Much more important than trading posts are the ageless traditions that thrive in northwest New Mexico.
By George Oxford Miller
Billboards on Interstate 40 leading into Gallup, New Mexico, advertise El Rancho Hotel as “Home of the Movie Stars.” Actually, for bragging rights, the Zuni Pueblo, nearby on the Trail of the Ancients Scenic Byway, has history on its side. The Spanish conquistador Coronado stayed over in 1540, but since he pillaged the village, don’t expect any memorial plaques. Before venturing south to explore the Ancient Way Arts Trail, which is part of this route, we exited the interstate and spent a day in Gallup, a focal point for Indian arts, and the location of the historic hotel.
Gallup is near the western edge of New Mexico, not far from where I-40 crosses into Arizona. From Gallup, State Route 602 leads south to State Route 53, also known as the Ancient Way, at Zuni Pueblo. Coronado followed the Indian trade route east from Zuni to El Morro, a pie-shaped cliff where he carved his inscription, and continued through El Malpais, a region of lava flows and cinder cones. The 95-mile trek passes through two Indian nations, two national monuments, and a national forest, and reconnects with I-40 at Grants. The latter town is not covered in detail here, but time spent in its many galleries, as well as a mining museum, is well worth it.
The Ancient Way Arts Trail is an escape from the interstate for motorhomers who like admiring and shopping for genuine native arts; learning about ancient history; and exploring unusual sites.
Gallup, surrounded by the Navajo and Zuni reservations, epitomizes early railroad towns. Built along one side of the tracks, the city thrived as a commerce and mining center. Then Route 66 brought an automobile culture centered on tourism. Indian trading posts sprung up, filled with pottery, rugs, and jewelry from nearby reservations.
With the boom of Westerns from the 1930s through the 1960s, Hollywood discovered the red-rock vistas of the region and descended on it. And they all needed a place to stay. In 1937, R.E. Griffith, brother of famous film director D.W. Griffith, built El Rancho Hotel to cater to movie stars and filmmakers.
Unfortunately, the interstate skirted the town, and by 1988 the old hotel was slated for demolition. Armand Ortega, owner of premium-quality Indian galleries in Gallup and Santa Fe, saved the landmark. Before his death in July 2014, Ortega turned over operations to his daughter, Anna Dellago.
“I fixed up the rooms pretty much as they were and named each room after stars who stayed there,” Ortega once said. “I want to keep the motel true to history. Ronald Reagan stayed here seven times. He was a cavalry lieutenant in the movies but ended up commander-in-chief in real life.”
A player piano with additional accoutrements, such as cymbals, drums, and a xylophone, provides tunes in the lobby, and a horseshoe-shaped staircase leads to the mezzanine, which is lined with signed photographs of celebrities.
Downtown Gallup’s galleries are a showplace for Indian crafts, including world-class art. Shopping enthusiasts will be amazed.
Richardson Trading Company has supported Navajo Indian master weavers and jewelers for more than 100 years. The store’s rug room and display cases exhibit museum-quality artwork with prices often into five figures. But more than a sales outlet, this store maintains the cultural tradition of Indian pawn. Like a bank, the store loans money and holds jewelry, rugs, and saddles as collateral. I peeked into the pawn vaults and saw hundreds of saddles and huge stacks of rugs.
As noted earlier, State Route 602 heads south from Gallup and connects with the Ancient Way, State Route 53, near Zuni Pueblo, the western anchor of the byway. The 1,200-year-old trade route connected Indian tribes from the Pacific to the Rio Grande. North-south routes along the river tied the Great Plains to prosperous trade centers deep in Mexico. Turquoise mined in this area has been found in Mayan ruins in Guatemala, and bones of macaws have been recovered in New Mexico.
When the gold-crazed Coronado left Zuni searching for the fabled Seven Cities of Gold, he followed the ancient trade routes east to the Rio Grande and north into what is now Kansas before giving up his fruitless quest.
“Life in the Southwest changed forever when Coronado arrived,” Tom Kennedy, tourism director for the Zuni Pueblo, told us during our tour of Zuni. “It was the first contact the Pueblo Indians had with Europeans, the first time they saw horses, men wearing armor, and guns. Imagine their terror. Indians fought on foot with silent weapons. The Spanish rode on horseback like half-human, half-animal creatures. Their weapons sounded like thunder, and thunder was the province of the gods. It’s a testament to Zuni bravery that the warriors held out for one day.”
At this Indian pueblo, visitors are welcome to wander the dusty streets of the village. For behind-the-scenes insights about Zuni history and culture, walking tours are available for a small fee. Inquire at the visitors center.
Our tour followed winding lanes, between stone and adobe houses to the small, ceremonial dance plaza, the heart and cultural soul of the village. Steps led up to the flat roof of a one-story building.
During ceremonies, many open to the public, spectators crowd the roofs to view the sacred dances. One of the most famous is the Shalako. The winter solstice celebration in December marks the end of the old year and the beginning of the new. Elaborately dressed dancers with 9-foot-tall costumes personify the kachinas, the spirits that protect and guide the Zunis.
From our viewpoint above the plaza, we saw the nearby Our Lady of Guadalupe Mission built by the Spanish in 1629, and a scenic mesa rising in the distance. Inside the cavernous church, our tour guide explained the intriguing relationship between the traditional Zuni belief system and the Catholic religion.
Paintings of life-sized, dancing kachinas cover the top third of the plastered sanctuary walls. The spiritual figures, with their painted bodies and frightening masks, seem out of place, but they’ve been dancing in Zuni villages for more than 1,000 years. Catholics stopped holding services in the church in 2004 and returned it to the Zunis. After nearly 400 years of conquest, the Zunis still practice their traditional religion, speak their language, and live in their ancestral lands.
Zuni artisans are world-renowned for their detailed silver inlay jewelry; pottery; and fetishes, or carved stone animals. A number of galleries in the Zuni Pueblo sell directly to visitors at a fraction of the cost of that charged by city galleries.
As you travel eastward from Zuni toward Grants via State Route 53, the Ancient Way Arts Trail reveals even more shops; in Grants, too, the galleries abound. Altogether, trading posts along the Ancient Way represent hundreds of artists. Contact the Ancient Way Arts Trail and each town using the information below for a list of museums, stores, and more.
State Route 53
Disappointed that the Zunis lived in houses made of mud, not gold, Coronado and his entourage of 2,000 headed east toward El Morro, a mesa with 250-foot sheer walls and a dependable reservoir of water. A path to the top leads to an 875-room ancestral Zuni pueblo, which was already in ruins when they arrived.
Coronado added his name to the Indian petroglyphs on the cliff face. Over the next 400 years, Spanish explorers, American soldiers, cowboys, and locals contributed more than 2,000 inscriptions to the sandstone walls. El Morro National Monument also includes a campground with nine no-hookup sites (27-foot maximum vehicle length). One mile away, the private El Morro RV Park & Cabins offers 25 sites with full hookups.
The Ancient Way continues east across the Continental Divide. No record exists, but I suspect Coronado also stopped at the Ice Cave. The privately owned Ice Cave and Bandera Volcano are surrounded by El Malpais National Monument and El Malpais National Conservation Area. The 378,000 acres of lava tubes, caves, cinder cones, and ancient trees include Rocky Mountain junipers believed to be 2,000 years old.
The short trail to the Ice Cave leads through a tortured landscape of fractured lava to a deep lava tube. A thick sheet of ice covers the bottom of the cave. The lava insulates the ice from the summer heat, so it never melts. At El Malpais National Monument, trails lead to more cinder cones, caves, natural arches, petroglyphs, and vistas of the rugged landscape. A 7.5-mile trail traces portions of the original Ancient Way that connected the Zuni and Acoma pueblos, both nearly 1,000 years old.
Back on State Route 53 heading east, we passed a herd of elk grazing near the edge of the forest. A side road, BIA 125, leads south to a sanctuary for another reminder of the untamed west: wolves. The Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary provides a lifetime home for captive-bred wolves and wolf dogs.
George Stapleton, the refuge manager, said that the sanctuary educates visitors regarding wolves and the problems of the wolf-dog breeding industry. “Wolves are strong-willed creatures that don’t make good pets,” he added.
Primitive camping is available at Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary (www.wildspiritwolfsanctuary.org), for those who wish to hear the surreal singing of the wolves at night.
As we left the sancturary, one wolf started howling and others joined in. Suddenly we were surrounded by hair-raising harmony. The outburst stopped us in our tracks. The primal cry captured the enduring, living spirit found along the Ancient Way.
The main towns of the Ancient Way Arts Trail are Gallup, Grants, and Zuni. For more information, including area campground suggestions, contact:
Gallup: www.thegallupchamber.com; (800) 380-4989, (505) 722-2228
Grants: www.grants.org; (800) 748-2142, (505) 287-4802
Zuni: www.zunitourism.com; (505) 782-7238
Ancient Way Arts Trail: www.ancientwayartstrail.com