“Leave No Trace” Camping–A Ghost Story

Santa FeBandelier 052I don’t know why I took a selfie in the Bandelier National Monument backcountry.  Any trip into backcountry relies heavily on the principles of “Leave No Trace” camping, which simply means that there should be absolutely no trace that you ever passed through.  That extends as far as hiking out your own used toilet paper, although you can still dig a hole to leave your poop. I guess a selfie just proves you were there, sort of like a digital Iliad, Homer’s Greeks wanting to be remembered for sacking Troy.

Although you shouldn’t leave a trace of your own passing at Bandelier National Monument, the people who lived there before left proof of their existence everywhere.  Ancestral Pueblans (I learned that “anastazi” is now considered derogatory) were intimately tied to this place.  They lived profoundly attached to the land and all that moved through it, and carved their homes into the flesh of Frijoles Canyon. SantaFe&Taos 025

I had already visited the cliff dwellings of Frijoles the year before, and this year I wanted more than anything to just get away.  I wanted to lose myself in the land, and so hiked into the Bandelier backcountry alone.

To get to the backcountry, there is a bit of hiking up out of Frijoles, and then a lot more hiking down and back up and down again through first Lummis Canyon and then Alamo Canyon.  Past Alamo, I headed for what was marked on the map as the Yapashi ruins, which turned out to be an unimpressive and unexcavated Pueblan dwelling, but then further on a small kiva, which turned out to be a still-active holy site know as “Stone Lions.” Santa FeBandelier 039Not so innocently rummaging around, I came across a small painted pottery shard.  You’ll come across a lot of pottery shards in parts of New Mexico; they could have lain there 300 years, or closer to 1000.  You’re not supposed to disturb relics, particularly in National Monuments, but this piece I held on to as I sat beneath the shade of a small tree and thought about the very real people who built this kiva and broke this pot–who left a trace.

Sitting there, alone on the ground, holding this piece of someone’s pottery and thinking about these people, I suddenly heard the very loud buzz of a hummingbird right behind my head.  It was gone as soon as it had arrived, leaving me only to think “wow, that was weird.”  I hadn’t seen any hummingbirds up until then, and put the shard back where I’d found it.

I still had a few hours of daylight left to hike, so headed on down the trail.  By the time I reached the juncture of Stone Lions and Capulin Trails, it was getting late and time to find a flat spot for my tent.  I came across a beautiful sort of valley, and the wonderful thing about sleeping in this place where people had lived for thousands of years was how totally alone I felt.Santa FeBandelier 043

With the tent set and dinner consumed, I had a few minutes of light left to walk around my campsite, and discovered that I had inadvertently installed my tent within 20 feet of an unexcavated Pueblan dwelling.Santa FeBandelier 045If you didn’t know where you were, you’d just think it was an overgrown pile of rocks, but within a couple of minutes of more not-so-innocent rummaging around I had come across more painted pottery shards.  You’re not supposed to camp within 50 feet of ancestral relics, but it was late and the chances of a Ranger coming by were pretty close to zero, so I left the tent where it was and went solidly to sleep, twenty feet from the lodge of people dead for hundreds of years.

I slept stunningly well this trip.  But this night, I awoke around 2:30 a.m. when a bright white light passed my tent on the side away from the ruins, accompanied by shuffling footsteps.  If you’ve ever slept in a tent on a cold night, snug in your sleeping bag, then you know the not quite awake/not quite asleep state that you can drift in and out of, and I’m pretty sure that’s where I was.  I thought it was probably a Ranger passing by, because I felt guilty about breaking the rules.  And then no sooner had I thought “no Ranger is going to be out checking my campsite at 2:30 in the morning, way out here” when I realized I could clearly see a large group of people gathered in front of my tent, despite the closed fly.

Not able or wanting to move, I tried to decide if I was truly awake or not.  I was aware that I was not afraid, but this inexplicable group was so real, the ground, my tent, the grass, all of it exactly as I knew it to be before the sun went down.

In the middle of this thought, a hand and forearm came through my tent from the side toward the lodge.  I was laying on my right side, back to that side of the tent, solidly grounded with the earth, and the hand and arm reached directly across my hip to the ground on the other side.  The hand and arm were totally black, but, again, I was aware that I wasn’t afraid.

When I rolled slightly to the left and lifted my head to look at the arm, I could again see another large group of people on that side of the tent, between me and the ruins.  “This is really weird,” I thought.  Now, I was definitely and totally awake.Santa FeBandelier 061

I don’t know why I was visited that night.  I’m not a particularly superstitious person, and not very emotional.  But “Leave No Trace” camping speaks to me deeply, the acknowledgement that we can efface ourselves amid so much perfection, that we can be so small and insignificant yet so joined to something immensely greater than ourselves.  The traces of ancestral Pueblans are everywhere here, their passage through time and the land literally carved into stone.  My selfie won’t ever matter to anyone, but I’m thinking that some day, someone may wake in the middle of the night and see me outside their tent.