One of the great things about being a writer is that it gives you a bulletproof excuse for doing all sorts of fun things. Case in point: in the early spring of 1986 I needed to do some on-the-ground research for a novel I was working on, specifically the parts set in what is now New Mexico. So I loaded up the 750 and took off, just like that. Off screwing around again? Hell, no, I was working!

Back in the Land of Enchantment, ah yes...I'm not one of those who love the desert; it's too damn hot and dry and dusty and, as Ed Abbey wrote, everything in it either stings, stinks, stabs, or sticks. So why do I keep winding up in it?

There was a nice little campground up in the woods near Pecos - the area used by Oliver Lange for the setting of the now-forgotten but remarkable novel Vandenberg. Nearby were the ruins of what was once a large and important Indian town. I tried to visualize it as it has been but failed; these ruins were just too ruined.

I went through Santa Fe but I didn't stay long; it's not a full-time tourist trap like Taos, but it's still a bit too self-consciously picturesque and historic for my taste.

Anyway, cities, even dinky ones, weren't what this trip was about. I rode south from Santa Fe on I-25 and turned off at Bernalillo, where there was a state park, but the campground was dusty and poorly maintained and exposed to the beating wind, so I went on up 44, past Zia Pueblo, looking for a better place to spend the night.

Farther up the highway lay Cuba, where I could have cut my old route from three years ago, but instead I took 4 north toward Jemez Springs, getting well up into the mountains now. The road turned back east and by now I was in serious high country, climbing well above 10,000 feet, white peaks nearby and great mountain meadows with snow still on the ground in the shady places. Now and then flurries of snow blew across the road, high-altitude crystals that evaporated on my face shield without a trace. The narrow blacktop got severely squirmy, with a Godawful lot of nothing just beyond the nonexistent shoulder. It was easily the most magnificent stretch of road I'd ever ridden, but also one of the most puckersome.

Finally there was the turnoff for Bandelier National Monument. I could have gotten there much more quickly and directly by going north from Santa Fe, but then I'd have missed one hell of a ride.

There was an excellent campground up above Frijoles Canyon, at a mere 7000 feet or thereabouts. Visitors to these parts are warned about the effects of high altitude, but it's never bothered me; in fact I thrive on it. I thought it might get pretty cold that night but it wasn't bad at all.

Bandelier - named for a 19th-century archaeologist - is a genuinely strange place. Down in Frijoles Canyon are the remains of what was obviously a large and thriving Indian community in pre-white times, some going as far back as the 12th century. For centuries an energetic and ingenious people farmed the valley floors and the plateau above, traded with other Indian communities - even the great civilizations of Mexico - grew and wove cotton, and generally had what must have been a pretty good life. Things had pretty much gone to hell by the time the Spanish predators showed up; the soil must have been used up over centuries of intensive farming within a small area, and warlike tribes had begun to move into the area. By the time the colonialists settled the area the canyon seems to have been pretty much abandoned.

Nobody seems to know, but I think the place must have been an important religious center too. The ruins include some big kivas - sacred subterranean chambers, still seen in the traditional pueblos of today. A well-established and very ancient network of trails connected the numerous Indian towns that flourished in the Pajarito highlands around the same time as the European Middle Ages, and clearly the Bandelier community was a major nexus; and while trade would have been one reason, an important spiritual center would have brought in a lot of traffic too. On a hillside nearby is an ancient stone carving, supposed to have represented a pair of cougars but by now worn so smooth as to be almost unrecognizable; it is much older than the ruins on the valley floor, and must have been a sacred object of great veneration. (I saw it; I didn't touch it and I didn't photograph it. The damn thing made me nervous.)

Whatever they had going for them, they put a lot of work into it. Besides the complex of structures on the canyon floor, they dug into the soft stone of the cliffs; the effect is startlingly similar to certain rupestrian villages and religious sites in Cappadocia, in Turkey.

There was a trail of sorts up the side of the canyon and just for the hell of it I climbed it and looked around a bit. The view was spectacular but the Indian ruins shown on the map didn't live up to billing: just some loose piles of rocks out in the brush. On the way back down I met up with a local inhabitant whose family had been there a hell of a lot longer than any of us, but he didn't have much to say.

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NEXT: Other Indians, Considerably Fresher