It’s been four months since I went to New Mexico. It was the first solo trip I’d ever taken and I can’t stop thinking about it, especially lately as I put together my next adventure, this time to Arizona for my birthday in March. I keep coming back to the way I felt while I was there, to these specific moments that seem suspended in my memory. They’re glowy, like an old television flashback, with a certain amount of sparkle around the edges.
In New Mexico, I visited my two favorite parks on the same day. I started at Valles Caldera, arriving just after the gates opened at 8 a.m., snagged a pass to drive the preserve’s bumpy, pocked road and then let myself go. I danced in the middle of the road, sang at the top of my lungs and howled at the mountains, streams and fields. Then, I went to Bandelier National Monument to put myself back together.
Bandelier is very different from Valles Caldera. It is more established, with screaming children, confused tourists, a snack shop and a large gift store, all contained within the visitors center compound. At Valles Caldera, there’s a ranger station with a few t-shirts and magnets for sale and little else. I relished the solitude I found at Valles Caldera, but I wasn’t without it at Bandelier.
Due to limited parking, summer visits to Bandelier require visitors to ride a shuttle into the park between the hours of 9 a.m. and 3 p.m., so I, being a sassy asshole, waited until 3 p.m. to enter the park. I stopped first in the visitor center where a very patient and kind volunteer was on the phone trying to explain all the park had to offer to what was a decidedly confused tourist. From there, I set out on the Main Loop Trail, the park’s most popular and accessible trail.
The Main Loop Trail is just 1.2 miles long, well-maintained and partially-paved with a few narrow stairways and ladders along the route that allows visitors the opportunity to climb into cavates, or small human-carved alcoves that once served as homes of the Ancestral Pueblo People who carved the cavates between 1150 and 1600 A.D.
I was there in early October, late in the afternoon, and the trail was somewhat crowded. I waited at the bottom of each ladder for my turn to climb into the cavates, standing there sheepishly while couples and kids climbed the ladders, posed for a kiss or a goofy look. At first, I felt silly taking my own turn in these spaces while groups waited for me to finish my own experience. But I wanted my own turn to climb the ladder, to peer out at the canyon floor and the ruins of the civilization and it occurred to me, as I squatted in one of the cavates that my enjoyment of the place and my right to experience it was not diminished just because I was alone.
While the Main Loop Trail provided an excellent introduction to Bandelier National Monument, the real magic came later, when I started on the half-mile trail to the Alcove House.
For starters, I met a tarantula.
The Alcove House sits 140 above the canyon floor and was once home to around 25 Ancestral Pueblo People. It’s accessible via four wooden ladders and a handful of stone steps.
I climbed up and up and up and again I was surprised at how difficult the effort felt. I’d been in New Mexico for a few days at that point but the elevation – around 7,000 feet above sea level – was still kicking my ass.
Plus, ladders are sort of scary.
At the top, there was one other group loudly exclaiming over the view. I took a group photo of them when they asked and then they headed back down, their chatter disappearing almost as soon as they did, and then I was alone, standing 140 feet up in an alcove that someone used to call home before America was even a thing.
I could see people on the trail below me and I knew I wasn’t really alone, knew that there were surely other guests making their way up the ladders to the Alcove, but for those few minutes, I felt alone in the best sort of way. It’s hard to capture it, that perfect, good sort of alone-ness. It isn’t lonely, not at all. It just feels right, like you’re there, alone, exactly as you should be.
As I left the park and headed back to my Airbnb llama farm in Santa Fe, I decided I hadn’t had enough. I wanted more of Bandelier. So, I woke up early the next morning and trekked back out there, before the sun was even up. I didn’t go back to the main part of the park. Instead, I went to Tsankawi, located about 12 miles before the main entrance right on State Highway 4. There’s a parking lot there and a 1.5-mile loop trail that opens at dawn.
Tsankawi, like the other sites at Bandelier National Monument, was home to Ancestral Pueblo People and was probably inhabited from the 15th century to the late 16th century. The trail there follows an ancient path, one worn by hundreds of years of foot traffic. It winds up to the top of a mesa, past a few cavates and over the ruined remains of hundreds of pieces of pottery.
At Tsankawi, I was completely alone and it seemed astounding to me that in our busy and complex world I could still stand in the middle of a hundreds-year-old footpath carved by the bare and sandaled feet of a people who lived there while Christopher Columbus was sailing around and getting lost. I stopped on the top of the mesa, trying to imagine what the village could have looked like, scouring the ground to look at pottery fragments, trying to imagine the bustle of a long-gone community.
I thought, going out there, that it would feel haunted, but it didn’t, not in a spooky way. It felt alive still, like the ground still remembered what life there was like, like the spirit of the place was still very much alive and present.
Bandelier National Monument is open dawn to dusk and the visitors center is open 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. Backcountry camping and exploring is available with a permit. Admission to Bandelier National Monument is $20 per vehicle and that pass is good for a full seven days. If you’re planning to visit a few National Parks in a year, consider purchasing an annual pass for $80 which will grant you access to more than 2,000 federal recreation sites, or, if you’re a member of the military, pick up your free annual pass.
A NOTE ABOUT ARTIFACTS: Parts of the trail at Tsankawi are littered with artifacts, mostly pieces of broken pottery made by the Ancestral Pueblo People. It can be very tempting to take a piece of pottery as a souvenir, but don’t. Not only is the site still used for scientific research, but it is also the preference of modern Pueblo people that these artifacts stay as they are, without being collected and stored or removed from the site.