Drive 60 miles west of Albuquerque on Interstate 40. Turn onto a dusty two-lane road that leads 16 miles into the tribal territory of the Acoma Pueblo. Pass abandoned and inhabited adobe dwellings; overgrazed, arid land; and fortress-like natural walls formed of sandstone blocks.
Speculate on towering monoliths sculpted by water and stranded by centuries of winds that every afternoon gust up to 25 or 30 miles per hour. Sacred places? Idols? Homes to gods? Hard to tell. A sign jabbed into the ground simply reads “Off Limits.”
Keep driving. Arrive at last at a modernistic building plunked in the middle of this beautiful nowhere: Sky City Cultural Center. But you’re not really there yet.
Peer hard at the top of the mesa behind the Cultural Center and barely make out a complex of adobe and sandstone block buildings. This is Old Acoma: Sky City.
Pronounced “Ak-uh-muh,” the Acoma were one of 19 communities of indigenous peoples living in New Mexico when Spanish explorers and conquistadors arrived in the 16th Century. Acoma legend says that their people came from the north and as they traveled southward they called out, seeking the place destined to be their home. When the steep cliffs of the mesa echoed back their cries, the Acoma knew that was where they should settle. The buildings at Sky City date back 800 years, making it the oldest continually inhabited city in North America, and the first Native American place to be designated a Historic Site by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Five hundred families still have homesteads on the mesa and a few live there year round, without electricity, running water, or indoor plumbing. Scattered among the ancient buildings are port-a-potties, propane tanks, and an occasional large trash can, maintained by the tribal government.
Pay $20 for a tour at the Cultural Center. Ride to the top of the mesa in a jitney bus, driven by a braided and head-banded Geronimo look-alike in a security officer’s uniform. He is not play acting. This is his job. Outsiders may only tour Sky City or leave the roads on tribal lands under the guidance of a member of Acoma Pueblo.
Exit the bus. Your guide, Brandon, a casually dressed, perfectly ordinary looking young man, was born to the job. He says he lived on the mesa as a child. His grandmother was one of the first guides when Sky City opened to tourists in the 1960s. He used to lurk and listen to all the tours. He decided that if had the chance, he wouldn’t singsong facts, waving at points of interest, bored with his umpteenth recital. He decided he would tell a story. . . and he does an exemplary job.
He teaches you about the echoing walls and how his people found the mesa. About how the yellow hue of the sandstone bricks and of the adobe made of clay and straw and the sheets of mica rock that the Acoma dried and used for windows all shimmered in the sun and led the Spanish to believe that there were Seven Cities of Gold to be conquered.
On tribal land, in order to take pictures, you must display a cardboard photography permit. It dangles by a string from your camera or cellphone, flapping wildly in the wind, sometimes obscuring the lens, and always reminding you that being here is a privilege and a rare experience. You may not use a video camera or voice recorder, take notes, or make sketches. You may only take away still photos and what you can remember. By the end of the tour, you will want to take Brandon with you so he can again tell you all the parts you missed. The Acoma language is not written and you begin to appreciate even more deeply the magic and power of storytelling and oral histories passed down through generations.
You swore to your husband you only needed to come here once, but the more you think about it, the further Sky City recedes in your memory, the more you think one day you just might have to fly to Albuquerque, rent a car, and head west sixty miles before you turn off the highway.
Have you been to Sky City? Have you ever been anywhere that stuck in your mind and your heart, nagging you to return? Please, tell your own story, if you like. Just click on Leave a Comment below.