It was a sunny day in Santa Fe when I arrived in the Southwest on Southwest Airlines. We headed straight from the airport in Albuquerque to the Petroglyph National Monument. Unlike a painted pictograph, a petroglyph was carved straight into the rock by the ancient native people. These particular petroglyphs were carved into basalt, a volcanic rock that covers the land in the old escarpments formed when the land was ripe with volcanic activity. Basalt is black on the outside and white on the inside, making the carved petroglyphs show up rather well. The most common symbol seemed to be a spiral, apparently representative of the circle or journey of life, copied from the many spirals created in nature. There were also many curious, yet familiar, carvings like turtles with spiral shells, people with antennae or funny headdresses, birds, spears, salamanders and more standing the test of time and harkening back to the minds of the earliest American settlers.
The next day, we visited Bandolier National Monument. The main attraction of this park is accessible only by shuttle, and a foot-trail leads to an ancient human settlement. More than a thousand years ago, people carved out homes in the side of this mountain. As another spectacle of the volcanoes that shaped the land, the mountain looks like sandstone, but it’s actually tuff, the igneous rock left after the ash from an eruption settles on the land and compacts over time.
The volcano that erupted was way bigger than anything in recent memory, leaving about 1,000 feet of ash that formed into an easy-to-carve material that the ancient people used to make homes. At one point, we climbed four long ladders to reach ‘the alcove house’ situated near the top of the mountain, undoubtedly a very important place for the ancient peoples. They built storage units and community centers and the site is so well preserved and interpreted it’s easy to imagine what life was like at the time. The native peoples were one with the land because they had to be. We are in a way still confined to it today, but it’s almost as if we’ve lost track of one another. We don’t even think about drinking water from a stream without some kind of purification, and we buy anything we want from shelves stocked from trucks that carry goods from far away. Seeing the cliff dwellings was a reminder that things weren’t always like that. At one time, humanity had to fight to live. Now it seems we live to fight.
The next day we fast-forwarded in time a bit to ride the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad. The narrow gauge railroad was built over nine months in 1880. It winds through what is now New Mexico and Colorado. We passed through the desert into a forest of aspens and Ponderosa pines going up and up to 10,000 feet of elevation and then back down again. It was an amazing journey that smelled of coal fire and pine, rich with history and beautiful scenic views.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the art collective of Meow Wolf. It’s really something you have to experience for yourself, but the artists that built it, including George R.R. Martin, have created something unlike anything else I’ve ever experienced. Imagine a hands-on science museum melded with the millennial imagination and love for the ethereal and you might get close to being just as confused as I was walking into it. The place is rife with mystery and brings emotion to life. It’s immersive, allowing partakers to do things like walk through a refrigerator, see the inside of a washing machine and play music on the ribs of a glowing woolly mammoth. The exhibit is only a year old and shows the creativity of mankind is far from extinct.
The oldest living community in the world is at the Taos Pueblo. Though only 100 people live there today, they do so without the modern luxuries like electricity and get most of their water from the stream that runs through the community. The houses are made mostly of mud and straw and must often be repaired after harsh weather. They hung on through Spanish conquerors and the American government, compromising sometimes and always fighting to retain their sacred home.
On our final day of adventuring we visited the Kasha-Katuwe tent rocks. If I was going to choose a favorite site from this trip, these amazing formations may just get the spot. These formations seem so designed that it’s easy to imagine God’s hands forming them like giant pottery spires and placing large rocks on top, making them look like monstrous people watching over the land. They were formed when the land was soft and mutable, mostly lava flows and flooding. Conglomerates of tuff, basalt and whatever other rocks happened to be around form bands twisted into circular forms. Many have a single rock on top. I wondered what the native people must have thought of them, most likely deemed sacred. I certainly felt very small walking among them. From here we ventured to our final scenic stop.
In the mountain town of Jemez, I drank a wonderfully cosmic design in the foam of a soy latte. A bit down the road, we found Soda Dam, a natural formation from minerals, mostly calcium carbonate, seeping through the earth from the hot springs starting from Valles Caldera. To me, it looked like the mouth of a dinosaur, complete with eye searching the passersby. Even today it’s still forming, making me wonder what it will look like if I visit it again in 10 years.
The last scenic stop on our trip was Valles Caldera, a 13-mile wide circular depression created by, you guessed it, a volcanic eruption. We made it here as the day waned so there was little time to explore in the protected park area. We saw prairie dogs poking out of the ground on our way to the visitor’s center, but there were none to be seen on the way out. This was probably due to the coyote spotted on a nearby ridge. I had the honor of photographing him. Outside the park we waited patiently for the elk to come out at dusk. I got to photograph them as well. It’s really amazing to take a picture of a creature rarely seen, though they’re not all too uncommon in general, I had never gotten the chance to see either a coyote or an elk before in my life.
There’s just so much to see in the west. The energy of the place is restful and rejuvenating, and I wish I had space to recount everything I saw out there. To borrow a line from a film at Bandolier National Monument, the land here is more than beautiful, it’s powerful.
Sinclaire Sparkman is The Democrat’s news editor. Email her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @wilsoncoreports.