by Hank Leukart
February 23, 2010
A surreal, Native American dream
Tracking down vanished Indians in Mesa Verde National Park and Monument Valley.
Spruce Tree House sits below a snow-covered cliff in Mesa Verde National Park. (view all Spruce Tree House, Mesa Verde, Colorado photos)
ONUMENT VALLEY NAVAJO TRIBAL PARK, Utah — Drained from our snowball fight, Rich, Wendy, Vik, and I go to search for a place to eat in nearby Cortez. Almost all of the town’s restaurants are closed because it’s the afternoon of the Super Bowl and the blizzard has buried the roads in six inches of snow. Eventually, a sign reading “Big D’s BBQ,” outside a dilapidated building that looks like it might be the town jail, catches Rich’s eye, and he pulls the car into the parking lot.
“Really?” I ask.
“Local color,” he says.
We walk through a door labeled “Saloon” and discover that we’re some of the few non-Navajos inside a grungy dive bar. No one is eating any food.
“Where’s the barbecue?” I ask the bartender.
“Oh, the restaurant has been closed for months,” he tells me. “But we’re having a Super Bowl party right now; if you hang out to watch the game, you can enter our raffle to win a grill, and we’re having a free buffet with Navajo tacos at halftime.”
We never turn down free Navajo tacos. Or, we never have before, since we have no idea what they are.
We’re gulping down glasses of Fat Tire and shoving Navajo tacos — which turn out to be traditional Native American frybread smothered in chili — into our mouths when, without warning, a shoe flies across the room, almost hitting Wendy in the head. We all turn around just in time to see a drunk woman grab a glass from the bar and chuck it as hard as she can at her boyfriend. It smashes into his chest with a loud thud, then clatters onto the floor. Apparently the shoe was meant for him as well.
“I think this local color may be our cue to leave,” Vik says, ducking under the table.
We hurry out of the bar, and after stopping at a store to buy more beer and a deck of cards, we pull into the parking lot of the Tomahawk Motel — which looks a lot like a snowboarding mogul park, due to the storm. Everyone waits in the car as I visit the motel’s office, where I see an enormous Great Dane, larger than me, sitting behind the desk.
“Are you the owner?” I ask the dog.
“I am,” the dog says. Actually, the voice turns out to be coming from a man who appears from a back room behind the human-sized canine.
“It’s cold out there, huh?” I say. The colossal dog looks at me suspiciously.
“Not really,” he says in a distinctly Scandanavian accent. The motel owner. Not the dog.
“Yeah, I guess you’re used to this,” I respond. “But that’s a lot of snow out there, huh?”
“Not really,” the owner says. Then, he rolls his eyes. The dog, I mean.
“Where are you from?” I ask.
“Here,” the owner says flatly. I give up.
I hand some money to the Great Dane, and then Rich, Wendy, Vik, and I move into our room at the Tomahawk Motel, waiting out Snowpocalypse 2010, drinking beer and playing Spades.
“Maybe I’ll never have to go back to work,” Wendy says hopefully. “Maybe the Snowpocalypse will trap us with oversized Great Danes in the Tomahawk Motel forever.”
But the next morning, snowplows have cleared the roads. I call Mesa Verde National Park on the phone, and a Ranger tells me that they’re open for business.
We meet Ranger Craig in the Park, who we’re pretty sure either smoked something illegal before arriving or is so entranced by his own Native American spirituality sermons that he can make himself high on demand. We’re disappointed to learn that beyond the normal winter-season closures of the Balcony House and Cliff Palace ruins sites, the Mesa Top Loop Road ruins viewpoints are closed because of the Snowpocalypse. But when Craig leads us down the Spruce Tree House path, past a forest of trees coated in white flakes, under a cliff blanketed with snow, to an expansive palace of ancient Anasazi homes, Mesa Verde feels like a dream.
Craig adeptly takes over my role as middle school teacher. He pulls us all aside, away from the ruins, and tells us that the information he’s telling us is too sacred to discuss among the Puebloan homes. He tells us about Native American human remains that the Park reburied in a secret ritual in 2006. He tells us that some archeologists believe that the huge room hidden behind the palace served as a space for parties and dances, while others believe it may have been used for mysterious sacraments. He tells us about religious rituals that the Anasazi performed in kivas, round, underground rooms used for spiritual ceremonies.
“You know that famous pictograph of Kokopelli, the Indian fertility deity, innocently playing a flute?” Craig asks. “That’s not a flute.” His wink and hand motion indicate that he’s referring to self-fellatio.
“You don’t get this info on the summer tour,” he says mischievously.
I pinch myself to try to wake myself up.
“He’s totally and completely high,” Wendy whispers to me. But I realize that this is probably my only chance to find out the answer to the biggest mystery of all.
“Can you tell us why the Anasazi left this place and disappeared?” I ask. I hope that maybe Craig will finally provide us with an answer, even if it’s drug-induced. He looks me right in the eye.
“No one knows,” he says mysteriously. He winks again. I stare at the sprawling cliff dwelling, disappointed.
After our tour, Rich chauffeurs us toward our final stop, Utah’s Monument Valley, a collection of sandstone buttes on Navajo land so stunningly beautiful that they have been used in hundreds of films, television shows, and car commercials. A dirt road in the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park lets adventurous drivers with high-clearance vehicles maneuver amongst the towering rock formations. But after traveling about a mile on the road, we reach a point at which the road surface has broken off. A small river flows in front of us, and deep mud is everywhere. Rich stops the car. We all look out of the front windshield at the fantastic rock formations of Monument Valley and the water blocking our way. Rich stares at the water. Wendy stares at the water. Vik stares at the water. We’re all silent. We sit there, motionless, for five minutes.
In my head, I’m screaming, “OMG. JUST DRIVE DOWN THE ROAD ALREADY!” but I’m not saying anything aloud, because I don’t want to be blamed when the car (owned by Rich and Wendy) gets stuck in a foot of mud and its transmission falls off. Rich is hesitant to take a risk. Vik’s primary concern is getting back to Los Angeles and his girlfriend, alive. Even adventurous Wendy’s number one priority is to protect the integrity of her car. We’re gridlocked.
“Hello,” an unexpected, gentle voice says through the front passenger’s window. “You can make it.” I see an old Navajo man with a ponytail and deep lines crisscrossing his aged face outside the car. This can’t be happening, I think. How long can this surreal Native American dream go on?
“Are you sure our car won’t get stuck?” Rich says.
“I’m sure,” the Navajo man says calmly.
“What if you’re wrong?” Rich asks him.
“I’ll save you,” he says in his soothing tone. Then, he gets into a nearby white van and drives away.
I’m about to ask everyone, half sarcastically and half seriously, whether they saw the Navajo man too, when Rich — the same guy who stayed behind while Wendy and I hiked along the perilous rim of Sycamore Canyon to the ruins — abruptly shifts the transmission into first gear and smashes down the accelerator. Mud flies everywhere, splattering the car’s windows. Wendy screams. Vik and I cheer and clap. My head hits the roof as the car hurls and bounces across the river in the road. Before we know it, we’re on the other side of the water, navigating through a half-foot of mud toward the magnificent Mitten Buttes. There, in Monument Valley, an enigmatic Navajo man somehow managed to give Rich the gift of courage.
As the sun sets, Rich continues to steer the car through the mud, weaving in out of the Valley’s towering buttes and plateaus. The golden sunlight reflecting off the red rock formations looks like a painting gifted to us by a higher power. The four of us get out of our car to soak in the panorama.
I realize that Monument Valley is our big finale. It’s our Grand River Day. I wish my middle school teachers were with us to see our fantastically improved “Indian Unit,” though I’m afraid they might be disappointed that I never solved the mystery of the vanished Native Americans.
And then — and I promise I’m not making this up — a white and brown horse unexpectedly wanders into the road and stops in front of our car. I stare at it. Images from our trip flash through my head. I think of the wolfcow and shiny stallion from Sycamore Canyon, the oversized Great Dane from Cortez, and the mysterious Navajo man in Monument Valley who removed all of Rich’s anxieties. I try to make sense of them all.
Look, I’m not saying that the Hohokam, the Anasazi, and the Sinagua who disappeared from the Four Corners region 700 years ago became benevolent Navajo skinwalkers, appearing as cowwolves, horses, dogs, and old Native American guides, helping visitors to the area. That would be ridiculous.
But I don’t have any other explanation. And neither does anyone else.
An uncovered kiva, a room used for ancient Native American religious ceremonies, in Spruce Tree House in Mesa Verde National Park
Monument Valley has appeared in numerous films, television shows, and commercials. (view all Monument Valley, Utah photos)
How to Take an Indian Ruins Road Trip
There are thousands of Native American ruins sites in the American Southwest. Amateur archeologists could spend weeks exploring them all. Here’s a driving itinerary including some of the best. View this road trip on a map.
- MONTEZUMA CASTLE NATIONAL MONUMENT: The Sinagua built this cliff dwelling, which, strangely, has (almost) nothing to do with the Aztec Montezuma. These ruins are impressive and easy to get to by walking a quarter-mile, paved loop. $5 per person.
- PALATKI HERITAGE SITE AND HONANKI INDIAN RUINS: These two quarter-mile hikes near Sedona take hikers to the ruins of the largest cliff dwellings in Red Rock Country between 1150 and 1300 A.D.
- CANYON DE CHELLY NATIONAL MONUMENT: Seeing this beautiful canyon will make you want to stay here forever. Unfortunately, due to a unique arrangement with the Navajo Nation, hiking or backpacking anywhere in the Monument requires a paid Navajo guide — except for the White House Ruins Trail, a 3.5-mile round trip hike into the Canyon to some impressive Anasazi ruins. Jeep and horseback riding tours are also available. View my hike on the White House Trail.
- FOUR CORNERS: This is the point at which Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado meet. Tourists pay $3 to stand on the exact intersection. I have no idea why anyone would want do this. We did it. You’ll do it too.
- MESA VERDE NATIONAL PARK: This fantastic park, called an Archeological Disneyland by some, boasts some of the most notable and best-preserved cliff dwellings in the US. In the summer, take guided tours to Cliff Palace and Balcony House; during the winter, take a guided tour to Spruce Tree House. No matter when you go, drive the six-mile Mesa Top Loop Road to see ruins from lookout points and try one of the park’s hiking trails. $15 per vehicle in the summer; $10 per vehicle in the winter.
- HOVENWEEP NATIONAL MONUMENT: This Monument allows visitors to see six prehistoric, Puebloan-era villages. $6 per vehicle.
- MONUMENT VALLEY NAVAJO TRIBAL PARK: Drive this 17-mile dirt road loop to see the gorgeous buttes and plateaus of Monument Valley close up. A high clearance vehicle is recommended. Definitely worth the $5 per person, especially if you enjoy photography.
- NAVAJO NATIONAL MONUMENT: See three Anecestral Puebloan cliff dwellings.
- OFF THE BEATEN PATH: There are many Indian ruins sites outside National Parks and Monuments which can only be reached with help from Native American guides or enterprising hikers. Dave Wilson’s Hiking Ruins Seldom Seen helps amateur archeologists willing to hike long distances find some of these sites.