A fascinating and important article about Chaco was published last week in Nature Communications, an open-access offshoot of the venerable journal Nature (already a good sign). Since it’s open-access, the full text of the article is available free online here. The researchers behind the article, based mainly at Penn State and Harvard but also including […]
I had no idea so many people like walls! And not just archaeologists or architects.
So tonight, I give you a friendly wall from Salmon Ruins, New Mexico, one of the Chaco outliers.
(Did you know there’s a word for that? It’s called pareidolia, and derives from our tendency to look for familiar patterns in random objects.)
Some of you may see two faces.
What do you see? A pensive wall, a grumpy wall, a happy wall? Let me know. I think Mr. (or Ms.) Wall needs a name.
If you really, really love Chacoan walls (and who doesn’t?) and you’re on Facebook, be sure to check out the Chaco Canyon Project, where Gary Gackstatter celebrates all things Chacoan. You should see his photographs. Join the Chaco Tribe!
West of Albuquerque, New Mexico, is the oldest continuously inhabited community in North America: Acoma Pueblo. The 367-foot sandstone bluff is visible from miles away, but ageless adobe houses nearly blend into the top of the mesa. The Acoma settled here in approximately 1150 A.D. – for defensive reasons as the story goes – and although the majority of the tribe now lives on the reservation land surrounding the mesa, 50 or so tribal members still live here in their sky city. There is no running water, no electricity, and no sewers. That’s the way they like it. Many of those who remain are elderly, we were told, or just don’t care for the hustle and noise of city life. Some of them are painters or weavers or potters who are maintaining their traditional arts. (And they do beautiful work – while some of them take credit cards – really, just take a bunch of cash with you – it’s easier.)
Because the people value their privacy, the pueblo is not open to visitors except for organized tours, led by a tribal guide. After stopping at the cultural center down below – which also houses a museum and gift shop – you are taken up in groups by shuttle bus driven along the road you have to thank Hollywood for. Until Hollywood fell in love with New Mexico, there was only a “staircase” of sorts carved into the cliff face. But to make movies, they need equipment, and equipment needs roads. So now the tribe uses the road as part of their tourist infrastructure. (We had the opportunity to take the, uh, “stairs” back down the mesa after the tour was over. Some of our group did, but I declined. Too close to the beginning of the trip for me to trash a knee or ankle.)
There is no wandering wherever you want, no walking into people’s homes. We saw few people besides our guide and the artists displaying their wares. And a dog.
The colors in Sky City are muted: shades of brown and white against the blue sky. It seemed somehow fitting, because the history of the Pueblo is not all pleasant. No, it wasn’t like a somber funeral procession or something, nor did we feel anger or bitterness. Our guide was funny, entertaining, and informative. She spoke of having “the best of two worlds” (of getting to choose which parts of Catholicism to blend with their native beliefs, or getting to choose whether she was in her world or in ours).
Then there was the San Esteban del Rey Mission (1640). In the Spaniards bid to convert the natives, Acoma men were forced to build it. Some of them are still present we were told: buried in the walls. And that bell you see in the photo below. They didn’t want it. But they were made to pay for the bell anyway – with their children. It wasn’t the first time children had been taken from them (never to be seen again).
You won’t see photos of the inside of the church (beautifully restored!) – it is not permitted. Nor will you see photos of the graveyard which sits between the church and the edge of the cliff. It not only represents yet another feat of architectural engineering they accomplished on top of this bluff (no road to haul up all that dirt), but another way in which they were forced to accept a foreign custom: burying their dead. There is little room left in the graveyard. From now on, only the elders can be buried there.
But that is not to say there will be no other arrivals. On the far wall, overlooking that abrupt drop-off to the valley floor, there is a hole. It is for the souls of their children. Those the Spanish took away, the ones they have no idea what ever happened to. There will always be room for those children’s spirits to return to their people. It may take a long time for the spirits to find their way home, but they will always be welcomed.
I’m not quite sure where I read about the Chama River Microbar in Albuquerque, but I was curious as to why I had scribbled the bar’s name and address in the margins of my Moon’s New Mexico Handbook. I’d arrived in town two days ahead of the scheduled start of my Chaco Canyon tour and, after enjoying the city’s museums, decided to have a little adventure Friday evening. To save money, I’d booked a cheap room at the funky Route 66 Hostel, conveniently located between old town and downtown, and decided to forgo a rental car and instead use the local buses. (Hey, $2 for an all-day pass! That’s hard to beat.) Yes, this means I was riding the bus by myself at night….pssst….don’t tell my mom; no matter how old I get she’s forever telling me to not travel alone in a strange city.
I almost missed the place, which is literally a hole in the wall on 2nd Street, just a block from the Alvarado Transit Center (a major bus/train transfer point). With the gentrified-sounding “microbar” in its name, I expected something other than a small bar with half a dozen stools, maybe four tables, and what looked like an iPod-centered music system. Positive I must’ve read a recommendation for this bar in some travel magazine, I hesitated for a brief second. This didn’t look like the sort of place travelers frequent. It’s too small and too easy miss.
But as I stood in the doorway, Ado and Scotty greeted me. Who? you ask. Ado and Scotty – that’s the two dogs there in the photo. Their relaxed stances, wiggling butts, and wagging tails told me all I needed to know. I held out my hand for them to sniff and promptly got licked, and licked, and licked. You know how it is with the dogs. I petted them and asked their permission to enter. And they made a path for me, trailing behind. The tables were full, so I plopped my butt down on the last stool at the end of the bar.
A couple of reviews I’ve since read were critical of the bar’s atmosphere: its “locals only” feel, an inattentive bartender, and “not safe for women” vibe. But I experienced nothing like that. Certainly, I kept my day pack slung across my back – but I always keep my money and ID close to me when traveling. I was instantly welcomed by the bartender, who gave me a taste test of their available brews. (The Microbar is listed as a tasting room for the Chama River Brewery on the north side of Albuquerque.) I spent a friendly evening chatting, first with the bartender and Adam, the patron on the stool next to me and then with Aaron (who replaced Adam who had to leave) about Albuquerque and Chaco Canyon. I’m certain I was the only out-of-towner in the bar, but no one treated me any different. Heck, even the couple at the end of the bar shared their pizza with me! (The microbar doesn’t serve food, but you can request delivery from any number of nearby food establishments.)
And no one laughed when I pulled Penguin About Town out of my pack and posed him next to a glass of the Chama River Amber Ale. I figured he’d had a tough day, nearly getting devoured by Stan, the T-Rex at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History. He needed a drink and a friendly welcome to Albuquerque. So did I. It was a pleasant way to spend the evening: a couple of dogs, a dozen or so humans, and a stuffed penguin. It didn’t matter how far any of us had traveled to get there, or why anyone was there. Only the beer and the conversation mattered. Words. Drink. Time. All cocooned in a non-descript hole in the wall that the average tourist would walk right past.
I’ve been asked on several occasions if I’m scared to travel alone. And the answer has always been no.
Sometimes I ask myself why.
After all, it can be a big, scary world out there, full of violence and greed.
I think it comes down to trust. Not trusting others necessarily, and certainly not blindly trusting, of course. Clearly there are people out there who don’t deserve your trust and never will.
I’m talking about trusting yourself, your own instincts. Trusting that you’ll recognize when you need to alter your plans whether it’s something as simple as walking down a different street or politely excusing yourself from an invitation which makes you feel uncomfortable, or something more drastic like seeking help from your embassy.
Such self-confidence may come naturally to some people, but for others it can take years to cultivate. People like me, who as a child were timid and socially awkward. In such cases, one must put on a pretense of bravery and step out into the world. Small steps, like traveling to foreign locales where you’ll be meeting up with friends or relatives, is a good start. Finding a reliable tour company which treats solo travelers as well as they do others is another. In the latter instance, there are always other solo travelers within the group to pal around with. Many of these will be fleeting friends, like-minded individuals in the moment, whom you’ll never see again. A few, however, you’ll form a closer bond with and become lasting friends. Some, you will discover are just like you: taking their fear and shoving it deep inside because they refuse to allow it to keep them from following their dreams, from exploring the far corners of this beautiful planet.
I recently encountered a woman I had not seen in several years. We’d never been friends, but had known each other for some time before she moved elsewhere. She’s a few years older than myself, and she had always seemed to be much more confident and socially adept than me. While that may still be true in many settings, I found it quite surprising when she admitted she found it too scary to travel alone.
The conversation made me reflect upon the differences between us, and I couldn’t really find many. The only conclusion that I could come to was that I had finally grown into myself. I’m not saying that she hasn’t – in whatever ways matter to her. But I, in the last ten-fifteen years, have truly grown into my self-confidence and self-trust, especially when it comes to my desire to travel.
Which is why I felt no fear back in July while I stood at the edge of a 400-foot cliff in Bandelier National Monument taking photographs of a waterfall across Frijoles Canyon. I had hiked the 1.5 miles up to this vantage point, alone, on a trail that was technically closed. I had found places to jump across the creek where a flash flood just days earlier had wiped out the three footbridges. (Not an easy task for someone with short little legs like mine.) I had climbed over debris left behind by the flood and kept a watch out for wildlife.
Admittedly, New Mexico is not so far away as the exotic locales that are my usual destinations. But when deep inside a canyon, with nary another soul in sight and not even the hint of a cell phone signal, it can feel further away than standing on the Antarctic Peninsula where a cruise ship awaits just offshore.
Anything could have happened to me: I could have fallen off the trail and died, or been seriously injured. I could even have been attacked by a mountain lion. Who knows when I would have been found? Being a closed trail, getting later in the afternoon, no one else was coming that way. Yes, the park rangers knew I was out there and knew my estimated return time, but when minutes may count: blood loss, shock, etc., I could have found myself in serious trouble.
But I knew I wouldn’t. I trusted my feet, trusted my balance, trusted my agility, and I trusted my reflexes. I was ready to grab whatever rocks or sticks needed to fight off a big angry feline. Heck, if other people can fight off a mountain lion by hitting it with their camera, so can I.
That’s what trust is. And learning to trust yourself so implicitly is perhaps, for some, as far as traveling to the ends of the earth.