Ancient Ways in the Southwest

story and photography by Kathleen Kemsley

The climate can be too hot and rainy in the summer, too cold and windy in the winter. But motorcycling conditions in the high desert during the spring and fall months are nearly perfect. A commitment-free week in September beckoned my husband and me to ride the Indian lands of the Southwest, following a loop route that offered cultural, historical and scenic highlights. A little frost, a stiff crosswind, a brief rain shower, a sunburned nose—these minor inconveniences simply reminded us that we were not looking at the landscape from the inside of a car.

We began our ride in a place that bears traces of the waves of migration characterizing the Indian lands. Following the Ancient Way Highway from Grants, New Mexico, off Interstate 40, we reached El Morro National Monument in the early afternoon. The tall sandstone cuesta offered centuries of passers-by an irresistible blank slate on which to scratch pictures, names, dates and narratives—graffiti elevated to historical treasure.

Earliest are drawings by ancestral Puebloans (also known as Anasazi in the Navajo language). These ancient people lived on top of the rocks in a village called A’ts’ina. Next, 17th-century Spanish explorers such as Don Juan de Oñate and Don Diego de Vargas etched ornate inscriptions into the rock face commemorating their passage. Finally, Army soldiers and tough American pioneers heading west in the mid-1800s added their signatures to the rock.

The author overlooks the Painted Desert at Lacey Point.
The author overlooks the Painted Desert at Lacey Point.

Open fields around the monolith flashed with a riot of wildflowers, paintbrush, globe mallow, purple asters and sunflowers, the yield of heavy summer monsoon rains just past. A small campground within a mile of the inscription rock provided our night’s lodging. Convenient piles of free firewood, product of a juniper eradication project, took the chill off a starry evening at 7,200-feet elevation.

West of El Morro on the Ancient Way Highway lay Zuni Land. The Zuni Indian tribe, 14,000 strong, carries on its traditional way of living in stone and mud pueblos. Tribe members survive economically by selling intricately crafted jewelry and carvings, and by forming fire crews to battle summer blazes for the Forest Service. Zunis believe themselves, along with their cousins the Hopis, to be direct descendents of the Anasazi. A Zuni guide from the Visitor Center showed us elaborate murals painted on the inside walls of a 17th-century church in the center of town. “These images depict our kachinas—spirits of the Zuni people,” she said. “We have adopted some aspects of Christianity, but we Zuni revere many Gods.”

Petroglyphs scratched on El Morro by ancient Puebloans, circa 1300, survive alongside the 1857 signature of pioneer E. Pen Long.
Petroglyphs scratched on El Morro by ancient Puebloans, circa 1300, survive alongside the 1857 signature of pioneer E. Pen Long.

A dirt road south of Zuni leads to the ruins of Hawikuh, site of the first contact between Zunis and Spanish in 1539. Explorers searching for the legendary “Seven Cities of Cibola” saw sunlight glinting off mica flakes in the windows of Zuni pueblo dwellings and mistook it for gold. Today, most of Hawikuh remains buried under a heap of red dirt. A check-in with the Zuni Visitor Center is required before touring the site; the Zunis ask that visitors respect the ancestors by leaving any artifacts they find in place.

From Zuni we crossed into Arizona and headed south to St. Johns. There we rode west through scrub- covered hills to reach Petrified Forest National Park. Though Petrified Forest is known mostly for its fossils, park researchers have inventoried more than 500 archeological sites, including Puerco Pueblo and Agate House.

A round kiva, or religious ceremonial room, located atop El Morro in the village of A’ts’ina, was abandoned for unknown reasons about A.D. 1400.
A round kiva, or religious ceremonial room, located atop El Morro in the village of A’ts’ina, was abandoned for unknown reasons about A.D. 1400.

Besides dwelling site ruins, the native people of the Little Colorado River region left drawings of humans and animals, as well as geometric patterns and spirals, chiseled on flat slabs of sandstone. Archeo-astronomers discovered that the spiral petroglyphs function as calendars. Shadows or sunlit images move across and pierce the center to mark important annual events such as solstice, equinox and the start of the frost-free growing season. This phenomenon occurs elsewhere in the Southwest, but Petrified Forest contains the largest known concentration of these ancient almanacs.

Indian connections aside, riding through Petrified Forest provided astonishing views of the Painted Desert, Crystal Forest and the Teepees, interspersed with plenty of fun and curving motor­cycling roads. It seemed a shame to stick to the posted 35-mph limit. Passing slow motorhomes, we leaned into the scenery and too soon emerged onto Interstate 40.

Fifty miles west of Petrified Forest we reached the ruins of Homolovi, four distinct villages populated along the Little Colorado River during the 13th and 14th centuries. Native oral tradition recounts that Hopi Indian ancestors came from this part of Arizona. Archeological work on the ruins, supported by the Hopi tribe, is ongoing.

Few people leave the interstate long enough to visit Homolovi State Park; even fewer actually spend the night there. But we found the campground comfortable (if a bit windy) and the showers blessedly hot. A walk through the ruins of one village presented us the opportunity to finger 800-year-old black-on-white, gray corrugated, and black-on-red pottery fragments. Taking a shard home crossed my mind—who doesn’t consider pocketing a souvenir? But in the end I left them where they lay, of course. On a living room mantel these ancient relics would simply lose their context.

The author rides past Chetro Ketl, one of five major ruins along the paved portion of Chaco’s loop trail.
The author rides past Chetro Ketl, one of five major ruins along the paved portion of Chaco’s loop trail.

We rode north of Homolovi to reach the Hopi Cultural Center on Second Mesa. A $3 entry fee allowed us to view the museum’s historical photographs of life on the Hopi mesas a hundred years ago. Ancient, lined faces of Hopi elders and camera-shy children peeking from behind their mothers’ skirts provided a window into an exotic, bygone world.

Today Hopis continue to weave, carve, dance, make jewelry and celebrate the celestial seasons much as their ancestors did. But the Hopis also have a foot firmly planted in the modern world. A patriotic people, a high percentage of young Hopi warriors volunteer for the armed services. The first American woman killed in Iraq, back in 2003, was Hopi.

Riding through the indian lands.
Riding through the indian lands.

East of the Hopi mesas the road leads to Hubbell Trading Post National Historical Site. A remnant of many such outposts established a century ago, the Hubbell Trading Post still buys rugs, jewelry and baskets made by local Navajo Indians. In browsing through several rooms of the store, I learned that my taste was champagne: The Ganado Red rug I picked as a favorite carried a price tag of $2,900.

We listened to a talk given by the museum curator later that day about his experiences living among the Navajo. He recounted attempts to speak the difficult Navajo language and participate in traditional dances. I admired his willingness to let go of his own viewpoint—that of a single white man from Michigan—and share perceptions gathered by close observation of Navajo customs (limp-wristed hand shaking), taboos (pointing with the index finger) and etiquette (never interrupting a speaker).

Thirty miles up the road from Hubbell, Canyon de Chelly National Monument preserves a canyon inhabited by Navajos who farm the rich bottomlands. We rode both the north and south rims of the canyon, pausing often to take in startling views of slickrock domes, slot canyons and cliff dwellings tucked into caves along Chinle Wash. Visitors are allowed foot access into the canyon on White House Trail, but traveling anywhere else within the monument requires a Navajo guide. Half-day tours by foot, horseback or Jeep cost $50-$130 per person. Unfortunately, dual-sport motorcycle trips into the chasm were not offered as an option. Too bad, because the rutted dirt roads on the canyon bottom just begged to be navigated by my BMW F650.

A human figure is etched into sandstone on the trail between Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl.
A human figure is etched into sandstone on the trail between Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl.

Ah, well. The brick-red soil of Navajo Land reflected pink on the underside of puffy cumulous clouds. Sheep, goats, horses, cattle, even a donkey grazed along unfenced roadside fields. We stopped at Amigos Restaurant in Kayenta to fulfill the time-honored tradition of consuming a Navajo taco—in this case, a humongous round of fry bread topped with mountains of beans, chili and cheese.

Storm clouds gathered as we approached Monument Valley. A brief stop at Goulding’s Lodge brought back memories of watching John Wayne movies on Saturday afternoon; many of those classic westerns were filmed in the canyons behind Goulding’s. With rain looming ahead, and arroyos flash-flooding beside the highway, we sailed through the valley. We reached cover at a campground in Bluff, Utah, just moments before the clouds delivered their promised deluge. A male rain, the Navajos call it, intense and violent. The gentle sustaining rains that characterize the winter months they designate as female.

The Indian lands route led us past Four Corners and up to Aztec, a national monument named by someone who mistook the pueblo for ruins found deep in Mexico. On the contrary, Aztec looks nothing like the Pyramid of the Sun. But its three-story dwellings, giant round kivas and T-shaped doorways bear remarkable similarity to both Mesa Verde to the north and Chaco to the south.

The author’s BMW F650 fears not the gathering rain clouds in Monument Valley.
The author’s BMW F650 fears not the gathering rain clouds in Monument Valley.

We inquired about the road to Chaco. A flash flood had run across the road, but the ranger said the water was receding so we decided to chance it. The last 15 miles of wet dirt into Chaco were recently graded and fairly smooth. At Escavada Wash, water 12 inches deep rushed across an arroyo bottomed by concrete. I plunged ahead; what’s a dual-sport bike for? My lower legs and boots took a drenching in the muddy bath, as did my husband’s Gold Wing and sidecar, but we successfully completed the crossing and proceeded into the park.

Chaco is the granddaddy of ancestral Puebloan ruins. Consensus among contemporary archaeologists is that Chaco was a rendezvous place for residents from throughout the Southwest. The wind whistled past crumbling walls of Pueblo Bonita’s great houses and kivas. Remnants of ancient voices floated through empty rooms. Obviously a huge effort went into building this sandstone city. What drew hundreds—perhaps thousands—of Native Americans to traipse to this remote site?

But then I thought about modern motorcycle rallies—Sturgis, Daytona Bike Week, Laconia. Perhaps human nature hasn’t changed so much after all. We still gather in large numbers to party, play games, tell stories, meet people, flirt, dance, feast, drink, buy and sell trinkets, argue and philosophize. Perhaps Chaco was nothing more than the Sturgis of the Anasazi world.


Thinking of it in those terms humanized the place for me. Picturing the ancient inhabitants of the desert playing “bite the weenie,” kicking stone tires and collecting Poker Run cards in the sandstone plazas kept me chuckling all the way out of 20 miles of washboard dirt road. Eventually we reached pavement, gas stations, ice cream and yet another winding road which led back to Interstate 40 and Grants, where our Indian lands ride had begun.



El Morro National Monument, HC 61, Box 43, Ramah, New Mexico 87321; (505) 783-4226;

Pueblo of Zuni, Box 339, Zuni, New Mexico 87327; (505) 782-7800;

Petrified Forest National Park, Box 2217, Petrified Forest, Arizona 86028; (928) 524-6228;

Homolovi Ruins State Park, HCR 63, Box 5, Winslow, Arizona 86047; (928) 289-4106;

Hopi Tribe, Box 123, Kykotsmovi, Arizona 86039; (928) 734-3283;

Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site, Box 150, Ganado, Arizona 86505; (928) 755-3475;

Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Box 588, Chinle, Arizona 86503; (928) 674-5500;

Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, Box 360289, Monument Valley, Utah 84536; (435) 727-5874, 5870 or 5875; mentvalley.htm

Aztec Ruins National Monument, 84 County Road 2900, Aztec, New Mexico  87410; (505) 334-6174;

Chaco Culture National Historical Park, Box 220, Nageezi, New Mexico 87037; (505) 786-7014;

[From the July 2007 issue of Rider]


  1. Wow!! Been to Chaco many times. Hiked to near everything. First time I have seen this place written about anywhere.



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