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Sky City Enchantment

Originally Published in Trailer Life Magazine

Numbed by the steady flow of traffic along Interstate 40, 80 miles east of Gallup and 60
miles west of Albuquerque, many RVers fail to notice exit 108 – the turn-off to Indian
Route 23. Yet those who do are in for an unforgettable experience. Minutes after you leave
the interstate and move onto this narrow but well-paved road, you’re in a different
reality. What you notice immediately after the noise of the freeway is the absolute
stillness. Soon the land opens out into a wide panorama that stretches as far as the eye
can see. Francisco Vásquez de Coronado crossed this same vast sweep of desert in 1540.
Today, with nearly every sign of civilization absent here, it’s easy to picture the
explorer and his army- swords and armor flashing in the sunlight – as they make their way
to the legendary city of Acoma, where Coronado would become the first white man ever to
enter the city. Now, as the road snakes its way across the desert and begins to climb,
colors change and become more intense. Giant red sandstone formations rise from the desert
floor, jutting into a sky so blue it shocks the senses. This is Indian Country at its best.
Our road runs for 12 miles, and when it ends at the Sky City visitor center, it seems to
have been all too short a ride. From the paved lot near the visitor center, where we park
our RV, we can see Sky City off in the distance – atop an impressive bluff that rises 367
feet above the valley floor. This same sight deeply impressed Coronado, who described the
Acoma fortress this way: “One of the strongest ever seen because the city was built on a
high rock. The ascent was so difficult that we repented climbing to the top.” At the
center, we’re advised that visitors are not permitted to go beyond this point without a
guide, who will take us by bus up the narrow, winding road to Sky City. Fees are $10 for
adults, $9 for seniors and $7 for children. Though Sky City and its mission, San Esteban
del Rey, have been proclaimed National Historic Landmarks, there are no olive-clad park
rangers anywhere in sight. Here, the Acoma Indians run the show. After all, it’s their land
and their history. While we wait for our bus, we note a display of the Acoma’s distinctive
white, orange and black pottery- highly valued by collectors – and resolve to view their
larger permanent exhibit, “One Thousand Years of Clay,” on our return from Sky City. There
are several craft shops here as well as a restaurant that serves native food and standard
American fare. But we’re eager to be on our way. It’s summer – the temperature rising – and
we’ve been advised by a friend to tour Sky City early in the day. Our tour guide is a
jet-haired young woman with a soft, almost rhythmic accent who drives the bus as if she’s
breaking in a recalcitrant pony. At the summit, we’re awestruck by the town’s ancient
adobes, still intact, and by the sheer dizzying cliffs that surround the entire mesa. New
Mexico has any number of fascinating pueblos, but in our view none can compare with this –
even the world-famous Taos. It’s the remoteness here, the history. Our guide tells us that
the ancestors of today’s Acoma once lived atop Katzimo Mesa, a soaring rock plainly visible
in the distance from where we stand. On the fields below, they planted their crops of corn
and beans. Their only way down to the fields is known as Ladder Rock. The story goes that
one day, when all the villagers were working below (except for three ailing women and a
boy), a savage storm hit the mesa, threatening to destroy the pueblo.Terrified, the boy
dashed down Ladder Rock to seek help. He had just reached the bottom when he felt the
ground shudder and a deafening roar hit his ears. Ladder Rock, undermined by its sandy bed,
crashed to the plain below, leaving the three women abandoned forever. Cut off from their
homes, the Indians moved west to this site, atop another mesa where we are now. Here they
built their kivas and homes – some three stories high. The entrance to each, reached by
ladder, was through an opening in the roof. They called this new village Acoma.
Archaeologists today believe that Sky City may have been occupied dating back as far as
A.D. 1150. As we stroll through the pueblo with its rich, earthy colors, our guide tells
us, “In the Acoma culture, women have always owned the family homes.” Though everyone
worked in the fields, by tradition men hunted game and wove textiles, while women prepared
the food, tended children and created beautiful pottery – as they still do today.
Historically, this was a peaceful community – until the Spanish arrived in 1540. Wary of
the fierce-looking strangers equipped with crossbows and swords, the Acoma’s first
encounter began with intent to do battle. Later, it ended amicably when the Indians offered
the soldiers generous gifts of food and drink. But when the Spanish came again in 1598,
intending to seize and colonize their pueblo, it was a different matter. The Indians, who
fought valiantly with clubs and arrows, were no match for the muskets and cannons of the
Spanish. Not one of the Spanish soldiers was killed, but the Acoma were slaughtered by the
hundreds. After the bloody battle, those who survived surrendered. The Indians, who spoke
only Keresan, were tried by a Spanish-speaking judge and jury. Recounting the tragedy, our
young guide’s face reflects the sadness and anger felt by the Acoma even today. “Males over
25 had their right foot cut off and were sentenced to 20 years of slavery. The penalty for
both males and females 12 to 25 was also 20 years. But children under 12 had a different
punishment. “They were sent off to Mexico City for religious training – never to see their
families again,” our guide tells us. We’ve been standing in the shadow of a large adobe as
we listened, absorbed by her horrific tale.Though we were all wearing hats (essential at
7,000 feet under a clear sky), the shade was welcome. We move across the sun-bathed pueblo
to mission San Esteban del Rey – its twin bell towers framed against a cloudless sky. Built
in 1629, under the direction of Friar Juan Ramirez, this massive, fortresslike mission was
completed in 1640. Amazingly, during the 12 years of its construction, the Acoma hauled
20,000 tons of earth and stone on their backs from the plains below and carried timbers for
the roof from Mount Taylor, some 40 miles away. Seventy-four Acoma, both men and women,
died during the construction of this mission. At the old graveyard nearby, timeworn wooden
crosses stand starkly against the raw earth. Sternly, our guide warns us that we’re
forbidden to take photos of this sacred place. Earth for the ancient graveyard, like
building materials for the mission, was brought up from below by the same route – a narrow,
tortuous trail dependent upon handholds chipped from the rocks. One of the members of
Coronado’s expedition wrote of the difficulty they had in climbing the trail: “The natives
go up and down so easily that they carry loads and the women carry water, and they do not
seem even to touch their hands, although our men had to pass their weapons up from one
another.” For practical reasons, most of the Acoma now live in settlements on the plains
below, a few miles from Sky City. But the old pueblo is far from abandoned. There are
always a few families living there, and most of the traditional events – such as the
Harvest Dance and the Annual Feast of San Esteban in the fall – are held at Sky City. The
Governor’s Feast in February is also held there, as is the Christmas Festival, celebrated
at San Esteban del Rey Mission. When the tour ends, our guide suggests that some of us may
want to hike down the ancient trail that so challenged the conquering Spanish. The rest,
she says, can ride the bus. In a rash moment, we decide to try it. Though the going isn’t
easy, we aren’t sorry. There’s something unforgettable about putting your feet on the same
stones, gripping the same worn handholds used by the Acoma over countless centuries.

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