About 100 years. Or at least according to US law at El Morro National Monument in northwestern New Mexico it’s about 100 years. That’s because it was in 1906 that the law was passed protecting this historic (and natural) treasure of the Southwest from any further carving. But to understand the significance of Inscription Rock and why it needs protection, history buffs need to go back much further than 1906.
The giant sandstone formation jutting out the harsh surrounding landscape like an imposing castle has attracted residents, explorers, weary travelers for centuries, and more recently the curious tourists in their family station wagons and SUV’s. The earliest people came to this spot for the most basic of reasons, water that collects in a natural pool at the base of the giant cliff face. This life giving source in a land of volcanic rock badlands and vast stretches of parched earth was the home of more than a thousand people for nearly a century, and those willing to make the strenuous hike to the top of the cliff will be rewarded with the ruins of the once thriving civilization from nearly 800 years ago.
Several hundred years later, it was that same water that attracted Spanish explorers to this spot while charting large swaths of new lands recently claimed by the expanding empire. Today’s visitors can read (or at least admire) the text in an archaic form of today’s Spanish, some dating back as far as 1692. It is thought provoking knowing that in a distant time some armor clad conquistador stood in this same spot and took the time and effort to leave a message for us today. They may have been the first, but they weren’t the last.
Over the next several centuries, control of these lands passed from Spain to Mexico and eventually to the United States in 1848. The acquisition of the Southwest by the US opened a flood of settlers moving from the east, some leaving their mark as they moved west. It is very humanizing thinking that when P. Gilmer Breckenridge carved his name here in 1856, he was passing by this same point on his way to what he hoped would be a better life in a new and unknown land. It is no longer just a name in a history book. He becomes a real person with the same emotions, hopes, and dreams that we still have today.
It is simply human nature for all of us to leave a lasting mark on this world. Something that says we were here long after we’re gone. For these few lucky explorers and travelers their voice can still be heard, one small mark they left behind will hopefully be around for centuries to come so future visitors will hear a small echo of the past.
El Morro National Monument, New Mexico March 2016