Winding through the ruins of a different age, I try to imagine those who walked this ground thousands of years ago. These dusty bricks, I think, were once the foundation of familiarity, a home – and I imagine a person sleeping safely in what is now an eroded rectangle. In my mind, the perfect circles that plunge ten feet into the earth–kivas–are still filled with people in prayer, connected to gods that work deep within the planet.
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I’m at Bandelier National Monument in Los Alamos, New Mexico. It’s a city famous for the science of destruction, but I’m here to experience the art of creation. The structures here may seem like relics of a forgotten past, but they certainly weren’t always ruins, and this past was not destined to be forgotten. This place, silent except for insects and the footsteps of tourists, once reverberated with the chattering of a pueblo; now, with each footfall on the path, I listen for the echoes.
Before too long, I encounter a set of stairs that will lead me to the cave dwellings and crevices – the million gasping mouths of a colossal wall. The journey upwards infuriates my legs but opens my mind. From inside the kiva-house, a dome painted black on the inside, I can see the entirety of the ancient society, and I use the pencil of my mind to sketch in the gaps. A perfect fortress springs from the ground, designed to ward off invaders. Its oval shape brings the community together. Children play in the courtyard; women cook, lending smoke to the air; men, at the periphery of this panoramic view, hunt or watch the flocks with their loyal dogs. Here, right here, in the space that only a few lots would occupy in my hometown, hundreds, maybe thousands of people lived full lives, pulled together by the shape of their village and the circumstances of their survival.
When you live in a Midwestern suburb, it’s easy to forget the rich diversity of the human experience. There are so many flavors that I don’t get to know in my hometown, and exploring places like this can teach more than an entire day of classroom study. I try to explain to my younger siblings what I see as my sister reads aloud about the lives of the residents of the pueblo, so I stop and point to a particular area, prompting them to imagine living right there: that’s your bed, that’s your kitchen, this is where you come to pray, you eat right there. At first, it’s difficult to slip my own mind into this life – this is a challenging place, both physically and mentally – but as we go along I can see it more clearly. The culture here feels less and less alien as I make my way, step by careful step, into the dwellings, discovering more about the landscape of life.
Here, in the middle of New Mexico, as I find my footing on the trails of Bandelier National Monument, I weave my way into understanding the history of the earth beneath me. The landscape is beautiful, but so is the experience–one that quietly reminds me that there are countless ways to understand life.
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