BANDELIER NATIONAL MONUMENT, N.M — “Look! Look! This is awesome. AWE SOME,’’ exclaimed William Quirk, 6, from under his New England Patriots cap. “How did they get here?!’’
“They” were the Ancestral Puebloans. And “here” was the latest bend in a trail along their cliff dwellings in Bandelier National Monument’s Frijoles Canyon, a wind-swept but starkly beautiful divot in the mesas and mountains that the tribe called home almost a millennium ago.
Yet, in the Four Corners of the American Southwest, “here” need not be a heavily visited, ranger-guided site like Bandelier. It could be any one of thousands of long-abandoned homes and intricate villages carved into the recesses of this unforgiving land. And for those whose sense of adventure peaks when sprinkled with some history, these places constitute a grand outdoor museum, our Indigenous nations’ Stonehenge.
And the sometimes arduous descents into the canyons here can become pilgrimages into their sacred past.
* * *
A cathedral kind of quiet accompanies you on a descent into Sheiks Canyon. Besides your footfalls and breaths, and a rare, welcome rustle of the wind, a stillness surrounds.
Signs at some trailheads in the area warn of rattlesnakes, but perhaps the biggest hazards here are cowpies. Cedar Mesa above once teemed with scores of villages and thousands of Puebloans. Now, most of the mesa, along with the canyons slicing through it, many leading to the centerpiece Grand Gulch, is unpopulated. Only free-range cattle leave their mark.
Most of this extremely remote land in southeastern Utah falls under the Bureau of Land Management and the Bears Ears National Monument. And much of it is rich in vestiges of tribal history.
The discoveries come early in Sheiks. Yellow House is tucked hard and high into the canyon wall on your right. A granary and three structures, so named for the color they give off at certain times, can be reached after a modest climb up the slickrock. You’ll immediately recognize why the ancients made their homes here: The air in the sheltered alcove is a good 15 degrees cooler than the stifling air of the trail.
The site, as is often the case, is remarkably intact, about 900 years after it was abandoned. Check out the roofs, limbs of pinyon pines and junipers bound together with strands from yucca plants. And take a couple minutes to imagine the lives of those who hunted and farmed and struggled to carve out a life before they collectively moved on, mainly south.
At nearby Bullet Canyon, the site known as the Perfect Kiva can be found about 4.5 miles from the trailhead. A kiva is a circular (generally) subterranean room; its ceiling, timbered and covered with dirt, is either flush with or a foot or so above the surrounding ground. It was used mainly for ceremonies, an anteroom of sorts between the spiritual and material worlds, with a hearth, a complex ventilation and chimney system, and a hole in the floor. Called a sipapu, the hole is a portal for the spirits of the tribe’s ancestors to enter the ceremony, much as the ladder leading through the hole in the kiva’s roof led participants to the present realm.
At the Perfect Kiva, so named for how well-preserved it is, the Bureau of Land Management has installed a replica ladder that allows you to descend into this sacred space.
Yet, not only is the kiva tough to spot, tucked high into a remote alcove, it’s tough to reach from the trail. You’ll need to climb up a rather steep gravel and dirt wash.
Much easier to find and access is Jailhouse, at the next side canyon. Three large luminescent white pictographs — rock art drawings — haunt and hover above the ruins, like gargoyles peering down from one of the great cathedrals of Europe. Exposed interior walls provide an excellent illustration of the Puebloans’ use of wattle construction for the home’s walls: A lattice of branches was covered with a plaster of mud, dung, and plant fibers.
Potsherds — small pottery fragments — have been collected and displayed in front of the site, which takes its name from the cell-like construction of one of the windows. There’s a flush of exhilaration in finding the potsherds, accompanied by a tinge of sadness. When the Puebloans abandoned these homes, they left behind most of their belongings. And when the cowboys and amateur archeologists first came upon them about seven centuries later in the late 1800s, they commented on how it appeared as if the tribe had just left, with beautiful pots on shelves, corn cobs on the hearth.
Yet these sites have been shorn by pillaging profiteers, then swept nearly clean by archeologists. Sitting in storage, or displayed in some antiseptic exhibit at a far-away museum, the pieces of the lives of the ancients lose their power of place and purpose. And as well-meaning as the person, or persons, may have been in collecting the dozens of potsherds for display at Jailhouse, these shards are best discovered — then let lie — where the people and posterity left them. The Puebloans of today (including the Hopis) believe the spirits of their ancestors still inhabit these places. So any hiker approaching them should consider themselves a guest in someone’s sanctuary. Even touching the walls is forbidden.
Several other cautionary notes here: These canyons are difficult hikes, with trails poorly marked, if they exist at all. And unlike climbing the mountains of New England, the most difficult part of canyon hiking is at the end, when you’re tired and face the late-day heat and the climb out. With temperatures regularly reaching 100 in the summer, these hikes are best left for early spring or late fall for those experienced in long canyon hikes and navigation. Also, the roads leading to them require an all-wheel-drive vehicle with high clearance.
* * *
There are many such canyons on US and Navajo lands here, hikes that fire your imaginations while offering the jaw-dropping beauty of trekking between salmon and tan sandstone walls and along ribbons of resourceful riparian ecosystems hugging the streams. And you do not need to go to remote pockets of Utah to find such treasures; one of the finest collections of petroglyphs — artwork etched into stone walls — in North America can be found just south of the Santa Fe Regional Airport. You could spend a spellbinding morning hiking among those volcanic cliff faces of La Cieneguilla, tracing the imaginations of artists a millennium ago.
For those looking to have their discoveries a tad more filtered and explained, Mesa Verde National Park, with its transcendent Cliff Palace just one of several astounding villages, and Bandelier deliver.
Here, too, bring your sense of adventure and wonderment.
As William Quirk clambered with his brother Thomas (under a Red Sox hat; though both are reared in nearby Albuquerque, their dad, Thomas, hails from Concord, N.H.) into the honeycombed homes of Bandelier, he turned to wave to his family below: “Here I am.”
Pointing to the dark passages beyond, he said: “There’s like a billion tunnels in here.’’
Michael Bailey can be reached at email@example.com.