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Southwestward The Great American Space

July 2024
13min read

A journey through a wide and spellbinding land, and a look at the civilization along its edges.

The synthetic colors of the motel in Albuquerque, all orange, purple, and blatant red, shouting the triumph of American civilization over the surrounding harshness, quickly fade from mind as we head out for Santa Fe. The great desert is upon us, like nothing you have seen elsewhere, something “other,” the floor of the world from the first day of creation. Only an occasional crag sprouting from the cracked surface distracts you from the overpowering emptiness as the perfect highway snakes its way on and on this early in the morning. No one else is on it, and at first there is nothing on either side except the bristling brush, an occasional arroyo long gone dry, and the dead-looking cactus.

From the first moment it is all surprise, the landscape of upheaval, this jagged, totally unpredictable lunar world looking all the more twisted and furrowed by contrast with the smooth straightness of the highway. You have been released into great American space, with nothing to do but look. The picturesqueness is so total that you wonder if they remove this stage set when the sun goes down. Actually, the limitless expanse soon breaks up, with mountains coming up along the ridges. But the fluidity of everything around you is astonishing in this light, pouring in as much from the radiated sands as from the hot sun itself. There is absolutely nothing between you and New Mexico. Past the low greasewood shrubs and the earth waving mile on mile in swollen furrows, every astonishing block of tableland suddenly rising up and every bone-thin jagged spire shaped through measureless years by wind and water is mysteriously itself. These “monuments,” unaccountably there, rising out of the earth with indifferent majesty, tell you not to be self-centered about the creation. Just pass on.

Nevertheless, these incessantly varied shapes and volumes of red rock spellbind you as form, reminding you of what drew such artists as Georgia O’Keeffe, such photographers as Eliot Porter. This aboriginal world is thrillingly designed, its lines and spheres endlessly replicated in Indian jewelry, blankets, the round ceremonial kivas, and the kachina dolls that represent dancers portraying deified ancestral spirits. It’s amazing how much art counts for. If you’re not an Indian sheepherder or into uranium and natural gas—big things west of here—you may not find any business opportunity better than another art gallery.

By the time you get into Santa Fe, you might well think that ART, ART, ART is the chief industry. Around the ancient Spanish plaza the lineup of picture shops, arts-and-crafts shops, jewelry shops is just a little suffocating. The oldest capital in the United States, once the end of the historic Santa Fe Trail from Independence, Missouri—the principal trading route into the Southwest until the railroads came in—has remained Spanish enough to be a great tourist attraction. The old Palace of the Governors seems to have been completely rebuilt in traditional style. It now shines and glitters inside and is as pretty and up-to-the-minute a museum of local Spanish and American history as you’d need for a first visit. The roofed portal is still lined with Indian women selling jewelry, pottery, and blankets; the camera-bedecked visitors look astonished by so much ancientness and foreignness as they peek into the display cases lining the smooth new floors. Since Santa Fe sells itself as exotic, the central plaza and the Palace of the Governors have understandably encouraged more than one unwitting visitor to ask where he can change his money.

The sparkling new motels have, of course, been built in adobe style; Santa Fe was once plastered together of clay, sun-dried earth, and straw. The old sweaty, often bloody Santa Fe—gazing up at the Sangre de Cristo (“Blood of Christ”) Mountains at the end of the Rockies, marked by the revolts of peaceful Pueblo Indians against the hated Spanish, then a Mexican city, finally American—is now stylish to an extreme. The Old West has been rubbed down smooth.

On the way to Santa Fe we stopped at the Pueblo of Santo Domingo. In the dusty, unpaved town center Indian women sitting under canvas were patiently, endlessly sorting out turquoise chips, knocking mother-of-pearl out of shells, rolling beads together. I was in Santo Domingo Pueblo once before. The long, narrow strip of water essential to the pueblo is no longer lined with the refuse I saw in the 1960s, and no longer are there hippies with Indian headbands wandering about looking for atmosphere. Everything is strictly business. Most of the men seem to be away, farming or herding, and the women intently finger and roll out the mounds of beads before them as if nothing were more pressing. The center of Santo Domingo Pueblo is dusty, quite vacant, and colorless except for the vivid colors fronting the church.

Santo Domingo boasts that it is the most beautiful of all pueblo mission churches and was built fifteen years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. Gleaming white against the swirling brown roadside, the church offers relief to the eye. Two painted ponies face each other on the wall of the balcony overlooking the shabby entrance below. Indian empathy with nature and native art have intruded on the white man’s Christianity. Most of the symbols here, except for the traditional altar (and that not entirely), are Indian: the contrastingly colored ponies, the base of the balcony lined with the serenely harmonious patterns you see on blankets and jewelry. The multicolored cross in the yard, its bar decked with plants and fresh wreaths, the white ladder leaning against one adobe wall, the bell in its exquisite little tower—all show some ingrained sense of form, standing out against the indiscriminate figures hunched over their piles of beads.

This aboriginal world is thrillingly designed.

I do not know these people, and they will never know me. There is an overpowering sense I get visiting Indian reservations, even here in the Southwest, where the native people are numerous and well organized under authoritative tribal governments. I am at the end of the world. I am in the country of indifference. These people have been cut off, and the only transaction between them and the likes of me is over routine bits of jewelry. Even in their pickup trucks with radios squalling, even in cowboy hats, baseball caps, and bandanna kerchiefs around their necks, the few men you see here are a race apart, accustomed to being looked at as a race apart. They do not favor being photographed by the “click-click people,” and they are so used to tourists that they steadfastly pay you no mind as you stare at them. The space between them and us is as wide and deep as the ocean.

In 1923 D. H. Lawrence came to Taos as a guest of the literary hostess Mabel Dodge Luhan, whose latest husband was an Indian. Lawrence had tuberculosis (he was to die at forty-five in the south of France) and pursued his search for health in sunny climates all over the world. (He was also seeking a place where he could head a community dedicated to his ideals.) Mabel Luhan wrote that just riding up to her ranch from the railroad station at Lamy made Lawrence catch his breath. He was to call the Taos skyline the most beautiful he had seen in all his travels. As their car passed along the Rio Grande in the clear morning sunlight, the apples were ripening and the air was sweet from juicy apricots. Corn, wheat, and alfalfa filled the fields. There was a long final climb up the mountains to reach the tableland of Taos Valley. As they pulled around the curve at the top, Lawrence could see the Sacred Mountain, over behind Taos, “looming half-darkened by cloud shadows that hastened over it in great eagle shapes.” Luhan wrote reverentially that “the mountains curve half round Taos in a crescent, and the desert lies within its dark encircling grasp.”

Lawrence made Taos famous and, ever since, it has been a principal way station for pilgrims keeping the Lawrence cult alive. His ashes were brought back to Taos by his widow, Frieda, and her next husband. The “Lawrence shrine,” as it is called, some twenty miles out of Taos, is administered by the University of New Mexico; it features the urn with Lawrence’s ashes behind a railing.

Fewer pilgrims than usual now toil up the path to the shrine. The Lawrence cult hereabouts has not survived the English exiles and American literati who once attended him and then spent the rest of their lives writing up their reminiscences. Lawrence, of all people, is now a marker on the highway, not without use to the local economy.

Nature here is mightier than anything man does to it.

Cultural attractions seem trivial as, leaving Taos, you swing out into the Carson National Forest and run the curves along the timberline. Kit Carson dead is a tourist attraction in Taos, where he settled after his legendary exploits as a scout, Indian agent, and soldier. The Navajos in their sacred Canyon de Chelly still hate him; during the Civil War he drove out their ancestors and forced them on a three-hundred-mile “walk” to New Mexico. But what a forest the National Park Service keeps up in his name, what a riot of ever-fresh tree life along the silent empty road as you plunge deeper and deeper into the forest. There are still large packets of snow in May. Here America is still “nature’s Nation,” the last outpost so eagerly embraced by the new race of people who called themselves Westerners.

Scouting west and north now toward Très Piedras, Chama, and Durango, in Colorado, my wife and I both gaze openmouthed at the gorge the Rio Grande makes, the torn, gaping earth on each side of the bridge. Great single blocks within the massive hills high above the river look like vast, blackened elephant teeth. In this violently riddled landscape, destruction is the mother of beauty. The first Spaniards here, obsessed as they were by the search for El Dorado, well understood that “man was not made to live here.” It was romantic Americans who saw the effect of so much blind force as beautiful. The artists followed. Yet nature here is still mightier than anything man does to it. Looking down at this fearful gorge, you see that man, whatever he may do to the world, is just perching on the surface, forever the tourist.

Durango serves up a great old-fashioned Western train, snorting and crawling its way past peaks and cascades to end up in the restored mining town of Silverton, where you are entertained with old Western tunes knocked out on the saloon piano and can drink in the atmosphere created by the massive snowtipped peaks looking down on the town. But the abiding wonder in these parts is the cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde National Park. There are some five hundred dwelling places and storerooms built into ledges along the cliffs by the Anasazi people, the “Old Ones,” who may have settled here as far back as A.D. 600. What you see was probably built around eight hundred years ago.


These cliff dwellings offered shelter —protection from nomadic predatory tribes—to Indians who were agriculturists in the river valleys below and are said to have been experts at irrigation. They moved along the cliffs by hand- and toeholds so shallow that your heart skips a beat imagining them doing it. Spruce Tree House, the most accessible communal dwelling, 216 feet by 89, shows the remains of a thoroughly well-organized community life. There are eight kivas, the circular ceremonial chambers where an opening in the floor represents the entrance to the lower world and the place through which life emerged into this world.

As you back up from the improbable sight, each cliff dwelling on its ledge- each so singular and distinct, enclosed by seemingly impassable rock—resembles nothing so much as a stage set perfectly framed. Despite the information eagerly offered by sweet young girl guides in Boy Scout hats, the remains tell you little about the “Old Ones” except their determination to build strongly and well in this impossible place. Long, long ago looters grabbed the painted urns, the blankets of turkey feathers and rabbit fur, the unworn sandals to carry the dead to a new world. Unlike the even older Lascaux cave dwellers, who left on their walls brightly painted pictures of the animals in whom they saw themselves, the Anasazis seem to have been tame, sedentary people, entirely absorbed in the life they could lead on this ledge. You stare and stare at the wonderful multistoried constructions they left, the passageways and ceremonial chambers, and they all stare back across an abyss of time that the informed and patient archeologist tries to fill but that the casual visitor photographs in order to pass on to the next sight.

Indians on the defensive, Indians being backed into situations they feel exploit them are on our minds as we depart Colorado for the wide, wide lands of the Navajos in Arizona. The land between the Colorado and the Rio Grande was known to the Indians of the Southwest as the sacred center of the earth. But east of here, near Farmington in New Mexico, the Four Corners Power Plant (Four Corners is where New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Utah touch) is described by Peter Matthiessen in Indian Country as just one component of the “largest energy-generating power grid in the world.” It is so vast that it has been observed by astronauts in space. Uranium and natural gas are eagerly prospected around here.

The Navajos, viewed as newcomers, are, like their Apache relatives, Athabascans from western Canada who may have descended on North America as recently as the seventeenth century. They are the largest Indian tribe in the United States and own about fourteen million acres in Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. Two million of these acres they until recently owned jointly with the older and very different Hopis, who resent them and are constantly fighting them in the courts. The more aggressive and mobile Navajos have had to settle down and adapt to pueblo ways, but the Hopis say they are just like white men, “adaptable and domineering,” and look down on them as “borrowers” of Hopi culture, people “easily led.”

You feel that the Navajos are the earth come alive.

The Hopis joke that the Navajos took from the white man the pickup truck, jeans, and the cowboy hat; from the Spaniards sheep, horses, and silverwork; from the Hopis sand paintings, weaving, and ceremonial dancing. From the time Mexican rule replaced Spanish, the Navajos raided Hopi villages. For more than forty years, say Hopi leaders, the Navajos have been encroaching on Hopi land.

There is no place so central and even sacred to the Navajo people as the Canyon de Chelly. No other place in the Southwest so haunts me. It is wild and beautiful yet, unlike the Grand Canyon, it is habitable, farmable. You are not surprised by the cliff dwellings here, the Mummy Cave with its three-story house, the pictographs in the rock shelters and on cliff faces showing the Spaniards making their way in here. The bottom of the canyon is always before you from the cliffs above. I have never forgotten my first sight of a Navajo leading a wagon along the bottom, making his way in the most casual manner between the hogans, the round Navajo huts. Everything that day was so basic, primordial, rugged, and clear that I knew I would descend to the bottom someday.

And now I am there, on the top of an open truck, being jerked along the sands and through puddles and streams left from spring runoffs. I am more in touch with the Indians here and how they live than I had ever expected to be. The cliff dwellings seem nearer the ground than they were in Mesa Verde, and close up they astonish more than ever: tiny villages preserved through the centuries, the guide tells us in his spiel. His rugged, weathered face breaks into smiles over the responses to the canyon of the “click-click people,” the “blue eyes and yellow hair people.” He explains that the hogan is so built that the sun can enter it first thing in the morning, whereupon the Navajo blesses the sunlight; then he breaks off to laugh that “my blue-eyed uncle put me in the Army.” He earnestly complains that the Navajos are losing their native culture, and adds with bitterness that the tribe’s medicine men, the repositories of tradition, are no help. He resents the way they keep the sacred practices and mysteries. “They are tight with their history.” Isn’t it our history too? This is repeated several times in an intense tone and with a frowning face.

Kit Carson comes up repeatedly—his expulsion of the Navajos during the Civil War and the cruelty of the three-hundred-mile walk to New Mexico. Our guide has nothing to say about the Navajo plundering that led to their expulsion and the fact that they did come back, compensated with millions of acres. The resentful Hopis would not agree that the Navajos have given up their predatory ways, but a Navajo poem printed up for the visitor on one overlook reads, “We are one with the earth.” Looking at one stolidly inexpressive Navajo face after another on the back of a pickup trundling through the water lining the bottom, you feel that they are the earth become human and alive. The onlooker looks and looks but in these tribal faces cannot discern the individual story. Navajos call themselves Dine, the “people.” A Navajo waitress, told that Dartmouth was a college supposed to have a special interest in recruiting Indian youth, smiled. “I don’t think any one of us has gone that far.” This reminded me of the waitress back in Cortez who said that she had studied business administration at the University of Arizona but had quit: “I missed the people.”


The great photographer of Navajos Laura Gilpin caught them getting up in the dawn, when they feel closer to the earth, more in the presence of their forefathers. Gilpin got closer to Navajo life than any other white artist, producing the most wonderfully direct, loving pictures of their life all day long. She showed the hogans outside and in—their purplebluish roofs, the earth as a daily witness and participant, a brooding presence in and of itself. The Indian faces, even indoors, are stoic, yet all look as if they were faintly surprised to be photographed at all. The women wear the sateen blouse and flowing flowered skirt borrowed from the “blue eyes” women when they first came into this country; their necks and wrists are heavy with necklaces and bracelets. But they all are working in the earth, and they are as poor as the earth itself in these mostly barren acres.

After the monumental ity of the Grand Canyon, much too massive and crowded with peaks for us to see the river below, we are rewarded on the road above Lees Ferry with our first sight of the green, rushing Colorado. And how it rushes! The red rocks on every side make me remember the young T. S. Eliot in London, writing in The Waste Land, “Come in under the shadow of this red rock.” These enormous blocks of sandstone bring me back to the American Nature God, always “too big for man in the picture,” leaving him alone on the rim, taking its picture.

But how can one forget the absurdities that go along with so much “looking”? As we wait for our laundry to dry in the Indian trading post at Cameron, Arizona, we are presented with Pentecostal evangelical literature. On the way to Flagstaff and the famous pawnshops across from the railroad station, recommended for the best Indian jewelry at moderate prices, we are knocked for a loop by mounds and valleys of blackened rock, lava spewed up between 1065 and 1260 but looking as freshly dead as the day the volcano erupted.

The red rocks on every side evoke The Waste Land.

Then space, more space, ever-empty space, till we get to Phoenix and the plane home. In Phoenix well-heeled Anglo boys have a play yard with great jutting wooden walls framing a platform for riding their skateboards. Up and down, up and down, they ride these walls onto the platform with a fervor that hasn’t been seen outside the Spanish bullring. In Phoenix there is the great Heard Museum of Indian life; here the white man’s interest in Indians comes to a head with room after room of collectibles. There is a splendid array of Hopi kachinas, the ceremonial dolls, many elaborately masked and dressed. A particularly sumptuous collection was donated by Sen. Barry Goldwater.

Back in New York, trying to sleep against the din and the heat, a sea of lights pouring in from every window, I can still see the Indian in Canyon de Chelly who said, “No man can think of us without thinking of this place.” Suddenly disoriented by the verticality of everything in the city, the whirling about after the long, empty miles between settlements in New Mexico and Arizona, I cling, at the last, to every brown particle of earth, to the rock figures in the desert that shone out at us in the early morning. And remember, from the wonderful section on the Southwest in Willa Gather’s The Professor’s House: “And the air, my God, what air!—Soft, tingling, gold, hot with an edge of chill on it, full of the smell of pinons—it was like breathing the sun, breathing the colour of the sky.”

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