Friday, June 30, 2006

Santa Fe NM - May 2006 part 3

If Tent Rocks is a naturally formed, supernaturally looking, still-life sculpture park that demonstrates the consequences of evil, then Tsankawi is a living, breathing manmade obstacle course of survival - disguised as a life-sized children's board game.

A frequently overlooked portion of Bandelier National Monument, Tsankawi is like a prehistoric life-size Chutes and Ladders board.

This traditional children's game, which in my recollection I never actually played either as a child or parent, is an Americanized reformulation of an ancient East Indian pastime known as "Snakes and Ladders". Kind of a child's version of Hindu, players in this contest traverse the squares on a board by means of ladders (representing good acts that allow the player to move closer to Nirvana) and snakes (on which they slide into evil).

At Tsankawi the chutes, being permanent, are considerably more common - the result of the steadfast, albeit incidental, efforts of a prehistoric people to simply go about their business. Rather than being the path to hell as in the game, they are instead the main streets of everyday life.

The ladders, of which there were only two on our visit, are of the Kiva style and nowadays are located at the beginning and end of the small mesa at the top of the Tsankawi area.

The former is a ten foot tall alternative to just staying on the inbound trail and the latter ladder (twenty-five feet in height) is the only means down - short of going back and down the up-ladder. In prehistoric Anasazi times, according to what I've heard, the ladders were put up in the morning for the farming and hunting natives to descend into the valley below, retracted during the day, let down again for the evening commute, and put away at night to provide safety from the bad guys.

The major amount of traveling back and forth, both then and now, however occurs via the chutes - footpaths that were actually worn away into the soft volcanic rock of the mesa by the repetitive travels of the early inhabitants. These bipedally created grooves are (ironically) as much as two feet in depth.

Impossible to fathom - the number of steps it took to carve a twenty-four inch deep channel into a piece of rock. I've seen the tiny indentations in the stairways at my former place of employment and other older buildings. And other parts of the Tsankawi and Bandelier National Monuments exhibit the caves that were intentionally dug out of the same soft volcanic tuff. But such a significant wearing away of rock, no matter how soft, as a simple byproduct of the everyday travels of a small group of people is simply beyond my ken.

There were dirt portions of the trail and some loose stuff inside the rocky footpaths that captured the footprints of the modern visitors. Mostly they showed the treads of contemporary running shoes - brands recognizable to the serious student of the art of the sole, or to an experienced forensic expert (the modern day tracker). Hiking boots, identifiable by their deeper, more definite lug imprints and wider shape, made up the rest. There were no indications of cowboy boots or Manolo Blahnik stilettos on the mesa.

Mars, Sandy and I wore our hiking boots on this trip. From our perspective the footwear that we had was just fine - maybe a little wider then necessary in some of the more tapered trenches - but sturdy enough to keep our ankles upright and our tender little feet comfy and safe. And light-years better for this environment then the Teva and Birkenstock sandals that Mars and I wore for our retail hiking in Santa Fe - even though from an historical re-creation point of view either of these pieces of footwear would have been more appropriate.

The original inhabitants either were barefooted or wore sandals which I remember reading about in a New Yorker article. The piece talked about recent attempts to recreate the footwear, which it said was surprisingly comfortable and durable for such walking about. I found a similar article at a web site called

Recent work by archaeologists reveals that Native Americans from 1,400 years ago wore a sandal with a sole so well-designed they're the technological equivalent of modern-day Nikes and Adidas. Two hundred of these yucca sandals, finely woven by artisans using 22 different textile techniques, were discovered in 1930-31 by Earl Morris, an archaeologist for the Carnegie Institute, and his wife, Ann.

Their soles have the perfect tread depth for gripping and the edges point out so that water squirts away, as it does with modern tires. The soles also have multi-directional ridges to reduce slipping, and the yucca gives them flexibility.

"The Anasazi had deer, badger and elk to kill so they could easily have relied on leather moccasins, but they didn't," says Morris, a retired Colorado archaeologist. "In a country of cactus spines and sharp rocks, they mostly wore these open sandals. They must've known something we don't."

The three of us walked the one and one half mile trail with little difficulty except for the extreme care that needed to be taken in negotiating some of the more narrow foot furrows. At the end of the mesa we met a group of Elderhostelers as they were descending the second of the Kiva ladders. Properly shod and positively attitude-ed they practically scurried down the ladder in their eagerness to explore the area.

We talked to a few of them walking back to the parking lot at the beginning of the trail. None had been to New Mexico before nor, like us, had they experienced any geography even remotely like the foot worn furrows that we all were hiking through.

The ancient footsteps of the Anasazi have left a lasting impression on much more than just the soft rocks of Tsankawi.


Anonymous said...

i'd like to have these sandals made for myself. If you can provide contact details id get in touch and have them done. thankyou

Jim said...

Sorry Anon., I too would like to try out a pair but have not been able to find anyone who actually makes them.


Jim said...

Sorry Anon., I too would like to try out a pair but have not been able to find anyone who actually makes them.