2016-04-01 / ReBooted

The Footsteps of History

Jill Gleeson

If the primordial landscapes of New Mexico’s Bandelier National Monument aren’t haunted, they should be. Located an hour’s drive from Santa Fe, past the bomb-building labs of Los Alamos, Bandelier is one of the world’s loneliest places. Human habitation here dates back 11,000 years, but around 1550 the Ancestral Pueblo people who called the area home abandoned it for more welcoming surroundings along the Rio Grande River.

Stand atop one of Bandelier’s mesas, and the vista, desolate and magnificent, unspools for miles. It takes you back in time to the violent volcanic birth of the Jemez Mountains and the breakup of the Rio Grande Valley. Some 30 million years ago the land ripped itself apart, forming one of the planet’s four rift valleys and creating an almost otherworldly realm. There’s a strange energy here that makes your bones sing, my guide told me as I peered down from a plateau at the far-off, twisting river.

“Do you feel it?” he asked.
“I do! I feel like I’m vibrating.”
“We call that the ‘hum,’” he replied, smiling.

We’d stopped to take in the view on the way to the Tsankawi section of Bandelier. Built 600 years ago by the Tewa people, Tsankawi is accessible via a winding trail leading to the mesa where the village once thrived. It’s not a terribly arduous hike, but it’s a tricky one, with two 12-foot-tall rough-hewn ladders to climb. I ascended each, but their wide rungs gave me pause. Take a tumble from one and more than an ankle would be broken. After curling around the mesa’s flank, where spectacular scenery competed for my attention with wickedly sharp drops, the trail reached a hillside. Here it turned uncomfortably narrow, the path sunk into the soft volcanic tuff two feet deep.

As I struggled slowly up these puzzling channels cut into the stone, in some places so slender I couldn’t place my feet side by side, my guide called to me. I was walking in the steps of the Tewa, he said. They’d traveled these paths so often over the centuries they’d worn them down with their mere footfalls. Even in the incomparably bright New Mexico sun, my skin raised in goosebumps. I felt them so close, these original Americans, that I wouldn’t have been surprised to see their shadows darkening the ground around me.

The strange sensation grew as we passed ancient petroglyphs carved into the cliffside, faded symbols of people and animals and other things I couldn’t quite make out that time had rubbed from the stone. Onward the trail continued between rock walls I had to squeeze sideways through, unforgiving against my skin, until we finally reached the mesa’s top. The vast panorama spread before me stole my breath. I sat down on a nearby stone, peering out at the rough cinnamon-colored topography, so different from the verdant mountains of Pennsylvania.

The presence of the Tewa returned with greater strength when I reached the area where Tsankawi, the once-bustling community they built more than a half-millennium before, had stood. Reclaimed over the centuries by the high desert, it has never been excavated. The spots where village structures were located are now mounded earth, grown over with four-wing saltbush and juniper, guarded by rattlesnakes and tarantulas. Everywhere lie broken shards of pottery, left to the wind’s whim whether they will be reburied or scrubbed further free of soil.

I squat down on my haunches, in my excitement forgetful of the crawling beasties who share this mesa. Picking up a few pottery fragments, I fold them carefully into my palms and close my eyes, thinking about the people who used them so long ago. When my guide finally tells me it’s time to go, I place them gently back on the ground. I stand slowly, stretching the kinks from my back, thinking that of all the history museums I’ve ever visited, none have made the past so close as this rugged and mysterious place. •SCM

Return to top