A Jaunt Up Cliff Dwellers Canyon

The first time I walked up Cliff Dwellers Canyon — which is located outside of Gallup, New Mexico — both the perceived and the perceiver were in rare form.

Outlier Conditions

For my part, I had influenza. The fever had me feeling thoroughly delirious, and given my condition, I probably shouldn’t have even left bed that morning. Unfortunately, the antsiness gets the better of you sometimes, especially when I’m in my hometown.

The weather, meanwhile, was wild — outlier conditions for sure. It was mid-morning when the tires of my car skidded to a halt in wet clay on the side of Superman Canyon Road. There was an icy fog shrouding the land in a deep gloom seldom seen in this corner of the state. A couple inches of snow encrusted the terrain. Sharp frost crystals sprouted from the snow, from every ponderosa needle, from every strand of spider silk clinging to yellow sandstone faces.

Hallowed Ground

You needn’t walk more than a few paces off the road to see why Cliff Dwellers Canyon is so-called. If you look through the more assertive (and more modern) inscriptions that say things like “hot dog,” you’ll see glyphs characteristic of the Ancestral Pueblo who inhabited McKinley County centuries hence. Strange humanoid likenesses, figures of animals and swirls etched carefully into dark desert varnish.

It’s not quite Newspaper Rock or the endless library of icons found at Petroglyph National Monument, but the presence of these exotic forms lends an extra dose of gravitas to the ambience nevertheless — like you’re walking on hallowed ground or something. Like you’ll never know the true meaning of this place because you couldn’t possibly wrap your mind around the incredible volume of living and dying that’s happened here.

There are traces of this manifold drama splashed on the walls, but only traces. And they’re not much to go on. The vast majority of Ancestral Pueblo life, as with any civilization really, has slipped through the pixels of reality and disappeared.

How Did They Do It?

While flash floods certainly do a great deal of sculptural work on this canyon — now carving deep arroyos, now filling them back in with huge amounts of sand and silt — the view I see probably isn’t so different from the view enjoyed by those who walked between these short cliffs hundreds of years ago.

On a frigid day like this, you can’t help but marvel at the Ancestral Puebloans’ ability to thrive in such an extreme environment. Surely they suffered from fevers and chills from time to time the way we do. Unlike us, however, they couldn’t simply retreat out of the bitter cold to perfectly climate-controlled homes to drown in pulsing dextromethorphan dreams.

Unmoored From The Land

Ours is a life of unparalleled luxury. We have become largely unmoored from the land we inhabit — unmoored from its demands and its constraints. These days if we run out of water, we just drill a little deeper, or construct a new branch of pipe. And who cares if the soil is rotten? We can bring food in from literally anywhere.

No, these days the land has largely been relegated to our menu of entertainments. We wander around out there not out of necessity, but for something to occupy our leisure time.

If given the choice, would I go back to live out my days alongside the Ancestral Pueblo? Certainly not! I’m rather fond of the 21st century. Still, I wonder what it would have been like to be so intimately acquainted, so intimately intertwined, with this corner of the galaxy. Though the view is probably more-or-less the same, the experience must be very different indeed.

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(Today’s photo is courtesy of my brother, Brian Alford.)

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