Caves of Time

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The hiking brochure they hand you when you get off the shuttle begins with: “Evidence of Human Activity in what is now Bandelier National Monument dates back more than 10,000 years.”


I was about to embark on a trip back in time that made me question the nature of time itself. I’ve never been one to ponder many existential questions; I’m too busy setting goals and rushing to meet them to do anything but wonder where time went. But after a morning at Bandelier I’m no longer sure what constitutes wasting time.  Consequently I probably am, just thinking about it.

In school, natural history never seemed as interesting as it did in the James Michener books I stole from my parents. But in the Frijoles Canyon history is mockingly relevant. I’ve felt the awe of National Parks before – the way places like Yosemite make you feel so puny and inconsequential. But at Bandelier it wasn’t just the physical grandeur of nature that humbled me, it was that damn first line of the brochure: evidence of human activity.

Somehow, in this most isolated and environmentally harsh place, ancient peoples not only survived but thrived. I was worried whether I’d get carsick on the shuttle ride out of the canyon but the Ancestral Pueblo people contended with threats monumentally more serious. The heat, for one thing. It reached 97 degrees on the day I visited —  a dry, high-altitude heat that reminds you that a few days without water and you’d be a pile of bones picked over by coyotes. These amazing people, without the wheel or a single written instruction, literally carved a life out of a desert canyon.

Which brings me back to the human activity part. The Ancestral Pueblo people figured out how to use tools to enlarge the openings of small, natural caves in the canyon’s cliff face. It’s called Tuff rock – the eroded remains of volcanic ash that compacted over time. It conserves the coolness of the desert night. It also serves as a permanent blackboard for ancient attempts at art.  I say attempts because the figures and symbols seem less visionary and inspirational than utilitarian. If there were creative outlets for these ancient people they were stories, songs and dances lost to time.

You can still climb into the caves at Bandelier and see the discolored walls where fires burned thousands of year’s worth of nights ago. What stories got told around those fires? Were the cave dwellers dreaming of enough free time to pursue the arts or new worlds to explore? Or were they just staying warm?


What really gets overwhelming is when you sit in the cave openings and look out over the canyon valley floor. By virtue of a small stream these Native Americans did something radical – they raised crops to augment hunting. They built a village whose remains are still visible from the rocky overlooks.  The brochure again:

Imagine this village filled with the sights, sounds, and smells of daily activity. Women grind corn between two heavy stones. The air is filled with the enticing scent of ground corn as it bakes into delicious flat bread. Loud thumps reverberate in the air as a stone axe meets a heavy wooden beam. Men are busy constructing new homes. Children laugh and shout while dogs bark; together they herd turkeys and play games. As today, each person has his or her role and responsibility.”


I tried to imagine me in this village, ten thousand years ago. Would my life have had meaning or true fulfillment? What “human activity” would have kept me motivated? The Ancestral Pueblo people had religion- their faith was part of every aspect of their lives without sectarian separation. I do not identify with any one religion. I have no useful farming skills. I don’t even have children. If more than a weekend goes by without writing something I get fidgety. I feel like I’m wasting time and yet I have more of it to fill in the manner I choose than the Ancestral Pueblo could even imagine. It’s the mark of progress, we’re told, when labor becomes so specialized that not everyone has to spend their days on redundant, common tasks of survival.

Yet what does it all mean when “progress” means spending hours each day tweeting and blogging? It’s part of every writer’s job – building a platform so that readers will buy the books that keep publishers in business – so I’m not complaining. But is my multi-tasking life really any more advanced than the brochure’s hunting, weaving and heavy construction? My gut says no, but my brain says it is more fulfilling. I’m happiest when I’m swimming in the creek in front of my house — thinking of nothing and thankful for everything — but I couldn’t let myself float in that happiness if I didn’t spend the days planning the next project, the next challenge. I can change the circumstances of my life at will if my will is strong enough.

The caves of Bandelier haven’t left my thoughts since I returned to South Carolina. I keep going back to that cool, dark window on a world I can barely imagine. The closest I can come to understanding what the “human activity” of survival was like ten thousand years ago was how it felt when Gary and I drove through Latin America in a camper. Despite all my mental fidgeting and fastidious documentation for a future book, we had to stop driving by two each afternoon to begin the menial tasks of finding a place to camp, buy food, get water and bathe. I was happy. I learned I could survive without alarm clocks and internet access and deadlines. But would I choose that “simplicity” permanently? No. I need external stimulation like art and museums and daily challenges to what I think I know.

Bandelier made me appreciate just how little that is.

39 thoughts on “Caves of Time

    teresabrucebooks said:
    June 25, 2013 at 10:21 AM

    Reblogged this on Right Brain Safari and commented:

    Another place that makes you feel like you’ve left the corporate world, even the country, behind.


    Things You Realize After You Get Married said:
    August 1, 2013 at 6:37 AM

    You bring some interesting points in this post, particularly about what progress is really about nowadays. It also really puts life in perspective when you visit another culture or even time period and get a sense of what life was / is like for other people..b/c then it leaves you questioning your own journey in life! :0… Lovely pic of the window and congrats on being FP! 🙂


      teresabrucebooks said:
      August 1, 2013 at 7:38 AM

      Thanks… you sound like a fellow traveler


        Things You Realize After You Get Married said:
        August 1, 2013 at 7:48 AM

        I have travelled to parts of Asia before and have experienced different cultures, but there’s still so much I have yet to see! If only, my funds were unlimited! Then I’d be travelling a lot more! 😉


    segmation said:
    August 1, 2013 at 7:27 AM

    Sounds to be that this place has a haunting air. Do you think that while the Anasazi have vanished, their spirit remains?.


    theshaqomari said:
    August 1, 2013 at 7:34 AM



    113yearslater said:
    August 1, 2013 at 8:33 AM

    I don’t think anyone chooses simplicity permanently; they fill it with details. Like you said, songs and dances and stories around the fire. Those were their museums. The human imagination is always at work.


    awax1217 said:
    August 1, 2013 at 1:14 PM

    I felt the same when I visited the pyramids of Mexico. It was a huge city and then it disappeared in under the growth of debris of time. It was discovered only eighty years ago. Who knows what else is out there or under the waves. Whole civilizations gone and we think we are invincible.


    peternexus said:
    August 1, 2013 at 1:20 PM

    Reblogged this on peternexus's Blog and commented:
    check out this cave


    Jean said:
    August 1, 2013 at 1:27 PM

    We went through that park when in New Mexico. Unfortunately neither or us realized we could climb into the cave dwellings.

    But no matter, I loved the area!


    maryaloeentertainment said:
    August 1, 2013 at 4:27 PM

    That is really neat! So much beneficial information. I really enjoyed sharing with my friends.


    Beauty Along the Road said:
    August 1, 2013 at 7:46 PM

    I recognized that ladder which brought me to your site. I was lucky enough to wander thru Bandelier almost by myself and think those thoughts, what it must have been like to have lived there so many thousands of years ago, how was life different then….some yrs later, I visited Canyon de Chelly which held a similar (though “younger” or more recent) energy. I posted a few pics if you’d like to see:


    ivorylei said:
    August 2, 2013 at 4:12 AM

    Good point there. It’s easy to get complacent with the things we have and idealize times that never were in the past, but as much as the human experience might not change through the centuries, the human psyche probably does (for better or worse) once the majority in a society get to have the chance to luxuriate of thinking about something more than “survival,” as you pointed out.


    jamharl said:
    August 2, 2013 at 6:28 AM

    hhhmmm. the wonder of the beauty of nature…


    jenion said:
    August 2, 2013 at 6:51 AM

    I have the exact same photo of myself at Bandelier, which is what led me to click on your article on Freshly Pressed. My sister lives in Los Alamos, which has allowed me to visit Bandelier a number of times over the years – even before you were required to take a shuttle, before the fires and consequent floods. And each time I have visited, I’ve found myself examining this modern life of ours in the context of the lives the Ancestral Pueblo people who populated this spot. One thing I have noticed, after visiting many of the ancient pueblos, is that the natural beauty of these spots, in the midst of harsh desert landscapes, lends itself to imagining daily life there. And to comparisons with our hectic (and as you said) multi-tasking lives. I find it awakens a desire in me to live a life stripped down to the basics: food, shelter, human interaction, beauty. I would, in those moments, gladly give up my smart phone, high-speed internet connection, traffic, etc. in exchange for a cave, a cool stream, and a life lived completely in the moment. Then I remember that this idyllic picture is just my own imaginal creation – and that my hips feel better when I sleep on a mattress. The gift of places like Bandelier, for me, is that they remind me there just might be a sweet spot somewhere between primitive and post-modern that I can find and create in my own life. Thanks for posting your thoughts – and giving me this chance to revisit one of my favorite places!


    Elisabeth Zguta said:
    August 2, 2013 at 7:15 AM

    Excellent – thank you for sharing your experience.


    Sampurna said:
    August 2, 2013 at 9:45 AM

    Lovely post. Ancient monuments always throw up difficult questions for us to reflect on – Like the idea of progress or the more problematic question of how useful I am, individually, in taking forward this progress with the little skills I have.


    Hal Cline said:
    August 2, 2013 at 5:39 PM

    Reblogged this on empower With Hal.


    Morgan Mussell said:
    August 2, 2013 at 7:10 PM

    Bandolier is one of my very favorite parks, a place I’ve been able to visit now and again over a long period of time. I too, have a similar photo of myself, and a nice art print view of the canyon from above hanging in the living room right now.


    Let's talk about it said:
    August 3, 2013 at 12:14 AM

    Love the pictures! Thanks for sharing!


    jibarican said:
    August 3, 2013 at 6:42 AM

    We’ve certainly changed, but have we truly progressed… if we have, I suppose it is in definition more so than meaning. Lovely reflective story. Thanks for sharing.


    sheenmeem said:
    August 3, 2013 at 8:39 AM

    Beautifully told. Enjoyed it immensely.


    Samsung galaxy ace said:
    August 3, 2013 at 2:33 PM

    really nice and wonderful description thanks for sharing


    twosipp said:
    August 3, 2013 at 5:37 PM

    great article.


    Kelly M said:
    August 4, 2013 at 2:32 AM

    Thanks for sharing this. I often get philosophical around ancient monuments and buildings, wondering how people would have lived in those days, what their aspirations and fears were. In the end, they were human like the rest of us and we probably have a lot more in common with them than we think.


    dimahanii said:
    August 5, 2013 at 6:58 AM

    Reblogged this on dima hanii.


    Daniel K said:
    August 6, 2013 at 2:48 AM

    Reblogged this on It's News to Me.


    whitewolvesinc said:
    August 9, 2013 at 1:32 PM

    It is really amazing, if you think about it, how advanced they were – their architecture and ability to survive off the land. I recently visited some ruins in Colorado where the village was built into the side of the mountains. Their food plots were at least the length of a football field down the side of the mountain. Each day the women would have to scale the side of the mountain, some with babies strapped to their backs, in order to get water for the village. The men would have to do the same and travel great distances in order to hunt then scale back up the mountain with their bounty on their backs. They lived hard lives, but I do find it amazing how intelligent these people. Someone else posted about the spirits…I fully believe these places are full of the spirits of those who lived there so long ago. Thank you for your post, I really enjoyed reading it. If interested in Native American items, check out my website at


    seawindsolution143 said:
    August 12, 2013 at 3:38 AM

    Thanks for posting this, keep posting.


    giantmt25 said:
    August 16, 2013 at 5:57 PM

    The farthest I’ve gotten from the comfort of my own bed is Ecuador, but this is awakening my itch to travel again. Hopefully this time with my son by my side. Thanks for sharing!


    atbankofdam said:
    August 16, 2013 at 7:17 PM

    Reblogged this on atbankofdam.


    sguz21 said:
    January 11, 2014 at 12:46 AM

    Reblogged this on sguz21/TÜRKİYE/İstanbul.


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