The patchwork history of public lands that transformed the area around a small New Mexico town into a world-class bouldering area
We left the Mills Canyon Rim Campground, where we’d been living for three cold January weeks, just before dawn on our last morning in New Mexico. I pulled over to the north side of the historic main street in the aging village of Roy to get a photo of the iconic water tower, flushed with morning light. A man walked up to me, stomping the cold from his feet, his palms showing through his worn wool gloves, his hood cinched so tight over his ears that I could only see the center of his face and the frost on his mustache.
We talked about the canyon and the cold this winter. He raised his eyebrows when he heard we were camping at the canyon rim where the temperatures dropped into single digits. I assured him that we had a propane heater in our drafty VW van. He told me that he and his friends used to run around in the canyons and scramble on the rocks. But now the town is fading. There used to be seven bars in Harding County. Roy’s last remaining bar had recently closed its doors.
I’d been in Roy for a month, climbing and taking photos with my partner, Jane Jackson. The place felt different than when I first started coming here in 2013, after moving temporarily to New Mexico for a relationship. The relationship drifted apart, but during that time I discovered a tiny, adventurous, laid-back climbing community and that rock is everywhere in the state. That’s when I was first introduced to the canyons outside the town of Roy, two-and-a-half hours northeast of Santa Fe. For a California climber, it was incomparable. At first the stories of boulders, and lack of pictures, seemed more like Don Quixote myths than a climbing destination—ironically, a windmill marks the turnoff from the highway. But the giant Dakota sandstone blocks, scattered through the Kiowa Grasslands, are very real.
In those early years we chased bread crumbs left by William Penner and Tom Ellis, the climbers who first dedicated themselves to Roy. Theirs was a strong word-of-mouth policy. There were no secrets, but locations and boulders weren’t revealed until you could be there in person with them. Roy stayed off the map for nearly a decade, even in the age of social media. It was empty and wild, the canyons were elaborate, varied and massive.
Word eventually spread and Roy is now a known spot among climbers around the country. But the way I describe it can’t be separated from the few years that I was able to go there with only a few friends, experience the empty canyons and climb rocks with no chalk except our own. Each person’s image of a place begins at a different point in time. One day it belongs to the wind and a dusty history and you’re the foreign object on the landscape. Then it’s a climbing area. On Main Street there’s a barber shop, but pulling alongside the façade reveals grasses and vines that have overtaken the interior.
The first time I went to the corner café on Main Street, which is now called Lonita’s, the locals paused, forks up, to stare at me. When we stopped by on this trip, another group of climbers was already in a booth. The waitress asked us whether we’d been camping and climbing. On rainy days, young kids park here on their laptops and research climbs.
On this trip, I watched a college outdoor club spread out in the overflow camping on their first trip to the grasslands and wondered what their reference point will be for this place. It’s still possible to get lost in a new canyon each day. But the main areas have more cars at the trailhead, and the chalk is now too thick to fully wash from the holds between seasons.
Now amidst the porcelain lollipop holders and American flag paraphernalia, Ma Sally sells climbing chalk and tape.
Still, there are days when it’s possible to have the place mostly to yourself. Our friends rolled in from Santa Fe, Albuquerque and Los Alamos on the weekend. Campfires burned and whiskey spun around the circle while one friend told stories of growing up in the tiny mining town of Madrid, south of Santa Fe. Another friend told a story about getting a jump from a state trooper near Wagon Mound when their Tacoma shorted on the highway after multiple stream crossings searching for new boulders. Someone else in the group once found a dinosaur bone by the Canadian River and held up a chalky hand to demonstrate the crooked claw. We lay on crashpads to watch the lunar eclipse. The wind howled and the pack of dogs barked at animals out of sight in the darkness.
The big lines anchor Roy’s climbing. Twenty- to 40-foot problems like Icarus, Beautiful Pig, Hokusai’s Wave, Best Western bridge between solo and boulder problems. As you climb on the smaller problems, these bigger lines loom overhead waiting for the right day. If you love the movement of climbing, the bigger the problem the more climbing you get to do. The highball, more than anything else, defines Roy climbing.
This group of friends had explored many of the canyons (not all of them), but we left the car at the campground and revisited what could be walked to. One of the best parts of climbing here is that the jumbled streambeds and canyons hide more than can be experienced in one trip.
We spent the day warming up in the sun and then headed into the tight streambed hemmed in with large pines. Jane worked out the beta on a dark lichen-painted face with perfect edges. Anywhere else it would be considered a tall problem, but Roy’s surplus of big lines quickly distorts your perception of a standard-sized boulder. In the evening we headed downstream and discovered a sweeping slab with a singular hole halfway up its 18-foot face. Unsure about the reach, I measured the distance with a stick and compared it to my max ability. From tiptoes I could grab the top. We figured out the bottom crux and I stood dynamically off my right toe in the pocket. For a second, nothing but the toe remained on the wall until my fingers just grabbed the top. Climbing a new problem is like picking out a familiar face in a crowd of strangers—everything is abstract, and then a piece of the chaos comes into focus.
New Mexico is not a simple place. Before climbers arrived in the area around Roy, this was, and still is, ranchland. Before cows, the plains were covered in bison. Bison anchored an ecosystem of grassland that was the foundation to the previously nomadic lives of multiple tribes including Comanche, Apache and Kiowa. Records indicate that humans have lived here for 13,000 years. And in 1932, a road crew unearthed spear points within the matted masses of wooly mammoth bones.
There is no barrier between past and present.
The landscape is desolate in patches but fertile and complex in others. The sky bursts into color at sunset unlike anywhere in the world. High-elevation swells harbor green forests and snowy peaks. Communities like the Acoma Pueblo or Taos Pueblo have existed in the same location for centuries. The mixture of Spanish heritage (and colonialism), Native American pueblos and ranching create a patchwork history unlike any place I’ve ever lived. The accent is unique, the architecture is almost all adobe, and the food, most of it slathered in red and green chiles, is unbelievably good.
I keep coming back because the canyons are complex to hike, New Mexicans are tough on egos and quick to share beers, and the climbing is bold but joyful. Climbers go places to climb. But the associations of a place create meaningful experiences. In archaeology the idea is that the context, more than the artifact, is where the vast majority of understanding waits. It’s why an arrowhead removed from its resting place holds little insight into the story of its owner. Climbing here is as much about the rising song of rusty cattle gates being opened and closed as it is about tall, dark-red Dakota sandstone boulders. Roy reminds me of the pleasure of climbing outdoors. Of discovery and bushwhacking, of climbing rocks without names.
Just outside town a few cows huddle behind a wilting billboard to break the exposure to grassland winds. East of the cows, the morning light shimmers in mirage, creating the illusion of a floating island of land. Snow takes advantage of the cold morning to cover the rolling brown. It’s a strange place to be looking for rocks to climb.
This essay was featured in the 2019 Patagonia September Catalog.