The Organ Mountains hang over Las Cruces like the backdrop for an old cowboy movie. You can drive up to the Dripping Springs Natural Area to experience the mountains close up.
On our first trip there we were drawn by the sound of water, as one always is in the desert, into a small display garden of native species outside the Visitor Center. I located the source of the water, a tiny fountain and, as I leaned closer to look at it, noticed a small sign. It informed me that just as I was drawn to the trickling sound of water so were other inhabitants of the desert, including snakes and lizards, and that I should watch my step on my way out of the garden.
This was just our first introduction to the animal population of this seemingly empty place. There are several miles of trails, and the center has extensive lists of animal sightings that are reported to the ranger there. According to New Mexico Wildlife publication: "Because of water which finds it way to the surface there year-round, Dripping Springs is a desert oasis where unique biotic communities thrive. Any time of year, visitors enjoy excellent viewing of red-tailed hawks and Gambel's quail. There's also a good chance of spotting desert mule deer, coyotes, and rock squirrels. In spring and summer, watch for golden eagles and prairie falcons which occasionally soar overhead. Along the hiking trails, look for black-chinned sparrows, Scott's orioles, canyon wrens, Red-naped sapsuckers, and collared lizards. There are also occasional sightings of mountain lions, of which this area has a viable population. Dripping Springs is also home to a race of the Colorado chipmunk and two threatened species of land snails." We saw an amazing variety of brightly colored lizards and a tarantula's burrow by the side of the trail.
Our destination was La Cueva, a large cave that has been associated with the prehistoric Mogollon culture. It is thought to have been occupied from around 5000 B.C. and has yielded thousands of artifacts. The Apaches used it for a shelter in the 18th and 19th centuries. In the late 1860s, it served as a home to El Ermitano (the hermit), an Italian of noble descent called Giovanni Maria Agostini.
Agostini had perhaps studied for the priesthood in Italy. He spent some time with the Penitentes of Northern New Mexico, who were impressed by his healing powers. He decided to go to La Cueva to live alone and to meditate, a plan that worried friends he had made in Old Mesilla. He and his friends worked out an arrangement to set their minds at ease. Every Friday night he would kindle a fire in front of the cave that they would be able to see from Mesilla, and they would thus be assured of his continuing safety. One Friday evening in 1869, as the story goes, the fire did not appear. When the friends had made their way up to La Cueva, they found El Ermitano dead--face down on the ground with a knife in his back. His murder was never solved.
In spite of its long history, La Cueva is another of those empty New Mexico places with a palpable silence. It's a place to stop in, to be still, and to meditate.