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In their element: Arch hunter Larry Beck documents 532 arches in New Mexico

James Fenton
The Daily Times

Editor's note: This is part of The Daily Times' "In their element" series. On the last Thursday of every month in 2015, we'll publish a profile of a Four Corners resident who embraces fitness or the outdoors. Read more stories at daily-times.com/outdoors.

FARMINGTON — The allure of finding and documenting sandstone arches has captivated arch hunter Larry Beck for more than 25 years.

"It's just fascinating. It's like an endless treasure hunt," he said.

Beck admits to being an incurable arch hunter, a full-time hobby that leads him from canyon to canyon throughout New Mexico and surrounding states, looking for "the daylight poking through" window-like holes in rock remnants.

Beck, a retired accountant, discovered a natural affinity for the outdoors as a child growing up in Española. Now, at 69, he spends nearly every day between April and October driving along oil field roads deep into canyons in his Chevrolet V-8 truck, or "Archmobile" as he calls it.

Beck, who is also the president of the Natural Arch and Bridge Society, said he loves the search for the next arch and finds San Juan County has an endless supply of the natural formations.

"Oh, I'm an 'arch-o-holic,' and there is no known cure," he said. "The only treatment for it is to find another arch."

So far, he has discovered and documented 532 natural arches in New Mexico, adding the last 25 since June.

David Brandt-Erichsen is one of 125 members of NABS and serves as the society's webmaster. He lives in Tucson, Ariz., and said Beck is one of the most active arch hunters in the Southwest.

"He certainly holds the record for finding arches in the area," he said. "There's so many he's found."

Beck is currently working on compiling an online database of every known natural arch in the U.S. He hopes to have the collection, organized by state, completed and available for NABS members on the society's website this fall.

Brandt-Erichsen himself said he spends less time hiking through canyons these days and more time online.

"I do most of my arch hunting now using the Internet, especially arches in other countries," he said.

Using Google Earth, a NABS member discovered the largest arch in the world — close to 400 feet in height. Called Fairy Bridge, the arch spans the Buliu River in China's Guangxi Province. A NABS member traveled to see the arch to confirm its size.

Evolving hobby

On Tuesday, Beck revisited some of the arches he documented earlier this summer in the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's Glade Run Recreation Area off of Piñon Hills Boulevard.

The 19,000-acre recreation area in Farmington is popular with off-road vehicle users, mountain bikers and hikers. But Beck, armed with two walking sticks, his GPS unit, a compass, maps and good hiking shoes, said that if more people tried scanning the sandstone mesas throughout the Southwest for sunlight glinting from "windows" in the formations — the best way to spot one, he said — they might just get hooked as he did.

"It started as a hobby. I'd see one and take a picture. Scribble down some notes, and that was it," Beck said. "The first arch I found was a dinky little thing that today I would maybe only say 'Hi' to and move on, but then I was so excited over this little, itty-bitty one that I must have taken five, six pictures of it, really fussed over it."

Beck uses two photo-sharing websites — his "Archseeker" site on Panoramio and his "Arch Larry" site on Flickr — to share his findings, which he documents with color photography, GPS coordinates, span and height measurements, descriptions of notable characteristics and directions. He also keeps a wall-sized map and companion binder of photos of arches he's discovered at Wines of the San Juan, a winery in Blanco that serves as his home base during arch-hunting season.

Beck names the arches after a dominant characteristic or quality and assigns each one a number. He names the finest example of an arch in a particular canyon after canyon.

Arch hunters use a taxonomy to categorize the types of natural arches found to identify them based on their overall appearance and formation history. Beck said arcs, bridges, pillars, buttresses, potholes, alcoves, fins and meanders are the most common types found in San Juan County. Arches with spans or heights under three feet he calls "archlettes."

Beck names arches he has discovered after an object or animal they resemble. This summer in Glade Canyon, he found a freestanding, or "abandoned," arch he named Bunny Arch after its surprising resemblance to a chocolate Easter bunny. Another arch farther north in the canyon resembles an old telephone resting on its cradle, named, aptly, Telephone Arch.

On the lookout

Some of the arches Beck finds are a lot closer than people might think.

Earlier this week, Beck pulled his truck over to the side of Piñon Hills Boulevard just west of Dustin Avenue and hiked up a steep sandstone bluff to visit what could perhaps be the closest arches he has discovered in the Farmington area.

Named Farmington Arch, the arch started as a "pothole" in the rock that ruptured over time and left a section of its rim suspended above the new opening.

"You don't really think of something like this being here (while) driving by," Beck said, standing under the arch's overhang as traffic whizzed past. "You don't really see all this from the road."

So far this year, Beck has found about 20 arches in Glade Canyon. Last year, he added 35 to his growing list online.

"I just keep my eyes peeled every time I come into a canyon and look for anything 'archy' looking," Beck said. "I've found so many that if I haven't been back in a while I rediscover them all over again."

Beck's sights are currently set on adding to his inventory of arches in Largo Canyon. Largo stretches for about 70 miles from east of Aztec in the north to Counselor in the south. So far, Beck has mapped arches and covered 20 miles of the canyon.

"I'll never claim to have found all the arches because there's no way in hell you can say that. ... You take a group of arch hunters with you, and they'll spot them," Beck said. "Keep your eyes peeled, and you'll spot them. They're all so different."

Solitary pursuit

Before leaving Glade Canyon, Beck visited Nan's Arch, an arch named for his late wife, Nan McVicker, who discovered the buttress arch in 1994 while the couple were mountain biking.

That afternoon, he headed east of Aztec to Kitten and Bohannon Canyons, based on a tip from another arch hunter he found online who goes by the handle, "Arch Nemesis."

He found an arch that "Nemesis" named "A Is for Arch," which he said looks like a big capital "A."

Beck said he tries to encourage a greater understanding and appreciation of the sandstone wonders in the state. He takes groups on arch tours periodically in San Juan County and leads members of the Natural Arch and Bridge Society on "arch rallies" — a group of arch hunters looking for arches en masse.

But, mostly, he finds himself searching alone.

"Usually it's just me and the gas-field truck guys. Sometimes a mountain biker, but usually it's just me," he said. "I'm always hoping people will get hooked and start looking. It's such a great activity."

James Fenton is the business editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621 and jfenton@daily-times.com. Follow him @fentondt on Twitter.