Pecos Historic Site showing surrounding higher hills

Grand Tour 10: The Stunning Similarities of Ancient Sites

This entry is part 10 of 22 in the series Grand Tour

Tuesday, May 8, 2018, Las Vegas NM to Santa Fe NM 

Today our Grand Tour takes us to the Pecos National Historical Park where we notice the stunning similarities between the ruins here and the stone circles, Roman, and Medieval ruins of Britain. We also note just how much it matters what things look like in New Mexico, and how different the scenery of the mountains makes you feel from the scenery of the prairies.

Map Las Vegas NM to Santa Fe NM

We have breakfast in the Dining Room of the Plaza Hotel in Las Vegas NM. I have Carne Posada Huevos Rancheros. It is almost a repeat of my meal of last night except that is has potatoes on the side instead of rice and there is a poached egg on top. It is delicious, but one is used to the idea of breakfast, lunch and dinner being very different sorts of meals. That does not seem to be the case with Mexican food. My lunch/dinner/breakfast were all small variations on the theme. At lunch we both opted for taco salad because we felt deprived of anything green. Mexican is essentially poor people’s food, as many national cuisines are. Perhaps the uniformity goes with the territory – the limited palate of ingredients to draw on. Or perhaps there is some other cause for the similarity I notice?

Route 66 ran through Las Vegas and Santa Fe from 1926 to 1937 when it was rerouted straight across the desert from Santa Rosa to Albuquerque. We leave Las Vegas on the original alignment of Route 66. However, for the first time on the journey, there is not a Route 66 sign in sight as we follow the I25 frontage road that the guide tells us is the original Route 66 route. Instead the route is signed with Santa Fe Trial markers. If Route 66 has in many places been built over by freeways, it is a case of turn about being fair play, as Route 66 itself was often build over still older roads, this section of the Santa Fe trail being one of them. We did see a couple of Route 66 markers on Highway 85 to Las Vegas, but not a mention of it after that all the way to Santa Fe. As Rt 66 rejected Santa Fe, so Santa Fe, seems to have rejected Route 66. Or, more likely, there is so much history here that nostalgia for a lost highway simple has no place here. These are not cities, nor yet highways, created by Route 66. They owe their heritage to the Santa Fe Trail, and they do their homage accordingly.

View of old road running beside the Interstate along the Santa Fe Trail

New Mexico is the first place on this trip that I would visit for its own sake. I love the climate. I love the scenery. I love that in New Mexico it always matters how a thing looks. Take for example the door of the men’s washroom at a rest stop we stopped at.

The highly decorative door at a rest stop bathroom.

In New Mexico, it matters what things look like. (See also the highway overpasses, that I noted in the entry for the previous days journey). The world used to remember that it mattered what things look like. The church used to remember this, and has forgotten it, as St. Thomas the Apostle church in Albuquerque illustrates, New Mexico has not forgotten, and it shows in the smallest things.

Our route to Santa Fe (the Santa Fe trail, course) is through a pass. The feeling I get here is very different from the prairie. In the US, the mountain area of the Southwest is as large as the prairie. But on the prairie one feels very alone. People are remote, the horizon is remote, and the land seems endless. In the mountain passes, everything feels much more intimate. The horizon is close and generally over your head. Roads, buildings, people huddle together in the passable places. The land around may be even more desolate and forbidding then prairie, but it does not impose itself on your consciousness the way the prairie does. It graciously hides its hostility behind that close horizon. One does not get the same feeling that it you broke down, your bleached bones would be found months later. In the mountains, someone will always be along because there is only road to take.

Travelling in the shadow of these mesas is a new experience. I am used to jagged peaks and old weathered stumps of mountains. The high flat tops of the mesas are something new. The striking thing is the ruler-straight, perfectly horizontal layers of rock in the sides of the mesas. I am used to seeing the sedimentary layers violently thrust up to acute angles or mangled into impossible shapes by heat and pressure. Again there is a gap in our picture taking, and the Google Maps images don’t really give the sense that I had of it as I drove the road. But this does give some suggestion of it:

This is a landscape with a much less violent history, and through the violence in question pays out on a geological scale that would be imperceptible in my May-fly lifespan. I am none the less comforted by the peacefulness of the of the formation of the landscape around me.

Another wonderful feature of the landscape is the trees. I’m not usually a fan of trees while traveling because they tend to crowd together and block out every other site. There is nothing more frustrating than driving along the edge of the river, lake, or ocean and seeing nothing of the water for all the trees in the way. On the other hand, a totally treeless landscape can look bleak and uninviting. But here there are lots of trees, but they are shorter and well spread out, so that they are a feature of the landscape, not a screen hiding the landscape. Truly the best of both worlds. If circumstances were different, I would move here in a heartbeat. Here’s a Google Maps image that gives some sense of it:

Again I observe how the effect the intimate landscape shapes how I see the distant landscape. The trees – and here they appear as very distinct individual trees, not a mass of tangled green things – are the same trees as those on the distant mountains, and so the brain fills in the details of the distant scene that the eye itself cannot distinguish.

Along the way we pass Starvation Peak Ranch and Dead Horse Ranch. There names are a reminder of how perilous the journey on the Santa Fe trail used to be. This reinforces what we read in the Santa Fe Trail Interpretive Center about the number of ways to die on the trail – accident, hostile action, snakebite, disease. One wonders at the courage of the pioneers and the desperation that was the common lot so recently, that made the promise of riches, or even a simple place to farm, worth facing perils of this kind. Does this require a very different emotional make up, or is one’s emotional make up – one’s response to good and ill fortune – simply calibrated by experience and the observation of the lives of others. In short, were they any less happy than us, even with the pain, deprivation, and loss they suffered? Perhaps, having always something to occupy their minds and hands, they were actually happier? Certainly they were closer to their neighbors. They did not suffer the modern epidemic of loneliness.

We visit the Pecos Pueblo at the Pecos National Historic Park. I am struck by the similarities to other ancient sites I have visited, such as Fountains Abbey, Vindolanda, and Castlerigg stone circle.

Like Castlerigg, the site is located on a rise surrounded by higher peaks.

Castle Rigg stone circle
Chris Charlesworth / Castle Rigg stone circle
Pecos Historic Site showing surrounding higher hills
Pecos Pueblo showing surrounding hills.

Part of that is doubtless about choosing a defensible place near water (The Pecos Pueblo is a bluff at the junction of the Pecos River and Glorietta Creek ). But I get to just the same feeling here as at Castlerigg, that this is a place where men feel themselves to be in the presence of the gods.

The Pueblo is dotted with kivas – underground chapels entered through a hole in the roof where religious rights were performed. (This photo fascinates me for an entirely unrelated reason. I have seen dogs and fish and crocodiles in the clouds, but never a strand of DNA before.)


The Kivas remind me of the temples of Mithras at Vindolanda and other Roman sites. The picture below is a public domain image from Wikimedia Commons of the best preserved example, from Carrawburgh (which I have not visited). The Temples of Mithras were either caves or sunken windowless buildings designed to resemble a cave.

Temple of Mithras at Carrawburgh

Above-ground places of worship here take the form of the old and new mission churches. While style and materials above ground are very different, the remaining foundations and general layout are reminiscent of Fountains Abbey – even including the porters lodge and various rooms whose purpose the modern archeologist can only make informed guesses at.

Fountains Abby grounds
DrMoschi, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Pecos Pueblo Church and Grounds
Pecos Pueblo Church and Grounds

Here, as in most archeological sites from Newfoundland to Skye to Vindolanda to Fountains Abbey one is presented with eight inches or a foot rectangular stone foundations a foot to 18 inches wide, with occasional indication of postholes.

Low foundation walls at Pecos Pueblo
Low foundation walls at Pecos Pueblo


Low foundation walls at Vindolanda
Low foundation walls at Vindolanda Francis from Groningen, Netherlands, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

More specifically Roman or medieval looking are the drainage channels running under the walls – square and lined with flat stones.

Drainage channel under walls at Pecos Pueblo
Drainage channel under walls at Pecos Pueblo

Here, the Ranger says, they were used to collect water and direct it to cisterns, rather than to drain it away. I suspect the Romans must have done the same thing in dryer climates. But it is the similarity of patterns of construction that is striking. Then there are the pictures showing the three and four story multi-room structure of the original Pueblo, which puts me in mind of the Roman apartment blocks.

This degree of architectural sophistication sets the Pueblo Indians apart. They did not have the numbers of Rome, nor the variety of contacts with other cultures to inspire trade and innovation and inquiry (though they certainly did trade). They may not have had the same sophistication in government or military matters either–or the size to require them. (Or maybe they did, since we know far less about them than we do about Rome.) But in some sense that makes the civil engineering feats they accomplished all the more remarkable – they must have had to work most of it out for themselves. It would be wonderful to know the names and histories of those great civil engineers. It is a reminder of how easily and completely people and their accomplishments can be forgotten – and therefore an object lesson that working to be remembered, or placing one’s ego in the memories of others, is not the secret to a happy or meaningful life.

Here as everywhere the archaeological method is to dig up the rubbish dump. There is nothing like a rubbish dump for preserving the detritus of ages in neat layers for easy dating. The whole history of a site can sometimes be inferred just from changes in their trash over time. I have memories of sitting with a college friend who was an archeologist, helping to put together a jigsaw puzzle of broken pottery and glass dug out of a 19th century Ontario rubbish dump. Archeology, it turns out, isn’t all running from boulders and escaping baddies on underground roller coasters. Part of The Walking trail we take, we are told, is built on the rubbish tip. It is a landfill site, in other words.

There is a middle-school field trip on the site when we are there. We study to zig when they zag and so mostly stay away from them. There is a shaded rest spot at the furthest point of the trail loop and as we sit there one girl of 12 or 13 separates from a group of friends and comes down to look over the edge of the Hill into the Valley. “What’s there?” a friend calls, not wanting to take the dozen steps down to find out for herself. “Nothing,” her friend replies. There is so much. At this age, though, these trips are not about seeing things. They are just the first steps in learning to see. Most will remember nothing of this visit, but it will help prepare their minds to actually see things they visit when they are older. Teachers are heroes. Teachers who lead field trips are masochists and heroes.

Pecos Pueblo Rest Area

Leaving the park, we have lunch at the small Mexican restaurant, Casa de Herrera, in Pecos – it feels like more a place for locals than tourists, but again here we see that it matters what things look like – for example there is an elaborate lizard carving cut into one of the beams. (It was not possible to photograph it without it looking like I was photographing other diners.) The woman at the next table starts chatting to us and we exchange travel stories and give her tips for things to see in Canada. This does not happen in Canada. At least, it does not happen to me.

On the trip into Santa Fe, we notice how a trip through mountains is like a series of postcards – virtually still photographs revealed at the moment of cresting a rise or finding an opening in the hills. Contrast this to the prairie, which is like a vast slow movie in which the scene changes with painful gradualness.

Our hotel is the wonderful Guadalupe Inn. We have a suite with 2 bedrooms, a separate sitting area and a private patio where I write my diary. The only fly in the ointment Is the building project next door that is running a cement mixer. I put my noise cancelling ear buds in again. I have not worn them since Amarillo.

It matters what things look like here. For example, this is the bathroom:

Guadalupe Inn Bathroom

We decide to walk to a nearby Whole Foods and eat on our balcony. We soon realize that the altitude and the heat have taken too much out of us so we stop at the brew pub in the rail yard district. They have a decent special bitter, indifferent food, and annoying music. Several times while we’re eating a commuter train passes that connects Albuquerque and Santa Fe. It is a hulking double-decker brute like a GO train in Ontario, but, this being New Mexico, it is beautifully decorated in the southwest style. It matters what things look like here.

Rail Runner train set
PerryPlanet, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

After dinner we have ice cream at the coffee bar across the street. It is just closing and we are alone on the patio until a soulful black lab comes up, gazes at me, or possibly at my ice cream, with sad eyes and then lays down at my feet. No amount banter on my part persuades him to move on, and I begin to worry if he is going to decide to follow us when we leave. But he does not. He just stays where he is lying. Perhaps it was not a matter him coming to me at all, but of my sitting in his usual spot. Perhaps the sad eyes were resentful rather than pleading. It is so hard to tell with dogs.

Series Navigation << Grand Tour 9: Of Tacky Artwork and Enchanting OverpassesGrand Tour 11: Intimations of Mortality in a Town Too Pretty to be Beautiful >>

2 thoughts on “Grand Tour 10: The Stunning Similarities of Ancient Sites”

  1. This is my favorite of your road trip posts so far, Mark. Quite evocative.
    I’d love to go to New Mexico sometime. Such beautiful landscapes. While at a conference in Vegas I paid an Uber driver to take me to a nearby trail, and had a nice time wandering for a couple of hours. That was way better than downtown Vegas for me (which seemed smaller and more tawdry than in the movies).

    1. Thanks Joe. This was probably one of my favorite days of the trip. I would totally move to New Mexico, all other things being equal.

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