Another day, another early start. Today we drive North from Santa Fe, past Camel Rock and into the Jemez mountains, which are among the more interesting geographic features I've seen because they are riddled with holes, as though they had been comprehensively chewed by a horde of very large, very hungry rats. It's more than a little scary to look up at the top of a mountain you're driving past and be able to see daylight through it. There's a long and complicated explanation for this which involves (inevitably) a long ago volcanic eruption, massive deposits of a kind of volcanic ash called Tuff (such a terrible name) and the subsequent formation of the Jemez range, but what it basically comes down to is that you're driving through a very large, very old ashtray.
At any rate, it isn't long before we reach the Bandelier National Monument, and are making our way up to the cave dwellings that we've come to see. The trail to the caves winds past the ruins of yet another ancient community (the Tyuonyi Pueblo) - another set of box like huts laid out in a circle, complete with kivas. From here the trail climbs up into the mountain to run along a sheer rock face, in whose pock-marked surface the ancient Indians had carved out their dwellings. At various points on the trail wooden ladders lead up into these caves (or cavates as they're called), allowing us to get a feel for what life in these communities must have been like, which seems to consist of being bent over double and trying not to hit your head on the ceiling. It's fun exploring the caves though, (despite the fact that at each ladder we have to wait for the 23 people ahead of us to go up, take obligatory picture standing at cave entrance, and come down) and there's a thrill to looking out of a small crack in the rock and seeing the entire valley opening up under you: the broken, twisted shapes of the mountain in the foreground, and the ruins of the village far below. There's even a kiva inside a cave, its walls smoked a brooding black and with enough space for a dozen people to stand upright, which, by cavate standards, makes this practically an amphitheater.
From Bandelier we drive to Los Alamos for lunch, with Z practically squealing in delight at being at the site of the Manhattan Project, breathing air once breathed by Richard Feynman, while I, a lifelong opponent of nuclear weapons, stare in horror at road signs that read Oppenheimer Drive and Bikini Atoll Road (I mean really - can you imagine seeing road signs in Berlin saying Belsen Street or Himmler Avenue?). It's Labor Day, so most restaurants in Los Alamos are closed, and we end up in this restaurant called the Pyramid Cafe, which turns out to do a delicious greek salad, exquisite pita bread and a mean moussakka.
Having stuffed our faces with all this Mediterranean goodness, we drive north on the Jemez Mountain Trail, heading out to Chaco Canyon. The countryside here is in stark contrast to everything we've seen so far, so that it's almost hard to believe that we're still in New Mexico. The highway winds through green, pine-covered mountains, with signs warning us of the impending presence of Elk on the road. A dozen miles or so out of Los Alamos we enter a section of the road that is only open in Summer. Here the fidgety road signs we've encountered all throughout are left behind - the road is little more than a track of dirt and gravel, on which we go bumping along, trailing clouds of glorious dust, experiencing an obscure sense of adventure at having finally broken away from the safe and wide. There is almost no traffic here, and what little there is seems to consist exclusively of weatherbeaten trucks and station wagons, so that driving along in our (by now mud-encrusted) rental sedan we feel like we've stepped into an SUV advertisement - one of those 'it takes the rough with the smooth' things. The road winds through a series of steep mountain passes, across one-lane bridges and blind curves, and down into sunlit alpine meadows where cattle graze among white and lilac wildflowers. It's almost a disappointment to return to the plains and enter desert country again.
Yet enter it we do, taking the NM 550 (speed limit 70 mph yaay!) North to Chaco Canyon. Here the landscape changes again - the familiar scrubland of the last few days is back, but instead of a flat expanse of emptiness there are now low ridges of gnarled rock rising from the earth, like spines of some monstrous reptile, their crests eroded into outlandish shapes by the wind. From the 550, another dirt road takes us to the Chaco Culture National Historical Park. Here, in a low valley walled in by low sandstone cliffs, lie a scattering of ancient ruins dating from between 850 and 1150 AD. I am reminded of Eliot once again, this time of the Hollow Men:
The eyes are not here
There are no eyes here
In this valley of dying stars
In this hollow valley
This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms
We stop for a minute at the Visitor's Center - supposedly to collect information about the park but really to gape at the magnificent Fajada Butte that towers above it, then drive on along the loop trail through the valley, stopping at various points to visit the ruins.
Easily the finest of these (or at least of the ones we visit - there are many that lie too far out for us to visit, and can be reached only by taking steep, rugged trails) is the Pueblo Bonito, a sprawling complex that was once the center of the Chacoan world and that in its prime stood four stories high and contained more than 600 rooms and 40 kivas. But impressive as the scale of the place is, what makes Pueblo Bonito really special is that the trail through the site goes into the ruins, taking you through doors barely three and a half feet high and less than two feet wide, into a series of tiny rooms, so that rather than viewing the ruins from a sterile distance you get an authentic sense of what it would feel like to live there. It's a surprisingly strenuous experience, and there are a couple of points where I end up crawling on my hands and knees, but it gives me the visceral thrill of pretending I'm some kind of archaeologist or explorer, instead of a flat-footed tourist. I feel like Indiana Jones. Plus, one glimpse of the cramped quarters that the Chacoan people lived in makes even student housing look good.
As the evening wears on and ruin follows ruin (Hungo Pavi, Kin Kletso, Pueblo del Arroyo, Casa Rinconada), Z and I feel ourselves turning into something of experts on Chacoan architecture. T-shaped doors, diagonal doors, primary and secondary roof beams, three wall structures, the various uses of kivas, early and late Chacoan masonry - we can feel it all seeping into us, so that by the time we get to Casa Rinconada, site of the largest kiva in Chaco Canyon, we feel like we barely need the trail guide anymore and can point out distinctive features of what we're seeing for ourselves. It's a geekish thrill, this fascination with having learnt something new, but it makes us proud.
By the time we're ready to leave (the road into the park closes at sunset) the sun is low on the horizon and in the fading light the ruins of Pueblo Bonito glow like dull gold. Eagles soar over our heads, their cry the only sound in the otherwise empty canyon. Dark storm clouds have gathered over the northern cliffs and an occasional arc of lightning startles the horizon. As though to compensate for the gloominess of this view, a rainbow appears to the East, its shimmering arc intersecting the tawny hills and binding the ruins in a covenant of beauty (see picture below). Directly in front of us, a great rock formation looking for all the world like a resting lion sits on top of a low mound, and suddenly its not hard to believe that the spirits of the dead still live here, standing guard over this ancient valley, so rich in lost splendor.
But the most stunning sight of the day is yet to come. Driving back to the highway from the Park, we gaze in wonder at the sky all around us. Low fields stretch to the horizon here, and on each side of us lies a curtain of raincloud, a veil of dark gray connecting earth and sky, while in front of us the sky still burns indigo bright, the dying sunbeams (as Keats would have it) like "veins in sable marble". Our progress seems magical, miraculous, as though we drove forward parting the clouds, our sense of unreality heightened by the sight of a lone windmill outlined against the sky. And then suddenly, around a bend in the road, we see it - a double rainbow - two parallel arcs of vivid, trembling color suspended in the breathless air, displaying the full spectrum of VIBGYOR to our astonished eyes. I didn't even know that double rainbows existed (though they're apparently well documented), so seeing one appear out of the blue (literally) was just incredible.
When night finally fell, it found us back on the 550, driving up to Farmington, where we grabbed dinner at the 3 Rivers Brewhouse and Restaurant (the food here was ok, and more than made up for by the combination of good stout ale, amusing ambiance - the place has 'character' - and the sound of The Who playing on the sound system), before stopping for the night at the neighboring town of Bloomfield.
[to be concluded in Part 4 (I would go on, but I want to give n! another crack at the digested read bit!)]