Often the test of endurance in western adventure novels, the malpais of the Southwest are regions of basaltic lava and mesas very difficult to cross, especially on foot or horseback, as more than suggested in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian: “On the day following they crossed the malpais afoot, leading the horses upon a lakebed of lava all cracked and reddish black like a pan of dried blood, threading those badlands of dark amber glass like the remnants of some dim legion scrabbling up out of a land accursed . . . a cinderland of caked slurry and volcanic ash as imponderable as the burned-out floor of hell.” As McCarthy establishes, malpais translates into English simply as “badlands.” As his “pan of dried blood” suggests, to both the Pueblo and Navajo peoples of the region the malpais is the blood of a great monster slain by hero twins. Either way, the message is clear: the malpais is hostile, unforgiving. While in general usage badland can refer to any area of loose soil or rock radically eroded by rain and runoff, malpais tends to be reserved for that area of northwestern New Mexico that features a combination of lava and sandstone formations—flows, cinder cones, tubes, bridges, pressure ridges, bluffs—and, of course, all the animals who call the malpais home, and who don’t think it’s that bad a place. Stephen Graham Jones

Stephen Graham Jones