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The Zuñi Salt Lake
This view surprises the traveler upon topping a gentle rise in the desert plain forty-five miles south of Zuñi, just east of the Arizona line. The depression floored by the lake is substantially circular, a mile in diameter, and from one hundred and fifty to two hundred and fifty feet deep, with steep inner walls of horizontally bedded sandstone, in places capped by lava, and overlain by a ring of broken rock and volcanic cinders. The pale yellow, almost creamy, shallow water is indicative of the lake's bottom of salt, with a slight admixture of mud carried down from the sides by occasional rains or blown in as dust. When evaporation outstrips supply, every stick and stone projecting above the water bears incrustations of salt crystals, appearing, incongruously under the broiling sun, like miniature icebergs. The hillocks rising from the lake are volcanic cinder cones; that at the right of the picture contains a perfect crater, over a hundred feet deep, with a round, clear, emerald-green pond at the level of the outer lake. Zuñi mythology places the residence of the war gods in that crater, which is one of their most sacred spots. While intertribal wars continued, none but members of the Bow priesthood were authorized to approach the crater, and only those of that order who had taken four scalps might enter and deposit offerings in it. The Salt Lake in those days was neutral ground, a sanctuary where every one was safe from enemy attack.
From time immemorial the aborigines have here derived their salt. Cushing reports finding crystals characteristic of this deposit in the cliff houses beyond the San Juan in Utah and Colorado, and thence traced deepworn ancient trails leading toward the lake. He attributes the migrations of the ancestors of the Zuñis from their rock fastnesses in the north to the influence of this salt supply, the importance attached to which is attested by the Zuñi word for "south," meaning literally "the direction of the saltcontaining lake."
The earliest historical records mention it. On the road from Zuñi to the lake are the ruins of Hawikuh, now under excavation, one of the seven cities of Cibola, tales of whose riches first lured the Spaniards to our Southwest. From there, under date of August 3, 1540, Coronado wrote that its inhabitants "have a very good salt in crystals, which they bring from a lake a day's journey distant from here," and in a contemporary letter one of his companions speaks of their "salt, the best and whitest I have seen in all my life."
Annually, after the corn-planting, the Zuñis make a pilgrimage to this lake and hold ceremonies in its honor. They and other neighboring tribes still repair here to dig salt, which they claim to be sweeter than that of the white man.
As a knife slices a cake, so water, when unimpeded by vegetation, cuts into the desert, at first short, shallow rills, growing larger and deeper with each succeeding rain-storm, ever working backward and, aided by windblown sand, ultimately forming cañons, of which this is an example.
The fundamental explanation of why our arid West has an interest and fascination lacking in more favored lands lies in the obvious principles, stated by Dr. Gilbert in his study of the Henry Mountains, that vegetation retards erosion and "a moist climate by stimulating vegetation produces a sculpture independent of diversities of rock texture, and a dry climate by repressing vegetation produces a sculpture dependent on those diversities." Here the plain is floored by sandstone with seams of coal, mined for use at the Tuba Indian school, fifteen miles away. Beneath are sandy shales, chalky and marl-like, banded red and pink, and on the slopes painted by the rain-wash. In the main very soft, that is to say, unresistant, but of varying texture, this rock yields readily to Nature's chisel.