Route 66 Series: Bandelier and the Big Climb
Two words a lot of us don’t like to mention, at least not out loud. And certainly not in front of people we’re trying to impress. Honestly, I think that’s what a lot of the madness boils down to these days. We’re all very afraid. And while some of us can hide our fears, lay them away, or at least pretend they don’t exist, sometimes, it’s not so easy. Sometimes, we have to face them in all their terrifying glory.
Vacation isn’t necessarily the time or place we expect to have to do that, but life does have a way of surprising us. When my husband and I traveled the Route 66 in the summer of 2019, I had the opportunity to face down a fear that has plagued me for far too long. I guess that’s one of the best parts about road trips. You never know where the day will lead you.
It all started with a side trip to Bandolier National Monument in New Mexico. In addition to some of the best canyon and red rock scenery around, the American Southwest is an absolute treasure trove of history from the ancient Pueblo. Rooted in tribes inhabiting the area tens of thousands of years ago, the Pueblos are one of the oldest Indigenous cultures in America.
The Pueblo moved into Bandelier around 1150 AD, and they flourished there for well over two centuries. Wild game provided ample food sources. Nearby rivers and their tributaries gave them fresh water for both drinking and irrigating crops grown on the upper mesa – corn, squash, and beans for the most part. Art was a big part of this culture too. Pueblo pottery has some of the most striking and bold color patterns, and the more ancient Pueblo tribes left behind a plethora of Petroglyphs. Many of them almost perfectly preserved thanks to the dry climate (learn more about that here).
But the adobe structures of the Pueblo are one of the biggest (literally!) parts of their legacy. Astounding works of engineering for their time, these desert dwellings did an amazing and space-efficient job sheltering inhabitants from the harsh climate. Many were multi-storied, housing dozens of families at once. Multiple openings and shafts kept fresh air moving through the many rooms, creating a cool, very livable retreat from the hot sun. Even today, stepping inside these old building or cave systems is a welcome relief from the merciless heat.
It’s also proof that these structures were built to last. Hundreds of years after the Pueblo moved out of the area and closer to the Rio Grande, the remains of their homes are still scattered all over the Southwest. And Bandelier provides ample examples of these most impressive ruins. One of their star attractions is Tyuonyi Village. Located on the valley floor of nearby Frijoles Canyon, these ruins almost look like an ancient stadium or amphitheater. Once up to three stories in height, the entire place encircles a big open circle which probably served as a communal meeting place. It’s remarkably like a modern apartment complex. Standing there among the ruins, one can easily see back in time to the village’s height, when countless families went about their normal lives in this busy, thriving village.
But another charming part of Bandelier National Monument are the cave dwellings. Tucked away in Frijoles Canyon, you can actually hike right among these old homes and squeeze inside of them at will. If you can overcome claustrophobia (another nagging fear of mine), these old cave homes provide a stunning view of a different time period, as well as the gorgeous valley below.
And finally, there are the Kivas. The Pueblo and Hopi tribes used Kivas for important meetings, religious rites, and ceremonial rituals. Most were round or key-hole shaped (like a big table almost), with an opening on the Northern end symbolizing a spirit’s emergence from the underworld. In large villages, multiple Kivas were constructed to accommodate the many families, sometimes one for every five or six rooms. While the earliest Kivas were almost exclusively dug as pits underground, the later-era Kivas were brick or adobe structures built on a flat surface.
Tribes in Bandolier definitely favored the higher up Kivas. And I do mean higher up. On the outskirts of Tyuonyi Village, down a twisting, winding trail through evergreen woods, tourists can visit Alcove House. A former Pueblo dwelling about 150 feet above the canyon floor, I would say Alcove House (or Ceremonial Cave) is the prime piece of real estate in Bandelier. A sweeping, open cave that housed a little over two dozen people, the site now holds a reconstructed Kiva in addition to its old ruins. Built using historical and archaeological evidence, this Kiva sits inside the wide open cave mouth, with an absolutely jaw-dropping view of the gorgeous red rock formations and lush, green valley down below.
A tourist selfie hot spot if I’ve ever heard of one, but with one small caveat. To reach Alcove House, one has to make a perilous climb up four wooden Pueblo ladders, slap-dashed together with wooden logs and leather. Then, you have to climb over rough stone stairs and wonder down a narrow pathway, where one slip could result in serious injury if not ultimate (and untimely) death. It’s probably quite enticing for the wild, adventurous types that love toying with their adrenaline like that. But for people suffering from vertigo and a paralyzing fear of heights, it’s a lot to ask.
At first, I had no intention of climbing up there. “Have at it,” I said to my husband when he tore off towards those ladders. “Be careful, because I won’t be coming up after you.” I watched him climb up the first ladder, then up an enormous pile of gigantic rocks. Then he scaled the second ladder, up, up, and still further up. He started looking quite tiny from the ground below. By the time he started on the third ladder, he disappeared from view. I could only pray he was being safe up there.
I took a seat on a bench nearby and started fiddling with my camera. I was quite content at first, but then something happened. It started as a dull whisper in the back of my head. An urging or longing for something more. I craned my head back, just making out the walls of the impressive cave. I couldn’t see inside, but I imagined what it must be like in there. I also imagined my husband having all that historical fun without me, enjoying a view that no Los Angeles high rise could rival. “Think of the pictures you could get…” that voice buzzed in my head.
I waited a few minutes for my husband to come down. Then I waited a few more. But he didn’t come. Why would he? It was probably far too interesting up there. I began to get restless. Envious. I started pacing back and forth, feeling like a caged tiger. Perhaps one of the biggest motivators for me to overcome a fear is a historical artifact. Especially one others can partake in it while I stand useless on the ground. With a determined stomp of my foot, I decided I was done playing spectator. I strapped on my backpack, tied my shoes tight, and cautiously approached that first ladder.
It wasn’t a big deal at first. I just moved my legs faster than my brain wheels could spin. Faster than that troubling voice asking me if I was crazy. When I was almost at the top of the first ladder, it happened. The same old thing that happens every time I do something reckless involving heights. I looked down.
Big mistake. I gasped and pressed my face against the ladder, which I might add was searing hot because of the desert sun. I squeezed my hands around its edges. My breathing picked up. I felt dizzy. And even though people were climbing up behind me, I froze solid. I was afraid if I put one toenail out of place, or even breathed too hard, I would fall. Down… down… down. As I heard the people coming up closer behind me, I only got more agitated. “They’ll get impatient,” said that annoying voice in my head. “They’ll start yelling at you, and they’d be right to. You’re holding up their whole day. Ruining their trip to a gorgeous National Monument.”
All good points, but I still couldn’t move. I got so scared and upset I felt tears sting my eyes. My whole body began to shake. I couldn’t look up, I couldn’t look down. I could only squeeze my face against that burning hot ladder, keeping my eyes firmly shut, while my brain spun fifty thousand miles per hour.
“Excuse me,” said one of the people behind me. “Are you going up?”
Oh, God. Here we go. The yelling was about to begin. But fear had utterly and completely paralyzed me.
I heard whispers behind me. Some scuffling feet. I braced for the impact of their anger, but then I felt someone tap me on the shoulder. “Miss.”
Trembling from head to toe, I dared myself to open my eyes and look up. At the top of the first ladder stood a pretty avid-looking rock climber type. Ropes slung over his shoulder, a very impressive waist pack, and shoes that could stick to the side of a glacier. I thought he would laugh at me for my predicament. Maybe he would even yell at me, bursting with impatience on behalf of the people behind me. Instead, he knelt down and leaned over the top of the ladder. He reached out his hand.
“Come on now,” he said gently. “Take my hand. Just a few more steps.”
Then the people behind me chimed in. “You can do it, girl,” one of the ladies said. “Hell yeah,” another one chimed in. “It’s okay to be afraid,” said a third.
Such encouragement from total strangers. Strangers who I thought would have no patience for a silly girl who had let her fears get the best of her. It was just what I needed. With a bit more confidence, I reached my hand out, and I allowed the man to pull me to safety up the rest of the first ladder. As I brushed myself off with embarrassment, I thought he, and the people behind me, might abandon me to either tackle the remaining three ladders on my own, or somehow get down without any assistance. But my little group of cheerleaders were in it to win it. They nudged me towards the second ladder, and they helped me step up, up, up. One squeaky step at a time, inch by terrifying inch, cheering me the whole way.
“You can do it!”
“Gosh, you’re doing amazing!”
“Look at her go!”
Then came the final ladder. My little rock climber friend carved out a path in front of me, urging me to latch onto his shoes if I ever got afraid. The people behind me patted my ankles, whistled in encouragement, and told jokes to break the tension. Before I even knew what had happened, I stood inside Alcove House, in total shock at what I had done. The people behind me broke out into applause. The rock climber laughed and called out to the crowd of meandering tourists inside the cave.
“Anyone want to claim this lady? She said her husband was up here.”
One of the biggest rewards of that perilous climb was the look of total shock on my lovely husband’s face. He absolutely couldn’t believe I had climbed those ladders. He rushed over to reward me with a hug and a kiss, then he turned me around.
The Kiva was neat. The Pueblo history was solid, well worth the effort to get to it. I could easily see why the tribe chose this spot for such a big home and sacred meeting place. But I tell you, nothing beat that tremendous view. We could see for miles, the entire valley floor sprawled out before us in all its splendor, the sunset bathing it in a golden, bubblegum glow. And it taught me two extremely valuable lessons. The first is that people can and will surprise you, giving you support when you least expect it. And second, if you want the best view, you have to conquer your fears.
Just hold on tight, especially on the way down.
Bandolier National Monument Visit
Photos by M.B. Henry and Joel Henry. For more from Route 66, click here.