I followed the red needle of my compass. For days I kept on it, never straying from the course it set across the badland desert of northwestern New Mexico. An ancient road ran beneath me, its perfect lines almost entirely obscured by blown sand and urchins of sage. The compass was the only thing that kept me on it.
I was here researching a network of thousand-year-old roads, meticulously engineered across the Four Corners region. Over a hundred miles of them have been documented so far; estimates go as high as a thousand. Their purpose is a mystery. Some archaeologists even hesitate to call them roads, since the people who constructed them had no mechanical transportation, no beasts of burden, no wheel. Yet they lie thirty feet wide, cut a foot deep into soil and bedrock, and run perfectly straight across complicated terrain. Rather than bending to go around cliffs or buttes, the roads resort to masonry steps, earthen ramps, or even stairways carved into the cliffs themselves.
For all that is not known about these ancient roads, it is clear that they were made by a highly organized society, one which demanded that its pathways be absolutely direct. Over the last few decades, archaeologists have come to believe that these roads connected an extensive desert community, and that goods were carried along them.
I took ten days to walk from the ruined metropolis of Chaco Canyon, north across the desert to the town of Aztec. I was documenting the remains of great masonry compounds that once stood like flagships along this particular road. I looked at the pottery, searching for signs of trade, for ceramics that had been brought from faraway places. These pots were not everyday possessions, but more likely, offerings brought to religious centers. It looks as if few people lived inside these masonry compounds. Very little sign of cooking fires or everyday trash shows up in the rooms. Perhaps the people came from great distances, only to leave behind their fine pottery, their ornate jewelry made of rare stones, their bundles of corn — pilgrims, maybe, walking the long, broad roads of ceremony, their offerings heavy on their backs.
I had left Chaco and its checkerboard ruins of standing walls, its deep round mouths of ceremonial rooms, and walked in the silent landscape beyond. Days of sage and saltbush. At dawn, I heard dogs barking, and a flustered rooster from a far-off, windswept ranch. Mid-day, a battered truck appeared and disappeared on the horizon. Otherwise, I saw no one. I heard only wind and the sky-rumble of jetliners passing over an inhospitable earth.
Walking through the lunar dust of badlands, I arrived at clusters of rubble marking buildings that had been in use around 1100 A.D. I could tell by the pieces of broken pottery, the thinness of black painted lines on white clay, to which era these buildings belonged. Some stood atop high, rock-headed buttes. Others left their marks in the desiccated soil below. At the top of one of the buttes, I found the remaining shoulders of two-story walls around the craters of collapsed rooms.
From this butte, I looked north and saw something I had not expected. The pump jacks of numerous natural gas wells swayed up and down like conductors’ hands in the distance. I heard the puttering of motors. I was entering a new land. Different geology. Signs of modern humans. For the rest of my journey, I would walk between two civilizations. This ancient road would carry me through the heart of a young nation’s gas fields.
The next morning, I came to the first well pad, walking up to it with my pack heavy on my back. It was driven by a single-spark-plug engine, spinning a few wheels, a couple of belts, huffing and kicking like a 1920s car engine. It raised and lowered the pump jack no faster than an old man bending for a penny on the ground. Oily water bubbled from old, sun-baked gaskets, darkening the hard earth.
I know a few petroleum geologists, and have walked with them on the land. I’ve seen in them less a love for industry than a fascination with the earth’s labyrinthine interior. These are men who still enjoy maps made of paper, old-fashioned field geologists.
Thinking of them, I imagined this machine in front of me to be a Jules Verne vessel plunging into the invisible underworld, sending this finger of a steel rod into imagined salt domes and anticlines far below the surface. Maybe that’s naive. These things were not built out of curiosity. Knowing the way we commonly use gas with such humdrum reliance, I imagined this machine, instead, as a metal slave, digging soullessly for money.
Looking out across these mumbling, tinkering machines, I decided to look at these modern landmarks the same way I studied the archaeological remains. Perhaps in this way I could see through veils of time and understand something about the drives of my own people. If these machines were dead and ancient, if I found them standing like skeletons in the deserts, what then would I believe?
Days and countless pumps passed as I walked north. The landscape was scored by curiously wide roads, broad enough for three flatbed trucks side-by-side. Yet I saw not one vehicle in days. These roads seemed abandoned, yet they were kept well graded. Sand dunes slowly crept across them. I climbed over their barbed wire fences and locked pipe rail gates, crossing one road after the next in a land consisting more of roads than not.
Of course, it made me think of the prehistoric road I was following, and its surrounding council of roads across the entire Four Corners. Archaeologists believe the ancient roads were primarily ceremonial. And if the buildings they led to were not houses, they must have been ceremonial, too.
These new roads and these wells were also the artifacts of ceremony. No people lived here; there were no schools, no markets, no homes. The roads lead only to these groaning, throbbing pumps. They proclaim industry and wealth, announcing the presence of civilization, yet not the presence of living people.
Commerce and engineering are hauled on sacred paths, assembled in the far lands. The lonely, sanctified prostrations of pump jacks go on day and night, a constant prayer to the black interior of the earth. For the civilization of America, this gas is more holy than any church.
Perhaps if I had not walked for days with the weight of water on my back, if I had not spent these nights alone under mobs of stars, I would have thought differently. I would have laughed at the notion that the ceremonies of the Chaco civilization were much like the rituals of the oil and gas industry. But now, moving to the ceaseless metronome of my footsteps, I felt as if my customary judgments had fallen away. What is the line that divides ceremony from religion, spirituality from money? Wars are waged over such things. Humans are always the same animal, pouring across the planet, scoring it with our desires.
There is something that happens when you are alone in the desert. You forget your name after a while. You forget even why you came. Your shadow and the tracks behind you become the only proof that you are truly here. Conventional ways of thinking suddenly seem awkward, alien. Perhaps that was why I came to walk this road. I wanted to see beyond the limits of my modern mind.
I kept walking north. From the slopes of distant mesas, I heard the hollow roars of the gas wells. They sounded like the long trumpets of Tibet bellowing from behind temple walls. Far ahead, I saw white banners of highway billboards. Their lettering was illegible in the mirage-waves of summer heat. I chose the middle one as my landmark, the place where my compass told me the ancient road passed. The billboard became a distant omen growing closer, its white-lettered message shimmering. Of what wonders would I be told? Finally, I could hear the racing of cars and trucks, the slick sound of tires on dry asphalt. I walked right up to the billboard, staring at it over my head.
FIFTH GENERATIONS INDIAN ARTS & CRAFTS FARMINGTON, NEW MEXICO
What does that mean? I tentatively crossed the four-lane highway, its ground strangely textured, vehicles racing at me at unimaginable speeds. No wonder badgers and raccoons and deer so often meet their ends at the grillplates of cars. I scrambled away from the highway and dropped into a deep badlands canyon on the other side.
Here, I found only the inescapable rumble of wells pumping gas out of the canyon, the prized spice driven up through pipes, the force supplied by gasoline-powered engines. Gas feeding gas. I must have walked into an area of particular richness, because for the next three days I found not a moment of quiet. Choirs of capitalism sang day and night. The ship-engine roar of pumps and compressors registered in my ears as alarms constantly going off, ringing a warning across the canyon. I could not erase them from my every awareness as I walked, as I slept, as I ate.
At one point, I reached a butte-top rubble pile of 900-year-old buildings. Doorways still stood around me as I walked from room to room, studying the fine, tabular masonry. In the center of an exposed ceremonial kiva sat a mule deer antler, an offering that had been here for some few years, wearing into chalk, its tips melting into the ground. I touched the antler. Who placed this? A crystal-gazing white person? A Pueblo representative out maintaining claims to ancestral grounds? Perhaps this was an offering to human diligence, an acknowledgement of the fact that people once brought their lives to this dry and desolate region and invented a civilization here. Placed in the center of a round ceremonial room, this was a contribution to our survival, past and future.
Walls now standing only knee-high rose and fell around me as I toured the remains of this compound, thumbing up pieces of broken pottery. Building stones lay at the cliff edge, poised to fall into the canyon below. This would have once been an impressive two-story complex standing on this high neck of land. Now it was only a pile of rocks and broken pottery. From all around, I heard the voices of the oil and gas robots. Day-glo flagging fluttered from surrounding buttes, marking future endeavors. Were these also offerings? We had marked the buttes with our prayer flags, our wishes for prosperity, for survival. We fear vanishing, our civilization collapsing, so we plant ourselves everywhere we can. At any cost, we proclaim ownership over the nations and landscapes that fall beneath us.
Standing in the ruins of this building, I could have wept for all of us creatures who toil at the earth as if angry at it, but at the same time revere it, honor it — loving it so fiercely that it crumbles in our oil-stained hands. But I was still a scientist here; I did not weep. I thought: Both the ancient people and the people of today have built things of beauty and violence. We have done what we were told to do. We have multiplied. We have hardly paused to imagine where we might be going.
Back down in the canyon, I found myself in the thick of gas production. Instead of being deserted, the roads here were busy with motion, with the congested coughing of flat beds in low gear, with sun-glistening pickup trucks darting from site to site with the busy intensity of bees mobbing a bush of flowers. Each truck sported a high orange flag so that from a great distance it could be seen through the gauze of heat and windsand. I moved invisibly among these racing vehicles. No one glanced my way.
On my last night, I came to an overpass where the highway crossed over my head. The underside was lavished with surprisingly artful spray-painted graffiti. Yes, I thought, I have seen your rock art, too. I have walked your desert cliffs, passing your carefully carved images now a thousand years old.
The civilization that was once here is now gone, its memory lost to countless generations and discarded traditions. Its descendants have not lived in this region for hundreds of years. The old civilization did not fall easily. In certain ancient pueblos, the end was marked by incredible violence, as these beautiful, straight roads caved into disrepair. Many of the larger population centers bear records of conflict. Skulls are found in one room, and the rest of the bodies are scattered elsewhere. Within only a few miles of this overpass, an ancient tower was discovered, and in it were the remains of numerous children and infants who had been burned alive.
We did what we were told to do. We multiplied. We covered the land. And then we covered ourselves with time, blankets upon blankets of generations, one civilization after the next.
Into the evening, I listened to the most recent manifestation of this evolutionary dance. The highway ran like an urban freeway, tanker trucks hemming and hawing up the grade, street cars slick with speed. It sounded like rush hour. It was the end of the day in an oil and gas boomtown, Bloomfield, N.M. The hallowed gas wells had been serviced for the day and these supplicants returned home to spend whatever wages had come to them. The sound of civilization filled my night and I slept until I could hear it no longer.
Long after midnight, the driving ceased. I woke and for the first time in days, heard only silence.