ON ANCIENT GROUND
Canyon de Chelly and the enduring mystery of New Mexico
BY HAMPTON SIDES
THE BIG MAN, the one they call Zozobra, was pleading for his life, his arms bound in ropes. Tens of thousands of people were crowded around him, yelling, Burn him! Torch his sorry self!
As Zozobra groaned incoherently, robed druids pranced at his feet, wielding torches. The head priest consulted the crowds for their verdict, but by now they were worked up into a frenzy. Fry him—up in smoke! Zozobra begged for mercy. He groaned in despair. Then the druids put him to the torch. The big man flailed as his body was consumed in billowing flames. In his agony, I was perhaps a little embarrassed by my own bloodlust. Maybe I even felt sorry for him. But it was only a fleeting empathy. The giant finally collapsed in a heap of sparks and cinders and smoke, and the sated throngs bayed in ecstasy.
When I moved to Santa Fe, back in 1994, and had my initial encounter with poor condemned Zozobra, I was told that the annual immolation of this comically ugly, forty-foot marionette effigy was a cathartic ritual, a symbolic banishing of all workaday concerns. Prior to the burning, officials keep something called the “gloom box.” It’s literally a box which the citizens of Santa Fe are invited to fill with worrisome artifacts from the previous year—divorce papers, photographs of loved ones, tax returns, locks of hair—any sort of fretful talismanic object people might want to go up in flames. (“Zozobra” means “anxiety” in Spanish.) The contents of the gloom box are placed inside the mannequin each year—and are duly incinerated with Old Man Gloom himself.
The burning of Zozobra dates back to 1924, many decades before the first torching of the more famous Burning Man of Nevada. The ceremony happens during Fiesta Week, the grand party that New Mexico’s capital has been throwing for itself every September since 1712, when the Spanish reclaimed New Mexico after the Pueblo Revolt.
For a short spell, during Fiestas, Santa Fe becomes a place again and not a Style. We lay aside our howling coyote animalitos and close up our high colonics spas. And with that first cool-weather tingle in the air, we stand before the doomed giant and greet the coming of fall.
Something about the crazy-weird ritual of Zozobra—this thoroughly homegrown pagan spectacle concocted by local artists—reminds me that I live in the right place. A place with a weird and whimsical sense of humor, but also with a deep sense of history. A place that rekindles itself each year—and consigns worldly worries to the stake.
Santa Fe: The Royal City of the Holy Faith of Saint Francis of Assisi. Santa Fe: The City Different. This town of squat beige buildings, surrounded by mountains of every description and geological origin. The Sandias. The Ortiz. The Jemez. Atalaya. The Sangre de Cristos. Mountains that seem so close you could pluck them like pendulous fruit, and mountains that are more than a hundred miles off, phantoms rising from the Navajo country to the hazy west.
Sure, Santa Fe’s a tourist trap, a sometimes annoying New Age mecca, and a retirement haven for the filthy rich. Sure, the very words “Santa Fe” have become international shorthand for a whole horsey, bolo-tied, hot-peppered, woo-woo way of life. Fanta Se. Pseudo Fe. Santa Fake. Having been declared one of the world’s “spiritual meridians” (by whom I’m not too sure), this town has long been a magnet for an astonishing cross-section of questing individuals—Hollywood wellness junkies, eccentric art dealers with a taste for the occult, hackeysack-playing trustafarians, Texas billionaire widows willing to give anything a try.
Still and all, Santa Fe remains an extraordinary outpost of North American civilization. Beneath the stucco of tourism lies a fascinating, tolerant, laid-back Western town with a creative wattage all its own. Historically, it’s always been an end-of-the-line kind of place: the end of the Camino Real, the end of the Santa Fe Tail, the northern end of the desert, the western end of the prairie, the southern end of the Rockies. People who gravitate to Santa Fe—artists, complexity scientists, photographers, physicists, chefs—often tend to be the sort of people who could live most anywhere but choose to live here because they’ve found inspiration, or solace, or a certain frisson of amusement in looking at the United States of America from what seems like a long way away. For living here does at times feel like living on an island surrounded by oceans of land. We’re in America, but somehow separate from it. A lot of people move to Santa Fe from somewhere else—they come, in effect, to burn their worries and their cares, to dispatch their old lives and invent themselves anew. In a sense, Santa Fe is its own little cyst, a dusty enclave of semi-expats who thrive on pursuing a new kind of life at the end of the line.
Each time I fly back to New Mexico after a trip to pretty much anywhere else in America, I’m reminded of why I live in this state. I gaze out the window as the plane begins its long descent, and I contemplate the endless space, the wrinkled mountains, and the merciful dearth of human scars on the land. After Dallas, after Phoenix, after any of those Mattress-Firmed, PetsMarted, Office-Maxed rat warrens of modern America, I often find myself literally breathing a sigh of relief: Home! I remember all over again why I came here, and why I stay.
The contradictions of New Mexico never cease to astound me—and they lie at the root of why I love this place so much. Dry but high, vast in size but puny in population, financially poor but culturally rich, we’re a state with an enormous inferiority complex, dwelling as we do down in the cellar of far too many national social rankings. Yet people the world over fantasize about coming and living here—somehow, some day, some way. We’re an oasis of high culture (Santa Fe Opera) but also high kitsch (Roswell’s UFO Festival—“a great place to crash!”). We’re a place with deep strains of humility (penitents on the road to Chimayo) and also of cosmic arrogance (nuclear interlopers at Los Alamos). We’re a state so hickishly backward that cockfighting was declared illegal only a few years ago. And yet we’re also poised on the furthest frontiers of futurism and technology, home of the Virgin Galactic Spaceport, Intel, and the Very Large Array.
In truth, I had no intention of becoming a New Mexican—not permanently, at least. I floated out here twenty-one years ago for what I thought was a temporary sojourn, a loose experiment in desert living. I thought I would chase a few adventures in the Southwest and then move on, in the way that modern Americans, restless and deracinated, always move on—in search of something “better.”
But something about the place grabbed me from the start. The first few months, I went around with a stupefied expression on my face. I couldn’t believe I lived out here, amongst all this surreal and spectral beauty—a landscape so different from the South where I was raised, or from the East where I’d lived most of my young adulthood. There was something about it, some delicate combination of the latitude, the altitude, and the bone-dryness of the air, that was ineffably powerful. I really felt I’d landed in a part of heaven.
Oh yes, and there’s “The Light.” People talk incessantly about it. Painters and photographers move here to capture it. New Agers form communes to be closer to it. At first, I was skeptical of its specialness. But then one morning in late-September, after the monsoons had died off and the skies had sharpened, I was driving along the low road to Taos. Chile vendors were roasting peppers in those enormous tumbling contraptions, issuing a carbon haze over the land. I looked up through the smoke and saw a fuzz along the upper reaches of the Truchas Peaks—the first snow dustings of the season. And below that, threading like a yellow necklace through the ponderosa forests, were stands of aspen bathed in a roseate glow.
New Mexico is one of our youngest states and yet one of our oldest-seeming places, a well-trodden crossroads of myriad cultures, a crazy-quilt of warring and overlapping civilizations. Consequently, the desert Southwest is a wonderland of North American archaeology, having long attracted the lions of the field—people like Earl Morris and A.V. Kidder. Taos Pueblo is widely considered the oldest continuously inhabited spot in North America, and New Mexico’s Spanish culture predates Jamestown or Plymouth Rock. Make no mistake, the Desert Southwest, sometimes touted by boosters and boomers as the sparkling “New Sunbelt,” is old, old old—and thoroughly suffused with the ghosts of antiquity.
It’s ironic that the very qualities that make New Mexico so beautiful and unique—lean country, bold climate, sharp clashings of well-entrenched peoples—were the very qualities that so many bewhiskered politicians back in Washington found so unattractive when they were considering candidates for statehood in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
People then didn’t regard this country as beautiful or uplifting. Most visitors from back East regarded the place as ugly, scary, and vaguely threatening: an alien slagheap. Early expeditions of the U.S. topographical corps found little to recommend, declaring it a “cursed land” and a “broken country.” It was a world set in the kiln heat of the desert, confusingly burdened by so many languages, so many religions, and so many ethnicities that stubbornly held onto the past.
Some senators in Washington thought New Mexico should stay a territory forever. Others seriously proposed giving it all back to Mexico. What was the point of it? You couldn’t farm it, you couldn’t settle it, and the land looked just plain weird. It was, they said, a dead place—geology without biology. They were used to finding beauty in deep greens and blues, in plunging waterfalls, in florid meadows full of fat, happy cows. Easterners could not understand the land’s logic, let alone declare it lovely.
And what they did understand, they found unsettling. For it is a terrain stamped with terrific violence. Its scale dwarfs human beings, not only spatially but chronologically, suggesting chasms of time that mock our relevance in the story of creation. It would take several generations before artists, poets, painters, photographers, and scientists (people like Edward Curtis, John Wesley Powell, Aldo Leopold, Ansel Adams, and Georgia O’Keefe) began to put this strange country in proper perspective—and, finally, to call it beautiful.
More and more often, I’ve found myself leaving Santa Fe, heading out in all directions, and losing myself in the terrain. Here is real estate without peer, a land of sky islands, cinder cones, and mesas the size of battleships, a queer world of upheaval and stark finality cooked in an unforgiving forge. It’s a country that has moved modern geologists, ordinarily a dry and understated lot, to employ a vocabulary of doom: On the maps, you'll find terms like Paradox Basin, Defiance Uplift, the Great Unconformity. Walking over it, rafting through it, camping amongst it, we feel squishably insignificant—a feeling that I find paradoxically uplifting. To me, it’s a source of comfort to know that we’re nothing, that nature always wins, and that, in the end, we homo not so sapiens are mere spore-specks in the record of time.
I can think of no region of the United States where one can see the raw processes of nature so brutally exposed—erosion, sedimentation, vulcanism. Here you sense the hand of time and the patient but relentless creativity of nature: Bold edifices of rock, conjured by God, masoned by the epochs, and kissed by clear desert light.
What really held me here, though, was not beautiful light or beautiful scenery; rather, it was the unexpected pull of history. In the spring of 1998, I went down to the White Sands Missile Range to write an article for Sports Illustrated about an event called the Bataan Memorial Death March. Part endurance race, part military exercise, and part retrospective on the horrors of war, it is a kind of athletic passion play held each year on the anniversary of the surrender of Bataan. The World War II battle of Bataan in the Philippines resulted in the largest surrender in American history. More soldiers from New Mexico than from any other state were killed in the brutal trek to Japanese-run concentration camps that came to be called the Bataan Death March. Because of this, Bataan is memorialized throughout our state; it’s a Filipino place-name curiously found on our museums, government buildings, highways, libraries, and yes, military marathons.
In 1998, a Bataan veteran named Winston Shillito, seventy-eight years old and in terrific shape, decided to honor his fallen comrades. A few thousand seriously-ripped athletes, including elite soldiers from several NATO countries as well as New Mexico’s fitness-junkie governor, Gary Johnson, would be running in the desert marathon. But Winston would be walking it.
I decided to walk it with him. Starting at dawn’s first light, we trudged all day long over great dunes, up rocky buttes, across shimmering salt flats, with the beautiful-weird Organ Mountains hanging in the distance. As we walked, Winston told me his war stories: How he had endured starvation and tropical diseases and horrible mistreatment, how he was finally liberated from a slave labor camp in Japan by a bomb that had been designed in New Mexico and tested at the Trinity site, on this very missile range.
I found something tremendously powerful and deeply purifying about walking the bleached desert with this tough, wise man who harbored no bitterness in his heart. Thousands of his comrades had perished in the Philippines. His way of paying them respect, his way of working through his own complicated feelings, was to put one foot in front of the other and lose himself in landscape. Here was Winston’s version of consigning his cares to the “gloom box.” It was the time-honored healing ritual known to all mystics: If you have a problem, immerse yourself in the desert and take a long walk.
Twenty-six-point-two miles long, in this case. By the time I crossed the finish line with Winston late that afternoon, I was blistered and deliriously happy. I had made a decision that changed my life and insured that I would make this state my home forever. On that day, I decided to become a historian.
The book I wrote about Bataan, Ghost Soldiers, grew directly from that bittersweet march with Winston, and since then I’ve made a permanent home here in New Mexico. I’ve come to see my day in the desert with Winston as a metaphor for New Mexico itself—for the magical way this place burrows into the imagination, for the curing effect of long vistas, for the clarifying of mind and soul that comes with hard hikes over spare country. Revelation through landscape. Renewal on ancient ground. A sense of space and possibility stretching to the horizons.
Perhaps what most enriches Santa Fe is its proximity—its contiguity, really—with Native American cultures that are still very much alive. In every direction, like clicks on a dial, one finds ancient peoples. The Pueblos, of course, but also the Mescalero Apache, Jicarilla Apache, Kiowa, Comanche, Ute, Arapaho, Cheyenne. Santa Fe is an ideal jumping off place for anyone who wants to explore this wealth of cultures
All in all, I prefer the Navajo country, the country of the Diné. I’ve been out there I don’t know how many times, and I never grow tired of it. It’s a world as big as New England, with its own snowy mountain ranges and great drainages, its own quirks of geology. I love the broiled mazes, the gulchy badlands, the intervening alkali flats studded with monoliths of rock. I love the malpais, the sky islands, the dormant volcanoes lofted over the plains. Even on decent roads, it still takes most of a day to drive across the Nation. Out in the middle of Navajo Nowhere, the influences of Anglo-American life are feeble and skewed, as though refracted through a thick lens.
The Navajos are, depending on how one measures bloodlines, the largest Native American tribe, living on the largest reservation in the United States. They’ve always been great improvisationalists, mobile and restless, eager to absorb the ideas and implements of others, to inhale the essence of other cultures. Unlike the Pueblo peoples, the Navajos have always preferred to spread out as far as possible from one another over large swatches of country. Yet no society has ever felt a keener sense of place. The traditional boundaries of the Diné country are defined by four stand-alone mountains, one for each cardinal direction, and each one inhabited by different gods. In the old days, Navajos were not supposed to stray from the borders formed by these great mountains or else face sickness and death. From nearly any place in Navajo country, a person can glimpse at least one of the four sacred peaks. From my house in Santa Fe, I can look to the west on any clear day and see one of them, Blue Bead Mountain (also known as Mount Taylor), hanging there a hundred miles away like a wispy blue mirage.
Like the Holy Land, the Dinétah is an intensely mythic landscape. Nearly every rock and butte has a name—and a rich legend behind it. Here is where First Man found the infant Changing Woman on a stormy slope. There the Hero Twins slew the Monster Who Kills With His Eyes. Upon that rock, Spider Woman, the lovable old crone-goddess, weaved some version of her mischief. The petrified forests of northeastern Arizona are, according to Dinée legend, the bones of yeitso, a grotesque monster who was slain by the Sun and left to rot upon the plains, the creature’s blood congealing into lava.
The U.S. Army, based out of Santa Fe, claimed victory over the Navajos during the Civil War years. But, in truth, the United States never really conquered the Diné, and certainly never conquered their land. The Dinétah remains a kingdom within the country, too vast and defiant to be subdued.
My favorite place within Navajo country is Canyon de Chelly. The literal and metaphorical heartland of the Navajo Nation, it’s a rock world with a human pulse, with peach orchards and corn fields planted along a sinuous sandy floor that’s framed by massive luminous sandstone walls. The great mythologist and writer Joseph Campbell called Canyon de Chelly, with good reason, “the most sacred place on earth.”
I’ve spent days hiking and climbing down in the canyon, hooked by its intrigues, exploring its endless notches and alcoves. The Canyon de Chelly complex is seventy serpentine miles of rock art and ancient artifacts interspersed with contemporary Navajo civilization: People still live there. Carl Jung said Canyon de Chelly was “the essence of antiquity.” By that, he meant not just the presence of the old, but the seamless cohabitation of the old with the modern. In Canyon de Chelly, it’s all mixed up together, giving the visitor a sense of chronological vertigo that’s strangely pleasing. Societies come and go, they rise and fall, they die in the flames and are then reborn. All those petroglyphs and pictographs on the walls remind us that humans have been at this game a long, long time, scrawling our Kilroys, constructing our towns. We American moderns are just a passing thing, destined to be supplanted by other folks who’re different, but not so different, from ourselves.
Those figures up on the wall are us.
HAMPTON SIDES is an American historian, writer and journalist. He is the author of Americana, Hellhound on His Trail, Ghost Soldiers, Blood and Thunder and In the Kingdom of Ice. He is an editor-at-large for Outside magazine.