We left the volcanic wasteland behind, following the road down through the foothills towards the wide open plain below. The sky was the kind of blue that artists go mad trying to capture on canvas. A few wisps of white cloud floated overhead, pushed by a cool and gentle breeze. The sun touched everything in sight, leaving the darkness nowhere to hide. All the landscape needed was a cowboy on horseback being chased by Navajo warriors on painted war ponies.
Michael wasn’t smoking but I opened the windows anyway, letting the morning air rush over my skin and into my lungs.
“What a perfect day for driving to the Grand Canyon!” I thought aloud over the happy noise of our latest play list.
I saw Michael’s head nod in agreement. His dark hair was wrestling with the wind, his eyes scanning the beautiful, desolate world surrounding our little black rental car.
The road wound down through miles of curves and long straights before flattening out onto the plain. Several motorcycles passed us along the way, with riders decked out in black leathers and denim jackets. We sped up and passed a few RVs and slow moving pickups, but the road was for the most part lonely and quiet.
After several miles I slowed the car and took a right turn onto the access road for the Wukoki Pueblo. Before long we could see it standing in the distance. It reached high into the backdrop of blue, a rusty red castle complete with lookout tower. We pulled up and parked a couple of spaces away from the only other car in the lot.
I led the way up the path. Michael followed with the camera. I ran the final few yards, up the steps, and into the structure.
“Turn around, I’ll take a photo.” Michael shouted from down below on the trail.
I turned and looked his way, resting my hands on my hips as he snapped a shot. As he made his way up the steps to join me, I spun in a slow, scrutinizing circle. Ruin was hardly the right word to use when talking about the pueblo; the original owners had built their home to last. A formidable structure with straight edges, thick walls, and sharp corners, it has been standing strong against the elements for nearly a thousand years. The tower stood three stories high from the base of the rock upon which it was built. It must have afforded the occupants plenty of warning when anyone, friend or foe, approached from any direction. I doubted that anyone had ever snuck up undetected, and was sure that any attackers had suffered a nasty assault from high above.
We ducked into the tower through a tiny opening that must have been the door. I stood in the center of the uneven dirt floor and cocked my head back to look straight up at the blue patch of sky directly overhead. The red walls provided a colorful contrast to complete the picture.
“Beautiful!” I marveled. My voice bounced around inside the tower.
“There must have been a loft up there, you can see where the beams must have been.” Michael pointed up to several open pockets in the walls.
“Bedroom loft in a lookout tower. How cool is that?” I stared out through a large hole in one wall.
I peered out through an opening that must have served as a window. The wall was almost as thick as my arm was long, but I could still see far and wide into the distance.
“I wonder if anyone ever shot an arrow at someone through this window.” My imagination was hard at work placing a band of attackers out on the plain. I rained arrows down on them from my high vantage point.
After repelling the attackers, I pulled my head back from the window and my mind back into reality. I turned to see Michael staring out through an even smaller square in the wall to my right. Both his hands were planted on the wall, his head still. The camera cord hung out of his back pocket. I reached out like a reverent thief, pulling the camera free without a sound.
Michael was lost in thought. His gaze was intent, as if he were searching for something or someone far away on the horizon. I snapped a photo of him from across the little room.
Leaving my brother to his thoughts, I crawled back through the little doorway and out into the sunlight. I looked out across the large open area that made up half of the pueblo. Encircled by a waist-high parapet wall, it must have served as a work area for the people that had lived here long ago. I could picture deerskins stretched and drying in the sun, baskets full of gathered foods, a fire pit ringed with stones, and children chasing a flea-ridden puppy in happy, loud circles.
“This would have been a great place to stage battles with our Star Wars and G.I. Joe figures.” Not for the first time on our trip, Michael’s voice interrupted my thoughts in a good way.
“Definitely. Look at all the rock formations and great places for waiting in ambush.” I agreed.
We stood together, looking out at the red rock and pointing out the best places to play. As kids we had spent more of our playtime choosing our figures and vehicles, staging them on the battlefield, building their bases, and mapping out scenarios than we had in acting them all out. In fact, we took so much time to work out the details that we rarely made it past the initial setup. When friends came over to play, they often grew frustrated with all the time we required in the imagination and planning phases of our play.
Standing with Michael in the ruins of an ancient Native American pueblo, I was reliving some of the best moments of my childhood. It was an unlikely moment in an unlikely setting, one that my own imagination could not have ever conjured.
My eyes filled with tears and I wished that it could have been my imagination that brought us to the pueblo, rather than everything that had.