In Which I Unleash My Inner Viking & Discover a New Ancestor

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A sign from Reykjavik (Bob Sessions photo)

The picture at left (a sign we saw in Reykjavik) begs the question: why in the world would one want to unleash one’s inner Viking? They were, after all, the feared Northmen who plundered and raided the coastlines of Europe for hundreds of years, beginning with the sack of the English monastery of Lindisfarne in 793.

I knew the reputation of these bad boys on my family tree before visiting Iceland. But while I was there I visited a number of sites that helped give a more nuanced interpretation of the Viking Age, including the National Museum of Iceland, the Settlement Exhibition at the Reykjavik City Museum, the Saga Museum, and Viking World. While I’m not quite ready to buy the entire Vikings-Were-Just-Misunderstood-Farmers explanation, I was happy to learn that my ancestors weren’t an entirely blood-thirsty lot.

Viking-friendly historians point out, for example, that these Norsemen lived in a violent age, and that Europe had plenty of marauding groups that rivaled them for ferocity. What’s more, many Norsemen put their seafaring skills to use as merchants, traders and explorers.

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Leif the Lucky and me in Reykjavik (photo by Bob Sessions)

Exhibit A is Leif Erikson. He was dubbed Leif the Lucky because things just seemed to go his way—including landing on the shore of North America somewhat by accident around the year 1000. Leif dubbed the region Vinland (historians can’t agree on exactly where he landed, but a good guess is somewhere on the coast of what is now Canada). He was said to be a handsome, wise and generous man, just the sort of person one wants to have in the family gene pool. I was happy to have my picture taken with him in Reykjavik, where there’s a mammoth statue of him overlooking the city.

It was another statue that caught me by surprise. As we were driving along a deserted stretch of highway on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, we came upon a monument honoring Leif’s sister-in-law, Gudrid.

Gudrid was born on a farm near the statue, but she certainly didn’t stay there for long. As you can see from the map below that depicts her travels, Gudrid had the Viking wanderlust something fierce. She lived in Iceland and Greenland before traveling to Vinland, where she gave birth to the first child of European origin in the New World. Three years later, she traveled to Norway, then back to Iceland, where she settled on a farm and raised two sons on her own after her second husband’s death. Then, at an age when most women were settling into old age, she sailed to Denmark and walked on pilgrimage to Rome.

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A sign at Gudrid’s statue on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula depicts the many journeys she took. (photo by Bob Sessions)

Let me repeat that: She walked on pilgrimage to Rome. Isn’t that amazing? Historians say Gudrid was probably the most well-traveled woman of the Middle Ages. She crossed the stormy Atlantic no less than eight times. She straddled the Old World and the New and the shift between the pagan and Christian eras. She’s lauded in the Sagas as “Gudrid the Far-Traveler,” a woman renowned for her courage, wisdom and goodness. To this day, most Icelanders proudly claim descent from her.

Forget Leif Erikson–after learning about Gudrid, I want to change my name to Lori Gudridsdóttir.

Nancy Marie Brown’s book The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman gives more background on this remarkable woman. Gudrid lived during the era when beliefs in the Norse gods and goddesses were being supplanted by Christianity, but there was still considerable blending of the two traditions. Images of Christ from the period, for example, have a lot in common with muscular Thor.

Brown writes that Christianity was likely adopted first by women in Iceland. While Viking women (freeborn ones, at least) enjoyed considerable status in pagan society, the new religion brought additional benefits. Infanticide–which historically was done more to girl babies–was outlawed. Distinctions between social classes were lessened among converts. But the biggest attraction concerned the afterlife.  “Valhalla, the glorious feast hall of Odin, was open only to men killed in battle,” writes Brown. “Several other gods had halls that welcomed certain dead, but most women . . . could look forward only to a cold, damp, dark, dreary and depressing eternity ruled by Hel, the half-giant daughter of Loki.”

To me the most surprising chapter of Gudrid’s life was her pilgrimage to Rome. Think of it: her husband was dead, her children grown. I can see her standing on the shore of the sea, pondering her future of settled domesticity. I’m sure there was religious devotion in her decision to go on pilgrimage, but I think she also was restless for another big trip. Her feet were itching. She who had traveled so far knew that there was one last journey in her.

And think of what she experienced, this woman who had lived only in remote outposts of the Atlantic. She walked across the Alps, saw huge cities, toured gilded cathedrals, and shopped in markets filled with exotic treasures from around the world.

When Gudrid returned home, she became a nun, living out the rest of her days in a church her son built for her. I’m sure she was devout, but I also think she must have spent a lot of time savoring in her mind all that she had seen.

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A statue of Gudrid and her son Snorri stands near the farm where she was born in the latter part of the 900s. (photo by Bob Sessions)

(About the only thing Gudrid did that I don’t approve of was naming her first son Snorri. If you look at the picture of her statue at right, you can see what happens when you name your son Snorri: everybody thinks he’s a dwarf.)

Isn’t life wonderful? I came to Iceland eager to learn more about Leif Erikson, but to my delight I found an ancestor I claim even more enthusiastically.

Gudrid’s story helped me realize that there seems to be a recessive gene for travel in my family. The Vikings had it in spades, but through the centuries it became diluted. By the time it reached my farming ancestors in Iowa, it had pretty much dwindled out. My parents, wonderful people in all other ways, viewed travel with the deepest suspicion. Even a trip to a seemingly friendly state like Wisconsin or Minnesota held multiple risks—uncomfortable beds, unfamiliar roads, the prospect of getting lost, restaurants where you didn’t know exactly what to order. Best just to stay home.

For whatever reason, however, I got the traveling gene. It explains the route I’ve followed ever since leaving the farm of my childhood, the restlessness I feel whenever I’m home for more than a few weeks, and the sense I have of being most fully alive when I’m on a trip.

So here’s what I learned in Iceland, the insight that turned my trip into a pilgrimage (for the best journeys teach us about ourselves as well as other places). I know that for most of my life, I’ve felt like a chick that was put into the wrong nest at birth. But in Iceland, I discovered that my clan includes a lot of people like me. Some were Vikings, setting off in longboats to raid distant shores. Some were adventurers like Leif the Lucky. And some were like Gudrid the Far-Traveler, who seemed to have taken nearly every opportunity she had to set off to sea. I can recognize a kindred spirit when I see one, even from a distance of 1,000 years.

 

 

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Iceland’s Ring Road

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The Ring Road of Iceland is one of the world’s great road trips. (Bob Sessions photo)

There are times when we English majors simply have to concede that images trump words.

Today is one of those times, for I honestly don’t know how I can adequately convey the beauty and grandeur of Iceland’s Ring Road. Bob and I spent eight days driving this 2,000-mile route that winds along the coastline of the main island of Iceland. When we started, we kept comparing the landscape to other places we had seen, from Scotland and New Zealand to Wyoming. But gradually we fell silent, for the ever-changing vistas proved themselves to be incomparable.

I know of no other country like Iceland. It holds mountains, waterfalls, high deserts, rich pastures, and tiny villages tucked under the looming shadow of glacier-topped peaks. One valley would be lush and green, and the next as bleak as the surface of the moon. Other than one 15-minute nap, I don’t think I missed a single section of the entire trip, for I was mesmerized by what was unfolding. Each night I dreamed of what we had seen that day, the images and colors gliding one into the next with wraith-like fluidity.

We did other memorable things that week—hikes up steep mountain canyons, meals of fish soup served in tiny cafes overlooking the sea, soaks in outdoor hot tubs with a cold rain needling our faces, and nights when we marveled at the northern lights dancing across the sky. But when I look back, what I remember most is that endless ribbon of highway, beckoning us ever onward, teasing us with the prospect of yet one more radiant expanse of sea, sky and earth.

So I wave the white flag and give up trying to describe it. Instead, here’s a small sampling of what we saw (with thanks to Bob Sessions for the images and Kevin MacLeod for his tune “Long Road Ahead”).

Visit Iceland can help you plan your own trip on the Ring Road.

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The Return of the Norse Gods and Goddesses

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Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson is the chief priest of Ásatrú, the contemporary revival of Old Norse paganism. (Bob Sessions photo)

One of the things I love best about my work is the chance to meet spiritual leaders in a wide range of traditions. Of all the people I’ve interviewed, Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson is one of the most interesting.

Hilmar is a well-known musician, film composer and art director in Iceland who has received a host of awards, including being named European Film Composer of the Year in 1991. But I wanted to talk to him because of another role he plays: allsherjargoði, or chief priest, of the religion Ásatrú, which is a revival of belief in the Old Norse gods and goddesses. On a gray morning in Reykjavik near the end of our stay in Iceland we spoke for nearly an hour about Icelandic history, its holy places, and what it takes to bring a dormant religion back to life.

Hilmar began by sketching a brief history of how Christianity came to be adopted in Iceland in the year 1000. “There was huge political and economic pressure to convert,” said Hilmar. “But I think it’s interesting that when the chieftains were trying to discern the way forward, they did a pagan ritual to decide. And even after Iceland became officially Christian, many people continued to follow the older traditions for several centuries.”

After that, the stories of Odin, Thor, Freyja and their divine kindred were primarily kept alive in the literature of Iceland, particularly in The Poetic Edda and The Prose Edda
(collections of Old Norse poems and stories). “Under the guise of teaching literature,” explained Hilmar, “people learned the old myths and stories.”

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The god Odin gave up one eye in return for wisdom. (Wikimedia Commons image)

The modern revival of the religion began in the 19th century, influenced by the Romantic Movement in Europe and a revitalized sense of Icelandic national identity. In 1972 the Icelandic government recognized Ásatrú as an official religion, giving it legal authority to conduct weddings and burials. Today about 3,000 people are officially part of the Ásatrú community.

One of the things I found most interesting about our discussion is learning of the intertwining of Celtic and Norse traditions in Iceland. DNA analysis of people who lived in Iceland at the time of its settlement in the ninth and tenth centuries have revealed that about 70 percent of the women were Celts from the British Isles. “They brought with them their stories and beliefs,” said Hilmar. “Women are often the ones who keep culture alive, because they’re the ones who teach the children. Icelandic culture owes nearly as much to the Celts as to the Norse.”

Hilmar has had a ringside seat for the revival of Ásatrú, for when he joined the community at the age of 16, he was number 36 on its official registry. He said that in its first decades Ásatrú remained small and was viewed skeptically by many Icelanders, but eventually public opinion changed.

“Slowly people began to see we were serious,” Hilmar said. “Today we are the largest non-Christian denomination in Iceland, and there’s considerable interest in what we do even if people aren’t official members. About 42 percent of Icelanders describe their religious viewpoint as pagan. I’m happy to say that our relations with Christian leaders have improved as well. There’s a sense of mutual respect between us.”

There are four main holidays in Ásatrú: the winter and summer solstices, the first day of summer, and a mid-winter celebration called Thorrablot honoring the god Thor. There is no sacred text, but rather a set of precepts that include tolerance, honesty, honor and respect for the cultural heritage and natural world of Iceland.

“Fundamentally, we’re a nature-based religion,” said Hilmar. “In Iceland, we’re humbled by nature every day. The land is active. You can feel it beneath your feet. It’s easy to feel awe here.”

As high priest, much of what Hilmar does are the ordinary but important rituals of any religion: marriages, funerals and naming ceremonies for babies. Even in our brief time together, I could sense that he is a person of warmth, strength and integrity, someone who has done his spiritual homework.

When I asked Hilmar if there were some sites that are considered particularly holy in his tradition, he named three (all of which, I’m pleased to say, we had visited on our tour of Iceland):

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Thingvellir, now a national park, is located on a fault line marking the boundary between two continental plates. (Bob Sessions photo)

Thingvellir is the place where representatives of all the tribes of Iceland began meeting once a year beginning around 930. The yearly assembly continued to 1798. In 1944, the nation gathered at Thingvellir to celebrate Iceland’s independence from Denmark. The site is also significant for its geology, for it sits on the fault line between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. “Thingvellir is the spiritual and symbolic heart of Iceland,” said Hilmar. “When you’re there, you can feel that it’s a place of power.”

The Snæfellsnes glacier lies atop what is widely regarded as the most beautiful mountain in Iceland (as with many of the peaks in Iceland, a volcano simmers beneath the ice). In the Icelandic histories known as the Sagas, Snæfellsnes was identified as an opening to the underworld, a tradition that inspired Jules Verne to write his novel Journey to the Center of the Earth.  Mary’s Well, which I described in my previous post, lies at the base of Snæfellsnes.

Helgafell, located on the north coast of the Snæfellsnes peninsula, is a low-lying mountain that is also mentioned in the Sagas. In ancient times it was a pilgrimage place particularly for those nearing death, for it was believed to be an entry point into the afterlife. It was said that from its peak, one could sometimes see Valhalla, the paradise of warriors. Today people climb it in hopes of being granted three wishes, provided they follow these rules: As they ascend, they cannot look back. They must walk in silence. And they can never reveal to others what their wishes were.

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This statue of Thor in Reykjavik is modeled after a bronze figure dating from the year 1000. (Bob Sessions photo)

Like a volcano of great power hidden under a blanket of snow, the Norse traditions underlie much of Icelandic history. The Icelanders were pagan far longer than they’ve been Christian, and today as Christianity wanes in much of Western Europe, it’s intriguing to see the ways in which these older traditions are resurfacing.

Would an ancient Norse warrior recognize the rituals of Ásatrú? The question gets to the heart of the challenges of reviving a religion. Because the culture of Iceland has changed so dramatically (no more chieftains fiercely guarding their honor or long boats setting off to raid foreign shores), simply copying the practices of a former era is not possible. How can a person believe in Thor as a thunder-maker if one understands the physics of lightning? But I think Ásatrú is saving the best parts of those old traditions–their deep respect for the natural world, their sense that there are powers far beyond human understanding, and their appreciation for the myths and stories that shaped the Icelandic world for centuries. And like any good religion, Ásatrú provides community and meaning for its followers and a guide for navigating the transitions of life: birth, marriage and death.

I know that when Bob and I stood on the top of Helgafell, that windswept promontory felt like many other holy spots we’ve visited–a thin spot, as the ancient Celts would say, where the boundaries between worlds is transparent. Like countless pilgrims before, we had followed the simple rules, which are likely a watered-down form of older and more complicated rituals. But I was struck by the spiritual truths embedded in those instructions: Don’t look back or dwell on the past. Meditate in silence to discover what you most desire. And keep the innermost yearnings of your heart private.

The picture below shows what we saw from the top of Helgafell. Perhaps it’s only because of my Scandinavian heritage, but for a few exquisite moments, I had no difficulty at all in believing I was looking at Valhalla.

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Valhalla, as seen from the top of Helgafell in Iceland (Bob Sessions photo)

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With the Hidden People in Iceland

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Stores in Iceland are full of creatures like these. (Bob Sessions photo)

Soon after we arrived in Iceland, Bob and I were browsing in a small town shop when the clerk saw me looking at some figurines for sale. “We have a lot of elves in Iceland, you know,” she said. “More than half of us believe in the Hidden People.”

When I asked if she herself had ever seen one, she assured me she had. “Go up to the park on the edge of town early in the morning and you might see some yourself,” she said.

One of the things I love about my husband is that when I suggest we get up early to hunt for elves, he doesn’t say no, but rather asks what time we need to leave. So the next morning there we were, walking slowly through the woods, peering underneath bushes, and occasionally saying loudly, “Boy, it sure would be nice to see some elves.”

You might see this as weird, but in my line of work this is called research.

We did a lot of elf research in Iceland. Before arriving, I’d read stories of how road planners in Iceland try to avoid places said to be home to huldufólk or Hidden People. Once there, I asked a wide range of Icelanders their opinions, from tour guides and college professors to locals we met while soaking in the public hot tubs that are a major part of Icelandic life.

There was a surprising amount of unanimity in their responses. While few had actually seen one of these creatures themselves, virtually everyone had an open mind about their existence. (The only person who flat-out denied the possibility of elves was a geologist who worked at one of the national parks. Note to self: in the future, do not try to interview scientists about magical creatures.)

I learned many things about elves from these conversations. Several people related the story of why the Hidden People are sometimes called the Dirty Children of Eve. When God asked Eve to show him her children one day, she didn’t have time to clean all of them up and so hid them, and they’ve stayed hidden ever since.

But that doesn’t mean that they stayed dirty. I learned that many of the Hidden People wear elegant clothes, typically in a style of an earlier age. “My grandmother and her sister saw them in a meadow once, and they were dressed in fancy outfits,” a man told me. “She was a militant atheist when it came to religious matters, but to her dying day she believed in elves.”

In the small village of Bakkagerði in the east of Iceland, Bob and I visited Álfabor, a pile of rocks said to be the Throne of the Elf Queen. The local Álfheimar Hotel offers Elf Tours that take visitors up into the surrounding mountains. I spoke to a young man on staff at the hotel who had grown up in the village. “It’s perfectly safe to walk around the throne, but you have to be careful not to move anything on it or take away any stones,” he told us.

He also told a story of a woman he knew who had lost her camera on a hike in the woods. To her astonishment, she came upon it three months later on a river bank and it was in pristine condition despite having been exposed to the elements for so long. When she checked it, she found that it contained pictures she hadn’t taken, shots of grass and stones. “Pretty clearly they were taken by elves,” he said–and who was I to disagree?

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The Throne of the Elf Queen is in the village of Bakkagerði in the East Fjords of Iceland (note the rock outcropping between the village and the mountain). (photo by Bob Sessions)

Perhaps I should be embarrassed to say that on our trip to Iceland, I actually looked diligently for elves on our hikes and walks. Does this make me crazy? I prefer to think it makes me Icelandic.

But it also has gotten me thinking about what it means to live in a landscape where the Hidden People might appear at any time. Similar traditions occur in other cultures, but Icelanders seem unique in being fully modern and yet open to this possibility. And because of their belief in these beings, Icelanders’ love for their environment comes with a bit of wariness–don’t put a road through that field, for example, or bad things may happen.

Looking back on my time in Iceland, I’m also struck by how my perceptions of the landscape changed because I was looking for the Hidden People. While l’m an avid hiker, I know I walked more deliberately in that landscape than in other places and experienced it more deeply as a result.

That gets to the heart of what most intrigues me about this belief in elves. Most of us live in a disenchanted world, but in Iceland nature is raw enough and close enough that the enchantment is still there. Part of it is the sheer power of its landscape, with its volcanoes, earthquakes, winds, rain and glaciers. In Iceland you know that you’re small and insignificant and that the world has more things in it than you can control or understand.

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On the Snæfellsnes Peninsula near Hellnar, a guardian spirit overlooks Mariulind, a shrine dedicated to the Virgin Mary. (photo by Lori Erickson)

So did we see any elves on our journey through Iceland? The easy answer is no. But let me tell you about two experiences that made me wonder. After visiting a holy spring in the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, I found something unusual on my camera. I had taken a variety of pictures of the spring and its statue of the Virgin Mary (wouldn’t you know that I’d find the one Virgin Mary shrine in all of Iceland). But when I looked through my pictures, I saw the picture at right. While that spring is associated with Mary, I think there may be another spirit watching over it as well.

Will you indulge me with one more story? On our last full day in Iceland, Bob and I took a group hike up a glacier and were heading back through a beautiful valley carpeted with grass and moss. The rest of the people had walked ahead, giving me some time alone with our guide. I peppered him with questions about the Hidden People, which he answered patiently.

“Just up there is an elf church,” he said, pointing to a large rock in the distance. “I’ve never seen anything there, but some people have.”

He told me that there are many stories of humans falling in love with elves. “Sometimes, you see, the person doesn’t realize they’ve met one of the Hidden People,” he said. “It’s only after they’ve fallen in love that the truth is revealed, and then they have to decide whether they’re going to go through the stones and join them forever.”

Then he mentioned that there was a folk song about just such a story. I asked him to sing it, and—after protesting that he didn’t have a good voice–he started singing in a resonant, clear tenor.

As we walked down that verdant valley, he continued to sing, the tune haunting and strange. I couldn’t understand the words but I knew they were filled with longing and sadness, and that the language I was hearing hadn’t changed much since the Vikings had walked this same landscape.

It was, beyond a doubt, a magical interlude, one of my most cherished memories from Iceland. And looking back, I’m not entirely certain my guide was human.

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The Elf Church near Mýrdalsjökull, a large glacier in southern Iceland (photo by Bob Sessions)

 

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On the Trail of Vikings and Elves in Iceland

Lori Erickson, Viking (Bob Sessions photo)

Lori Erickson, Viking (Bob Sessions photo)

Yes, I know it’s a cheesy photo. And those horns are totally wrong, because Vikings didn’t wear helmets like this. But something about visiting Iceland has put me in a playful mood, despite the fact the country threatened me with an exploding volcano, buffeted me with wind, froze me with cold, steamed me like a lobster in outdoor hot tubs, and led me across many a hill and dale in a vain search for elves. I’ve forgiven Iceland for all of it. In fact, by the time I left, I was hoping the volcano would erupt so I had an excuse to stay longer.

Bob and I went to Iceland for a meeting of the Society of American Travel Writers, but I had a personal reason as well, one that has to do with my last name: E-R-I-C-K-S-O-N. My ethnic heritage is Norwegian, but because the Norwegians settled Iceland, I’ve decided I get to claim it as my ancestral homeland too. In downtown Reykjavik they even have a statue of my most illustrious relative: Leif Erikson, the first European to visit North America. (Well, I don’t know for certain he’s my direct ancestor, but we have the same last name and how many people in Scandinavia have the unusual last name of Erickson?)

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A statue of Leif Erikson overlooks Reykjavik. The family resemblance is uncanny, isn’t it? (Bob Sessions photo)

For a country of just 320,000 people, Iceland competes above its weight class. They call it the Land of Fire and Ice, a tourism slogan more accurate than most. It’s a place where they like to multiply their natural disasters by installing glaciers on top of volcanoes–that way, there’s a gigantic flood when the volcano erupts. Earthquakes, lava flows, blizzards, ice storms, gale-force winds, even something called a volcano tornado–Iceland’s got ‘em all. The country is both gorgeously green and as bleak as Mordor in Lord of the Rings; with cold winds that chill you and bubbling geothermal pools that warm you back up again. If you’re bored with the same ol’-same ol’, you might want to head to Iceland to shake things up.

Iceland is also quirky, which perhaps comes from those long winters. At the opening reception for SATW, for example, the mayor of Reykjavik (movie star handsome, just like many of the Icelandic people) spoke of the country’s innovative marketing campaigns of the past few years. “In 2008 we crashed our economy and in 2010 we blew up the Eyjafjallajökull volcano and shut down European airspace for six days–both of which succeeded brilliantly in increasing recognition of our brand name,” he said.

It’s not surprising that a country with these characteristics has a complex and somewhat contradictory spirituality. More than half of Icelanders believe in God, but only a small fraction go to church more than once or twice a year. A surprisingly high percentage of them believe in the existence of Hidden People (a.k.a. elves). The largest non-Christian denomination is Ásatrú, a revival of faith in the Old Norse gods and goddesses.

Here’s what I think after two weeks of touring the country: if Thor, Odin and Freyja are still alive anywhere, it’s in Iceland.

In writing about Iceland, I also describe a type of trip I haven’t previously covered on this Spiritual Travels website. Searching for family roots often has elements of pilgrimage and can have profound effects on people’s identity. There are rich insights to be gained from walking in the steps of your ancestors.

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Looking out to sea from the bow of a Viking longship at Viking World in Reykjanesbær, Iceland (Bob Sessions photo)

I’ve wanted to visit Scandinavia for many years, and my experiences in Iceland were deeply meaningful to me. One of my favorite moments came when I stood in the bow of a reconstructed Viking longboat at Viking World in the seaside town of Reykjanesbær. The wooden vessel had been built according to old designs and was sailed to America in 2000 as part of the millennial celebration of Leif Erikson’s journey to the New World. Dismiss it as a romantic fantasy if you like, but as I stood there looking out at the stormy Atlantic just beyond the glass, for a few brief moments time and space seemed to shimmer a bit, almost as if I really was at sea with my ancestors.

It’s for moments like this that we travel, isn’t it? To be taken out of ourselves and transported to a place that is unexpected and yet familiar. I felt a shiver of recognition there and a call to something I still can’t quite name.*

So come along with me to Iceland over the next few Holy Rover posts. I’ll introduce you to the high priest of the old Norse religious community, tell you some stories about the Hidden People, take you along on One of the World’s Great Road Trips, and try to convince you that the Vikings were not marauders but rather misunderstood farmers with poor social skills. There may even be a troll sighting or two. Step on board, won’t you?

 *I know you’re thinking raiding and pillaging, but it’s not that.

 

 

 

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A Jesus Pilgrimage with James Martin

Several years ago I visited the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, the Trappist monastery where Thomas Merton spent many decades. I was excited to get the chance to interview the Guest Master at the abbey, but as the time approached for our meeting I found myself getting nervous. How does one interview a person who’s taken a vow of silence? (Well, they’re allowed to talk a little, but you know what I mean.) What could I possibly ask that didn’t sound trite to someone so deeply immersed in the contemplative life?

I entered the monk’s office with some trepidation, sat down, and asked my first question: “What do you hope people will take with them from their time at Gethsemani?”

The monk leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes. Seconds passed. I could hear the clock ticking on the wall. More seconds passed. The clock ticked on. I wondered if perhaps he’d dozed off. I fiddled with my pen and notebook, looking at the other questions I’d jotted down. I knew I only had a few minutes with the monk, and the clock kept ticking and ticking as the seconds stretched into minutes. I wondered if I should leave him in peace by sneaking out the door or wake him up.

Finally the monk opened his eyes and leaned forward. He clearly hadn’t been napping, but instead thinking. And then he answered my question with a single word: “Jesus.”

And that’s the story of the shortest interview I’ve ever conducted in my writing career. For honestly, I couldn’t think of a single question after that.

51mA7IoWUIL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Which brings me to the topic of the day, James Martin’s wonderful new book Jesus: A Pilgrimage. Faithful readers of this blog will recognize Martin’s name, for I’ve recommended his books before (most recently, The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life. Martin is a Jesuit priest and gifted writer, but here’s what I appreciate the most about him: he seems like the sort of person who’d be a good friend. His writing is both accessible and wise, like talking to someone who can teach you something without seeming preachy.

Unlike that Trappist monk, Martin has a lot to say about Jesus. His book is a blend of genres: a travelogue of a trip he made to holy sites in Israel, an overview of current Biblical scholarship about the historical Jesus, and a memoir detailing Martin’s own spiritual struggles and explorations. Most intriguing of all, the book is deeply shaped by his years of prayer as a Jesuit. The Jesuits practice a form of contemplation in which they put themselves into Biblical stories, imagining they are in the middle of the scenes. Martin frequently talks about insights that have come to him as a result of these meditations, often coming up with strikingly original and moving reflections that opened up the Gospel stories for me.

I also enjoyed getting the chance to re-visit sites I’d seen in Israel, from the small town of Capernaum on the shore of the Sea of Galilee to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem (I was pleased that Martin found it as intriguing, mystical and peculiar as I had). Martin writes that touring the Holy Land is like seeing the home of a friend you’ve known for a long time. Even if you think you know a lot about someone, visiting where they live and the places that shaped them brings new understanding. That’s certainly true for anyone fortunate enough to see where Jesus walked, lived and taught (and this is why the Holy Land is sometimes referred to as the Fifth Gospel).

In the book, it’s often the small details that are the most evocative. While visiting the site that tradition says is associated with the miracle of the multiplying of the loaves and fishes, for example, Martin writes of the boy who brought Jesus five barley loaves and two fish. It was a child who made the miracle possible, he says, and then goes on to tell of how many times it happens that something we believe to be small becomes something big for someone else:

We may feel that our efforts our inadequate. We try to help our friends and family, but nothing seems to work. We try to fix our children’s lives, but it doesn’t seem to help. We try to seek forgiveness, but others are still resentful. We try to encourage our friends, but they still seem disconsolate. We try to love, but it doesn’t seem enough.

But Jesus accepts what we give, blesses it, breaks it open, and magnifies it. Often in ways that we don’t see or cannot see. Or will not be able to see in this lifetime. Who knows what a kind word does? Who knows what a single act of charity will do? Sometimes the smallest word or gesture can change a life. A few years ago I told a Jesuit priest how what he had said to me on retreat helped me through a tough time. When I repeated what he had told me–word for word–he laughed and said he didn’t even remember saying it. Yet his loaves and fishes had been multiplied.

martin_jamesI’ve been savoring this book for months, reading just a few pages at a time because I was enjoying it so. It’s helped me read the Gospels with fresh eyes and meet a more complex, intriguing Jesus in its stories.

The book is heartfelt but not cloying, intellectually challenging but not dry. It’s worth spending time with Martin as he walks in the footsteps of the man to whom he has dedicated his life.

 

 

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The Spirituality of Morning Coffee

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Morning coffee on the rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison in Colorado (Bob Sessions photo)

If I get to heaven, I hope St. Peter will give me two things once I enter the Pearly Gates: a cup of coffee and a lawn chair. I’m going to tell him that while I tried my best with more standard spiritual practices, some of my most transcendent moments have come while sitting in a beautiful spot while camping, a steaming cup of java in my hand.

I had this epiphany about the spiritual power of coffee while on our recent trip to Colorado, where Bob and I camped and hiked our way across the state for three weeks. One morning we were sitting overlooking the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, a 48-mile formation of steep, jagged cliffs cut by the rushing waters of the Gunnison River over millions of years. It was six o’clock in the morning and the sun was just beginning to peek over the horizon. Below us was a thousand-foot drop; around us on the rim was an expanse of short-grass prairie. As we gazed downwards from our perch on the rim, we could see far below a hawk gliding on the updrafts created by the canyon walls, gracefully spiraling around and around in a pirouette with the wind.

As I sipped my coffee, I thought of what a holy communion it was.

Communion—that’s an interesting word, isn’t it? In Christianity it refers to the Eucharist, the bread and wine that represent the body and blood of Christ. But Christians have no monopoly on communion, for many traditions seek a blending of divine and human realms. On that canyon edge, we experienced a holy communion with the sky and earth, accompanied by a choir of warblers. At one point a raven flew so close that I could hear the whoosh of his wings—though I wouldn’t have been at all surprised if it had turned out to be an angel in feathered disguise.

It was, quite simply, The Best Morning Coffee of All Time.

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The Black Canyon is so deep and steep that parts of it receive less than an hour of sunlight a day. (Bob Sessions photo)

You may think that’s an exaggeration, but I’m somewhat of an expert when it comes to morning coffee. While I savor this caffeinated ritual each day, my favorite morning coffees have taken place while camping. Bob and I have enjoyed coffee on the North Shore of Lake Superior, on the banks of rivers in Iowa, on beaches in New Zealand, and on more mountainsides than I can remember.

I’m telling you this not to make you envious (for you too can have morning coffee wherever you happen to be). But it relates to something I’ve been thinking about for some time, and that’s that we often make spirituality too complicated. We think it’s all about doctrine, practice, and effort, about reading the right things, doing the right things, and thinking the right things. But the older I get, the simpler it seems to be. It’s about noticing the small things. The warmth of a coffee cup in your hands. The first shafts of light breaking on the horizon. The sound of a meadowlark greeting the dawn. I think God wants us to slow down and notice the things that He put so much effort into making (“You want to see some pretty rocks? I can show you some pretty rocks!”).

So why is coffee an essential part of the experience? For one thing, you can’t work very hard when you’re sipping coffee. It forces you to stop, to savor, and to sit quietly. I suppose other beverages would work as well, but for me coffee is the magic elixir. And as you sit, you can watch the light slowly shift (this works perfectly well out a kitchen or bedroom window at home, let me assure you).

But if you’re lucky, at least occasionally you’ll get the chance to enjoy that morning coffee in a place as spectacular as the Black Canyon. As long as I have you here, let me tell you a little about it, because you must put it on your list if it’s not there already. It takes its name from the fact that it is so narrow and steep that little light can penetrate it. Shrouded in shadows for much of the day, each morning and evening the slanting light illuminates one facet of the canyon after another, almost as if a spotlight is being shone into it (as indeed I guess it is).

Part of what I loved about the Black Canyon is that not very many people visit it. I’ve been to the Grand Canyon and loved that too, but my, there are an awful lot of people there. The constant chatter of one’s fellow tourists takes some of the grandeur out of the experience. But relatively few people come to the Black Canyon, tucked away in a remote corner of western Colorado. The Gunnison River that surges through the base of the canyon is too dangerous for boat travel, and so when you look downwards, you’re gazing on true wilderness.

Here’s my advice. Visit Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. Get up early, make yourself a cup of coffee, and go sit on the rim. Do absolutely nothing except sip the coffee and look around you. Repeat as necessary until you reach Enlightenment.

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While the Black Canyon of the Gunnison is beautiful all the time, occasionally God adds a little extra bling, just because He can. (Bob Sessions photo)

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With the Ancient Astronomers on Chimney Rock

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Chimney Rock National Monument in Colorado preserves an ancient astronomical site of the Ancestral Puebloans. (Bob Sessions photo)

Today we travel east from Mesa Verde for about a hundred miles to Chimney Rock National Monument. Now I realize Chimney Rocks are a dime a dozen around the world. But I think the more you learn about this one in Colorado, the more intrigued you’ll be.

Chimney Rock National Monument preserves an ancient astronomical site on top of a high mesa surrounded by mountains. A thousand years ago, the mesa was occupied by Ancestral Publoans (the same civilization that lived at Mesa Verde). The site is remarkable both for its two jagged spires and for the elaborate buildings that were constructed here in the 11th century.

For a long time, Chimney Rock was a mystery to archeologists. While the mesa has a good view of the surrounding mountains, why would anyone labor so hard to build structures on top of it? The mesa has no water source and no arable land, and all building materials would have had to be carried up 1,000 feet from the valley below.

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Chimney Rock National Monument is visible from a great distance. (Bob Sessions photo)

J. McKim Malville, a professor emeritus of astronomy at the University of Colorado, solved the mystery. Malville is an archeoastronomer (an astronomer who studies the sky watchers of the past), and for many years, Chimney Rock had intrigued him. At first he thought that the site might be connected in some way to the summer solstice. But when he trekked there at the appropriate time of the year he was disappointed to see that the sunrise happened well to the south of the twin spires. He investigated other astronomical possibilities, but none proved correct. Then he hit upon another theory: maybe the twin spires framed a lunar standstill, a phenomenon that happens just once every 18 years. A lunar standstill happens when the moon reaches the outermost point on its orbit, rising and setting far to the north on the horizon. At high latitudes the effect is amplified, making it a major event for anyone studying the night skies.

Malville was able to test his theory on August 8, 1988, a night when he calculated that the moon would rise between the two towers if viewed from the ruins atop the mesa. In his book Prehistoric Astronomy in the Southwest, he writes of taking a group of students to the top of the mesa that night. They were skeptical that staying up until two in the morning would be worth the effort, he says, but they had their cameras ready. And then, as if by magic, the moon rose exactly between the spires. “Everyone was stunned,” writes Malville. “I felt like a Yankee in King Arthur’s court.” (If you remember, in Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, a time-traveler amazed the populace by successfully predicting a solar eclipse. I trust that Malville’s students were equally impressed by his wizardry.)

There’s another piece of evidence that corroborates this theory: according to tree ring data, the main structure on top of the mesa was built in two phases. The first floor was constructed in 1076 and the second floor in 1093. And lo and behold, lunar standstills happened in December of 1056 and December of 1093.

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The Great House on Chimney Rock was constructed from building materials brought up 1,000 feet from the valley below. (Bob Sessions photo)

I’d like to pause briefly here for a moment to say, “Isn’t this COOL?!” At first you probably thought being an archeoastronomer was deadly dull, and then you realize they get to do things like this.

Other scientists (the more run-of-the-mill archeologists) have discovered additional information about Chimney Rock. After analyzing the design and construction methods of its so-called Great House, they believe Chimney Rock was likely a satellite settlement of the civilization based in Chaco Canyon, 93 miles to the south.

This Great House was one impressive building. In its glory days it included two large kivas and 35 rooms on its ground floor, with the second floor having perhaps another 20. It may have been plastered white and would certainly have been visible for many miles from below.

Today visitors reach the site by driving up a winding road and then hiking the final quarter mile. At the entry to the mesa stand the ruins of what was probably a guard tower, and nearby are the remains of the Great House. From there the narrow causeway leads to the twin spires.

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The narrow causeway on top of the mesa is just big enough for the ruins and the twin spires. (Bob Sessions photo)

In his book, Malville speculates what it might have been like to live in an time when the night skies had an immediacy and power far greater than today. In many cultures, both the day and night skies were peopled with gods. It was the astronomer-priests who navigated the relations between worlds, scanning the heavens for clues. As they did so, they discovered many scientific truths that they used to set the dates of festivals and mark the changing seasons. They would have been greatly aided in this, Malville believes, by an irregular horizon, which makes it much easier to track movements in the sky (think of how hard it would be on a prairie to remember just where the sun rises each morning, let alone exactly where it rose six months ago).

So sometime in the distant past, someone was on Chimney Rock at just the right time to notice the moon rising between the two spires. Word of this wonder eventually spread to the people of Chaco, who were master astronomers in their own right. They began to build an outpost at the site in preparation for the next lunar standstill. Later, they expanded that site in time for another standstill.

It’s thought that there were signal fires that brought the news of the lunar standstills to Chaco Canyon. According to Malville, Chimney Rock may have been the Greenwich Observatory of the ancient Four Corners Region. Just as our watches are set according to calculations made at the Greenwich Observatory in London, this remote spot high atop a mesa was also a fulcrum of time.

The buildings on Chimney Rock were abandoned sometime after 1130, during the period when the Chaco civilization was also declining. Today many Indian tribes continue to regard it as a sacred place. And (judging from the number of tie-dye-clad, gray-pony-tailed guys who were part of our tour group) it also attracts a lot of Taos types as well, seekers who follow the spiritual trails across the Southwest.

But even sober scientists can get caught up in the mood on Chimney Rock. “Even today,” writes J. McKim Malville, “to walk gradually upward along the causeway seems a transition from ordinary space to sacred space, especially when approaching the rising moon or sun. The overall sense of [Chimney Rock] is that it was not built for practical purposes but for its commanding view of the double spires and the surrounding heavens.”

From that mesa today, I think one can see not only through distance, but also through time.

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In the Kivas of Mesa Verde

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At Mesa Verde National Park, a ceremonial kiva has been reconstructed at Spruce Tree House (Bob Sessions photo).

(Below is Part 2 of my Mesa Verde reflections; Part 1 is here)

My recent trip to Mesa Verde National Park was actually my second visit. I had toured there about 30 years ago, but with the passage of time I had forgotten almost everything about the experience except for this: being in a kiva (a ceremonial underground room) looking up at the light coming through a small opening in the roof.

Something about the luminous quality of that light made a deep impression on me. Sunlight can be brutally intense in the Southwest, but in the kiva it warmed but did not overwhelm. I remember the encircling walls of the structure, the wooden logs that formed the ceiling, and the intriguing sense of mystery about the place.

And that, dear readers, was my reaction long before I discovered my love for holy sites. You can just imagine how intrigued I am now by kivas.

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The kiva is entered through a ladder placed in a small opening in the roof (Bob Sessions photo).

If you have to choose one take-away from a visit to Mesa Verde, that memory from inside a kiva is a pretty good choice. Kivas were the symbolic heart of the civilization that once flourished here. In trying to explain their importance, the national park guides compare them to churches, mosques and temples. But that analogy only partially conveys their importance.

Kivas (the word comes from the Hopi language) are found in or near virtually every living area at Mesa Verde as well as in other sites of the Ancient Puebloans. Archeologists say that each extended family likely had their own kiva, which were excavated out of either sandstone or soil with considerable effort. Because space was so precious in the cliff dwellings, these subterranean rooms likely served a mixture of social, storage and—most importantly—religious purposes. They would have provided a cool shelter from the relentless sun of summer and a warm sanctuary from winter’s cold. They were entered through a hole in their roofs, which were sturdy enough to be used as living space on top. At Mesa Verde kivas are typically round in shape, with a central fire pit and a ventilator shaft that allowed fresh air to flow through. An air deflector stood in front of the fire to keep the flames from being blown out by the fresh air. The kiva’s sides contained a banquette (similar to a bench) around its perimeter and usually had six pilasters, or pillars.

Perhaps the most important part of a kiva was deceptively small: the sipapu, a round opening in the floor that served as the entrance into another world. Sipapu is Hopi for “place of emergence.” Like many cultures (think of the story of Noah’s ark) the Hopi believed that this was not the first world to be created. Hopi oral tradition says that far in the past humans emerged from their former home into this one, passing through a liminal place now symbolically marked by the sipapu.

Modern-day Pueblo elders have given some insights into what may have gone on in these kivas. Craig Childs writes in House of Rain: Tracking a Vanished Civilization Across the American Southwest:

Some modern Pueblo people in the Southwest still use the kiva as their holy chamber, and among those who speak the language of Tewa, the kiva is called te’i, “the place of the cottonwood tree.” The kiva is thought to be a bridge between the underworld and the world above, and the hole traditionally placed in the kiva floor, just beyond the deflector stone and in front of the ladder, represents a place of emergence. In Tewa this hole is called p’okwi koji, the “lake roof hole,” which leads up from a mysterious underground lake. The kiva is where a radiant green tree grows in the spareness of the desert, as if it were a flag raised on barren ground announcing the presence of water below, a sign of hope and fertility.

Childs’ book (which I highly recommend) provides a fascinating look at what is known of this Ancestral Puebloan civilization, including the many ways in which it was shaped by water. In the semi-arid land of the Southwest, drought was an ever-present danger. The difference between a year of plenty and a year of famine often depended upon a single big rainstorm. Water was hoarded and conserved, carefully trapped in small dams on the tops of mesas and harvested from underground springs. When weather patterns shifted and an area became too dry for farming, its residents had to move. The history of the pre-Columbian Southwest can be viewed as a series of back-and-forth migrations chasing the rain.

It’s no wonder that the mysterious hole in a kiva would lead to a metaphorical lake.

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At Balcony House, two kivas exist side by side—note the small sipapu hole in the floor. (Bob Sessions photo)

Bob and I got the chance to view dozens of kivas, both at Mesa Verde and on a day-long tour in the Ute Mountain Tribal Park, which is adjacent to the national park. The Utes are not descended from the people who once lived at Mesa Verde, but for many years they have been caretakers of some of their ruins. The Ute Mountain Tribal Park offers tours of remote sites that are not the tidied-up, restored dwellings one sees at Mesa Verde. While some have been documented by archeologists, most have been left in the same state as they have existed for many centuries.

What a day that was! The entire tour had an Indiana Jones flavor to it. We bounced along on dirt roads, hiked on narrow paths that snaked along the sides of canyons, and climbed steep ladders to peer into cliff dwelling sites. In some, we could see the colored plaster that had once covered the walls, the designs faded but still recognizable. Pieces of broken pottery and other artifacts could be picked up and examined without a park ranger getting upset. I remember at one point holding a piece of rope in my hand. I could see how it had been constructed of different types of fibers, the pieces twined carefully around each other, and it seemed impossible to believe that nearly a thousand years had passed since it was made.

A braided rope from a cliff dwelling (Bob Sessions photo)

A braided rope from a cliff dwelling (Bob Sessions photo)

But once again it was the kivas that most fascinated me. Unlike at Mesa Verde, these kivas were often collapsed in on themselves, with their original roof beams lying in disarray. Our guide told us that before a group left an area, they commonly burned the roofs, as if to ensure that no one else would have access to the power contained within.

What would it have been like to live above one of these kivas? To know that underneath your living space was the entry into a place of mystery and wonder? There are so many possible symbolic meanings of a kiva that one hardly knows where to begin. They recall the darkness of the womb and the safety of the cave. They were betwixt-and-between places, pregnant with possibility. In emerging from them, perhaps the people felt they were reborn anew, following in the footsteps of their ancestors.

At Mesa Verde, I learned that the descendants of the Ancestral Puebloans come back on a regular basis to use the kivas for religious ceremonies. It pleases me to think of how that busy national park is full of tourists during the day, but after hours it once again becomes the property of those who are spiritually tied to it. The rangers depart, and the sacred spaces come to life, like a heart that beats once again. Perhaps this is the reason why the cliff dwellings seem surprisingly alive, with spirits that shift and move among the ruins.

 

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Amid the Cliff Dwellings of Mesa Verde

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Mesa Verde preserves the ruins of a civilization that flourished for seven centuries in southwestern Colorado (Bob Sessions photo)

In my travels around the world I’ve learned that most spiritual sites have layers upon layers of history, meaning and mystery. Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado may be the best example I’ve encountered of just how complicated the intertwining of those layers can be.

When I was planning my visit, I contacted the park staff to say that I was a writer interested in learning about the spiritual traditions of Mesa Verde. I got a diplomatically worded reply, telling me in the nicest possible way that I had no idea just how difficult that seemingly simple request was.

The staff at the national park has good reason to be wary of the minefields of interpretation that exist at Mesa Verde. The people who once lived there left no written records. The Indian tribes that trace their ancestry to them are fiercely protective of their own spiritual traditions, many of which derive from what was once practiced at Mesa Verde. And so when clueless travel writers like myself arrive full of questions, there’s an understandable reluctance to be too speculative in their theorizing.

That said, over several days Bob and I learned a great deal, helped out by knowledgeable rangers, some fascinating tours and a wonderful book by Craig Childs called House of Rain: Tracking a Vanished Civilization Across the American Southwest. Over the next few posts I’ll tell you some of what we learned, with the caveat that all of what I write is tentative and partial. But I am certain of this: Mesa Verde and the surrounding area is a spiritual treasure, worthy of pilgrimage. And what’s the value of a holy site that has no mysteries?

Mesa Verde National Park preserves more than 4,500 archeological sites left by a civilization that used to be known as the Anasazi. That term has now fallen into disuse, for it’s derived from a Navajo word meaning “ancient foreigners” and bears no resemblance to what the people actually called themselves. Instead, those who lived at Mesa Verde are now called the Ancestral Pueblo people, for their descendants include the Hopi of Arizona and the peoples of the Zuni, Laguna, Acoma and Rio Grande pueblos of New Mexico.

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Mesa Verde is Spanish for “green table,” a reference to the verdant tops of its mesas (Bob Sessions photo).

These Ancestral Pueblo people lived at Mesa Verde for seven centuries beginning around 550 C.E. At first they dwelled in shallow pit houses excavated from the soil, but over the centuries they became master builders, constructing elaborate complexes tucked into the sandstone cliffs of this dry region in southwestern Colorado. Because these structures blend so seamlessly with their surroundings, you may not even see them at first when you scan the landscape, until you look more closely and see how cleverly they are built into the rocks.

Why did they build the cliff houses? Archeologists have a variety of theories. Perhaps they were trying to defend themselves from rival tribes. Maybe the buildings were a way to cope with the region’s extremes of temperature, from blistering sun in the summer to the cold winds of winter. Or perhaps these people simply enjoyed the stunning views from way up high. Whatever the reason (or reasons, for probably there were many), the Ancestral Puebloans built a wide array of structures ingeniously fitted into the confines of the surrounding cliffs. Some likely held just a few people and others, such as Cliff Palace and Long House, have 150 rooms and would have housed approximately 100 people.

While the Ancestral Puebloans lived tucked under the cliffs, they clearly didn’t stay there all the time. Using precarious hand- and toe-holds chiseled into the canyon walls, they traveled back and forth to the mesas above, where they hunted for game and grew corn, squash and beans. They also raised domesticated turkeys, which were valued both for their meat and their feathers.

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Mesa Verde’s Balcony House is reached by a steep ladder (Bob Sessions photo).

Bob and I got a sense for the high-altitude vibe of life at Mesa Verde on a tour of the Balcony House, which is reached by climbing a 30-foot ladder propped against a cliff. After gingerly ascending the ladder, we emerged into a living space that seemed more like an aerie for birds than a home for humans, with a sweeping expanse of canyon visible from the balcony in front.

“How did you live here if you were afraid of heights?” I asked Bob, a bit dizzy as I peered over the edge.

“The ones who were scared of heights probably didn’t last very long,” he said.

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This tiny passageway is the original entrance to Balcony House at Mesa Verde (Bob Sessions photo)

The height wasn’t the only challenging part of living in Balcony House. While visitors today enter via a ladder, in ancient times it was accessible only via a brick tunnel, a narrow passageway that is just big enough to crawl through on your hands and knees. Why this was constructed in such a way is just one of a myriad of mysteries at Mesa Verde. (How did they haul in food and other supplies? What if you were elderly?) Perhaps the tiny entry was a way of keeping out enemies, though surely the day-to-day inconvenience must have been incredible. Or maybe Balcony House was a center for ceremonial activity and its inaccessibility was linked to its symbolic meaning.

As I crawled through that narrow tunnel on our way out of Balcony House, I recalled that in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, one has to bend low to get through an opening known as the Door of Humility. It is a way of physically enacting the spiritual process that one is to go through to become worthy to enter a holy place. Perhaps that was true at Balcony House as well, and the narrow passageway was just the first of a series of tests that one had to go through to be part of the community there.

Balcony House is one of about 600 cliff dwellings in the park. Many have yet to be fully excavated and documented, but enough is known that archaeologists regard the Mesa Verde civilization to be among the most culturally, artistically and religiously sophisticated cultures in pre-Columbian North America.

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The walls of the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde are constructed from blocks of sandstone, with mortar made from dirt and water (Bob Sessions photo).

One of the great mysteries of Mesa Verde is why it was abandoned in a relatively short time period. In the late 1200s people began to move away and by about 1300 Mesa Verde was deserted. This period coincided with an extended period of drought, so perhaps that was the reason for their flight. Or maybe the natural resources of the area had become depleted, the game over-hunted and soils leached of nutrients. Or perhaps it was simply that this formerly nomadic people, a culture that was used to picking up stakes and moving on, moved because there were other places where the figurative grass looked greener.

For whatever reason, Mesa Verde fell into a prolonged slumber and it wasn’t until the late 1800s that the larger world became aware of the ruins. Scientific work began soon after, with pioneering archeologists working to investigate and stabilize the structures. In 1906 it became a national park, the first to preserve an archeological site. Today it is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, part of the patrimony of all humans.

As I toured the ruins, I thought many of the rooms had a surprisingly modern feel, as if they were high-rise apartments waiting for the return of their residents, who would soon come back to sweep away the dust and begin housekeeping once again. But in thinking back to my time there, I find myself returning again and again to that narrow portal that led into the Balcony House. It lent a dreamlike feel to my visit there, making it an almost Alice-in-Wonderland sort of experience. What was it like to live perched high above the earth like that? And why did it feel like there was still a living presence in the ruins of Mesa Verde?

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