortcut through the Mogollon Mountains, for it was yet a long way back to Los Lunas, our goal for the night.

Along the road we finally found Q. hypoleucoides with a few acorns, but Michael had to do some fancy acrobatics to get each of us one acorn. Along the way we drove through Mogollon, an old gold mining ghost town, and high in the mountains we made a quick stop at the lookout tower of Bear Wallow at 9920 feet above sea level. From this height we looked down on all of southern New Mexico. What a view! We finally arrived at Michael’s house in the middle of the night; in a few minutes we had changed his garden into a cozy campsite.

Everyone was exhausted and we all slept longer than expected, so it was around noon the next day when we were ready to drive to the Benedictine monastery of Pecos. At this spot there is a 15-meter-high evergreen
Quercus x undulata which we wanted to see. Because of the altitude (2000 meters), this is a tree which has a good chance of surviving in Belgium, so I decided to take a few scions and graft them on rootstock of Q. robur on my
return to Belgium.

All through this wonderful trip Michael had been telling us about the hot thermal springs of New Mexico. He promised us that we would be able to soak our tired feet and bodies when we reached northern New Mexico. So we were full of expectation in the afternoon when we drove to Los Alamos, north west of Santa Fe. In Los Alamos we inspected the aftermath of the terrible forest fires there in 2000 which nearly burned down the famous nuclear center. Then, after a long drive through a huge extinct volcanic caldera and a steep hike on foot up a mountain, we arrived at the steaming spring. We quickly shed our clothes and cautiously stepped into the basin, where the water is 40 degrees C. year round. Surrounded by mountains and forests, everyone sitting in the hot water was clearly quite happy!

This ten-days’-trip had brought us all closer together and everyone seemed satisfied with what we had seen and learned from each other. All of these matters were thoroughly discussed during our last meal together, where we all thanked and honoured Michael for the wonderful job he had done in organizing this expedition. During the next days each of us returned to our homes, loaded down with dirty laundry and wrinkled clothes, but in possession of masses of acorns and oak scions to experiment with at home, not to mention all of the valuable things we had learned and the pleasant memories.

I returned via Atlanta and flew right over New York, not suspecting the drama that would transpire down there one week later. With this wonderful trip still fresh in my memory, I was deeply shocked when I heard the tragic news of the events of September 11th.

The morning of my arrival, still with serious case of jetlag, I immediately started to graft the oak scions and to stratify the acorns I had brought home. After spending the winter in peat moss at 2 degrees C, the acorns will be sown in the spring of 2002. Stay tuned for the results!

Thanks to meticulous notes taken by Eike Jablonski I have been able to establish the correct chronological order of places and events of our trip, as well as the names of trees and places where we stopped. I also wish to thank my friend Allan Taylor for helping me to translate this trip diary into English.