- Historic Sites
Southwestward The Great American Space
A journey through a wide and spellbinding land, and a look at the civilization along its edges.
April 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 3
Scouting west and north now toward Très Piedras, Chama, and Durango, in Colorado, my wife and I both gaze openmouthed at the gorge the Rio Grande makes, the torn, gaping earth on each side of the bridge. Great single blocks within the massive hills high above the river look like vast, blackened elephant teeth. In this violently riddled landscape, destruction is the mother of beauty. The first Spaniards here, obsessed as they were by the search for El Dorado, well understood that “man was not made to live here.” It was romantic Americans who saw the effect of so much blind force as beautiful. The artists followed. Yet nature here is still mightier than anything man does to it. Looking down at this fearful gorge, you see that man, whatever he may do to the world, is just perching on the surface, forever the tourist.
Durango serves up a great old-fashioned Western train, snorting and crawling its way past peaks and cascades to end up in the restored mining town of Silverton, where you are entertained with old Western tunes knocked out on the saloon piano and can drink in the atmosphere created by the massive snowtipped peaks looking down on the town. But the abiding wonder in these parts is the cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde National Park. There are some five hundred dwelling places and storerooms built into ledges along the cliffs by the Anasazi people, the “Old Ones,” who may have settled here as far back as A.D. 600. What you see was probably built around eight hundred years ago.
These cliff dwellings offered shelter —protection from nomadic predatory tribes—to Indians who were agriculturists in the river valleys below and are said to have been experts at irrigation. They moved along the cliffs by hand- and toeholds so shallow that your heart skips a beat imagining them doing it. Spruce Tree House, the most accessible communal dwelling, 216 feet by 89, shows the remains of a thoroughly well-organized community life. There are eight kivas, the circular ceremonial chambers where an opening in the floor represents the entrance to the lower world and the place through which life emerged into this world.
As you back up from the improbable sight, each cliff dwelling on its ledge- each so singular and distinct, enclosed by seemingly impassable rock—resembles nothing so much as a stage set perfectly framed. Despite the information eagerly offered by sweet young girl guides in Boy Scout hats, the remains tell you little about the “Old Ones” except their determination to build strongly and well in this impossible place. Long, long ago looters grabbed the painted urns, the blankets of turkey feathers and rabbit fur, the unworn sandals to carry the dead to a new world. Unlike the even older Lascaux cave dwellers, who left on their walls brightly painted pictures of the animals in whom they saw themselves, the Anasazis seem to have been tame, sedentary people, entirely absorbed in the life they could lead on this ledge. You stare and stare at the wonderful multistoried constructions they left, the passageways and ceremonial chambers, and they all stare back across an abyss of time that the informed and patient archeologist tries to fill but that the casual visitor photographs in order to pass on to the next sight.
Indians on the defensive, Indians being backed into situations they feel exploit them are on our minds as we depart Colorado for the wide, wide lands of the Navajos in Arizona. The land between the Colorado and the Rio Grande was known to the Indians of the Southwest as the sacred center of the earth. But east of here, near Farmington in New Mexico, the Four Corners Power Plant (Four Corners is where New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Utah touch) is described by Peter Matthiessen in Indian Country as just one component of the “largest energy-generating power grid in the world.” It is so vast that it has been observed by astronauts in space. Uranium and natural gas are eagerly prospected around here.
The Navajos, viewed as newcomers, are, like their Apache relatives, Athabascans from western Canada who may have descended on North America as recently as the seventeenth century. They are the largest Indian tribe in the United States and own about fourteen million acres in Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. Two million of these acres they until recently owned jointly with the older and very different Hopis, who resent them and are constantly fighting them in the courts. The more aggressive and mobile Navajos have had to settle down and adapt to pueblo ways, but the Hopis say they are just like white men, “adaptable and domineering,” and look down on them as “borrowers” of Hopi culture, people “easily led.”
You feel that the Navajos are the earth come alive.
The Hopis joke that the Navajos took from the white man the pickup truck, jeans, and the cowboy hat; from the Spaniards sheep, horses, and silverwork; from the Hopis sand paintings, weaving, and ceremonial dancing. From the time Mexican rule replaced Spanish, the Navajos raided Hopi villages. For more than forty years, say Hopi leaders, the Navajos have been encroaching on Hopi land.