Tuesday, September 25, 2012

DESERT 2.0: The Trail of the Anasazi

After three days in the Santa Fe area, we headed west through the desert.  We stopped briefly in Albuquerque, where we took a ride on the Albuquerque TrolleyTour.  I feel like it would be wrong to summarize the highlights.  If you’re in Albuqueruque, you really should take the tour yourself.  The owners / tour guides, Jesse and Michael, have an extensive knowledge of their home city and they can give you the best overview.  And if you’re a movie geek like me, they know all about Albuquerque’s roles in Hollywood films, from LONELY ARE THE BRAVE (1962) to NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007).  They also offer a weekly 3-hour tour of filming locations for the AMC series BREAKING BAD… but you’ll need to reserve tickets for that one way in advance.  (We cheated and tracked down some of the locations on our own.)

The motel where James Brolin gets shot in NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN
Stalking Walt (BREAKING BAD)
Next we headed west, veering off of I-40 to hit El MorroNational Monument.  I admit that all I knew about this stop was what I’d seen in an old movie.  FOUR FACES WEST (1948), starring Joel McCrea and his wife Frances Dee, is a serious-minded pioneer western from beloved producer Harry “Pop” Sherman.  Sherman made his name on the Hopalong Cassidy serial, then became determined to produce something more substantial.  

In the late 1940s, he made three noteworthy westerns with McCrea.  BUFFALO BILL is an entertaining but rather bloated and old-fashioned biopic.  RAMROD, directed by a one-eyed madman named Andre de Toth (best known for the Vincent Price vehicle HOUSE OF WAX), is an aesthetically interesting film noir marred by rather flat performances from McCrea and Veronica Lake.  FOUR FACES WEST is perhaps the most successful, though it is a very unconventional western.  Writer Teddi Sherman, the producer’s daughter, has noted that it’s the only western where not a single gunshot is fired.  The story, based on the novel Paso por Aqui, is about the common desire of American pioneers for a new beginning.  El Morro stands as the central symbol of the theme -- an imposing sandstone bluff in the middle of the desert, where travelers have ritualistically carved their names in the rock for hundreds of years.  The earliest Anglo-American inscription dates back to 1605. 

As with most historical monuments in this part of the country, the story actually goes back much further than what is commonly known.  When we hiked up to the rim of El Morro, we were surprised to see that the bluff is actually a mesa that’s hollowed out in the middle.  There is only one convenient way in and out, which made El Morro a convenient fortified compound for ancient Native Americans, who built their homes in the rock.  Most people know these former inhabitants as Anasazi -- a Navajo word meaning “Ancient Enemy.”  The docent at El Morro quietly informed me that the local Puebloans, the Zuni, don’t like the word Anasazi because it has negative connotations.  They prefer the term “ancient Puebloans,” which makes sense because most up-to-date archaeologist identify the "Anasazi" as the ancestors of the various modern-day Pueblo tribes, rather than as a lost tribe that vanished in the late 12th / early 13th century.  

The supposed “mystery” of the Anasazi still haunts the greater Four Corners area, where the remains of former dwellings tell their story…. or, at least, part of their story.  Over the years, archaeologists and writers have offered many different theories about why the ancients may have abandoned their homes.  David Roberts attempts to sum up the theories in his 1997 book In Search of the Old Ones.  One  early explanation: The ancients were driven away by invading forces… possibly the Navajo, Ute or Paiute Indians.  This theory has been debunked by modern research.  Another, more likely possibility: An extended natural drought drove them away from their homeland.  A third explanation: The ancients undertook a mass migration as part of a spiritual quest, perhaps related to the origins of the kachina religion. 

Whatever the case, most of the ancient cave dwellings remained empty for hundreds of years, waiting to be discovered.   The ruins atop El Morro were partially unearthed in the 1950s, but most of the estimated 875 rooms remained buried beneath sand and soil.  At first, this surprised me… I assumed that archeologists would be fighting with each other over the chance to explore these ancient ruins and learn what they could from them.  Later in the trip, I realized that many people quietly regard the ancient Puebloan ruins as off-limits.  For some, it's a show of respect.  For some, it's a result of fear.  (Within a religious context, these explanations might not be so different...)

We stopped for lunch at the El Rancho Hotel in Gallup, Hollywood’s home away from home when filming was popular in this area (for details, see Tinsley Yarbrough’s book Those Great Western Movie Locations), before heading to Canyon de Chelly in the vast and beautiful Navajo Nation.  

According to author Robert L. Casey, “Navajo reservation lands are as large as the states of Vermont, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire combined; twice the size of Israel; and as large as the state of West Virginia.”  This sounds overwhelming but, having been there, it's not hard to believe.  Driving through the Navajo Nation really does feel like traveling through another country.  At a place like Canyon de Chelly, with its massive centuries-old ruins, it almost feels like being on a different planet -- one that inspires constant awe.

The Navajo have inhabited Canyon de Chelly, as well as the neighboring Canyon del Muerto, since the early 1700s.   In his book Blood and Thunder (a study of Kit Carson), Hampton Sides argues that the Navajo people as “the most ‘American’ of the American Indians” because of their nomadic quality and their adaptability.  “They were immigrants, improvisationists, mongrels,” he says, noting that they co-existed for years with the native Hopi until they were driven out by Kit Carson and the United States Army in 1864.  The Navajo returned to the canyon four years later and have been there ever since, living in the low land in the summer and on the higher land in the winter.
Mummy Cave Overlook (Canyon del Muerto)
White House Overlook (Canyon de Chelly)

Canyon del Muerto

Having been in the canyon for more than three centuries, the Navajo naturally have their own ideas about what happened to the previous inhabitants.  In his book Sacred Land, Sacred View: Navajo Perceptions of the Four Corners, Robert McPherson expresses the popular theory that “the Anasazi culture shriveled and died because the people transgressed the laws of the holy beings and of nature as they sought ease through power which they had abused.”  He goes on to say that “their example and the visible remains left behind serve as a reminder of death and destruction in the midst of life; of a holy way gone bad.”  The Navajo certainly believe in reverence as a way of life.  One shouldn't disturb what is sacred… and that includes the spirits of the dead.   Accordingly, as our Canyon de Chelly guide made clear, many of the Anasazi ruins on Navajo land have not been formally excavated (though some, unfortunately, have been privately plundered over the years by treasure-seekers and irreverent vandals).

Mae Thompson, a lifelong resident of Canyon de Chelly, offers a more personal perspective in David Grant Noble’s book Houses Beneath the Rock: “It is said that when the Anaasazi lived there, a big tornado came and destroyed them.  This tornado came into the canyon from Chinle.  It was a big whirling wind with fire.  It went up each canyon and burned all the people.  One can see these burnt areas today.  They are those black bands and streaks on the cliff walls.  They became this way from the fire and smoke.”  She also explains why the ancient ones were fated to die: “They began to do and learn things beyond the knowledge that was set for them.  It’s like what is happening today […] They obtained knowledge beyond what was set for them.”

Massacre Cave Overlook (Canyon del Muerto)
White House Ruins (Canyon de Chelly)
White House Ruins
unexcavated ruins
Surrounded on all sides by the towering walls of the canyon, and permeated by the overwhelming silence, it’s hard not to become spellbound by the ancient mysteries, and the prophecies that come with them.  Robert McPherson suggests that the only thing keeping tourists safe is disbelief.  “If you are not scared of it, you can walk in here,” he says, but “when you are frightened of it, you will start seeing it.  This is real to people who believe in it.  If inside you believe there is nothing to fear, then you can go into these places and not be haunted by it.”  I’m tempted to describe this philosophy as a campfire story, but somehow -- having been in Canyon de Chelly -- McPherson's words seem more vital to me, and I’m inclined to follow the Navajo way of silent reverence.

Hollywood has rarely tread on this sacred ground, but the natives seem proud of their place in film history.  Some early scenes (mostly process shots) in the Joel McCrea western COLORADO TERRITORY (1949) feature the White House Ruins, while parts of the Gregory Peck western MACKENNA’S GOLD (1969) were shot at Spider Rock.  I understand that some scenes in the vigilante flick BILLY JACK (1971) were also shot in Chinle, but as it’s been years since I’ve seen that one, I can't point to any specific locations.  More recently, the final scene of the Jodie Foster space odyssey CONTACT (1997) was shot at sunset on the south rim of the canyon… which brings me to our next stop.

We headed further west, into storm clouds, to see the great Arizona Meteor Crater.  This location also has a movie history.  It was Jeff Bridges’ destination in John Carpenter’s STARMAN (1983)…  but of course no movie could possibly do justice to the scale of this site.  There’s a pretty impressive museum next to the crater that offers plenty of historical context.  The short version: The meteor crash-landed about 50,000 years ago, traveling at a rate of 26,000 miles per hour, with an explosive force grater than 20 million tons of TNT.  The meteor mostly vaporized on impact, leaving an initial crater that was 700 feet deep and 4,000 feet across.  Natural forces have reduced it to its present state: 550 deep, or roughly the height of a 60-story building.  

We left in stunned silence.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful look at this location, Joe. I have distant family in Albuquerque, too. Thanks.