In the desert 60 miles west of Albuquerque, a squeaky Indian reservation bus sways its way up a 36-story-high mesa to a pueblo called Sky City. Just inches from the top, the bus sputters and stalls.
Before anyone can panic, our ponytailed driver stomps on the brake pedal and flips the ignition key. The bus jerks forward for a few feet, then abruptly screeches to a stop-it dies again on the raised rock floor.
Frances, our Acoma Indian guide dressed in a baseball jacket and tennis shoes, jumps from the bus and waits for our tour to file out. The driver restarts the now empty bus and pulls it uncomfortably close to the mesa’s edge. He lights a cigarette. "There is another way down," Frances says, after seeing our grimacing faces. Someone in the back whispers, "And they say the trail is haunted."
Like a chorus line taking a final bow, we lean over the precipice and gasp in the clear, cooling air. Frances waits. She knows it takes a while to get used to seeing soaring birds beneath you.
Acorna pueblo, also known as Sky City, is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the U. S., dating back as far as 1150 according to archaeologists. But it doesn’t advertise twirling feathered Indians and rows of silver shops to lure in tourists. Instead, what has drawn me to this ancient place high up in the New Mexico clouds is its almost otherworldly appeal. A visit here is a calming experience.
The tour begins with the city’s newest additions, a 17th-century mission and cemetery. Our guide also promises us a visit with resident artuits-artists whose ancestors lived on Enchanted Mesa, an air-island looming even taller than Sky City. "You’ll know it when you sec it, " the brochure reads. I did It looks like a chunk of earth punched up by the fist of an angry underground kachina.
Wisps of blue smoke from the city’s kivas look like ribbons against the clouds as we ap proach the entrance of San Esteban del Rey Mission. Adobe warriors perched on the cemetery’s castlelike walls guard uneven rows of whitewashed crosses. I linger by the saint-covered front door while the others file in to hear more of the legend. It’s cool inside.
The rafters made from solid tree trunks traveled up the mesa on wagons and native backs from Cibola Forest 30 miles away. Designed to withstand battles with Spanish conquistadors, square windows built close to the 40-foot-high ceiling let in light but not arrows. If overrun, captured Acoma Indians fell to slavery or a hurling death over the mesa’s edge.
I hear all the grizzly stories, but my eyes remain on a landscape swept clean by storm demons.
The tour stumbles out over imbedded footprints from the past in the pink clay floor. Gilded saints watch us leave. Unlike most intimate New Mexico missions, this hall was built for giants.
"Now we must hurry, " she says. "The artists wait to show us their pottery.” Rolling pockets of wind blow over me as I peruse tables of pots and vases painted with geometric designs in soft Halloween colors. Everyone pulls out a wallet.
Two squawking mockingbirds fight for a rock under the only tree on the mesa-a waving willow rooted in a pool of blue-topaz. Water, food, wood-everything necessary to sustain life comes up from the valley.
Nothing else grows here except mud-brown homes. Each generation may enlarge the family home by a few feet (up), but the original living space on the first floor must be kept intact. The youngest girl born into the family inherits the home and, along with it, the responsibility for her aging parents. The dozen or so Acoma families who still inhabit the mesa live as they will be buried, one on top of the other.
The hour-long tour is over, and our revived bus is shaking with terminal engine problems. We can take our chances with the bus, or, Frances tells us, we can attempt the trail down the broken cliffs. Immediately, two elderly women head for the bus. The rest of us disappear down the path.
"You might want to put your camera away, " she says to the last tourist. Ignoring her warning, I blindly slide my foot over the edge searching for something solid to put my weight on. My fingers discover the ancient handholds, but they turn out to be finger-tip grooves from a smaller generation. I slip. The steps are just as narrow. My camera crashes against a boulder, shattering the lens, then bangs back against my chest. Points of rock are holding my feet. My thighs stretch and tighten.
Another missed step. A cushion of wind whistles up, lightening my body, giving my hands time to feel for a nearby ledge. If I fall now, will they bury me here? My mind races as my aching fingers and toes continue a slow crawl down chunks of jagged rock. Someone below laughs nervously. A clump of gnarled cedar cracks under my shoe and I grab for a sweet-smelling bush. It crumbles in my hand. In a slow-motion shuffle, my foot lands on a slice of rock.
Picking myself up, I try to look forward to a dinner I have no hunger for, this primitive encounter with an ancient place having already fed my soul.