I always felt an affinity with the American Indian—Native Americans, if you prefer. However, I always just thought it was the same type of affinity that most people get about these unique and somewhat mysterious (to us “outsiders”) cultures. That is, until my husband and I visited New Mexico.
We drove out to New Mexico and for several days we played typical tourist—going to the well-known locations such as Santa Fe and Taos and doing all the touristy things that people do. Then, while driving through part of the National park on our way to go hiking, we got lost.
We ended up at an archeological dig site. Most of the archeologists, students and scientists were away. There were just two folks standing near a small group of crude cabins and tents.
One person stood in the shadows and was hard to see clearly, but a young man, who looked Native American, sat in a camp chair near one of the larger cabins. We pulled over to ask the young man for directions back to the main road. As we got out of the car, he smiled and lazily rose to meet us halfway.
After explaining to us where we had gone wrong, we turned to head back to the car. A movement caught the corner of my eye and made me turn my head. I saw an old, almost ancient-looking Native American man step out of the shadows. His long steel gray hair was done into two braids, and his face had as many rills as the hillsides around us. His dark, bright eyes caught mine and held them, and I knew inside that we had met before—in some other place, at some other time.
He nodded as if acknowledging my thought, then with a flick of his hand he waved me to follow him. At first my husband continued toward the car. When he realized that I was no longer behind him, he turned and called out, asking me where I was going. When I didn’t answer he followed us, half jogging to catch up.
The young man simply watched, perhaps his grandfather—I was guessing that they were related, although I had no proof—had done this type of thing before. In any case, the young man made no move to stop us.
We followed the old man through the structures of current day to a path barely discernible in the rough, rocky ground. It wound past a few pines, then climbed upward switching back and forth across the face of the cliff. As we climbed higher onto the cliff face, the path grew narrower until soon it disappeared.
Where it ended, which was only half way up the cliff, was a rickety-looking ladder. Pine poles lashed together with rope and leather strips, this ad-hoc ladder extended 50 feet or so upward at an angle that wasn’t quite vertical, nor quite horizontal.
Each “rung” of this ladder was over forty inches apart, and the old man scrambled up them as if he were a young monkey. I moved much more slowly—both because I didn’t trust the look of the ladder (I thought it was going to fall apart any second), and because I myself am only sixty-four inches tall, so moving between these rungs required some real effort on my part.
When I reached the top, his wrinkled brown hands helped me off the ladder and onto the ledge. As he stepped aside, my jaw dropped and I stared in awe at the village that faced me.
What I saw wasn’t the ruins of a cliff-side village. What I saw was the village as it had been—a thriving, living community. Ghostly images of the inhabitants moved through the “streets”, which consisted of the ledges and pathways that connected the various buildings built into the cliff.
The villages passed into and out of the various dwellings going about their daily business. We passed a woman bent over a cook pot as it simmered over a ghostly fire, and the smell of wood smoke teased my nose, accompanied by the tantalizing aroma of some type of stew.
I whispered, more to myself than to anyone else, “Can you see it?”
The old man who had led us here, simply smiled. I walked past the woman cooking, through a narrow passage and over a rocky ledge staring at the dwellings and the people. These living images were very strong and solid-looking, yet every few moments I would catch a glimpse of the ruins that lay beneath—toppled walls, broken roof beams, and shattered ruins. This duality of images was disconcerting at first, but I soon found myself able to blend the images, thereby making it possible to move about without feeling disoriented.
We walked through several alley-like ways, wending our way through this ghostly village until we arrived at what could have been just another of the myriad of dwellings carved into this cliff side. Somehow though, I knew it wasn’t just any old dwelling—this was my house, the home I had lived in when I had been a part of this village.
I quickly ducked through what remained of the door and began wandering through each of the small, clay and rock rooms. No one spoke, and the air seemed filled with a hushed awe and reverence.
We arrived at the back of the house, and I stepped back out into the daylight. In a sort of daze, I followed the old man as he led us through the maze of ruins until we found ourselves standing on the top step leading down into a large open area. There were four steps leading down to a rock-strewn level area, which I recognized as the meeting hall.
Our guide glided down the steps and looked up at us as we continued to stand on the top step. His face was hidden in shadows as the sun had wound its way around behind him. I started to step down, and a ghostly figure came out of the shadows and called my name. Not my current name, but the name I recognized as the one I had when I was part of the village.
Startled, I stopped mid-stepped, and the ghostly image merged with the shadowy figure of our guide. At the same time, the past images faded away leaving us with just the ruins of the Anastazi village. My husband and I now stood on the top of the bluff, looking into the remains of the old meeting house as the afternoon shadows continued to creep over us.
I shivered as a breeze gusted past, and both my husband and I decided that enough was enough. Hurriedly walking through the shattered remnants of the meeting hall, we found a path, which seemed to circle down the back side of the bluff we were on. We decided to follow that rather than go down the cliff face that we had climbed up.
We walked in silence, letting our thoughts try to comprehend what had just occurred. The only noise was the occasional gecko scrambling over the rocks, or the cawing of a high-flying crow.
In less than an hour we arrived back at our car. The young man was again sitting in his camp chair. The chair tilted back against the cabin, and his hat tipped forward over his face, he appeared to be dozing. When he heard us approach, the chair’s front legs again touched the sandy ground, and he pushed his hat up off his face. He smiled at us, and asked if our “tour” had gone okay.
I started to ask him about our “guide”, but the words came out all jumbled, and made little sense. The young man shook his head. Still smiling, he told us that sometimes when “special” people came by, the old man showed up. When that happened, he and the other archeology students simply let the old man do what he needed to—which was usually to guide the visitors (like us) to someplace within the ruins. Each time the people came back to their cars, he said they were like us—awestruck, and amazed.
I nodded dumbly and my husband thanked him, and then we climbed into our car. As we drove away, I thought I saw the old man up on the cliff watching us leave. Or, maybe it was just a trick of the fading light.