Bored with the perishable artifacts of our own time, we travel far in search of something rooted in history. We come out of Rome’s train station to have our sensors astounded by the ruined grandeur of Diocletian’s Baths; we marvel at the enduring dome fashioned by Michelangelo over St. Peters. We don’t have to travel that far, however, to walk in the tracks of other civilizations of other times. There are some closer at hand, no further away than, say, New Mexico. Nobody can pretend, of course, that the remnants of the Indian civilizations that once thrived around Santa Fe can satisfy the same esthetic cravings as do the artworks of Italy. The hand of a Michelangelo may be absent; nomadic tribes tend not to cultivate stable artists. But the sense of history grabs us even so. The towering sandstone towers loom large over Pecos; the hillsides at Bandelier National Monument tell of multiple dwelling-places that make today’s condos seem puny. Santa Fe’s motivating passion is an obsession with its past. Sure, the clustered galleries along Canyon Road, and the clustered menus of the new restaurants around the Plaza, sing of the trendy, the mod. But let someone violate the ancient building code, put up a gas station or burger joint that breaks out of the adobe-bungalow cliche of the local architecture, and watch the vigilantes swarm. The adobe fetish borders on the absurd in downtown Santa Fe, but the devotion to the distant past is ardent and genuine in the surroundings. Pecos and Bandelier lie in opposite directions out of town, an hour’s drive in each case; you could do them both in a day, but that wouldn’t do them justice. Each of them tells of a way of life both pastoral and hazardous. The Santa Fe Plateau is ringed with narrow, deep valleys. Today they are semi-arid, washed by occasional flash floods but basically hostile to serious agriculture. That wasn’t the case, however, 800 years ago when, as near as anyone can tell, tribes of nomadic Indians pushed their way into the area from other blighted regions and found the land hospitable. Along the Pajarito Plateau northwest of the city the Anasazis (“ancient ones”) planted corn, beans and squash. At about the same time the Pueblo Indians settled along the Pecos River to the southeast; their farms were, if anything, more prosperous than those of their northern neighbors, and they developed a lively trade with neighboring tribes. In both places, the tribes dug in. The cliffs that frame Bandelier (which, by the way, takes its name from the Swiss archeologist Adolph Bandelier, who first surveyed and wrote about the ruins) are pockmarked by deep caves, the work of millennia of running water through sandstone. These gave the dwellers shelter, and also provided a way of anchoring huge dwelling complexes that seemed to lean back against the hill for support. Today we walk the two-mile trail through the valley, marvel at the extent of surviving foundations of living quarters on level land, and make the gentle climb up the cliffside to peer into the abandoned quarters of a people who once lived well on this land. Nobody knows why the Bandelier settlements failed, but around 1550, after four untroubled centuries, they simply fell apart. Drought, disease, massacres by unfriendly tribes: all explanations are plausible. The lot of Pecos’ Indians was somewhat more dramatic. By the 1500s the settlement numbered nearly 2000; the main pueblo, whose foundation remains, stood over five stories high and contained something like 660 rooms. Interspersed among the high-rises were the underground rooms (kivas) used for ceremonies. In the late 1500s the Spanish explorer Francisco de Coronado arrived from the south, hellbent in his search for the legendary Seven Cities of Gold. Coronado and his followers sacked the pueblo; the Indians crept out under darkness, waited for the Spaniards’ departure, and then returned. By 1620 the Pecos pueblo had become gentrified. The Franciscans brought Christianity and built a church whose bulk dominated the landscape. A people’s revolt in 1680 destroyed the church, whereupon an even larger one took its place. That must have been some edifice for its time; what remains of its gigantic tower and huge encircling walls attest to the Christians’ obsession with making their message visible. By 1840 the Pecos Indian population had dwindled down to a couple of dozen. The land became overgrown; the mysterious round underground rooms filled in with the detritus of ages. Again, as at Bandelier, it was an outside archeologist — Alfred V. Kidder, in 1915-27 — who dug into both the stones and the history of Pecos, and restored it to view. The Pecos land fell eventually into private hands, those of rancher Buddy Fogelson and his wife, the actress Greer Garson. The Fogelsons donated the pueblo site to the government in 1964. Stop off at the Visitors’ Center at the entrance to the park; that soft, mellifluous British voice that narrates the ten-minute film is Greer Garson (Mrs. Miniver, to those of us of a certain age). Even if you’re old enough to remember Greer Garson movies, the circuit of Pecos is an easy stroll. You climb the ladder down into the restored kivas, and sense the isolation that made these rooms into magic places. From the rise near the church ruins, you can look down along the rolling Pecos Valley in one direction, or out to the truck and bus traffic along Interstate I-25 in another. The choice is yours.

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