National Parks in the American Southwest reveal majestic peaks or desert gardens, color-striated rocks or dwellings of ancient people. But one national monument, El Morro, protects a path called Inscription Trail, where pioneers—from ancient travelers to Spanish explorers and American soldiers—left a mark on the soft stone near a pool of water.
The railroad and later, the highway, would divert traffic from this out-of-the-way spot. A bit closer, you’ll spy a pool of clean, clear water at the base of rock bluffs. This stopping point attracted Anasazi, Spanish and American travelers throughout a 700-year period who planned to drink their fill at a desert oasis. Today the national monument is frequented by tourists on highway 53, which runs from Highway 40 (the old historic route 66) in New Mexico to Highway 602, north to Gallup.
On a winter’s day few visitors pull into the national monument. Black crows fly overhead. The desert silence is a contrast to one hundred years ago when stagecoach after stagecoach pulled up to this very parking lot, hot and thirsty people spilling out in hopes of a drink of water in a parched land. The draw is historic graffiti, etchings of Anasazi petroglyphs in the walls of the soft stone followed by Spanish writings detailing explorer’s exploits. Just after the Spanish words you’ll find English script, mostly names, etched into the stone with flourishes and swirls.
“The Americans would bring tombstone carving implements,” says an interpretative ranger at the desk in the visitors’ center. “Eventually, it became famous to ride out here and carve your name in the inscription rock.” The elaborate script looks a bit like embroidery in stone.
Contemporary graffiti is not prized, however, and a large chunk of soft sandstone sits outside the visitors center’s front door. This is for modern-day graffiti by those with an itch to see their names in stone.
El Morro is small by national monument standards, just two square miles, but the names and drawings left behind detail the history of the Southwest in the blink of an eye. Here Anasazi people stride across the rock with the economy of drawing that indicates human figures with elaborate hairstyles. Spanish military officers describe their distinctions, flatter the Spanish royalty or list relatives. In one hilarious bit of puffery, a vain Spaniard has written glowing remarks about himself. The flowery compliment is crossed out by his rival who wants to set the record straight.
The azure pool of water shimmers in the desert light. Snow trickles from the bluff tops, running together to a common end. At one time around 1275, Anasazi communities built pueblos atop the bluffs. They abandoned the site as they did others in the Southwest for unknown reasons.
The Anasazi were followed by the Spanish. Don Juan de Onate wrote on the rock in 1605. Diego de Vargas added script in 1692. “Paso por aqui”—”Passed by here,” is a favorite line.
Americans began arriving by 1849. J.H. Simpson and R.H. Kern became the first to sign their names. Edward Beale, a lieutenant in the United States Army strode by on camels in 1857, but was called home to fight in the Civil War. Pioneers flocked to the site in wagons, headed west, bent on reaching California.
In 1868, the Union Pacific Railroad looked for suitable land. The pool no longer enticed those who boarded a train for the West. By 1906, El Morro was designated a national monument and the writings were an overnight historic stone document, closed to any new rock writers. Today a concrete path leads around the stone at the base of the bluffs. Those tending the visitors center provide a detailed booklet that translates the Spanish engravings and explains each person named. It’s a gentle walk, easily an hour or less, but you’ll find yourself musing over every entry. The booklet reads like a diary that spans hundreds of years.
The pool of water looks like a natural swimming pool. No doubt much of the water dissipates in the desert air. But there’s enough snow and rain to keep the pool filled to the brim, with cattails emerging from the water’s edge.
El Morro often is linked to the El Malpais National Monument in northwest New Mexico. El Morro is west of El Malpais, a tiny outpost compared with the forested El Malpais Wilderness. El Malpais means “badlands” in Spanish, perhaps because of its lava and limestone formations. El Morro National Monument, Route 2, Box 43, Ramah, New Mexico, 87321-8603; 505-783-4226; www.nps.gov/elmo.