Four Corners, Part 4 (Native Americans)

On August 13, 2017 · Comments Off on Four Corners, Part 4 (Native Americans)

It would be difficult for anyone to travel through northern New Mexico and southern Colorado without encountering signs of its original inhabitants. Archaeological evidence stretched back for millennia. Ruins defined an era of large, complex settlements beginning more than a thousand years ago. Their descendants still lived in the area, preserving a rich tradition and culture. The clash between archaic and modern bewildered me at times. It differed so completely from my experience on the Atlantic coast where a building from the Seventeenth Century would be considered "ancient."

Our journey went backwards in time, from the current day to successively older epochs. I hadn’t planned it that way. It simply unfolded as we drove along.

Taos Pueblo


Taos Pueblo

People still lived in Taos Pueblo, perhaps the oldest continuously inhabited community in North America. I didn’t see the Pueblo during my visit to Taos in 2013 so I made a special point to get there this time around. My older son accompanied me. My wife and younger son decided to take a rest day back at Angel Fire, at a higher altitude with lower temperatures. The desert climate of Taos climbed into the mid 90’s that day (35° Celsius). Our first contribution to the pueblo economy got us two bottles of cold water.

Taos Pueblo (map) stood distinctly apart from the nearby town of the same name. Native Americans speaking a variant of Tiwa, a Tanoan language, first settled there about a thousand years ago. They built multistory adobe structures, from mud and straw supported by log beams, on both sides of a gently flowing stream at the base of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. The called themselves the Red Willow people and they prospered in a large farming community. The Coronado expedition arrived there in 1540, beginning a long era of Spanish contact. Pueblo structures that Coronado would have recognized appeared much the same to modern visitors. Only the addition of a church sometime around 1620 changed the landscape inside its walls dramatically.

Somehow, against all odds, descendants of the original inhabitants still occupied and owned Taos Pueblo. Little shops selling traditional crafts occupied many of the ground floor rooms today. However, no electricity or plumbing served these ancient places. I’d heard that a few people still lived within the pueblo although most occupied modern homes just beyond its gates. Its buildings also needed constant maintenance to keep their earthen walls from washing back into the desert during summer storms. The whole experience seemed otherworldly. No wonder it made the UNESCO World Heritage site list.


Pecos National Historical Park


Pecos National Historical Park

The residents of Pecos Pueblo (map) didn’t fare as well. Their settlement started around the same time as Taos, about a thousand years ago, and it prospered for centuries. Perhaps two thousand people filled its towering adobe structures during its apex. They chose their location well. This high ground separated the Rio Grande valley from the Great Plains. That allowed the people of Pecos, known as the Cicuique, to become middlemen in a vast trading network. They controlled contact between the Pueblo tribes to which they belonged, and various migratory tribes of the plains. This brought wealth, prosperity and power to the village. The Coronado expedition encountered Pecos at its peak, at a time when it dominated the region.

However, the situation slowly changed over the next couple of centuries. Spain eventually consolidated its governance in nearby Santa Fe, about eighteen miles (30 kilometres) to the northwest. Previously unknown European diseases such as smallpox ravaged the population. Great Plains tribes like the Comanche raided and harassed its inhabitants. Only a handful of people remained by 1838 when they finally abandoned their ancestral home and moved to Jemez Pueblo.

Pecos Pueblo became a ghost town, crumbling slowly back into the mesa. The largest remaining structure actually reflected Spanish rule, a church dating back to the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. Only the bare outlines of residences and ceremonial kivas remained elsewhere throughout the site, accompanied by a couple of modern reconstructions hinting at its former glory. The few surviving ruins of Pecos Pueblo became a national park property in the 1960’s.

I loved this photo by the way — perhaps my favorite from the trip.


Bandelier National Monument


Bandelier National Monument

Another pueblo rose during that same era near the present city of Los Alamos. Unlike Taos and Pecos, the people at Bandelier (map) did not build their village upon an open plain. Instead they used local geology to their advantage. Sheer cliff walls defined nearby mesas, with layers of soft volcanic stone called tuff. People could dig into the tuff to create rooms. They could also carve holes that anchored logs to attach external buildings. Thus, the pueblo grew in three directions, out from the cliff, into the cliff, and up.

However, the ancestral Pueblo residents left Bandelier before Europeans arrived. Early Spanish explorers found only ruins, long abandoned. Oral tradition and archaeological evidence pointed towards overpopulation and an extended drought. The people who lived there likely migrated from their Frijoles Creek homeland to more successful pueblos in the Rio Grande valley.


Chaco Culture National Historical Park and Mesa Verde National Park

Pueblos in Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde also rose and fell before Spanish explorers arrived. I’ve written about Chaco and Mesa Verde previously based upon my visits there many years ago, so I won’t repeat their stories again. However, for the sake of completeness, I offer a couple of pictures I took during my recent trip.


Chaco Culture

This was a nice overlook of Pueblo Bonito (map) at Chaco Culture National Historical Park.


Mesa Verde

And this was part of the scenery at Mesa Verde’s Sun Point View (map)


Articles in the Four Corners Series:

  1. Orientation
  2. Hikes
  3. Towns
  4. Native Americans
  5. Breweries
  6. Reflections

See Also: The Complete Photo Album on Flickr

Four Corners, Part 2 (Hikes)

On August 6, 2017 · Comments Off on Four Corners, Part 2 (Hikes)

The vast empty spaces of the Southwest offered great scenery with with long distances between stops. That didn’t bother me. I liked driving and enjoyed the view. We found plenty to do along the way too, mostly outdoors. Every place worth a detour also included a signature hike of some sort. Even the most crowded parks seemed quiet when we took trails bypassed by more sedentary tourists. Unfortunately my lungs, long acclimated to life barely above sea-level, struggled with altitudes that sometimes topped ten thousand feet. I felt short of breath at times although I bounced back like a pro by the end of the trip.

Agua Fria Peak


Angel Fire Resort

The first hike might have been the most strenuous even though it took us directionally downhill. We began the morning by riding the chairlift up Agua Fria Peak (map) at the Angel Fire Resort in northern New Mexico. From there, we hiked all the way down the mountain, a distance of four miles plus change (6.5 kilometres). We were warned to stay on the trail and avoid ski runs because mountain bikers used them during the summer. I didn’t really want to get clipped by a bicycle under momentum so I followed that advice.

The trail began at an elevation of 10,600 feet (3,230 metres) and descended all the way to the valley below. That was high enough to make me feel a little woozy although at least we were heading downhill. Forests of pine and aspen provided plenty of shade, and a bit of protection when the brief daily summer "monsoon" rumbled across the hills. Highlights included amazing mountaintop views, the aerial acrobatics of mountain bikers on adjacent trails and a wildlife encounter with a grouse of some type.


Tsankawi Ruins Trail


Bandelier National Monument

Most people going to Bandelier National Monument only see the main unit. We went there too although we also stopped at the lesser-known Tsankawi unit a few miles further north. Tsankawi could only be approached on foot using a 1.5 mile loop trail. Paleo-Indians lived in a village on the top of the mesa there, probably until the fifteenth century (map). They chose their location wisely. They could spot adversaries from a long distance away and defend their high ground.

Volcanic ash blanketed this entire area millions of years ago leaving a soft layer that became a rock called Tuff. As my son liked to say, tuff wasn’t tough. People stepped upon the tuff for hundreds of years and carved paths into the stone with their feet. Little walkways climbed over and covered the mesa, the same walkways used by modern visitors today. It felt soft and strange; not quite rocky although not quite spongy either. My hiking boots picked up a distinct gray dusty tinge from the climb.

Pre-Columbian inhabitants of Tsankawi also carved into the tuff itself. They created myriad places to stash their wares in addition to the pueblo they built atop the mesa. We barely saw another person as we hiked the loop and examined evidence of this vanished settlement.


Pueblo Alto Trail


Chaco Culture

Our most remote hike took place at Chaco Culture National Historical Park. Its secluded location pretty much defined "middle of nowhere." I guessed the several miles of dirt and gravel road leading into the park scared away most people. In a sense that seemed unfortunate because a lot of folks missed out on something pretty amazing. Nonetheless, it offered us a full day away from crowds, and even more so once we hit the trail.

I first traveled to Chaco twenty five years ago and I remembered being impressed by the hike atop the mesa above its signature ruins. My return trip showed that I needed to follow the Pueblo Alto Trail to get there. Unlike that earlier trip, we didn’t have enough time to hike the entire trail so we turned around at the Pueblo Bonito overlook (map), a two mile out-and-back. Officially this was considered a "backcountry" hike that required registration at the trailhead.

Two miles sounded easy enough in theory although I’d forgotten how the trail made it up to the top of the mesa. The photograph above looks like a sheer cliff. However, a fissure cut vertically through the middle. Hikers had to reach the base of the fissure on a steep path, then wriggle uphill through a narrow passageway until reaching daylight. The original inhabitants used this same path for several hundred years. We weren’t used to such acrobatics and it seemed a little scary. There weren’t any safety devices, just climbers versus rock. The whole family managed to make it to the top without incident and we followed the trail along the cliff to view some great ruins from an elevated perspective.


Petroglyph Point Trail


Mesa Verde

Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde National Park seemed like opposite bookends. Few people visited Chaco and hordes visited Mesa Verde. I’m sure the nice paved road to Mesa Verde made all the difference. Even tour buses could drive easily into the depths of the park. We arrived too late in the day to get tickets to any of the major sites, though. We had to satisfy ourselves with glimpses from a distance at viewing platforms on the opposite cliff. However, our mobility and willingness to get away from the beaten path took us places far away from the crowds. This revealed some remarkable archaeological sites.

We selected the Spruce Tree House trail. This one led beneath the mesa rim, into some of the protected shelves where the original inhabitants built their homes. It terminated at Petroglyph Point (map), and the largest array of petroglyphs anywhere in the park. Only hikers willing to move beyond normal park amenities could ever see them. From there, the trail climbed up the mesa and continued along the tabletop to complete the loop. The whole affair lasted about 2.4 miles, some of it rather strenuous.

It felt great to get outdoors. The kids didn’t even complain. Much.


Articles in the Four Corners Series:

  1. Orientation
  2. Hikes
  3. Towns
  4. Native Americans
  5. Breweries
  6. Reflections

See Also: The Complete Photo Album on Flickr

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12 Mile Circle:
An Appreciation of Unusual Places
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