We’ve learned that we can’t see everything and that we have to let some things go, so when we went through Santa Fe we were comfortable passing by Bandelier National Monument. But then we found ourselves talking to a ranger who worked there while we were checking out Taos, so we surrendered to kismet, followed his advice, and hit it on the way back down from the mountains. And I’m glad we did.
The walls of Frijoles Canyon (which still makes me laugh) are made of relatively soft volcanic rock that is pocketed with holes from erosion so it looks like swiss cheese. For thousands of years people have been expanding these holes to carve out shelters. When the Ancestral Pueblo people settled in the valley around 1150 CE they were practicing agriculture growing “the three sisters” of corn, beans, and squash. They built impressive structures on the valley floor and in front of the cliff walls to house themselves and their surplus crops for winter, as well as to practice their religion.
Tyuonyi (pronounced Qu-weh-nee) feels like a tiny city but probably housed about 100 people. It stood two stories tall and formed a giant ring with only one entrance to the outside. In the central courtyard were three kivas, sunken structures where religious and educational functions happened. Walking among the ruins I tried to get a feel of the people who had come before, but that was pretty difficult because we had lost track of days and forgotten it was the weekend.
Badelier is very popular and accessible, and we found it fairly crowded and filled with families. It’s natural to get a little frustrated with all the kids running around the trail, especially when we have gotten used to having places like this mostly to ourselves, or shared with a handful of retired snowbirds. But it was nice to see all of these people soaking in some nature and history. So we politely waited our turn to climb up into the cliff dwellings.
While some families were living in the complex on the valley floor, others built out from the cliffs. Stretching along the valley, some of these structures reached four stories tall. The “cavates,” or carved alcoves were incorporated into these structures, and we had the opportunity to climb up into a couple. Then we broke from the crowd and followed the trail along the creek to reach the more remote Alcove House.
At 6,000 feet we were feeling the lack of oxygen. I couldn’t walk and read the guide aloud to Kate without huffing and puffing. So climbing the long series of ladders was definitely a challenge. Totally worth it though.
At the top, a large cavate opened up with carved alcoves and holes showing where roof beams were once fitted into the cliff. The Ancestral Pueblo people who lived up here had built a home, and on the other side they’d built a kiva, over a hundred feet up but still sunken down into the floor. Kate thought a pair of alcoves looked like his and her closets, so we had to do this one.
We climbed back down through the crowd catching up to us and walked back to the visitor center feeling great. We did a lot of driving this day, covering about 300 miles from Toas to get over the border into Arizona to set ourselves up for the Painted Desert and the Petrified Forest the next day. On the drive through New Mexico we passed many Pueblos, including the Cochiti and San Ildefonso whose ancestors built and farmed in Frijoles Canyon. We saw signs for Acoma Pueblo and Jemez Pueblo, whose pottery we’ve been admiring. Without many options we ended up spending the night at a rest stop that was actually on the Navajo Nation Reservation.
I haven’t arrived at any profound conclusions after reflecting on Native Americans past and present all week. The ancient pictographs and the glitzy casinos, the excavated dwellings and the gift shop dream catchers, these things are difficult to reconcile, especially as the country tears itself apart arguing about who deserves to be here. Maybe things would be a little better if we were reminded once in a while that these people were here first, and that they’re still here now.