It was the crack of dawn as I blazed across the northwest New Mexican desert. I wanted to get an early morning hike on the plateau in before heading onward. There were a smattering of Navajo communities spread out up here, with many miles of desert in between. And here, in the middle of nowhere, I kept seeing an odd sight- people walking by the side of the road. Sometimes alone, often in groups, and rarely hitch hiking. And I realized, these folks weren’t themselves on a long journey, they were headed to work, to school, or just out to visit a friend. It was just Tuesday, and I was mesmerized by what was undoubtedly a daily spectacle.
This is a site that I would see repeatedly the next few days, but nowhere more pronounced than this lonely plateau north of Gallup. The long distance walk, both current versions, as well as some ancient journeys to find a new home, was the undercurrent of these couple of days.
The 19th century traveler, be they a native, or the cross-country pioneer, relied on prominent landmarks to find their way. And one of those landmarks was El Morro, basically a huge rock. Once again, as I found in Arizona, the quick stops inevitably were more profound than the “main events. Such was El Morro.
What made El Morro so captivating wasn’t the rock though, or the view from the top, but the writing on the walls. Thousands of travelers chiseled their names on the rock:
At El Morro, one walks quietly around the base of the rock , reading the names , 150 year old testaments to a journey taken. And these testaments demanded artistry as the exquisite penmanship shows. I thought this would be a brief roadside attraction, but I walked away moved, imagining the long , long walk into the unknown these settlers had undertaken, with this rock, a place to celebrate, arrival at a Place. And commemorate it with a hammer and chisel.
El Morro was a stop, albeit a memorable one, as I headed further into the past- to one of the oldest (possibly the oldest) continually inhabited communities in the US- Acoma.
Acoma sits high on a mesa, and was founded in the 12th century. The original settlers walked here on their own journey , settling here from another nearby mesa. And so, on a windy afternoon in New Mexico , an Acoman fellow by the name of Turtle took me and one other guy on a tour.
For the most part , nearly all that live on the Peublo ( or reservation) of Acoma live elsewhere, this mesa top “sky city” serves a largely ceremonial role, though some still do live there. It has no running water or electricity, but there is a road up there, and those that live there manage- a clash of old and new.
Visiting Acoma was partly a lesson in history, and partly an opportunity for shopping. As is often the case at Native American historic sites, there is no shortage of commercial activity- and card tables were set up at every turn- with offerings of jewelry, their famous pottery, and baked goods. I can see where some would be turned off by it, but I took it in stride, even buying some pottery. But always , after the latest card table was dispensed with, we would return to Turtle, who would alternate historical tales with his own story. He spoke with immense pride about his people and this land.
We ended at the church, the one non-native building- the one the Spanish forced on the pueblo, using their blood and sweat to build it. Inside , Turtle’s story wound down in the musty quiet of the 400 year old building
I spoke with Turtle for quite a while after leaving the church. He said he once ventured off the Pueblo for a year, to live in Albuquerque. He hated it, and returned to his home. He asked me where my family was from, and I revelealed a bit of my lineage, Ireland, Wales, things I’ve learned about my own family history- descending from islands across oceans. Turtle told me that mesa out there we were looking at was where the town was originally, and they moved here 800 years ago. On this windy late afternoon, there was 800 years of his history, and his own people’s “ocean”, not 2 miles away.
The focus of this trip, my own journey was finally at hand. A trip to the legendary Chaco Canyon. For me, this was a pilgrimage 25 years in the making. I had first heard of the place in grad school in Colorado, and had a chance to go, but didn’t make it. I was now twice as old.
Chaco sits in northeast New Mexico, about as far from anything as you can get. In fact, you can only reach it by a remarkably bad dirt and gravel road. I happened to come from the south, which is the worst way to go, as it turns out. At one point I nearly got stuck in drifting sand- and as I didn’t have the benefit of 4 wheel drive in my rented Ford Shit-zu, I could have easily met my demise,- as I saw but one car the whole way. But I made it…..and it was worth it.
Chaco Canyon is site of the most intact ancient dwellings in the southwest. Built between 900 and 1100 AD, they sit in valley bounded by cliffs, and were a center of Anasazi culture. The ruins are a series of complexes, each containing an array of living quarters and ceremonial spaces. I was in no way prepared for the breadth of the complex, or its rich detail. To take it in, one is best to clamber up the cliff behind the complex, or hire a helicopter apparently. ( I did not, but this is an incredible photo):
Honestly, for the first time since maybe journeys to Roman or Greek temples almost 20 years ago, had I that marvelous feeling of walking quietly amongst ruins, picking your way, getting lost in the place, and the moment. One of the extraordinary things about this place is that you can mostly do just that, a benefit of it being so hard to get to, so few make it.
There is an astonishing level of craft in these 1000 year old walls . They were designed to have an inner structural core , and an outer facing of alternating bands of large and small stones, giving the walls a sense of grace. The intact precision of the openings and lintels testify that these guys knew what they were doing.
My hike above the canyon on this day was solitary, not a soul. The broad sweep of the land below seemed to kneel at the foot of the canyon. This is indeed a sacred place.
The Anasazi eventually left the valley, it is thought after a very long, hard drought, commencing in the 12th century. And they began their next journey, dispersing into areas that established new Pueblos, such as Acoma, that live on to this day. The site was rediscovered in the mid-19th century, and it would be another 50 years before any excavating took place.
Santuario de Chimayo
My own southwest journey had now run back over 1,000 years on this trip. Beginning in Arizona, in the present day madness of Phoenix, back through the idealism of the 70’s, the roadside 30’s , and now hurtling through centuries. And for me, another trip in the southwest was pounding in another milepost for me, marking more change. I had been through these parts, sans Chaco, in 2004 as part of moving to California from Colorado. In fact this trip would wrap up at pretty much the same place the last one started.
En route, there was one last stop, more about walking, or wanting to walk. I had visited this church before , and I needed to stop. The Santaurio de Chimayo is a humble little church by a river north of Santa Fe, but its a place of miracles they say. My own ritual I suppose, like 2004, I needed to say a prayer.
Many come here to be healed, and there is a room inside that has hundreds of discarded crutches. And many go further , making a long holy week pilgrimage to the site, some carrying crosses- and extraordinary spectacle of long distance walking.
For some, the journey is the ultimate challenge:
I like to think of myself as a man of science, so I’m not so sure about the whole miracle thing. And yet, as I sat here on a Sunday morning, with services inside, I heard the voices of angels cascade out the doors of the humble church. Like Chaco , this was indeed sacred ground. How could miracles not happen?
And that is what so much of New Mexico feels like to me. After several days on native lands, and now in the heart of old Spanish New Mexico. It has a substantial, yet humble beauty. New Mexico wears its heart and history on its sleeve, or, if you will, inscribed in rocks; literally or figuratively. Its right there, right in front of you, gp walk on it, touch it- this is New Mexico. The journeys I saw here are of many types; born of economic necessity, catastrophe , or religious fervor, but all of these footsteps bound the place in to one for me on this trip.
The psalm was over, the service ended, and my own journey was over. I was ready to come back to California.