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An enchanting desert of mystery, history

Ancient dwellings, traditional arts, spectacular landscapes await in U.S. Southwest

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The highway from Albuquerque, N.M., wound through a dusty desert landscape until the turnoff for Acoma Pueblo, about 80 kilometres west of the city, where we headed south for a short stretch. There was nothing that prepared us for what came next.

The road suddenly dropped into an immense valley that stretched nearly as wide as the eye could see, ringed all around by gigantic cliffs.

It seemed as if we were alone in this enormous, silent space. There was no traffic, no noise, no sign of human activity.

Then, up ahead, we saw a prominent mesa beckoning us in the golden light so typical of the U.S. Southwest.

The mesa is home to Sky City, as the Acoma people call it: a village that stands more than 100 metres above the valley floor and has been inhabited by Native Americans for more than 800 years, making it one of the oldest continuously occupied settlements in the United States.

Acoma was the first stop on our itinerary -- a vacation designed to combine the spectacular scenery and sun-splashed weather in the U.S. Southwest with the opportunity to experience the region's rich Native American heritage.

There's a special quality about this part of the United States. It's not only the light that attracted such painters as Georgia O'Keeffe to New Mexico, it's the spiritual energy one gets when visiting these heritage sites.

At the well-equipped visitors' centre in Acoma, we paid our $20 entrance fee, which included a guided tour of the site and permission to take photographs (except in the historic church and cemetery).

The Acoma people, known to the Spanish as "the people of the white rock," used this commanding, naturally fortified location to repel the invasion attempts of neighbouring tribes. By the 16th century, as many as 6,000 lived here.

They were less successful at keeping the Spanish out. Our native guide described in gruesome detail how a 1599 Spanish raiding party succeeded in scaling the mesa, killing more than 800 and capturing hundreds more.

The male captives were sentenced to 20 years of penal servitude and each had his right foot cut off. No wonder resentment at the white man's ways still simmers.

Eventually, a pueblo revolt kicked out the Spanish, and today about 6,000 indigenous people live on the surrounding reservation, supported in part by earnings from a nearby casino.

As we toured the mesa and its old adobe dwellings, there was ample time to admire the traditional styles of pottery on sale in front of many homes. The Acoma school of painted pottery features intricate and delicate brushwork that immediately distinguishes it from other styles.

Moving on, we headed west on I-40 toward Arizona and our next destination: the magnificent Canyon de Chelly. It was first inhabited by puebloans who lived there between AD 300 and 1200. As an example of sacred native ground, there's not much that can top the grandeur of this canyon, which is 100 kilometres long and is ringed by 300-metre walls.

It's a centrepiece of the region known as the Four Corners -- the point where the borders of New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Colorado intersect. The area is home to the Navajo nation, who live on the largest reservation in the United States.

Their land extends for 70,000 square kilometres and includes a fast-growing population of 380,000 people, who get by on income from tourism, casinos and the sale of jewelry, art and crafts.

Not everybody lives comfortably. The base for visiting Canyon de Chelly is the town of Chinle, a dusty little outpost where signs of poverty can be seen amid the Navajo-owned motels that serve the tourists.

Our morning started with a drive along the canyon rim, where some fine photo opportunities awaited, followed by a hair-raising hike down the one trail open to the public.

It winds through sandstone rock to the canyon floor. The views are breathtaking and so is the elevation of around 1,800 metres, which can catch you short of breath if you're not careful.

The trail leads down to an ancient cliff dwelling known as the White House, built under the shelter of overhanging rock. There, you can snap more pictures from behind a fence, but visitors are kept away from the building itself.

Vendors selling beautiful and relatively inexpensive Navajo jewelry await you. Meanwhile, the sunlight plays off the canyon walls in dozens of shades and hues as the day wears on, casting the whole area in an enchanted glow.

The best way to visit Canyon de Chelly is on a private Jeep tour with a Navajo guide, and that's how we spent our afternoon. The three-hour excursion cost $150 for two but was well worth it, as we explored the canyon floor where streams flowed through land still farmed by a few Navajo families.

Our journey through Navajo Nation took us next to the Utah-Arizona border and one of the region's most renowned attractions: Monument Valley. Fans of John Wayne movies such as The Searchers will recognize the familiar landscape, where many westerns were shot. Towering sandstone formations thrust into view as we approached the park, commanding our attention. They included the two buttes known as The Mittens and others with mystical names such as Rain God Mesa and Totem Pole.

A visitors' centre and hotel complex offered panoramic views of the valley from an outdoor terrace. To get closer to the monuments, you can take a Jeep tour with a Navajo guide or drive a bumpy 27-kilometre loop yourself.

There's a bold, sweeping quality to these outcrops that makes Monument Valley not only the perfect setting for a western movie, but also holy ground for the Navajo, who see the place as a sacred dwelling.

From there, it was off to nearby Cortez, Colo., where we capped our tour of native heritage sites with a stop at Mesa Verde National Park. This is one of the oldest archeological sites in the U.S. and, like Canyon de Chelly, was settled by puebloans who built dwellings beneath the overhanging cliffs of a canyon.

They made this place their home for nearly 700 years, from AD 600 to around 1280, when they suddenly and mysteriously left, migrating south into New Mexico and Arizona.

There are many theories on why they departed -- perhaps the threat of an impending invasion by other tribes or an internal dispute forced them out -- but no solid clues. They did leave behind a rich set of artifacts, many of them plundered and sold by cowboys who discovered the spot in the late 19th century.

You can take a one-hour guided tour of Cliff Palace, the most impressive complex of cliff dwellings, with a ranger from the U.S. Park Service. You'll hear fascinating details of ancient tribal life: that water was collected and used to farm corn on the mesa tops, that the matriarchal native society was firmly ruled by women, that clans gathered in ceremonial religious structures called kivas that served to keep away outsiders.

As you stroll through Cliff Palace, you get intimate glimpses of these dwellings and can let your imagination take over -- a very personal way to experience one of the world's great heritage sites.

It was troubling to learn the site is under severe stress. The well-designed structures are beginning to crack and crumble because of climate change: forest fires along the mesa tops are destroying trees and allowing too much surface water to seep down into the cliff dwellings below.

But Mesa Verde, like much of the U.S. Southwest, remains a treasure and is well worth visiting for what the ancients can teach us.

-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 26, 2013 D1

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