Home > Columns & News Articles > Above it All at Acoma

Above it All at Acoma

"In the end I tell my children, there's no way I can tell you how to be an Acoma, how to be an Indian. You have to experience it."
- Stanley Paytiamo, Acoma Pueblo


It was a magical trip... one of those you sorta plan, kinda schedule, and in the end you just let it happen.

We had a place to stay, and that was all that mattered... a week in Tucson at a good friend's condominium. I kept raising my hand in a live auction to raise money for minority journalism internships, and when the other editors stopped bidding, I had our vacation for 2007. It was a good deal and Marti was thrilled.

We tacked it onto a business meeting in Marfa. We were staying at the El Paisano Hotel, and took advantage of being "almost there." So, from West Texas, we headed even deeper into the desert. October was hot and dry and we drove amid towering dust devils that crept slowly eastward through the creosote bushes and hardpan of the Chihuahuan desert.

We meandered north from Marfa to the Guadalupe Mountains, photographed Casa Grande from the rest stop, then motored through the salt flats, around El Paso and north to Alamogordo. We watched the sun go down over White Sands National Monument, then spent the night in Las Cruces.

Our Tucson digs were comfortable with a great view of the Catalina Mountains... perfect for day tripping. While Marti rested, I explored "the Boneyard," touring the massive mothballed fleet of military aircraft and the air museum. Together, we spent a peaceful, unhurried day in a forest of Saguaro cactus, took to the dirt roads over Reddington Pass and joined the tourists to explore Bisbee and Tombstone. On another jaunt - nearly to the Mexican border - we had the Tumacacori Mission almost to ourselves. But our most enjoyable evening was spent perched on boulders waiting for the sunset high in the Catalina Mountains. The magnificent colors that filled the sky over Tucson seemed to last forever and were a highlight of the trip.

Before heading back to Texas, we experienced more adventure among the red rocks of Sedona and a final hike with my little brother in the town he had grown to love but knew all too briefly. Finally, reluctantly, we turned my Silverado eastward and headed home. But as we entered New Mexico on Interstate 40, we found it impossible to escape the lure of Acoma Pueblo.

We ignored the signs guiding us to the casino, and instead exited the highway somewhere between Grants and Casa Blanca, traveling briefly Old Route 66 before taking a right onto Pueblo Road that would lead to Indian Service Route 38.

A nice 45-minute jaunt through beautiful country took us to the Sky City Visitors Center at the base of the Acoma Pueblo. And while we did buy a small piece of Acoma pottery from an artist there on the desert floor, we knew we would see more on top the mesa. We signed up for a tour, paid the photography fee and boarded a van for a one-hour excursion. It's a short drive up a steep incline to the lip of the mesa, but from there it's all on foot. We stayed with the tour group, walked the uneven streets, listened to the guide's presentation, laughed at his jokes, took scores of photos and bought several nice pieces of pottery from artisans at the doors to their homes.

And while we enjoyed the adventure, we were aware and considerate of the fact that people live there. Native Americans have lived atop the mesa since the 12th Century, possibly earlier. Sky City is regarded as the oldest continuously inhabited community in the United States, and today about 50 Acoma tribal members live year-round atop the pueblo. Others reside in communities on the desert floor.

Soon our hour was up, but I didn't want to get back in the van for the two-minute ride down to the visitor center. There was so much to see, and I couldn't soak it up in an hour. I dawdled, mesmerized by the view from the edge of the precipice. But as the others boarded the van, the guide gave us an option. We could walk down the steep modern-day road or we could exit the mesa as the Acoma had done for centuries... by way of ancient stone steps carved in the rock, a narrow, winding path to the bottom.

I chose the old path. It was steep, dangerous, a bit harrowing in places... but it got me down... fairly quickly. It was a simple thing, but it added something - a bit of adventure - to the experience.

For an hour we had walked amid the stone and adobe houses on top of the mesa. We talked with the guide, chatted with the artists, but out of respect we had stayed apart from the people, our cameras the only thing reaching out - and then only with permission.

But on that narrow trail, each smooth handhold, each well-worn step, each narrow space you squeezed through, each rounded rock that grazed your head if you forgot to duck... that was real. Before progress, the Acoma came and went on that single narrow path to the top. If needed, they pulled up ladders, blocked access to the path and made their homes all but impregnable.

Halfway down, I sat and took in the panorama of the desert below and thought of the generations that had lived their lives in short bursts over the centuries atop that rock. Today, their art is how we know the Acoma. That's not nearly enough.


Dave Berry is the retired editor of the Tyler Morning Telegraph. This Focal Point column was published March 30, 2016.

Photo: Atop Acoma Pueblo, those who live year-round in Sky City, baking bread in the round ovens outside their doors, are treated to views like this every morning. (Photo by Dave Berry)

< Back to Columns & News Articles