One reason for our planning to spend several days in Santa Fe on our New Mexico road trip was to visit nearby Bandelier National Monument. I had read a lot about it and knew it was just the sort of place we would enjoy visiting.
Then a few months before our visit a wildfire swept through the area, devastating over 146,000 acres, including about 60% of Bandelier. Almost all of the monument was closed to visitors. But fortunately for us one small part remained open, and it sounded like one of the most interesting: Tsankawi.
We had a memorable walk here which I’m sharing with Jo for a Monday Walk.
Getting to Tsankawi is impossible without a private vehicle. It lies twelve miles from the main section of Bandelier National Monument and isn’t the easiest place to find. We followed the detailed directions on the park’s website; but we still managed to overshoot the parking area and had to turn around.
There was an honour pay post in the little hut at the start of the trail, with a permit to be displayed in your car. The only two other cars parked there when we arrived didn’t appear to have bothered, perhaps feeling it was unnecessary with most of the monument closed, but we paid; they were going to need the funds to repair the fire’s damage, after all.
We should also have been able to buy a 50c leaflet describing the trail at the honour pay post, with about 20 numbered points along it. But they had all gone, apart from a slightly tatty one which could be borrowed for free and returned to the leaflet holder after the walk. We took this, and were very pleased to have done so; it was very informative and also helped to keep us on the right path at one point where it seemed to fork.
On the trail
Armed with this leaflet we set out. The trail is advertised as being 1.5 miles in length, although it seemed a little longer than this to us. It is also advertised as easy, but that is a relative term. While it isn’t strenuous I did find a few parts tricky going; mainly because you are, quite literally, walking in the footsteps of the ancient inhabitants of this land, in the deep grooves worn in the rocks over the centuries. In places that path is worn very deep (as much as 30 or more centimetres) and is only one foot wide, by which I mean the width of your foot, not the measurement! You have to put one foot directly in front of the other, and lift each one high to clear the side ‘wall’ of the path.
But if this trail demands any sort of effort, it is a worthwhile one; the views and the sense of history amply repay you for taking the trouble to walk where the ancients once walked. And remember; they would have done so in sandals, or even with bare feet, and I am certain would have been far more sure-footed than any of us, even the best of walkers, on this rocky trail.
The first part of the trail led up the side of the mesa, with a ladder at one point.
The leaflet pointed out the location of the first of several petroglyphs.
The mesa top
We then followed the well-worn path of the ancient inhabitants of this land up to the mesa top. From here we had an almost 360 degree view of the surrounding landscape, including several mountain ranges. To the west lie the Jemez Mountains, with Los Alamos at their foot. To the east are the Sangre de Cristo Mountains (named for the Blood of Christ) and the Rio Grande Valley. About 70 miles south are the Sandia Mountains, which dominate the skyline above Albuquerque.
Here the ancient Pueblo Indians (sometimes known as the Anasazi) built their village or pueblo: Tsankawi. They lived on the mesa top from some time in the 15th century until towards the end of the 16th. It is thought that the village may have been abandoned due to a severe drought in the region. The pueblo at San Ildefonso, eight miles away, have the tradition that their ancestors once lived at Tsankawi; while other pueblos also claim ancestral links.
The village was built out of tuff stone plastered inside and out with mud. It was roughly rectangular in shape with about 350 rooms and an enclosed central courtyard or plaza. Today almost nothing visible remains, and there has been no archaeological excavation. Consultation with San Ildefonso Pueblo has determined that the people prefer that the homes and belongings of their ancestors remain untouched.
Using new technology, a variety of information can be gathered from an archaeological site without ever uncovering it. That means however that to the uninitiated there seems to be little here; although the imaginative can discern the shape of the plaza as a clearing in the scrubby bushes that grow here. To imagine it properly though, it helps to have visited one of the still-inhabited pueblos in the area. We were glad we had been to Acoma a couple of days previously. We could imagine how the village would have been a hive of activity: women cooking or grinding corn, or maybe making pottery; men carving tools from flint or skinning animals; children playing, dogs darting underfoot and so on.
The people who lived in these houses would have descended each day to the valley floor below to farm their crops, following the same well-worn trails that brought us up here. On the way they would have passed the cavates where some of their fellow villagers lived; and that is where the trail now took us.
We had seen the cavates dotted along the face of the mesa quite early in our walk; but the trail at first had led us away from these to climb up to the village above. It is only when we descended from there that we got a close look at the other places that the ancients called home.
The inhabitants dug these caves out of the soft rock, extending the walls where needed with stones and mortar, and adding timber roofs. These have of course long since disappeared, and the caves that remain look almost natural rather than man-made. But if you peer inside (there are no restrictions on access other than your own capacity to reach them) you will see that the ceilings and walls of some are blackened by the smoke of long-extinguished fires; evidence of the human impact on this apparently natural environment. If you ignore the footprints of modern-day footwear, this is pretty much the view an ancient Pueblo resident would have had.
It’s important to take care when exploring the caves not to touch any walls; even light contact can cause damage. And of course you must never remove anything from a site as historic as this, nor from any national park or monument.
A few of the caves apparently have traces of paintings or petroglyphs inside, but we didn’t find any. However we did spot some at several points along the trail. Many have been damaged by exposure to the elements over the centuries, and no doubt by exposure to people too.
The trail leaflet explained more about them:
‘Today through consultation with San Ildefonso Pueblo descendants, we know that these marks upon the rocks have deeper meanings than mere art. They may someday even be classified as a written language. The meanings of some petroglyphs are known to many present-day Pueblo people. The exact significance of others may have been lost through time.’
But not every petroglyph here was carved by the ancestral Pueblo people who once inhabited Tsankawi; some are later additions created by Spanish settlers. Their shepherds kept their herds in small pens built under the rock outcroppings here; they are thought to have carved some of the shapes and symbols, such as arrows, during Colonial times. But just because the Spanish shepherds did so, there is of course absolutely no excuse for any of us to try to add to these carvings.
The return leg
Towards the end of our walk, as we were on the final stretch back towards the parking lot (but with still maybe half a mile or so to go), dark clouds started to gather to the east of us, behind our backs; they were clearly moving faster than we were, especially as we kept stopping to take photos. We remembered then the warnings we’d read about the dangers of being caught out in this exposed rocky landscape during a storm; so we quickened our pace to ensure we were safely back at the car before the clouds came directly overhead.
In the event, no storm materialised, but we thought it better to be safe than sorry in this unforgiving environment. So we drove away from Tsankawi towards a very different indoor New Mexico ‘attraction’. But that’s a story I told already, in my very first blog post, Meeting Leo.
I visited New Mexico in 2011