Pat Joshevama asked me earnestly, “Are you disappointed?”
The slightly built but tough-as-a-gorkha park ranger of Betatakin was sitting with his elbows resting on doubled knees. His backpack lay next to him, a bottle of water half full balanced on a rock next to his feet.
I stood behind a juniper log that lay in my path. I was in a massive cave – about 400 feet tall and equally wide. A couple of hundred feet away the Anasazi farmer village of Betatakin rose out of the sandstone. The village itself as well have been the result of a few million years of erosion, so well it merged with the pink-orange rock of the cave. I could smell the moist sweet of the Aspen and Fir trees below the ledge, trees that are virtually unknown so far down south. Overhead, the roof of the cave was crumbling. Several big cracks crisscrossed the sandstone, several slabs of stone ready to peel, poised to plummet.
Outside, the morning was young. Clouds crowded the sky, dropping the temperature to delicious seventies.
Was I disappointed?
The thirty minute drive to the Navajo National Monument earlier in the day had been pleasant. I had arrived at the visitor center to find the office still closed. Pat opened it promptly at eight. I put down my name of the sheet of paper for the 8:15am ranger led hike down to the ruins. I was well prepared. Hiking shoes, a rubber bladder brimming with ice cold water in the backpack, a spare bottle with ice cubes, another one with electrolytes, some power bars, a hand full of raisins in my pocket, I was raring to go.
I went through the books on display, some of them familiar. In the center of the room, choice Anasazi pots sat forlorn behind glass. To the right was a brilliantly designed display of Jeff Dean’s dendrochonology – study of tree rings for dating historical sites. It is here at Betatakin that young Dean had perfected his science in the 60s. At the very back of the hall, a tiny replica of a typical Anasazi abode – a living room with a hearth, several large black on white ollas full up to the brim with water, three metates with deferring coarseness for grinding corn, some storage rooms.
When we set out at 8:40, I was delirious. I was the only hiker that day! Just Pat and I. I was going to have Betatakin all to myself.
Easy on the smile, I quickly learned Pat’s story. A Hopi , he has a deep practical background in ethnography, a skill that made him a ranger at Mesa Verde in the late 90s. After a few years, he went back to Tuba city to work as a welder. The economic downturn ensued, small jobs were rare, pay frugal and he fell back to his first love. He took on the role of ranger at Betatakin. He seemed to thoroughly enjoy his job. “Especially when I am out here walking.” He said.
We dropped down a thousand feet to the Tsegi point within no time. The trail came to a fork: one leads to Keet Seel, the other we took. We matched pace easily as the path dipped quickly towards the canyon floor. The conversation quickly turned to the cowboys of the late nineteenth century, serendipitous discoveries followed by unbridled curiosity and a thirst for adventure, that opened an entire – and the most important - chapter in southwest archeology. John and Richard Wetherill were discussed with respectful awe. It is their giant footsteps we were tracking. We compared our favorite authors of the southwest and came up with a few common: Craig Childs, Fred Blackburn, David Roberts.
Pat was surprised we had made it to the bottom in 45 minutes. “Usually it take me an hour and a half.” He unlocked a gate and we were walking in lush greenery. The verdant valley must have been a surprise to the Anasazi, I thought, they were not used to such a scenery. Did they enjoy it? Then from underneath the canopy of the Aspen, emerged the enormous arch of the cave. I paused. John Wetherill must have paused here too, I thought. No amount of research can prepare you for the moment of first view of Betatakin, John’s knowledge coming from his Navajo guide who had stopped at the head of the canyon.
I quickened my speed up the slope. Finally I saw the village.
The first thing I noticed was the room diametrically directly opposite me, an enormous black eye staring unblinking. That is where the Anasazi guard would have stood 800 years ago. He would have tracked me for the last 10 minutes or so. He would have raised an alarm and the village would be on guard. I quickly scanned the village. Other than a couple of rooms adjoining the watch tower, no other structure had an window that looked down into the valley. The village was impregnable. Back in the thirteenth century, the ancient one were deadly scared.
“What were you scared of?” I asked, the same question that has plagued archeologists and anthropologists of the southwest for over a century. The village was built around 1260, about the time Marco Polo set out for the east and abandoned in 1290, the very last of Anasazi to move out of the Colorado plateau. Forever.
I proceeded up the path. “Tell me when to stop.” I said to Pat who was a few steps behind.
“As far as we can go.” I heard him say. Not believing my ears. I hurriedly crossed a Juniper log on the path and pushed on. Then I heard him say, “STOP!”
Surprised, I turned back. “This IS as far we can go.” he said.
I dragged myself behind the log. I had been handed over the keys to the Palace of Versailles and told not to go beyond the portico. I laid down my backpack. Pat was speaking. He drew my attention to the hurried masonry of the Anasazi, the absence of any trash heap, the square Kiva. He was speaking quietly as if to distract me, but I had already switched off. I stood there, my back against a rock; my mind, it had taken off. Up the path, I turned left. I stopped in front of a house. I knelt in front of the open door, noticing the blackening on the roof. I peeped it, careful not to touch the walls. I could make out the outline of the hearth. A pot shard in the corner where the olla should have been. A peeping juniper pole on the wall where the bow would be hung. I walked down the alley, pueblo unit clusters on either the side. I climbed a ladder, standing on a stabilized wall unsure if I should cross the ancient roof. I could smell burnt wood, but then I must be imagining things. No fire has burned here for several hundred years.
Silence ruled. I looked back. Pat Joshevama asked, “Are you disappointed?” He must have read my mind, seen my surging excitement, seen my fallen face, felt the energy drain out of me.
I had to think this through. I had to put my answer in context.
They say the visitors are not allowed to enter because the roof is vulnerable. Rocks fall down all the time. That could as well be the stated reason. The BLM has been ever so gently tightening up visitation. A few miles away, the beautiful Inscription house is already out of bounds. Partly to preserve the ruins, partly to manage resources required to take care of them within ever shrinking funds in a shrinking economy. Someday, the only way to experience Betatakin would be to stand on the overlook across and above the canyon, half a kilometer away. Then return to the visitor center and watch a grainy video.
That is if the roof has already not collapsed and crushed the ruin.
“No Pat.” I finally managed to say, “I am not disappointed. It is a privilege to stand where I stand. To have come this far.”