We walked down the paved steps into the canyon. They wound back and forth switchback style away from the visitors center and deeper into the foliage. Once we reached the bottom of the stairs, which ended at the top of a level clifftop, I glanced at the sign, which directed us to walk counter clockwise around a series of cliff dwellings in Walnut Canyon.
In our short week-long road trip in northern Arizona, we’d become intimately familiar with cliff dwellings, many of which were inhabited and abandoned over the course of several hundred years by the Anasazi, Hopi, Navajo and others.
This variety of cliff dwellings includes small rooms that may have housed a single family and larger village-like structures of 80 or more rooms that are reminiscent of small cities. There are still pieces of broken pottery in the store rooms, and innovative ventilation systems were built into many of the living quarters.
At Walnut Canyon, visitors are welcome to walk right next to the dwellings, which sit on a ledge above the canyon floor. This differs from our experiences at other national parks. At Navajo National Monument, for example, we took a guided tour to Betatakin, a massive settlement where 150 people lived at any one time, and walked among the ruins whereas at Canyon de Chelly we hiked for hours just to get within several hundred feet from one of the many cliff dwellings located in the canyon. At Wupatki National Monument, we could freely poke in and out of rooms without a guide.
I know that many people live nomadic lifestyles today, but that is by choice. They live out of RVs or backpacks as they make their way from one unknown destination to the next. But as we walked among the cliff dwellings, I thought about the people that used to live there. I’d read the museum exhibits and literature we picked up on our trip, and those who called these cave dwellings home never did so for very long. If a community stuck around for 50 years before abandoning the buildings, it was considered a long time.
Those who lived in these dwellings were nomadic by necessity, not by choice. At Navajo National Monument, in fact, there were storage containers packed with kernels of corn, as if the inhabitants anticipated returning to the site again someday. I’m sure wandering among the canyons and wilderness looking for a place to plant and live is significantly different than coming to a fork in the road and turning the steering wheel in either direction. I wonder what the nomads of yesterday would think about those of today.
We rounded the final corner of our walk around Walnut Canyon and stopped to look out across the valley. A family walked by with a couple of kids in tow. “Where do you want to eat for lunch today?” the father asked.
“McDonald’s,” a young boy answered.
“Sounds good.” The family walked up the stairs, out of the canyon and up to the parking lot.
How times have changed.