November 11, 2004

Albuquerque sprawl threatens petroglyphs

The November 2004 issue of National Geographic contains a short item about the Albuquerque, New Mexico city council’s plans to run two four-lane roads through Petroglyph National Monument. Albuquerque’s sprawl has reached such a level that new roads are needed to relieve traffic pressure.

On our journey across America in 2002 (Ribbons of Highway: A Mother-Child Journey Across America), my kids and I spent a searingly hot afternoon wandering the ancient lava field that is Petroglyph National Monument, looking for the etchings – some possibly thousands of years old but most carved between the 14th and 17th centuries – created by ancestors of the Pueblo and other native peoples. We stopped at Petroglyph on our way to
Acoma Sky City, where we would be hosted by Dale Sanchez, an Acoma tribal matriarch. She’d lead us up to and through her people’s sacred pueblo, and we’d feel something of the deep ties New Mexico’s native peoples have to their land, their ancestors and their sacred places.

When you stand on the spine of Petroglyph National Monument’s dormant volcanic hillsides and outcroppings, the tentacles of Albuquerque sprawl nearly seize you. Indeed, as you drive up Paradise Boulevard to reach the monument entrance, you see nothing but endless housing developments on your right. Joggers pant up the wide, white-hot sidewalks of newly-minted neighborhoods. Can there be a sacred, pristine, protected place here? It doesn’t seem likely. And then the high rocks of the monument appear, and you enter an oasis, a small relief from the super-sized, adobe-colored estates and cul-de-sacs that stretch as far as the eye can see.

I remember feeling thankful the monument was there. It was a barrier to the sprawl, I thought. Developers couldn’t build any more than they’d already built. There was nowhere to go, unless they cut into the monument itself. And they couldn’t do that, right? That’s what a national monument is all about, right? In 1990, Congress designated Petroglyph a national monument specifically to protect the rock etchings. So they're protected, right?

Adam, Dana and I walked the trails at Boca Negra Canyon, being careful not to tear our shoes on the sometimes sharp pieces of black basalt and ancient lava exploded from the earth 130,000 years ago. We saw a quail mother lead her babies into the brush. A cottontail bounced across the path, and we compared our foot sizes to the many millipedes that sat in the sun in the dirt. A ranger had advised us to leave the millipedes where they lay as they were an important food source for local birds. (The ranger must have had a sixth sense about the travelers in our trio. I don’t think most carloads of tourists need be advised not to pick up long, squirmy, slimy creatures. Not touching them comes naturally. But Dana would pick them up. She would love them and pet them and talk to them. Somehow the ranger knew that. A sure telepathy exists between animal people. As we crossed the country, I’d see it at work often between Dana and others.)

When we introduced ourselves to the ranger, he’d said, “Thanks for thinking of us.” Many people bypass Petroglyph on their way to somewhere else, and he thought it wonderful that three travelers from Massachusetts would take back tales of this sacred place. His love of the monument was evident, as was his respect for the people who created the etchings. As we walked through Boca Negra Canyon, we felt the magic, too. We delighted in finding an etching – perhaps a bird, a face, a mouse, a leaf, a human figure – then searching for another.

Now, two four-lane roads may slice this sacred place in half. In 1998, Congress gave its support to the Albuquerque city council’s road-building plan. Should this not sadden and indeed, alarm us? Just eight years earlier, Congress had protected the place. What gives? What’s next? And where?

The National Geographic article quotes Laurie Weahkee, a Pueblo activist: “’Indians regard this land as a holy place. Why should its desecration be any different from that of a church?’” Some people’s justification for cutting into Petroglyph National Monument may be related to a chronic, seemingly communicable disease our society suffers from. I found it sadly ironic that, six pages after the Petroglyph article, National Geographic ran a two-page car company ad spread. The product touted was a mammoth SUV (its name means an entire fleet of ships). The behemoth car was pulling an even bigger boat out of a suburban driveway. The ad’s tagline: “My dad’s towing capacity is bigger than your dad’s towing capacity.” The ad copy seduced with the words, “It’s fair to say your kids will have plenty to brag about.” What is next?

Explore many of America's sacred, quiet places in "Ribbons of Highway: A Mother-Child Journey Across America"